Black Men: Read A M****F***** Book!
For the past few weeks, BET viewers and ‘Net surfers have been buzzing about a new hip-hip song by Washington, DC-based MC Bomani “D’Mite” Armah, who claims to actually not be a rapper, but “a poet with a hip-hop style.” Whatever he is, he’s ruffling some feathers, and with good reason: his song “Read a Book” is a cutting jab at black men who, according to D’Mite, need to: read a book, brush their teeth, raise their kids, wear deodorant, buy some land, and drink water, all shouted “crunk”-style over a catchy hook from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
It’s difficult to know exactly what is intended or, quite frankly, what is going on in the song or the video. One reading is that D’Mite is following other so-called “positive” rap artists who have created music designed to effect change in their communities. It’s inarguable that issues such as consumerism and deadbeat fatherhood have contributed to problems that plague black America. Black leaders have spoken out for years to try to urge black men in particular to be conscious about these issues (e.g., Minister Louis Farrakhan’s Million Man March in 1995). D’Mite throws in the face of young black America their heroes, mocking them throughout his animated video for the song, as they enjoy booty shakin’ (and ass slappin’) in clubs, ride on expensive “spinnin’” rims, shoot automatic weapons, and watch large projection-screen televisions. This reading has D’Mite using effective means to communicate a message that runs counter to that which he views the current hip-hop culture portraying.
Another reading of the song is that D’Mite is buying into stereotypical portraits of black men, and, thus, reinforcing and perpetuating them with his song. Further, he’s developing new stereotypes. Is there really a problem with body odor, dehydration, and tooth decay among black American men today?
Yet another reading is that D’Mite is actually making fun of black spokespersons who are continually “preaching” to young black men (e.g., Bill Cosby). The laundry list of bad behavior in the song borders on absurdity. D’Mite may very well be asking, “What’s next from you old farts?”
Jesse Jackson, for one, wasn’t having it. A couple of weeks ago, he issued a statement from Rainbow/PUSH condemning the song for its “crude language,” “lack of creativity,” and overly simple and repetitive rhymes. Others, however, love it. Jack and Jill was way out in front of this, and sharply criticized Rev. Jackson for denouncing the song. The Conservative Voice likes the message, but predictably is upset about the language used. Still others, such as Think 2wice, are ambivalent, seeing the potential for multiple interpretations and not being sure what to think.
As TWIR readers know, we generally avoid speculating on intent. (D’Mite tells the Washington City Paper that he was writing the song for himself, to encourage him to do what he needs to do.) As social scientists, we are concerned with effect (or potential effect). Communicative acts have two distinct parts: the message from a communicator and the way a message is processed by a receiver. This exchange is dynamic; the same message will be processed differently by different persons based on a host of factors related to their attitudes, lived experiences, and the context in which the message is received. So while young black men might be offended by “Read a Book” or moved to make changes as a result of its message, the song will likely work differently on black women, members of other minority groups, or white folks.