From Revolution to Rap

Bobby Seale, national chairman of the Black Panther Party (left)
and Huey Newton, party defense minister.

By 1966, the Civil Rights Movement, defined by peaceful protests such as the 1960 Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins, the 1961 Freedom Rides, and the 1965 marches led by Martin Luther King, Jr. from Selma to Montgomery to register voters, was in decline.

The Students Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which had been formed in 1960 as a college-student auxiliary to Dr. King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Coalition, made a sharp pivot away from non-violence in 1966, when its new leader, Stokely Carmichael (later known as Kwame Ture), said in a speech in Greenwood, Mississippi:

We been saying freedom for six years and we ain’t got nothin’. What we got to start saying now is Black Power! We want Black Power.

Carmichael’s speech birthed a popular chant at “Movement” demonstrations: “Ungawa! Ungawa! Black Power! Black Power!”

(Some interesting insights into the origin of the term “ungawa,” including the ways it appeared in children’s games and rhymes):

http://pancocojams.blogspot.com/2015/08/the-real-origins-of-word-ungawa-various.html

The night after Carmichael’s speech, however, King repudiated the term:

Some people are telling us to be like our oppressor . . . telling me to stoop down to that level. I’m sick and tired of violence.

And Roy Wilkins, the head of the NAACP, called the idea of Black Power “the father of hatred and the mother of violence.”

But by 1966, young blacks were beginning to drift away from from what they saw as the incrementalism of the Civil Rights movement, and starting to embrace the more radical vision of Carmichael and Malcolm X. The next head of SNCC, H. Rap Brown (currently serving a life sentence for the murder of a sheriff’s deputy in Georgia), famously said, “Don’t love [the white man] to death! Shoot him to death!”

Watch Brown and Carmichael address a gathering in honor of Huey Newton’s birthday in Oakland in 1968 (Newton was in prison for the shooting death of an Oakland police officer). Brown begins and Carmichael comes in at 2:32.

Later that year, two college students in Oakland, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, founded the Black Panther Party (both men were born in the South and moved with their families to California with the second wave of the Great Migration). The BPP was founded on what Newton and Seale called the “Ten-Point Program”:

  1. We Want Freedom. We Want Power To Determine
    The Destiny Of Our Black Community.We believe that Black people will not be free until we are able to determine our destiny.
  2. We Want Full Employment For Our People.We believe that the federal government is responsible and obligated to give every man employment or a guaranteed income. We believe that if the White American businessmen will not give full employment, then the means of production should be taken from the businessmen and placed in the community so that the people of the community can organize and employ all of its people and give a high standard of living.
  3. We Want An End To The Robbery 
    By The Capitalists Of Our Black Community. We believe that this racist government has robbed us, and now we are demanding the overdue debt of forty acres and two mules. Forty acres and two mules were promised 100 years ago as restitution for slave labor and mass murder of Black people. We will accept the payment in currency which will be distributed to our many communities. The Germans are now aiding the Jews in Israel for the genocide of the Jewish people. The Germans murdered six million Jews. The American racist has taken part in the slaughter of over fifty million Black people; therefore, we feel that this is a modest demand that we make.
  4. We Want Decent Housing Fit For The Shelter Of Human Beings.We believe that if the White Landlords will not give decent housing to our Black community, then the housing and the land should be made into cooperatives so that our community, with government aid, can build and make decent housing for its people.
  5. We Want Education For Our People That Exposes
    The True Nature Of This Decadent American Society.
    We Want Education That Teaches Us Our True History 
    And Our Role In The Present-Day Society.We believe in an educational system that will give to our people a knowledge of self. If a man does not have knowledge of himself and his position in society and the world, then he has little chance to relate to anything else.
  6. We Want All Black Men To Be Exempt From Military Service.We believe that Black people should not be forced to fight in the military service to defend a racist government that does not protect us. We will not fight and kill other people of color in the world who, like Black people, are being victimized by the White racist government of America. We will protect ourselves from the force and violence of the racist police and the racist military, by whatever means necessary.
  7. We Want An Immediate End To Police Brutality And Murder Of Black People.We believe we can end police brutality in our Black community by organizing Black self-defense groups that are dedicated to defending our Black community from racist police oppression and brutality. The Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States gives a right to bear arms. We therefore believe that all Black people should arm themselves for self- defense.
  8. We Want Freedom For All Black Men Held In Federal, State, County And City Prisons And Jails.We believe that all Black people should be released from the many jails and prisons because they have not received a fair and impartial trial.
  9. We Want All Black People When Brought To Trial To Be Tried In 
    Court By A Jury Of Their Peer Group Or People From Their Black
    Communities, As Defined By The Constitution Of The United States.We believe that the courts should follow the United States Constitution so that Black people will receive fair trials. The Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution gives a man a right to be tried by his peer group. A peer is a person from a similar economic, social, religious, geographical, environmental, historical and racial background. To do this the court will be forced to select a jury from the Black community from which the Black defendant came. We have been, and are being, tried by all-White juries that have no understanding of the “average reasoning man” of the Black community.
  10. We Want Land, Bread, Housing, Education, Clothing, Justice And Peace. When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume, among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect of the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that, whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and, accordingly, all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But, when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.

Compare the Panthers’ Ten-Point Program with Tupac Shakur’s Code of Thug Life, which he wrote with his stepfather, Mutulu (see below). The Code provides a series of directives for what might oxymoronically be called the ethical selling of crack.

Code OF THUG LIFE:

1. All new Jacks to the game must know: a) He’s going to get rich. b) He’s going to jail. c) He’s going to die.

2. Crew Leaders: You are responsible for legal/financial payment commitments to crew members; your word must be your bond.

3. One crew’s rat is every crew’s rat. Rats are now like a disease; sooner or later we all get it; and they should too.

4. Crew leader and posse should select a diplomat, and should work ways to settle disputes. In unity, there is strength!

5. Car jacking in our Hood is against the Code.

6. Slinging to children is against the Code.

7. Having children slinging is against the Code.

8. No slinging in schools.

9. Since the rat Nicky Barnes opened his mouth; ratting has become accepted by some. We’re not having it.

10. Snitches is outta here.

11. The Boys in Blue don’t run nothing; we do. Control the Hood, and make it safe for squares.

12. No slinging to pregnant Sisters. That’s baby killing; that’s genocide!

13. Know your target, who’s the real enemy.

14. Civilians are not a target and should be spared.

15. Harm to children will not be forgiven.

16. Attacking someone’s home where their family is known to reside, must be altered or checked.

17. Senseless brutality and rape must stop.

18. Our old folks must not be abused.

19. Respect our Sisters. Respect our Brothers.

20. Sisters in the Life must be respected if they respect themselves.

21. Military disputes concerning business areas within the community must be handled professionally and not on the block.

22. No shooting at parties.

23. Concerts and parties are neutral territories; no shooting!

24. Know the Code; it’s for everyone.

25. Be a real ruff neck. Be down with the code of the Thug Life.

26. Protect yourself at all times.

Biggie Smalls paraphrased and expanded on these principles in his 1997 “Ten Crack Commandments,” a song focused on the behavior of the individual crack dealer rather than on his obligations to the community:

Tupac’s mother, Afeni Shakur (above) was a prominent member of the New York City chapter of the Black Panther Party. In 1971, she and 20 other New York City Panthers, who were known as the Panther 21, went to trial for a conspiracy to bomb various locations in New York City. Just one month after being acquitted, Afeni gave birth to her son.

Demonstrators outside the Federal Courthouse in Manhattan during the Panther 21 trial.

Tupac memorialized her in the 1995 song “Dear Mama”:

Tupac’s stepfather, Mutulu Shakur, is currently serving a 60-year sentence for his part in the 1981 robbery of an armored car in Nanuet, New York, which left one Brink’s guard and two police officers dead (also convicted were the parents of current San Francisco D.A. Chesa Boudin, David Gilbert and Kathy Boudin. Chesa was a baby at the time).

In the years following his untimely death in 1996, Tupac’s own politics, as well as his music, has been studied and analyzed by scholars of popular music, black studies, and American history alike. Some commentators see him as the legitimate heir of the traditions of black nationalism, a “Homegrown Revolutionary.” Others view Tupac’s prioritizing of money, his calls for black-on-black violence, and his misuse of women (he did a prison sentence for rape in 1995 and was killed in a drive-by just a month after his release) as a squandering of the legacy of his mother’s generation.

What do you think? Did Tupac move from conscious rapper to gangsta? Or were these two strains always present in his music and his life?

Tupac’s godmother was Assata Shakur (above), born Joanne Chesimard (Chesa Boudin was named for her). Assata, a leading member of the New York Black Panthers, escaped from prison in 1979, where she was serving a life sentence for participating in the murder of a New Jersey state trooper. She was smuggled to Cuba, where she still lives, and she remains on the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list. Tupac dedicated the song “Words of Wisdom,” off his 1991 album 2Pacalypse Now, to her.

Local connection: On Juneteenth, 2020, Columbus Park in downtown Binghamton was renamed Assata Shakur Park.

Another song off 2Pacalypse Now, “Trapped,” appears to rationalize violence as an appropriate response to systematic oppression, and even suggests that black-on-black violence has the transformative ability to earn respect for those who engage in it.

Tupac is, in a sense, a pivotal figure between the Black Power generation and the hip hop generation.

And what about the aesthetics of black revolution? Take a look at the image above of Bobby Seale and Huey Newton in their black leather jackets and berets, outfitted with guns and bandoliers. As Angela Davis recalled about seeing an image of the Black Panthers in a German newspaper while a graduate student in Frankfurt:

The image of the leather-jacketed, black bereted warriors standing with guns . . . called me home. . . [to organize] in the streets of South Central Los Angeles.

In her halftime show in the 2016 Super Bowl, Beyoncé ignited a minor media firestorm for her use of Black Panther aesthetics: the leather jackets, black berets, bandoliers and afros.

Questions for discussion:

  • How and why do you think the radical social discourse of black revolutionary politics morphed into the radical individualism of gangsta rap?
  • Is it possible to be a conscious rapper and a gangsta rapper at the same time? Explain.
  • If rap was born in the cradle of struggle, what and who were those struggles against? Did the struggles of black Americans change between the era of soul and the era of rap?
  • As rap began to reach a mainstream audience (estimates are that 80% of rap music consumers are young white men in the suburbs), how did the depiction of African-American experience in the music change? Give an example.

Ridden by the Spirit(s)

The holy Darcagüey, a watercolor portrait of a Moroccan dervish by José Tapiró y Baró, 1890. Dervishes are practitioners of a mystical version of Islam called Sufism, and are known for their ecstatic, trance-like dancing.
Yemaya (Yoruba deity of the sea and fertility), by Jorge Sanfiel.
The Thankful Poor by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1894)

JumpJim, the old record collector in White Tears, describes his mentor Chester Bly’s passion for collecting old blues 78s on page 136 of the novel:

By any standards, I was a serious collector, but he seemed to have nothing else, no need [for anything else] . . . He was just a vehicle for his obsession, what the Haitians call a cheval, a mount for the spirits to ride.

The cheval, or, in Haitian Kreyol, chwal, is a person possessed, or “ridden,” by a spirit (lwa) summoned in a Vodou ceremony. Vodou, while derived from West African religion, is a distinctly Haitian practice:

Haiti, the saying goes, is “70% Catholic, 30% Protestant, and 100% Vodou”. Vodou is everywhere in the Caribbean nation, a spiritual system infusing everything from medicine and agriculture to cosmology and arts.

Read more about Vodou ceremony — of which music is an integral part — and watch video here.

While in the Vodou religion, only Haitians can be “ridden” as chwals by the spirits (lwas), Kunzru seems to be suggesting that this kind of possession is more than metaphorical. What do you think?

Dr. Teresa Reed describes a similar practice in the black Pentecostal church of her childhood in Gary, Indiana, one of the northern industrial cities to which rural southern blacks moved en masse during the Great Migration:

There were many labels for this particular brand of the Lord’s work. The solitary dancer might be described as “getting the Holy Ghost,” “doing the holy dance,” “shouting,” “being filled,” “catching the Spirit,” “being purged,” or simply as someone “getting a blessing.” Whatever the descriptor, the phenomenon was familiar to all members of this religious culture. And it was understood that music –not just any music, but certain music — could facilitate such manifestations. . . [But]the parishioners at my urban, black-American church had no awareness of the many parallels between our Spirit-driven modes of worship and those common to our Afro-Caribbean counterparts.

Read Dr. Reed’s article, “Shared Possessions: Black Pentecostals, Afro-Caribbeans, and Sacred Music,” here.

Watch this, and notice the similarities, among other things, in dress between the church ladies and the Yoruban/Vodou/Santeria priestesses.

In Pentecostal church music, what are the elements that allow/inspire the Holy Spirit to take possession of the believer?

As Toni Morrison describes the funeral of Chicken Little in the novel Sula:

Then they left their pews. For with some emotions one has to stand. They spoke, for they were full and needed to say. They swayed, for the rivulets of grief or ecstasy must be rocked. And when they thought of all that life and death locked into that little closed coffin they danced and screamed, not to protest God’s will but to acknowledge it and confirm once more their conviction that the only way to avoid the Hand of God is to get in it.

A medley of “praise breaks”:

In her article “Unenslaveable Rapture: Afrxfuturism and Diasporic Vertigo in Beyoncé’s Lemonade,” Valorie D. Thomas posits Beyoncé’s visual album in the context of Yoruba religion. In the video for “Denial,” for instance, Beyoncé jumps from a skyscraper and dives into the water, reemerging as a figure of Yemaya, the Yoruba orisha (deity) who rules the waters and fertility. Read Thomas’s article here.

You may already know this famous gospel song, first performed in 1967. It is credited with creating the contemporary gospel genre:

In 1969, gospel singer Dorothy Combs taught it to white folk and rock singers Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, and performed it with them at the Big Sur Music Festival. Is its effect on the mostly-white audience similar to its effect on black worshippers?

The Arkansas-born Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915-1973) was one of the first Pentecostal gospel artists to cross over into pop music. Her churchgoing fans were scandalized by her forays into secular music, but her passionate, shouting singing style and her use of distortion on the electric guitar were hugely influential on both black and white artists, and came to be known as the Godmother of Rock and Roll.

Other artists crossed over in the other direction, like the Reverend Al Green, who went from this:

To this:

The great Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, was herself a preacher’s daughter, and started her career as a young girl singing gospel. One of the unique features of her artistry was the way, as critic Albert Goldman suggested in 1968, she could make sex sound like salvation. Listen, for instance, to the gospel piano intro and the shouts of “Hallelujah” in the song “Son of a Preacher Man.”

What elements do soul and gospel share? What about rock and gospel?

Do you think that the audiences at rock festivals in the 1970s were experiencing a similar sensation of being ridden by the Spirit? How does music play a part in these experiences?

What about Kanye’s Sunday Service? Are the worshippers feeling it?

More on Kanye and gospel here:

What about the “Beyoncé Mass”?

You can browse the first published gospel songbook, the 1921 Gospel Pearls, here. The publisher, the National Baptist Convention, was a major African-American denomination.

https://hymnary.org/hymnal/GP1921

A timeline of gospel:

http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/timeline/collection/p15799coll9

The Musical Geography Project of St. Olaf’s College has a narrative timeline of gospel, with audio, here:

Questions for discussion:

  • How are gospel and spirituals similar — both musically and lyrically?
  • How are they different? Give an example of a spiritual AND a gospel song to illustrate your argument.
  • What do you think accounts for these differences, musically, historically, and socially?

Booker T. vs. W.E.B.

bookerdubois

(W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington)

I subscribe to the Poem-A-Day email offered for free by the Academy of American Poets. It’s nice to wake up to a poem before you start dealing with your to-do lists and putting out the various fires of everyday life.

During the week, the Academy sends out a recently-written poem every day, often written by poets who are members of  historically-marginalized groups. On the weekends, however, they dig into their archives and offer poems from around the turn of the twentieth century. This is one of the weekend poems, first published in 1909 by the early-twentieth-century African-American poet Joseph Seamon Cotter, Sr., pictured below:

joseph_seamon_cotter_sr_0

Dr. Booker T. Washington to the National Negro Business League

Tis strange indeed to hear us plead
   For selling and for buying
When yesterday we said: “Away
   With all good things but dying.”

The world’s ago, and we’re agog
   To have our first brief inning;
So let’s away through surge and fog
   However slight the winning.

What deeds have sprung from plow and pick!
   What bank-rolls from tomatoes!
No dainty crop of rhetoric 
   Can match one of potatoes.

Ye orators of point and pith,
   Who force the world to heed you,
What skeletons you’ll journey with
   Ere it is forced to feed you.

A little gold won’t mar our grace,
   A little ease our glory.
This world’s a better biding place 
   When money clinks its story.

Booker T. Washington, who was born a slave,

believed that it was economic independence and the ability to show themselves as productive members of society that would eventually lead blacks to true equality, and that they should for the time being set aside any demands for civil rights. These ideas formed the essence of a speech he delivered to a mixed-race audience at the Cotton State and International Exposition in Atlanta in 1895. There and elsewhere, his ideas were readily accepted by both blacks who believed in the practical rationality of his approach, and whites who were more than happy to defer any real discussion of social and political equality for blacks to a later date. It was, however, referred to pejoratively as the “Atlanta Compromise” by its critics. And among them was W.E.B. Du Bois. . . .

Do you think the poet, Joseph Seamon Cotter Sr., agrees with Washington, or challenges him?

On the other hand, W.E.B. Du Bois, an excerpt from whose 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk you have read, believed that the struggle for equal opportunity and civil rights came first.

At the time [the turn of the twentieth century]. the Washington/Du Bois dispute polarized African American leaders into two wings–the ‘conservative’ supporters of Washington and his ‘radical’ critics. The Du Bois philosophy of agitation and protest for civil rights flowed directly into the Civil Rights movement which began to develop in the 1950’s and exploded in the 1960’s. Booker T. today is associated, perhaps unfairly, with the self-help/colorblind/Republican/Clarence Thomas/Thomas Sowell wing of the black community and its leaders. The Nation of Islam and Maulana Karenga’s Afrocentrism derive too from this strand out of Booker T.’s philosophy. However, the latter advocated withdrawal from the mainstream in the name of economic advancement.

In a grossly simplistic terms, it can be said that Booker T. Washington’s argument was for separatism, while W.E.B. Du Bois’s was for full integration and participation in the mainstream of American society.

Read the blog post “Race, Class, Art, and Consumption” and tell me what you think. Do you think the Carters  are advancing the Du Bois or the Washington model?

18louvre1-jumbo-v2

Jay-Z has said, “Generational wealth, that’s the key.” Generational wealth refers to the assets passed down from grandparents to parents to children. It’s by now well-known that there’s a huge gap in generational wealth between blacks and whites in America, largely due to redlining, a phenomenon that followed on the heels of the Great Migration. Redlining was the practice of banks and homeowners’ insurance companies of denying mortgages to blacks who wanted to buy a house. The term comes the color-coded city maps devised by urban planners, with the redlined communities considered high-risk for loan default (mainly because blacks and immigrants lived in them).

“Undesign the Redline” is a recent traveling interactive exhibit that invites participants to explore policy alternatives to redlining. View the exhibit brochure/toolkit here:

Do you agree that generational wealth is the key to full participation in American society? What if you don’t have access to it?

Jay-Z and Beyonce have both used their wealth in the service of causes they believe in. Jay-Z, for instance, helped get Meek Mill released from prison, and Beyoncé has donated to HBCUs. However,

In the context of the Carters’ philanthropy, and their palpable concern for the communities they represent, [do] the watches and diamonds on [their new album] Everything Is Love feel less like the album’s point and more like decorations [?]

Have the Carters become the system?

When Jay-Z asks, “What’s better than one billionaire?” Twitter responds: “No billionaires.”

Do you agree?

Who was right, Booker T. or W.E.B.? Neither? Both? Have things changed in the past century? Have they gotten better? Have they gotten worse?

It’s worth nothing that John Lomax admired Booker T. Washington, calling him “wise, tolerant, a gifted orator, a great leader of his people.” It’s likely that Lomax saw the separatism advocated by Washington as an asset when it came to preserving black folk music (and, as you know, Lomax held to some old racist ideologies).

What do you think?

Advanced reading: Travis Gosa and Erik Nielsen explore the political and economic ramifications of rap during the Obama presidency. A quote:

Jay Z, the consummate free-market hustler, [maintains a] hustler image [that] appears to represent a counter-hegemonic force, operating beyond the law and dominant norms . . . [but which instead reinforces them] . . . When Jay Z spends a career branding himself as a hustler defined exclusively through economic interest—as he put it in 2005, “I’m not a businessman/I’m a business, man”—any sense that he may be positioning himself outside traditional notions of economic production becomes questionable. His nonstop, 24-hour devotion to self-corporatization makes him a true capitalist, the ideal bootstrapper . . . and an important illustration of [the] point that rap narratives can simultaneously criticize and serve mainstream interests.

Affrilachia

090513_country_rs

A diagram of the major themes of country music.

Country music may seem like the whitest of music genres, and has even been called “The White Man’s Blues.” Songs like Merle Haggard’s “I’m a White Boy” certainly advance that narrative.

But is that narrative reliable?

It’s true that some of the major themes of country music have traditionally been closed to black musicians. “Driving on the open road,” for instance, has historically been, and still can be, downright dangerous for black Americans.

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But the other themes are pretty universal. Yes, including trucks.

And certainly failed relationships.

What is not widely known is that country music has been integrated since its earliest days. Although early recording labels divided their catalogs into “hillbilly” and “race” records, the recording sessions were often integrated. In fact, the so-called “Father of Country,” Jimmie Rodgers (1897-1933), recorded with jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong and his wife, pianist Lil Hardin Armstrong.

One of the great Appalachian fiddlers of the twentieth century was Kentucky-born Bill Livers, a black man. You can hear his astonishing playing here.

bill livers string ensemble

As multi-instrumentalist and MacArthur “Genius” Fellow Rhiannon Giddens notes, the  assumptions that (1) all country music begins in Appalachia, and (2) there were no black people in Appalachia, are patently false.

In fact, Giddens recently formed the group Our Native Daughters, whose core members are four banjo-picking black women who are experts in traditional American folk music. Read more here and listen to their song “Quasheba, Quasheba” here.

The facts are that Appalachia is not a racially homogeneous region, and that American blacks have deep ties to the rural histories and landscapes of the American south, and to the roots of traditional American folk music. For more, read the transcript or watch the video of Rhiannon Giddens’s 2017 speech before the International Bluegrass Music Association, here:

Affrilachia (a poem by Frank X Walker, who coined the term)

thoroughbred racing
and hee haw
are burdensome images
for Kentucky sons
venturing beyond the mason-dixon

anywhere in Appalachia
is about as far
as you could get
from our house
in the projects
yet
a mutual appreciation
for fresh greens
and cornbread
an almost heroic notion
of family
and porches
makes us kinfolk
somehow
but having never ridden
bareback
or sidesaddle
and being inexperienced
at cutting
hanging
or chewing tobacco
yet still feeling
complete and proud to say
that some of the bluegrass
is black
enough to know
that being ‘colored‚ and all
is generally lost
somewhere between
the dukes of hazard
and the beverly hillbillies

but
if you think
makin‚’shine from corn
is as hard as Kentucky coal
imagine being
an Affrilachian
poet

Map Of Appalachian Mountains map of appalachia my blog 400 X 390 pixels

(As you will notice from the map above, WE are in Appalachia.)

More genre-bending from Valerie June.

And Lil Nas X’s recent crossover hit “Old Town Road” draws on historical themes of “white” country music, as well as many themes of rap.

Though the Carolina Chocolate Drops said it first.

Race, Class, Art, and Consumption

Trigger/content warnings: N-word in original source.

Marie-Guillemine_Benoist_-_portrait_d'une_negresse

Marie-Guillemine Benoist, Portrait d’une négresse 1800, Musée du Louvre.

New Zealand singer Lorde’s 2013 hit “Royals” appeared to be a critique of conspicuous consumption:

My friends and I – we’ve cracked the code.
We count our dollars on the train to the party.
And everyone who knows us knows that we’re fine with this,
We didn’t come from money.

But every song’s like gold teeth, Grey Goose, trippin’ in the bathroom.
Blood stains, ball gowns, trashin’ the hotel room,
We don’t care, we’re driving Cadillacs in our dreams.
But everybody’s like Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your time piece.
Jet planes, islands, tigers on a gold leash
We don’t care, we aren’t caught up in your love affair.

The New York Times’s pop music critic wrote:

[Lorde has] emerged from the far side of the planet with something smarter and deeper [than most pop music]: a class-conscious critique of pop-culture materialism that’s so irresistible it became a No. 1 pop single.

Other critics, however, heard racism in Lorde’s lyrics. Verónica Bayetti Flores wrote:

Holy. Shit. What did this white girl just say? . . . While I love a good critique of wealth accumulation and inequity, this song is not one; in fact, it is deeply racist. Because we all know who she’s thinking when we’re talking gold teethCristal and Maybachs. So why shit on black folks? Why shit on rappers? Why aren’t we critiquing wealth by taking hits at golf or polo or Central Park East? Why not take to task the bankers and old-money folks who actually have a hand in perpetuating and increasing wealth inequality? I’m gonna take a guess: racism.

Do you agree?

How do you think Flores might respond to Beyoncé and Jay-Z song’s “Apeshit”? The lyrics can safely be called the exact opposite of a “critique of wealth accumulation.”

Gimme my check, put some respeck on my check
Or pay me in equity, pay me in equity
Or watch me reverse out the dick

He got a bad bitch, bad bitch
We live it lavish, lavish
I got expensive fabrics
I got expensive habits

On the other hand, the video introduces issues not present in the lyrics. While the song celebrates wealth and excess, the video explores the juxtaposition of black bodies and the traditions of European art-making, with black dancers in flesh-toned leotards performing in lines in the Louvre Museum and re-enacting some of the paintings, while Beyoncé and Jay-Z take in the art and rap about their own success as artists. As Jason Fargo notes:

As so often, the couple here present themselves as both outsiders in an elite institution and as heirs to it; as people excluded from its narratives but now possessors of it by virtue of their talent, their taste and, well, their money.

The Carters also seem to be making an intentional reference to the iconic 1930 painting “American Gothic,” by Grant Wood.

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The song and the video raise the questions once again:

Who owns music?

Who owns art?

What does it mean to be an artist — especially a black artist?

Does “success” mean the ability to consume luxury goods and services?

Is the pursuit of wealth an objectively good thing for the individual? For the community?

Is there a difference between art that celebrates consumerism and art that has a more explicit message of community or social engagement?

In the song “Boss,” when Beyoncé says, “My great-great-grandchildren already rich, that’s a lot of brown children on your Forbes list,” is she making a political statement?

Finally: SHOULD art have a higher message?

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The Caribbean poet and Nobel laureate Derek Walcott (1930-2017, above) grappled with similar issues in his book-length poem Omeros. In this section of the epic poem, he describes going to the Metropolitan Museum and seeing the painting The Gulf Stream by American artist Winslow Homer, which shows a black man in a foundering fishing boat in the Caribbean Sea. The Museum explains the painting’s subject as a “dramatic scene of imminent disaster.”

A man faces his demise on a dismasted, rudderless fishing boat, sustained by only a few stalks of sugarcane and threatened by sharks and a distant waterspout. He is oblivious to the schooner on the left horizon, which Homer later added to the canvas as a sign of hopeful rescue. Some art historians have read The Gulf Stream as symbolic, connecting it with the period’s heightened racial tensions. The painting has also been interpreted as an expression of Homer’s presumed sense of mortality and vulnerability following the death of his father.

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Walcott writes:

Art is immortal and weighs heavily on us,

and museums leave us at a loss for words.
Outside becomes a museum: its ornate frames
square off a dome, a few trees, a brace of sparrows;

till every view is a postcard signed by great names:
that sky Canaletto’s, that empty bench Van Gogh’s.
I ground out my butt and re-entered the dead air,

down the echoing marble with its waxed air
of a pharaonic feast. Then round a corridor
I caught the light on green water as salt and clear

as the island’s. Then I saw him. Achille! Bigger
than I remembered on the white sun-splintered deck
of the hot hull. Achille! my main man, my nigger!

circled by his chain-sawing sharks; the ropes in his neck
turned his head towards Africa in The Gulf Stream,
which luffed him there, forever, between our island

and the coast of Guinea, fixed in the tribal dream,
in the light that entered another Homer’s hand,
its breeze lifting the canvas from the museum.

What does it mean, as a black artist, to receive the legacy of Western culture? What position does the black artist assume in the history of art and culture?

Update 1: the portrait of a black model featured in the “Apeshit” video is discussed in greater detail in this essay, about an exhibit at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, “Black Models: From Géricault to Matisse.”

Update 2: In 1991, the celebrated quilter and artist Faith Ringgold made a series of narrative quilts entitled The French Collection, in which she reimagined French early-twentieth-century art through the point of view of a fictional African-American artist in Paris. In the quilt “Dancing at the Louvre,” the fictional artist, Willia Marie Simone, brings a friend and her three daughters to the Louvre, where they dance in front of the Mona Lisa.

Dancing at the Louvre, Faith Ringgold (1991).