Against the Think Piece

Last week I was led to read Roxane Gay’s think piece on Halloween and blackface, which was published in 2013. The preface of the piece, provided by Gay herself on Twitter, was that the piece was “STILL RELEVANT” (her emphasis). After reading it, I didn’t feel that way. Though I am a fan of Gay and I think that she regularly says and writes interesting things, the article felt expired, like Halloween candy in July. The main points of the article – don’t wear blackface because it’s offensive, demeaning and unncessary – were paraded out ceremoniously and opaquely as if they are self-explanatory – which they clearly aren’t if the article is being written to explain them. Even as someone who does oppose race as costume, I really didn’t like this article.

My first impulse to this negative reaction was to question myself. Perhaps I had just read too much about blackface and Halloween and I now thought the argument was passé. After all, it really is a perennial conversation. If some sarcastic entrepreneur were to publish a calendar of annual American conversation topics, “Is Blackface Wrong?” would fit right in with other staples like, “What are we serving for Thanksgiving?” and “What are we doing for New Year’s Eve?”

I was pretty satisfied with this answer until I remembered that I regularly read rehashes of the same argument. For example, two of my favorite blogs, Native Appropriations and We Are Respectable Negroes, frequently make the same arguments as they encounter American racism in its infinitely varying guises. I have no issue with this because their arguments are routinely qualified, anchored to specific incidents and explicit ways of understanding those incidents. In fact, by repeating their arguments and accumulating more and more evidence to support them, these blogs make their arguments even stronger.

Gay’s piece and think pieces at large, I think, do not do this. Think pieces float in time, barely attached to their subject matter or to each other. They are timestamped by time, but not history. They have ambitions of old age, but they perish before they even learn to crawl. They are fated to be stillborn. In other words, they have no lasting value. Their expiration  date and their publication date are simultaneous. Think pieces are intellectual H&M.

Of course, many things on the internet and in publishing are immediately disposable and I’m okay with that, but think pieces draw my ire specifically because of their will to be discarded. They are frequently written without references, without establishing context and with a strange air of superiority, as if the writer is greatly inconvenienced by writing this, but it must be done because this opinion is just that pertinent. These traits upset me because they prevent writing from having any lasting life, resulting in pieces that are self-contained, insular and effectively unshareable. Think pieces are direct messages posing as tweets.

Academic knowledge and technical knowledge are also largely immobile and contained, but they differ from think pieces in that they don’t aim for wide circulation and they are invested in their readers’ time, so they [ideally] qualify their arguments. Think pieces aim for wide circulation, but they don’t value that potential readership enough to do even the minimum amount of baseline explanation. I’m tempted to call this practice of writing en media res sheer laziness on behalf of the writer, but I don’t think that calling these writers lazy quite captures what is happening here. Many think pieces are actually very sharply written, despite their opacity, so I think this opacity is an aesthetic feature of think pieces. In other words, think piece writers aren’t lazy: think pieces are a lazy way of presenting an argument. Think pieces traffic in alleged self-evidence, “obviousness,” which, in practice, allows writers to skirt over details, the most important part of any argument. Seriously,the entire point of writing at length is to use that additional space to build an argument. An old philosophy textbook I have actually defines an argument as an “inference made explicit.” Every argument starts with an inference, but it ends with an explanation. At best, think pieces are inferences never made explicit. At worst, they are explanations of nothing.

In the end, I think that think pieces are ultimately wastes of space and effort. I have no problem with watching people think out loud nor with watching people working themselves into a corner and giving up. In fact, I love those things because I see the thought happening, I see the process, the inference becoming explicit. I also realize that the time, space and knowledge to see an inference to its logical end are luxuries, especially in an age where many writers are writing for free and the writers who do actually get paid are constrained by deadlines, word counts and lack of resources. I get that.  That said, think pieces upset me because they presume that these things can’t be overcome or worked through and accordingly circumnavigate the entire process of making an argument, building a case. Think pieces are Law and Order with only the opening scene and the judge’s sentence. They inherently devalue the topic, the writer and the argument. And in a world where many kinds of topics, kinds of writers, and kinds of arguments are devalued just because (I’m talking about writers of color, women, LGBTQ folks and poor folks), it is piss-poor policy to accept that devaluation just for a few clicks.

Caveat: Despite different etymologies think pieces and op-eds are basically the same thing, so op-eds can die too.

Please Return to Sender (Dear White People Review)

Racism’s greatest power is its ability to drastically simplify the world. Through racism, literally all things – clothing, behaviors, desires, needs, potentials, friendships –  become ordered and recognizable, “obvious” and apparent. Racism provides answers by making the world unquestionable.

Given this alarming power, the fundamental task of all anti-racist work is to deny this contrived simplicity and undermine it, exposing the unrelenting complexity of the world and refusing to accept anything less, anything simple. There are many ways to oppose racism – after all, it does impact everything - but no matter the anti-racist technique or strategy, the goal is always to re-complicate the world. Thus, the rudimentary starting point for any fight against racism is to not accept its simplified, basic terms.

Dear White People, a movie about racism on a fictional college campus, does not do this. It is basic. Despite its expansive cast and bold ambitions, Dear White People wholeheartedly accepts the readymade conventions of racism. Both the main cast and the secondary characters are developed into overwhelmingly lame, straightforward caricatures. Sam is a biracial black woman struggling between two lovers, one black, the other white (ugh). Troy, a preppy black guy, is a pawn in his black father’s multi-generational conflict with his school’s president, a white man. Coco is an upwardly mobile black woman from the south side of Chicago who wants to rise above her background. Lionel is a gay black man who is ostracized by both the black and white communities on campus.

None of these characters are necessarily predisposed towards flatness. In fact, they are all potentially interesting, especially Lionel (I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie that cared about the college experiences of gay black dudes), but the film corrals each of them, and the secondary characters that they are connected to, onto either side of a very poorly-conceived racial divide: black vs white. There is nothing wrong with establishing factions and seeing how their ambitions collide, but the factions in Dear White People are never truly embroiled.

The characters each engage in their own racialized skirmish, but their actions are always predetermined by their position on the divide, their race. All the white characters are unrepentant or accidental racists; all of the black characters inevitably affirm their blackness. The only person who doesn’t get any resolution is Sam, but even her struggle is predictable: she is biracial so of course she cannot pick a side. (It was hard not to laugh when Sam decided to move off campus while the other black main characters all stayed at the black dorm)

The inevitability of all the characters’ outcomes and decisions is ultimately self-defeating. The film’s climax, a confrontation at a racist Halloween party, makes this most apparent. The white people are universally offensive and the black people are universally shocked and appalled. The outcome is so unsurprising that its narrative value is completely drained. Seeing the racist party after having already watched over an hour of dry conflict feels like walking around a haunted house with a copy of the floor plan. This isn’t to say that surprise is a necessary element of good filmmaking. Rather, it just felt strange for a movie that traffics in exploring inflexible racial destinies to treat an event it foresaw as something spectacular. It probably would have been more effective to highlight the banality of the party. For instance, I would have been much more horrified if I had seen two white students at the party using “nigger” in a conversation about Tolstoy.

The only particularly interesting thing about the scene is the presence of Asian and Latino students who allied with the black students to shut the party down. Their mere presence hints at more complex race relations on campus. Nevertheless, their presence also highlights their relative absence throughout the rest of the film. They appear only to advance the plot, which is kind of racist. Even within the film, it is not clear why they form this alliance. The film seems to imply that they ally with the black students simply because they are Asian and Latino. It was inevitable, I guess?

All in all, Dear White People is pretty weak. Though it is nice to see a movie that cares about black people and our experiences, mere care is a condescendingly weak threshold for a good movie or for a good perspective on race. Anybody can care, but what marginalized people need is people who care responsibly, intelligently, complexly. There are definitely sides in racial conflict, but they are absolutely not predetermined by race, and to think so is to buy directly into the simplifying logic of racism, no matter which side of the conflict you are on. Dear White People is clearly on the side of anti-racism, but it ultimately fails because it conflates allegiance, disposition, with action, decision. Anti-racism requires more than a sarcastically endearing address – “Dear White People.” More importantly, it requires acknowledging that those people and your relation to them, is much more complex than your sarcasm belies.

Classified – A Response to Sydette Harry

Robocop Classified

At the end of her razor-sharp article on the racialized, sexualized and gendered elements of contemporary surveillance, Sydette Harry asks a provocative question: “What is the solution to being constantly watched, if no one sees you at all?” Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Tatyana Fazlalidadeh‘s Stop Telling Women to Smile offer an answer.

A History of Abuse

The backdrop for Harry’s question and her larger article is the inherently abusive nature of surveillance. As Harry writes, surveillance “is based on a presumption of entitlement to access, by right or by force.” As she goes on to argue, black bodies, particularly female black bodies, are understood as being especially accessible. This understanding is troubling in and of itself, but as Harry points out, it exacerbated by the fact that this accessibility often results in the paradoxical erasure of black women. Literally, the more visible black women become, the more they are rendered invisible.

For instance, though the recorded abuse of Janay Rice was the catalyst for a national conversation about domestic abuse, Rice’s voice was quickly muffled, splintering into discussions of the professional future of Ray Rice and whether Janay should have stayed with him to begin with, among other things. Harry’s point is that these peripheral conversations eclipsed Janay Rice’s voice: there were more stations looping the elevator footage of her being abused than there were looping her response to the situation.

Harry provides other strong examples – the discussion following the Knowles and Carter elevator incident, Vogue claiming that JLo made big butts acceptable – but her real interest is coming up with strategies for eliminating this paradox and rendering black women visible, as they are and as they want to be, not simply as silent objects of a CCTV screen or a WSHH video.

Toward this end, she expands then ultimately rejects Steven Mann’s concept of sousveillance, which seeks to counter surveillance by rerouting the collected information of surveillance to the ones being surveilled: users. This expansion of sousveillance is interesting, especially since Harry defines it as “all forms of using tech to jam surveillance.” (I really like the word “jamming”) The examples of “tech” that she uses are all technological – hashtags, phone recordings, photos – but towards the end of the article, she emphasizes that surveillance existed before these particular technologies, so I’m going to read sousveillance as all forms of using techniques to jam surveillance.

Harry acknowledges the potential strength of sousveillance, but she is wary of how much personal disclosure they involve. For example, she cites the Buzzfeed article that details the case of Daniel Holtzclaw, the police officer that stalked and sexually abused black women. The article has pure intentions, but in order to make its case, the article must render the abuse of Holtzclaw’s victims in vivid detail, subsequently treading the troubling line between journalistic rigor and gonzo exploitation. I think that the article is ultimately rigorous, but Harry’s trepidation towards sousveillance still stands, especially when she cites very recent instances in which sousveillance proved ineffective, like the multiple accounts of police violence in Ferguson. Despite the ubiquity of recorded instances of police brutality, convictions are still rare. In other words, even when black people open up their raw wounds to public scrutiny, sympathy and justice are still delayed, if they ever even arrive.

Because sousveillance jams surveillance of black bodies by inundating those same bodies with sunlight, resulting in black people still getting burned, Harry rightfully rejects it. Thus, she is left with the opening question: “What is the solution to being constantly watched, if no one sees you at all?”

Lessons From the Invisible Underground

Invisible Man is the story of a black man who is black in an America that has finite and constraining visions of what or who a black man can be. Throughout the novel, the Invisible Man is forced to serve multiple roles; he is variously a mouthpiece for a Communist organization, a symbol of racial betrayal for a Pan-Africanist organization, a source of entertainment for rich white men, a symbol of bestial sexual fulfillment for white women and a mindless drone for industrial capitalists, among many other things. In all of these instances, his personal goals, opinions, desires and needs are overlooked, ignored or dismissed. Through coercion, manipulation and even sheer force, he is continually made to serve the wills of others.

In regard to the matter at hand, the Invisible Man’s experiences highlight an interesting dimension of surveillance: for every will he must serve, for every force that accesses him without his permission, there is a corresponding form he must embody. In order for him to become a boxer, he must be given gloves; in order for him to become a speaker for The Brotherhood, he must be given lessons from the group’s appointed propagandist; in order to become The Invisible Man, he must give himself a story. In each instance, the Invisible Man is reshaped into the image that fits the designs for his body.

This reshaping transformation is a necessary condition of surveillance. Although surveillance is perhaps experienced as an all-seeing eye, it is actually an eye that sees all it wants, things that it deems worth seeing. This valuing of certain things over others transforms the object being seen. There is a reason that the TSA looks for bombs, knives, guns and hockey sticks, but doesn’t look for copies of Hitler’s autobiography. Likewise, there is a reason that the NSA monitors people with links to so-called terrorists and not people with links to My Little Pony fanfiction. Of course, what a surveilling body wants to see is always mutable, and thus potentially more invasive, more abusive, hence the inherent discomfort of surveillance. Yet, this potential for further abuse is also a liability because it necessitates more items to screen, more data to process, more bodies to transform. As the data accumulates, images become less intelligible, less discernible, so parsing it entails either increasingly sophisticated methods of looking or continued looking with increasing gaps in the image.

In the Invisible Man’s view, he created so many gaps in his oppressor’s images that he became invisible, hiding in plain sight. While I do think he was successful, I am not comforted by his course of action. After all, he had to conduct his own sousveillance: he had to relive his very painful and traumatic life story. Thus, even if it is on his own terms, invisibility still feels like a defeat. I want to be seen, I want to be felt, I want to be heard. Furthermore, who’s to say that his invisibility isn’t temporary? Who knows that, but on the lower frequencies, he isn’t being wiretapped?

That said, I think that the Invisible Man ultimately offers a useful answer to Harry’s question: the solution to constantly being watched is to make yourself unwatchable. The Invisible Man’s mistake was to think that becoming unwatchable meant becoming invisible, jamming through an absurd self-determination that was actually self-denial. Becoming unwatchable means becoming undetectable, becoming unintelligible as that which you are supposed to be perceived as. Invisibility can be a part of such a program, as well as anonymity, disguise, mask, or grotesqueness, but none of these tactics necessitates self-negation, absence. Quite the opposite, these tactics necessitate an increased presence. However, this presence is unrecognizable to the surveilling body: classified.

I do not know exactly what it means for black women in particular to render themselves unwatchable, especially on a collective level, but I think that there are already interesting developments out there. For instance, Tatyana Fazlalizadeh‘s series, Stop Telling Women to Smile, actively opposes the idea that women should be seen on others’, especially men’s, terms. What is particularly powerful about the series is that each screenprint features the unique words of the woman being pictured, so each woman is responding to her specific experiences of surveillance and rejecting surveillance in a distinct way. More importantly, unlike the Invisible Man, these women are not appearing as disembodied voices or phrases or having to gruesomely unveil their wounds. They are simultaneously rejecting surveillance and affirming their visibility. They are becoming seen and unseen, concurrently shunning a form that does not fit them and embodying a new one, one that they actually already have.

In the end, becoming unwatchable is ultimately about undermining the infrastructure of surveillance. Because the reigning infrastructure of surveillance is so well-integrated into our lives – technologically, socially, and culturally – it is difficult to imagine ways to jam it, especially ways that don’t involve opening wounds and risking further pain. Nevertheless, it is not impossible. Though there are literal and figurative cameras everywhere, there are also endless amounts of oppositional forms we can embody, from isolated invisible tunnel dweller, to militant, self-affirming screenprints, to rocks rocketing toward a closed circuit television. It is not fair that we have to embody these forms, but my point is that most of us are already in them. We are them. So becoming seen isn’t a matter of repairing the gazes of those who watch us, giving them further access through futile sousveillance. It’s a matter of constantly reminding them that their access is neither appropriate nor accurate. They cannot see because we refuse to be defined by their gaze, not because they need to see more (sousveillance). Also, we are jamming the shit out of their cameras.

The Wire Rock Being Thrown Opening Video

 

Inside the Sketch Factory

Sketch Factor 1

After our first year of college, a high school friend and I rendezvoused during the summer and gleefully exchanged notes, mostly about our new social environments. Though our experiences were different – he went to a large state school (University of Georgia) and I went to a much smaller private school (Mercer University) – they were also strikingly similar, especially in regard to race. Both of our schools had a significant white majority, a sharp contrast to our high school, which was overwhelmingly black. And both schools were directly adjacent to public housing, palpable urban decay and the relatively poor black people that lived under those circumstances. In other words, we both went to schools where black poverty was in the hinterlands.

One of the words that was commonly used to describe these hinterlands – which, I should note, were hinterlands only if you made our schools the center of the universe – was sketchy, sometimes just shortened to “sketch.” After a year of ambient exposure to this word, almost exclusively when in the company of white students, we both knew what it meant: ghetto, hood, poor, scary, black, us. The constellation of bigotry is never difficult to trace.

Sketch Factor, a new app that aims to offer walkers an opportunity to traverse cities safely, without encountering “sketchy” areas, seems to want to distance itself from that constellation of bigotry, embracing the alleged openness of sketchiness. When asked why sketchiness deserves its own app, Allison McGuire, one of Sketch Factor’s founders, says, “Sketchiness is universal in its appeal. People experience sketchy things all over, whether it’s totally weird and bizarre, to something that’s potentially dangerous, to consistent issues in a specific area, so the reason that we went with Sketch Factor as opposed to ‘Safety Factor’ or something like that is because it’s interesting, it’s universal, and people understand it and it applies to different things.”

McGuire is confident about the self-evidence of sketchiness and about what Sketch Factor can do, but as the founder of a start-up, it is her job to be confident. What does Sketch Factor actually do? How does it really work?

It begins with an exchange. To download the app, users share their email address, age, gender and name – standard app protocols. Users also must share their location, which is the app’s most crucial piece of information. Location data allows Sketch Factor to suggest routes to users who want help navigating safely, and record and display “sketch points,” places where “sketchy” experiences were reported. These reports can be filed under four categories: weird, dangerous, protip and something else.

Sketch Factor screenshot categories

These features work in concert: each time a user submits a report in an area, future users in that area who use the app’s “suggested routes” feature will see more sketch points, which are color-coded according to the category they were filed under. Likewise, users who use these suggested routes will be able to upvote or downvote the sketch points, depending on their experiences of the area and the seeming authenticity of the report.

In addition to using its own crowdsourced data to suggest and display routes, the app also uses publicly available crime data, which is sourced from city and municipal databases (notably, not all municipalities provide or collect such data; so some Sketch Factor users may be getting suggested routes based solely on user submissions). This publicly available data is not visually displayed in the app because, as Sketch Factor co-founder, Daniel Herrington, reveals, “We were afraid we would overwhelm users with too much information.”

Considering the app’s visual interface, this is a strange statement. Because of the hyperlocalized nature of the app’s reporting mechanisms, a single block can be bursting with sketch points. And this surfeit makes the app stronger. McGuire makes this relationship between data and excess clear when she says, “The data gets stronger and the analytics gets stronger, the more information that we have.”

Given these contradictions, the real conflict seems to be between the app’s social intentions and its business intentions. Socially, the app is intended to be a tool to “empower users to decide what they want to see and what they want to avoid,” says Herrington. But if that were the case, why would the app inundate users with crowdsourced sketch points rather than publicly collected data? This data must be at least somewhat accountable if it is so fully integrated into the infrastructure of the app. McGuire even says, “When it comes to publicly available data, you can’t really vote on that.” So why not present such incontrovertible data by itself? Chicago, a city that Herrington and McGuire both praise for the availability of its data, released its data a few years ago and there is an entire civic group, Open City, that is dedicated to presenting that data in interesting ways, specifically through apps. Why is Sketch Factor not so open?

McGuire offers a partial answer to this question when she repeatedly declines to reveal Sketch Factor’s “community partners,” organizations that she cites throughout the interview as integral to shaping the app’s development. According to McGuire, these organizations represent a range of interests, “ from looking at LGBT violence on a city level, to looking at sexual harassment, to looking at…druggings in bars, to looking at racial profiling, to looking at decriminalization, to looking at community gardens.” This range is quite impressive, but it is quite suspect for community organizations, especially with such likeable interests, to be making partnerships in secret. McGuire suggests that this secrecy is a preemptive response to Sketch Factor’s predictable negative press, explaining, “We went out to market deciding that it would be best to keep our partners under wraps because we knew that we were going to get some attention and we wanted to make sure that we worked out some of the kinks and communicated that to our partners.” Apparently, McGuire’s confidence in the app is not widely shared..

The real reason for the guardedness of Sketch Factor’s partners emerges when McGuire discusses what happens to the data that’s collected by the app: “We want to continue to partner with community groups that are advocating on certain issues that reflect their priorities and we can give them hard data – ‘here’s how other people are experiencing this problem in your city or on your block.’ So that’s one way. The other way is providing that information to companies that can benefit from it, such as energy companies. People can benefit from whether or not an area is well-lit or poorly lit, even if the energy company says, well we have five lights on this block. We can say, well people keep saying it’s not a well-lit block. And they say well maybe we need seven lights.”

Though the street lights example is appealing, to put it bluntly, Sketch Factor is in the business of data commerce: the app collects data and peddles it to interested and potentially interested parties. Its vague, “universal appeal” allows it to collect a range of data, a universe, if you will, and its use of public databases allows that data to be paired with already-corroborated data, subsequently increasing its value, expanding the universe.

This is not a novel business model or even a particularly upsetting one, especially in the tech world. Yet, there is a palpable irresponsibility in how cavalierly Sketch Factor evades its accountability towards how it solicits its data. This attitude is on full-display when Herrington matter-of-factly says, “It’s the crowd, so the crowd’s gonna use it as they’re gonna use it.” This fatalism completely ignores the fact that the crowd is incited to speak in a certain way at the prompting of the app. Having categories like, “weird,” “dangerous,” and “protip” encourages particular kinds of responses, especially when these responses are all filed under the vague notion of sketchiness. In fact, “something else,” the fourth and most unspecified possible report category, is tellingly the least used.

Admittedly, McGuire and Herrington do highlight thoughtful features of the app such as downvoting and upvoting and a prompt that asks users using potentially offensive words, “Are you sure you want to post that? Some people might find it offensive.” The plucky pair also details their own backend tracking of words that are consistently flagged as offensive, categories that are used to post offensive content and users who receive frequent downvotes, all worthwhile features. Yet, they are also perfectly complacent with these features, as if an app that by definition leverages peoples’ vague and potentially unfounded feelings of uneasiness is morally neutral because the makers of the app simply intended it to be.

Defending these intentions, McGuire believes that Sketch Factor is a step forward, comparing Sketch Factor’s approach to approaches from the past. “What people have done time and time and time again before us, is that they have gone in and they have painted neighborhoods broad brushstroke as safe, unsafe, good, bad, and that has really harmed neighborhoods and helped neighborhoods. So what we’re looking to do is be really really specific about saying here’s where there’s a specific problem occurring, or hey here’s where something really funny keeps occurring or here’s where something we should look at continues to happen. And how can we better address these things?” McGuire’s comparison between broad brushstrokes and pointillist sketch points is almost convincing, but she seems to be forgetting that both techniques still produce full portraits.

Sketch Factor Washington DC

[Washington DC]

In other words, hyperlocalization is not a cure-all. When I was an undergraduate, the first “sketchy” place I was told about was a particular stoplight that was a few blocks from the edge of campus. According to campus lore, if a frightened student decided to run the light and was caught, the ticket would be forgiven. I’m pretty sure that this was untrue, but I mention it because the alleged sketchiness of that neighborhood was not contained at the stoplight. The lore was a parable for how to act at any place in the neighborhood. Sketch points emit sketchiness; they do not enclose it.

Above all, I wonder how these emissions affect the people who are adjacent to them. Herrington reminds me that Sketch Factor is aimed at explorers and wanderers, but what about residents? What does it mean to live in a neighborhood that is marred with sketch points? To put it differently, what does it mean to live in the hinterlands? As someone who was always potentially a resident of hinterlands, just by virtue of being black, I can confidently say that it isn’t a positive development. In fact, I think it’s pretty racist.

The interview that this essay is based on was originally conducted for Paste Magazine. The transcript is available upon request. 

How Questlove Failed Hip-Hop

The Hunger Strike Boondocks BET

The two-part season finale of the second season of The Boondocks was a satirical weapon of mass destruction. Explicitly accosting BET, The Boondocks presented the network as a cabal of callous, cynical, self-hating and utterly wretched black people who actively sought to undermine black American existence. Though this presentation was clearly satirical, unabashedly wearing its dense layers of hyperbole, parody and reference on its face, there was also a clear contempt for the network. In fact, in one scene the head executive of the network, Deborah Leevil, a grotesque caricature of Debra L. Lee, literally bows to a white man. This unapologetic tone works great for laughs, but it also underscores the simplicity of the episode’s argument. Rather than targeting the industry-wide media practices that make a network like BET sustainable – racialized market segmentation in particular – the show simply points to the network itself, singularly pinpointing BET as a source of black pain and dropping satirical nuclear missiles over its board of directors.

In his essay series “How Hip-Hop Failed Black America” Questlove makes a similar move, berating hip-hop for its cultural dominance, its values, its diminishing of black cool, its parallels with disco and its indifference toward black culture, yet not directly dealing with the world that made and makes hip-hop possible. In this response to his essays, I’m going to simultaneously sketch out this world and highlight hip-hop’s place and history within it.

Remembering Record Labels

In a blog post from earlier this year, I explicitly challenged the notion that hip-hop represents all black people, arguing that it never has, never will and probably never should. I’d like to double-down on that point here because Questlove’s fundamental premise is that “hip-hop has taken over black music.” To underscore this claim, he points to the late 80′s, citing musicians like Michael Jackson, Tracy Chapman, Lionel Richie and more, and highlighting how these musicians coexisted with hip-hop acts like Queen Latifah and EPMD. “Hip-hop was just a piece of the pie,” he writes with nostalgia. Nowadays, he feels that hip-hop essentially encompasses the entire pie of black music, rendering other forms of black music susceptible to hip-hop’s follies and making hip-hop itself less potent.

There is a strange gap here. While Questlove has been a member of the music industry as both a producer and consumer for nearly 3 decades, he does not cite any particular mechanisms for how hip-hop rose to its alleged dominance. Even as a mere consumer, in my blog post I was able to cite instances of hip-hop not really dominating black life, mentioning how older relatives found themselves represented by gospel, jazz, movies, television shows and R&B. Despite his years of experience, Questlove strangely fails to offer a single anecdote. For him, hip-hop’s dominance is just a fact, plain and simple. Thus, the contemporary disposition of black music is all hip-hop’s fault.

I think that this is a very strange logical leap, especially if we consider the dominant mechanism through which music has been produced and distributed throughout hip-hop’s existence: record labels. There is a reason why the major label is hip-hop’s favorite whipping boy. Major label deals and their consequences – both good and bad – have had profound impacts on how hip-hop has developed. One useful way to think about the significance of label deals is to look at rap groups where the various members have had different label deals as individual artists. Wu-Tang Clan is a prime example. With the exception of the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard, the core members RZA, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Method Man, U-God, GZA, Inspectah Deck and Masta Killa have all released at least 3 studio albums through various record labels. Of these numerous individual releases (42, by my count), 9 have gone gold or better. Of those 9, literally all of them were distributed through a major label.

Now this doesn’t mean that record contracts have a 100% success rate. Of the 42 albums in this sample, 22 were released through a major label, so the actual percentage of gold+ sales through record deals is 41% (9/22). And even that percentage should be understood carefully because we have no knowledge of the bottom line – perhaps the albums were given the budget of a platinum album, making a gold certification just a 50% return – and because most of these albums went gold+ in the ’90s and early aughts, meaning that they are time-stamped by a period in which music sales were relatively high.

Even with these caveats in mind, this sample illustrates the tremendous differences that a record contract can make. Unsurprisingly, the Wu-Tang members with the most fame and notoriety – Method Man, Raekwon and Ghostface – have released the most major label albums, including one with just the three of them (RZA is more famous for production than rapping, I think). Sure, this is one correspondence among many: they have also each been highly prolific, for example. But I’ll be blunt: when it comes down to it, their fame is a direct product of the power of labels, particularly the power of distribution. Distribution should be taken very seriously. It is much more than printing packaging and shipping. Distribution is the operational apparatus through which albums are made purchasable.

Wu Massacre

Depending on the label’s investment in an artist, this apparatus can be exquisitely thorough. For instance, whenever there is a new Justin Bieber song, he appears on the front page of the iTunes interface. This is no accident. Labels understand that the front page is a valuable position, so they arrange for the song to have heightened visibility. The same goes for physical stores. Labels have been known to sell albums to record stores at slightly lower prices if the stores agree to display the albums more prominently or on a higher shelf. For established artists, labels have even been known to design their tours around cities where albums have historically sold more copies. Though they are not foolproof because people actually do listen to music (I hope), these kinds of direct interventions in the marketplace have profound effects, especially when they are concentrated toward one artist or act or market.

One particular effect is the flexible allocation of resources. Because labels do not have infinite resources, when they concentrate their capital toward one artist/one market, this is at the expense of other artists/markets. Thus, even when labels participate in multiple markets, they don’t tend to have coinciding release dates. They consciously decide when to release albums, considering their fiscal projections for distributing the album as well as looking at other factors, like the release dates for competitors. For example, Roc Nation is never going to release a J. Cole album, a Jay Z album and a Rihanna album all on the same Tuesday, even if all three artists turn in fully mixed and mastered copies of their albums at the same time. More than likely, they will release Rihanna’s album first, then Jay Z’s, then J. Cole’s.

The consequence of that release order may be that J. Cole’s buzz dies down because his hit single drowns in the ever-flowing stream of new Nicki Minaj songs. Consequently, when he releases another single and it does relatively poorly, the label decides to allocate more money toward Rihanna, subsequently limiting J. Cole’s possible talk show and radio appearances to promote the album. Eventually his album is released and it does poorly, so the label drops him. It may be hard to have sympathy for this fictional J. Cole or even the real one, but if you replace him with an entire genre, like jazz or blues, it becomes clear how punishing labels can be. Though labels decide how to intervene in the marketplace, individual artists and entire genres ultimately pay for those interventions, especially if there are negative effects. In the case of hip-hop, during its coming of age, other forms of black music were cast aside in order to concentrate resources toward hip-hop. In other words, hip-hop didn’t take over black music. Black music was left behind. And I’d be willing to bet that it was left behind precisely because black people have questionably been assumed to be its only viable listeners.

I Never Saw Luther Vandross on TRL

When I interviewed the rapper Skyzoo a few years ago, he mentioned being deeply inspired by Chi-Ali, a rapper who he saw on Yo! MTV raps as a kid. I never watched Yo! MTV Raps because I wasn’t even born during the first two years that it aired, so I don’t have anything to say about the show’s content. That said, the existence of shows that were exclusively dedicated to rap is worth considering. In my own lifetime, before Youtube, I can recall watching Cita’s World, Rap City, Direct Effect, Sucker Free and MTV Jams (it was a crappy show before it was a crappy channel). In contrast, for other forms of black music, I solely recall watching Midnight Love and Soul Train. That’s it. And Midnight Love came on at midnight, while Soul Train came on on Saturdays at noon, so these other forms of black music were culturally and temporally marginalized.

This marginalization was not accidental. Artists like Whitney Houston, Prince, Michael Jackson, Diana Ross and the Isley Brothers were all still signed to major labels, and they continually toured and appeared on television, but they were notably quarantined. I never saw Luther Vandross appear on TRL. I never saw Anita Baker on 106 and Park. I never saw Kevin Aviance on the cover of Vibe. These are not just errors of history. They are the effects of conscious efforts to construct and maintain markets. And because these markets (and subsequently the artists and genres they contained) were not consistently maintained, some fell into disrepair, obscurity and ruin.

It is always tempting to narrate the rises and falls of musical genre on aesthetic grounds, in terms of coolness and meaning and style. After all, the structural realities that make music possible are rarely visible: music is experienced as music, not the arbitrary machinations of corporate investments and whims. And even artists paint over these structural realities, often vaguely speaking of either song popularity or song quality as if these are unaffected by outside mechanisms. That said, in the same way that there would be no car industry if the US government hadn’t spent decades building highways and untold billions subsidizing American car companies (through bailouts as well as tax breaks), hip-hop as we know it wouldn’t be hip-hop without major labels concentrating their resources on keeping the genre afloat. This doesn’t mean that hip-hop is merely a puppet genre or that the record industry had some evil, conspiratorial agenda. Most recognizable genres are subsidized by the behemoth record industry( In fact, we can see these subsidies happening to “EDM” in real time). It just means that because hip-hop came of age in a marketplace where black music was already circumscribed, labels’ investment in hip-hop necessarily came at the expense of other forms of black music. Structural racism is to blame, not hip-hop’s values.

Of course, hip-hop’s collective values could certainly use some work. I’m tired of hip-hop continually producing the same narratives: rags to riches, remaining rich, being rich, becoming richer, regaining riches after momentarily wearing rags, reminding haters why they’re not rich, recanting respect for other rappers because they sold out to become rich, remembering discounts at Rich’s before it was acquired by Macy’s, etc. Hell, I’m also tired of hip-hop’s gonzo journalistic perspective. In fact, when I reviewed Common’s new album for Paste, my criticism was essentially that the album fails because he raps about himself too much instead of getting inside the mind of other people or other genders (or other species, like Aesop Rock in this song). And the worst offender for me personally is hip-hop’s continued misogyny. The fact that radio versions exist and do well is perfect proof that songs don’t require these words (or more importantly these sentiments) that intentionally and instinctively diminish women.

But all of these practices are ultimately aesthetic, so no matter how successfully hip-hop manages to purge itself of its entrenched iniquities, the fact remains that hip-hop exists within an ecosystem in which black media is already under tight restraint. And I’ve never broken out of handcuffs before, but I’m pretty sure that no amount of finger-wagging, self-scrutiny, nostalgia or brutal satire, will singularly enable escape. Say hip-hop no more, son, it’s bigger than that.

This Excludes Me: On the Dangers of “I Can’t Relate”

I can't relate

(Via ryaneagle.com)

“I can’t relate” is a common response to artworks, ideas, people and other things that just didn’t feel quite relevant to one’s experiences or interests. On one hand, it’s an alternative and somewhat polite way of saying, “I don’t care.” If a close friend or co-worker passionately introduced you to something or someone that gets them off and it just didn’t do anything for you, “I can’t relate” is perfect for claiming your disinterest without risking insult. On the other hand, “I can’t relate” is a very literal statement. For some reason, a person or idea that you encountered was unable or unwilling to establish or maintain a compelling relationship, like a bad first date.

I’ve often seen “I can’t relate” used in response to narratives or pieces of art that felt either exclusionary or just non-inclusive, the former pushing one away and the latter just not acknowledging one’s existence. I think that these feelings and this particular way of articulating them – “I can’t relate” - are completely legitimate, but I also think that “I can’t relate” has some noteworthy limitations that shouldn’t be overlooked.

The first limitation is the kind of relationship that “I can’t relate” tends to refer to. In most cases, the relationship is one of direct correspondence. People “can’t relate” because the person or object in question doesn’t directly connect with them on the registers that they find important. Another way to put it is that the object doesn’t present itself in the way one prefers. The show Girls (Full disclosure: I’ve never watched it) has been attacked on these grounds on multiple occasions because of its absence of women of color. SNL was recently attacked on similar grounds for its absence of black women. I sympathize with these attacks in practice because they call attention to problems with our media landscape, but I wonder how well they articulate what plaintiffs really want. In other words, could people [of color] not relate to Girls and SNL because 1) they saw no people of color or 2) because they felt people of color were actively written out of these shows? Or perhaps there are other reasons entirely. Whatever the actual case, “I can’t relate” always frames grievances in terms of direct correspondence.

There is a distinction between these two options (1 & 2) that “I can’t relate” can’t really address. SNL’s subsequent hiring of more black women, for example, changes the presentation of the show, but it’s unclear how [or if!] it changes the experience of the show, the actual relationship one has with the show. If it does, how does this happen? What about the presence of a black woman on a tv show makes the show palatable to black viewers generally and black women specifically? “I can’t relate” answers this question by saying that the presence itself is the important factor because the absence was the original problem.

I’m not entirely satisfied with that answer, especially when you consider the second limitation of “I can’t relate,” which is that it doesn’t quite account for people who in fact do relate to the object in question despite not being directly represented. For example, my stepfather, my stepmother and my stepgrandfather, who are all black and from the South, are all very fond of Westerns. On one hand, I’m sure this is a product of them growing up in a time where Westerns had the same prestige and ubiquity that action movies have today. But on the other hand, for whatever reason, the three of them are simply intrigued by the genre. I know from speaking with them that they would have liked to have seen more Westerns with black characters, especially black characters who weren’t servants, sidekicks, prostitutes, cannon fodder or menial workers. In fact, they all seem to know who the black actors were by name, implying that they had an enhanced relationship with those particular actors, much like a young black kid (like me) being able to specifically name-check black superheroes. Given these enhanced relationships, I think it’s fair to say that the three of them would have liked to relate to Westerns in a different way. That said, they each managed to relate to the genre anyway, despite its lack of direct correspondence and despite their very concrete incentives to actively shun the genre (i.e. being black in the 60s and before). That is important to recognize.

“I can’t relate” wouldn’t be able to recognize that persisting relation” because it posits our relationships with media as being direct, solid, when they are in fact much more liquid or even gaseous, impossible to grasp. Even if it is useful for framing grievances and is sometimes true – there are definitely things I like just because of one black character or one female character, etc. – “I can’t relate” is a tactic that I would use very strategically because it reduces relationships with media down to checklists that don’t reflect real problems with the media landscape. This is dangerous because these checklists are readily co-opted into the service of statements like, “This show has no white men. This is racist” or “All the men die. This is sexist.” As silly and pigheaded and just plain wrong as those statements are, I think that their ability to be uttered is also a function of “I can’t relate.” As a frame, it simply can’t reliably relay the complexity of legitimate grievances against our distorted, dehumanizing and disrespectful universe of media. So instead of saying, “I can’t relate” sometimes it’s better to change it up and say, “This excludes me” and insist that “excludes” is a very, very active verb.

“Where Is the Hidden Labor?” – On How It’s Made, Kara Walker and Infrastructure

Artist Preface A Subtlety Kara Walker

“A subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby. An Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant”

Last fall I took a class on “current controversies” in critical theory, which essentially meant we read what was “trending” in academic thought. Though we read some very disparate texts, throughout the class, under different variations, the professor repeatedly posed the same essential question: “How do things work?”

The variation of the question that stuck with me most vividly was, “Where is the hidden labor?” Much more polemic than “How do things work?” this particular variation asks what or who makes things work, and why exactly their labor is invisible. The reason this particular question resonates so much for me is that implicitly, it asserts that labor is a form of infrastructure and furthermore, that this labor should be valued. To put it bluntly, I was once an unpaid intern.

In her new installation, “A Subtlety,” Kara Walker takes this assertion seriously, taking the viewer into an old sugar refinery and magnifying the infrastructure that made – and makes – sugar possible. In the absence of machines, equipment and devices, there are instead sculptures made of brown sugar and molasses. Depicting weary and dirty little black boys at work, the sculptures have an aura of profound exhaustion, some even actually melting during the exhibit, as if even the display itself is a form of tiring labor.

Little Sugar Boy Sugar Baby

Stretching all the way down the factory’s incredibly capacious passageway, the sculptures form a meandering path to the exhibit’s prime feature: a giant sphinx made of pristine, refined sugar. The rub, however, was that this sphinx depicted a behemoth, buxom black woman, not the familiar mythical creature. Standing 50 feet tall with her genitalia exposed, her rump raised and an Aunt Jemima handkerchief tied tight, this sphinx was a grotesque and awesome sight. Her size and the sheer spectacle of the exhibit – which actually requested photography – only amplified both the grotesqueness and the awe. Even further, the fact that she was composed of white sugar, which contrasted with the brown sugar of the little boys, made her even more compelling. She was not melting or impure; she was purified, perfect, poised.A Subtlety Kara Walker Sphinx Sugar

A Subtlety Sphinx Sugar Nude Kara Walker

Yet she was also not a giant cube of sugar. This sphinx was clearly a black woman. In other words,she actually embodied the labor that made her possible: she appeared as a denuded, mammified, audacious, sugarcoated black woman. The infrastructure was the structure.

The exhibit points toward this revelation quite doggedly, asking us to confront history as it was made – through black bodies and black labor – not as it is presented in the form of tiny, delectable, processed granules. In the sense that the exhibit explicitly draws attention to infrastructure, it is strangely in the same tradition as one of my favorite tv shows, How It’s Made.

That said, what has struck me about “A Subtlety” is that Walker has actively reimagined the final product. In addition to rarely choosing products that are controversial or not mechanized, when How It’s Made shows the underbelly of familiar products, at the end of the process we see the product in its familiar form, infrastructure acknowledged, yet ultimately still not visible, as if we’ve learned a secret, but only to guard it more closely. In contrast, Walker reveals the infrastructure and forces it to the surface, like a muscle bulging through skin, becoming the skin. This is not defamiliarization or enlightenment or unveiling, all of which imply that we were looking from the incorrect angle, from an obscured perspective. No, this is metamorphosis. Through “A Subtlety,” sugar becomes a legacy of exploitation and devaluation of labor and life as well as a sweet confection. Every sugar crystal becomes a piece of the sphinx and the little children.

Of course, this becoming is never complete. Stephanye Watts at Gawker notes that unsurprisingly, the revelation I’ve outlined and experienced is one among many, namely one that manages to trivialize the entire exhibit in one phrase: “Sugar tits.” Even further, the exhibit is not permanent, so soon the labor and life embodied by the sphinx will be just as invisible as the labor that previously animated by the formerly productive factory.

That said, the value of “A Subtlety” is that it offers a glimpse of what things can look like when infrastructure, particularly labor, is made bare and made to remain that way. Seeing this exhibit gave me visions of The Great Wall of China with skeletons at its base; of Wal-Mart with its employees wearing name badges that also show their wages; of burger joints with cow heads engraved into the tables; of Qatar’s World Cup facilities littered with the corpses of dead workers; of iPhones with preloaded and undeletable photos of the people who manufactured them. These visions didn’t present a flattering portrait of the world, but the world could probably use less meticulously-orchestrated selfies and more detailed, unflattering accounts of what and who actually makes this world possible.

We have already began to view these unflattering accounts in the food and health industries. In fact, the ubiquity of nutrition facts labels shows how mundane of an idea it is for infrastructure to be apparent. There’s no reason not to branch out. After all, even though Walker herself is ironically engaged with a food item, she shows that food is always just one axis on a much more expansive grid, one that ridiculously connects us through time, space, history and memory, like a naked black sphinx in the middle of soon-to-be-redeveloped abandoned sugar factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.


P.S. Here’s a slideshow that Walker made to highlight some of her inspirations. It is also very attentive to infrastructure.