"The litmus test for the authenticity of a particular artistic expression can never be the people who consume it. It has to be the issue of what you intend." - Professor Michael Eric Dyson on Black Tree TV.
Hello. My name is Johan, and I am a white male.
Twice this week I've been reminded of this fact (as if it would normally escape me). First, Anton Hultberg Hansen wrote something really interesting in a commentary thread at Swedish hip hop blog Kinky Afro (in Swedish, unfortunately). Then I tried my utmost not to get drawn into a flame war by an unpleasant troll at Counterglow, and my moderately sloppy attempt at reasoned debate again brough out the race card. So whether I've wanted to or not, I've had to think about the issue of what white-maleness means in terms of the consumption of culture, and more disturbingly what my white-maleness means when I consume culture.
In the video quoted above (that Anton clued me on to) Professor Dyson says something else interesting. "Blues music today is primarily consumed by white people. Does that mean B. B. King has sold his soul [...] to white suburbia?" It's meant to be a rhetorical question, of course, but that doesn't mean it can't be answered in an interesting way. As a starting point for exploring this thorny issue, here's pretty much what my reply would be.
We white men excert a disproportionate amount of power in this world. We largely control the capital and a significant proportion of the buying power. We excert most of the political control. And because of our generally better access to education and outlets, a large part of the discourse about our world is performed and set in stone by us.
Generally I think we can all agree that there's a persuasive argument to be made for looking beyond this discourse. History (as dictated by us) and taste (ditto) has cast away a lot of interesting cultural expressions through the years, mostly those by women and ethnic minorities, and it's definitely worthwhile to try to reexamine that which conventional tastemakers have skipped over. I don't think anyone (short of a bunch of conservatives) can object to the idea of broadening the listening repertoire and reinstating the forgotten.
A more controversial approach would be to try to examine the roots of the pervailing discourse and explore its motivations and underlying presuppositions. In the case of B. B. King, one could ask what exactly it is about him that makes him appealing to whites to such an extent, and if your answer is age, unthreatening exoticism, the prevalent desire for the primitive and his direct marketing aimed at whites then you're inevitably in for a fight. (If you answer quality, life-wisdom and closeness to tradition you're probably safe.) Connecting the arts to a wider society, especially if you question the basic premises of the ruling elites, is never going to be easy.
Still harder assualted would be the proposition that, yes, B.B. King is a sell-out. He's chosen to make a music that's directed and sold towards a white male audience, one might contend. Isn't that practically the definition of a sell-out? Someone who chiefly markets to those outside their own core group? I've known myself to make this argument on occasion, and argue from quality that music that's marketed mainly towards it's own group has been "good" and that if it goes on to sell to the powerful it is "bad". It's not difficult to pick out examples like Washington go-go, which in a matter of years went from excellent to tired solely on the basis of the switched audience. I also have often made a colonialism-type claim, saying that the labour of the musicians mainly benefits the already powerful.
This sort of scheme is fairly easy to apply to contemporary music (or historical music that was at the time designed to appeal to The Man) but what about historical music in general? In his early days B B King never envisonaged his later appeal to a broader audience. Does the fact that it appeared taint that stuff too? What about something like northern soul?
That's another genre of black music where white men provide the expertise and audience. However, it is on records and the records were, at the time, created mainly for a black audience. So does that make it alright? And is it even true? Motown's chief revenue was, after, all, white people. Is that a reason to devalue Motown? It was explicit in selling to white people, so it never sold out, right?
Which brings us around to the main issue in the video, Hip-hop. Newpaper columnist Stanley Crouch makes a claim that 80% of hip-hop is consumed by "white guys in the suburbs". I've no idea if this is true but it might well be the case. The difference, if one was to base a critique of B.B. King and his audience on this sort of figures, is that here it is not the intended consumers that matter but the actual consumers - the very fact that white people are buying it is problematic, independent of who the music was created for. (Hip-hop is generally marketed towards a black audience, with the exception of the most commercially viable set and backpacker rap, making it not sell-out if you only care about intended audiences.)
Even I balk at this fourth possible approach (which Anton advocates in his biggest post in the thread) but some of the things it implies hit unfortunately close to home. For instance, if like me you're mainly interested in music created for those who are very different from me then aren't I also promoting the exotic and participating in a neo-colonial game? There's a huge gap between me and the poor kids in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. Am I a "global hipster", naively glorifying poverty? Then there's the issue of expertise - if we white males learn too much about this music could it be that we're the ones who write its history and discourse? Are we just as bad as any previous generation of white male as per above?
These things worry me, and yet I don't feel like taking the defensive approach and only listen to music from my local cultural context. I think the solution is self-distance, humility and constantly questioning your own premises, therefore this post among others.
So, is B. B. King a sellout? Probably not. Maybe in some contexts.
Is his music irrelevant because it's being bough by whites? No. But certainly it's no more relevant than all the music white males have passed over.
Can I, as a white male, legitimately promote this "passed-over" music without integrating it in the discourse of "music accepted by white males" which I'm trying to defeat? Probably not that either. But at least I can try.