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READ A BOOK: Cartoon puts new spin on educational programming.
  • READ A BOOK: Cartoon puts new spin on educational programming.

If you’re like me, Feb. 17, 2009 seems like a date ripped from an episode of Buck Rogers. The truth, however, is that the future has sneaked up on us and that date is now less than two years away. Anyone who watches television might want to write it down. According to federal law, that’s the date when all over-the-air television broadcasters must turn off their analog signals and switch over to a digital format.

While that isn’t a concern for anyone who has upgraded to a new television (with a federally mandated built-in digital tuner) in the last three years or so — for those consumers, digital is a bonus, what with the higher picture and sound quality DTV programming can provide — for those who can’t afford a new set or a set-top box to convert the digital signal to analog, Feb. 17, 2009 may be the day they re-enter the Radio Age.

Under Federal Communication Commission edict, since July 1, 2005, all new TV sets 36 inches and larger had to have been constructed with built-in DTV tuners. On July 1 of this year, that rule was broadened to include TV sets with a screen size of 13 inches or more, as well as VCRs, DVD-Rs and other signal-receiving devices.

In the South, full of viewers who still rely on broadcast television signals for news and programming and who haven’t had the scratch to purchase a television with a built-in digital tuner, the problem is likely to be especially acute. In Arkansas, for example, the latest figures from Nielsen Media Research estimate that 144,240 households in the state still either need to upgrade to a television with a digital tuner or purchase a box to convert the digital signal to analog. What’s more, according to a press release from the National Association of Broadcasters, almost 60 percent of Americans are unaware of the impending changeover from analog to digital.

Now don’t blame me in 2009 when your screen suddenly goes dark during Wheel of Fortune. You’ve been warned.

The other day, a colleague who is into urban music forwarded me what can only be described as a public service announcement for the hip-hop generation — or maybe that should be “School House Rock” for disaffected young rap fans. Written by Washington, D.C. poet Bomani “D’Mite” Armah, the video was originally aired at comic book conventions, has since seen airplay on the cable channel BET, and is currently an Internet sensation.

For a look, go to Youtube.com and type in “Read a Book.” The video is huge there right now, and chances are the first thing that pops up will be the one I’m talking about (careful, the lyrics are definitely not safe for work).

In the video, a cartoon rapper performs for a student assembly at “Raphael de la Getto High School.” From there, the lyrics and images … well, let’s just say this ain’t “Reading Rainbow.”

“Read a book! Read a book! Read a mother***ing book!” the cartoon DJ chants, while a stereotypical urban gangsta (and I am in no way making this up) loads a submachine gun with a book and sprays the audience with tiny texts. From there, the DJ works his way through: “Buy some land! Buy some land! F*** spinning rims!” “Raise your kids! Raise your kids! Raise your goddamn kids!” and even “Your body needs water, so drink that shit!”

While it’s easy to make the knee-jerk reaction that the video and lyrics are some kind of parody (there are some really funny moments in the cartoon visuals, which were obviously created with tongue planted firmly in cheek), Armah seems to be making a very serious critique — specifically, his belief that the black community sometimes holds itself back, and how to break that cycle. After a few viewings just to get rid of the feeling that someone was pulling my leg, it’s easy to see that the cartoon rapper’s commands to “Read!” “Buy land!” and “Raise your kids!” — while tailored to reach a hardcore urban audience, and couched in language and a style that’s likely to offend anyone over the age of 30 — fall in line with the teachings of every African-American leader from Frederick Douglass to Louis Farrakhan. The difference is that Armah and his cartoonist friends were smart enough to know that you don’t reach young blacks in America today with speeches. Check it out if you can.

Read a book!

david@arktimes.com

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