Thursday, 19 March 2015

On race and hip hop, treatise thereof

I'd describe 85% of my listening habits to revolve around "black" music. There's a lot of rap in regular rotation at home and at work. There's a lot of soul, a lot of blues. That kind of music is natural to me - I grew up on a steady diet of Marvin Gaye from my mother, and my sisters pumped The Fugees from the time I was 8 years old.

Hip hop is political.  Ingest the album-cuts of even the most inane rapper and political lines are drawn and a narrative of racial anger gets painted. Stories of police brutality, rallies of unity, disappointment about the lack of progress, displays of wealth and power deemed important because of the race involved, depression and struggle from social exclusion are all super common themes in the music.  

Yet, this a culture I love.  I participate, I buy albums, I go to shows, I even rap a bit myself.  My close friend and chef, Tim, of Dutch descent, is in a continuous conversation with me about hip hop.  We pump beats.  We get into it without shame.  If you drop off a delivery before we open you probably have to shout over Mac Dre so I can know to sign your little board.  

In spite of hip hop's increasing mainstream appeal, we, white people, remain bad at the cultural maths.  I've heard from people closer to the Duck Dynasty end of the scale tell me that they can't stand my "nigger beats."  And the frustration is that they are so dumb and defensive (and sometimes entrenched in troll culture) that you can't even open a channel of conversation about the problems present in their statement.  You have to, in these cases, tell them that you're going to pull their brain through their nose with a hook so you can embalm them with potato salad while their heart is still beating.

But even most people with a greater number of teeth miss the mark.  I have heard from multiple people, some even decent, referring to the hippity hoppity that "you must think you're black." Well, no.  Not at all.  If you saw me reading the Iliad (aside: an unparalleled torrent of testosterone, violence and misogyny) you would say maybe that I'm educated and like the classics, not that I must think I'm an ancient Greek.  So its different with hip hop.  Firstly, people don't understand what the point of it is or what to listen for (A: miraculous mouthfuls of rhythmical miracles), secondly they think its trivial, uneducated low culture, and thirdly hip hop frequently and explicitly asserts its blackness (although the Iliad frequently asserts its Greekness).
Graffiti X Ancient Greece
As a white listener of hip hop I've had to come to understand my position in relation to that last point. I don't come from the cultural background that many of the experiences it talks about emerge from.  There are some overlaps in my own life, such as poverty and exposure to criminal elements, but being poor and white in rural Canada is different than being poor and black in America (or Canada for that matter.)  I was still raised in a society that depicts white males as the pinnacle of civilization.  A quick flip through TV channels would show me any number of examples of white men doing something awesome, or something terrible, or boring, but it would still show me a lot of white men unless I intentionally went to a channel like BET.  That constant depiction of people that look similar to me as the movers and shakers in the world bestows a lot of privileges that I have to be aware of.

It would be easy, as a regular listener of hip hop, to convince myself that my cultural consumption makes me better than those other more ignorant white people.  Being enlightened is actually better than being ignorant, but the mentality leads too easily into an escape from my cultural background. Some Dances With Wolves/Last Samurai bullshit.  Tailoring my cultural identity to erase the obvious to myself and my deluded associates is also bad.  

Someone once told me, in regards to Canada's First Nations population, that by dwelling on such an old (ha!) injustice keeps the wound open and prevents healing from occurring.  The point this person missed was that wounds are a defining part of the narrative of the wounded.  You need to have the feeling that your wounds are understood to develop the trust necessary for actual healing and growth.  If every time you tried to describe the pain you've endured to someone and they just told you to get over it, got angry and started screaming very loudly about how they've also suffered, you'd likely still feel hurt and now probably more agitated, right?

The emphasis on racial identity in hip hop is just pointing out that race still matters in North America.  This fact bothers some white listeners, or leads them to the conclusion that the music is just being made exclusively for the consumption of black people.  Do you think Kendrick Lamar is pissed off that I'm going to buy a copy of To Pimp a Butterfly, revenue aside?  Listening to black music doesn't make me forget that I'm white - it makes me aware of it.  It makes me aware that something I have no control over, like my background and the colour of my skin, instills certain privileges in our society.  It makes me aware that people are still angry about the unfairness of that, and that they are angry that we, white people, brush off that hard fact with flowery, bullshit idealism or blanket ignorance.
If you're uncomfortable with the racial emphasis in hip hop, you're likely uncomfortable with the reality you see in the mirror.