The Temple of Hiphop Kulture—a preservation society founded in 1996 by the self-professed god of hiphop, KRS-One—holds in Article Six of its manifesto that “Although hiphop’s true origin date remains a mystery, the Temple of Hiphop begins modern hiphop in the year 1970. The actual vibe, awareness, motivation, and style that would become hiphop existed at least a few years before DJ Kool Herc got to the point of playing music in the parks [of the Bronx] around 1972.” In Soul Babies, author Mark Anthony Neal identifies a post-soul generation as an accessibly academic deconstruction of “the political, social, and cultural experiences” of blacks born “between the 1963 March on Washington and . . . the Regents of the University of California v. Bakke challenge to affirmative action in 1978.” Methinks the heart of Neal’s constituency lies truly in Generation Hiphop, beginning at the Temple of Hiphop Kulture’s 1970 start-off date and substituting for the Bakke case the ’79 release of the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” responsible for the mainstreaming of hiphop. Soul Babies bears this theory out through intuitive observations on topics like blaxploitation flicks, the historical representation of black fatherhood on the boob tube, and the politics underlying cartoonist Aaron McGruder’s The Boondocks.
Neal has many forebears working in his favor. He acknowledges author Nelson George as the first to promote the concept of a post-soul culture in his Buppies, B-Boys, Baps & Bohos of 1993 (subtitled Notes on Post-Soul Black Culture). Voice critic Greg Tate receives props for his statement positing a “popular post-structuralism-accessible writing bent on deconstructing the whole of black culture”—the very sort Soul Babies shoots for. In a chapter entitled “The Post-Soul Intelligentsia: Mass Media, Popular Culture, and Social Praxis,” Neal credits George, Tate, media assassin Harry Allen, and Trey Ellis’s seminal essay The New Black Aesthetic for erecting the pillars of hiphop-informed criticism that Soul Babies stands upon. Feminist scholar bell hooks is also cited for her exploration of the cultural significance of Ice Cube in a Spin magazine story—an example of a black intellectual “reducing the critical process into accessible mass culture fodder”—and hooks’s own Outlaw Culture casts a formidable shadow on Neal’s Soul Babies.
Dividing his essay collection into five chapters and an epilogue, Neal, assistant professor of English and African studies at SUNY at Albany, and author of 1998’s What the Music Said: Black Popular Music and Black Public Culture, concentrates on gender politics, black middle-class identity, pop culture, and the aesthetics and intellectuals of post-soul culture. Soul Babies can be condensed into three central notions: Analyzing marginalized figures in black culture yields vital insights into black life; a melding of highbrow and popular writing is necessary in order to (paraphrasing Chuck D) teach the bourgeois and rock the boulevard; and having absorbed black iconography in mass culture, the post-soul generation is specially equipped to deconstruct the realities of blackness “as . . . constructed and distributed in [modern] film, music, video, literature, television, and music.”
The generational disconnect implicit in many intellectual critiques of hiphop culture necessitates a work like Soul Babies. Neal implies that thirtysomething writer Joan Morgan-Murray (whose When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost is favorably scrutinized by Neal) comprehends things about our hiphop nation that a Harvard Dream Team professor like Henry Louis Gates Jr. just can’t catch. Yet another criticism Neal levies against the academic approach to hiphop subject matter is that it’s too intellectualized—one man’s deconstruction is another man’s reaching—and Soul Babies is occasionally guilty of the same. Case in point: Neal’s sounds-like-a-stretch take on the subliminal metaphors in an exchange between sexy idiot-box actress Garcelle Beauvais, R. Kelly, and Ron Isley in director Hype Williams’s video for Kelly’s “Down Low (Nobody Has to Know).” According to Neal, the face-off “can be read as a very public exchange between Kelly and Isley regarding the contemporary nature of rhythm and blues and soul music, where [Beauvais] is the personification of those genres.” Well . . . maybe. On my side of Brooklyn, we christen observations like that “looking with your third eye.” Not that it’s not there, but should Neal assume Williams or Kelly intentionally put it there? Probably not.
Much more on point are Neal’s analyses of the troubling sexual politics at Black Entertainment Television: “BET’s support of the objectification of black female sexuality has often transcended its musical video programming, in that black female presence on its news programs has often been obscured by the conscious promotion of authoritative black male icons.” Here he is on the Saturday morning cartoon fixes of our generation: “Fat Albert . . . and The Jackson Five Cartoon were part of our introduction into the multicultural and multiethnic world that the television industry tried to craft for America in the post-civil rights era.” Neal may read as pseudo-intellectual to those who refuse to dig for the heavier messages lying just underneath the surface of pop culture. Yet for the reader who can’t wade through Cornel West’s prophetic pragmatism theories, but can get with an equally studied read of how the Cosby/Poitier films of the ’70s “examine[d] the dynamics and intricacies of black communities in flux during the post-civil rights era,” Soul Babies is just the book.