It seems that whenever I post about hip-hop my darling readers become inflamed, but in this case I can't resist. The SF Chronicle has an article in the Datebook section today titled Who would have thought it? Rap legend RZA hangs out, chats at Commonwealth Club gig.
It's a pleasant enough article, but the premise -- that it's somehow newsworthy when a hip hop artist gets taken seriously by the straightlaced Commonwealth Club -- demonstrates clearly just how out of touch the mainstream press really is, even in left-leaning San Francisco. After all, as a founding member of the seminal hip-hop collective Wu-Tang Clan and a successful film composer to boot, the 39-year-old RZA is a major modern artist by almost any standard. The fact that he's (presumably) virtually unknown to a large percentage of the Chronicle's readership is as much a commentary on their ongoing failure to adequately cover an important artist than on the supposed "clash of cultures" being covered.
My fur ruffled a bit at the opening paragraph:
What becomes a legend most? When the legend in question is the man behind one of the most influential hip-hop crews in history, the answer is not a public affairs forum such as the Commonwealth Club. But then, most musical artists don't philosophize about chess and martial arts and Islam and the mythology of organized crime.
Notice the patronizing tone and assumption of that last sentence, that "musical artists" (a clever shorthand for "hip-hop artists") are not cultured, educated about their work and the world around them, or diverse in their interests. If you doubt my take on this, try to imagine that a pop writer like, oh, Stephen King was the subject of the article instead. But then, most writers don't philosophize about chess.... Or how about if the article was about a different kind of "musical artist?" But then, most opera singers don't philosophize about chess....
In any of the above examples, readers would immediately smell something foul. "What do you mean, 'Most writers don't philosophize about chess...?' Writers are an intelligent, worldly lot!" Apparently, this kind of inherent respect doesn't extend to hip-hop artists, at least in the SF Chronicle.
Somewhat later in the article (on the back page), writer Neva Chonin asserts: It shouldn't have worked, this collision of disparate worlds of a stodgy public affairs forum and a profane street poet.... This would seem to score one for hip-hop, but is it necessary to refer to one of the most successful and influential recording artists of the last decade as a "profane street poet?"
Just calling out for a little respect, that's all. The day hip-hop is truly accepted as another valid art form will be the day a visit to the Commonwealth Club by a hip-hop artist ceases to be news.
UPDATE - August 31, 2005
Today's Chronicle has a letter to the editor (scroll down a bit) from one Max Woodworth in Taipei, Taiwan (I guess the mail from Taiwan travels really slowly). Woodworth essentially covers the same ground I did (though much more eloquently) in six paragraphs. I like his closing section:
...The forum could not have been a testament to hip-hop's "new place in the cultural canon" for the simple reason that hip-hop is not new, neither as an art form nor as part of our cultural canon. Practically every facet of our popular culture bears the marks of hip-hop, and this has been the case for about 20 years.
From speech to clothing to mannerism, hip-hop is everywhere and has been for a long time. The real shock should be that RZA hadn't been invited a decade ago to the Commonwealth Club. But I'm grateful, at least, that the forum was covered. It's a start.
As an update to my update, I Googled "Max Woodworth Taipei Taiwan" and discovered that he is a correspondant for the Taipei Times. At least, I assume he's the same Max Woodworth; I'll let you know if anything else turns up.