Dr. Todd Boyd, a professor of critical studies in the film school at the University of Southern California, is not your typical academic. "I wish I was a rapper," reads the first line in his new collection of essays, The New H.N.I.C.: The Death of Civil Rights and the Reign of Hip Hop (New York Univ.).
True, scholars such as Tricia Rose, Michael Eric Dyson and Houston Baker have written books about hip-hop's culture of rhyming wordplay, break-dancing, graffiti and musical sampling, which has become a multibillion-dollar industry in the last 25 years. But only Dyson and now Boyd—who are both from Detroit and know each other's work well—seem determined to become hip-hop professors. Embracing black street attitude, both men use hip-hop's verbal style and syntax as instruments of academic inquiry.
In The New H.N.I.C. (or Head Nigga In Charge, an old joke about African-American social stature or lack of it), Boyd contends that hip-hop has replaced the Civil Rights movement as the inspirational political and cultural landmark for African-Americans born long after the death of Martin Luther King. For many African-Americans, it's a provocative claim and has attracted more than a few attacks from critics and readers. Some denigrate Boyd's scholarship; others complain that he's dismissing the legacy of the Civil Rights movement, while others charge that he ignores the violence, misogyny and venality celebrated by some hip-hop artists.
Boyd's controversial ideas are firing up book sales. Released in December, the book quickly sold out its 3,000-copy first printing and has returned to press for 1,000 more, according to Heather McMaster, a publicist at NYU Press. The book has received probing coverage in African-American newspapers around the country and on BET's Nightly News, as well as mentions in the Dallas Morning News, the New York Times and USA Today. An interview on NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday is also in the works, along with reviews in hip-hop magazines like The Source and Urb.
Boyd told PW that he respects the Civil Rights movement, but his job is to analyze contemporary culture. "I'm a cultural critic and an artist. I'm not concerned with whether hip-hop is moral or ethical. I'm interested in how it plays out in relation to the culture."
And what about the legacy of the Civil Rights movement? "You can't dismiss it," he said. "I just suggest that hip-hop has replaced the Civil Rights movement as the ethos of contemporary black culture. Civil rights displaced the movements that came before it. Now it's the establishment."
Boyd contends hip-hop represents a pivotal generational phenomenon—something not intended or foreseen—because of its enormous worldwide popularity. "Culture is more important than politics," Boyd continued. "Movies, films and music are the goods of the day. Using civil rights to try and explain contemporary culture is like trying to explain astrophysics to a wino."
Indeed, Boyd highlights the connection between hip-hop's swaggering street attitude and air of violence and the Black Power movement of the 1960s, which represented the black nationalist backlash against the integrationist Civil Rights movement. Black Power—as loud and violence-prone as hip-hop—was intended to threaten white folks, not reassure them.
"The hip-hoppers are more into black nationalism than civil rights," said Boyd. "They're out to reclaim the militant legacy of Huey Newton and Malcom X. But hip-hop has energized that message in a way that wasn't possible before. We see people from around the world who identify with hip-hop and embrace it. It's a galvanizing force. Society has changed somewhat since the Civil Rights days, and hip-hop's attitude is not threatening to young whites today."
Nevertheless, Boyd acknowledges that his book is provocative. "People are interested in the book, but I'm also getting a lot of haters. But I expect that. I'm not a fool. I push people's buttons. But so be it, if it makes people think."