Bomani & “Read a Book” in the Washington Post

Posted on November 3, 2007

0



His Punch Line Smarts
Hip-Hop Parodist Bomani Armah Juggles Sense of Humor and Identity

By Kevin Merida
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 22, 2007; C01

Bomani Armah (“I’m not a rapper, I’m a poet with a hip-hop style”) hops into a bar chair at the ultracool Artmosphere Cafe in Mount Rainier. It is a Wednesday night, we have the bar to ourselves, we are having a splendid conversation. You may be thinking: Dude, this is such an unextraordinary scene. Except that Armah is simultaneously hosting an open-mike talent show, toggling from bar to stage in five-minute intervals and proving how fluid the mind can be.

He’s fixated, at the bar, on what has happened to him over the past four months, how he somehow became a symbol of the coarsening culture. All because he wrote a crunk song, “Read a Book,” that traveled the Internet, that was discovered by Black Entertainment Television, that was made into a video, that ignited a controversy, that turned Bomani Armah into a person he didn’t recognize, someone accused of “setting my people back 100 years.” Between the irate blog posts and the snippy interviews by the likes of CNN’s Tony Harris, Armah discovered that he had suddenly become somebody.

“I got recognized at the post office,” he says. “I’m not used to that.” Anytime Jesse Jackson calls you out — he accused Armah of “recycling degradation” — you know you’ve arrived.

On this night, no one is calling him out, except to say that he should hurry back to the stage, back to the mike. There is only love for Armah in the cafe. Here, he is free — free from his “Read a Book” troubles. Here, he is focused on art, everybody’s art. Rudeness is not tolerated.

“Most important rule,” he instructs the audience, “cheering for everybody.” Which includes the yodeling senior citizen they call Miss Jane, the guitar-plucking urban cowboy, the University of Maryland doctoral student who raps provocatively about female anatomy.

Back and forth Armah goes, stage to bar, bar to stage. An impressive display of thought juggling. He is 29, with a smile that could soften a hard heart, wire-rimmed glasses and short locks. Whenever kind words come his way — and they keep coming his way here — he puts his hands together and dips his head in a slight bow. “Thank you so much.”

Armah grew up middle class in Mitchellville and now lives in Petworth. He has 17-month-old twins and a five-year marriage. He has been kicking around the D.C. music scene for six years, producing for other local musicians, hosting spoken-word events, trying to break through as an artist out to elevate hip-hop into something more relevant, more meaningful.

As a former English major — he dropped out of the University of Maryland to pursue his music career — Armah has conducted creative writing and audio/video workshops for kids. He has worked as a youth counselor. He has seen firsthand one of the most pernicious effects of the rap game, the warping of black reality into a one-dimensional caricature. Too many in his generation of artists, he says, aspire to be “as grimy and gangster” as they can be, a depiction of black life that filters down to the kids, who become the next inaccurate storytellers.

“As an educator and an artist, it was hurting me both ways,” says Armah, who is hardly the first “conscious” artist to come along advocating a hip-hop makeover. But most artists who feel as he does, Armah adds, “write essays or long esoteric songs” that are indigestible. Armah was determined to do something more jolting. Provocative, but funny.

” ‘Read a Book’ was a joke from the beginning,” he says. “It was more about parodying the state of hip-hop.” And now it has become the thing that defines him. He thought about that for a moment. “Damn, do this many people not get me?”

* * *

Read a book! Read a book! Read a [expletive] book!

Read a book! Read a book! Read a [expletive] book!

So goes the song Bomani Armah recorded more than two years ago, set to a hip-hop version of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. It has a hard-charging feel to it, repetitive lyrics, random cursing and one-word exhortations — what! who! yeah! okay! — all in an attempt to mock the crunk style of the rapper Lil Jon.

Not a sports page, not a magazine

But a book, nigga, a [expletive] book, nigga

Armah didn’t stop at reading. He went on to urge the raising of kids, the drinking of water, the brushing of teeth, the use of deodorant, and other acts of basic self-respect.

Buy some land, buy some land! [Expletive] spinnin’ rims!

Buy some land, buy some land! [Expletive] spinnin’ rims!

Buy some land, buy some land! [Expletive] spinnin’ rims!

Buy some land, buy some land! [Expletive] spinnin’ rims!

“I feel like I’m a sergeant out here in the field, showing how ridiculous the culture is,” Armah says. He began performing his song around the Washington area and it caught on. He made it available for free download on his MySpace page, and the buzz grew. At some point the “Read a Book” MP3 reached the inbox of Reginald Hudlin, president of entertainment for BET, who passed it on to the network’s animation division, which loved it and wanted to create an animated video off the track. Which is where Tyree Dillihay, a Los Angeles-based animation director, comes in.

He took Armah’s lyrics and amped up the parody even more. Rappers always brag about getting shot, right? So Dillihay showed a thug loading his Uzi with a book clip and firing books as bullets at unsuspecting victims.

In another scene, someone brings a diaper-clad child and deposits him with a father who is getting his groove on at a nightclub. The video’s most controversial image, perhaps, is of a gyrating woman wearing pink sweat pants with the word “book” written on her rear end. Dillihay says that image was intended to make fun of women who wear those designer warm-up suits with words such as “juicy” written on their behinds.

The video first aired on BET’s “Rap City” and “The 5ive” in June and made its way onto the network’s popular “106 & Park” show in July. It wasn’t long before a sizzling debate began. What exactly was “Read a Book”? An unusual public service announcement designed to reach young hip-hop fans who don’t read? Another ill-advised programming effort by BET (see “Hot Ghetto Mess”) that was bound to backfire?

“Read a Book” has been viewed more than 1.8 million times on YouTube, according to the site. (Armah says that number is actually more like 3 million because Viacom, which owns the rights to the video, had many of the original posts of it removed.) Dillihay and Armah, who both have been on TV and radio defending “Read a Book,” maintain the divide over their work is mostly generational. “When a 50-year-old woman says, ‘Oh, this is horrible,’ I frankly don’t care. It’s not for you,” says Dillihay, who is 30.

“Read a Book” does have some prominent supporters.

“It’s brilliant satire,” says Michael Eric Dyson, a Georgetown University professor who has written widely about hip-hop. He sees the video as a kind of “carrier pigeon for an edifying message.” He offers a quick jab at the critics. “Here’s the ugly reality: Many of the black leaders and others who criticize this attempt to get black kids to read a book haven’t read many books themselves.”

Perhaps a broader question is: What constitutes acceptable behavior? Comedian Eddie Griffin was surprised to discover his microphone had been turned off in the midst of a routine that had become both vulgar and tasteless to the organizers of the 14th annual Black Enterprise/Pepsi Golf & Tennis Challenge, held in Miami in September. Seizing the mike, after a steamed Griffin departed the stage, the magazine’s founder, Earl Graves, explained to the audience that “the man’s going to get paid, but we can’t tolerate this,” according to Richard Prince’s media blog, Journal-isms. Graves was rewarded with a standing ovation.

What Graves did may reflect a growing desire within black communities to police cultural expression. Activists, for instance, have mounted weekend protests at the home of BET President and CEO Debra Lee over the quality of the network’s programming.

“Black identity right now is so precarious,” says Yale sociologist Elijah Anderson, one of the nation’s foremost experts on black urban life. “You’d like to think that we as a people are so strong that we can withstand any kind of puff, so to speak. In a fair world, one would presume to be able to say what you want to say. But it isn’t a fair world, and that’s what I think about.”

If there is hypersensitivity among blacks about their images in the popular culture, its roots can be found in a history of racist portrayals that have helped shape how black life has been viewed by much of the world. The most denigrating depictions of blacks often had the sanction of the nation’s top leaders.

President Woodrow Wilson, for example, hosted a private White House screening of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 epic “The Birth of a Nation,” an explicitly racist film in which blacks were portrayed as buffoons with outsize sex drives. The Ku Klux Klan later used the film as a recruitment tool.

In combating such vile characterizations of themselves, blacks have often focused on “putting the best foot forward,” as Anderson describes it. “Historically, it’s always been there,” he says, “this concern with propriety, presenting yourself well, giving white society no reason to hold you back.”

It’s ironic that some of the “Read a Book” lyrics — “brush yo’ teeth,” “wear deodorant” — hark back to the late-19th-century prescriptions Booker T. Washington offered for the betterment of the race. Personal hygiene — “the gospel of the toothbrush,” he called it — was essential to black self-improvement, Washington thought. But this is 2007, and some find such lyrics and their accompanying video imagery — a tree wilts as a smelly black man walks by — absurd and humiliating.

Is lack of Speed Stick usage a cutting-edge issue in black communities? A concern even worthy of satire? Armah knows he is on shaky ground with some of the lyrics, but says he was trying to stick with the formula: make the song as ridiculous as possible to imitate the ridiculousness of many rap songs. He enlisted teenagers to plug in lyrics that they thought would work — and also be funny — to drive home the point of positive behavior, and they came up with “brush yo’ teeth” and “wear deodorant.”

“He’s been a good guy,” says George Garrow, executive director of Concerned Black Men, which has utilized Armah in programs focusing on abstinence, teen pregnancy prevention and self-expression. “He’s worked with the young people to get them to critically analyze the lyrics in the music, and to get them to understand that the same messages can be communicated with different lyrics.”

* * *

On the Artmosphere Cafe stage, Armah, known as “D’mite” to his fans, performs one of his noncontroversial songs, “Shake It Off.” The audience loves this one. They sing along.

You’ve had a day that was really wack

Shake it off

You’ve got too much pressure on your back

Take it off

You gettin’ love with strings attached

Break it off

It goes shake it off, take it off, break it off

Five minutes later, back at the bar . . .

“I’m obsessed with Googling ‘Bomani Armah Read a Book,’ ” he says.

What will they say about him next? Some have suggested he be excommunicated from the black race.

On the other hand, he has been fielding a lot of inquiries from record labels. He shot a documentary of the Jena 6 protests in Louisiana. He is working on an album, “Radio Friendly,” and preparing for the release early next year of a music video highlighting what it means to be a grown man. Shot in Southeast Washington, it features fathers playing with their sons in front of a 30-foot mural of Martin Luther King Jr. and a slow-motion collage of young black men pulling up their pants — a piece of counter-imagery that may be gaining momentum. Texas rapper Dooney Da’Priest, for instance, is getting notice for his song, “Pull Your Pants Up.”

“Being positive is the new hardcore,” Armah says.

“The whole gangsta bling-bling has not only played out socially,” he continues, “it’s played out artistically.” His message to rappers: “If you don’t have a family-friendly rap you can do in front of your grandmother, please go home and write one.”

Which was part of the point of “Read a Book,” he thought. Except some people didn’t get it, and that still baffles him. The video is no longer airing on BET, having “just timed out,” a spokesman says. Which suits Armah just fine. He’s ready to move on.

“I didn’t want to be the ‘Read a Book’ dude, anyway.”

Sliding out of his bar chair, he scurries back to the stage, back to the mike. Back to his art.