20 July 2010

"Losing My Cool..." A review

My summer has been filled with books. In between longing for my return to France and acclimating to the Midwest I've read several books. Only one has compelled me to write about it: "Losing My Cool: How a Father's Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-Hop Culture"

*Disclaimer* Image taken from www.amazon.com

For people who have struggled with the conflict between fitting in and standing out,not feeling "black enough" , or simply with who they want to be, Thomas Chatterton Williams' first book is an invitation to decide. In "Losing My Cool: How a Father's Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-Hop Culture", Williams shares his journey from a caricature of hip-hop culture to an individual character.
Williams' memoir is the story of a young boy, who happens to be mixed, who is constantly pulled between two poles: the love his father has for him and learning and the most negative aspects of a seductive hip-hop culture that colored and discolored his interactions with his world.
Williams' story could be that of any black kid in the suburbs who tries to "keep it real", while unknowingly being fake. He shares his evolution without casting dispersions on those still caught up in image. This empathy is what keeps his narrative from being pretentious. He also stays away from stating that hip-hop is the devil.
Because it's not.
It's the importance that people place on the hip-hop image that is detrimental to their individual growth.

I will say that perhaps the title is misleading. I don't identify hip-hop the way Williams does. To me hip-hop is Lauryn Hill, Common, Mos Def, and The Roots to name a few. I wasn't allowed to listen to Biggie and a whole host of rapper when I was younger. I can identify with Williams to a certain extent. I,too,was sometimes not "black enough" but I couldn't even fake the funk, nor did I have a desire to. My own journey to hip-hop was a weird one. Growing up we listened to soul classics and country music more than anything else. I could sing you several George Strait songs before I could ever share 16 bars of Biggie. It wasn't until I got to college that I was introduced to hip-hop in a way where I could befriend it and it wasn't until my first heartbreak when I came to love it. So I've never been caught up in the desire to implement what I saw portrayed in some videos and songs.

I've read critiques of "Losing My Cool" that seem to disagree with a premise that I don't believe Williams makes. Hip-hop is not the root of all evil. (Nor does he exhibit self-hate.) I can see how one might think he is equating hip-hop culture with the whole of black culture. Again, I don't think he is. If anything he makes a case for reconsidering black culture's relationship to hip-hop (idealising entertainers over educators)and the case for the importance of individuality. Lastly, some will take offence to some of his black characters. Some are less than ideal individuals, such is life. That was his reality.

Not to criticise young Williams, but he did himself a world of hurt by forfeiting his choice to define himself. He says, "It was much easier to mime stereotypes than to invent ourselves as individuals."
The birth of Williams as an individual is an admirable one. From his imagined hard knock sometimes gritty streets of Jersey to the posh streets of Georgetown, Williams brings up several interesting, important questions that deserve answering or at least pondering: What is the nature of individuality? What does it mean to be black? What is real? How can one embrace hip-hop without being smothered by its negative aspects? Williams didn't set out to defend black culture or castrate hip-hop culture he simply has shared one narrative of millions about his relationship with the two-which of course are not synonymous.

Williams' story comes down to this (self-evident?) fact: there's more than one way to be black. Not every young black man must be an athlete or rapper. Not every young black woman must use her physical attributes for gain. Nor should they aspire to. Centuries after slavery's abolition, we are free to be individuals, but one would think it's easier to be enslaved to something whether it be to ignorance itself or ignorant images and messages.

This book is as relevant as it is timeless. It's well written and engaging. In an age where the United States of America has a black president it's time to reconsider how we as a people and as individuals will be defined. Hip-hop is not the only music that enriches the black American experience. It is a jazz number breathed to life by Miles or Louie Armstrong. It is a blues lament sung by Ella or Bessie Smith . Or it can be a country song shared by Charlie Pride or Darius Rucker.
Read this book and decide for yourself.

By the time I was finished reading this book, I wanted to force my younger brother to read it. However, I suspect that Williams would warn against this however well-intentioned act. No one can make anyone better. It's an individual choice.
Here's to choosing to be an individual instead of a negative image of a culture.

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