Listen Comprehensively: Quick Thoughts on Anne Hathaway and Jimmy Fallon’s Rap Covers

Last night Anne Hathaway and Jimmy Fallon converted some rap songs into lounge music*. I was afraid that there might be some lame mocking of rap, but that’s not what happened. The main joke seemed to be the sheer oddness of lounge performances, especially the awkward, contrived sexual tension between the pianist and the singer and the bizarreness of the popular songs they choose to perform. Live lounge music is basically karaoke done by professionals instead of drunken strangers. It’s wrong in principle and even worse in execution.

What was specifically interesting to me was how thoroughly Fallon and Hathaway managed to convert the rap songs into lounge music. They genuinely sounded nothing like the originals. The cadences, deliveries and general affects were profoundly different despite the lyrics remaining unchanged. A lot of people – especially the people over at Rap Genius and sometimes Reddit- insist that lyrics are the most critical part of rap songs and implicitly music in general, but I think that performances like this and perhaps even remixes in general thoroughly disprove that argument. There is a constellation of things happening in this performance and the lyrics are just one, tiny dimension.

Lyrics vary in significance from artist to artist (within rap and across genres) and I definitely would support the notion that lyrics have a heightened significance in rap, but lyrics aren’t everything. More importantly, as this performance demonstrates, how we experience lyrics is profoundly affected by other elements of songs. Anyone who has ever been to a live concert and enjoyed it despite a crappy sound system or complete ignorance of the music being performed can definitely agree. Even better, if you watched this video and knew nothing about the original songs, yet were unable to identify them as covers of rap songs, you can agree. Rap music is so much more than words on a page or just words. Talking about music is only worthwhile if we realize this and listen comprehensively, not just closely.

Lastly, damn Anne Hathaway can sing.

*The video is labeled as “Broadway versions” of rap songs, but I think that’s a mistake. This is definitely lounge singing.

Cuz It’s All a Nigga Got: On Vince Staples, Guns and Nihilism

ImageThough G-Unit’s song “My Buddy” is one of rap’s most memorable songs about guns, in the song, guns are aggressively one-dimensional. Essentially serving as accessories, their only real function is to amplify G-Unit’s street cred. Nas’ “Got Ur Self A Gun” is less fetishistic, but the resulting message is the same: people with guns are people to be feared and respected. On Vince Staples’ new album Shyne Coldchain II, guns don’t appear as mere props. Tying his love and need for guns to the stark absence of any other forms of security, Vince develops guns as a rich and multifaceted symbol. For me, how he accomplishes this is interesting in terms of symbolism and narrative technique. 

The first thing that makes this accomplishment so noteworthy is the sheer fact of Vince’s characteristic obliqueness. Even when he’s being clever, Vince always maintains his poker face, speaking at a constant slant as if he’s being wiretapped. For instance, on “Humble,” he raps, “Daddy had us contact high off of crack smoke/Had to get it crackin’ with the 7 cause the MAC broke/Wrist fucked up, couldn’t make it to practice.” Though he doesn’t say it outright, in this brief aside Vince reveals that he spent so much time shooting guns as a teenager that he ruined his wrist and ruined his usual gun. It’s not uncommon for teenagers to injure their wrists through sports or masturbation or plain old misfortune, but Vince Staples injured his wrists because he was always having to shoot his gun. His life was intensely precarious at all times.

That is utterly depressing. Nevertheless, despite this depressing revelation, Vince keeps it moving. These kinds of oblique references are found throughout the album and throughout Vince’s body of work. A lot of rap’s most-praised storytellers are heralded for how vivid and evocative their stories are. Vince goes the opposite way, filling his tales with silhouettes, shadows and ghosts. Obliqueness isn’t for everybody but it works excellently for Vince.

For Shyne Coldchain II in particular, this obliqueness is important to note because Vince develops guns as a symbol by actively focusing on other symbols. It’s tempting to call these other symbols foils, but I think Vince is doing something much more interesting.  For instance, on  “Turn” Vince spends the verses accosting religion and other forms of authority, noting how god, school and family – the biggest forms of authority when you’re young – have all failed him and failed themselves. Vince then hammers in this rampant failure during the chorus, chanting, “When it comes down to it, know I’m out here shooting, cuz it’s all a nigga got, cuz it’s all a nigga got.” It’s tempting to see guns and gangs as the replacement for all the forms of authority that have failed Vince, but I don’t think that’s quite the case. Vince has discarded trust in authority altogether. Guns and gangs aren’t foils. As proven to Vince by the imprisonment of his father, whose previous life as a gang member is detailed on “Nate,” guns and gangs are just as characterized by failure as everything else: there is no contrast. So though Vince cherishes his guns, they’re really just another empty, meaningless symbol. When it comes down to it, Vince Staples is a nihilist.

What’s interesting about his nihilism is how Vince lives through it instead of resorting to narratives of rugged individualism. Given the systemic failure of everything in his life, you would think he’d attribute his success to himself à la “Started From the Bottom.” But there’s no narratives of self-reliance here. Because Vince Staples sees the world for what it is, he has to see himself with that same raw clarity. He’s just a guy who’s been lucky enough to shoot them before they shot him.

I don’t have any reliable way of knowing Vince Staples’ self-image, but on Earl Sweatshirt’s song, “Centurion,” Vince raps, “I can’t wait/ ’til the money comin’ in/ Spend it all on guns and rims/ I ain’t nothin’ but a nigga/ Ain’t no reason to pretend,” so I don’t think I’m too far off. If this is in fact his self-image, it’s easy to dismissively say that Vince has self-hate or that he’s a victim of circumstances. These are the typical mainstream narratives that people use when they want to make sense of the lives of people on the margins. But I think that the whole point of Shyne Coldchain 2 is that both of those narratives look at the world without considering the values that are embedded in their respective worldviews.

For instance, people who advocate self-love overestimate the availability of the resources to develop such love. For Vince, religion, family, school and even Common (“Trunk Rattle”) just can’t think outside of their privileges. Becoming a good student or a good kid or a faithful churchgoer or a positive rapper takes more than pure effort; it takes the privilege to even be able to make those efforts. On the opposite end of the spectrum, people who argue that folks like Vince are victims of circumstance overestimate how defining circumstances actually are. In contrast to that argument, Vince describes a world in which people are actively working through their circumstances despite an utter lack of privileges. These people don’t have it easy and they should have it better, but they definitely aren’t victims.

In the end, because he values nothing in particular, Vince Staples is perfectly equipped to describe his world. And while his description won’t flatter anyone, even himself, it’s a description that everyone needs to hear. Listen to the album here. Even if you don’t care about guns or nihilism, the dude can rap his ass off, so there’s always that.

Not Just Funny: On Diversity in Comedy

Earlier this month Jerry Seinfeld made some troubling comments about diversity in comedy. Sitting down with Peter Lauria of Buzzfeed on CBS in the Morning, Seinfeld asserted that viewers who have highlighted the lack of diversity in his web series, “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” are practicing “anti-comedy.” Responding to these viewers’ demands for more diversity, Seinfeld said, “People think [comedy] is the census or something, it’s gotta represent the actual pie chart of America. Who cares? It’s just funny. Funny is the world I live in. You’re funny? I’m interested. You’re not funny? I’m not interested. I have no interest in gender of race or anything like that, but everyone else is calculating: ‘Is this the exact right mix?”

As a rich, straight, white male, Seinfeld truly opened a can of worms. Comedian Nicole Byer angrily threw these worms back in his face. Ruben Navarette Jr. went back to the factory where these canned worms originated - Seinfeld - and highlighted the few Latino characters he recalled. Maya Roy called Seinfeld racist and heralded his imminent irrelevance in comedy. Dave Schilling argued that Seinfeld and Seinfeld should be left to their own devices, with diversity being supported elsewhere instead of being injected into shows that aren’t concerned with it. I want to do some other things with these worms. By thinking about what it means for something to be “just funny,” I will explore what this troubling idea means for comedians who aren’t straight white males as well as comedians at large.

The Politics of Comedy

First off, I want to talk politics. To start, it must be clear that the politics of comedy is not the politics of comedians. Following Jacques Ranciere, I conceive of politics as a partition of the sensible, an active intervention in what can be perceived. In other words, a particular politics is the set of actions that makes certain things in the world intelligible in a certain way. Comedy essentially works by taking a description of a real or imagined world and making it intelligible as funny. This is the politics of comedy. Comedy makes things funny. Other modes of perception like sarcasm and parody and mimicry and even horror can perform the same politics, so funniness is not unique to comedy, but funniness is the primary goal of comedy, whether it is successful (causing laughter) or not (causing non-laughter).

In practice, this politics gets mixed in with other politics, other ways of rendering certain things intelligible. For instance, at a typical stand-up comedy show, the space and technical layout of the venue are to make the performer visible and audible: chairs face a centralized location, microphones and speakers are directed toward the audience and lighting is concentrated on the performer’s location. These are political acts. Through this concert of spatial and technical arrangements, comedians are able to rise above their lowly statuses as anonymous members of the crowd and temporarily be an individuated person saying hopefully funny things.

The entanglement of political acts extends further into where a venue is located, whether or not it serves alcohol, who is on the bill, who got to choose who appears on the bill and so forth. Most importantly, it gets mixed in with the political beliefs of the performer. I’m not trying to schematize the entire political landscape of a comedy show, so I will stop here, but my basic point is that comedy itself, as well as the social scene in which it unfolds, is not some neutral space that people walk into, then leave. At every level, politics occurs. Both the act of making something funny and the act of choosing who can attempt to say something funny are political choices.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. It takes a certain knowledge to make things funny and to know who is funny, and I think that people attending or watching a comedy show reasonably expect these things to have been organized by someone who knows these things. That is a given. I just think that it’s utterly naive to think that the political acts of declaring who is funny and what is funny are somehow immune or detached from the political acts that exclude certain genders, races, creeds, ages, colors, sexualities and so forth. In short, how can anything be “just funny” when funniness itself is the result of numerous political acts laboring to make things funny? Even if Seinfeld himself has not made these acts, the world he lives in, “funny,” is founded upon them. Each act has privileged certain kinds of people, collectively creating a world that doesn’t accurately reflect the incredible range of people making jokes.

Nothing Is Funny?

Seinfeld the show is often described as the show about nothing. Even the show itself once slyly asserted this in the episode, “The Pitch,” cited above. Though I don’t think this description is true, I think we should momentarily take it at face value. What does it mean to be a show about nothing? Stated differently, what does it mean for a comedy show to aspire toward nothingness? For Seinfeld, I think that this meant that no subject was particularly significant. From that perspective, each joke and the corresponding observation that led to that joke could be viewed as just another joke, just funny. The goal of each joke, each bit, is just laughter. Enlightenment, critique, anger, displeasure, empathy and other possible outcomes of jokes, are undesirable at best and unwarranted at worst. Seinfeld is about laughs, plain and simple.

I don’t buy that. In 1998 Greg Braxton wrote an interesting article about how Seinfeld’s season finale was largely a “nonevent” for black audiences. Focusing on the lack of diversity within the cast and within the show’s stories, Braxton writes, “Observers said that the lack of ‘Seinfeld’ fever among blacks is mainly attributable to the almost total absence of minority characters on the New York-based sitcom. Some supporting characters–including an attorney modeled after defense lawyer Johnnie L. Cochran Jr.–have been featured in the last few seasons, but many said the show is still seen as a program that excludes minorities.” The claim here appears to be that audiences want to identify with the characters they see. Braxton later qualifies this claim by quoting a tv executive who cites the popularity of Walker, Texas Ranger among black viewers. As the executive emphasizes, black people, and presumably any demographic, don’t need to see themselves in order to like a show. Yet that does seem to play a crucial role in how the show is received. To put it slyly, I think there’s a reason that Ruben Navarette Jr. can remember every single Latino character he ever saw on Seinfeld.

Keeping that executive’s comment in mind and relating it back to Seinfeld’s comments, I don’t think that people are making a purely demographic request when they highlight the lack of diversity in his show. Even if they frame this request in “census” terms, for me, the black response to Seinfeld hints at the privileges embedded in aspiring to nothingness. In other words, though Seinfeld is posited as neutral, just another vehicle for laughs, just funny, black viewers saw it as a vehicle for a particular group’s experiences of the world. For them, Seinfeld was not just funny; it was funny in a certain way, a way that came from a particular way of experiencing the world. Thus, they laughed, but they saw more than just the joke. They saw the world that the jokes come from, a world in which tensions about gender, race, class, occupation etc., could be sidelined instead of being one’s main focus. Stated bluntly, they saw a world of privilege, a world in which wealthy white folks got into hilarious and crazy antics because they had the luxury to not constantly think about paying their rent or eating or their cars breaking down or their grandmother dying. These wealthy white folks could make jokes and live those particularly strange lives because they had “nothing” else to worry about, even though the show clearly had something happening in it.

How Comedy is Made: Seriously, Nothing is “Just Funny”

I’ve touched on how comedy politically works and how Seinfeld’s/Seinfeld’s comedy has a certain infrastructure of privilege, but to underscore the latter point, I’d like to talk about my own experience of making and performing jokes, particularly observational jokes (my favorite kind). From my understanding, moreso than other forms of comedy, observational comedy is especially tied to the person observing. Even if this observer is effaced in the delivery of the joke – as in the joke itself doesn’t include “I” – observational jokes always have an implied source. For instance, when watching Mitch Hedberg perform, even when he’s telling jokes about stuff he’s seen, it’s clear that he was the person who saw these things and turned them into jokes. More than “just observations,” these are his observations and through his skill he has made them into funny, quirky jokes. The act of turning the observation into a joke is an abstraction and performing the joke live actually takes the abstraction further, but these abstractions always have a source. There is always an originary point of reference being abstracted from one thing and toward something else.

In my own experience, I was once told by a friend that some of my jokes are too focused on race. For him, the “from” was always too apparent, subsequently limiting how far the joke could travel, how funny it could be. In his mind, jokes seemed to be like kites: the best ones fly away (“Hahaha”) and the bad ones either stayed confusingly wrapped in my hands (“I don’t get it?”) or lamely sank back down to the earth, settling on my black face (“That was not funny”). Looking back, I think that some of these jokes were actually pretty bad, but not because they talked about race. I think that they were bad because I attempted to talk about race without making them intelligible as jokes. They just sounded like declarative statements from a black guy rather than jokes. I think that that admitting this and changing it was an important development for me as a comedian, but not on my friend’s terms. For him, the problem was that my jokes were too personal; for me, the problem was that my jokes weren’t jokes.

I think that the difference between these two positions is what’s at stake in Seinfeld’s comments. In the world that my friend and Seinfeld allegedly occupy, jokes are jokes. Their origins don’t matter. All that matters is whether or not the joke is funny. In the world that I live in – which is actually the same world they live in – jokes don’t exist just to make people laugh, to be just funny. Jokes and the people who tell them make me laugh as well as cry, frown, pout, yell, grimace and gasp. In this world, performers don’t deceive themselves into thinking that they aren’t part of the act, that their jokes and how they deliver them are unrelated to how they experience the world or are forced to experience the world via gender, class, race, religion or sexuality.

If this world is the world of anti-comedy, I think that the definition of comedy needs to change. Because if it doesn’t change and Seinfeld and my friend continue to define comedy by dismissing the origins of jokes, it’s doing a disservice to all comedians as well as Seinfeld’s own legacy. After all, Seinfeld’s jokes aren’t “just jokes.” They’re the product of a mind that observes the world with a keen eye and turns these observations into hilarious, insightful statements that often change how we view little dimensions of life. These jokes can be called “just funny” or “nothing,” but they’re so much more than that. To not give other people the opportunities to make their observations from their experiences of the world – be it through actively granting these opportunities à la SNL or just plain listening when they say that these opportunities are rare – is to make comedy into something that it is not and never should be.

On Blue Bear and the Brutal Reality of Oppression

Portrayed by actual champion boxer Lucia Rijker, Billie the Blue Bear is a boxer and the primary antagonist of the 2004 movie Million Dollar Baby. Fighting with complete disregard for rules, decorum, honor and safety, she is a pure representation and enactment of all the contingencies underlying the sport of boxing. She exists solely to utterly destroy the body and the fighter that the main character, Maggie, has studiously developed throughout the course of the film. More than just Maggie’s foil, Blue Bear is the physical manifestation of all the danger that has lurked in each of Maggie’s previous fights. Blue Bear is the imminent destruction of the boxer’s body and spirit.

Blue Bear interests me because after she brutally and unfairly maims Maggie in their climactic fight, she never makes another appearance in the film. After their fight, the film solely focuses on how Maggie and her trainer never recover from this fight and respond to the impossibility of recovery. There is never a scene where Blue Bear is fined by the World Boxing Association or publicly scorned on ESPN or even approached by a muckraking journalist. Blue Bear directly ruins Maggie’s life and there are no consequences at all.

This is precisely how oppression works. In one brief moment, the forces that imminently threaten the fortified selves we build and maintain come at us from behind, sneaking into our moments of glory, pain, relaxation and just plain existence, and flooring us without warning or mercy. Most of us get up from these experiences, brushing off the dirt and staggering on, but I think Million Dollar Baby shows what’s at stake every time this happens. These aren’t just inconveniences or bad days. These blindsides threaten one’s very ability to exist, to regularly convince oneself that getting out of bed isn’t a dangerous existential decision.

Blue Bear disappears once her cinematic duty is done, but her brief appearance reminds us that there’s a reason why experiences of oppression can be so easily recalled. When these large and tiny tears in the social fabric materialize in the midst of our lives, we’re spectacularly (and sometimes mundanely) reminded of that fabric’s horrifying fragility. In other words, each of Maggie’s fights had Blue Bear in the ring. And while it’s easy to abstract Blue Bear as just a symbol of mortality and unfairness, I think it’s more interesting to also view her as the sheer, brutal reality of oppression: the blitz is coming whether the ball was snapped or not and justice will probably never occur in any form – neither judicial, nor social, nor poetic. This is a hideous reality, but knowing its contours is the first step toward imagining and later enacting different strategies in real time: punching back, dodging, dancing around the ring.

Above all, I think Blue Bear calls attention to the limits of strategies of preparation and risk management. Too often the response to experiences of oppression is, “Don’t go there” or “Don’t talk to that person anymore” or “Don’t shop there,” as if avoiding oppression is simply a matter of making better decisions, as if one actually decides to be cheated, robbed, maimed, disrespected and violated. All Maggie did was train. Her body was prepared specifically to endure unbearable stresses, whether hypothetical or immediate. But what she wasn’t prepared for was those unthinkable stresses, those things that can’t be anticipated. The unthinkable can only be endured, never prepared for. And though strategies of endurance aren’t foolproof because endurance is an inherently intensified experience, meaning that every moment of endurance is felt at heightened levels (Maggie actually abandons her strategy of endurance via assisted suicide because she can’t continue to endure),  these strategies fundamentally understand that fighting doesn’t occur on a plane of pre-coordinated abstraction. Endurance requires recurring reflexive improvisation, constant readjustment and response to Blue Bear’s brutal right.

This isn’t something we can train for or something we can endure for very long, especially when we encounter it in the form of Blue Bear, the crushing spectacle of violence, but when we have the luxury of being outside of the spectacle (this is always a fleeting position, of course), we have time to think about what enables this spectacle. For instance, as the provided clip shows, Blue Bear is allowed to wreak havoc despite her reputation because the fans love her, suggesting that the WBA values money over fighters. This is the world we live in.

Valuations are made and reified in the form of privileges, preferences, prejudices, accessibilities, and institutions, but we encounter these valuations as manifested in the surfaces of the world: people, media, events, discourses, imaginations, histories. It’s incredibly difficult to tussle with these surfaces, so we should celebrate when we win, but there’s levels to this shit* and Blue Bear is like the bottom floors in Game of Death. All the floors are dangerous, but if we linger on those bottom floors for too long, we’ll never get to the top and throw the boss from the roof. As Maggie’s experience shows, getting to the top isn’t necessarily about having an iron will or strength or determination. Sometimes terrible things happen without reason. But for those of us who’ve been lucky or privileged enough to be spared – for now – I hope it’s clear what’s at stake.

*I sincerely apologize for linking you to a Meek Mill song.

Kodwo Eshun on the Nonexistence of “Black Music,” How to Understand Black Culture and Why Sun Ra’s Music Isn’t Allegorical

Taking a leaf from This Cage is Worms, I’d like to pull some interesting quotes from Kodwo Eshun’s book More Brilliant Than the Sun, which I finished reading a few weeks ago. Though I didn’t directly cite it, MBTS was very formative for my recent article, “Is Rap Really Black People’s CNN?

On the Nonexistence of “Black Music”

“The Automator perpetually folds the mind into origami. Listening to The Automator reminds you that HipHop is computer music. Trad[itional] HipHop continues to install a painful binary machine, a rigid funk canon that cuts right through you, and polarizes your flux. But after Kool Keith’s, The Automator’s and guest producer Kut Master Kurt’s ’95 album Dr. Octagon, this restricted aesthetic feels like emotional amputation, like terminal insularity elevated to a fraudulent ethics, an ethics known as Black Music.

Which is why the term Black Music so often sounds stupid, so dated and pointless, a phrase only used by the most retarded r&b cheerleaders. Black Music: the term clamps the brain because it omits the role of the machine, because it blithely ignores computerization by locating all of HipHop back in the all-too-human zones of the soul of the street.

To use the phrase Black Music is to presume a consensus that has never existed, to assume a readily audible, pre-synthetic essence which machines have externalized, manufactured and globalized.

p. 37.

On Understanding Black Culture

“I look at black culture much more as a series of material that’s been agglomerated on one hand, and on the others, it’s much more like a series of techniques. A lot of the producers and engineers I talk about see themselves as scientists or technicians. I tend to think of black culture then as an instrument or an environment that they’ve invented. I’m very much looking into synthesizings, looking into new black synthetic versions. I can never think of a unified black culture out of which everything comes. To me everything now looks like it’s synthesized. There’s obviously stuff that’s been around long enough so that it feels solidified, calcified, but actually it’s all synthesized. Because I’m looking at emergences, and by definition they’re going to be really synthetic, like [Detroit] Techno. Because I bring the machine into it. It makes things much more complex because instead of talking about black culture, I’ll talk for instance a lot about Ghanian drum choirs, or talk a lot about the African polyrhythmic engine, the polyrhythmic percussion engine. And those will be very particular African traits. Sound is a sensory technology, so I talk a lot about black technologies. They’re machines – and if we’re talking about 19th or 18th century Africa, then they’d be machines built a long time ago and passed down. But in the present, it’s like more black culture is this series of machines built here and there. The dub plate was one, built in Jamaica. The Breakbeat was another, built in New York.”

p. 191 – 192.

On why he studied AfroFuturistic music

“There’s the key thing which drew me into all of this: the idea of alien abduction, the idea of slavery as an alien abduction which means that we’ve all been living in an alien-nation since the 18th century. And I definitely agree with that, I definitely use that a lot. The mutation of African male and female slaves in the 18th century into what became negro, and into the entire series of humans that were designed in America. That whole process, the key thing behind it all is that in America none of these humans were designated human. It’s in music that you get this sense that most African-Americans owe nothing to the status of the human. African-Americans still had to protest, still had to riot, to be judged Enlightenment humans in the 1960s – it’s quite incredible. And in music , if you listen to guys like Sun Ra – I call them the despots, Ra, Rammellzee and Mad Mike – part of the whole thing about being an African-American alien musician, is that there’s this sense of the human as being a really pointless and treacherous category, a category which has never meant anything to African-Americans. This is particularly true with Sun Ra – just because Ra pushes it by saying that he comes from Saturn. I always accept the impossibility of this. I always start with that, where most people would try and claim it was allegory. But it isn’t allegory: he really did come from Saturn. I try not to exaggerate that impossibility, until it’s irritating, until it’s annoying, and this annoyance is merely a threshold being crossed in the readers’ heads, and once they unseize, unclench their sensorium, they’ll have passed through a new threshold and be in my world. I’ll have got them. The key thing to do is register this annoyance, because a lot of the moves I’ve described will provoke real annoyance, the lack of the literary, the lack of the modernist, the lack of the postmodern. All of these things should provoke a real irritation, and simultaneously a real relief, a relief that somebody has left all stuff behind, and started from the pleasure principle, started from the materials, started from what really gives people pleasure.”

p. 192-193.

More Brilliant Than the Sun is currently out of print, but I might know a guy who has a pdf, if you’re interested.

On Beyonce

I left a lengthy comment on this essay I came across on Tumblr. That essay basically argues that the feminist praise of Beyonce is unwarranted because Beyonce is plugged into a huge male-driven machine that uses her appeal to generate huge loads of money that only makes those males richer and does nothing to propel a productive feminist agenda. The author’s solution is that we actually direct our praise toward Miley Cyrus because she is “clearly” what no woman would ever want to be, meaning that Miley is an anti-model that will disgust women into choosing the right path.

I think that that argument is nihilistic, deterministic and severely uninformed about how people actually experience pop music. My response is below. It’s written in a weird tone because internet comments are weird.  Sorry about that.

“This is an incredibly nihilistic essay, man. Yes, Beyonce is sustained by an unfathomable infrastructure of ignored labor and male-centered capital, but infrastructure, intention and design aren’t destiny. I think it’s the right move to look beyond Beyonce’s surface and notice the myriad circuits of capital flowing through her and into record exec’s bank accounts, but seeing that morbid reality shouldn’t mean accepting it (ie saying that Miley is the proper herald to the cursed throne). People don’t just blindly reproduce Beyonceisms. Her messages and her songs get reconstructed, deconstructed, ravaged, polished, buffed, defaced, bastardized, tinkered with and more all the time. I don’t think that happens with Miley. The way Miley presents herself/is presented already has that element of “resistance/rebellion” built in. That’s more dangerous to me. Miley Cyrus is the equivalent of a mobile phone that you can’t open because its copyrighted. With Beyonce, you’re encouraged to open things up, see how it works. Sure, that phone was still produced by a super-sexist mega-corporation that ultimately just wants your money, but at least this phone is potentially not just a phone. The radical possibilities aren’t foreclosed from the start. I think that’s why Beyonce is so praised by circles that you would expect to condemn her (feminists) given her institutional reality. We know that B isn’t a panacea, but we also know that there’s worst products on the market and – here’s the kicker – that this market is a huge force in determining how people conceive of themselves. Given that reality, Beyonce has to be the role model. Lastly, surfaces, packaging, matter. Think about grocery shopping. It’s all about the spectacle. Even when you’re surrounded by price tags, nutrition pyramids, sales and other things, shopping is essentially just a sequence of aesthetic encounters. In the same way that it matters that Obama is black, it matters that Beyonce is a woman of color who can’t be reduced to the typical images that plague women of color.

So basically, I think that your argument – “This is what Beyonce really is!” – is deterministic, misrepresents how Beyonce is actually received and undervalues the political significance of a surface (even when troubling things lie beneath).

Is Rap Really Black People’s CNN?

According to hearsay*, Chuck D of Public Enemy  once said, “Rap is CNN for black people,” basically claiming that rap broadcasts what goes on in black people’s lives. It’s an interesting quote, especially since it implies that the real CNN isn’t a reliable source of happenings in black life (or maybe any non-white life), but I’ve recently grown skeptical of the quote’s accuracy and of its sociopolitical usefulness. It all started when I heard this interview of writer, critic and filmmaker dream hampton last summer. Discussing her longtime relationship with hip-hop, hampton details why she’s recently moved away from hip-hop, saying, “I’m done with hip-hop being a central organizing tool for my ideas,” and concluding that hip-hop “doesn’t have the right to be the cultural arm of black America.”

She arrived at this conclusion after years of battling rappers and rap fans on the symbolic front as far as misogynist language and on the domestic front in terms of how women in hip-hop were personally treated by men. This quote says it all:

“I don’t hear Chuck D talking about how Flavor Flav abuses black people, because it turns out black women are black people [too]. Again, I’ve been doing this police brutality work forever. Often the victims are boys and men. And women show up. Sisters, mothers, daughters, women who have no relationships to these men show up and and show up for these men. We rally, raise our voices, organize and when it comes to domestic violence, when it comes to all the ways we’re abused…far more women are gonna be assaulted in their homes than men are gonna be assaulted in the street and yet that same outcry doesn’t exist.”

To put it bluntly, hampton is saying that hip-hop largely doesn’t care about black women and from her twenty years of experience, it most likely never will. This isn’t a shocking statement if you listen to hip-hop either closely or marginally, but in addition to giving insight into hip-hop’s deeply entrenched gender exclusions, I think hampton’s statements also point toward some other entrenched exclusions.

For instance, as far as I know, the first and possibly only hip-hop album that my mom ever purchased was The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. My aunts and uncles have probably never purchased a hip-hop album. The same is imaginable for their friends and so forth. My first personal introduction to rap came from a random Coolio cameo on some early ’90s Muppets show. Aside from occasionally listening to the radio, my girlfriend’s knowledge of rap stops after high school. I doubt that my family, my girlfriend and I are statistical outliers or that we were all musically deprived. I’ve been in barbershops and hair salons where members of the so-called hip-hop generation (people born and raised between ’72-87) expressed no interest in hip-hop whatsoever, musically or stylistically. In fact, at a barbershop I used to frequent at Greenbriar Mall when I lived in East Point, Georgia during the ’90s, the barbers mostly discussed (and watched) basketball, football, and sitcoms like Martin and Living Single.

I would never absolutely say that these people lived totally outside of hip-hop’s sphere of influence or that hip-hop could say nothing about their lives, but I doubt that it would be a particularly reliable lens for understanding how they lived. At the same time that hip-hop was on the rise, R&B, soul, jazz and gospel were prosperous as well. Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Anita Baker and Prince were having some especially successful careers. And elsewhere, reggae and dub were thriving in their own way. And not that institutional recognition really matters, but there wasn’t even a Grammy award for best rap album until 1996. I think this is all important because when we discuss who hip-hop speaks for and speaks to, it’s easy to conflate hip-hop’s political potential with its [present and past] social reality. Stated bluntly, it’s easy to think that hip-hop represents all black people when it doesn’t, never has and probably never should.

People who are symbolically excluded from hip-hop have always flocked to it, but I think it’s apparent that those relationships are often tenuous. In hampton’s interview, she contrasts the fervor she had for hip-hop in her twenties with the indifference she has for it now, in her forties. What I take from that is that from the beginning, fandom, passion for the genre, is the only thing that kept her around. Once that passion was finally snuffed out by the harsh winds of misogyny and insistent indifference to black women’s lives, she had no reason to remain interested, besides an occasional song that didn’t treat her like trash.

In the end, I think that Chuck D’s statement was more a fantasy of rap than an actual description of what rap socially does. For Chuck D, if rap could act as black people’s CNN, it could be relied upon to express the problems facing black America in a way that wasn’t mediated by political and corporate disinterest in black life. In this fantasy black people are the news anchors, reporting straight from the source: ourselves. But as I’ve tried to point out, I think blackness is being stretched in this metaphor. Women, black people who don’t like particularly like rap, black people with Caribbean roots and black people rooted in other musical and aesthetic traditions**, etc., just weren’t included in rap. And though inclusion is certainly not destiny, I think it’s responsible to admit that the most reliable thing rap can tell you is about the imagined and actual lives of mostly black males. Everything else is relatively marginal.

Other narratives abound and occasionally bubble up – Queen Latifah, Azealia Banks, Eminem, B. Dolan, Jasiri X, Invincible and more all have great stories to tell – and songs like Tupac’s “Brenda’s Got a Baby and Aesop Rock’s “Ruby 81″ are great examples of these narratives being told by men, which shows that gender isn’t artistic destiny. Heck, “Ruby 81″ shows that even species isn’t artistic destiny; it’s about a dog saving a girl from drowning! Nevertheless, in the end, this fantasy of rap as the premier window into black people’s lives just doesn’t hold up, historically or in practice. If you really want a media lens into black American’s lives, cross-generationally and relatively unmediated by gender***, you probably should just watch and discuss Scandal. Your view will still be partial, of course, but at least you’ll be able to talk to my mother. 

*I couldn’t track down its first utterance, but Chuck D has never claimed misattribution, so I assume it’s something he actually said. Plus, even if he hadn’t, it’s taken on a life of it’s own by now.

**Of course, race isn’t artistic/vocational/occupational destiny either. Beyond hip-hop, jazz, blues, R&B and soul, there’s an unacknowledged history of black opera singers, ballet dancers, hockey players, heavy metal drummers and more. In addition to working on accurately demonstrating what kinds of popular things actually do represent black people, I think we should also think about the unpopular things too. Popularity is always contingent, after all.

***That isn’t to say that a gendered lens isn’t sometimes (or often) important. I think there’s a reason why every black woman under forty that I know is enthralled by this new Beyonce album. If you don’t think about gender when interrogating that reason you’re gonna look and feel fairly silly.