Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

  • Just When I Thought I Was Out...

    John has a bone to pick with Hua, Alyssa and Gauthum, in regards to  political hip-hop:

    For example, the participants look back fondly on the days when more of the music was "political,"  with Alyssa Rosenberg opining that it's unrealistic to decree that musicians follow our bidding and be "constructive." But this whole wing of the discussion presupposes a hypothetical possibility that hiphop could serve some kind of purpose beyond being just entertainment, that it is at least worth discussion whether rappers have some kind of "responsibility." Gautham Nagesh even thinks that way back, rap actually did play a crucial part in making people aware of ghetto life ("rap has played a key role in raising awareness of issues such as urban poverty").

    The question here is: what is the purpose of this supposedly politically important rap supposed to be? Let's even say consciousness is raised: now that Scarsdale Chad knows what it's like growing up in the 'hood, then what? What does Chad do besides walk down the street lurching and mouthing along to Tupac or whoever it was he learned this from in the early nineties? The consciousness was raised - and what legislation did it create? In a history book 100 years from now, we will see it written that "Because of hiphop raising consciousness of ghetto poverty starting in the late 1980s, _______." Fill in the blank. Note the difficulty.

    I think that the point about "legislation" is important, because it underlines the problem with McWhorter's critique. A commenter said this earlier, but this notion that rappers should be responsible for inspiring legislation is rooted in some kind of weird communist/utilitarian view of art, that holds that any "political art" which can't be directly tied to a political act is entertainment. Fair enough--as long as we acknowledge that "Change Is Gonna Come" is also entertainment. I don't think Sam Cooke signed any civil rights legislation. I don't think Bob Dylan ended the Vietnam War.

    To take John's argument to its logical conclusion, one could fairly ask "Because of Robert Hayden raising consciousness about the slave trade "____"" Note the difficulty. What legislation did "Middle Passage" inspire? No political art can live up to that standard, and let's hope it doesn't. When art starts to resemble position papers, it tends to be didactic and fail at, both, influencing and the basic mission of art.

    I think political art--like all art--isn't judged by what it makes you go out and do, as much as by how it makes you feel. I love John Coltrane's "Alabama," not because I think it chills the hearts of racists, but because it allows me to feel a particular time and place. I wouldn't confuse Billie Holiday's rendition of "Strange Fruit" with L.C. Dyer's anti-lynching bill. But one reason I don't play that song, to this day, is because it fills me with a deep and particular sadness emanating from half a century ago. I love "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free," not because it facilitated the March On Washington, but because it expresses the optimism of the period.

    These songs, as Gautham pointed out, make you more aware. They allow me to feel some sliver of a world that is impossible for me to inhabit. Likewise, if you want some "awareness" of how it might feel to be a black male, in the inner city, in the early 90s, Illmatic is a good start. Death Certificate, with all its unfortunate racism, is a good start. It Takes A Nation, is a good start. They allow you to feel a place that is not your own, and yet in the end, is ultimately human. That's what art is supposed to do.

    Now, you may well disagree that with the notion that any of these albums succeed--just like you may think "Alabama" is kind of boring, or Nina Simone is overly sentimental. I think that's fair. But asking for hip-hop to do the work of Congress seems a bit much.

  • Mississippi Cooling

    Things just ain't the same for Klansters:

    The city of Philadelphia, Miss., where members of the Ku Klux Klan killed three civil rights workers in 1964 in one of the era's most infamous acts, on Tuesday elected its first black mayor.

    James A. Young, a Pentecostal minister and former county supervisor, narrowly beat the incumbent, Rayburn Waddell, in the Democratic primary. There is no Republican challenger.

    The results, announced Wednesday night, were a turning point for a mostly white city of 7,300 people in east-central Mississippi still haunted by the killings, which captured front-page headlines across the nation and were featured in the 1988 film "Mississippi Burning."


  • Know The Ledge

    A couple commenters and e-mailers were a little miffed that I didn't join in on the Atlantic's rap convo. One comment from below:

    When people like you opt out of these discussions, the discussions are framed by either:

    1. (mostly white) rock/pop critics who don't know or care much about rap beyond what appeals to (mostly white) rock/pop critics.

    or

    2.) rap revisionists, KRS-type 4 elements zealots, hip hop "activists," simpletons who think in binaries ("conscious vs gangsta...underground vs. corporate...hip hop vs. rap"), and out of touch hip hop academics, who care so much about hip hop that they have an unhealthy and unrealistic view of its history and importance.

    The absence of voices such as yours is why mainstream rap criticism is so terrible these days. Even worse than the music.

    I used to care a lot about the race of the writers talking about black music, culture, history etc. Then I realized how much awful writing there out there about black people, authored by writers of all races. Moreover there's the fact that a lot of the work I adore about African-American culture is, in fact, written by white writers

    This isn't because black writers lack any sort of ability or insight. It's because writing is a luxury occupation which requires time and resources--something black people are lacking in at the moment. We're still in the "Go to school, study something that can get you a job" phase. A brief perusal of the wealth stats in black community, as compared to white community, will demonstrate why this is the case.

    One way to add to the pile of ill-informed opinion out there is to presume to know more than you do. When you do that on the basis of skin-color ("I'm the black guy, I have to have an opinion on all things colored") you do a disservice to the noble aims of diversity. You really shouldn't be making big pronouncements about the current state of hip-hop if (like me) you don't know what the Asher Roth or the latest Kanye West sound like. You especially should not be making pronouncements if you don't really care what either sounds like. It may be genius, or it may be whack--I knew what Hammer sounded like, I knew what Vanilla Ice sounded like. And I knew why they sucked.

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  • The Soundscape Is Flat

    But not really. Richard Florida, guesting for Andrew, notes the concentration of musical talent in the country:

    While conventional wisdom holds that modern technology allows musicians to work from anywhere they choose (while weakening the influence of traditional record labels and rights-management organizations), the reality is music, like many other industries, is actually becoming more concentrated and clustered over time.

    In 1970, Nashville was a minor center focused on country music. By 2004, only New York and L.A. boasted more musicians. The extent of its growth was so significant that when my research team and I charted the geographic centers of the music industry from 1970 and 2004 using a metric called a location quotient, Nashville was the only city that registered positive growth. In effect, it sucked up all the growth in the music industry.

    There's a cool graphic there too. Check it out.

  • John Connorism

    A.O. Scott digs the new Terminator joint. Sorta:

    ...the movie, directed by McG (yes, him, the one-named auteur at the helm of the "Charlie's Angels" pictures) from a script by John Brancato and Michael Ferris, has a brute integrity lacking in some of the other seasonal franchise movies. It parades neither the egghead aspirations of "Star Trek" nor the thick-skulled pretensions of "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," but instead feels both comfortable with its limitations and justly proud of its accomplishments.

    Among these are efficient, reasonably swift storytelling -- the movie, less than two hours long, is densely populated with semi-important characters and crammed with exposition and incident, but it rarely feels busy or talky -- and a mastery of the vernacular of chases, fights, explosions and crashes. McG may not yet have a signature style -- he lacks the baroque vulgarity of Michael Bay ("Pearl Harbor" and "Transformers") or the punchy inventiveness of Brett Ratner (the "Rush Hour" movies and "X-Men: The Last Stand") -- but he manages speed, impact and the choreography of technomayhem with aplomb and a measure of wit.

    I think I'm going to see this. Christian Bale is a favorite around these parts.

  • Question For The Room

    Received this note today:

    I read your blog all the time and enjoy your perspective. I was really pleased to see you plug The Promised Land in a recent post. I had just finished that book and thought it was brilliant. It really laid out how the context I grew up in came about, but it trailed off right around the time I was born, and left me hungry for a continuation of the story of public policy and poor blacks later in the 70s and on into the 80's. Any recommendations?

    I can't think of anything quite that epic. Jason Deparle has some good stuff on the 90s, and welfare reform, but from the perspective of history, I'm actually stumped. Any thoughts?

  • Superfools!

    superfriends-legion-of-doom.jpg

    One way of understanding to the debate over Guantanamo prisoners in the U.S. is to consider the possibility that terrorists have heat-vision, supersonic speed, and the ability to absorb your life essence with a kiss. I guess reading the Koran will do that to you. Maybe I should convert.

    Part of it is just an effort to dehumanize your enemy--the idea being that those held at Guantanamo constitute a particular sort of evil, the likes of which Charles Manson could never approach. But the larger part is just typical Republican scare tactics. And then, as Greenwald demonstrates, there's history:

    Until recently, I thought the single most embarrassingly stupid event of the last decade's national security debates -- the kind that will make historians look back with slack-jawed amazement -- was the joint dissemination in the run-up to the war by the Bush administration and the American media of playing cards that featured all of the "Most Wanted" Iraqi Villains and their cartoon villain nicknames.  Saddam Hussein was the Ace of Spades; Huda Salih Mahdi Ammash -- Mrs. Anthrax -- was the Five of Hearts; Ali Hassan al-Majid -- Chemical Ali -- was the King of Spades; sadly, Dr. Rihab Rashid Taha -- the dreaded "Dr. Germ" -- didn't make it to the deck, but she certainly had her day in the American media sun (AP:  "Iraq's 'Dr. Germ' Surrenders to Coalition" -- CNN:  "U.S. military holding 'Dr. Germ,' 'Mrs. Anthrax'")...

    Despite all that, we never tire of the specter of the Big, Bad, Villainous, Omnipotent Muslim Terrorist.  They're back, and now they're going to wreak havoc on the Homeland -- devastate our communities -- even as they're imprisoned in super-max prison facilities.  How utterly irrational is that fear?

    Not very irrational at all...if you're at war with a dude who shoots yellow rays from his ring finger, and a redhead who can grow to 20 stories. Inyuk-Chuk!

  • Things I Meant To Post Last Week

    This is a pretty interesting piece by John McWhorter comparing how Obama and Steele use the cadence and jargon of black English. Shockingly, I have only one minor quibble:

    The black English cadence is an accent (just as the mainstream English cadence is). Yet Obama did not grow up with it. At 16 and 17 he was in Hawaii; before that he had been in Indonesia. Surely he didn't pick up the cadences of Oakland in either locale. (Maybe today, with the reign of hiphop, he might have, since "Ebonics" is increasingly a youth "dialecta franca." But in the mid-70s hiphop's worldwide breakout was years away.) 

    Obama himself does not describe "learning to speak like a black American"--it was likely an unconscious process, part of coming to feel part of the culture in his late twenties as he settled in Chicago. Thus there is no claim here that Obama is a phony: people generally do not take on accents deliberately. Many of us have friends who moved to England as adults and have lived there for several years. They wind up with halfway English accents--but not on purpose.

    McWhorter goes on to call Obama a "gifted mimic." I'm not convinced that Obama wasn't exposed to black English until he got to Chicago. It's true that there aren't a lot of blacks in Hawaii, at Occidental or Harvard. But we shouldn't confuse a minority black environment with one where there are no blacks.

    Many of my current friends are black people who grew up in lily white neighborhoods--but that doesn't mean they didn't have any contact with black culture. My B-More brogue may be a little thick, but on the basics of Ebonics, I've got nothing on them. Moreover (if I'm remembering right)  Obama actually describes, in his memoir, going to black parties, as well as his black friends in Hawaii. Also, again if I'm remembering right, his mother made an effort to expose him to black culture. 

    Maybe, I've got this wrong. I'm betting that I've got more than a few readers who grew up like Obama who can weigh in.

  • In The Ensuing Melee...

    Someone mentioned Okkerville River in the hip-hop thread. That's all I need to link to my favorite cut on the new album--"Lost Coastlines." Only "On Tour With Zykos" comes close. Nice to see a brother in the video giving dap.

    Man, this is a long way from "Verbal Intercourse." This may not be your speed, feel free to talk up whatever you're digging these days.


  • Michael Steele Threatens To Quit

    Republicans rejoice. Liberal bloggers mourn. In all seriousness, I doubt it'll come to this. It's a bizarre trap, they've got themselves in. I respect the move toward diversity, and I don't think the impulse should be discounted. But the problem is, given their past baggage, they can't really dump the guy. If they did, I'd be shocked if Steele didn't--I can't believe I'm saying this--play the race card.

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