Earlier this month, Time magazine named Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson The Coolest Person of 2013. The award confirms a truth universally acknowledged: that everybody loves Questlove. This in itself is a notable phenomenon in our day and age. Who else can you say that about? Not Obama. For damn sure not Kanye. Maybe John Stewart or Stephen Colbert? Maybe. Even Mandela has his detractors. But for sure everybody loves Questlove. Even the people who were mad at him about that whole Michelle Bachman thing were really just disappointed that someone they love so much had been rude to a guest.
If you had told me a decade ago that America would want to be friends with a 6’4”, 300 pound black man from an experimental Philly hip hop group — a guy who used to spell his name with an actual question mark — I might have doubted your foresight. But it happened. And this book helps explain how. Quest’s story is neither bricks nor billboard, exactly. It’s more fun and less gritty than a coming-up-tough narrative, propelled instead by Ahmir Thompson’s vocation, which is to make more of the music he loves. Mo’ Meta Blues is vital simply for the catalog of tracks it exposed people to this year.
But there’s more to it than that. A recurring tension in the book centers on the racial/cultural boundaries and expectations surrounding certain kinds of work. Early on, Questlove talks about his closeted childhood love of the Beach Boys, saying “You couldn’t look like me and be black in West Philadelphia and love the Beach Boys the way I did.” These are the kinds of walls that artists like The Roots have helped topple in the last decade and a half, which is a bigger deal than it may seem, since it makes it much easier to knock down a whole host of other arbitrary boundaries our society has simply outgrown. (The 54% of 18 to 29-year-old white voters who supported Barack Obama in 2008 grew up on hip hop and The Roots. Just sayin’.)
One month after the book was published, Questlove reminded us of the distance that remains. After the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin, he posted an emotionally charged response on his Facebook page, which ended up going viral as “Trayvon Martin and I Ain’t Shit.” When you consider whether Zimmerman, or at least the jury in the trial, had looked at Trayvon Martin and seen a kid who might like the Beach Boys, rather than a thug or a punk or a lot of other words I’m not going to write here, then you begin to understand the true transformative power of a good record, of everybody loving something in common. That’s why Mo’ Meta Blues is on our list of Books that Mattered in 2013.