One of my goals for 2010 was to read more non fiction, which I’ve started doing and I think I came across the best non fiction book I’ve read so far this year.
Losing My Cool written by Thomas Chatterton Williams, is a biography about how hip hop music and culture shaped his youth and how he was able to escape the damaging effects of the culture. He takes a critical look at hip hop and what it does to young black people who take the notion of ‘keeping it real’ to the extreme.
What originally interested me about this book was how similar Williams life story was to the life of the main character of my book. Williams grew up middle class in New Jersey, with a white mother and black father. He was raised to identify as black and worked hard in school to seem as “black” as everyone else. My character Rashad has pretty much the same story, with a few differences here and there. So at first, the book was just an interesting look at a real guy who lived something similar to my character. And then it turned in to something much deeper and profound.
Williams writes that growing up, he was obsessed with hip hop music and felt that listening to the music, wearing the clothes and having the attitude would make him seem just as black as the kids in school and around the neighbourhood. He would watch BET and use the way the rappers acted as a model for how he should act in real life. While his father was an academic and had thousands of books in the house, Williams wanted to wear hip hop clothes, listen to music and be cool. Reading books wasn’t seen as cool, getting good marks wasn’t “keeping it real” because that’s what the hip hop culture taught black kids.
It’s a controversial viewpoint, some people disagree, but I’ve seen it happen and I agree. Williams is only five years older than me, so we’re in the same generation. I went through elementary school, middle school and high school with pretty much the same core group of people. I saw the black boys that were funny and open and smart in elementary school, slowly change in to the thug type in high school. They’d only come to school to hang out with friends, or play basketball. They wore baggy hip hop clothes and fancy running shoes. Back then I didn’t get it. I would look at some of them and be like what’s wrong with you? Why don’t you study? I knew they were smart and intelligent, but in order to be cool and stay in their social group, they had to act a certain way. It was glaringly obvious on high school graduation day when only three or four black boys graduated, out of the whole class of grade twelves. None of the boys I went through school with graduated with me that day.
Williams says that this is the problem with hip hop culture. Black kids watch the videos and listen to the lyrics in the music and take that as the one and only way to be seen as “black” in society. If you don’t act this way, you’re not down, or you’re not black enough.
I’ve certainly had the “you’re not black enough” experience. I remember one incident in grade nine, talking to my group of friends. I had a white female friend who was in to hip hop, could blend in with the black groups in school much better than I could. My friends laughed and said that she was blacker than me. It was a surprise and it hurt. But I never fit in with the popular black kids in high school. I don’t blame it all on hip hop, because I liked hip hop back in high school, I probably watched BET just as much, if not more, than the cool kids. I guess the difference was that I didn’t act it out in real life. I went to class and took school seriously most of the time. I didn’t have anything in common with them.
Williams got the wake up call he needed when he went away to college and realized that there were black people who didn’t listen to hip hop and who studied hard in school. He slowly started to change and his definition of what it means to be black changed.
This book was such an amazing read. Williams is a great writer, who mixed in the stories of his youth, the life of his father and a hard look at hip hop culture in one captivating book. What I took away with it was that there needs to be more images of black people in the media. Especially on BET, there is only one image shown, one type of “black music” they showcase. In recent years hip hop has celebrated under achieving. Kids listen to the music and believe the only important things in life are wearing expensive clothes, hooking up with good looking people, wearing jewelry and driving around in pimped out cars. There’s no future in following the hip hop culture. Though there are a few positives, it’s a culture about materialism and disrespecting women. Williams calls the images “cartoonish” and I have to agree.
Williams writes that many of his close friends in high school have done nothing in their lives. One guy is in jail for murder, his former girlfriend an unwed mother with different fathers of her children. They have become statistics and stereotypes. Not totally because of the hip hop culture, but it is a factor.
This is a book that will stay with me for a while. It’s given me a lot to think about. And I would not have even read it if he wasn’t so similar to my character. My book controls all aspects of my life.
What do you think about Williams argument? Is it unfair to base all of the problems black youth face on hip hop?