Monday, May 4, 2009

Are we confusing the already confused?

Dr. Marc Lamont Hill, the hottest new race public intellectual, recently described an intellectual this way: "As an intellectual, it's my job to take ideas that pass as common sense and complicate them." You can read the full story in the Philadelphia Daily News. Although Dr. Hill is clearly joking, there's an important grain of truth to what he says. The way individuals describe problems and make arguments affects the ability of others to empathize, sympathize, and act on those very issues.

Does hip hop and its intellectual investigation risk obscuring the simple truths of life? We know there is racism and sexism. We know that public policy has not always treated the economically deprived fairly. We know illicit drug use is a problem and so on and so forth.

Intellectuals and hip hop artists are alike in many respects and one of them is the confusing language we often use to describe situations and problems that we really wish people outside of our community or intellectual persuasion understood.

Let's look at some examples. When Chamillionaire released "Ridin'," quite a few colleagues had no idea what he was talking about. Even folks who listen to hip hop are sometimes left confused by hip hop lyrics. When Jagged Edge released "Cut Somethin'," who outside of the South new what they were talking about? With hip hop vernacular continually updating and regionalizing itself, its no wonder confusion abounds. The problem is, logically, that it is often difficult to understand what a song critiques or asks of the listener.

Intellectuals have the same difficulty. If one is not accustomed to reading post-structuralist theory, then the material seems quite dense. Likewise an analytical lawyering class might be difficult to grasp for non-economics majors. Reading some of today's Neo-Marxists can be more frustrating than reading William Faulkner backwards. What power can intellectuals have if they cannot articulate their arguments? Part and parcel or persuasion is clarity. Without clarity the message is muddled and the results are often uninspiring.

Language constructs reality, but also, unfortunately, can be used to build a fence around an individual's reality that obscures appreciation from outsiders. This does not mean we should do away with the useful tools of irony, hyperbole, and the like, but that we must be willing to take the extra step of explaining our work, be it album or law review article, to more than our colleagues and compatriots.

That seems to me to be the very point of being a public intellectual.

(Photo courtesy of Wayne Riley)


  1. I don't understand!
    Clarify what exactly you just wrote!
    Do rappers clarify the truths of their community?
    Or do intellectuals complicate their ideas because the intellectual does not know the answer?
    Is it bad to want the water down simple version of an idea?
    Ends justify the means! If I know murder is wrong why do I need to know exactly why it is wrong?

  2. There is a lot to handle in this comment. What I am arguing is that both intellectuals and rappers obscure their message by their linguistic choices. In order to really transmit a message, any public speaker (and I use this phrase to encompass as many people as possible), needs to do more than write catchy lyrics or rambling, yet enriching prose. Intellectuals often write in a style that is inaccessible and do little to engage a community beyond academia and that is a problem. Many intellectuals do not even leave the confines of their discipline.

    Rappers often function the same way. How many rappers are doing public service announcements? How many are taking speaking engagements at colleges or community events?

    I think we can all do better and reach a broader audience.


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