Wednesday, September 5, 2007
So...Just What In The Hell Is "Read A Book"?!?!
It’s been a few weeks and all has been quiet on the Western Front so I guess the Society For The Defamation Of Hip Hop (or NAMBLA...Word to Jon Stewart) agreed that it’s about time for the mainstream media to blow something completely out of proportion and grossly misinterpret hip hop, again. This time, it’s BET’s “Read A Book” that is being offered as sacrificial lambs to the God Of Moral Decency, Hypocrisus.
For those who don’t know, who aren’t hip hop fans, or have been living under a rock recently, “Read A Book” is a satirical animation in which a dreadlocked rapper, a thinly disguised facsimile of Lil’ Jon, compels people to a read “motherfucking” book. The video, a parody of Jon’s crunk music, employs vulgar lyrics and the exaggerated caricatures of hip hop culture that can be found in your standard hip hop music video. The video guised as a sort of strange crunk parody of “Schoolhouse Rock” type P.S.A.’s compels it’s audience to do such things as read a book, buy land, wear deodorant and brush their teeth and has been airing on BET during Rap City. Recently, certain people that have nothing better to do (*cough* Jesse “Why Am I Still Relevant?” Jackson *cough*) have decided to protest this song because its offensive and profane and the world’s most precious commodity, The Children, should not be exposed to its “hideous” content lest they go out and (I guess) shoot somebody or something or - horror of horrors - think for themselves.
Now I’ve taken my fair share of pot shots at BET in the past for their content, their cheap, budget ass production values, and employing the general walking mess of human awkwardness that is Rap City host, Q-45, but airing “Read A Book” is not one of them. I think its kind of brave of BET to air a video that so brazenly criticizes their bread and butter, “Let’s Just See How Low We Can Lower The Bar” content on one of their most popular shows. It wasn’t too long ago that BET infamously refused to play Little Brother’s “Lovin’ It” because it was “too intelligent” for their core audience. If BET is willing is to parody their material than that can be seen as a positive step towards restoring some semblance of balance of hip hop in the media. However, I find the criticism of BET on CNN and by Jesse Jackson for airing this content disengenous and having little to do with being offended by the content of the video and everything to do with an agenda of censoring hip hop music.
In this recent piece on Fox Ne...err, CNN, “Read A Book” is criticized by Tony “Black Bill O’Reilly” Harris who highlights a group discussion by a group of black parents who find the video offensive and completely inapproriate for a network to show. Now, the primary criticism seems to be that because kids are inherently stupid, they cannot discern the difference between satire and reality and therefore the vulgar lyrics of “Read A Book” will compel them to rebel against their parents and do drugs or something. Now, lets say I even bought into the argument that a twelve year old is too stupid to understand satire (I sure the hell wasn’t at twelve) what exactly is the problem. The video if taken at absolute face value is pretty family values friendly. It promotes reading, proper hygiene and aspirations for more than vapid material gain. If the kids were too stupid to discern reality shouldn’t they immediately drop what they are doing and a read a book. Isn’t that a positive?
My guess is that this has little to do with the message but rather the way the message is being told. Judging by the attitudes and dress of this group of parents, I would guess that they are all fairly upwardly mobile and college educated, the type of African-Americans who detest hip hop and the general messages, speech, dress, and attitudes that it purveys and don’t want their children to imitate the people who live it. Which is all fine and dandy and completely their prerogative but is also extremely elitist and classist as well. The video is pretty crass and instead of using an acceptable way to reach black youth with these messages it utilizes a form of music and language that is very vulgar. The “n-word” is dropped constantly throughout the video and the images of African-Americans in the video are pretty stereotypical of so-called “lower-class” African-Americans. I think is the root of the controversy. “Read A Book” isn’t an acceptable way of speaking to children so therefore it shouldn't be on the air. I personally find it to be pretty elitist and racist to suggest that using the language of hip hop is unacceptable because its inherently lower than other forms of music. This gets back right to my previous statements about how many people don’t seek to understand hip hop because they find it inherently inferior to other music or culture. You only have to peep Tony Harris continue shooting down the creators of the video on CNN whenever they try to explain context to the viewers by calling them provocateurs and trying to engage in cheap O’Reilly-esque political theater.
However, my dislike of the people for the people criticizing “Read A Book” doesn’t negate the fact that “Read A Book” is fairly problematic. “Read A Book” despite its obvious positive intentions and satirical undertones does engage and evoke many of the same stereotypes that it seeks to remedy. It assumes that lower class black people do not read books, do not take care of their children, do not have proper hygiene and more concerned with buying rims and ice than buying something of real value like land. Now, these are all valid criticisms as national studies have shown an appalling literacy rate in inner cities and if these criticisms were treated with a bit more care and nuance perhaps the whole controversy would be averted. The video as I have mentioned before has a level of condescension towards urban black youth as it does have a mocking attitude of a certain subset of people in the African-American community. I think it finely skates the line between racism and satire.
Ultimately, I think the satire of the piece wins out. Its offensive but its offensive in the sense that it seeks to hold the vices of the hip hop community to expose them as the bullshit they are. There is a bigger problem than all of this, though. While, “Read A Book” depicts these attitudes and behaviors as an object of scorn, many of the material on BET does not. The first time I saw “Read A Book” on BET I was completely in shock. BET was showing this?! Who lost their mind and authorized this? I was impressed that BET had the guts to skewer themselves. However, after the video ended “Ay Bay Bay” played and the same attitudes and behavior was being presented except done by real human beings and without the sense of irony or satire. Here were real-life stereotypes acting a fool on television for all to see. I shook my head and wondered if the BET exec who authorized this even understood the joke.
I wonder why the media constantly attacks the artist for what their sins instead of the conglomerates that control the distribution of these images. Why doesn’t Bill O’Reilly attack Jimmy Iovine or the CEO of Viacom and hold them responsible for mass distributing music and images he finds offensive. After all, they are the ones who ultimately decide what gets released and what gets played on the radio. In the end, I suppose its easier to go after the pawn then challenge the throne.