Almost immediately, it’s clear that the video for “Read a Book,” Bomani “D’mite” Armah’s chant-style rap, isn’t like Black Entertainment Television’s usual offerings: In it, a group of faceless, pink-spandex-clad cartoon dancers forcefully thrust their ample booties up and down to the beat, with the letters b-o jiggling on one butt cheek and o-k on the other.
“Not a sports page/Not a magazine/But a book, nigga/A fuckin’ book nigga, yeah,” Armah screams, mimicking Lil Jon. He goes on to demand that listeners raise their kids, wear deodorant, and buy property rather than spinning rims.
Armah, a 29-year-old Mitchellville, Md., native now living in Petworth, recorded “Read a Book” three years ago, back when an appearance on a record by the King of Crunk practically guaranteed a hit (and back when Dave Chappelle was spoofing Lil Jon’s famous one-word exclamations: “What!” “Yeah!” “Okaaay!”). At the time, Armah’s friends told him the song would be huge. Though hugeness has taken a while, he wasn’t prepared for how big “Read a Book” has become. To date, it’s been viewed more than 650,000 times on YouTube and has launched a debate between those who tout it as a weapon in the assault on thuggish, misogynistic hip-hop and those who think its message and imagery are racist. And while Armah is pleased his music is finally getting recognized after six years in the business, he’s now worried that becoming popular for a song like “Read a Book” will make people see him as just a gimmicky MC.
The song’s genesis was simple. “I wanted to do a crunk song,” Armah says. “As much as I got thrown off by it when it was really hot, I had to respect the power of it. And so I was like, if you can make it about kicking a nigga’s ass, you can make it about anything.”
So he made a crunk song about reading, personal hygiene, and being responsible. The song exhorts those principles, because Armah—a married father of two—is a principled guy. He couldn’t believably deliver it in his normal smooth baritone, though, so he affected a raspy tone, raised his pitch a notch, and rapped simple lines: “Read a book/Read a book/Read a mu’ fuckin’ book” and “Brush yo’ teeth/Brush yo’ teeth/Brush yo’ goddamn teeth,” set to a drum-assisted version of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
“My man gave me three rules to making a crunk song,” says Armah, referring to his friend and fellow rapper Marcus Richardson. “One, you got to be repetitive. Two, you got to be aggressive. And three, you have to curse as often as possible,” he says. Some of the teenagers Armah taught creative writing to at the time helped in the studio by throwing in lines like “wear deodorant” and “brush your teeth.” When he actually spelled out “R-E-A-D/ A-B-O/ O-Kaaay” while recording, he says he knew he had a hit.
Still, Armah shelved the finished track and didn’t include it on his singles or EPs because it was so different from the music he normally made. Calling himself “a poet with a hip-hop style,” Armah usually sprinkles his rhymes with conscious-rapper buzzwords like “peace,” “revolution,” and “politricks.” He’s been known to perform onstage barefoot, wearing a dashiki. In 2002, after leaving the University of Maryland’s poetry program, Armah, born Darel Hancock, legally changed his name to Bomani, an Akan name meaning “poet warrior” because, he says, it better reflected who he was as a black man. He started his music career in a hip-hop band called Louda, playing piano and percussion, then shifted to poetry and spoken-word readings before performing and recording as an MC.
Armah’s career didn’t stand still while “Read a Book” sat in the can. He scored a couple of short films that aired on BET’s spinoff channel, BET J, and appeared in “Cool Witchu,” a single by Mello-D & the Rados that aired on BET and MTV2. He also scored an anti-smoking PSA, shot a video for his single “The Hustle,” produced albums for other artists at his studio, Park Triangle Productions, and hosted spoken-word nights at places such as Busboys and Poets and Sankofa Video and Books. It wasn’t until he performed “Read a Book” around the D.C. area that he realized how much live audiences liked it. A little more than a year ago he created a MySpace page (myspace.com/knotarapper) and made the song available for free download. A couple of months later, BET contacted him about using his song for an animated video. The network ended up licensing “Read a Book” for an amount Armah won’t discuss.
The track ended up at BET after reaching the network’s head of entertainment, Reginald Hudlin, who then e-mailed the MP3 to Denys Cowan, senior vice president for BET’s year-and-a-half-old animation division. “What was attached was something saying that BET would never, ever play this song,” Cowan says. Given the network’s track record of airing sexually explicit and what some call morally questionable videos like those for Nelly’s “Tip Drill,” Shawnna’s “Gettin’ Some,” and Young Jeezy’s “Go Getta,” “Read a Book” was an unusual choice. But Cowan found the tune “thoughtful and insightful,” and perfect fodder for animation. “We don’t think just one way,” he says, adding that for BET to promote a song that feels a little like a public service announcement veiled in hip-hop-ese “is not hypocritical at all.” It was also a good fit for Cowan’s plan to introduce animated clips into BET’s regular lineup. “If you animate something, it can evoke an emotional reaction really quickly,” Cowan says.
That’s what Cowan got when he played the song for the animators at Six Point Harness Studios in Los Angeles.
“[Cowan] says, ‘I got this project I want you guys to check out.’ He plays it and after[ward], we pick our mouths up,” says animator Tyree Dillihay, who directed the video. “These are white people. I was the only black dude out of 30, 40 guys there,” he says. “For them to hear it with all the N-bombs, that obviously makes people uncomfortable.”
Dillihay, 30, spent six months creating a visual complement to the lyrics. For the line when Armah shouts, “Raise your kids/Raise your kids/Raise your goddamn kids,” the animators drew a rapper who looks like a muscle-bound Lil Jon shoving a baby toward a man in a club in the midst of smacking his bent-over dance partner on the ass.
“I’m just holding a mirror to it,” Dillihay says. “‘See how stupid this looks?’” The video started airing on BET’s Rap City and The 5ive in June, then debuted on the channel’s popular 106 & Park countdown show in July, and has since been catching on elsewhere. WPGC, WHUR, and Howard Stern have all played it, Armah says. The song hasn’t made it into the Top 10 on 106 & Park, but then it’s had some tough competition, including Ciara and 50 Cent’s “Can’t Leave ’Em Alone,” T-Pain’s “Bartender,” and two versions of Hurricane Chris’ “A Bay Bay.”
Still, being mentioned alongside those artists without any significant radio airplay is an impressive feat. “That’s why I love what Bomani’s doing. He’s using reverse psychology. You can’t just put a song out that says ‘let’s be positive and get together.’ If he did that, that never would’ve been seen on 106 & Park,” says Cedric Muhammad, founder of the Web sites blackelectorate.com and blackcoffeechannel.com. Muhammad recently launched a campaign on the latter site to help vote the video into the countdown.
Cowan says BET was glad to grant the song exposure. “It was always our original intent to highlight different aspects of black culture, different viewpoints,” he says. “I would hope that people would see the humor and the love behind it as opposed to anything else.”
Some didn’t. “I just wanted to say that you are betraying black people with that little dumb video you made that came out on BET…that was messed up and very offensive…you should be ashamed and need to watch your mouth,” someone named Amber e-mailed Armah. Among the more prominent critics is the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who last week released a statement through his Rainbow PUSH Coalition condemning the video: “‘Read a Book’ heaps scorn on positive values and (un) intentionally celebrates ignorance. The narrator is obviously illiterate, unkempt and disrespectful. So who takes his advice seriously?”
Armah treats Jackson’s comments as validation that he’s arrived as a rap star. “It’s huge. You know that anything older people don’t like, the young folks are going to like even more. So I’m cool with it,” he says.
Besides, Armah denies that he was on a quest to do anything besides make a catchy tune. “[It] might seem like I’m preaching to people; I’m preaching to myself. I try to write stuff for myself to encourage me to do the stuff that I need to do,” he says. He admits that he reads, but “not as often as I should.” Raising 14-month-old twin boys, Armah says, means it’s taking him a while to get through Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone.
Meanwhile, “Read a Book” continues to open doors: Armah has been approached by independent artists who want him to produce their albums, his sales on iTunes have shot up, and he’s in the process of organizing a college tour.
“It’s time for change, and songs like this signal change,” Dillihay says. “I don’t want to hear ‘Bartender’ everyday. I don’t want to ‘2 Step’ everyday. There’s a time to drink and party, but there’s also a time to eat. And this is the food.”
But Armah’s main concern is having successes beyond “Read a Book.”
“I don’t want to be a flash in the pan,” he says. “I want to have a career.” To that end, he plans to steadily release new work. He’s making a chopped and screwed remix of “Read a Book” and recording songs like “Talk It Out,” a parody of Unk’s hit, “Walk It Out,” with a conflict-resolution theme. He recently posted a new song, “Tellin ’Em No,” about refusing to compromise his principles, on his MySpace page; he’ll film a video for another song, “Grown Ass Man,” in October and self-release his first full-length album, Radio Friendly, in the fall.
Although reluctant to embrace the praise at first, Armah now believes his crunk satire has started something that hip-hop fans have been waiting for. “I do think now that there is a movement behind it. I’ve always been intimidated by the power of the song, mostly because of me not wanting to be the ‘Read a Book’ dude,” he says. “But the song is bigger than me.”