13 May 2007
W. Jelani Cobb @ Busboys and Poets, 13 May 2007
The Devil and Dave Chappelle
William Jelani Cobb
Thunder Mouth Press
6 May 2007 Dallas Morning News
In the titular essay of William Jelani Cobb's essay collection The Devil & Dave Chappelle, he writes, "an inside joke is inside for a reason ... In the wrong hands the joke will inevitably be misinterpreted."
Nigger, Mr. Cobb writes, "was the most inside, the most ironic and complexly encrypted element of both [Richard] Pryor's and Chappelle's humor. But it's virtually impossible for a white person in America to use the word ... ironically. It would be the equivalent of having an interracial slave revolt – the point being that once white folk get an invitation, well, it ain't really a slave revolt no more."
In all his pimp dreams Don Imus never recognized this element of American speech. Mr. Cobb's brief assessment explains more about the matter than any assortment of talking heads have in recent weeks.
His essay collection, a soulful analysis of American life, politics and hip-hop culture, contains a range of efforts the title can't fully express: There are personal essays on fatherhood and Hollis, Queens; there are interviews with the late writer Octavia Butler and the hip-hop artist Talib Kweli; there are essay-reports on Brazilian sex tours for black American men and on the failed promise of the Million Man March; there are remembrances of Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King and commentaries on OutKast and Barry Bonds.
An American history professor at Spelman College in Atlanta, Mr. Cobb decodes these events, figures and phenomena, contextualizing them within the narratives of the American mainstream and African-American experience simultaneously. In several essays Mr. Cobb expresses his suspicions of political action that defends numbskullery (Colin Powell) or hopeful speech that belies opportunism (Barack Obama).
And, as he explains the Million Man March, Mr. Cobb can't stand any ideology meant to immobilize his mind or stuff his guts with starchy rhetoric. Louis Farrakhan's starch "had minimal nutritional value, but it did do one magical thing: it was cheap, and a small bit of it made people feel full for hours. Ultimately, though, what it did was allow people to feel very good while they simultaneously starved to death."
Mr. Cobb is equally disappointed by hip-hop's soul-starving tendencies. Throughout the collection he theorizes on the tight connections between the political ethics of the Bush administration and the street hustling commandments promoted in the music of Notorious B.I.G., Eminem, Jay-Z and Three 6 Mafia. Lamenting hip-hop's failure to critique and reject crass consumption, Mr. Cobb argues that Jay-Z's faux-revolutionary ideals are the salable counterparts to Condi Rice's free-market diplomacy: Victorious capitalists have always gotten to write history, "it's just that now they can produce its [hip-hop] soundtrack, too." When this happens, insider jokes turn sour and lose their ironies.
Finally, it's worth noting hip-hop's striking influence on Mr. Cobb's critical sensibilities: While his well-manicured, pitch-perfect prose doesn't disguise an emceelike flow, it exposes the DJ's ability to improvise enlightenment, to scratch together disparate cultural and political elements into cogent and compelling mosaics.