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Sunday, April 1 2001

The key to hip hop, gansta rap

Yesterday I promised to share some thoughts about the appeal of hip hop and gangsta rap, and this morning I received an email from an old UCLA acquaintance (the only one from that milieu that I'm in touch with) sending a link to a scholarly (but highly readable) article from the Wall Street Journal by Shelby Steele, on the very topic. My own thinking received a breakthrough on the question by listening to the duet by Eminem and Elton John at the Grammy show. Not only Eminem's voice but also his lyrics exhibit a youthful (even childish) anger that seems like the key. And I remembered my own youthful anger (not that it's any less reprehensible than my senior anger) and frustration as one of the main leitmotifs (subthremes) of being a child/adolescent.

We had much less to be angry about in the '50's and '60's than today's youth would seem to have, in terms of sociological statistics. Much lower broken-family rates, much more idealism and, in that, general aspiration for a better world rather than the cynicism that seems today's dominant theme. So you begin to wonder if this sheds light on both the "Columbine" phenomenon of our time and the most popular musical form.

Teenage skeptics (if their minds work today much as like the ones of the days when I was the teen columnist) will answer, "balderdash; I like hip hop and I'm not angry and my family life is loving and secure." To which the answer is always, if hip hop is the lingua franca (common language) of your generation, of course you want to relate to it and may even come to like it, despite your personal anger levels or even your ingrained musical tastes.

In the climax of his article, historian Steele says:

I listened carefully to Eminem's recent Grammy performance expecting, I guess, to be disgusted. Instead I was drawn into a compelling rap about a boy who becomes a figure of terrible pathos. He is a male groupie who selfishly longs for the autograph of a rap star while he has his girlfriend tied up in the trunk of his car. Easy to be aghast at this until I remembered that Dostoyevsky's Notes from the Underground—the first modern novel, written more than 150 years ago—was also about a pathetic antihero whose alienation from modernity made him spiteful and finally cruel toward an innocent female.

Both works protest what we all protest—societies that lose people to alienation. This does not excuse the vulgarity of rap. But the real problem is not as much rap's cartoonish bravado as what it compensates for.

I recommend reading the whole article, especially if an adolescent you love is into what's "in" and current (or even—especially—if you're an adolescent). And by all means, also go to Napster and download the Eminem and Elton John duet and listen to it. Of course you may already have heard it on the radio but, if so, why in the heck are you listening to that kind of radio? (Just kidding.)

Webmaster Jon Kennedy

Kids do the darnedest...

A mother took her three-year-old daughter to church for the first time. The church lights were lowered, and then the choir came down the aisle, carrying lighted candles. All was quiet until the little one started to sing in a loud voice, "Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to you..."

Sent by Trudy Myers

Lenten thought

Silence in knowledge is the mother of prayer, a recall from captivity, a tower of protection, an overseeing of thoughts, a watch of combats, a binding of mourning, a friend of tears, an energetic remembrance of death, a depicter of perdition, ...of outspokenness an adversary, of stillness a spouse, an opponent of the love of teaching, a multiplying of knowledge, a creator of contemplative insight, hidden progress, secret ascent.

St. John Climacus (St. John of the Ladder) 7th Century

Lenten thoughts (i.e., pertaining to repentance and spiritual growth, from any faith-community perspective) are solicited from readers.

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