Wake Up, Mr. West!

“Read a book! Read a book!

Read a muh’f**kin book!/ 

Read a book! Read a book! Read a muh’f**kin book!/ 

… Not a sports page (what), not a magazine (who)/ 

But a book ni**a, a f**kin book ni**a/”

— G-Mike,

“Read A Book,” Unthugged Vol. 2, 2007.

“… I read one-fourth

of the Library of Alexandria/”

— Canibus,

“Master Thesis,” Mic Club: The

Cirriculum, 2002.

At a recent signing of his new book,

“Thank You and You Are Welcome,” Chicago MC Kanye West apparently

said the following: “Sometimes people write novels and they just be

so wordy and so self-absorbed. I am not a fan of books. I would never

want a book’s autograph. I am a proud nonreader of books. I like to

get information from doing stuff like actually talking to people and

living real life.”

Of course coming from a teacher’s

son, and a distinguished one at that, many have taken to underline how

much of a disappointment, to the late Dr. Donda West (R.I.P.), his comments

must be. As they see it, Dr. West, renowned as chairwoman of Chicago

State University’s English department, had to be a “fan” and “reader”

of books. Kanye’s critics, therefore, have piled on him, accusing

him of promoting “illiteracy” among young, adoring fans.

As a voracious reader of books,

I can’t agree more that literacy is, indeed, a tool of empowerment,

and anyone who would seek to deny young people this reality deserves

the hottest hotel room in hell. I also believe that a generation so

undereducated (and mis-educated), as this one, should be encouraged,

by all means, to nurture their innate desire for critically reflective

work. This must be the aim of every socially-aware entertainer.

That said, however, it would be disingenuous,

if not dangerous, to simply adopt the opinions of Hip-Hop antagonists

like Stanley Crouch, who

couldn’t wait to prosecute

Kanye for “floundering in the sea of irresponsibility that allows

grown men and women to never leave the ranch of their adolescence.”

West’s statements smacked of “mirror-licking narcissism,” Crouch

wrote, giving rise to a cultural phenomenon where “individual freedom

is mistaken for merely breaking the rules by rebelling against some

version of authority or saying simple-minded and stupid things just

because a mike is pushed in front of one’s mouth.”

If all this comes simply for suggesting

correctly that many novelists are self-absorbed and verbose, or for

indicating that books aren’t the only source of intelligence, critics

like Crouch might want to aim their rhetorical water pistols at the

25% population, on a national scale, which

go an entire year without

reading a single book.

Knee-jerk judges are also probably

unenlightened about Loop Dreams, a South Central-based offshoot of The

Kanye West Foundation, which uses Hip-Hop to teach young students the

values of education.

In a recent interview with Essence

magazine, West

talked about the essence

of education, and how his program is meant to cut through the staggeringly

high dropout-rates among inner-city students: “I believe that anything

that you have to pay for is a choice, and high school is mandatory to

gain some basic skills. Therefore, it’s easy for me to build a foundation

that encourages young people to stay in high school.” Prior to that,

he questioned the notion that education can be restricted to the walls

of academia: “At what point are you really done finishing your education?”

This notion that education is universal,

and the learning process perpetual, has certainly found refuge in the

critical work of many progressive scholars like Michel Foucault, Henry

David Thoreau, Paulo Freire, bell hooks, Cornel West, Henry Giroux,

Susan Giroux, and Lenore Daniels. Having a celebrated Hip-Hop artist

reiterate it, and to a younger generation, should earn the applause

of even his toughest critics. But it won’t.

In the interview, Kanye West also shot

back at the likes of Stanley Crouch: “When people can’t understand

someone who might be presenting new ideas and thoughts because it sounds

too different from what they are used to, they see me as an egomaniac,

rather than viewing it as a difference of opinion or way of thinking.”

It may not be that they “can’t

understand,” but that they choose not to understand. After

all, ignorance is “a passion.”

Jacques-Marie-Émile Lacan, the late,

legendary French psychoanalyst, used those terms in describing the “passion

of ignorance.” He explained ignorance as having a stronger impulse

than even love and hate. In his analysis, it wasn’t

just the absence of knowledge, information or awareness, it was a passion

for that absence, a mode of resistance to any medium through which that

absence could be mitigated. Ignorance, he insisted, cuts across the

grain of misrecognition, for misrecognition still embodies an idea of

what is being misrecognized.

In this instance, Lacan’s theory

couldn’t yield more truth. Crouch and his cohorts are not merely missing

the point. They intentionally disregard the core of Kanye West’s antipathy

for books. Beyond being a “proud nonreader of books” (notice the

emphasis on books—he might be an avid reader of scholarly

journals, business magazines, online articles, speeches, etc.), he mentioned

sharing no such sentiments for “information.” This is critical.

“I like to get information from

doing stuff like actually talking to people and living real life.”

In “Peak Learning: How to Create

Your Own Lifelong Education Program for Personal Enjoyment and Professional

Success,” Ronald Gross explains how different learning styles can

produce the same result, under variable conditions. He gave an example

of a New York apparel-industry trade Editor, Nicholas Naritz, who discovered

that in trying to learn about French culture, he “felt uneasy at the

‘scraps of knowledge’ he was accumulating, as he put it, from an

assortment of books he had bought.” [Gross, Ronald. Peak Learning: How to

Create Your Own Lifelong Education Program for Personal Enjoyment and

Professional Success.

Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc., 1991., p. 83.]

It is unclear whether Nicholas was

a book-lover or not, but he soon discovered that his “preferred way

of learning… [was to] absorb the spirit of a field by talking with

people in it.”

This is what Kanye meant by “actually

talking to people and living real life.” Living

“real” life.

Nicholas Naritz, through a series of

brain exercises, arrived at that conclusion, which led to discarding

the books and magazines he had picked up to learn about French culture

and, instead, “attending events at the Alliance Française.” He

later reported: “I just picked up what I needed to know, just by osmosis.”

[p. 84]

It’s unlikely Kanye’s critics would

be willing to embrace this unorthodox perspective. Again: Ignorance.

Is. A. Passion.

The only criticism I find credible,

vis-à-vis  such comments, is that it often leads to the perpetuation

of a destructive stereotype that Hip-Hop is anti-intellectual, or that

Black youths, overall, find cerebral activities unappealing. That, I

find troublesome. We saw its manifestation earlier this year in a study conducted by Virgil Griffiths, a PhD student

in California, titled “Music That Makes You Dumb,” which all but

condemned Hip-Hop as intellectually deficient.

In that case, I agree with author RK

Byers, that those who, like Kanye, defy social order should apply more

delicacy, so as not to lend credence to forces which seek to destroy

this great trans-generational culture. Byers wrote: “Of all the criticisms

that hip hop fans are forced to allow about our stars… we check immediately

the clowns that try to tell us that they’re all illiterate.” He

went further:

Who can forget Ice Cube’s

“Unlike Iceberg Slim and all of them

be/claimin’ P.I.M.P.” nod to the great Black writer Iceberg Slim?

Or Tupac claiming Donald Goines to be his

“father figure?” Jay-Z references

“The Coldest Winter Ever”, “Monster”

and a “Tree Grows in Brooklyn”

on his “Blueprint 2? release.… The best example of rap literary

referencing though has to be Common’s breath-stopping

“If rap was Harlem/I’d be James Baldwin.”

It is true that Hip-Hop culture has

kept alive the vibrant legacy of intellectualism that was handed down

by older Black Art Movements. Examples of this can be seen with the

exceptional literacy initiative, Hip

Hop Educational Literacy Program

(H.E.L.P.)., put forth by Hip-Hop artist Asheru. Traces of Hip-Hop’s

dedication to scholarly discipline are also surrendered in the works

of legendary South-Bronx MC KRS-One, who, as author of several books,

recently joined forces with PowerHouse Books, to launch a Hip-Hop imprint,

I Am Hip Hop. When reflecting on the Nkiru Center for Education and

Culture, Brooklyn’s oldest Black bookstore, operated by power duo

Talib Kweli and Mos Def (Black Star), it becomes obvious that Hip-Hop

is not the Sodom and Gomorrah paradise uninformed critics make it out

to be. With the academic accomplishments of pioneers like Roxanne Shanté,

Ph.D., there should be no doubt that Hip-Hop does treasure educational

excellence. And anyone familiar with the highly underrated Jamaica-born

MC Canibus, cannot successfully claim that Hip-Hop and intellectual

curiosity are mutually exclusive.

It is unfortunate that when Kanye West

speaks openly about his decision to drop-out of College, eyebrows are

raised, knuckles get cracked, and critics suddenly develop flaming tongues.

To my knowledge, nobody though it right to protest Talib Kweli, himself

a College drop-out, when he rapped (“Over The Counter,” Liberation,

2007): “I went to college, then I left, that’s when I got my education/.”

Why? It might be that, deep down, in the inner recesses of our soul,

we find his points valid (more on that next week).

The day education becomes limited to

the information a teacher can pass to a student, such society self-annihilates.

Haters can pile on Kanye all they want (a growing fad), but he didn’t

need a book to speak

eloquently in 2005, with

the lucidity of a public intellectual, against the injustices of the

Bush administration’s criminal incompetence in the recovery efforts

of Hurricane Katrina; or in his lightning-like remonstration against

the corporate press for “the way they portray us in the media.”

Without the use of a page filled with words, he successfully reasoned

that the government is “set up to help the poor, the black people,

the less well-off, as slow as possible.”

If a “proud non-reader of books”

could articulate, effortlessly, the pain and anguish millions of people

felt, books might not be as helpful as largely suggested. Even though

I hope young students are encouraged to seek out the treasures of life

hidden in great texts of Literature, Philosophy, Astronomy, Education,

Religion, Morality, and History, I can’t possibly insist that they

all do, knowing that learning patterns differ, therefore determining

individual interests in book-reading.

“Mr. West” is being ridiculed,

but he has consistently put great effort into securing a quality educational

future for poverty-stricken kids; and, in truth, that’s more than

many other Hip-Hop artists, even his critics, can lay claim to.

Tolu Olorunda is a cultural critic and a Columnist for BlackCommentator.com. He can be reached at Tolu.Olorunda@gmail.com.

The views expressed inside this editorial aren’t necessarily the views of AllHipHop.com or its employees.

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