Blacking It Up: Hip Hop, Race and Identity.

Not long ago I had the pleasure of seeing a documentary released by California Newsreel entitled Blacking Up: Hip-Hop’s Remix of Race and Identity by filmmaker Robert Clift. The film opens by taking us on a kind of behind-the-scenes look at white american suburban culture in a way that mass media rarely does. We see high school dance team routines that include bandanas and hip-hop-inspired choreography. We’re introduced to white people who have dealt with harassment from their white peers for allegedly  “acting” black. We hear from personalities of different occupations and opinions (from Paul Mooney to Russell Simmons) concerning their thoughts on race in hip-hop and the ways in which white participation plays into the racial history of music in America. It is basically an entertaining and very well-thought-out exploration of the racial, residential and historical aspects that influence how we begin to consider the complex and ever-enduring question of where to “draw lines” when discussing white enjoyment and/or consumption of black cultures.

One of the things that stood out to me about the documentary was that it historicizes white involvement in hip-hop in a way that many critics and commentators fail to do. White people have long had a fascination with black people, hence the whole “blackface” thing, and all of its earlier and later, sometimes-not-so-subtle manifestations. There was Amos ‘n’ Andy and Al Jolson, Elvis Presley and Benny Goodman — people who are not only well-known in their fields but even hold titles of “king,” for example, amongst a host of talented performers and in some cases, originators, of their styles. At one point in the doc, Amiri Baraka recites what he calls a “loku” that is something along the lines of, “If Elvis Presley is King, who is James Brown? God?”

It was only apt that I happened to see this documentary shortly before discovering this video of two girls imitating rapper Lil B’s video for “I Cook”. (For the Record, I found this while I was on Lil B’s website, which I frankly had no business being on and have henceforth concluded is brake fluid for brain cells. But I was there because this guy had a sold out show at the Highline Ballroom a few weeks ago and has been gaining a (cult-like) following with his puzzling balance of over-the-top vulgarity and endearing sincerity.) On his site, the rapper encourages people to submit videos of themselves remaking his videos. And while this can disguise itself as a harmless thing, there is something to be said about a figure such as Lil B, a black male rapper to say the least, encouraging people to perform him.

Upon being appalled at a couple of the Lil B fan videos — and since my very exciting meditation on white people and the blues —I began to reflect on these matters of white people and hip-hop, white people and the blues, white people and blackness. And it has crossed my mind that these matters, like many, have a lot to do with privilege and entitlement — neither of which is generally a conscious influence, but the fact is white people (at large) have the option to pick from identities. As the black female lead said to her white lover in Memphis: A New Musical, “You can go back to being white whenever you want to.” And even the implication that one ever “leaves” their whiteness is a bit misleading, because truly, skin privilege is something that one cannot dress/sing/dreadlock/punk out of (although there are surely ways to consciously address it and perhaps even eschew it). In the documentary, there is a clip where pop singer Empire Isis, a blonde-haired girl with dreadlocks, laments on the rigidity of identity. She stresses how people always want things to fit into a box. The amusing thing is, the “box” she refers to hardly applies to her with the same strictness and consequences that it does Other people. She enjoys a kind of fluidity that comes with power: rebellion within a privileged class. Hippies, punks and “wiggers” all jiving on a thin line over the safety net of whiteness.

Then there is the entitlement,  which reveals itself in very profound ways. As a friend pointed out to me during a discussion about blues music, white people have a history of wanting to be able to enjoy certain parts of folks’ artistic and cultural production, while being reluctant (or downright unwilling) to engage other parts of their experiences. For example, many people may be comfortable buying certain CDs or hanging certain posters on their walls — typically because they feel a genuine connection to the expression — but are unlikely to attend a speech by a black intellectual or to have read works by black writers. It’s an odd (and virtually impossible) endeavor to divorce a people’s cultural production from their *culture*, including their intellectual production, and the social and political climates that cradle it. And in a place where all of us are used to consuming art, people have a really huge problem with the notion that some art *may* not be produced for “public” (meaning their own) consumption. And what’s more, people are oftentimes adamantly adverse to educating themselves about the intellectual or political climates that shape the art they so easily enjoy.

This all to say that when we are looking at something as multidimensional as white involvement with black music, there are many, many particulars to ponder, raise eyebrows at, and in some cases, outright detest. Things like privilege and entitlement, which I consider two of the most common inhibitors to people understanding race, racism and their role in things, are just a couple of forces to keep in mind when contemplating the questions Clift poses and so carefully inspects in his illuminating film: When is it adoration and when is it mockery? What’s individuality and what’s stereotype? When is it fun, and when is it “blacking up“?

The following two tabs change content below.
Victoria is a writer and DJ based in Chicago, Illinois. You can find her on Twitter.

Latest posts by VC (see all)

17 comments to Blacking It Up: Hip Hop, Race and Identity.

  • Derek

    VC, can you give me any examples of art — specifically, CDs of artists that appear on posters — which were not made for “public consumption”? I would like to know who these artists are who produce albums for major labels and expect all their listeners to start attending “speech[es] by . . . black intellectual[s]“.

  • BJN

    Luckily, I get to hang up all the posters I want because I read postbourgie.

    Suckas betta repreSENT

    Right?

  • JKL

    “…white people (at large) have the option to pick from identities”

    “…skin privilege is something that one cannot dress/sing/dreadlock/punk out of…”

    If white people can never leave their whiteness, then are they really choosing their identities?

    • VC

      How a person is “seen” or treated by institutions (the latter quote) is not necessarily dependent on how that person identifies (the former quote). Identity is a personal (and some would argue arbitrary) choice. While it can certainly be a way of organizing, it does not dictate one’s experience of something like skin privilege, which relies on how a person appears to the eye.

  • Joseph FM

    JKL,

    I think the point is that whiteness, because of its attendant privilege, is capable of absorbing a whole host of identities that blackness cannot. (At least, as a white person who loathes but tries to always be aware of my privileged position, I suspect this is true.)

  • RK

    We live in a world where we are constantly and consistently being marketed to. Everything we listen to, read, eat, wear, watch, and interact with is politicized. So whether or not you feel like an artist has a right to certain expectations (or whether or not you even comprehend their influence) it is happening all the time.

    White people have always been attached to black art, but hesitate when it comes to black thought… an example which I’ve discussed on other VC posts before is the Harlem Renaissance… take a second and think about what that means to you and what that term signifies historically. Most people will think about a cultural revolution.

    If you think about the Harlem Renaissance most people don’t think of it as a time when Black intellectualism was gaining more momentum than ever before. And that is probably because it made most white people uncomfortable. It is fascinating to trace white participation and white patronage and their role as benefactors of the movement. There is a book called ‘reassessing the renaissance’ where the author discusses how scholars were stuck between exploring exciting new work while simultaneously being edited by white philanthropists who controlled the ‘pace of black cultural advancement.’ There were those who did and did not believe in playing it diplomatic when it came to white funding of academic, cultural, and artistic endeavors. So because of its controversy, people try to laud the harlem renaissance (and remember it) for its cultural (artistic) achievements and because it was not always agreed upon the political and social discourse is seen as less of a success, although it’s entirely impossible to dilute one of the other (and to take political and social discourse out of mainstream americas idea of black “culture” is sooo problematic and indicative of our attitudes)

    Maybe because we’ve never been denied black art, or not that we know of, or not that we acknowledge, or remember at all… White people view themselves as benefactors of the arts…somehow a part of its history (and definitely tied to its history of consumption). But white ppl are still uneasy about supporting black ‘thought.’ Because they can’t consume it in doses. Its kinda all or nothing.

    To what extent does our inability to include black thought in our acceptance of black culture perpetuate a division between white and minority intellectualism? White people accept and celebrate black culture but when it comes to black thought the eyes start rolling and/or people get uncomfortable.

    So, I think the point isn’t to say “oh really? Make me a list of who has done so…” but maybe the point would be for YOU to stop and think about whose politics are listened to…. I mean, how many white kids put Dead Prez on their facebook “favorite artist” lists but somehow missed what they were saying when they consistently talk about being oppressed by crackers… Ever listened to Nas? Lauryn Hill? Lupe Fiasco? (pretty mainstream in my eyes…) Why are most people comfortable with(an numb to the fact) that nowadays almost EVERY singer, artist, actor, etc. has a cause… and how are holding black artists to a different standard by asking them to not have a cause… because its tied to race? Well, I’m going to argue that ALL causes are tied to race, we just don’t mention it because the white race doesn’t need to be stated… its implied. So why do we give certain people a free pass to be political when it concerns some vague foreign suffering ppl, or wearing fur, but if people, Lauryn Hill for instance, promote self-esteem amongst African American girls her words are twisted into some huge media backlash that ppl still talk about “she’s crazy…didn’t she say she hates white ppl?”

    So I’m not quite sure at which point it becomes critical to make a list of mainstream artists who produce art with certain expectations about society’s responsible consumption, but are you really trying to tell me that you don’t think artists do this ALL THE TIME?

    And you have no historical memory of their demands, requests, encouragement because historically white people have always decided to not engage in that part of culture… Artists have ALWAYS said “hey, you can look at it but you don’t get it…” So why are you pretending like this is a first? or you need a list?

    It’s part of privilege to have never been told that you can’t have something, and entitlement teaches certain people that if you’re told you can’t have something that that isn’t fair… and hey, certain people aren’t used to life being unfair… especially when it involves access to the arts and culture. We aren’t ever challenged to think about our consumption and when that challenge is made to white ppl they just ignore it, so it never becomes real in the sense that you can still go to a shopping mall and hear lauryn hill because white people are still writing history.

  • DB

    I don’t know what “white people writing history” has to do with Lauryn Hill being played at the mall. As far as I know, Lauryn Hill is played at the mall because she signed a contract providing for a big corporation to pay her a lot of money in exchange for widely distributing her music. If Lauryn Hill thought she was doing something other than that, it’s a shame that she didn’t have a decent lawyer.

  • DB

    To be clear, lest I be misunderstood, I never doubted that black artists — or artists of any race — may have a cause that they feel passionately about and promote through their celebrity (you wrote: “Why are most people comfortable with(an numb to the fact) that nowadays almost EVERY singer, artist, actor, etc. has a cause… and how are holding black artists to a different standard by asking them to not have a cause… because its tied to race?”). It was certainly not my intention to deny that black artists may “have a cause,” as you say.

    My intention, rather, is to push back against sloppy — and nonsensical, I think — reasoning about entitlement and privilege. Here’s a line from the original post: “Things like privilege and entitlement, which I consider two of the most common inhibitors to people understanding race, racism and their role in things . . . .” I agree. Understanding privilege and entitlement is important. So, let’s talk about it. Here’s another statement from the original post: “Then there is the entitlement, which reveals itself in very profound ways. As a friend pointed out to me during a discussion about blues music, white people have a history of wanting to be able to enjoy certain parts of folks’ artistic and cultural production, while being reluctant (or downright unwilling) to engage other parts of their experiences. For example, many people may be comfortable buying certain CDs or hanging certain posters on their walls — typically because they feel a genuine connection to the expression — but are unlikely to attend a speech by a black intellectual or to have read works by black writers. . . . And what’s more, people are oftentimes adamantly adverse to educating themselves about the intellectual or political climates that shape the art they so easily enjoy.”

    No matter how much I think about this, I can’t for the life of me figure out what it has to do with privilege or entitlement. People enjoy art without “educating themselves about the intellectual or political climates that shape the art” all the time! I mean, always! In your average freshman dorm building, I bet we can find a handful of kids — white, black, Latino, Asian — who listen to Mozart. I bet, within that group, we can find a subset — again, white, black, Latino, and Asian — who don’t know anything at all about the “intellectual or political climates that shape[d]” Mozart’s work! Nothing at all! Who in that group is entitled? Who is privileged? Who isn’t? This is nonsense.

    • Suitlandman

      But I think the point is that when your black/Latino/Asian subset of college students listen to Mozart without knowing its full back-story, there’s not the same sense that they are listening to music that has historically served as an outcry against racism perpetrated by people who look like their selves. I think that would be a clear distinction. Its not just about listening to music whose history one don’t know, but about listening to music in whose history one has played a starring role and about how listening itself–the carefully managed act that it is–becomes a way to come to terms with (but, more frequently, to evade) this historical legacy. In other words, its not just about some generic idea of consumption but about consumption in a context of power and inequality.

      • DB

        Yes, its true. In no sense is Mozart’s music an “outcry against racism.” I don’t see, however, how that is connected to any sort of privilege. What, precisely, is the privilege being discussed here? White people are privileged to do what? To listen to music that is an “outcry against racism” without seeking to understand its cultural history — say, 1970s era R&B? Young black people who weren’t alive during that time are just as capable of doing the same — listening to 1970s R&B without reading materials from the contemporary black intellectuals. In what sense then are we talking about a privilege? True, a young black person is more likely to be more aware of black culture circa the 1970s than a white person, but, so what? It seems to me that the point here is nothing more than “black people are more likely to know about black culture than white people.” Well, yes.

        • Suitlandman

          Nah I think thats a really good question. I would say that the “privilege” part of it concerns the the general capacity of white people to “ignore” the history of racial oppression in America in the first place. The rather superficial consumption of black culture discussed in the above post is like the salt in this much larger wound. The reason why it is often more difficult for blacks to appreciate white music for instance–yes I’m making a generalization here but I believe its a defensible one–is because we are largely less capable (or, to put it differently, less willing) to forget that history or ignore the racial inequality that stands today. It stings for me to listen to country music (although I do like some songs!) because I have no inclination to separate that aesthetic from the history that it cannot help but to allude to. White people listening to hip hop, on the other hand, are not similarly likely to see that aesthetic as connected with a social and political legacy of which they are themselves a part of.

          • DB

            I see your point. You articulated it very well. I need to think about this before responding. (My immediate reaction is: I think you make a very thought-provoking argument, but I am not sure that it’s actually the point being made in this post. But again, I need to think.).

  • DB

    I’ll try to be clear one more time. As I understand, this blog post is referring to this — “people are oftentimes adamantly adverse to educating themselves about the intellectual or political climates that shape the art they so easily enjoy” — as an instance of privilege. So, I just looked up “privilege” in my dictionary and I found two definitions. Let’s see if the circumstances the writer is describing fits either.

    1. “A special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people.”

    I think, as I showed in my example above, this is clearly not the case. No particular person or group of people is limited to being “adamantly adverse to educating themselves about the intellectual or political climates that shape the art they so easily enjoy.” I have come across plenty black folk who have enjoyed Latino music while refusing to take any steps to engage in Latino intellectual thought. Surely, white folk do the same. So this definition can’t be it.

    2. “Something regarded as a rare opportunity and bringing particular pleasure.”

    A rare opportunity? No, it happens all the time, for sure. Bringing a particular pleasure? I wouldn’t say that. Does anybody ever get a “particular pleasure” from not engaging with intellectual thought? I think we can agree this definition doesn’t fit.

    So, again, where is the privilege? I think there is none. This post is mostly snobbishness masquerading as something else.

  • RK

    Here’s the problem with taking a websters definition and applying it to race politics… the words that are being used in this blog are not websters words… they are words that refer to and signify intense and prolonged research and social commentary that has constructed, defined, and redefined racial politics for a long time… when words like privilege are used they aren’t referring to “today bill jones is our kindergarten V.I.P. and gets the privelege of going to recess first…” privilege in this instance is in reference to things like oppression, power, identity… and HISTORY. Heres a different definition for you, one offered by Allan Johnson, a well read and respected guy who writes a lot about privilege and is referenced in most 101 classes on ANYTHING dealing with people:

    “Privilege is a social advantage that is both unearned and comes to people simply because they happen to belong to a particular social category. As such, privilege differs from other kinds of advantage in being exclusive, unearned, and socially conferred.”

    So working with this definition privileged people gain access to unearned entitlements (things of value that all people should have) unearned advantage (dominant group has entitlements which gives them competitive edge in functioning in society) and this leads to conferred dominance (one group has power over another simply because of dominant cultural assumptions)

    Privilege grants people in power cultural authority that gives them the ability to define reality and that reality will almost always fit their experience… which leads to oppression which is a result of the relationship between privileged and oppressed groups…

    So your example of Black people listening to Latino music and not trying to understand their culture doesn’t really fit into this definition (which i will 99.9% guarantee is the definition that the author is using based on the fact that she is discussing race politics) because Black people don’t have a history of oppressing Latino people, so how they listen to their music isn’t a perpetuation of oppression.

    The relationship between dominant and oppressed people is the same relationship that VC refers to when talking about the listener and the musician. The comment about people deciding not to understand the cultural, historical, intellectual, and/or political climate that informs art isn’t about anonymous person #1 engaging with anonymous person #2… it is about white people engaging with black people: white listener, black artist.

    Being white in American means not having to think about it (being white). Black people do not have that privilege.

    Thus… the way that white people and black people engage with black music has very different implications. If we are attempting to dismantle systems of privilege, oppression, racial dominance, etc… then it isn’t “snobbish” to point this out, is it? The author is simply sharing their observation that this relationship is present in patterns of cultural consumption and that it inhibits the advancement towards a less oppressive society.

    • DB

      White people who listen to “black music” without attending speeches by black intellectuals are “perpetuating oppression”? It’s hard to know what to say to this. If you honestly believe it, you’ve spent far too much time on liberal arts college campuses and not enough time interacting with people outside those walls.

  • [...] Recently, VC at Postbourgie wrote about a documentary examining the relationship between white peopl…: White people (at large) have the option to pick from identities. As the black female lead said to her white lover in Memphis: A New Musical, “You can go back to being white whenever you want to.” And even the implication that one ever “leaves” their whiteness is a bit misleading, because truly, skin privilege is something that one cannot dress/sing/dreadlock/punk out of (although there are surely ways to consciously address it and perhaps even eschew it). In the documentary, there is a clip where pop singer Empire Isis, a blonde-haired girl with dreadlocks, laments on the rigidity of identity. She stresses how people always want things to fit into a box. The amusing thing is, the “box” she refers to hardly applies to her with the same strictness and consequences that it does Other people… [...]

Leave a Reply

  

  

  

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>