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Michael Eric Dyson Discusses 'Know What I Mean?'


Book Tour is a new Web feature and podcast. Each week we present leading authors of fiction and nonfiction as they read from and discuss their work.

Michael Eric Dyson's provocative hip-hop discourse Know What I Mean? tackles what Dyson says is an unavoidable question: "Does this stuff actually harm the people who listen to it?"

Hip-hop, Dyson's book argues, "has been a source of controversy since the beats got too big and the voices too loud for the block parties that spawned them" — and yes, the author says, rap needs to be called out for its "materialism, hedonism, and offensive language."

But the situation is complicated: Commercial pressures mean that in some ways, rap is a victim of its own success. And critics shouldn't forget that jazz, in its early days, was considered as scurrilous as rap is now. Hip-hop culture in general, and rap in particular, comes with an intricate embedded politics — and at its best, Dyson says, "hip-hop is about the brilliance of pavement poetry."

Dyson's wide-ranging scholarship makes him one of the foremost voices describing what it's like to be black in America. The Georgetown University professor is the author of 12 books; Holler If You Hear Me, about slain gangsta rapper Tupac Shakur, sealed his reputation as "the hip-hop intellectual."

Dyson's own rhythms and language can be as spellbinding, and as disquieting, as the music he examines. In this free-wheeling, fiercely funny discussion, he advances arguments about who's allowed to use the N-word — and why — and about whether women should "consent to their own degradation as the price of admission to [hip-hop's] aesthetic glory."

This reading of Know What I Mean? took place at the Politics & Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C.

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Linda Kulman
Linda Kulman, the editor of’s weekly feature Book Tour, is an avid reader, veteran journalist and writer living in Washington, D.C. She worked as a senior writer at U.S. News & World Report for a decade, where she reported for every section of the magazine. Most recently, she covered religion and consumer culture. Kulman’s book reviews have appeared in The Washington Post and on She has collaborated on four non-fiction books, working with a variety of notable figures. Early on in her career, she worked for several years as a fact checker at The New Yorker. Kulman also earned a degree from Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism.
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