My letter to Weekend Edition

Posted by Maximum Fun on 30th January 2007

Dear Weekend Edition,

I’ve often joked with public radio colleagues about the way NPR’s newsmagazines cover hip-hop. Usually the joke is that rap only gets coverage when it’s happening in a foreign language. After all, if it’s in another language, then it’s not rap — it’s world beats.

There’s another form of coverage that crops up occaisionally, too. It’s a sort of paternalistic, exoticist, “what is this ‘rapping’ music?” story that belongs in 1977, not 2007. Jon Kalish’s story on the topic of subway car cyphers, which I just heard on Weekend Edition, was a perfect (and perfectly offensive) example of this genre.

This is the 21st century. Hip-hop’s been around for 30 years. To get a picture of how inane Mr. Kalish’s story was, imagine a piece about how kids are picking up guitars and drums and starting “rocking and rolling” bands. Then imagine that story running in 1983. Mr. Kalish’s vague liberalisms about generation gaps don’t dampen the problem — if this is a personal story, then make it a personal story, about a man who doesn’t understand an important cultural phenomenon of long standing. If it isn’t a personal story, hire someone who understands what he’s covering.

The philosopher Antonio Gramsci defined hegemony as power plus consent. National Public Radio, by virtue of being one of the most listened-to media organizations in this country, has plenty of the former, but I won’t provide the latter. It is unnaceptable to me that after fifteen years at the top of the charts and thirty years on the cultural scene, hip-hop should continue to be marginalized not only by the so-called mainstream media, but also by public media. One of the reasons that I work in public radio myself is our mandate to represent the under-represented and shine light in the corners of our world that aren’t illuminated by commercial media. Are we living up to that mandate when it comes to hip-hop? Absolutely not.

I understand that many people in National Public Radio’s audience are older than I am, and didn’t grow up with hip-hop as I did. But do we really live in a world where a report on the dominant form of popular music should have more of a “gee-whiz” tone than the report which immediately followed… on Carolina string band music?

Which reminds me… I both enjoyed and was horrified by that story, by Karen Michel. I was delighted when the Chocolate Drops’ lead instrumentalist simultaneously defended her group against two classic NPR tropes by saying, “If there’s a hip-hop song that we like, we’ll cover it — [but] we don’t want to be one of those bands that’s like, ‘Carolina Chocolate Drops does hip-hop.'” (For those keeping score, those tropes she anticipated and defended her band against are, “hip-hop mixed with something else makes it acceptable to cover” and “black people who reject hip-hop”). I was appalled when Ms. Michel followed that comment with “For now, not to worry. The closest the Carolina Chocolate Drops get to beats is blowing on a ceramic jug.” Can you imagine NPR covering a story in which a contemporary musican said he was going to cover a Bob Dylan song and the reporter followed that comment up by saying “For now, not to worry. The closest he’ll get to a nasal whine is the snare on his MPC-3000 sampler?” You get the picture.

I want to clarify here that my dispute is not with Mr. Kalish or Ms. Michel. Both offered well-reported stories. I’m upset with the editorial practice that allows (maybe even encourages) the sort of pieces that normalize ignorance about one of the most significant American art forms of the past 50 years.

Jesse Thorn
The Sound of Young America

Jon Kalish wrote a pretty vociferous response to my criticisms on the email list of the Association of Independents in Radio, and I’ve reposted it here.