That Racism Over There, or, the Fetishization of Racism

It’s weird being in a city where there are so many publications reporting on so many different stories. Back home, I can literally read every news source for local news in any given day. That’s virtually impossible in a place like Chicago.

Today, one of our mentors directed some of my peers to an online blog’s report of an alleged crime committed on July 4th. The blog reported that a black 18-year-old man allegedly stole a woman’s phone. It identified this 18-year-old as a student who graduated at my mentor’s school. The article is very slanted and, well, racist, portraying the recent graduate as a thug. Certainly, stealing is wrong and, if he did in fact steal the phone, he should be reasonably punished. But this article judged this young man by this one, albeit very dumb, action, and attempted to paint a picture of the young man as someone with a history of problem behavior. And the comments are worse–there are literally too many comments to count of the “there goes the neighborhood because of those people” type. (I didn’t post the original article here because I’m so ashamed by its bad journalism that I can’t bear to signal boost it.)

In my CMA group, we had a moment of righteous anger while one member of our group read the article and the comments. And while it felt good to have an example of relatively clear right and wrong in front of me, it also made me a little uncomfortable. I’m not completely sure why, but I think it has to do with the privilege it gives me. By observing and noting someone’s blatant racism, I get to distance myself from racism. I get to feel better about myself. What I’m actually feeling when I think about the young man’s trial is not empathy for the hate he is experiencing but rather relief that I am not as racist as those people.

One of my favorite writers, Ta-Nehisi Coates, writes about how most racist people are good people because Coates interprets racism broadly. It is not restricted to anonymous comments on a blog. It also occurs every time I make an unwarranted assumption about someone based on their race or when I’m complicit in someone else’s racism.

In some ways, then, observing the kind of bigoted racism that is so easy to find on the Internet is a form of fetishization for me. It enables me to experience relief about my own insecurities. It allows me to box racism in and other it, pushing it far away from me. It’s terrible that this young man has to endure the kind of racism that has been aimed at him, but racism is not fixed by a room full of college graduates groaning over anonymous comments. It’s fixed by every single person examining personal assumptions, biases, prejudices, and, yes, racism.

A Short Reflection on MLK

Some days I don’t leave my house because I speculate other people will annoy me.

I get into moods where I’m frustrated at others’ lack of depth, immaturity, selfishness, or condescension. Today was one of those days.

I recently finished a collection of speeches by Martin Luther King, Jr. Perhaps the hardest to read was his eulogy at the funeral for three of the children killed at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing.

I found his words remarkable, especially when he started talking about Southern whites:

And so I stand here to say this afternoon to all assembled here, that in spite of the darkness of this hour, we must not despair. We must not become bitter, nor must we harbor the desire to retaliate with violence. No, we must not lose faith in our white brothers. Somehow we must believe that the most misguided among them can learn to respect the dignity and the worth of all human personality.

I’ve spent four years learning how to be critical, learning how to recognize bad arguments, bad behavior, and bad living. I’ve spent four years placing people into convenient categories. I’ve spent four years defining myself as “not other people.”

King called that community to love, though. He told them not to lose faith in the enemy.

I don’t have an enemy. I create enemies for the drama.  So how much easier should it be for me to have faith in the people who annoy me?

Picture found here.

“Hip-hop started off on a block I’ve never been to”: Why Conscious Rap is a Farce

I really like hip-hop. I listen to a lot of it. I listen to the stuff on the radio. I listen to the stuff not on the radio. I listen to old stuff. I listen to leaked stuff. I listen to whatever I can get my hands on.

My two favorite albums from 2012 are Macklemore’s The Heist and Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city. I like them for different reasons, and both are gaining a lot of attention from the online world. Lamar, by some, is being heralded as the face of a new age of hip-hop. Jeff Chang, author of Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-hop Generation argues that Kendrick is the Pied Piper of the post-hip-hop generation.

The underlying message behind the positive reception for Kendrick is concerning, though. gkmc is good, apparently, because it’s smart. Chang calls it “conscious.”

Hip-hop critics understand this problem, though. Chang is quick to point to other leaders of the post-hip-hop generation, like the much-more-mainstream Kanye West. And when Jon Caraminica from the New York Times reviewed gkmc, he did so alongside a review of traditional radio smash rapper Meek Mill’s Dreams and Nightmares. This juxtaposition, however, only serves as a temporary band-aid to a growing divide in today’s hip-hop.

A generation of artists who can trace their genealogy back to gangsta rap are dominating the airwaves, while the Kendricks of the world struggle to get airtime or intentionally scoff at the radio (many of Kendrick’s songs on his new ablum are over 5 minutes long). The popular conversation surrounding this divide is that the Kendricks of the world are too smart, too conscious to be played on the radio. “They don’t play real hip-hop on the radio anymore.”

What is meant by real hip-hop remains to be seen. Most people probably think back to Tupac or Biggie Smalls or Nas (who is still dropping new albums).  But what is remembered is a golden-age of hip-hop that never really existed. In that golden age, all rap was “smart.” Tupac never rapped about girls or drugs unless he was doing so with some deeper meaning. But that’s simply not true.

Enter Macklemore. Macklemore, first off, is white and middle class (which means that we can’t compare him to Eminem, even though it’s tempting). But he can also spit. Like really spit. Macklemore is a suburban parent’s dream. He raps about getting clean and the harsh realities of drug culture. Expletives are kept to a minimum. And Macklemore’s songs about women are love songs in the most traditional sense of the genre.

And so Macklemore has been lauded by a lot of people. He has songs about marriage equality–“Macklemore bring[s] rap back to its political roots,” says Thought Catalog contributor Madison Moore. The assumption, of course, being that rap left its political roots, and thankfully, this white suburban dude was able to reclaim them.

This, of course, is balderdash. All hip-hop is political. It’s a requisite of the genre. Kendrick, Meek Mill, Macklemore, it doesn’t matter. Hip-hop, like jazz and rock and roll before it, is necessarily disruptive.

Perhaps the most criticized genre of rap is the brag rap. Brag raps are the ones that are filled with tales of sexual conquests, lots of expletives, and threats to rivals. They also tend to be the singles off albums. The “intellectual” perception is that the stupid common man can’t deal with the real themes presented on some rap albums and so brag raps offer a mindless entertainment. But, brag raps may be the most political of any rap. Brag rap has the most complicated genealogy of any rap genre. It begins with slaves. James C. Scott in Domination and The Art of Resistance writes about “the dozens”:

Compare, for example, the aristocratic tradition of the duel with the training for self-restraint in the face of insults found among blacks and other subordinate groups. Nowhere is the training in self-control more apparent than in the tradition of the ‘dozens’ or ‘dirty dozens’ among young black males in the United States. The dozens consist in two blacks trading rhymed insults of one another’s family (especially mothers and sisters); victory is achieved by never losing one’s temper and fighting, but rather in devising ever more clever insults so as to win the purely verbal duel. Whereas the aristocrat is trained to move every serious verbal insult to the terrain of mortal combat, the powerless are trained to absorb insults without retaliating physically. As Lawrence Levine observes, ‘The Dozens served as a mechanism for teaching and sharpening the ability to control emotions and anger; an ability which was often necessary for survival.’ There is evidence that many subordinate groups have developed similar rituals of insult in which a loss of self-control means defeat.

Brag rap, then, started as a coping mechanism, not for the rapper but for the listener. And it is this tradition that exists in rap music today. And it is for this reason that Meek Mill is just as political as Macklemore. To suggest otherwise is to ignore hundreds of years of racial oppression that have led to a very specific celebratory musical genre.

Macklemore, interestingly, answers many of these questions about “conscious” rap in his song “White Privilege.”

He raps:

Now I don’t rap about guns so they label me conscious
But I don’t rap about guns cause I wasn’t forced into the projects
See I was put in the position where I could chose my options
Blessed with the privilege that my parent’s could send me to college
Now who’s going to shows the kids on the block starving
Or the white people with dough that can relate to my content?
Marketed the music now adapted to the lifestyle
What happened to jazz and rock and roll is happening right now
Where’s my place in the music that’s been taken by the media
With white corporations controlling what their feeding ya
I brought up aesop rock but I’m not even dissing dude
We love hiphop and what do you think caucasians are listening to
And I speak freely when I write this
If a black emcee examined race there goes half their fan base, white kids

Macklemore sees himself as a peer of all other emcees. Earlier in the song he mentioned Aesop Rock, but in this verse he qualifies what he said. He’s not dissing Aesop. He’s not dissing contemporary mainstream rap. He’s dissing a system–a system that has made a spectacle of the slave trying to grow a thick skin so he won’t lash out when his master berates him. A system that makes this spectacle and then accuses the slave of being out of line, of saying too many bad words, of being too angry. A system that simultaneously fetishizes the sexual prowess of the slave while punishing him for talking about sexual conquests. A system that celebrates blackness as long as it is only an extension of whiteness.

All this to ask the question: can we please drop the conscious/non-conscious distinction in hip-hop?