A Boston Globe Columnist’s Embarrassing Take on Rap Music

Alex Beam’s column does his newspaper’s reputation as a media dinosaur no favors.



It’s been a long time (six days, actually) since the Boston Globe last embarrassed itself by publishing something so aimed at a certain, uh, older subset of its readership that it alienated everyone else with an internet connection. So let’s have a look at columnist Alex Beam’s pearl-clutching crusade to prevent the intermingling of hip-hop and higher learning in Thursday’s paper.

Beam’s column “How Dre, Z, Nas, and 9th Wonder spent their summer vacations,” is being panned, at least in this writer’s social media circles, for being condescending, pointless, and not half as funny as it’d like to be. To the extent that Beam has a point at all—it’s hard to tell—we think it is that Dre, Jay-Z, Nas, and 9th Wonders’ sordid histories and lyrics aren’t a good mix with American institutions of higher learning. (Of Harvard’s collection of rap records, he writes sarcastically, “That’s why they call it the World’s Greatest University!”)

Nevertheless, Dre is funding an “academy for arts, technology, and the business of innovation” at the University of Southern California. Both Nas and 9th Wonder have participated in Harvard’s Hip-Hop Fellowship, taking on different endeavors there. And Jay-Z  … isn’t doing much with academia, and thus doesn’t really fit in this column, but Beam just likes to snipe at him, it would seem, so here he is.

Beam’s strategy is to contrast offensive or artistically meritless lyrics (in his estimation) from these artists’s pasts with their recent ventures into university life. His passage on Dre is representative of the rest:

Dre (pre-rap name — Andre Young) was an original member of the group N.W.A., whose full name we cannot share with you because of archaic conceptions of good taste. Perhaps you remember N.W.A.’s first album, “Straight Outta Compton,” with its chart-topping hit “[Expletive] tha Police.”

That was then and this is now. Dre and music producer Jimmy Iovine are jointly funding a new “academy for arts, technology, and the business of innovation” at the University of Southern California.

As in any genre, let’s admit that in rap, there is a lot of shitty music out there. But when your leading point of evidence for the idea that rappers don’t merit academic investigation is “Fuck tha Police…” well, you’ve erred. Sorry. Did the song offend a lot of people for glorifying violence against law enforcement when it was released in 1988? Yes. Did it also put words to a profound sense of injustice among the urban, poor, African-American community at that time? Enough people probably say “yes,” such that you shouldn’t put it first in your list of “reasons Harvard and rap music don’t mix.” In a year when conflict between law enforcement and African-American communities has played out in controversial stories from Trayvon Martin’s death to New York’s stop-and-frisk, it’s not hard to find reason to discuss that song, its provenance, and its continued popularity.

Let’s not continue on through Beam’s snark line-by-line. The larger point is that if you’re going to argue persuasively that rap and hip-hop, “with their celebration of ignorance, gangster-ism — sorry, gangsta-ism — and violence against women,” shouldn’t be collected, archived, and studied at schools like Harvard and Yale, as Beam seems to imply, you should wrestle with the work of those who are undertaking those endeavors. You should say why.

Or you could write a gossipy column in your newspaper that juxtaposes context-free song lyrics with the word “Harvard,” as if this is evidence enough, adding a tone so smug, only those who already knee-jerk agree with you will be convinced.

The Boston Globe is a large, multi-faceted organization with many voices, (some of whom aren’t so pleased to be sharing space with this column today.) But this kind of flippant, surface-deep treatment of the subject does them no service in their reputation as a stodgy, outdated media property unable to adapt to the times in which they are living. (To the Opinion page’s credit, look no further than the columnist next door to Beam for an example of someone more curious and engaged in the world of modern music around her.)

To borrow from Beam’s playbook by cherry-picking an embarrassing quote, let’s note that in his biography on the Globe website, he says of writing columns, “You don’t have to be right, you don’t have to be fair, frankly” —um, what?— “but you do have to be readable and you do have to present an argument that holds some water. It doesn’t sound like too high a bar to get over.” Well, actually, without descending too far into the ad hominem, when you’re an Exeter and Yale educated self-described squash enthusiast, you do have a pretty high bar to get over when taking on a topic on which your expertise is going to be inevitably scrutinized. (Take it from a Yale educated sailing enthusiast from Hingham who knows!) The bar might not sound too high to Beam. Unfortunately in this case, it was.

August 30, 3:26 p.m.: This post originally identified Beam as Andover-educated. He attended Phillips Exeter Academy. We regret the error.

  • p_radicator

    So did you like Beam’s article? I can’t tell.

  • cyclemadness

    Like the lyrics or not (they are no more offensive than some from Led Zeppelin (Beam may also hate that cultural icon)), hip-hop is and has been a part of popular culture – and artistic culture – for decades. I guess Beam doesn’t really like that either. As for the Globe’s older subset, perhaps the paper should create a new section: “We Like How It Used To Be in 1963.” Just a suggestion. I’m one member of the older subset but have nothing, really and truly, nothing in common with them, so this is not ageist, folks.

  • Isabella Meijer

    The stupendous disgrace of Mr. Beam’s words pales in comparison
    with the stunning decision by the Boston Globe to lend its voice to such thinking, a day after we celebrate all that ‘progress’ of the past 50 years, as the leading newspaper in a city that has yet to overcome its national stigma of racism earned during the mid-seventies. It is an insult to its readers who stand for higher ethics and morality, an insult to Beam’s better colleagues – some of whom are among the most respected journalists in the country – and a direct affront to the words of President Obama that same day. That this was published following the paper’s transfer to its new owner Mr. John Henry, with whom Mr. Beam shares generation and race, is a nauseating reality.

  • wardfive

    It’s an opinion column, for God’s sake.

  • Andrew J Brown Jr

    “She all dressed up an’ pretty in red. If she don’t be my baby, I’ds t’a soon as see her dead”.
    “When I catcher her in my sights, ‘BoomBoom’, out go the
    “Tonight we need no rest, we really gonna throw a mess. We gonna to break out all of the windows, we gonna kick down all the doors. We
    gonna pitch a wang dang doodle all night long”

    Don’t study Blues. Blues doesn’t belong in Harvard, or Berklee, or
    at The Kennedy Center, nor at Carnegie Hall if it’s most direct and vital descendant, Rap, doesn’t belong. Misogynism, violence, property
    destruction, murder and mayhem in song, reflect 1st what the bigger
    society does to and in the songwriters’ community. It is deadly from without then from within. Joy, laughter, lovin’, vitality push up and still thrive in the Blues and Rap idioms. For those who have ears to hear, let them hear.

  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bUwYRs4Y_UA Ronald Smith

    jazy is mad cool did any body see that fight with Gucci mane and that r&b artist