Does Hip Hop Degrade Society?
I have been attending Intelligence Squared (IQ2) debates/events for a few years now. Some of them are mundane with a dash of excitement (e.g. an evening with V.S. Naipaul that was rather routine until he suggested women writers can never achieve the greatness of their male counterparts); some are exciting with a dash of the mundane; and some are pure excitement, e.g. an evening with Rob Lowe (AKA Human Ken Doll) and the recent Hip Hop on Trial “debate.” While I left the Rob Lowe-event with a new-found respect for Human Ken Doll (and a signed copy of Stories I Only Tell My Friends), I left the Hip Hop on Trial “debate” reeling. The event was a whole of whole lot.
With Google+ sponsoring the debate under their Versus project, ostensibly highlighting the video chat feature in Google+ Hangouts by connecting debaters across the world on hot-button issues, the debate was set up to rehash old grievances on a new platform. When I first heard about the debate, I found the topic a bit obvious and wasn’t interested in attending. I eventually capitulated when it was suggested D.H Lawrence vs. Biggie’s use of misogyny would be debated. On the day of the debate I was still a bit wary but had already paid for a ticket with seats near a stage set to host Jesse Jackson, P.J. O’Rourke, Michael Eric Dyson, Dream Hampton, KRS-1 with Estelle, Q-Tip (Tribe Called Quest) and Questlove (The Roots) via Google+ Hangouts, I figured I should shrug off my apathy and head over to the Barbican. I ended up sitting through about 2.5 hours of something that kinda looked like a debate.
You’re Breaking the Format!
The size of the panel seems to have been the wrench that was thrown in the wheel of progress. Given 14 (there could have been more; I lost count!) panel members in total, with Eamon Courtney leading panel members for and Michael Eric Dyson leading panel members against the motion, and the entire thing coordinated by BBC Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis, the debate was 5 steps from becoming a circus. Also, anyone familiar with Mr. Dyson’s oratory prowess knows his oration cannot be bound by the time limits of traditional debate. Largely, panelists treated the time limits as “rough guidelines”.
During the debate, I periodically switched my gaze from the stage to the large screen above the stage with its Brady-bunch like split screen across the additional 6 or so panelists joining via Google+ who often looked bored, rarely being called on to participate (understandable given all the on-stage excitement). That is, they were bored except for Q-Tip who I randomly glanced up to see gesticulating wildly trying to make a point not knowing the sound to his mic was turned off. Questlove let him know by writing “They can’t hear you” on a piece of paper and held it up to his webcam and shrugging…Later on, I looked up to see Q-Tip and Questlove left the debate early, presumably in annoyance at their exclusion (I can’t say I blame them). Then there were the tech issues that made the online panelists’ participation even more awkward: stop/starts and jumpy video that cut out large swathes of Estelle’s contributions to the discussion. The awkwardness of the entire thing peaked when Courtney told an audience member “You’re breaking the format!,” when asked to respond to a question out of the prescribed IQ2 sequence.
In terms of content, except for a few points made here and there there neither side brought much of anything new to the discussion. To a large extent, I was extremely disappointed by some of the simplicity and regurgitation of status quo-arguments made by on-stage panelists. I almost doubled over when KRS-1, his eyes wide with incredulous indignation, asked “Why do I have to defend hip hop?!?!” Um, cos you were invited here to do that?!?! It would have been nice if the panel included a fresh voice like Issa Rae, who uses rap and its misogyny and embrace of violence to extremely successful comedic effect in her Awkward Black Girl web series.
All in all, it was an entertaining if flawed evening. At one point, Emiliy Maitlis asked Questlove, in a very Jeremy Paxman sort of tone, “Do you think you would have sold as many albums if your music was positive?!” After an evening of several “Oh dear!”-moments triggered whenever panelists said something that was just wild, the audience let out a collective groan at the inanity of the question given The Roots’ solidly positive/progressive role in Hip Hop. Maitlis quickly back-tracked. Even the evening ended on a flaw: Maitlis, waiting for the backstage folks to tally the results of the audience and on-line votes on the debate was forced to endure a long, awkward silence even as the numbers were presented on a screen above the stage. The finally tally was, sadly, wrong (13% + 13% is not 13%); Maitlin called the event to a close (cut your losses, etc.) and the audience left the Barbican auditorium heaving a final collective groan. Largely, though, I think Maitlis did a great job moderating a large, sometimes unwieldy panel.
While the event was entertaining, whether or not any meaningful progress was made on the topic would be another topic for debate.
The video of the event is now online for folks to watch.