As Larry Depte, the spokesman for the (short-lived) X-brand Potato Chips, explained in 1992:
“X is a concept.” On each bag of the chips is printed the legend: “X stands for the unknown. The unknown language, religion, ancestors and cultures of the African American. X is a replacement for the last name given to the slaves by the slave master. We dedicate this product to the concept of X.”
“We’re not trying to market anybody’s name or likeness,” Mr. Depte said. “Ninety-five percent of African-Americans don’t know their original names and cultures. Most people don’t know this. X remains unknown, even though it stands for the unknown.”
Indeed, Lee even sought to trademark the letter “X” (read the linked article, “Who Owns X?” for more).
In the meantime, on a summer road trip, my children and I listened to an audiobook of A Wind in the Door, the second book in the fantasy/scifi YA series by Madeleine L’Engle known as the “Time Quartet” (the first is A Wrinkle in Time). The theme of Naming is prominent in the book: The human protagonists are assisted by an angel, who is also responsible for naming all the stars in the universe. The bad guys in the novel are known as Echthroi, the plural of the Greek echthros, meaning “The Enemy” (Ἐχθρός). The Echthroi’s destructive power comes from unNaming — Xing out their victims, turning them into nothing.
Names have power, in other words.
Azie and Evelyn of Say It Loud delve into the fascinating history of “black-sounding” names.
In “Old Town Road,” Lil Nas X also draws on the symbolism of the black cowboy. It’s a little-known fact that roughly one out of every four cowboys in the late nineteenth century was black. As Irwin Silber notes, “Many an emancipated Negro decided to try his luck in the west.”
The music of the African-American cowboys had a lasting influence on cowboy ballads in general; in fact, “Home on the Range” was collected by John Lomax from a black trail cook.
Don Flemons, one of the founders of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, sings “Home on the Range” and other black cowboy songs on a recording he made in 2018 for the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture.
In John Lomax’s article “Sinful Songs of the Southern Negro,” in your course reading packet, the folklorist mentions collecting some “cowboy songs” from black informants in a South Carolina prison, including “Streets of Laredo”:
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:
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”:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
Content warning: explicit language and situations.
Although the cradle of rap is generally acknowledged to be community-room parties in the South Bronx, the genre draws from multiple threads and locations, from Jamaica to Louisiana to the hobo poetry of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The white Oklahoma-born writer George Milburn, who spent time riding the rails as an itinerant laborer, wrote in the 1930s:
Tramps and hoboes are the last of the ballad makers. Not in the Tennessee Hills, or among the Sea Island Negroes, or in any other such [isolated] community is there a more vigorous balladry than that which has been flourishing for the past fifty years in America’s peripatetic underworld . . . To relieve the tedium of dreary waits in jungle camps [i.e. work camps for migratory laborers] and long spells of incarceration in country jails . . . many extemporaneous epics, as well as the hobo classics, are sung or recited.
Milburn traces “extemporaneous rhyming,” known in today’s parlance as freestyling, to eighteenth-century England, where reciting rhymed verse made up on the spot was a popular form of parlor entertainment.
A form of folk poetry that developed in the black community simultaneously with hobo balladry is toasting. Toasting is a genre of orally-transmitted narrative recited in rhyme and in rhythm. Toasts, according to scholars of folklore, were traditionally performed in African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) by men for male audiences in typically male settings. As Bruce Jackson, who compiled the 1974 anthology of toasts Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me puts it:
Toasts can be told anywhere — at parties, lounging around bars and street corners, on a troopship crossing the boring ocean — but they seem to be told in county jails more than anywhere else. There is so much time to kill in county jails and so little to do with that time, and so great a portion of the population in county jails is lower-class black (they are the people without money to pay a bondsman for freedom before trial or who must serve jail time because they lack money to pay a fine) . . . As much evidence as there is for viewing toasts as the literature of the street or partying black man, there is evidence to consider it, along with the worksong of the black convict in the South, as his jailhouse testament . . . and it is just those street roles of badman, pimp, hustler, and junkie described in so many of the poems that [have landed] those jailhouse [storytellers] in jail in the first place.
In other words, the subject matter of jailhouse toasts was self-referential: tales of criminal exploits recited by men who had committed similar exploits. The toasters were performing authenticity, or, in other words, keeping it real.
As clarinetist Mezz Mezzrow (above) put it, in an eloquent description of signifying:
Deny the Negro the culture of the land? O.K. He’ll brew his own culture — on the street corner. Lock him out from the seats of higher learning? He pays it no nevermind — he’ll dream up his own professional double-talk, from the professions that are open to him, the professions of musician, entertainer, maid, butler, tap-dancer. . . .
The hipster stays conscious of the fraud of language. Where many ofays [whites] will hold forth pompously, like they had The Word, the Negro mimics them sarcastically. As a final subtle touch, his language is also a parody, a satire on the conventional ofay’s gift of gab and gibberish.
There are folk heroes who appear over and over in toasts across geographical areas from Louisiana to California to upstate New York: they include Pimping Sam, the murderous gambler Stagolee, the legendary pimp Dolemite, and Shine, the boilerman who survives the sinking of the Titanic and becomes a proto-Black Power hero, outwitting the standard figure of the captain.
It was sad indeed, it was sad in mind April the four was a hell of a time. When the news reached a seaport town that the great Titanic was a-sinking down. Now up popped Shine, from the decks below and said “Captain, captain, don’t you know. there’s forty feet of water on the boiler room floor.” But the captain said, “Never mind Shine, just do as you’re told, and go back down in that deep black hold.” Shine said, “That’s funny, that’s mighty fine, But I’m gonna save this black ass of mine. There’s fish in the ocean and crabs in the sea this is one time when white folks ain’t gonna bullshit me.” So Shine jumped overboard and start to swim and all the people on the deck is lookin’ at him.
The actor and comedian Rudy Ray Moore recorded several albums of toasts recited some toasts concerning these characters in front of a live comedy audience in the 1970s:
The great George Clinton recorded a version of “Shine and the Great Titanic” in 1997:
Rudy Ray Moore also played Dolemite, another legendary figure in the toast repertoire, in a spoof blaxploitation film of the same name in 1975 (warning: explicit language and situations and nudity):
The poet and musician Jalaluddin Mansur Nuriddin (1944 – 2018) recorded Hustlers’ Convention, an album of spoken-word toasts against live musical background, in 1973, with his group The Last Poets. The album, which combined funk, jazz, and poetry, would later earn him the moniker “Grandfather of Rap.” Nuriddin had learned to toast — a practice he called “spoagraphics” or “spoken pictures” during a stint in prison. Listen to the complete album here.
Chuck D of Public Enemy produced a documentary about Nuriddin’s album in 2014:
The Last Poets’ West Coast counterparts, the Watts Prophets, were equally influential:
The poet Nikki Giovanni (above), like the Last Poets and the Watts Prophets, recorded a spoken-word album in 1971, Truth Is On Its Way, which featured her reciting her poetry over a musical backgrounds that represented a variety of African-American music genres. Giovanni recites “Ego Tripping over a background of handclaps and African percussion, and “The Great Pax Whitie” features a gospel choir, the New York Community Choir.
Another frequent subject of toasts is the Signifying Monkey. As you know, “signifyin(g)” is the practice of saying something with two meanings: the obvious meaning of the words and the hidden meaning, which can only be understood by members of a shared cultural group. It is a longstanding verbal practice in African-American speech, especially when dealing with (white) authorities, and has its roots in slavery.
The Signifying Monkey is a trickster figure in African-American folklore, derived from Yoruba mythology. He often appears in toasts with his friends and adversaries Lion and Elephant. Rudy Ray Moore toasts about Signifying Monkey in a clip from the movie Dolemite:
Demonstrating the roots of rap in urban toasts, the character of Signifying Monkey appears in some early rap, like the 1980 “King Monkey Rapp” by King Monkey (Jimmy Thompson):
And the 1988 “Signifying Rapper” by Schoolly D, in which Signifying Monkey is transformed into the trickster-rapper.
You know your daddy and he’s a faggot And your mother’s a whore He said he seen you sellin asshole door to door . . . He said, your granny, she’s a dyke And your other brother, he’s a faggot And your little sister Loo She’s so low she sucked the dick of a little maggot
are a version of “the dozens,” the game of exchanged insults traditionally played by black children in urban areas, typically focused on “yo mama,” such as:
–Yo mama’s so poor, someone threw a cigarette in her yard & she said, “Clap yr hands, stomp your feet, thank the lord, we got heat!”
– Yo mama so ugly that not even goldfish crackers smile back.
Nevertheless, on his 2007 album From the Plantation to the Penitentiary, Marsalis raps.
You got to speak the language the people Are speakin’ Specially when you see the havoc it’s wreakin’ Even the rap game started out critiquin’ Now it’s all about killing and freakin’ All you ’60s radicals and world beaters Righteous revolutionaries and Camus readers Liberal students and equal rights pleaders What’s goin’ on now that y’all are the leaders Where y’all at? (That’s what I’m talkin’ about) Where y’all at? (Where y’all at?) Where y’all at? Where y’all at? (Lord have mercy) Don’t turn up your nose It’s us that’s stinkin’ And it all can’t be blamed on the party Of Lincoln The left and the right got the country sinkin’ Knocked the scales from Justice hand and Set her eyes a-blinkin’ All you patriots, compatriots, and true Blue believers Brilliant thinkers and overachievers All you “when I was young We were so naïve’ers Y’all started like Eldridge [Cleaver] and now You’re like Beaver Where y’all at? Where y’all at? Where y’all at? Where y’all at? We supposed to symbolize freedom and pride But we got scared after King and the Kennedys died We take corruption and graft in stride Sittin’ around like owls talkin’ ’bout “WHO? Who lied?” All you po’ folks victims of rich folks game All you rich folks gettin’ ripped off in the Same name All you gossips cacklin’ “It’s a dirty shame” And whistle blowers cryin’ ’bout who’s to blameWhere y’all at? Where y’all at? Where y’all at? Where y’all at?Well, it ain’t about black and it ain’t about The white They’ll get together to make your pocket light. When you just keep on payin’ do your jaws Get tight? Taxes, that’s your real inalienable right All you afro-wearers and barbershop experts Cultists, sectarians, political disconcerts Big baggy pants wearers with the long White T-shirts The good man that counter what the Bad man asserts Where y’all at? Where y’all at? Where y’all at? Where y’all at? After 9/11 the whole world Was ready to love us Now everybody can’t wait to rub us We runnin’ all over the world with a blunderbuss And the Constitution all but forgot in the fuss All you feminists and mothers, fathers And brothers I guess you’d pimp your daughters if you Had your druthers All you “It’s not me” it’s always others You watch the crimes, you close your shutters Folks watchin’ Fox and CNN News Seekin’ a cure for the Red, White, and Blues Well, it won’t matter which side you choose If we end up payin’ international dues All you “In my day it used to be” frauds All you “So what”s and “Leave it to the Lawd”s All you “I’ll just deal with whatever cards” All you extend adolescent American Bards Where y’all at? Where y’all at? Where y’all at? Where y’all at?
He explains: “It’s rapping, but it ain’t hip-hop.”
What do you think?
It’s worth noting also
What about this famous song from 1970 by Gil Scott-Heron, known as the “Godfather of Rap”? Is it rap if it lacks flow, scansion, or rhymes?
How do you define rap?
How would you describe the difference between rap and hip hop?
As African American theorists, writers, artists and musicians – from Frederick Douglass in the nineteenth century to Mendi + Keith Obadike in the present moment – have been reminding us for quite some time, the perceived inaudibility of whiteness does not mean that it has no sonic markers, that it is not heard loud and clear. . . . [Nevertheless] there is nothing essentially biologically “white” or “male” about the cadences of cop voice, and both [race and gender] are heard and sounded through ethnic and class identities.
We’ve talked about what it means to “sound black.” What does it mean to “sound white”?
As you listen to the music Stoever analyzes in her essay, do you hear what she calls “those aspirant ‘t’s and rounded, hyper-pronounced ‘r’s” when the rappers switch personas to voice the white cops?
Stoever compares the “cop voice” enacted by rappers with ventriloquism. Can we think of it as a racially-reversed, power-inverse form of minstrelsy — a kind of subversive minstrelsy performed by the disempowered?
KRS-One, “Sound of da Police” (1993):
Jay-Z, “99 Problems” (2003):
Main Source, “Just a Friendly Game of Baseball” (1991):
Public Enemy: “Get the F*** Outta Dodge” (1991):
Rebel Diaz, “Calma” (2009):
Prince Paul/Everlast, “The Men in Blue” (1999):
N.W.A., “F*** tha Police” (1988):
J Dilla, “F*** the Police” (1999):
Mos Def, “Mr. N*gga” (1999):
Jasiri X, “Crooked Cops” (2013):
G-Unit, “Ahhh Sh*t” (2014):
The Game, “Don’t Shoot” (2014):
Sammus, “Three Fifths” (2015):
Poet Claudia Rankine reading from her collection of poems Citizen: An American Lyric, a meditation on race in America.
2. Jennifer Stoever’s playlist of black women artists singing/rapping about police violence:
3. Eric Garner’s siblings, “I Can’t Breathe” (2016):
One of the most contested races in the 2018 midterms is right here in New York State, in the 19th congressional district, where incumbent John Faso is using his Democratic opponent Antonio Delgado’s former career as a rap artist as a talking point.
A radio ad taken out by Faso alleges that:
Delgado’s raps were vile, a sonic blast of hateful rhetoric and anti-American views, his words weaponized to insult anyone who disagreed.
Faso told the Times Herald-Record:
The tone and tenor of [Delgado’s] lyrics, as reported, are not consistent with the views of most people in our district, nor do they represent a true reflection of our nation. Mr. Delgado’s lyrics paint an ugly and false picture of America.
Delgado countered that Faso was taking his music out of context.
[Trigger/content warnings: racist imagery and language.]
In 1768, English playwright Isaac Bickerstaffe and Charles Dibdin — librettist and composer, respectively — presented their comic opera The Padlock at London’s Drury Lane Theatre. Dibdin portrayed the role of Mungo, a black slave from the West Indies, and his aria “Dear Heart! What a Terrible Life I am Led” became a popular hit. The song, though a lament, was an up-tempo, marked allegro.
In the late eighteenth century, “Dear Heart” and a number of other “Negro songs” were published in American song collections. These songs were meant to be sung by white singers “in character” — i.e., in blackface makeup and tattered clothing — but their texts were in general sympathetic to the plight of the enslaved. For instance, “The Desponding Negro” tells the story of an African caught and transported in the Middle Passage:
And “Poor Black Boy (I Sold a Guiltless Negro Boy),” from another English comic opera called The Prize (libretto by Prince Hoare, music by Stephen Storace, whose sister Nancy was the celebrated soprano who created the role of Susanna in Mozart’s Le nozzle di Figaro), is sung from the perspective of a repentant white slave-dealer.
Performing in blackface was a practice of long standing in Britain. Morris dance, a traditional form of English folk dance that emerged in the Middle Ages, derives its name from “Moorish,” i.e. African; the dancers were imitating what they believed to be exotic African dances, and the custom of blacking up persists, though it is now frowned upon by folk dance enthusiasts:
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, blackface was a theatrical convention for white actors portraying characters of African heritage, and was not considered denigrating or disrespectful. This began to change (slowly) in Britain in the nineteenth century, when the African-American actor Ira Aldridge made a sensation in England and on the European continent for his portrayal of the title role in Shakespeare’s Othello.
In early nineteenth-century America, on the other hand, white entertainers began to produce comic songs for the concert and stage, in which blacks were treated as figures of ridicule and contempt. The so-called “Father of American Minstrelsy,” Thomas Dartmouth Rice, known as “Daddy” Rice, claimed that he was inspired to create the genre when he came upon a disabled black stable-hand who, as he worked,
When Childish Gambino’s “This is America” dropped in 2018, some critics saw the pose he strikes early in the video, when he shoots the guitar player, as a reference to minstrelsy.
Minstrel shows, or “Ethiopian minstrelsy,” as the genre was called, became wildly popular in the big northern cities of the new nation, and some of the most popular minstrel troupes crossed the ocean and toured to great success in England. The white dancers and singers in blackface accompanied themselves with “Ethiopian instruments” — the fiddle, the banjo, the tambourine, and the “bones.” The typical minstrel show
In an 1848 article in his newspaper, The North Star, Frederick Douglass described the blackface actors as:
The filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied to them by nature, in which to make money, and pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow citizens.
Nevertheless, in spite of the fact that such entertainments were flagrantly racist — portraying white northerners’ corrupted ideas of the lives of southern blacks and making them into figures of fun — some scholars of minstrelsy have theorized that white audiences were attracted to minstrel shows not only because minstrelsy propped up white supremacy, but also because of itsconnectionto black culture, however degraded the minstrels’ version of black culture may have been. Even nineteenth-century writers, such as Margaret Fuller, recognized that what was original and innovative in American culture came from black music: white American culture, she wrote, was still an imitation of British culture, while
All symptoms of invention [in America] are confined to the African race . . . [unlike “Yankee Doodle,”] “Jump Jim Crow” is a [song] native to this country.
[Remember that Rice had essentially ripped off the song that the stablehand was singing, a theft that Fuller seems to acknowledge here.]
And another critic wrote in 1845 about the infusion of black music into the culture at large:
Ironically, Thomas Dartmouth Rice, who had catapulted to fame playing a racist, ableist stereotype of an enslaved man, later played the sympathetic slave character Tom in a stage version of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin — although, as Nick Rugnetta suggests here, it was probably one of the many bowdlerized, even pro-slavery, versions.
In his book Love & Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, Eric Lott suggests that
Or, as Julius Lester noted in Look Out, Whitey! Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama!:
The minstrel shows were a pathetic attempt by whites to try to get some of the vitality of blacks into their own strait-jacketed lives. (Whites would still be dancing the minuet if blacks weren’t around to invent every dance from the Charleston to the Boogaloo.) They had to masquerade as blacks to get outside the strict mores of their society.
W.E.B. Du Bois, in his essay “The Sorrow Songs,” included two minstrel songs — “Swanee River” and “Old Black Joe,” both by white composer Stephen Foster — in his historiography of black American music, which suggests that the cross-racial encounters of the minstrel show were more complex than they may appear.
After emancipation, there were even all-black minstrel troops, who nevertheless still “blacked up” for their performances. Interestingly, black minstrel shows were very popular among black audiences in the northern cities. Why do you think this might have been?
Zip Coon (a “zip coon” was a derogatory slang term for an urban black man, the citified counterpart of the rural “Jim Crow,” who liked to dress in flashy clothes and get into razor fights with his cohort):
Jim Along Josie:
Which later, with some changes, made its way into the children’s song repertoire:
[Shocked] is using the album to argue that blacks and whites who performed in blackface in the 1800s, imitating what they believed to be authentic black culture, are the founders of today’s popular music. Musicians who do not acknowledge this tradition are exploiting it, she says.
In particular, Shocked focuses on bluegrass, a style commonly believed to have been invented by Bill Monroe . . . she says Monroe learned the basis for bluegrass from a black fiddle player named Arnold Schultz.
”There is a very common misconception about this music that, say, it comes from Celtic influences-say, Irish music-and that it was brought over to this country and maybe it went through the Appalachians and Kentucky and became Americanized, and now let’s call it bluegrass or mountain music,” Shocked says.
But you can tell a story a hundred different ways. The way I’m trying to tell the story is that this music was as much a black invention as a white one, but that the black part of the history has been written out.
This is certainly true (see this post. and this one too). But it’s still more than a little unsettling to hear a white woman, however well-meaning, sing these words:
Jump Jim Crow. Jump Jim Crow How do you, do you walk so slow Like a little red rooster with one trick leg Looks like you the one laying the egg I don’t know when but it’ll be real soon Going down the road by the light of the moon Going to the city to see Zip Coon
Hip Zip Coon you sure look slick How do you do that walking trick You got a woman on your left A woman on your right You all dressed up like a Saturday night Strolling down the street, feeling fine Tipping your hat, saying “Howdy, Shine” If I knew your secret I would make it mine
Tarbaby, Tarbaby, tell me true Who is really the jigaboo? Is it the white man, the white talking that jive Or the black man, the black, trying to stay alive? You can’t touch a tarbaby, everybody knows Smiling all the while wit de bone in de nose That’s the way the story goes
Perhaps Shocked’s efforts are an example of love and theft, like Joni Mitchell’s forays into blackface:
Mitchell used this black male persona, which she named “Art Nouveau,” in several contexts. The black man on the left of the cover of her 1977 album Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter is Joni, in blackface drag.
On her 1979 “Shadows and Light” tour, Mitchell even used film to transpose “Art’s” face over hers at the end of the song “Furry Sings the Blues,” about her encounters with the dying blues musician Furry Lewis in Memphis (at the 4:14 mark):
In 1980, Joni made a short film, “The Black Cat in the Black Mouse Socks,” in which she transforms herself into “Art.”
What are the implications of a white woman taking on a black male persona? “Furry Sings the Blues” is not only a self-revelatory tale of cross-race cultural appropriation, but also of cross-class appropriation: Mitchell describes Lewis’s crumbling neighborhood in Memphis, notes that if you “bring him smoke and drink,” Lewis will sing for you, and ends with the admission that her “limo is shining on his shanty street.”
Is blackface ever permissible? Is it a different thing entirely when an innovative and admired artist like Joni Mitchell uses it? Or not?
Blackface has also been in the news in the past few years. The governor of Virginia (the capital of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War) faced pressure to step down when it was revealed that he appeared in blackface in his medical school yearbook from the 1980s, along with a classmate dressed as a klansman.
The design brand Gucci became the subject of controversy for introducing a black sweater/ski mask that mimics the exaggerated makeup of blackface.
White Instagram models have been slammed for striving to appear black.
Is it ever okay for a non-black artist to portray a black person onstage or in other media?
What about the great Spanish tenor Placido Domingo (this guy):
Playing Othello in Verdi’s operatic adaptation of the Shakespeare play, Otello?
It was commonplace for white tenors to play Otello in blackface as recently as 2015, when the Metropolitan Opera officially did away with the practice. The Met’s statement:
This creates a conundrum for an opera company wanting to cast the best talent available. Only a handful of tenors in the world can sing the role at the highest level, and most (though by no means all) opera singers are white. The tragedy of Othello — his destruction at the hands of his jealous white servant, Iago — is very much based on his “otherness.” If everyone on stage is the same color, the drama is lost. Here is Aleksandrs Antonenko in the Met’s Otello; he’s the heavyset guy in the uniform. It’s hard to tell him apart from the rest of the cast.
There are other ways to stage Othello to preserve its dramatic and artistic integrity. For instance, in 1997, Sir Patrick Stewart played Othello without blackface in a highly-acclaimed production that became known as the “photo-negative Othello“: Othello was white, and all the other characters were black.
In 2015, the Washington Post hosted a roundtable discussion of black opera singers on their feelings about blackface in Otello and other roles. The singers’ feelings about these practices may not be what you would expect:
The critic John Szwed has suggested that an artist like Mick Jagger essentially performs blackface without blacking up. What does he mean? Do you agree?
And black artists have also been accused by critics of performing minstrel stereotypes.
Nas uses minstrel stereotypes to explicitly criticize such artists:
Spike Lee commented on blackface in his 2000 film Bamboozled, about a black television producer who creates a contemporary minstrel show. The show is meant to be ironic, but ends up being a hit. Lee used the following montage in the film.
Other artists, like Rhiannon Giddens, have subverted the minstrel ethos and reclaimed it. Giddens plays a replica of an 1850s minstrel banjo. She describes how she repurposed a minstrel song, probably “Blue-Tail Fly,” and turned it into a history of the Reconstruction movement for Black education (as well as an exhortation to students today):
Questions for discussion:
Is blackface ever permissible in our day and age? If yes, what would be the circumstances that would make it so?
Why do you think white performers have found it so irresistible to “black up”?
Do you think that minstrel songs should be “reclaimed” by Black artists?
Should they continue to be taught in school music classes?
In the book Seems Like Murder Here: Southern Violence and the Blues Tradition, Adam Gussow devotes a chapter to Mamie Smith’s 1920 blues hit “Crazy Blues.” The song is believed to be the first blues recording ever released, and was entered into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1994. Gussow’s concern, however, is not with the song’s history, but with its subversive subject matter — the wild grief of an abandoned woman, which makes her “crazy,” leads to suicidal ideation, and finally reaches its crescendo in her stated plan to kill a police officer.
I can’t sleep at night I can’t eat a bite ‘Cause the man I love He don’t treat me right.
He makes me feel so blue I don’t know what to do Sometimes I’m sad inside And then begin to cry ‘Cause my best friend . . . said his last goodbye.
There’s a change in the ocean Change in the deep blue sea . . . but baby I tell you folks there . . . ain’t no change in me My love for that man Will always be.
Now I’ve got the crazy blues Since my baby went away I ain’t got no time to lose I must find him today Now the doctor’s gonna do all . . . that he can But what you gonna need is a undertaker man I ain’t had nothin’ but bad news Now I’ve got the crazy blues.
Now I can read his letter I sure can’t read his mind I thought he’s lovin’ me . . . He’s leavin’ all the time Now I see . . . My poor love was Iyin’.
I went to the railroad Hang my head on the track Thought about my daddy I gladly snatched it back Now my babe’s gone And gave me the sack.
Now I’ve got the crazy blues Since my baby went away I ain’t had no time to lose I must find him today I’m gonna do like a Chinaman, go and get some hop Get myself a gun, and shoot myself a cop I ain’t had nothin’ but bad news Now I’ve got the crazy blues.
In 1920 these were remarkable words for an African American singer to shout from the rooftops . . . .they supply a partial genealogy for the emergence, decades later, of NWA (“F*ck the Police”), Ice-T (“Cop Killer,” “Squeeze the Trigger”), and other beer-and-blunts-stoked gangsta rappers of the 1980s . . . . the black male lover whose absence [Mamie Smith] bemoans is associated not simply with faithlessness but with death, an inscription of his social fate in a white-policed public sphere where countless forms of “bad news” — lynching, race riots, vagrancy laws, back-alley murder — threaten to take him away for good.
“Crazy Blues” sold 75,000 copies in its first month alone, and its popularity was spread across the south when black Pullman porters set up a cottage industry of buying dozens of copies of the record for a dollar apiece in Harlem, and selling them for twice that much when their trains went down south.
Do you think “Crazy Blues” would have been so successful if it had been sung by a black man? Did Mamie Smith’s gender allowed her to express sentiments that would have been unacceptable if issued by a male singer?
It’s worth noting, too, that Smith’s threat to “do like a Chinaman . . . go and get some hop” is a drug reference — “hop” being slang for opium — as well as a racialized/racist one.
Considered purely in terms of the musical outpouring it led to, “Crazy Blues” was one of the most consequential records ever made, the first title in a regal succession of American song. Without Mamie Smith, no Bessie [Smith], no Billie [Holiday], no Ella [Fitzgerald], no Etta [James], no Diana [Ross], no Aretha [Franklin], no Whitney [Houston], no Mariah [Carey], no Janet [Jackson], no Missy [Elliot], no Beyoncé.
In 1924, the blues singer Josie Miles recorded another song about the urge to commit murder and mayhem, not specifically against the police, but perhaps against the violent injustice of society as a whole.
Wanna set the world on fire That is my one mad desire I’m a devil in disguise Got murder in my eyes
Now I could see blood runnin’ Through the streets Now I could see blood runnin’ Through the streets Could be everybody Layin’ dead right at my feet
Now man who invented war Sure is my friend The man invented war Sure is my friend Don’t believe that I’m sinkin’ Just look what a hole I am in
Give me gunpowder Give me dynamite Give me gunpowder Give me dynamite Yes I’d wreck the city Wanna blow it up tonight
I took my big Winchester Down off the shelf I took my big Winchester Down off the shelf When I get through shootin’ There won’t be nobody left
Josie Miles’s “mad mama” is certainly “mad” in the sense of insanity, but she is also “mad” in the sense of an overwhelming, righteous anger.
Lest it seem like these early musical-homicidal intentions went underground until gangsta rap, check out Gil Scott Heron’s 1981 cover of Marvin Gaye’s 1971 hit “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler).” While Gaye’s song is a despairing, if non-specific, cry against social injustice, Heron turns his spoken-word bridge into a tribute to the New Orleans cop-killer Mark Essex.
Heron’s spoken-word bridge:
Did you ever hear about Mark Essex and the things that made him choose to fight the inner city blues Yeah, Essex took to the rooftops guerilla style and watched while all the crackers went wild Brought in 600 troops, brand new I hear, to see them crushed with fear Essex fought back with a thousand rounds and New Orleans was a changing town Rat a tat tat tat was the only sound, yeah Bring on the stone rifles to knock down walls Bring on the elephant guns Bring on the helicopters to block out the sun Yeah, made the devil wanna holler cause 8 was dead and a dozen was down Cries for freedom were a brand new sound New York, Chicago, Frisco, LA Justice was served and the unjust were afraid