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By Ronald B. Neal, PhD.


Saturday, April 24, 2010

A few years ago the young and tumultuous life of Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson was depicted in a motion picture titled after his 2002 debut album, Get Rich or Die Trying. The film was accompanied by a soundtrack and a book length autobiography, From Pieces to Weight. His music, film, and autobiography tell a rags to riches story of a poor black kid from Jamaica Queens, New York who hustles his way out of chronic poverty, rising from a nihilistic drug dealer to a hip hop superstar and businessman. His story of struggle and hustle is the mythological stuff that consumers of hip hop love and what is typically called the American Dream. Hip hop artists thrive off of this mythology and without it hip hop would not be hip hop. In fact, no hip hop artist is credible and authentic apart from this myth.


The tale of Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson is the tale of a rootless American soul, a soul that would have been lost were it not for rootless ambition and an American entertainment industry known for making millions of dollars off of stories of people who have near death experiences and live unconventional lives. There is a need to make sense of and engage Americans like “50 Cent” who have come of age and are coming of age in unconventional circumstances. Many of these Americans have not been as fortunate as “50 Cent” in escaping the circumstances that produced them.

Apart from music journalists and professional sociologists, the muddy subject matter that drives hip hop, especially the topical matter in the lyrics of “50 Cent,” is largely taboo among writers and intellectuals. This is especially true for those professional thinkers who are nestled comfortably in American colleges and universities. A good number of intellectuals have produced scholarly works on the origins and history of hip hop. And not a few intellectuals, mainly female thinkers, have written scathing critiques of sexism and misogyny in hip hop.


However, when it comes to the gritty realities of drug dealing, homicide, life sentences, and parentless children, college and university intellectuals, especially those in the humanities, are largely missing in action. Less than a few daring souls devote energy and ink to the unconventional subject matter and human circumstances this is hip hop. However, there is one unconventional American writer and intellectual among this daring lot who does.

Since his 1993 debut, Reflecting Black: African American Cultural Criticism, Michael Eric Dyson has trotted through the American cultural imagination. With more than a dozen books to his name, Dyson has interpreted the lives and circumstances of Americans who have come of age and are coming of age with the Reagan era and hip hop as the historical and cultural backdrop of their lives. Dyson is a member of a rare breed of late 20th century intellectuals, many of whom are minorities (some are not), whose intellectual interests, style of writing, and irreverence address a misunderstood human condition that is now a prominent feature of American civilization. These intellectuals, whose roots are on the cinder blocks and asphalt of the American city, take human conditions as they exist under street lights, train stations, bus terminals, stop signs, and between beer cans, seriously. They speak to a terrain that is informed by the so-called vices and virtues that so color American civilization.


Yet, the so-called vices the so-called vice which are condemned by conventional Americans take center stage in their work. Asphalt/urban intellectuals such as cinema scholar, Todd Boyd, historians, Tricia Rose and Robin D.G. Kelly, and gender theorist, Mark Anthony Neal, are at home talking about the perplexing lives and challenges of people who live in invisible cities. Their work engages the lives of different sorts of people; people who drop out of high school; people who are the first in their families to go to college; people who listen to rap music as well as go to church and to the mosque on Sunday.

What is more, these intellectuals make no attempt, at least in their work, to perfect their subject matter, that is, to perfect black and brown people, even white people. Unlike their intellectual predecessors, who possessed a messianic zeal and mission, there is no great burden to “save the race” or to promote a universal ideal of blackness, masculinity, class, femininity, community, family or sexuality, to be universally consumed by all minorities and white people. To be sure, concerns about empowerment and equality are among the concerns of these asphalt/urban intellectuals. However, such empowerment is not circumscribed by a call for ethnic cleansing. No one is asked to eschew their origins or deny the circumstances which they have survived, and become puritans, in order to be accepted by mainstream white America. For this reason, popular culture, black popular culture in particular, is central to what they do as intellectuals, asphalt/urban intellectuals. They are fundamentally concerned with a dimension of American civilization that is easily ignored and denied.

Michael Eric Dyson has devoted hundreds of pages and thousands of words to the hip hop dimensions of American life. He has devoted a tremendous amount of intellectual energy to it because he knows it all too well. He knows intimately the circumstances from which hip hop emerged and for this reason it is unconscionable for him to exclude it from his intellectual vision. These circumstances, which are colored by race and class, are not too far from his personal experience. It is an experience that is colored by a working class condition, the blue collar world, and its demise, and by countless people whose lives have been unsettled in American life.


Since his emergence during the early 1990s as a public intellectual, Dyson has made no effort to conceal his class origins and lack of pedigree. In fact, he has made the fact that he grew up in a struggling family in one of toughest urban centers, Detroit, Michigan, a badge of honor and a source of moral and intellectual authority. In fact, his impoverished origins as a child of blue-collar Detroit, is the springboard for his empathy for chronically poor and working poor black people and his criticisms of middle to upper-class black people, (and middle America for that matter). Similar to southern blacks like Clarence Thomas, whose origins as a Georgia born child of sharecroppers is the primary source of his conservatism, and Hip Hop artists like Curtis Jackson “50 Cent,” whose origins in the Reagan era streets of Queens, New York fuel his brand of Hip Hop music, Dyson’s “homeboy” from Detroit roots fuel his intellectual work. The fact that he was once a struggling- young- parent on welfare, who improved his life through religion and education, authenticates his vocation as an irreverent intellectual. In his writings, preaching, and rapping he has been relentless in letting his audiences know that he will never forget where he came from, and given his class mobility and academic and professional accomplishments this is commendable. For some American elites who have ascended from the bottom to the top such an affirmation of one’s unaristocratic social origins is tantamount to class suicide.

As far the content of his work is concerned and his commitment to his chosen subject matter, Dyson has no peer. If there is single American intellectual who represents a genealogical predecessor it would have to be Richard Wright. Dyson is an heir to Richard Wright in the same way that Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin were the compare him to any American intellectual, African American, white, and otherwise, past or present. Apart from Wright, Dyson is in his own league.

Michael Eric Dyson is an extraordinarily gifted man. He reads lots of books; he is a prolific writer; and he is a very entertaining and provocative public speaker. Dyson is a hustler. His passion, oratory, and unconventional moralism have their origins in the Afro-Baptist Christian tradition and the Western literary and philosophical canon. His thoughts, language, and life are very mobile, very fluid. He is an intellectual who is hard to pin down. His moral preoccupations and intellectual commitments take him very far from the African American traditions which he matriculated through. The presence of those traditions in his work is very different and far removed from the conventional ways they are used in African American communities.


Dyson is a Christian preacher in the black Baptist tradition yet the content of his preaching is light years away from traditional preaching in that tradition. Among American scholars he is an anomaly. He does more lecturing outside of the classroom, in different venues across America, in one year than most scholars (including white male scholars) do in a career. He is a radio and television personality and an aspiring rapper. He is an unusual man who is not bound to a single playground. Michael Eric Dyson is unplugged.

For more than a decade, Dyson has written, lectured, and rapped about the most maligned, despised, demonized, loved, and misunderstood cultural enterprise to vex American in its short history. Before becoming the celebrity that he is today, he chose a literary and academic path that can lead to literary and academic death. He pursued an “unrespectable” path by aligning himself with the creativity and energy of American’s least wanted populations. Today, there are few rewards from the high brow academic and literary establishment for books and philosophical arguments that affirm the creative productions of America’s peasantry. The traditional path of respect and prestige demands that one devote his or her energies to subject matter that is traditional and elite, i.e. conventional. Writing about the unconventional lives and art of poor people, especially if you are not knee deep in the social sciences, does not led to promotion and tenure. Even a high brow intellectual such as Cornel West, an intellectual whose body of work is cluttered with the bodies of dead elite white men, cannot get away with pop art. In the early 2000s, West was forced to leave Harvard University for Princeton University after then Harvard president Larry Summers questioned and rebuked his forays into low brow culture, especially its hip hop manifestations. Respectable intellectuals at respectable and prestigious colleges and universities simply do not dirty their reputations by engaging the unconventional lives and circumstances of poor people, especially poor people with black and brown faces. In fact, Black Studies, one of the most creative, adventurous, and boundary crossing fields in academia, is treated, in many parts of academia, like an unplanned and unwanted child, precisely because the divergent experiences of African Americans in America do not conform to the strictures of American purity and virtue.

Through an outpouring of books on contemporary African American culture Dyson has unsettled the high brow rules and demands of American colleges and universities, especially the most elite among them. In Dyson’s work, the demand for academic respectability is eclipsed by a demand for immediacy, relevance, and social engagement. He has accomplished this through deliberate acts of intellectual irreverence. Before his dissertation for the Ph.D. was completed he chose the path of most resistance, an unconventional path of intellectual engagement.


A cursory look at his work in Cultural Studies, particularly African American popular culture, reveals an outlook, style of writing and subject matter, which has been less than conventional, very post modern, and irreverent. He is perhaps the only humanistic intellectual, especially among black intellectuals, that would accord black youth culture the same esteem as the aristocratic southern traditions that were the backdrop for the civil rights movement. He is perhaps the only humanistic intellectual to criticize the family of Martin Luther King, Jr. for turning King’s legacy into a franchise. He is the only religious intellectual to equate the religious musings of the late rap legend Tupac Shakur with natural theology. Perhaps his most outlandish act of irreverence to date, is his analysis of the family woes of Bill Cosby in his book on the legendary comedian, Is Bill Cosby Right?(Or, Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind).

Given his deviation from the path of academic respectability, Dyson’s unconventional chosen path has afforded him no real home in the American academy. In a career that spans less than twenty years (seventeen to be exact) he has taught full time at least six academic institutions. Beyond the world of academia, Dyson’s commitment to unconventional lives, has not afforded him a stable home in the black culture from which he sprang, especially those elements in black American culture that are traditional and institutional. Where the former is concerned, his status as a racial and intellectual minority has kept him on the edge of the American academy. Where the latter is concerned, his unconventional outlook on religion, politics, culture, and especially sexuality casts him as a heretic and a mad man. He exists on the corners of black culture.

Despite his marginal status, Dyson is a hugely popular American author. His books have mass appeal, and are very popular among Americans (young and seasoned, black and non-black) who recognize understand, relate to, and are concerned with the conditions which he devotes to ink and paper. Amazingly, his influence has even reached the most iconic figures in hip hop. Dyson’s name has been “dropped” in the lyrics of hip hop elites such Nasir “Nas” Jones and the foreword to one of his books (Know What I Mean?) was penned by Nas and Shawn “Jay Z” Carter.


Amazingly, Dyson has done what no American intellectual has done, that is, take the Western canon to the most neglected and despised populations and geographical landscapes such as inner cities and rural areas, and make dead white men and women dance to the unconventional music of America’s least wanted. There are social workers, secondary teachers, college professors, Sunday school teachers, and pastors who can only imagine doing what does with relative ease with Americans who live unconventional lives. Not bad for a Ph.D. from the ruins of the Detroit auto industry.

Dyson’s intellectual irreverence has been the key to his success as an intellectual and it is this intellectual style that has allowed him to succeed in ways that many intellectuals, particularly black intellectuals have not. This is significant given the powerful appeal of non intellectual celebrities in American culture in general and black culture in particular. And for a black intellectual such as Dyson this holds even greater weight. In general, American intellectuals are a marginal class of citizens. This is true across the chasms of race, class, gender, and sexuality. However, for black intellectuals intellectual marginality is amplified.


As a population, African Americans are less than fifteen percent of the American population. Due to America’s history of race only a small fraction have been allowed to grow, develop, and rise. For this reason the late Harold Cruse, Cornel West, and others have observed and lamented the crisis of black intellectuals, that black intellectuals are a marginal group within black America, a minority within a minority. And for this reason, due to historical circumstances, preachers, entertainers, and athletes have more access to the imaginations of blacks in America than intellectuals. In general, black intellectuals typically do not have the charismatic appeal of preachers and other celebrities among black Americans. However, Dyson has transcended this dilemma and has done so in a way that is unprecedented and difficult to replicate. Dyson’s success as an intellectual may be attributed to the fact that he shares the attributes of popular preachers and other celebrities loved and admired by black people.

Personally, I have seen Dyson’s influence at the historically black university where I teach, Claflin University, in Orangeburg, South Carolina. One day while walking the “yard” between classes, I was struck by a former student who was holding a copy of the Michael Eric Dyson Reader or what I call, Dyson’s “greatest hits.” “I see your reading Dyson,” I said to the student. “Yeah, he’s a deep brother,” he replied. I paused for a moment and thought to myself, what makes him deep? I continued, “We’ll have to talk about what you’ve read real soon,” and I went on to my office. Not long after this encounter Dyson spoke at Claflin, and in a venue that was standing room only, he worked his magic, preaching, rapping, and inflaming the administration with fiery oratory.

Dyson spoke during Claflin’s annual week-long celebration of the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. Without giving a theme or title for his address he informed the audience that he would speak to three things: Hurricane Katrina, the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bill Cosby. In an irreverent fashion, he criticized the Bush administration and New Orleans’ mayor, Ray Nagin, for their slack response to Hurricane Katrina. He talked about the moral courage and moral failures of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the moral failures and cowardice of black ministers. And he railed against the class elitism of Bill Cosby.


His address was interspersed with humor and lyrics from popular rap songs and soul music from the 1970s. The address lasted for more than an hour, and he masterfully held the attention of 18-21 year olds, a demographic whose attention span can run dry after 20 minutes. Dyson was applauded and cheered on and received a standing ovation when he finished his address. After the lecture, I ran into the same student whom I chatted with on the “yard.” He had his tattered copy of the Dyson Reader, whom Dyson had signed. I recounted our previous conversation. “I told you, Dyson is a deep brother,” he said. Again, he was impressed.

Unlike black elites born before and during the Eisenhower era, Dyson has in significant respects broken through to many within the Hip Hop generation. This is not a bad thing for a forty-something thinker, writer, and speaker who has documented the struggles and talents of millions young people whom America has written off, including black America. As one of the few American intellectuals and black public voices to openly embrace and take seriously, a misunderstood, maligned, and conflicted generation, Dyson is to be commended. However, his work and popularity beg to be understood in relation to the America that we live in.

Dyson’s appeal as an interpreter of America, especially its hip hop population, is connected to where it is located in contemporary American history. His work interprets the generational soundtrack of countless Americans who came of age in, and were born at the end of the 20th century, the Reagan era to be exact.


Next to the explosive sixties, the Reagan era altered the course of American history. If the 1960s gave America peace, love, and radical equality, the Reagan era did the exact opposite. It gave America nuclear weapons, the Second Amendment, and corporate religion. More than any era in American history, the Reagan era gave American individualism an extreme makeover. Radical equality fell off and relentless and unbound self-interest became an article of faith. Those who benefited the most from this tenet of faith were those who stood atop of America’s mountain of privilege. Those who benefited the least were those who stood at the very bottom of the mountain. Hip hop emerged from the very bottom of America’s mountain of privilege and gave voice to the deleterious effects of Reaganite religion. Hip hop gave voice to a Third World condition amidst a so-called First World civilization.


And these Third World conditions have worsened and continue to worsen as time goes by. The most explicit manifestation of this condition are reflected in the language, the broken English, of its most visible and rebellious spokespersons, rappers. The rappers articulate a significant disconnect between the so-called mainstream or the First World of American society and America’s least wanted, the invisible people of our land. At its most visceral level, rap music represents a rootless condition in America. In its raw and edgy form, it is the most rootless American in America. Michael Eric Dyson is one of the few American intellectuals and writers to recognize this. He is also among a few who understand that the presence and popularity of rap music stands as a critic of American civilization. It is a critic of the dominant values and practices that only benefit those who stand while looking down at and down up those at the very bottom.

For this reason, rap music is contested and despised in many parts of America. Though it has mass appeal it is not universally loved. Rap music fails to garner universal love in its unbound, unplugged and uncut form. Its raw, gritty, and uncensored expression of life stands as its critique of mainstream of American. It is an existential bulldozer which has unsettled American purity and virtue. Refusing to conform to American tradition, it is bound by no single morality. In a word, rap music is that parentless child who was forced to fend for itself. It struggled to make its way out of the nitty gritty streets of North America, into corporate boardrooms, and found its way into mainstream/traditional America and the world.


During its early days it was said that it would have a short lifespan, that it would die young, that it did not have the wherewithal, the resilience, and the creativity that would insure its longevity. It has survived and is still standing. Like a young rootless black male who lives on the edge and survives, rap music has survived and thrives, in America. And as long as Third World conditions persist, it will continue to challenge America.

The author of Between God and Gangster Rap, understands that rap music stems from a world, that is quite neglected and the American public ignores this world to its peril. Even as Americans work hard at and are often quite successful in pretending that a Third World does not exist within America, Dyson understands that America can never be what it could be as long as it continues to neglect entire populations of people. Such populations, if not attended to, can produce disastrous consequences for America. And this disastrous outcome is not just a matter of improving race relations, it demands a general improvement in our relations as human beings.

Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson was fortunate. He was able to escape the streets of Queens, New York through music. Unfortunately, there are thousands who are not so fortunate. There are thousands who are the products of the same America which for the last three decades has ignored its most desperate and circumstantially distressed populations. The future Presidents of the United States will have to address this American condition. And as long as this condition persists, America will continue to produce rappers like “50 Cent” who articulate and revel in an uprooted America. As long as this condition persists, there will be a need for voices and American elites, like Michael Eric Dyson, who take up and engage the challenges of this condition. If America is to be as great as it aspires to be, we all must have a chance to live out our American dreams.


With thanks to New Black Man.

Ronald B. Neal holds a Ph.D. in Religion, Ethics, and Culture from Vanderbilt University. He is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Claflin University in Orangeburg, South Carolina. He can be reached at rneal@clafin.edu

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