FROM A POET
by Afaa Michael Weaver
(Michael S. Weaver)
I was young enough to sing doo wop in the early nineteen sixties, and in the late seventies I was still young enough to appreciate the emergence of rap. Hiphop, doowop, and rap are all words that have come and gone in African-American culture. Hip has been around as long as Cab Calloway's "Salt Peanuts" and hye dee hye dee hay and hye dee hye dee ho. Hop is part of the word for Lindy Hop, a dance popular some years before I was born, and rap was the way you talked to someone you wanted to date in the nineteen sixties. If you watch an American black and white gangster film from the thirties, rap will most likely be the time done for the crime. Or it might be a bum rap.
Today hip and hop and rap have more to do with folks like Jay Z. The December 4th issue of Newsweek magazine has a long feature story on Jay Z, a multimillionaire in the hiphop business who describes himself as an "oddball" who can move effectively between worlds of class, culture, and race. His net worth is over $300 million dollars, and his holdings include a Manhattan skyscraper. It is success in the world of hiphop. So what is the all the uproar about Hip Hop? Why are some people comparing it to minstrelsy?
Minstrelsy proper, as in American 19th century minstrelsy, refers to the popular art form that had its beginnings with white actors blackening their faces and accentuating their features to satirize black American culture in what were very often the most demeaning terms. This popular form of theater took place at a time in American history when lynchings of black people also became popular. Blacks were lynched and often burned or "barbecued" in the presence of crowds of white adults and children who very often saw it as entertainment. Public murders were entertainment in America in this hideous part of the country's history. In the midst of this, black actors who wanted to have careers in theater had no choice but to begin in minstrel shows in the late nineteenth century. They were mocking people who were mocking themselves.
I hardly think the definition of minstrelsy thus applies to hip hop, and I contend that those who insist it is minstrelsy need to go back and review the history of the form that was popular at a time when the exchange of postcards bearing photos of recent lynchings and barbecues of blacks were also popular. However, there IS something wrong in the world of hiphop, and, I contend, these problems are more complex than some critics want to believe.
Hiphop artists are not imitating imitations of themselves. This is not to say I agree with all the images in Hiphop, as I certainly have problems with images and percussive lines that support and trigger misogyny, violence, and general self-destructive behaviors. Not all Hiphop does this either. As with other forms of music, it has both good and bad manifestations. In the nineteen sixties there was a song entitled "The Dog," which had an accompanying dance, all of it quite vulgar. However, as teenagers tiptoeing on curious eyes looking out onto the landscape of hormone eruptions, we sneaked and did the dance and played the song whenever we could, or at least my group did so. It was a very nasty dance.
Music and dance forms arise within the context of cultures, and if we are going to criticize Hiphop, I suggest we do so only after looking at some other parallel developments. In the nineteen seventies, Hiphop was influenced by the influx of martial arts and the erosion of the industrial base in major American cities that began to turn black neighborhoods into barren spaces filled only with a mysterious influx of hard drugs. Those are just two influences.
Hiphop also arose as the Reagan era arose, alongside such developments as the exportation of industrial jobs to the "Third World," Wall Street scandals, and Michael J. Fox's character in the television show"Family Ties," an image of how the sixties era parents had failed these younger people growing into adulthood in the eighties. Beginning in the nineteen seventies black female fiction writers,poets, and theater artists took over positions of prominence. Black women dominated in poetry and fiction. Also, in theater Ntozake Shange's "for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf" was a smash hit on Broadway in the seventies. However, August Wilson emerged as the dominant figure in the early nineteen eighties and into the nineties, in theater, a form that seems to be a bastion of male dominance.
These changes were dynamic, both emerging from and striking at the core of African-American and American culture, and it was all contextualized in the larger framework of racial integration. After more than three centuries of slavery and segregation, integration was hardly ten years old at the time of the American bicentennial in nineteen seventy-six. Integration was the latest development in America's ongoing racial trauma than began with the Middle Passage, the slave trade that was a major factor in the emergence of American capitalism. As the Yale historian David Davis points out in his latest book Inhuman Bondage, the American way of life with its material comforts was built on the slave labor of African people and their descendants.
Into this space of conflict, hope, and confusion, children born in the late sixties grew into adolescence in the seventies and early eighties. As they approach their fortieth birthday now, they are too old to be considered hip by youngsters adhering to hiphop, and many of these youngsters are not black. They are white, Hispanic, and Asian, and they are all over the world.
Hiphop has become a global phenomenon, and it is a world of many dimensions, from the most obviously negative mistreatment of women and violence to much more conscious and human creations from lesser known artists...all in the rubric of the music.
In my view, the violence and misogyny in Hip Hop are grounded in black male anxieties about masculinity, anxieties that live alongside the serious homophobia in black culture. There is the cultural abuse all black Americans are vulnerable to, but when that is combined with issues of emotional, sexual, and physical abuse in families, toxic hypermasculinity can infect the music. African-American culture had to be closed in order to survive the horrors of slavery and segregation, but that same closed quality now inhibits the establishment of open forums and venues for treating matters such as the absue of children.
These are issues that are personal as opposed to racial, and the combinations of these factors in the art of young men and women who are untreated for the effects of such abuse are perhaps the most objectionable and the most tragic.
So hip hop's harshest critics should look more to the way two entire generations have been neglected by elders who were trying to find their way. In short, black culture and hip hop generally would benefit from studying the more salient wisdom of black feminist studies.
If something has gone wrong, it is the way some criticisms fail to take in the fuller context of the music on one hand. On the other hand the perpetrators of the negative in hip hop suffer from the communication gap between generations and between genders. Feminist studies can help.
In the seventies pre-adolescents were left to fend for themselves as family life began to morph under the pressure of complex possibilities for social progress that stood alongside the tearing down of cultural institutions built in the terrible forge of slavery and segregation. Integration was an open space dotted with the burning towers of crumbling cultural institutions and lined with paths leading to lives and careers in the wider American space of integration as blacks entered the new space, one that had been forbidden for most of American history. It was both opportunity and terrible anxieties, a mixture that reminds me of a more lyrical moment that can occur in the music alongside the percussive variation on an iambic.
In nineteen eighties, black men and women becoming adults had to confront certain ideas being given to them from all sides. Perhaps the most seductive was to be able to "make it" or grow to "live large" in a time when the goal was everything and the process was secondary. Their elders had failed them and left them in this world where the Wall Street numbers seemed to mulitply exponentially, and wealth was everywhere except in the hands of these ambitious young black people.
Attainment was everything in an ambition fed by a growing insensitivity in the country, and I see the result everywhere now, as I watch those approaching their forties. Having attained much of what they wanted and at blinding speed, they now find themselves sitting on rocks made of sand. I write with loving concern, as I think each generation has its challenges, but the collective consideration is what can lift a society and a culture. Rocks made of sand give a public confidence that hides the private fears and insecurities.
However, something is very different for those younger people I see entering their twenties. This generation wants process, and they are having to create it themselves in a world where science is moving so quickly that scientists are now more willing to admit they do not understand it all. There is a new chaos, one these younger people entering their twenties just might come to comprehend in ways that are deeply profound. I am hoping to learn from them.
As for many of those entering their forties, they will grieve when they realize they have attained goals in straw baskets made of the thinnest straw, the most fragile. There is fire in the landscape, brothers and sisters. It is the fire of landing in a place without adequate preparation.
I hope Jay Z is wise to all of this. We need him to be wise.