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Michael Eric Dyson Discusses 'Know What I Mean?'

by Linda Kulman
Sep 18, 2007

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Book Tour is a new Web feature and podcast. Each week we present leading authors of fiction and nonfiction as they read from and discuss their work.

Michael Eric Dyson's provocative hip-hop discourse Know What I Mean? tackles what Dyson says is an unavoidable question: "Does this stuff actually harm the people who listen to it?"

Hip-hop, Dyson's book argues, "has been a source of controversy since the beats got too big and the voices too loud for the block parties that spawned them" — and yes, the author says, rap needs to be called out for its "materialism, hedonism, and offensive language."

But the situation is complicated: Commercial pressures mean that in some ways, rap is a victim of its own success. And critics shouldn't forget that jazz, in its early days, was considered as scurrilous as rap is now. Hip-hop culture in general, and rap in particular, comes with an intricate embedded politics — and at its best, Dyson says, "hip-hop is about the brilliance of pavement poetry."

Dyson's wide-ranging scholarship makes him one of the foremost voices describing what it's like to be black in America. The Georgetown University professor is the author of 12 books; Holler If You Hear Me, about slain gangsta rapper Tupac Shakur, sealed his reputation as "the hip-hop intellectual."

Dyson's own rhythms and language can be as spellbinding, and as disquieting, as the music he examines. In this free-wheeling, fiercely funny discussion, he advances arguments about who's allowed to use the N-word — and why — and about whether women should "consent to their own degradation as the price of admission to [hip-hop's] aesthetic glory."

This reading of Know What I Mean? took place at the Politics & Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C.

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Recorded at Politics and Prose, Washington, DC.

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