Michael Eric Dyson's new book, Know What I Mean: Reflections on Hip-Hop, hit stores this week. Buy a copy. If his reputation as the "hip-hop intellectual" or subject matter "hip-hop" don't intrigue you enough. How about you read the book's foreword by the best rapper alive: Jay-Z.
INTRO by Jay-Z
Michael Eric Dyson came up in the tough streets of Detroit. He didn’t grow up with silver spoons at the family table. His table didn’t have fine china and his path from then to now wasn’t clear of trouble and strife. He came up through the church and the world of academia in spite of his experience. Dyson confronted the same disadvantages that afflicted the folks in his neighborhood and that held so many brothers and sisters back. But these circumstances opened his mind to learning, and to a sense of justice that has driven him to succeed. Dyson could have been someone’s older brother on my block when I was coming up in the Marcy projects in Bed-Stuy. He could have been the teacher at a Baltimore high school who showed Tupac that there was power in knowledge and your people’s history.
Although he wasn’t there for either of us then, his preaching and his intellectual actions are there today for countless brothers and sisters, regardless of skin color, and regardless of who they pray to at night. He is there telling everyone who was born into a life that seems destitute and destined for failure that there is a way out. He is there reminding us all not to let our situation be an excuse when it can be a resource. Just as important, he is telling all of those countless people whose minds are closed by bigotry or contempt that hip hop is American. Blackness is American. I am American.
At this point it might seem hollow to repeat what has been widely said about Michael Eric Dyson: this gifted man is the “hip hop intellectual,” a world-class scholar, and the most brilliant interpreter of hip hop culture we have. But plain and simple that is what he is. He has shown those doubters and critics that hip hop is a vital arts movement created by young working-class men and women of color. Yes, our rhymes can contain violence and hatred. Yes, our songs can detail the drug business and our choruses can bounce with lustful intent. However, those things did not spring from inferior imaginations or deficient morals; these things came from our lives. They came from America.
The folks from the suburbs and the private schools so concerned with putting warning labels on my records missed the point. They never stopped to worry about the realities in this country that spread poverty and racism and gun violence and hatred of women and drug use and unemployment. People can act like rappers spread these things, but that is not true. Our lives are not rotten or worthless just because that’s what people say about the real estate that we were raised on. In fact, our lives may be even more worthy of study because we succeeded despite the promises of failure seeping out from behind the peeling paint on the walls of every apartment in every project.
Dyson came up from the bottom and told those on top what was up. He turned a light on our situation in this country and then he threw down a rope to lift us out. He started out translating between “us” and “them” and now he’s helping put together a world where there is only “us.” How many folk out there can talk about pimping in terms laid out by Hegel? Or use Kant to explain the way that prison fashion moved from the cellblock to the city block? Dyson drops the names of philosophers and scholars as easily as he does the names of artists on the latest mixtape moving dance floors in the clubs. Michael Eric Dyson has taken modern urban life seriously and brought the tools of so-called legitimate society to bear on a place that too many dismissed as unworthy of attention. Just by mentioning these cats in the same breath he levels a playing field that has always been tilted. He tore down the last “whites only” sign in the university and let all of us rush in to hear what the ancient teachers and scientists had to say.
Dyson stands up for poor folks and for street culture when other African Americans treat us with the same disdain that white society used to have for all of us. He continues to show us what the past can teach us about our present. It’s one thing for young people to see rappers making appearances on TRL or to see their records fly up the charts. But it is another thing for a young boy from the hood to go into the library at his school and check out a book on why his culture matters. Quite literally, Dyson has written that book. Money comes and goes, but respect can last for generations. Neither the IRS nor the changing taste of the public can take away what Michael Eric Dyson has given to hip hop: respect and a better way to understand ourselves.