Lakewood Park, ca 1952, by William A. Garnet. via designobserver.com
I am shouldering my way through this discombobulating book of essays by Joan Didion, Where I Was From, reading it with a dedication dedicated to trying to understand this discombobulated place I moved to, California (which is, incidentally, Where She Was From), when finally, in Part II, Chapter 2, it all clicks in: Lakewood. Lakewood, a planned city of 17,500 homes south of Orange County, surrounded by defense contractors on all sides, a town built around a mall, supported by income flowing from the military-industrial complex, a happy town which as the defense jobs shuttered in the early 90s found itself on the national media stage for the vagrancy and alleged rapes committed by a clique of its post-adolescent males, the Spurs.
Cord Jefferson begins his Bookforum review of Joshua Bloom and Waldo E Martin Jr.’s new book on the Black Panthers, Black Against Empire, with a seemingly off-topic invocation of American Jewry. “For years it’s been said in circles both polite and impolite,” Jefferson begins the piece, “and in ways both delicate and indelicate, that America’s blacks should learn to live more like America’s Jews.” Three paragraphs later, this observation’s relation to the Black Panthers, and to Bloom and Martin’s new book, finally becomes clear. “The book reminds us of how close we came to a world in which America’s blacks were, in fact, acting like the Jews. In the 1960s and ’70s, the Black Panthers tried very hard to build a nation in which black people were sectarian, autonomous, and prosperous in much the same way Jewish communities throughout the United States had been for decades. And for their efforts, the Panthers were sabotaged, prosecuted, and murdered.”
Now, I just sat down to eat a bagel and read my new Bookforum, and then I read this piece, and then I ran up here to write to you. For some time now I’ve been avoiding opening this very door, this door onto the world of comparative history and literature and cultural studies between Black and Jewish culture. I went to see Eugene Jarecki’s new documentary on the drug war, The House I Live In, and was surprised and excited to see it begin with Jarecki’s personal reflection’s on his family’s escape from the Holocaust. But then the movie was disappointing, so I didn’t write about it, and I didn’t do then what I’m going to do now, which is slide my own self into the frame and explain that my identity as a Jewish woman has so much to do with what I’m doing here, in this world of African-American Studies.
And then last week I bought Emily Raboteau’s book Searching for Zion, which I believe compares the African and Jewish diaspora experiences, through travels to Israel, Africa, the Carribbean, the Deep South. But I’m not sure, because I haven’t read it yet, though I wondered if, when I read it, I would feel compelled to tell you some true things about my identity.
You see, approaching this subject is hard for me because I’m in it. On this blog I have been honest and transparent insofar as I am a woman or a rap fan or a teacher or a writer but I have never really come out as a Jew. If you know me you already know, and if you don’t it hasn’t mattered. I could write with some privacy about Cornel West and James Baldwin and Philip Roth and Exodus and slavery and diaspora and freedom and stay as impartial as a squirrel in a distant tree but I’m not, I’m right here, and I’m Jewish.
Yesterday I read this piece on Tablet about the inscription on Ed Koch’s gravestone of slain journalist Daniel Pearl’s last words: “My mother is Jewish, my father is Jewish, I am Jewish.” A perfectly fine declaration of Jewish identity which I also could make. And then Koch’s headstone attributes these words thus: “(Daniel Pearl, 2002, just before he was beheaded by a Muslim terrorist.)”
For all those concerned with the whitewashing of Ed Koch’s obituaries regarding his soiled reputations on AIDS and race relations in New York, don’t worry: of his own volition he has immortalized his intolerance on his own tombstone. “Muslim terrorist.” As though one thing had anything to do with another. As though Judaism is still defined by its existential threat, by the history of axes hanging over our scrawny, pious necks. As though being a Jew is permission to do that thing which has been done to us for millenia, that thing which had the Roman geto created for us, that is: to profile.
1969 cover via Time.com
Unlike the late Mr. Koch, I prefer to define my culture in positive terms, as a collection of books, stories, people, places, beautiful objects, historical documents, songs, melodies, language. I am not afraid to quarrel with another Jew’s picture of Judaism because argument and interpretation are part and parcel of my proud tradition. You see, I am one of those Jews: the social-justice oriented, ecumenical, liberal, egalitarian, concerned with the human rights of Palestinians and the freedom and dignity of all Americans of all colors and creeds, the progressive, the pro-birth control and anti-war, the pro-honest criticism of Israel, the anti-AIPAC, the anti-checkpoints, the anti-hate Jews. There is too much irony to cover. There is Lupe Fiasco and Jesse Jackson and Coleman Silk. There’s Israel’s Black Panther Party and the schisming of Black-Jewish solidarity and stories of slavery and freedom and community and song. To do so I will need to be present and honest and proud.
Cord Jefferson writes about the Black Panthers by pointing out to us that they tried to act like Jews. They tried to keep the money in the tribe. They started charities and schools and institutions dedicated to uplifting the members of their community. The problem was, the Black Panthers didn’t look like Jews, because Jews look like white people. Despite not celebrating Christmas or believing in Jesus or having any heritage from Germany or England or Sweden or France, despite my connection to a broad diaspora of Jews who speak all the world’s languages and are themselves the world’s colors and shapes, despite feeling in my heart that I am not white the way white people are white, when I walk out of my house in America every morning, I am white. (Maybe not fifty or a hundred years ago, but today, yes.) And so the J. Edgar Hoovers of the world do not see me as a threat.
There is so much to say. I won’t rush. Think of this as me opening a door, to let the breeze in. Passover is coming next month, the most important holiday for a social-justice Judaism, the holiday in which we tell the story of our exodus from Egypt, that story which is not ours alone. In the ritual of the Seder, the Passover meal, we build Jewish theology and practice out of a simple fact: we were slaves in Egypt, and God delivered us. Is that cause to rest on our laurels or extend the same hand to others?
I won’t answer. I’ll just make my new category and post this thing. Thanks for listening – and don’t worry, my next post is on Frank Ocean and Kendrick Lamar. -T
Black Noise is a work of literary criticism by Tricia Rose.
White Noise is a novel by Don DeLillo.
Black Noise was published in 1994, White Noise in 1985. Both books are about the effects of industrialization and a consumerist capitalism on Americans. Black Noise is about inner-city youths of color; White Noise is about a family of white suburbanites. Both are about noise– “a rapid and urgent cadence” (DeLillo 157); “rap’s volume, looped drum beats, and bass frequencies” (Rose 63)– and chaos. They are about human responses to trauma.
White Noise is a novel about a family living in a town over which descends a toxic cloud, a “toxic airborne event.” The novel is about the persistence of the quotidian in the face of real airborne danger. It is about absurdity and marriage, aging and death. DeLillo’s protagonist says, “All plots tend to move deathward. This is the nature of plots” (26).
Black Noise is about the absurdity of life, not death. It is about hiphop’s creative resistance:
“Let us imagine these hip hop principles as a blueprint for social resistance and affirmation: create sustaining narratives, accumulate them, layer, embellish, and transform them. However, be also prepared for rupture, find pleasure in it, in fact, plan on social rupture. When these ruptures occur, use them in creative ways that will prepare you for a future in which survival will demand a sudden shift in ground tactics” (39).
While White Noise is about trash…
“I went home and started throwing things away. I threw away fishing lures, dead tennis balls, torn luggage. I ransacked the attic for old furniture, discarded lampshades, warped screens, bent curtain rods. I threw away picture frames, shoe trees, umbrella stands, wall brackets, turntables. I threw away shelf paper, faded stationery, manuscripts of articles I’d written, galley proofs of the same aarticles, the journals in which the articles were printed. The more things I threw away, the more I found. The house was a sepia maze of old and tired things. There was an immensity of things, an overburdening weight, a connection, a mortality. I stalked the rooms, flinging things into cardboard boxes. Plastic electric fans, burnt-outtoasters, Star Trek needlepoints. It took well over an hour to get everything down to the sidewalk. No one helped me. I didn’t want help or company or human understanding. I just wanted to get the stuff out of the house.”
…Black Noise is about recycling:
“The postindustrial city, which provided the context for creative development among hip hop’s earliest innovators, shaped their cultural terrain, access to space, materials, and education. While graffiti artists’ work was significantly aided by advances in spray paint technology, they used the urban transit system as their canvas. Rappers and DJs disseminated their work by copying it on tape-dubbing equitment and playing it on powerful, portable ‘ghetto blasters.’ At a time when budget cuts in school music programs drastically reduced access to traditional forms of instrumentation and composition, inner-city youths increasingly relied on recorded sound. Breakdancers used their bodies to mimic ‘transformers’ and other futuristic robots in symbolic street battles….Hip hop artists used the tools of obsolete industrial technology to traverse contemporary crossroads of lack and desire in urban Afrodiasporic communities” (34-35).
Taken together, these two books chart two perspectives on the white flight from the postwar urban center, the fear and confusion of all involved, their recourse to things, their desire to create and be meaningful, the market forces that constrain them, the noise that fills their ears, the sound of being American.
Does this ever happen to you? You take a book out from the library, start reading, and almost immediately realize (prompted, perhaps, by the urge to underline something) that this is a book you’ll return to again and again, it ought to be annotated, ever on your shelf, and perhaps you should stop reading immediately, go buy the darn thing, and process it pen in hand. Well, that was me and Invisible Man. Library property notwithstanding, I couldn’t help folding up bottom corners of important pages, and I’ve been renewing its check-out online all summer, since I read it in June. The time has come for me to record what needs recording, unfold those folded pages, and let Invisible Man appear to the next thirsty reader.
(Irony of ironies, when I first went to check this book out, four or five copies were actually missing–invisible–from the library. Maybe because it’s so good? But definitely time to get mine back into circulation.)
I picked it up on a tip from visiting scholar Adam Bradley–the author of The Book of Rhymes and The Yale Anthology of Rap. He was at Michigan to give a lecture and we got talking about his early work in the Ralph Ellison archives at Harvard. Ellison, he insisted, had much to say about hiphop. After a first unsatisfying stint with Ellison’s Collected Essays, I finally found my way to Invisible Man. Now, three months later, bear with me as I work through my enigmatically dog-eared but un-annotated copy, as I rewrite, riff and remember…
He was an odd old guy, my grandfather, and I am told I take after him. It was he who caused the trouble. On his deathbed he called my father to him and said, “Son, after I’m gone I want you to keep up the good fight. I never told you, but our life is a war and I have been a traitor all my born days, a spy in the enemy’s country ever since I give up my gun back in the Reconstruction. Live with your head in the lion’s mouth. I want you to overcome ’em with yeses, undermine ’em with grins, agree ’em to death and destruction, let ’em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open.” They thought the old man had gone out of his mind. He had been the meekest of men. The younger children were rushed form the room, the shades drawn and the flame of the lamp turned so low that it sputtered on the wick like the old man’s breathing. “Learn it to the younguns,”” he whispered fiercely; then he died. (16)
That, there, was the first shock: learning, so early, so explicit, so extra-curricular. And learn what? The art of signifying, of subterfuge, of saying yes and knowing no, of nodding along but knowing so. This page, appropriately, I left un-marked. But my first dog ear returns to a similar concept, after I hard realized with much joy that our titular character would spend the first part of his story at school.
“Ordered you?” he said. “He ordered you. Dammit, white folk are always giving orders, it’s a habit with them. Why didn’t you make an excuse? Couldn’t you say they had sickness–smallpox–or picked another cabin? Why that Trueblood shack? My god, boy! You’re black and living in the South–did you forget how to lie?”
“Lie, sir? Lie to him, lie to a trustee, sir? Me?”
He shook his head with a kind of anguish. “And me thinking I’d picked a boy with a brain,” he said. “Didn’t you know you were endangering the school?”
“But I was only trying to please him…”
“Please him! And here you are a junior in college! Why, the dumbest black bastard in the cotton patch knows that the only way to please a white man is to tell him a lie! What kind of education are you getting around here?” (139)
And then a moment that really struck me, the vignette that not only launches our hero into politics but reminded me so strongly (now, one year later) of the stated goals and principles of Occupy Wall Street. Indeed, this section of Invisible Man warrants its own post, essay, critical study, as the invisible man and a crowd of citizens functionally occupy an eviction.
“We’re dispossessed,” I sang at the top of my voice, “disposessed and we want to pray. Let’s go in and pray. Let’s have a big prayer meeting. But we’ll need some chairs to sit in…rest upon as we kneel. We’ll need some chairs!”
“Here’s some chairs down here,” a woman called from the walk. “How ’bout taking in some chairs?”
“Sure,” I called, “take everything. Take it all, hide that junk! Put it back where it came from, It’s blocking the street and the sidewalk, and that’s against the law. Put it out of sight! Hid it, hide their shame! Hide our shame!”…
“We ought to done this long ago,” a man said.
“We damn sho should,”
“I feel so good,” a woman said. “I feel so good!”…
“It’s a good idea.”
“Let’s have a demonstration…”
“Let’s parade!” …
“What’s going on here?” a gold-shield officer called up the steps….”You,” he called, pointing straight at me.
“We’ve…we’ve been clearing the sidewalk of a lot of junk,” I called, tense inside….
“You mean you’re interfering with an eviction,” he called, starting through the crowd.
“He ain’t doing nothing,” a woman called from behind me.
I looked around, the steps behind were filled with those who had been inside
“We’re all together,” someone called, as the crowd closed in.
“Clear the streets,” the officer ordered.
“That’s what we were doing,” someone called from back in the crowd.
“Mahoney!” he bellowed to another policeman, “send in a riot call!”
“What riot?” one of the white men called to him. “There’s no riot.”
“If I say there’s a riot, there’s a riot,” the officer said. “And what re you white people doing up here in Harlem?” (281-283)
My next folded corner was prompted by a theme that has interested me since I researched feminist theology in college: the theme of self-actualization or coming out–what W.E.B. DuBois called that “second self” and what feminist theologian Judith Plaskow termed “the yeah, yeah experience” of realizing that other women have had the same experience of difference that you have. This is a theme you may hear more about from me: I’m not only interested here in the overlap between of-color, queer, and feminist literatures and ways of thinking, but also of the more general notion that every fully human adult person has to undergo some sort of coming-into-coming-out experience. Here’s Ellison’s take:
And the obsession with my identity which I had developed in the factory hospital returned with a vengeance. Who was I, how had I come to be? Certainly I couldn’t help being different from when I left the campus; but now a new, painful, contradictory voice had grown up within me, and between its demands for revengeful action and Mary’s silent pressure I throbbed with guilt and puzzlement. I wanted peace and quiet, tranquillity, but was too much aboil inside. Somewhere beneath the load of the emotion-freezing ice which my life had conditioned my brain to produce, a spot of black anger glowed and threw off a hot red light of such intensity that had Lord Kelvin known of its existence, he would have had to revise his measurements. A remote explosion had occurred somewhere…and it had caused the ice cap to melt and shift the slightest bit….Only a drop, perhaps, but that drop was the first wave of the deluge. (259)
And this one, which reminded me of my abiding sense that more people are different than not, that minorities are a majority, that the queer, disabled, of color, female, poor of the world added together make many more than the various normals do:
Let’s get together, uncommon people. With both our eyes we may see what makes us so uncommon, we’ll see who makes us so uncommon! (344)
At the end of this speech, our protagonist adds:
I feel, I feel suddenly that I have become more human. Do you understand? More human. Not that I have become a man, for I was born a man. But that I am more human. I feel strong, I feel able to get things done! I feel that I can see sharp and clear and far down the dim corridor of history and in it I can hear the footsteps of militant fraternity!…With your eyes upon me I feel that I’ve found my true family! My true people! My true country! I am a new citizen of the country of your vision, a native of your fraternal land. (346)
Beautiful lines which harken to Ellison’s commitment, stated in his essays and especially in his comments that “”Richard Wright is no spiritual brother of mine” (I paraphrase, I think), to a humanity that is beyond race, that uses race only to transcend it. But our narrator’s later reflections belie the newness, the novelty, of this novel, and I marked them for my craft-lesson frustrations with them, for their belaboring an already-made point:
Words, phrases, skipped through my mind; I saw the blue haze again. What had I meant by saying that I had become “more human”? Was it a phrase that I had picked up from some preceding speaker, or a slip of the tongue? For a moment I thought of my grandfather and quickly dismissed him. What had an old slave to do with humanity? (354)
And here, a joy of novel-writing that no essay can ever accomplish: fiction’s distinct dialogism, its capacity for dialogue, for two modes of thought within one piece of prose:
“And you, mahn,” the Exhorter said, “a regl’lar little black devil! A godahm sly mongoose! Where you think you from, going with the white folks? I know, godahm; don’t I know it! You from down South! You from Trinidad! You from Barbados! Jamaica, South Africa, and the white mahn’s foot in your ass all the way to the hip. What you trying to deny by betrayin gthe black people? Why you fight against us? You young fellows. You young black men with plenty education; I been hearing your rabble rousing. Why you go over to the enslaver? What kind of education is that? What kind of black mahn is that who betray his own mama?” (371)
More on learning:
“You’ll learn,” he said. “You’ll learn and you’ll surrender yourself to it even under such conditions. Especially under such conditions; that’s its value. That makes it patience.”
“Yes, I guess I’m learning now,” I said. “Right now.”
“Brother, he said drily, “you have no idea how much you’re learning– Please sit down.”
“All right,” I said, sitting down again. “But while ignoring my personal education for a second I’d like you to remember that the people have little patience with us tehse days. We could use this time more profitably.” (465)
And later, the question of leader vs. leaderlessness returns when our hero faces his superiors:
“Our job is not to ask them what they think but to tell them!”
“You’ve said that,” I said, “and that’s the one thing you can tell them yourself. Who are you, anyway, the great white father?”
“Not their father, their leader. And your leader. And don’t forget it.” (473)
A Genesis shout-out:
And back and high on the wall above him there arched the words in letters of gold: LET THERE BE LIGHT! The whole scene quivered vague and mysterious in the green light, then the door closed and the sound muted down. (498)
And a reminder of the book’s weighty, tangible use of symbols::
I took a cab. Hambro lived in the West Eighties, and once in the vestibuleI tucked the hat under my arm and put the glasses in my pocket along with Brother Tarp’s leg chain and Clifton’s doll [a mammy figurine]. My pocket was getting overloaded. (500)
And the boomerang comes back again:
It was a joke, an absurd joke. And now I looked around a corner of my mind and saw Jack and Norton and Emrson merge into one single white figure….I was simply a material, a natural resource to be used….I didn’t know what my grandfather had meant, but I was ready to test his advice. I’d overcome them with yeses, undermine them with grins, I’d agree them to death and destruction. Yes, and I’d let them swoller me until they vomited or burst wide open. Let them gag on what they refused to see. Let them chocke on it….would this be treachery? Did the word apply to an invisible man? (508-509)
And in anticipation of Lil Wayne…
“I would take up residence underground. The end was in the beginning.” (571)
So I’ll end with an epigraph I’ve used before, on Signifying, from Weezy:
I see the end in the beginning
So I’m not racing, I’m just sprinting
Cause I don’t wanna finish
They diminish, I replenish. (“Let the Beat Build, Tha Carter III)
These have been Notes on a Future Seminar Paper. Peace, y’all.
A few weeks ago I finished Isabel Wilkerson’s magisterial The Warmth of Other Suns, about the Great Migration, in which four million African-Americans moved north and west from the Jim Crow south over six decades after World War I. I cannot recommend this book highly enough for anyone interested in African-American or really American history of the 20th century. The book uses copious interviews with migrants and members of the communities they left and joined, combined with coverage of older and a new body of reevaluative research on the migrants, to argue compellingly that southern migrant blacks were a resilient and hardworking group whose individual decisions culminated to change America’s cultural, economic, and geographical landscape, and in so doing pushed American history forward.
While I read I found myself noting the words that Wilkerson uses to describe the African American experience under Jim Crow that because of their over-affiliation with other events or our successful efforts to smooth out our own national history, we rarely read in popular accounts of American history. Words like apartheid, terrorism, human rights, and most notably, caste. Perhaps other folks are used to seeing caste used, but it surprised me. That’s not to say it’s inaccurate, but caste makes me think of India. How have we so successfully purged our language of correct usage of words? Because despite the fact that Jim Crow used violence to maintain caste distinctions that had become technically illegal, still we use words like “segregation” which connote “separate but equal.” There’s no equal in caste.
And, since this is a hiphop blog, I should note that this book does a great job of mentioning–throughout, but especially at the end–the way the Great Migration influenced the landscape of American music and culture.
Over time, the Migration would transform American music as we know it. The three most influential figures in jazz were all children of the Great Migration. Miles Davis was born in Alton, Illinois, after his family migrated from Arkansas. Thelonious Monk migrated with his family from North Carolina when he was five. John Coltrane left High Point, North Carolina for Philadelphia in 1943, when he was sixteen. Coltrane had never owned a saxophone before his mother bought him a used one once he got north. (529)
Many black parents who left the South got th eone thing they wanted just by leaving. Their children would have a chance to grow up free of Jim Crow and to be their fuller selves. It cannot be known what course the lives of people like Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin, Michelle Obama, Jesse Owens, Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, Serena and Venus Williams, Bill Cosby, Condoleezza Rice, Nat King Cole, Oprah Winfrey, Berry Gordy (who founded Motown and signed children of the Migrantion to sing for it), the astronaut Mae Jemison, the artist Romare Bearden, the performers Jimi Hendrix, Michael Jacksn, Prince, Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, Whitney Houston, Mary J. Blige, Queen Latifa, the director Spike Lee, the playwright August Wilson, and countless others might have taken had their parents or grandparents not participated in the Great Migration and raised them in the North or West. All of them grew up to become among the best in their fields, changed them, really, and were among the first generation of blacks in their country to grow up free and unfettered because of the actions of their forebears. Millions of other children of the Migration grew up to lead productive, though anonymous, lives in quiet, everyday ways that few people will ever hear about. (535)
Audio Project: Digging up Thelonious Monk’s Southern Roots
As a Chicagoan myself, this book filled in a huge part of my understanding of my city. One of the book’s three main characters, Ida Mae Gladney, moves to Chicago from Georgia and the changing Black Belt she sees out of her South Side window is as fascinating as how she got up there in the first place. I also loved how in Wilkerson’s language and especially her epigraphs, the book was shot through with influences from literature and music. A lot of Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, letters, newspapers, spirituals. It’s history, y’all. Anyway, read this book! I’ll end with another segment from the conclusion that sounded like it came out of a Nas song. Mind blown!
It is one of those circular facts of history that, in the three great receiving cities to which southern blacks fled–the cities that drew Ida Mae, George, and Robert–blacks had been among the first nonnatives to set foot on the soil and to establish settlements centuries before. Black mestizos were among the forty-four Mexican settlers arriving in 1781 at the pueblo that would become Los Angeles. Jean Baptiste Point DuSable, a fur trader born of an African slave woman in Haiti, built, in 1779, the first permanent settlement in what is now known as Chicago. Jan Rodrigues, a sailor of African descent working for and later abandoned by Dutch merchants on an untamed island in the New World, created the first trading post on what is now known as Manhattan, in 1613. (537)
Already Michael [that is, D’Angelo] was developing into the musical connoisseur that D’Angelo is today. His Uncle CC was a truck driver who moonlighted as a DJ, and he had a huge record collection. This was the beginning of what D now calls “going to school”—delving deep into jazz, soul, rock, and gospel history, from Mahalia Jackson to Band of Gypsys, from the Meters to Miles Davis to Donald Byrd, from Sam Cooke to Otis Redding, from Donny Hathaway to Curtis Mayfield to Sly Stone to Marvin Gaye. When Michael was 8, Gaye had just made a comeback with “Sexual Healing” and won two Grammys. “Everybody was talking about him,” D’Angelo recalls. “Everybody.”
Also, Sasha Friere-Jones on Kraftwerk at the MoMA opens the piece with coverage of Kraftwerk’s influence on early hip-hop and pop music.
The Bronx d.j. and hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa was in the audience at the Ritz. He had found Kraftwerk’s 1977 album, “Trans-Europe Express,” in a record bin several years earlier. “I was just looking at these guys on the cover and saying, ‘Whoa, whoa, what the hell is this?’ ” he told me. “Wow! Something’s here that’s very funky, and I got to play it for my audience.” He added that Kraftwerk’s battery of gear at the Ritz made it look as if they were playing “washing machines.” (Because of the difficulty of re-creating their recordings with such complicated equipment, the band has visited the U.S. only seven times in its forty-two-year history. Now they use laptops.) The following year, Bambaataa, along with the musician John Robie and the producer Arthur Baker, combined the beat of “Numbers,” from “Computer World,” and the melody of the title track from “Trans-Europe Express” to create “Planet Rock,” an early hip-hop song that spawned a small clutch of genres, including electro, Miami bass, and Brazilian baile funk. “Computer World,” Kraftwerk’s masterpiece, sold less than a million copies, yet its influence has been surprisingly broad—even Coldplay, for its single “Talk,” from 2005, has used a melody from the album.
One song on “Computer World,” called “Home Computer,” has a distinctive, ascending arpeggio that feels a bit like bubbles rising quickly through mercury. That arpeggio shows up in LCD Soundsystem’s single “Disco Infiltrator,” from 2005. It’s also referenced in Missy Elliott’s “Lose Control,” from the same year. A few days ago, I was walking through SoHo and passed the Uniqlo store, with its painfully fluorescent lighting, which illuminates only slightly less fluorescent clothing. Nicki Minaj’s hit “Starships,” a savvy combination of dubstep and traditional house, was bleeding onto the street. When I listened closely, I realized that this version was actually a mashup with one of the many songs that has used “Home Computer” ’s arpeggio.
A sample of a sample of Kraftwerk? Sample train detected! Unfortunately, Frere-Jones kept repeating the piece’s banal subheading, “How did a pop band end up in a museum?” Um, how did a pop band not end up in a museum? Have you seen pop bands? Or museums?
In fact, Whosampled, above, doesn’t know who Nicki sampled. Could it be Norwegian beatmaking duo Tor Hermansen and Mikkel Eriksen, aka Stargate, the subjects of John Seabrook’s article, along with “‘top line’ writer Esther Dean”. They write songs for the likes of Rihanna and Nicki Minaj, Beyonce, Kelly Clarkson. Plus Ester Dean can do this:
Dean has a genius for infectious hooks. Somehow she is able to absorb the beat and the sound of a track, and to come out with its melodic essence. The words are more like vocalized beats than like lyrics, and they don’t communicate meaning so much as feeling and attitude—they nudge you closer to the ecstasy promised by the beat and the “rise,” or the “lift,” when the track builds to a climax. Among Dean’s best hooks are her three Rihanna smashes—“Rude Boy” (“Come on, rude boy, boy, can you get it up / Come on, rude boy, boy, is you big enough?”), “S&M” (“Na-na-na-na COME ON”), and “What’s My Name” (“Oh, na-na, what’s my name?”), all with backing tracks by Stargate—and her work on two Nicki Minaj smashes, “Super Bass” (“Boom, badoom, boom / boom, badoom, boom / bass / yeah, that’s that super bass”) and David Guetta’s “Turn Me On” (“Make me come alive, come on and turn me on”). […]
“I go into the booth and I scream and I sing and I yell, and sometimes it’s words but most time it’s not,” she told me. “And I just see when I get this little chill, here”—she touched her upper arm, just below the shoulder—“and then I’m, like, ‘Yeah, that’s the hook.’ ” If she doesn’t feel that chill after five minutes, she moves on to the next track, and tries again.
Hey guys, remember back in England when Charles Dickens used to publish his novels chapter-by-chapter in a London newspaper? Well, he got paid for it, so that obviously isn’t happening.
But I am taking a page from the history of books and trying this serial novel thing for myself, online. Yes, that’s right–I’m publishing a new novel a page at a time here on WordPress. It’s called Sorry For Partying, and you can read it right here. It’s a novel I worked on all year. I finally completed a draft in April, and now I’m re-writing it, posting my progress online–so don’t worry, I’m not asking you to read a first draft. Anyway, I hope you’ll check it out, enjoy, and let me know what you think.
“Why, when what we did worked so well for two hundred years, is everything breaking down?”
— a 70- or 80-year old Hmong man displaced to California, quoted in Fadiman, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down
A year ago, I had never heard of the Hmong people, a nomadic Asian hill tribe continually settled and displaced across China, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand until, after the Vietnam War ravaged their homelands, many came to settle in the United States.
I first encountered the Hmong in Jason Aaron’s SCALPED, a deliciously violent and seamy comic book series about the overlapping criminal and political exploits of the Lakota people on the fictional Nebraska Prairie Rose Indian Reservation. In SCALPED the Hmong are antagonists, a group of tattooed gangsters from Minneapolis who finance Chief Red Crow’s casino and then demand accountability for their investment.
The next time the Hmong crossed my pop-culture consumption screen was a few months ago when my boyfriend and I finally got around to watching the Clint Eastwood vehicle Gran Torino. Aside from the Hmong lead’s lovely explanation to Clint that it’s pronounced “Mong,” not “H-mong,” and the prominent characteristics of family and gift-giving versus criminality and gang-inclinations we see in the extemporaneous Hmong characters, the film was a more accurate showcase of Western cultural values, since to be the hero of the movie Clint has to (SPOILER ALERT!!) sacrifice himself (see Jesus, Harry Potter). In this case, the povertorific Hmong are living in scary urban Detroit where we see a lot of cars, underemployed teenagers, and threateningly sexual black people.
Or, as Bill Hader put it last Saturday, “Get a Chrysler. And get off my damn lawn.”
After those two unseemly representations it was a blessing I finally found my way to The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Anne Fadiman’s wonderful exploration of the cultural impasse between an epileptic Hmong child’s family and her doctors in Merced, California. People, this book is SO GOOD. It is empathetic, historically aware, culturally and linguistically sensitive, expertly told, beautifully written, mythological. Fadiman treats the Hmongs’ history as though it is as nuanced and important as our own, and Western medicine as based on the assumptions, mythologies and legends that all worldviews are. She writes in her Preface:
After I heard about the Lees’ daughter Lia, whose case had occasioned some of the worst strife the Merced hospital had ever seen, and after I got to know her family and her doctors, and after I realized how much I liked both sides and how hard it was to lay the blame at anyone’s door (though God knows I tried), I stopped parsing the situation in such linear terms, which mean that without intending to, I had started to think a little less like an American and a little more like a Hmong. (x)
What a sentence! Interestingly, my only criticism in reading this book came in right after my epigraph, above. In the same paragraph in which Fadiman quotes this gentleman wondering how, after hundreds (or perhaps thousands) of years of civil disobedience, migration and survival in Southeast Asia, so many Hmong have become impoverished and dependent Americans, Fadiman’s irascible optimism finally distressed me. “Much has broken down , but not everything,” she writes. “I can think of no other group of immigrants whose culture, in its most essential aspects, has been so little eroded by assimilation” (207-208).
What a deflection–and in the face of this book’s most powerful incrimination of the American war empire, which enlisted Lao Hmong to fights its superfluous war in Vietnam, then granted Hmong asylum into an American community that knew nothing of their contributions abroad and instead often associated them with the enemy. The old man’s question “Why…is everything breaking down?” teased at the fault lines of our notion of a free society. By Fadiman’s account, the Hmong people she interviewed didn’t want welfare payments but arable land to replace the 10-gallon tubs-cum-planters full of herbs in the parking lots behind their homes.
The Occupy Wall Street movement has raised similar questions. Protesters’ efforts to flood streets and camp in parks en masse have drawn attention to the loss of genuine public space in our polity. The great irony of Zuccotti Park was that in this newly monitored era, only a private park like Zuccotti wouldn’t close to the public overnight.
Further, while SCALPED is written by a White American, its attitude of subversive resistance to America’s public transcript–regarding Indians, criminality and the FBI–finds linguistic potency in its frequent use of the words “n***er” and “n***a” toward and between Native Americans. I am coming to suspect that understanding these words, their meanings, usages and differences, is fundamental to apprehending the contours of hiphop.
In his “On the Question of Nigga Authenticity,” critical theorist R. A. T. Judy attempts an ontological question: what does it mean to be n***a authentically? Judy’s essay attempts to upend the easy genealogy posited by others between the contemporary hardcore rapper, the gangster, that n***a, with the antebellum “bad nigger” and the postbellum badman by suggesting that the hardcore rapper is not an extension of these characters’ oppositional relationship to authority and paradoxically self-policing role within the community. Judy sees the question of n***a authenticity as an ontological question, not a moral-political one.
Defining “nigger” (in nearly Beloved-esque prose), Judy writes: “The value of the nigger is not in the physical body itself but in the energy, the potential force, that the body contains…That force is the thing that the planter owns. It is the property of the planter that is the nigger. The nigger is that thing” (109).
On the relationship of the a/moral badman to the police: “…for Spencer…the heroic badman is a figure of legitimate moral resistance to white oppression. ….As W.E.B. Du Bois remarked…the systematic use of the law by white authorities to disenfranchise blacks after the resumption of home rule in the South caused blacks to make avoidance of the law a virtue…In this understanding, the black community becomes the police in order to not give the police any reason or cause to violate it. ….In other words, the function of the police, as officers of the courts, is to turn the negro back into a nigger” (107-110).
Occupy All Streets?
On n***a authenticity: “This is the age of hypercommodification, in which experience has not become commodified, it is commodification, and nigga designates the scene, par excellence, of commodification, where one is among commodities. Nigga is a commodity affect….The nigga is constituted in the exchange of experience for affect….[T]he hard-core gangster rapper traffics in affect and not values. In this sense, hard-core rap is the residual of the nonproductive work of translating experience into affect….[N]igga defines authenticity as adaptation to the force of commodification” (111-112).
That is (and it took me many reads to figure this one out), according to Judy, the nigga is not the reincarnation of the badman or the bad nigger but of the “simple nigger” (his term) who, like his antebellum ancestor enmeshed in the struggle between thingness and humanness, has recast himself for the modern terms of the debate as the site of the conflict between commodity and humanness. According to Judy, “Nigga is a commodity affect”–that is, n***a is the feeling of being a commodity, n***a is the feeling of being an interchangeable, saleable good, a feeling that is made to be exported, precisely in that it is the feeling of commodification. It is intrinsically exportable. Though I wish Judy would go further to account for the apparent reclaiming of this term by commodified peoples.
In the context of Judy’s argument, what does the n***er/n***a dichotomy mean from and for nonblack peoples of color? In SCALPED, “n***er” is used by white characters to describe Indians and “n***a” is used by people of color to describe themselves. Judy writes, “Black folk, who have always been defined in relation to work, went the way of work” (104). In the context of the cooping up of the real Hmong-American people in Fadiman’s study, perhaps nonblacks’ appropriation of n***a hints at the ontological dilemma faced by all people of color (whose bodies in America have also always been associated with work) in a contemporary post-work America, in the same way that whites’ creative employment of “n***er” to describe a whole host of ethnic people confirms America’s presumed equivalence between non-white bodies and labor commodity.
When I was a sophomore in college, I applied for and received a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship, which consisted of a sizable cash stipend and summer research funding aimed to help me pursue my expressed goal of becoming a professor. Being an MMUF fellow at Princeton also involved monthly meetings with other undergraduate and graduate fellows, casual talks with professors of color, and a fancy annual banquet in which some professor or other reiterated every year how miserable the PhD process is, and enjoined upon us to keep on keepin’ on.
The goals of MMUF are as follows; it was my job as an aspiring sophomore to convince my school’s committee that I met them:
The fundamental objectives of MMUF are to reduce, over time, the serious underrepresentation on faculties of individuals from minority groups, as well as to address the consequences of these racial disparities for the educational system itself and for the larger society that it serves. These goals can be achieved both by increasing the number of students from underrepresented minority groups who pursue PhDs and by supporting the pursuit of PhDs by students who may not come from underrepresented minority groups but have demonstrated a commitment to the goals of MMUF. (mmuf.org)
That’s me, at the end: “students who may not come from underrepresented minority groups but have demonstrated a commitment to” these goals. The irony of it all was that MMUF, which had previously been a fellowship for minority students, was forced by anti-affirmative action legislation (I believe under the Bush II administration) to broaden its selection criteria from racial to ideological.
Six years later, I’m an MFA holder teaching hiphop studies to college freshmen (but still a white woman with an ambiguously ethnic name). Last semester, after one of my sections was in a classroom after a white man teaching a course on jazz and before another white man teaching a course on African cities, I turned my attention to novelist Cecil Brown’s Dude, Where’s My Black Studies Department? The Disappeareance of Black Americans from Our Universities (2007). The book opens to the author wandering across the greens of his alma mater, UC Berkeley, and wondering, like “one of the characters in the film Dude, Where’s My Car?” (ix), Dude, where are all the black students?
I was interested in this book not only because of my own experience as a white woman teaching Black subject matter to largely white and Asian students, but (more importantly) because Mr. Brown taught a course at Stanford called “From Homer to Hiphop,” and a peruse of this book’s Table of Contents online revealed that the author professed to have rediscovered Black Studies in the streets, among the hiphop heads. I was keen to read his arguments about the rifts between written and oral cultures of information.
I empathized with Mr. Brown’s statistics on the erosion of affirmative action policies in the last few decades–my courses are as much a commitment to diversity as an expression of my own interests. And many of his arguments were provocative, like his suggestion that while “special programs are established to help [Asian and Asian-American students] with their writing and speaking skills” (94),the same effort is not made to bring other students of color up to speed.
But what ultimately disappointed me about this book was Mr. Brown’s blanket dismissal of genuine white interest in hiphop music, an exasperation I see again and again in black writers’ work on hiphop. Brown suggests “rap music helps white youth deal with their fear of girls” (99), and that “White attraction to Black pimps are…symptoms of an unconscious desire to escape the structured life of the mechanical world” (102). But he’s never open to the possibility that white listeners empathize with rap’s critique of a racist and hypocritical society. I was reminded of Tricia Rose’s seminal Black Noise, where the author sneakily suggests her bias:
Jazz, rock’n’roll, soul, and R&B each have large devoted white audience members, many of whom share traits with Norman Mailer’s “white negroes,” young white listeners trying to perfect a model of correct white hipness, coolness, and style by adopting the latest black style and image. Young white listeners’ genuine pleasure and commitment to black music are necessarily affected by dominant racial discourses regarding African Americans, the politics of racial segregation, and cultural difference in the United States. Given the racially discriminatory context within which cultural syncretism takes place, some rappers have equated white participation with a process of dilution and subsequent theft of black culture. Although the terms dilution and theft do not capture the complexity of cultural incorporation and syncretism, this interpretation has more than a grain of truth in it. (5)
Look how Ms. Rose deftly undercuts the possibility of “young white listeners’ genuine pleasure and commitment” and then invokes the terms “dilution and theft” without taking responsibility for them.
Some of the only welcoming language I’ve seen is in the introduction to (Asian-American) Jeff Chang’s wonderful Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, where he declares of the hiphop generation: “Whom does it include? Anyone who is down” (2). Even the provocateur Nas, after calling out to all his “kike niggers, spic niggers, Guinea niggers, chink niggers,” reminds his posturing audience, “They like to strangle niggers, blaming niggers, shooting niggers, hanging niggers, still you wanna be a nigger too?” (“Be A Nigger Too,” Untitled).
In Cecil Brown’s 1969 novel, The Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger, the titular protagonist sits with the only Black woman he’s found in Copenhagen and lays his hand to her pregnant form:
He felt the small lump running smoothly under his fingers as she brought his hand smoothly over her brown hot belly.
“That’s a baby,” she said.
“Really,” he said. He was scared stiff.
“A white baby, ” she said.
“Does it make you feel a little bit disgusted?”
“Yeah, I think so.” (124)
* from Cecil Brown, The Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger, 105.