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”:
In 1966, as young blacks were beginning to drift away from from what they saw as the accommodationism of the Civil Rights movement and starting to embrace a more radical vision, two Oakland activists, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, founded the Black Panther Party. 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.
You may know that Tupac Shakur’s mother, Afeni (above) was a prominent member of the New York City chapter of the Panthers, and that she gave birth to her son in 1971, just one month after being acquitted, along with 20 other Panthers, of a conspiracy to plant bombs in various locations around New York. In the years following his untimely death in 1996, Tupac has himself 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?
Tupac’s godmother was Assata Shakur (above), a Panther who escaped from prison in 1979, where she was serving a life sentence for the murder of a New Jersey state trooper. She currently lives in Cuba, and she remains on the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list. Tupac dedicated the song “Words of Wisdom” off his 1991 album 2Pacalypse Now to Assata.
Another song off 2Pacalypse Now, “Trapped,” seems 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. His life and his work raise the questions:
Is it possible to be a conscious rapper and a gangsta rapper at the same time?
Have the politics of black liberation fizzled out in the general political apathy of the generations that came after the 1970s?
Did the radical social discourse of black revolutionary politics morph into the radical individualism of gangsta rap — from the uplift of the community to the glorification of the individual through money, violence, and sexual conquest?
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:
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 Oklahoma-born writer George Milburn, who spent time on the road 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:
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:
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?
Trigger/Content Warning: Disturbing subject matter, police brutality, racism, profanity, racist language including the n-word.
Jennifer Lynn Stoever notes in her article “‘Doing Fifty-Five in a Fifty-Four’: Hip Hop, Cop Voice and the Cadence of White Supremacy in the United States”:
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.
In the early nineteenth century, however, white entertainers in the United States 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, apparently 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 last year, some critics saw the pose he struck in the video when he shot 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” (in your course reading packet), 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 might this 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 Michelle Shocked 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 artist Joni Mitchell uses it? Or not?
Blackface has also been in the news lately. 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 the Verdi opera Otello?
The critic John Szwed has suggested that an artist like Mick Jagger essentially performs blackface without blacking up. What do you think?
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.
Is it ever possible for blackface to be sympathetic? Respectful? Non-denigrating? If so, how?
(For more on identity and performative blackness, read here and here.)
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
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.
[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.
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 teeth, Cristal 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 think “Royals” is racist?
How do you think Flores might respond to the new Beyoncé/Jay-Z song “Apeshit”? The lyrics can safely be called the exact opposite of a “critique of wealth accumulation.”
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 success as artists. As Jason Fargo notes:
The Carters also seem to be making an intentional reference to the iconic 1930 painting “American Gothic,” by Grant Wood.
The song and the video raise the questions once again:
Who owns music?
Who owns art?
What does it mean to be an artist — specifically, a black artist?
What does it mean to be the audience for black art and music?
In the act of listening and/or viewing, does the audience participate in the work of art?
As well as the questions:
Are success and the ability to consume luxury goods and services the same things?
Is the pursuit of wealth an objectively good thing for an individual? For the community?
Is art that celebrates consumerism on the same artistic level as art that has a more explicit message of community/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 actually making a political statement?
Can such statements go beyond the personal circumstances of the artist and inspire change in the community?
Finally: SHOULD art have a higher message?
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.”
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?
From the “visual album” of Lemonade:
Grandmother, the alchemist, you spun gold out of this hard life, conjured beauty from the things left behind. Found healing where it did not live. Discovered the antidote in your own kit. Broke the curse with your own two hands. You passed these instructions down to your daughter who then passed it down to her daughter.
Update, June 2019: the portrait of a black model that is featured in the video for “Apeshit” is also discussed in greater detail in this essay, about an exhibit at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, “Black Models: From Géricault to Matisse.”