Thursday, May 11, 2006

Hip Hop and Racial Insularity

Slate writer John Cook recently took up the racialist implications of hating on hip-hop in a piece about a popular indie singer-songwriter’s music tastes. The headline telegraphs the author’s intentions a bit too overtly: the headline “Is Stephin Merritt a racist because he doesn’t like hip-hop?” couldn’t run over anything but an apologia. The article responds to Village Voice music critic Sasha Frere-Jones’ allegations of racism against Merritt, who among other things has professed much love for "Zip-A-Dee Doo-Dah" from Song of the South and proclaimed modern hip-hop “boring” and as “racist” as minstrelsy. He has also publicly criticized such artists as Beyoncé, Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, and Outkast, which drove Frere-Jones to accuse him of aesthetic euro-masculo-normativity. Cook spends most of his time patiently rebutting Frere-Jones, who exhibits the characteristic shrillness of an overserious music aficionado that (mis)interprets differences of taste as personal attacks.

As it turns out, the racial politics of rap music is an issue very close to my heart, and I must admit to a viewpoint very similar to Merritt’s, although there is a great deal of hip-hop I do enjoy. Perhaps my blackness “permits” me to discuss such opinions publicly without having to suffer opprobria from the likes of white critics like Frere-Jones. But then again, to the extent that hip-hop defines and circumscribes the habitus of the black American male aged 18-35, I do experience friction—but normally only within intra-racial contexts. So while Merritt takes heat for his suspected racism, I deal with a crisis of inauthenticity that comes from inhabiting a cultural gray area of my own construction. Some blacks assume that my rejection of those aspects of the hip-hop lifestyle I disagree with amounts to a rejection of black identity in toto.

I like some underground hip-hop, but I can’t stand the violence, misogyny, and anti-intellectualism of most mainstream rap. A lot of the music is great, but I can rarely tolerate the lyrics for very long, especially when I know that young black males across the nation are going out and imitating the behavior they see and hear on TV and radio. Moreover, I’ve (thankfully) never had to experience the inner-city hardships that comprise the bulk of hip-hop’s lyrical grist, and I never felt the need to pretend otherwise. I’d rather listen to music that reflects more complex sensibilities, such as the allusive stylings of MF Doom, the confrontational acidity of the Beauty Pill or TV on the Radio, or maybe even a few non-black artists now and again. But because there are very few (that I know of) culturally safe opportunities for black males to bond en masse over activities outside of sports and hip-hop, I frequently find myself on the margins of my demographic.

I know I’m not the only black dude out there that feels this way. I’ve met black males my age that reject certain aspects of hip-hop culture just as I do, but I’ve not yet had occasion to discuss with any of them the implications of our lifestyle choices. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the dominant memes in black youth culture, but the absence of widely acknowledged alternative ways of being makes life outside the hip-hop bubble difficult. Our culture is in dire need of expansion. Its youth need to understand and believe that they won’t be ostracized by their entire peer group for listening to rock or signing up for Quiz Bowl or rejecting preconceived notions of “keeping it real.” I think Akrobatik put it best in his underground single “Balance,” on the lack thereof in the hip-hop game: "there's no balance in rap/you either a nerd or a thug/you either got too many big words or bust too many slugs."

What I’m advocating is quite simple, really: a massive shift toward cosmopolitan tolerance in black culture. So how do we counteract centuries of internal and external pressures toward a limited and insular definition of blackness? Well, striking the slur “Oreo” from our vocabulary might be a good start. But more fundamental change could be sown by exposing our children to a wide range of perspectives and possibilities, thus inculcating within them tolerance and pluralism as fundamental values. You know what I’m talking about: take them to museums, cultural events, ethnic restaurants—teach them about Black and African history but make sure they understand how our unique past fits into the larger tapestry of human experience.

At a time when young black males are withdrawing in escalating numbers from society at large, it is our responsibility to let them know that intelligence, global connectedness, and Blackness are not mutually exclusive. Kanye West hits the mark particularly well in the remix of “Diamonds from Sierra Leone in which he discusses the evils of the diamond trade (unfortunately, Jay-Z neutralizes West’s bold sentiment with a typical verse boasting about the longevity of his musical empire). We need more of this type of thing on TV, the radio, and movie screens, which means we need to support positive black media role models with our dollars to show the media producers that a broadened conception of black culture is worth investing in.

Most of what I’ve discussed is only meant to apply to families that aren’t struggling to make ends meet; obviously those that are have bigger problems than what’s on the radio. But those of us who find ourselves economically free to effect cultural change have an obligation to help make it happen. Anyone who cares about the well-being of the black community should at a minimum lead by example, and if possible take affirmative steps to extend the boundaries of the black collective unconscious. I know I’d feel much more comfortable listening to mainstream hip-hop if its influence was counterbalanced by a few viable alternatives.