On Unapologetic Blackness

Fuck you, understand me.” – Saul Williams. (“All Coltrane Solos at Once”)

According to the web, 2016 is the year of unapologetic blackness. There’s Lemonade. There’s Formation. There’s Cam Newton. There’s Black Panther. There’s Ta-Nehisi Coates. There’s Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Black Panther. There’s Kendrick. There’s Cornrow Kenny. There’s the Birth of a Nation. There’s Rihanna. There’s Empire. There isn’t Prince, but his spirit lives on. Ad infinitum.

I like the term and I think I know what it means – blackness unmediated, unfiltered, uncut – but I wonder how useful it is. On one hand, it’s a celebration of blackness without concession, especially in hyper-public spaces, like the Super Bowl and the Grammy’s. Even better, at the same time  it’s also a celebration of mundane blackness, in private and at ease: afros and hot sauce and selfies and t-shirts and cousins and aunties and church and attitude and crocs at Wal-Mart. Never has something so nebulous seemed so concrete. I love it. But what gives me pause about the term is that I don’t know why it’s needed and I think it might be too rosy.

I say this because unapologetic blackness, despite its defiant undertones, seems eerily similar to blackness. The term openly hints at the constant pressure to reduce blackness, in public and in private, so maybe it resonates because it highlights active affronts to that pressure. But doesn’t blackness itself already do that? We’re in the midst of a crazily racist presidential election, and to even mention that race is a factor in this election is to draw serious ire, on both sides of the political spectrum. And to go further and mention how blackness in particular is a factor might as well be witchcraft.

And beyond the election, even the way people talk about blackness is still guarded “Diversity” is still our go-to word to describe very specific problems with media. Terms like “race relations” and “racialized” gracefully slither around particular grievances.  It almost seems that as our terms proliferate, our grasp of what we’re referring to weakens.

This leads to my real concern. Unapologetic blackness gestures at these obstacles to unadulterated blackness, but it often focuses on the triumph, the breakthrough. This is fantastic, but I wonder if that focus obscures what gets stonewalled.

To put it differently, can unapologetic blackness account for mediated blackness? Can it encompass compromise or failure or resignation? Can it process another officer acquitted in the Freddie Gray case? Can it comprehend Stacey Dash and Azealia Banks endorsing Donald Trump? Can it oppose the execution of Dylann Roof?

I ask these questions because blackness, sans qualifier, can handle it, as it has been doing for years. Even though it’s well accepted that respectability politics is toxic, no one denies that respectability politics is a facet of blackness. Likewise, blackness encompasses religiosity and profanity, conservatism and progressivism, hate and love, tragedy and triumph, murder and excellence. Maybe it’s a good thing to purge the tension of blackness, to purify it, but what’s the cost? Unapologetic blackness may be indifferent to the white gaze, but what about black discord?

These are just speculations. Perhaps I’m being a lame ass literalist, something I’m often guilty of. Unapologetic blackness is probably just a cool term for the moments that make black people proud, collectively and individually. And more importantly, it’s probably just a defiant response to the longtime hegemony of respectability politics. I really want to believe this.

But at the end of the day, when it’s just me and the abyss, I wonder about those moments beyond pride and spectacle, where refusing to apologize is no different from refusing to engage, where not apologizing leaves the bridge burned, where the fuck you never leads to the understanding.


Free Advice (and Commands) for the [Online] Hip-Hop World

Hip-Hop Bloggers: 1) Spell-check your shit. Writing with a dialect or nonstandard writing style doesn’t justify being sloppy. 2) Stop acting shocked when rappers “reveal” that they hang out with musicians from other genres. If you are genuinely surprised when this happens, you shouldn’t be writing about music. 3) Read/watch other interviews before you conduct an interview. A million webpages with the same boring ass question (e.g. “So who are your influences?) does nothing for anybody. 4) Respond to your comments. Not everybody is a troll. 5) Don’t be scared to criticize your favorite artists. Thinking through your preferences is engaging and rewarding. Being a fan doesn’t mean being a publicist. 6) Read about hip-hop outside of hip-hop sites. For example, The NY Times, Grantland and other sites that are not solely dedicated to hip-hop have cool (and uncool) things happening all the timel. 7) Be nicer to commenters (I’m currently working on this myself). 8) Stop comparing female rappers solely to other female rappers. Sure, they influence each other and are in conversation with each other, but they shouldn’t be reduced to their sex. They don’t have specially-designed radios that solely play music from female artists. They listen to and are influenced by the same music as everyone else. If we are going to take gender seriously when discussing rap, it needs to be taken seriously for all artists, not just ones with vaginas and/or breasts and/or inexplicable bikinis in music videos.

Hip-Hop Blog Commenters: 1) Stop using the term “real hip-hop.” No one understands what you’re saying, including you. 2) Stop unnecessarily discussing the 90’s. The 90’s were cool, kind of (not really), but they’re gone. No one listens when you shout about how great they were, so chill out. 3) Stop making claims about who is the GOAT (greatest of all time). People say discussions about the GOAT are just for fun (after all, it’s a dumb idea), but no one leaves 400 comments on an article “just for fun.” You are all being hella serious.

Rappers with Twitter Accounts: 1) Stop telling us about your adventures with the ladies. We get it; we listen to your music. 2) Use Twitter strategically. You’ve only got one shot and if you fuck up because of some dick pic gone viral, you’re going to feel incredibly stupid.

Everybody: Stop saying “You didn’t see that on Instagram?” as if everyone else is always on Instagram. (We aren’t)

Rap Genius: Just stop. Seriously though, change your name, keep transcribing songs (You folks are really on point with the transcriptions) and get rid of the whole Rap IQ thing: it is the dumbest concept since reverse racism.

World Star Hip-Hop: Take Hip-hop out of your title and fuck off. Also, fuck off.

Kanye West: You should probably just get a tumblr or something. “Twitter essays” are silly.

Chris Brown: You can sing. You can dance. You can’t rap. Unless you’re doing covers, you should stop.

Childish Gambino: Rap about some different stuff. Yes, you were alienated as a kid because you operated outside of the accepted parameters of Black masculinity. I personally know that it sucked and is hard to forget, but using rap to reverse that history can only go so far. Being accepted by the people who abused you will never satisfy you because the terms are always in their hands. As Frantz Fanon said, the best way vanquish those ghosts from your past is to “skim over this absurd drama that others have staged.” In other words, don’t try to improve a shitty play with stellar acting or rigorous re-writing: just move on. Hip-hop can be your stage, but not as long as your ghosts are your director.

Rihanna: 1) Hi Rihanna  2) Your tweets are weird as hell. 3) None of this is advice.