Wednesday, November 11, 2009

When Keeping It (Sur)real Goes Wrong: How Hip Hop Distorts Black Suffering and Why We Should Care

In the most controversial sketch in the first season of “The Dave Chappelle Show” Chappelle plays Clayton Bigsby, a black white supremacist. An underground celebrity and prolific writer within the white supremacy movement, Bigsby is blind and has no idea that he is African American. Orphaned at an early age and before he develops a racial consciousness, Bigsby is taken in by a white orphanage for the blind and told that he is white by the head mistress in a twisted attempt to protect him. As an adult, his racist propaganda is so effective in rallying support for the movement that white supremacist leaders let Bigby continue thinking that he is white, while shielding his true racial identity from his throngs of followers. At one telling point in the sketch, Bigsby unleashes a racist tirade on a group of 20-something, white men dressed in hip hop garb and blaring hip hop music that he encounters while being driven to a Klu Klux Klan rally. Assuming because of their blaring hip hop music that the occupants of the car are African Americans, Bigsby lashes out,“Why don’t you jungle bunnies turn that music down. Niggers make me sick! Boogie, boogie niggers!” After Bigsby drives off, the driver of the convertible turns to his friends in the car and says, “Did he just call us niggers?” He then dawns a smile, high-fives his friends, and yells, “Awesome!” The joke, of course, cuts both ways politically and racially. For his part, Bigsby is not only blind to the whiteness of the middle-class white men in the convertible, but to the fact that dominant consumers of hip hop music in the twenty-first century are not blacks, but white men between the ages of 18 and 35. Metaphorically speaking, the white men in the car are just as blind as Bigsby. Perversely wedded to one-dimensional notions of blackness and black manhood, they confuse Bigsby’s racist rant as an authenticating gesture, solidifying their “street cred.” What Chappelle captures brilliantly in this comedic moment is the unsavory relationship between white supremacy and what Tricia Rose calls “commercial hip hop”--industry driven music that compromises artistry and responsible race politics to appeal to white consumer's fixation with black social dysfunctions. (Rose--who, like myself, remains a fan of politically responsible rap music--makes clear in her book that all rap music is not created equal) While it might seem odd to some to even mention white supremacy in the same breath as hip hop, they are, in fact, compatible to a degree. In Hip Hop Wars (2008) Rose opines astutely that "[s]omehow, so-called black dysfunctional culture has become its own self-fulfilling prophecy, even though the power and seduction of hip hop images—for blacks and everyone else—is significantly driven by the desire, voyeuristic pleasure, and consumption of middle-class whites. Why are these consumers, who are key to the creation of a larger and more profitable market for hip hop images and street styles, not considered part of a “dysfunctional” culture, too—and why are they not charged with being some of “real black-folk killas”? (72). Far from letting the artists who perpetuate his "black dysfunctional culture" off the hook, Rose argues that both the white corporate structure that produces and perpetuates "black dysfunctional culture" and the white consumers to whom this culture is ultimately marketed, should be exposed and put on notice alongside the complicit artists for their roles in destroying the black community. Making these white entities visible is particularly crucial in light of the ways that many young black and brown folks associate black authenticity--i.e, "keeping it real"--with the images of black gangstas, pimps, hos that are glamorized in hip hop music. We should care about these issues because they inform and complicate how African American boys and girls determine their social value, perform in school, think about gender, sex, and sexuality. I'm reminded here of a rather illuminating experience I had a few years back teaching in a summer program in Knoxville, Tennessee. The program was designed ostensibly to encourage low income children from high risk school districts to attend college. The class I was teaching--which was made up of mostly high school sophomores--was on black popular culture and gender identities. Seeking to generate class discussion, I asked an African American male student how he would deal with a certain circumstance of black-on-black violence. In short, I presented him with a boys-in-the-hood-esque scenario wherein he had to make a decision whether to "ride" with his boys to avenge the death of an innocently gunned down friend. Not thinking that the scenario I put to the student was morally difficult to answer, I expected an immediate response. Instead, I received stunned silence. The student looked as if he'd been ambushed; sweat began to bead up on his forehead and he started to squirm uncomfortably in his seat. After about a 15 second span of silence--which I imagine upon reflection must have felt like an eternity for the poor guy--he wiped the sweat from his forehead, shrugged his shoulders, and put the question back to me. "I really don't know, Prof. Ikard. I mean, if he were my friend and someone killed him ... I mean, what . . . what would you do?" "I would contact the police," I said, patting him lightly on shoulder. "Gunning each other down is not only morally wrong, but it perpetuates structural inequalities and destroys our communities. You might as well join the Klu Klux Klan." That the scenario I put to this African American student was so perplexing and stressful underscores in rather dramatic fashion the difficulty that many of our young people have making what should be easy social and moral choices. And, make no mistake, commercial hip hop is but one of many institutional forces at work in the destruction of our children and communities. Pathologizing black people and consciousness are not new phenomena in U.S. culture, to be sure. In fact, taken from a historical perspective, one might even venture to say that doing so has been American's favorite past time. But, while we cannot protect ourselves against all the multiple forces at work against our children and communities, we can take an active role in monitoring the media that our children consume. According to bestselling parenting book Nuture Shock: New Thinking About Children (2009), children begin to process racial difference and establish their social values as early as three. In fact, by nine years old, children have already firmly established their the racial attitudes and values. What does this mean for us? It's time to get to work. We simply don't have time waste!

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