I knew all along that the bulk of these thugged-out, coonified rappers had deep reactionary tendencies. I wrote an essay about it of course (and which is presumably well-known, since it pops up on Google searches quite a bit), and even wrote one twenty years ago for VIBE, which turned it down. An upper-echelon editor for that magazine (whose name I won’t mention) turned it down on grounds that I was essentially saying “fuck rap.” He was right, though I was not consciously aware of it at the time.
A lot of rap fans think that the rot in Rap began in the 2000’s. I have asserted that the rot began around 1987-8, with the emergence of lumpen-thug rap of NWA, Schooly-D, Ice-T and other misguided artists. But with the recent revelations of Afrika Bambaataa’spedophilia and KRS-One’s unwavering (and utterly indefensible) support of Bambaataa, it has become clear that the moral rot is at the very heart of Hip Hop itself. Afrika Bambaataa is one of the fucking founders of Hip Hop, period. KRS-One, in his own words–and many will agree with him–virtually IS Hip Hop.
And 50 Cent–who isn’t worth much more than his name–has childishly revealed his own gross insensitivity to those who aren’t disgustingly rich, smug and self-satisfied like he thinks he is. Curtis, a $100,000 donation to the handicapped is not going to make this one blow over so quickly. Sorry, dude. I have no reason to believe that you are not simply going into damage control by throwing a fat wad of cash towards a group of people you essentially don’t give a shit about.
Snoop Dogg comes off as a flaky, flippant and clownish man who has never had a deep, profound thought about anything his entire life. He probably digs Hillary’s fat piano legs. Azealia Banks’ rationale behind supporting Trump is that she feels Trump will bring the country down. That sounds like a good idea on the surface. The only problem is that if (or when) Trump brings America down the roof will fall on the heads of people who won’t deserve it. Meanwhile the rich bastards who run the country will be safely ensconced on some Caribbean island, sipping a rum cola and getting head from a 13-year old native girl or boy–while the rest of us will wallow in the shit these bastards have left behind.
Don’t think for one moment that these rap coons and their friends won’t be on the island with them. Azealia probably hopes she’ll be the fluff girl. Jenna Jameson (America’s favorite blow-up doll) wasn’t wrong when she said to the Guardian that “when you’re rich, you want a Republican in office.” But she wasn’t right, either.
Stevie Wonder, Barbara Streisand, Jenny Lopez, Katy Perry, Snoop Dogg, John Bon Jovi, Tony Bennett, Ice-T, Quincy Jones, Kanye West and Burt Bacharach combined are worth billions of dollars. Allegedly they all want Hillary to take the Oval Office. All Hillary can promise at this point is simply more of the same tired military-industrial bullshit we are going through, right now. Which would suit the above-mentioned folk just fine. The last thing that a well-off celebrity would want is for the social-political boat to be rocked; he’s afraid he might lose his toys.
However, there are always exceptions. I don’t know if YG and Nipsey Hussle are pro-Sanders or pro-Hillary, but neither of them like Trump very much. YG has even claimed that the Secret Service are following him because of his stand on Trump. Both of them are hard-core rap coons. Maybe all this spells the end of Rap Coonery, once and for all. I hope so. There have been too many falsedeaths these past twenty years.
I wasn’t so sure if I needed to write anything concerning Prince’s life and death, since I felt everything I wanted to say concerning the man had already been said by so many others, and probably better than anything I could reasonably attempt. When I found out about it, I was deeply disturbed by it.
To start with, I was never a fan of his music. At all. He did not operate in my idiom, and still does not. I am a jazz, ragtime, blues and (sometimes) gospel head. I would rather listen to Beethoven’s Violin Concerto than Raspberry Beret, which frankly, I can’t stand. I remember Prince all too well. When he was at his height in the mid-eighties he was also at his most commercial and accessible with hits like 1999, Purple Rain and Kiss. I thought he was very campy and over-the-top.Me and my friends used to make fun of him while most of us dug his music…yet slyly, I found something strangely moving in his music, especially Purple Rain.
All of this is coming from someone who hated 80s music and 80s culture with a passion when he was growing up. And still does, when I think back on it. For it was in the Eighties that I decided to become a writer, a radical and a bohemian. I have not changed.
Many people who never lived through that MTV nightmare called the eighties thinks it was a wonderful time. It was not. Of course seen in retrospect the eighties was a hell of a lot more creative and off-beat than today’s decade. But that isn’t saying much. We have simply fallen so far down the toilet historically and culturally speaking that the Eighties, in retrospect, seems like a cultural height.
May I repeat: it was not.
Personally, I would prefer not to relive the eighties. The music was brittle. The clothes were ugly. The art was nasty. Sex was AIDS and drugs were crack. Politics was even grosser than usual. –Stephen Marche, GQ Magazine, June 10, 2010
You had to have been there, I guess, to see what an ugly, shallow, racist, marginalizing scene it really was. I guess you needed to have a bit of melanin in your skin, too. Celebrities said things on national television that they would not dare say now. Islamophobia? It was normal. Nobody thought anything about it.
The Eighties: described once by Stephen Marche as “the shittiest of decades,” in which the “music was brittle” and the “art was nasty.” All true. Totally true. And the reverse–“the art was brittle and the music was nasty”–summed up the 80s culture even more so. Romeo Void? Please. The late David Bowie? China Girl, Dancing with the Big Boys, etc. etc. Sorry sir, you’re time was up c. 1977 or so. Wham!? Fuck you. Duran Duran? Cyndi Lauper? Boy George and the Culture Club (and all that other slop from England)? Miles Davis’ inauspicious comeback doing some seriously light-weight things in contrast to even his seventies experiments? Art of Noise? UTFO? Ice T? NWA, the negro nightmare that spawned an entire generation of jungle-bunny chest-beating bojangling sambo thugs? Or Ghostbusters, The Other Woman (Ray Parker Jr.–no offense, but I could not stand this motherfucker’s music, not one track: from Jack and Jill to The Other Woman to Ghostbusters, it was so corny that (to quote Mezz Mezzrow) the husks were still on that shit). To think that many people think this shit is hip literally makes me cringe, though it shouldn’t: many people get off on being whipped and shitted on, so what can I say?
The Eighties wasn’t simply the Reagan Era, or the MTV Era, or what the hell have you: it was the age of AIDS. Born in 1967, I remember rubbing my hands with glee at the thought of joining the still-ongoing sexual revolution of 1980-3…and being bitterly disheartened to watch the country to an about-face when it came to carnality in the proceeding years. The freewheeling sexual revolution (which probably never even existed outside of TV and movies and songs) dried up like old prunes, and horny young men like me were left with less than the crumbs from what we imagined was a sexual feast. Mini-skirts were back in but thanks to this hysterically inflated AIDS scare, they didn’t mean shit. According to its creator, Mary Quant, the mini-skirt represented precisely sexual liberation. In the 80s and beyond the mini-skirt represented nothing but a huge middle-finger to those of us who’d hoped we could have some sixties sunshine.
Michael Jackson. Yes, his death was disturbing, a shock, but one could see it coming; it was just a question of when: would he make it his life’s goal to make himself back into a black man again, I often thought. Michael was universally worshiped and reviled by the same jackasses that made him into a god. But Michael Jackson was corny. Michael seemed, at least, a safely packaged little black eunuch for the masses of people everywhere to drool over–a perpetual Toys R Us kid, the man from Neverland, who never wanted to grow up and subsequently became idolized just for that specific reason, in my opinion: here was a black superstar who seemed not to have any balls, basically safe and tame, until he was suspected of sniffing up young white boy’s butts.
Prince, on the other hand, was a spade of another color. Only an inspired lunatic like Prince Rogers Nelson would dare to walk out on stage with his goddamn hair fried (wearing conks was not exactly popular among black men in the seventies), and with a perm and eyeliner that made him look like a Cuban transsexual. And on top of that, huge hooped earrings, a g-string, fishnet stockings, and spin-off bands like Vanity 6 and Apollonia 6 prancing about on stage singing Sex Shooter and Nasty Girl: the music was not great, but I dug the message. I, who went to an uptight Catholic parochial school, where girls were non-existent, where teachers tried to instruct us on the evils of masturbation, “fornication” and the terror of looking into Playboy and getting sexually aroused and where half the fucking school, it seemed, was on the down-low. When my fellow students tried grabbing my crotch or touching my thighs, I naively thought that this was something that also went on in sexually integrated high schools. It didn’t.
Prince was the only pop idol I recall from that time who, even remotely, had a healthy slant on sex.* With Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Hall & Oates, Michael Jackson, UTFO and the lot, sex seemed shrouded with the usual American hangups. With Prince it was different. Sex was not evil; it was good, it was healthy. It was a reason for being-in-the-world. Prince sang about erotic cities and I began to dream of Berlin and Bangkok. The square popsters tipped their hats to the AIDS hysteria and sang “That’s What Friends are For”; Prince responded with “Erotic City,” “Kiss” and “Jack U Off.” Subconsciously Prince shaped many of my attitudes toward sexuality, along with Burroughs and Henry Miller. Subconsciously I developed a begrudging admiration for Prince. Prince was one of the few pop idols who I found to be a hepcat in disguise. Maybe he was not too hip in my cynical adolescent eyes–Miles, Duke, Louis, Fletcher Henderson, Charlie Parker, Hawkins, etc. were and still are my musical idols–but even within the brittle nastiness of eighties synth-driven junk music I could still sense Prince as head and shoulders above the majority of them. One could feel his music. Prince put 101 percent into virtually everything he put out.
Even I could not be sure if I really hated Let’s go Crazy or not. I did not “like” it, in the same way that I so obviously liked Potato Head Blues or Shanghai Shuffle. But I knew I didn’t hate it. in fact it was a relief to my ears after the synth-driven cacophony of Art of Noise or Wham or Men at Work or Romeo Void or some other asshole New Wave shit band–after hour upon hour of hysterically overwrought lyrics and shitty melodies, and almost always backed up by some hideously squawking saxophone: some were so bad they sounded like busted kazoos. Not Prince. Even “When Doves Cry” was like a mild balm to my ears. And I could listen to Purple Rain without sneering because I heard something in his music that I didn’t hear in Wham!: humanity.
You don’t have to like any form of music to hear the humanity in it. Hopefully, the humanity in music and art forms that are not to our taste can lead us to listen a little harder, not dismiss it outright because it uses chord changes that we are not familiar with, because it is in a style we are prone to sneer at, because it is pop music and may well be shot through with silliness and artifice. Sometimes we find ourselves in a position where we are obliged to look and listen past what appears on the surface. With Prince’s music, this is possible. One can NOT say the same for most of Michael Jackson’s work. Unlike Michael Jackson, Prince, even at his most tasteless, mediocre and meretricious, was never corny. Even those songs of his I despise the most are never corny. My ear for music is fairly sharp; I can compose music myself.
Ironically Prince hit his musical peak long after the party died down: say, mid-1990s, when he got fed up with picking Warner Brother’s cotton and scrawled slave on his face–just to let everybody know that the big media party of the previous decade (Graffiti Bridge, Cherry Moon and Purple Rain) was not nearly as fancy-free as MTV made it out to be. For a time he even got rid of his name.
No popular music figure I knew of in that culturally benighted decade–not even the old warhorse Miles Davis, reduced to rehashing Cyndi Lauper and a few of MJ’s less cheesy pieces–could hold a candle to Prince. Prince stood for something else besides the music. As I said, the man did not give a damn what other people thought about him. No man today, let alone a black man, could get away with such shameless gender-bending (and apparently just for the sheer hell of it, since Mr. Nelson was apparently straight). Oh, no. Minstrel rap performers today take great pains to let you know they are “no homo,” to the point where the idiotic phrase has entered the vocabulary. The phrase is as much an insult to heteros as it is to “homos”: if you really weren’t a fucking “homo” you would not need to obsessively remind everyone that you are not. The sexual insecurities of today’s rap-tards is getting old already. They should be lucky enough to live in an age where nobody shits their pants in fear at the sight of a bare buttock. For when I was turning eighteen, today’s crude, ugly parade of mafia strip-club sexuality was unthinkable; a Nicki Minaj or a Lil Kim or Foxy Brown or Miley Cyrus was equally out of the question.
And like Jimi Hendrix, an obvious influence, Prince was very much in the tradition of African-American music. He could play the blues. He was no B.B. King but by my ear he’s authentic and If I Had a Harem is in the sexual boasting tradition (“I got 49 women and only need one more”). In fact his signature tune “Purple Rain” is a mere re-working and updating of two old tunes: “Blueberry Hill” and the traditional “Bucket’s Got A Hole In It”. It takes careful listening, of course, to hear that the chord progressions between these three tunes are nearly identical. Prince in fact operated in the shadows of Jimi, Sly Stone, Little Richard, Esquerita, Cab Calloway, all the way back to old-timers such as Frankie “Half-Pint” Jackson, and possibly even Jelly Roll Morton, Tony Jackson and Louis Chauvin, the three masters of whorehouse piano. So maybe this is why, unlike when I heard of the death of Michael Jackson, I felt deeply troubled that this scrawny little high-yellow kid from Minneapolis, who set the whole musical world on its ear for four decades, ended his life on the floor of an elevator, sick and all by himself. When it is all over, and people stop painting their asses purple in heart-felt tributes to Prince (he has already been cremated!), we will go back to wringing our hands over talentless assholes like Kanye West or Miss Sticky-Fingers Minaj and her escort-service antics. (As I write this, the media is pissing all over themselves about Justin Bieber’s dick–Justin Bieber, the talentless little bimbo-boy who can’t write or sing a decent line about anything–not even himself:
“This past Tuesday night before my show I was picking out an outfit…I was so tired from the past week of endless traveling and gigging that I grabbed my Prince shirt and said fuck it I’m gonna channel the purple one tonight…I didn’t shower after the gig out of pure exhaustion…I went to sleep in that shirt and then I wore it again all day yesterday…today waking up to this news I am truly beside myself…devastated…the last of the greatest living performers…my guitar idol…his connection to ALL his instruments yielded a sexual transcending aura and the world is just less fucking cool without him walking on it… ‘Electric word life — It means forever and that’s a mighty long time — But I’m here to tell you — There’s something else… The after world’ #RIPPRINCE,” Andrew wrote on Instagram April 21.
Sadly, I have to report that Justin Bieber is alive and well and still churning out corny hit tunes like his pals Kanye, Jay Z, Miley Cyrus and all the rest of them. Vanity, who never had much talent, yet oozed a sensuality and eroticism that Miss Kay’s cakes can’t even touch, is dead, too. Mercifully, however, so is the brain-dead and thoughtless Eighties, where no one dared say what they really thought about America’s endless problems. I am starting to feel old. But not that old.
*Sorry, George Michael, but I Want Your Sex didn’t quite cut it.
Something has been bothering me for the past three or four years while stuck here in the bowels of Berlin. I have already accepted the fact that Berlin is incapable of making itself into a true cultural mecca because it doesn’t really know what the fuck “culture” really is. Actually it has a set idea of “culture”–spelled with a “K” and minus the “e” on the end–an idea set in stone and worshiped at special shrines throughout Berlin. You know–the Deutsche Oper or the Volksbuehne or some aging gallery where one can see what the greats of decades and centuries past once achieved. In other words, people here subconsciously (or even consciously) think that true cultural achievement, cultural greatness, is yesterday’s news. Today, we’re lead to believe that everything “cultural”–and not just in Berlin–is just fucking finger-painting, mental masturbation, funny clothes and house/techno/rap crap, or gypsy swing minus the soul, to say nothing of the swing, much less the funk.
But the thing that has me irritated is not so much this phony-assed Berlin art scene. One can easily write that off. In fact mocking Berlin’s shortcomings is easier than shooting fish in a fucking barrel. One can get so wrapped up in making fun of this place that one can forget a more pertinent question, which is: how in the hell are we–we being SERIOUS artists, and not hipster/poser assclowns–going to go about creating a new, living, distinctive and vibrant culture of the TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY?
And another question–exactly which culture? A national culture? Or an international culture–a TRUE international culture, as opposed to fake mass-manufactured “global” kitsch-culture designed by Sony and Seagram’s and imposed upon us?
I can’t answer that question right now, and won’t try to.
Instead I’ll just throw some ideas around. Most of them are scribbled from my notebooks.
First off: what the hell is “culture,” anyway? It’s funny that in the whole time I have been preoccupied in trying to redefine (in my own way) Afro-American culture and identity through my own art, I really haven’t taken time to define just what “culture” means. So I simply looked it up on Google and came up with this:
A culture is a way of life of a group of people–the behaviors, beliefs, values, and symbols that they accept, generally without thinking about them, and that are passed along by communication and imitation from one generation to the next.
Well hell, if what we have now is a “culture” then we’re fucking finished as a species!! Everything has to be changed fundamentally. Practically nothing of what we are doing now in America (especially) should be passed down to the next generation. As an artist I am responsible for either changing or redefining the behaviors, beliefs, values and symbols of my own group of people–Americans, and not just Afro-Americans. (After all, the American majority is always dick-riding off the African minority.) These changes and re-definitions are done on paper, canvas and keyboard. As for the current cultural ugliness, one has to examine it closely from afar, in order to turn it upside down and inside out, and make it irrelevant.
American architecture is UGLY. The street layout is UGLY. Everything about an American city–well, just about everything–screams cheap, makeshift, brutalist, inelegant, stupid and just fucking ugly. Like in some ex-commie country, everything is strictly functional in design with virtually no thought at all to beauty. Somebody should consider rebuilding ruined cities in America in a truly elegant and dignified way, like a medieval African, European or Asian city. But I guess that’s a tall order for an American city (outside of San Francisco).
Speaking of behaviors: the current snarky, falsely ironic “hipster” pose has nothing whatsoever to do with the true “hipster,” who is a hep-cat and usually black. The old “hep-cat” had a hard-won cool and detachment if he didn’t get it through shooting smack (heroin). The detachment was necessary to not lose your cool in a society that was (and still is) always trying to grind you down into nothing.
The same rule would apply today. Don’t get involved in mainstream shit if you are serious about making a 21st century culture. Culture is not about money. Cultural arbiters’ main goal is not to sell units–it is to help shape people’s minds and attitudes in such a way that is spiritually beneficial to them, individually and collectively…unlike these coons running around snapping at each other about the number of “units” 50 Cent sold in contrast to fat, greasy-ass Rick “Warden” Ross. Who fucking cares? I can’t listen to royalty statements!!
The “mainstream” Kanye West/Pharrell Williams/Will.I.am stuff is not hip. When the mainstream co-opts something (duhh) it isn’t hip anymore–it’s square. You want something hip? Make it your goddamned self, and do it right. Be creative and put feeling into it. And as usual, you need to keep your eyes and ears open; you need to see things as they are and not the way you wish to see them. You have to do the hard work of looking past the gaudy curtain (re: Milan Kundera) and observe what is really going in America and the rest of the world. You need to know people and what makes them tick; don’t just assume you know them based on stupid stereotypes or hearsay.
Of course if you don’t have any feeling or drive to do these things, you should get into a different line of work.
American “art” music has already crossed a certain threshold, pushing it some ways beyond the limitations of European classicism and Romanticism. Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen and Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge in spots merely hint at the possibilities of what Afro-Americans achieved in jazz and its predecessor ragtime. The trouble with American musicians is that, 9 times out of 10, they have no idea what they are doing with their own music; they don’t really know how to play it. And if they do, they simply cannot approach this music with the dignity and respect that this music (American classical music) demands. Even if they try to do so, they still fail, since true dignity, true respect and above all true feeling, is simply not in most American classical musicians. In other words, the American is psychically cut off from his own folk heritage.
American singers, and the non-American bitches who cunt-ride off them, all sound more or less alike. Why is that?
African American culture–I prefer Afro-American–has become outdated, parochial, stereotyped, and just plain corny. In its current attempts to be highbrow it becomes ponderous and pretentious in the extreme; when it tries to “get back to the roots” or “to the people” (whom these black artists usually barely know; they barely know themselves) it becomes nasty, vulgar, insupportably stupid–a virtual parody of the worst sort of KKK fantasies about black people.
The fucking “cultural nationalist” wants to go back to an Africa that exists only in his head. Let’s make one thing clear: Africa never was a wild jungle full of gorillas and spear-chucking negroes. It had empires stretching back thousands of years. We know that, or should know it. What we refuse to know is that these empires were just like all other empires the world over–that is, riddled with empire problems such as maintaining control over subject peoples, feudalism and other banal details. Most people could not read, let alone vote. We were not all “kings” and “queens”–most of us are descended from the subjects and slaves of those very same kings and queens. We don’t need to return to a feudal African empire where guys like myself would be condemned to being blacksmiths or shoemakers for life simply because I happened to be born of a blacksmith, or a shoemaker, or worse yet, a slave. (Note: in Ancient Egypt and Meroe, Medieval Mali and Renaissance Songhai or Kanem-Bornu (just to name a few empires), occupations were hereditary.)
The block boy (or block boy middle-class wannabe*) wants to “keep it real” while not knowing a goddamned difference between what is truly Afro-American and what white liberal paternalists concocted and passed off as “black.” Naturally, Mr. Keep-it-Real prefers the white liberal fantasy of the Noble Savage which, no matter how noble it sounds, is simply not who or what he is. In fact white liberal fantasies about blackness are merely the flip side of what the KKK thinks about blackness, but Mr. Keep-it-Real is so embroiled in concealing just who he is and what he thinks about life that he might as well stay backstage and not torture us anymore with his confusion. Mr. Keep-it-Real wants to be ignorant, primitive, corrupt, base, BAD, because that’s what he thinks “blackness” is. He sees himself as the white man’s shadow and can’t function without him or knowledge of him.
It’s a fantasy, a hallucination brought on by four decades of reactionary, right-wing white paranoia. Notwithstanding the Afro-wigs, black leather jackets, clinched fists and cleverly coded lyrics, Beyonce was still Beyonce, blonde conk, jezebel act and all. Nobody was hurt, no race riots raged in the streets, and after a happy time watching the festivities and the game people gathered up their things and went home, unmolested. It was just another day in the history of the planet.
Meanwhile, in Ankara, in Damascus, Ukraine and other places, people are still being blown to bits. And ORDINARY Black lives still don’t matter to anyone else in the world, not even to ordinary Blacks.
Overall, I thought the entire spectacle to be rather sad. It was sad to see all those people squealing in delight over Coldplay and their sappy, kitschy sub-70s shit. (The Asian violinists, and the ass-clowns jumping around the lit-up stage did not help much, either.) Actually, it was all a supreme embarrassment. While the alt-right was shitting bricks over clenched fists and “black lives matter” (as if they don’t), the real controversy–concerning the obscene amounts of money that went into this colorful, overblown orgy of musical mediocrity–went unreported. Bruno Mars tried in vain to do what Michael Jackson did 25 years ago, forgetting that Michael was already an overproduced hack by 1991. Beyonce’s music was more robotic and soulless than most techno. Sadly, no boos were audible among the audience’s wild, enthusiastic screams.
However, Bruno and Coldplay’s mediocrities took a back-seat to Beyonce’s carefully choreographed spectacle. The self-righteous Right was outraged. A Southern sheriff, Robert Arnold of Tennessee, babbled somewhat incoherently about “senseless killing(s)” of “seven deputies” (of course, not a word about the outrageous number of cop killings and beatings of unarmed suspects these days, largely but not entirely black). Johnathan Thompson, another imbecile tied up in American Law Enforcement (specifically the National Sheriffs’ Association, yet another NSA, of which Mr. Thompson is the Executive Director), likened Beyonce’s performance to “yelling fire in a crowded theater.” “Art is one thing, but yelling fire in a crowded theater is an entirely different one,” he continued.
Mr. Thompson pretends to believe that the Super Bowl performance was “inciting bad behavior”–rhetoric which echoes the old anti-communist hysteria of the fifties and the anti-nigger hysteria of the post-Reconstruction period. According to the Washington Post:
He and others take issue with the imagery in the “Formation” video and Beyoncé’s Super Bowl performance of the song.
The video opens with the singer standing atop a half-submerged New Orleans police cruiser, a recurring image throughout. Other related symbols periodically flash on screen: Sirens; a jacket that says “POLICE” on it; graffiti that reads “stop shooting us.”
At one point, a hooded boy dances in front of a line of riot gear-clad officers who later join him in raising their hands — an apparent allusion to Michael Brown, who some initially believed had his hands up to surrender when he was shot dead by a police officer. (That version of events was later challenged by federal authorities.)
At the end of the video, the police cruiser fully submerges in the water, taking Beyoncé with it.
In her Super Bowl show, Beyoncé and her back-up dancers wore costumes reminiscent of the Black Panther Party, whose members projected black empowerment and sometimes committed violent acts during the Civil Rights era. The dancers at one point formed an “X” with their bodies, a possible allusion to Malcolm X.
Many in the alt-right Establishment went ballistic–another sad, stupid case of much doodoo over nothing. Tomi Lahren, a blonde, right-wing bimbo incapable of thinking her way through a water closet, nevertheless gave her “final thoughts” on Beyonce’s half-time show. “What is the political message here?” she screeched in a rapid-fire nasal Valley-Girl whine. “What is it that they are trying to convey here? A salute to what? A group that used violence and intimidation to advance not racial equality but an overthrow of white domination?”
“First it was hands up, don’t shoot.Then it was burning down buildings and looting drug stores, all the way to #OscarSoWhite. And now, even the Super Bowl halftime show has become a way to politicize and advance the notion that black lives matter more.”
Oh, really, Tomi? Why not just scrap all the breathlessly hyperbolic rhetoric and just call them niggers? It would save you a lot of energy, darling.
Of course, all this foolishness merely underscores an earlier point I have made, concerning thug rappers, and black entertainers in general: they are not a threat to the sensibilities of White Middle America. Even in the case of Beyonce the “threat” is entirely make-believe. Beyonce is the Music Establishment lodged in two big buttcheeks. There’s not much to her “song” melodically speaking; it’s just another pop-rap single that sounds remarkably like any other pop-rap single that has been churned out by the entertainment elite for the past 10 years. Lyrically speaking it isn’t much to talk about, either:
Y’all haters corny with that illuminati mess Paparazzi, catch my fly, and my cocky fresh I’m so reckless when I rock my Givenchy dress (stylin’) I’m so possessive so I rock his Roc necklaces My daddy Alabama, Momma Louisiana You mix that negro with that Creole make a Texas bama I like my baby heir with baby hair and afros I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils Earned all this money but they never take the country out me I got a hot sauce in my bag, swag
[Chorus: Beyoncé] I see it, I want it, I stunt, yellow-bone it I dream it, I work hard, I grind ’til I own it I twirl on them haters, albino alligators El Camino with the seat low, sippin’ Cuervo with no chaser Sometimes I go off (I go off), I go hard (I go hard) Get what’s mine (take what’s mine), I’m a star (I’m a star) Cause I slay (slay), I slay (hey), I slay (okay), I slay (okay) All day (okay), I slay (okay), I slay (okay), I slay (okay) We gon’ slay (slay), gon’ slay (okay), we slay (okay), I slay (okay) I slay (okay), okay (okay), I slay (okay), okay, okay, okay, okay Okay, okay, ladies, now let’s get in formation, cause I slay Okay, ladies, now let’s get in formation, cause I slay Prove to me you got some coordination, cause I slay Slay trick, or you get eliminated
[Verse: Beyoncé] When he fuck me good I take his ass to Red Lobster, cause I slay When he fuck me good I take his ass to Red Lobster, cause I slay If he hit it right, I might take him on a flight on my chopper, cause I slay Drop him off at the mall, let him buy some J’s, let him shop up, cause I slay I might get your song played on the radio station, cause I slay I might get your song played on the radio station, cause I slay You just might be a black Bill Gates in the making, cause I slay I just might be a black Bill Gates in the making
To my ears it’s about as “incendiary” as the fucking Darktown Strutter’s Ball. Compared with James Brown’s “Say it Loud,” or The Impressions’ “We’re a Winner,” or most of Gil-Scott Heron’s albums, or Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddamn,” or Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane,” or Frank Zappa’s “Trouble Every Day” or Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” or the Isley Brother’s “Fight the Power” or Waller and Razaf’s “Black and Blue” or Randy Newman’s “Rednecks” or even, God forbid, “Darktown is Out Tonight” by Will Marion Cook, “Formation” is mild stuff indeed. If there is anything offensive about “Formation,” it’s the vulgar narcissism, and the shamelessly crass materialism underscoring its supposedly “militant” message. Even the repetitive use of the word “slay” is certainly not in reference to killing white cops.
And no, the Black Panthers were not trying to shoot innocent white girls down in the streets for kicks. Just ask Beverly Axelrod, if she’s still alive.*
But yes, darling, you are on drugs. Or totally insane.
Yet the song raised eyebrows among establishment folk for a reason. Here was one of their people, their negroes, admitting that–their obsessive materialism notwithstanding–they actually are proud of being black; that they actually do think (every now and then) about African American history, and dwell on the implications of that history; that they
have memories; that they did not, horror of horrors, forget about what happened in Katrina 11 years ago and, above all, they really are angry about unarmed blacks being gunned down in the streets by crazed cops. This last fact is among the most troubling to the weak stomachs of The American Establishment. This “black anger”–which, after all, is merely human anger–was not supposed to exist among the likes of somebody like Beyonce. The Beyonces of the world were supposed to be eternally “Happy” like Pharrell Williams supposedly is–happy, with hundreds of millions of dollars, Mc Mansions, Bentleys, helicopters and Gucci bags up the wing-wang.
Maybe I’m completely full of shit, but I suspect those hundreds of millions in the hands of the Carters (and others like them) was hush money to keep these elite “shines” from
thinking too much–thinking, that is, about their identity, about their history, about what it is to be human. I know that sounds strange in conjunction with American pop singers, since none of them appear to be even remotely human in the eyes of thinking people. However, they are human beings, unbelievable as it sounds. They really are not just marionettes on strings that dance to our auto-tune. They may be be “happy” darkies in the eyes of the world but they are not that happy.”Treade a worme on the tayle, and it must turne agayne,” wrote John Heywood in 1546.
And as the world turns, many of these black, brown and red worms–most far poorer than the Carters or the Cosbys or the Obamas, most buried deep in the ground since 1546 and before–have begun to turn their rubbery necks upward and see just who it is that keeps them submerged. And they do not like it, they are not “happy” about it. They aren’t supposed to be “happy” having a cop’s boot on their necks.
(originally published by Blue Lake Review, June 2012)
Back in 1987, Just-Ice (an early thug rapper) made an unexpected appearance on the cover of the first edition of Washington Post magazine. Just-Ice’s feature had him boasting of his street exploits, the time he spent in jail, and various sexual escapades that seemed calculated to offend Washington’s sizable black community. That such an obnoxious character (and not anyone else in black Washington) had been chosen for the cover sparked howls of outrage. Noisy protests were staged and, if I remember correctly, copies of the magazine were publicly burned.
Today magazine write-ups about thug rappers are legion; indeed an entire industry, in the form of websites, TV shows, movies, clothing lines, beverages, etc., etc., has appeared for their own sake. “Thug rap,” which Just-Ice helped to pioneer, is now among the world’s most popular forms of music, with a longevity and influence that has surpassed virtually all other forms of African American music. (Disco music’s popularity, by contrast, lasted less than 10 years, and peaked for about three.) And with the exception of Stanley Crouch, black Middle America has become conspicuously silent.
Just-Ice himself seems to have done an about-face, if Wikipedia is to be trusted; he has since embraced the Nation of Gods and Earths, better known as the Five Percenters, a radical Black Nationalist organization that teaches that the African is not merely the Original Man, but God. Yet he will be remembered otherwise for the more negative fantasy rather than the positive one: that of a “black buck,” a muscle-bound, tattooed, gold-toothed, aggressive, oversexed ape. This clichéd fantasy has served as a template for two entire generations of rappers.
Yet in a very real sense Just-Ice was simply a reincarnated, updated Bigger Thomas—a Black lumpen with a microphone. That he stood on the cusp of the late 80s resurrection of Black militancy—and later embraced it so thoroughly—should come as no surprise to anyone who has closely examined the thought and actions of some 1960s Black militants. The Black Panthers, for instance, made Richard Wright’s books required reading for its members; to be sure, they were embracing what they imagined to be Bigger Thomas’s “clenched militancy” rather than Richard Wright’s more sensitive Black Boy. Bigger Thomas was a lumpenproletariat Negro of Depression-era Chicago, a “raging, uncool black boy” banging his head against the walls of white society, as Cecil Brown rather crudely put it. This characterization of Wright’s character was not entirely wrong. According to James Baldwin, Bigger Thomas, in reacting “like a nigger” against the assumptions of a racist white America, merely reinforces white America’s assumptions. He has “accepted a theology that denies him life”; he is two-dimensional. In Wright’s fiction there is “a large space where sex ought to be” writes Baldwin, “and what usually fills this space is violence.”
Of course, it seems a bit far-fetched to assume that the thug-rappers and their literary equivalent, hawking their trashy books along Lenox Avenue, are the heirs of Richard Wright. However, there are parallels, at least where Native Son is concerned. The Hip Hop aesthetic, in and of itself, dictates a rejection of the status quo. The manner in which the hip-hopper rejects the status quo is another question; it appears to be much in keeping with that of Eldridge Cleaver, the Minister of Information of the Black Panthers. In Cleaver’s mind Bigger Thomas was the quintessential revolutionary Black man and Baldwin’s Rufus Thomas a confused negro “who let a white bisexual fuck him in the ass.” Baldwin of course was just a “faggot” who “hated” his blackness, who committed the unpardonable sin of suggesting that black life was more nuanced and multi-layered than the cartoony vision of it held by black militants and white supremacists alike. A street thug and convicted rapist, Cleaver perverted the legacy of Richard Wright by articulating a black consciousness drawn on a false reading of Native Son and—perhaps unconsciously—white racist fantasies of black men. (Later in life he made a very telling move towards the political Right.)
When black militancy regained popularity in the late 1980s, Hip Hop was the vehicle that facilitated it. Unfortunately, Hip Hop also facilitated the re-resurrection of Bigger Thomas, in dimensions that even the tawdriest Blaxploitation never achieved. Many puzzled observers overlook that the “clenched militancy” of Public Enemy, KRS-1 and X-Clan and the brutishness of Niggers With Attitude, Snoop Dogg, and Tupac were really the flip sides of the same coin: a puerile masculinity wedded to a reactionary super-blackness. Paris and KRS-1 were Bigger Thomas with a brain, Tupac just plain Bigger Thomas. Hip Hop’s popularity moved the sociopathic and parasitic mindset of the lumpen classes from the fringes of African American culture to the forefront.
Hip-hop’s original intent, naturally, was radically different from what it has since become. According to esem i, “Hip Hop started with four main elements; DJing, Emceeing, Graffiti, and Break Dancing. Graffiti is almost the estranged little brother, finding its own niche. DJs started the parties. Emcees learned how to hype the crowd and the DJ, creating much louder buzz about the quality of parties, gaining instant fame for the DJs and Emcees. Breaking started at home and on the street, mostly for underage kids, but was also celebrated at these Hip Hop parties. Graffiti was born, lived, and breathed in the streets. Some say it wasn’t even an evolution of hip hop because it started in the streets, not connected to any other culture. Hip Hop claims it because so many hip hoppers took it on as a visual language to represent their culture. Hip Hop is a culture rising from ashes of neglect and invisibility screaming look at me, I am important, these are my colors, and this is our culture.”
Hip-hop was an attempt to put faces and personalities on those people that New York (and by logical extension, every other major American city) wanted to kill, or lock up, or pretend never existed. They were reclaiming their humanity from the jaws of a racist oblivion. Hip Hop made them visible. Denied access to major distribution channels by a music industry that saw their creations as trash, they sold their music on cheap cassettes out of the trunks of their cars.
“Rap” itself predates Hip Hop and largely developed along the fringes of African-American culture—in the jails, back-alleys and shooting galleries of inner-city America; among whores, pickpockets, pimps, numbers-runners, junkies, and gangsters of various levels. Rap’s aesthetic genesis—outside the griots of West Africa—can be found in the infamous “toasts” (i.e., the Signifying Monkey, Shine and the Titanic, the Ball of the Freaks, etc.). Hilarious as so many of these “toasts” are, they also stink of an intolerable degree of cynicism, social reactionism, political apathy, and self-abnegation: the very stink of the most despised and—ironically—the most imitated social class in contemporary American history.
And like nearly all lumpens, the Black American lumpen is generally a big supporter of the American social system. This is not to say that he likes the system. Usually he loathes it, but he knows damn well he can’t do without it. He leeches off the society any way he can. Actually is in the nature of a lumpenproletariat to be parasitic and to side with, in times of political crisis, the host/society which it feels will best benefit it economically. (They generally embrace the dominant society’s values, contrary to popular opinion.) Western lumpen classes historically have been the staunchest defenders of the status quo, of politically reactionary movements and dictatorships. The Italian lumpen-class, for instance, were some of the biggest supporters of the Italian monarchy in the 19th century and of Mussolini in the 20th; today’s “Ossis” in East Germany are the main driving force behind the neo-Nazi NPD, as they are behind the violent skinhead attacks throughout Europe. (They still know better than to call for the overthrow of Angela Merkel’s government, however.) The white American lumpen class (of course) fills the ranks of the KKK and other white supremacist and survivalist groups. The black American lumpen class, which misguided black 60s militants (esp. the Black Panthers) hoped would be the most revolutionary class, naturally turned out to be just the opposite: it was they who were always most effective in destroying Black Nationalist movements, whether by assassinating Malcolm X or by doing the FBI’s (or, in previous centuries, ole Massa’s) dirty work in infiltrating, ratting out and subsequently undermining Black radical groups.
Unluckily the lumpenproletariat/jailhouse mentality is one of the many flaws inherent in Hip Hop, aside from its grotesque materialism; it was picked up almost directly from many of its founders, who had done time or had been in gangs. The overwhelming cultural influence that Hip-hop wielded among black and Latino youth became troubling when the lumpen “thug” mentality, exemplified by Just-Ice, Ice-T and N.W.A, muscled aside the original subversive “underground” spirit. It wasn’t long before rap was reduced to a twisted combination of street pimping and corporate parasitism—Holloway House meets Seagram’s, incorporated. Hip Hop now personified everything that it originally opposed. Instead of affirming the humanity of inner city youth, instead of making them visible in the eyes of the world, it wound up doing exactly the opposite. Contemporary hip-hop achieved what neither the most depraved minstrel performers (nor the Ku Klux Klan) ever really managed to achieve: the absolute dehumanization of the African American image.
Black American intellectuals, of course, understand little of the implications of what has occurred this past quarter century. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.* misjudged gangsta rap and saw it merely as a bunch of cheeky young black entertainers appropriating the old racist stereotypes and turning them upside down. Dr. Gates was writing in the 1990s; clearly, from the vantage point of 2012, it was more than just a game. This has all coincided very comfortably with the increasing neo-conservatism and neo-liberalism in the Reagan, Bush and Clinton years. Hollywood, which had always been uncomfortable with black humanity, naturally chimed in. The rappers could be as angry and vicious as they pleased—indeed, the more angry and vicious, the better: Ice Cube’s Amerikkka’s Most Wanted did more to reinforce the black ape fantasy it did to challenge it, along with a bit of inter-ethnic divide-and-rule with “Black Korea” thrown in for good measure.
Grandmaster Melle Mel, one of the founders of Hip Hop, was dismissed as hyperbolic when he compared Tupac Shakur to Adolf Hitler. According to him, the false images of black manhood he presented to the world precipitated the downfall of African American culture. The remark might strike one as humorous unless we remember that the original German Nazis were, in fact, largely comprised of street people, the lumpenproletariat of Berlin, Munich and other German cities. Melle Mel’s comparison would have been more apt had he compared Tupac with Horst Wessel, a German pimp and gangster who was also an ardent Nazi. Wessel died in a street battle between Communists and Nazis three years before the Nazis finally seized power in Germany, and was subsequently canonized by the Nazi movement with the Horst Wessel Song. Tupac Shakur was not a Nazi, of course. He did not invent the image of the oversexed, violent, thoughtless black buck. Yet his immense popularity did much to reinforce this obnoxious fantasy in the minds of hundreds of millions of people across the globe; still worse, to many young blacks, Tupac had become a cultural icon on a par with Dr. King and Malcolm X. Millions of black men embraced the image that Tupac heralded, to the point where a white Nazi cartoon of black masculinity was actually—if somewhat mistakenly—realized.
There have been speculations among some of U.S. Government involvement in keeping thug rap alive. Was Tupac Shakur a CIA agent? Or Biggie Smalls? Indeed, it begs the question: was the whole Hip-Hop movement itself nothing more than a continuation of the American government’s Counter-Intelligence Program, a hugely elaborate ruse designed to keep black minds addled? The writer thinks not. Such an explanation would have one believe that rap music was forced upon Black America virtually at gunpoint. It was not. Though thug rap is routinely disparaged on message boards and blogs, the thug-rappers continue to win Image Awards from the NAACP; they continue to have their gruesome mugs splashed across the covers of EBONY and other “respectable” African American magazines.
The rappers, in response to increasingly severe criticism, consistently claim they “only talk about what they know.” Well, one can argue convincingly that they don’t know very much, and any cursory glance at much of their music bears this out. However, the basic problem with rappers—even the most honest ones—is not the reality they speak of; after all, this reality does exist, and mind you, confronting this sordid reality is not the same as accepting it. No: their basic problem is that they are incapable of articulating that reality—let alone the reality of the African American people, or any other people, for that matter—with any degree of maturity or nuance, and certainly not in such a way that reveals the essential humanity of the African American.
They are incapable, because the fatal flaw lay with Rap music. Rap lost whatever innovative flair it may have once had and rests largely on its undeserved laurels, masking its essential banality with flash and glitter and gaudiness. It substitutes cheap populism for political erudition. It eschews the complex and exploratory for easy answers; it arrogantly presumes that everything can be summed up in a sound-byte. Nowhere in Rap does one come close to grasping the true complexity of life, African American or otherwise. And in virtually no piece of “music” done by anyone in Rap do we have anything that approaches the achievements of earlier performers, such as James Brown, or Nina Simone—let alone Duke Ellington, William Grant Still, Mary Lou Williams, or Charles Mingus.
This partly explains why it was so easy for hip-hop and the mass media to strike such an unholy alliance. Their ways of assessing and processing worldly reality are virtually identical. And hip-hop has long proven itself willing to march to the beat of the mass media’s drum-machine. Recently hip-hop has entered even uglier territory by blindly seeking black “reality” in the rhetoric and symbols of the most virulent anti-black racism. Curtis Jackson, aka 50 Cent—to cite just one horrific example—seems to embody Charles Carroll’s (or David Duke’s) idea of what a black man really is. (Charles Carroll was the deranged proto-Nazi who wrote “The Negro a Beast” in 1900.) Most hip-hop fiction, abysmally written and shoddily executed, reads like sexed-up versions of Thomas Nelson Page; according to Terry McMillan, many blacks are actually not reading them—instead, many white males are drawn to the sexy cheesecake covers. (This probably explains why the paper for these books is usually just cheap newsprint.) Presumably, they are also drawn to the writing as well—for their crappy content merely corroborates every bad thing they have ever thought about their fellow black citizens. Urban lit—like urban “music”—does not seek (like Darius James and Kara Walker) to appropriate racist symbols and images to subvert their meaning. On the contrary, urban “culture” arbiters actively wish to become these images—if only because, on the one hand, they are filled with self-loathing and really believe that they are what white racists say they are—or, on the other, completely clueless as to how much offense and psychic damage these racist images have caused. (The latter probably explains the existence of idiots like “T-Pain” or “Yung Coon” or “Soulja Boy,” who likes to parade around with his boxer shorts exposed.)
Whether this is because they are illiterate, which so often seems the case, or because their agents or record executives at Seagram’s or Sony won’t stand for it, is unimportant: any group of people anywhere in the world bears the responsibility of articulating its reality; it is one of the main things that makes a people a people. Unfortunately, contemporary Black America avoids examining itself in a mirror. It prefers the rapper’s “reality” of guns, drugs and whores to articulating the very real reality it finds too painful to face. The efforts on the part of “respectable” upper-class and upper-middle-class blacks (as exemplified by C. Delores Tucker) to get rap music banned, along with the so-called “N-word” (Nigger), was motivated less out of a hatred for the spuriousness of hip-hop imagery and more out of an unreconstructed prudery and distaste for these rappers reminding them of the same very real reality they were helping to perpetuate. (Some time before her death, the late Ms. Tucker was revealed to have been a slumlord.)
White middle-class Western society also prefers this black “reality” because it confirms their racial prejudices. “Draft Me,” by Canibus, who repeatedly screams “jump in a Humvee and murder those monkeys” and calls himself an “ape nigga”; T-Pain’s blatantly obvious revamping of the Zip-Coon iconography of the 1830s, or just recently buffoons like Mistah Fab, T.I., Young Jeezy, L’il Wayne, L’il Kim, Plies, DMX and their barely articulate babbling about guns, fancy cars, champagne, hookers, cocaine, etc., etc.—all of this chimes in perfectly with the old “black buck” fantasies, with one sole exception: they are no threat to white middle America. According to Johnny Juice of Public Enemy, “The one thing that makes anything Hip Hop is the need to lash out at the status quo. To rebel against popular art. To drive against mindless group think. Unfortunately, Hip Hop is currently the popular, mindless group-think, status quo. So what does that make the followers of the original Hip Hop aesthetic? The aesthetic would dictate a rebellion against the current crop of cookie cutter drivel. Instead we get excuses and cop outs. ‘Hip Hop is different for everybody.’ ‘It’s evolving.’ ‘It’s a new era.’”
Indeed. There is nothing conceivably “underground” or “street” about the bulk of today’s rappers—providing, of course, that “street” connotes the everyday black or Latino lives of inner-city America. Hip Hop is the “Establishment.” It is no accident that T-Pain, 50 Cent and even Easy-E many years before, were and are in fact card-carrying Republicans.
In fact the “thug rapper” knows that the horribly demeaning image he projects to the American mass media (and subsequently to the world) is now taken as representative of his people. Not only does he not mind it, he positively revels in it. He exists solely on the terms defined by white racists and is happy about it. One can only imagine if the shoe were on someone else’s foot. One can only the imagine the reaction of, say, the Jewish community, if they had seen large numbers of Jewish entertainers (for that’s all these “rappers” are: entertainers, not leaders or intellectuals of any sort) playing out the most grotesquely anti-Semitic caricatures of the Third Reich and calling themselves “kikes” or “yids” while posturing in striped uniforms and yellow stars. (Perhaps it is not entirely unthinkable, considering people like Mel Brooks.) But since we are merely dealing with a group of “niggers”—people we continue to see as inferior—no such outrage is forthcoming, not even from African Americans.
*in the original I mistakenly cited Houston Baker, Jr. as writing this comment.
“None of us were supposed to know how to read music. They wanted folk stuff. If we could read, we had to pretend we couldn’t. The day before a show opened we’d get the music. They’d come to the spots after the show and hear us playing the tunes and say: ‘Aren’t they marvelous?'”
–Eubie Blake, They All Played Ragtime
The narrator to this cute little film clip–taken from Robert Altman’s film flop Kansas City–is bullshitting. Virtually ALL this stuff was fucking written DOWN–whether in their heads* or on paper. That’s another stupid stereotype about black musicians–that they were just a bunch of naturally-inspired, naturally-rhythmic darkies who operated by instinct. People like Mezz Mezzrow (as much as I admire his book Really the Blues) were big proponents of this lie. In fact for decades nobody knew that Louis Armstrong’s solo on Cornet Chop Suey was written down NOTE FOR NOTE in 1924 and copyrighted at the Library of Congress that year, a full two years before he recorded it for Okeh!
People need to stop lying about the history of jazz music–black Americans included. The recent HBO disaster “Bessie” is another case in point. In fact the dance hall scenes from “Bessie” are almost indistinguishable from “Idlewild,” another disaster, and Altman’s “Kansas City”. A bunch of loud, rowdy negroes in big hats which, somehow, with the exception of “Idlewild,” they never take off–and which is belied by actual film footage from black nightclubs from that era (naturally, the conk-haired hipsters of the twenties, thirties and forties never wasted a moment showing off their conks in public spaces!). They are always dancing APART and rarely together, and doing the wrong dances altogether:
Furthermore, the music, with very few exceptions, is bland and toothless, with none of the fire of the old heads such as Charlie Shavers, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Fats Waller, James P. Johnson, and naturally Louis Armstrong, to name a bare handful. The next time they decide to make a jazz film in America they ought to hire some French trad musicians such as what’s left of Charquet and Co. At least they sound more or less like the real deal–unlike these wanna-be boppers in the US who can’t tell the difference stylistically between Sonny Stitt, Marshall Allen and early Benny Carter.
*unwritten arrangements were known as “head arrangements.”