2008-11-03

Social Class I: Watermelon

I was at a party at the home of a fellow blogger recently when I fell into a conversation with another blogger, prompted by my assertion that I don't much like East Coast hip-hop, especially not the rather middle-classy Native Tongues type material. At which point he retorted, in paraphrase:

"So you like your hip-hoppers poor and out in the country, eating watermelon? You don't want any uppity black people, right?"

He was joking, of course, but it hit home more than he realised at the time. Because it's basically true: I prefer small-community, dance-oriented, working class hip-hop to cosmopolitan, underground, middle class hip hop. Does that mean I'm buying into the Jim Crow stereotype of the carefree Negro in a straw hat?


What I'm basically facing here is an issue of intersectionality. The ethnic minority of black people in the US and in Europe are, as a group, marginalised, and the majority of them are relatively poor. The struggle to escape poverty, for them, is twofold: not only is it economically problematic, but the stereotype society has of them is that they're poor/untrustworthy/criminal, making it all the harder to get anywhere else. In fact, in the US at least the idea of "black" and "working class" seem so closely intertwined that we get phenomena like this.

So it's difficult to honestly claim a growing black middle class is a bad thing - it's definitely a crucial step in the breaking down of the negative stereotype and in integration. But the question really is what do we mean by integration? There seem to be hundreds of models, both of what is desirable and what we actually mean, and often integration is defined purely in terms of economic success. I don't think it's nearly that simple. One favourite model of mine, from when I studied journalism and which I despite incessant googling have not been able to find the source of, has three levels:
  1. Segregation, in which the marginalised group is excluded from the public sphere entirely and does not have access to the higher positions in society. The culture of the dominant group is completely prevalent, while the culture of the marginalised minority is actively repressed.
  2. Partial assimilation, in which the vast majority of the marginalised group is still excluded and its culture relatively repressed, but in which a small elite within the group is allowed to rise, but only if they actively adopt the culture of the dominant group.
  3. Integration, in which both groups have adapted to each other, and both cultures are considered equally good and are both part of the public sphere.
I really like the emphasis on cultural rather than just economic equality in a model like this. In particular, I think the idea of the second level is very apt for a lot of groups in society - here in Sweden, for instance, there's plenty of Kurds in very high positions with largely mainstream values, maybe even disproportionally many, but that doesn't mean the majority isn't oppressed and that Kurdish culture isn't oppressed. Likewise, when it comes to black people there are successful ones (like these two that are in the news a lot today, Monday), but they're a relatively small minority and, crucially, they've been forced to adapt to the mainstream culture to gain success. Like women who have to be more "masculine" than the boys to succeed in management, successful black people often have to be extremely mainstream in every way in order to not appear as an "angry black man" or some other stereotype.

This partial assimilation may be needed for there to be equal access for a greater variety of black culture in the future, but (and here comes the point of the post) it doesn't make for very good music. Completely assimilated artists are one thing (yes, liberals, there are black people in all sorts of music) - no shadow falls on Bad Brains or TV on the Radio; they're basically part of a mainstream white culture. But a lot of the sort of partially assimilated half-measures, the "black" music created to garner acceptance with a mainly white audience, often comes across as superficial, trying too hard, a bit hesitant, not daring to go towards any interesting extreme. And that, to give a fuller answer, is why I'm not so fond of De La Soul. (And global fusion music.)


So what of the minstrelsy Negro in the straw boater and the toothy white grin? Well, as a destructive intersectional stereotype it goes two ways. Yes, it's a conflation of the categories of "working class" and "black". But in its details, it's also a demonisation of actual black working class culture. Mainstream middle-class white society (which, of course, is the public sphere really) has a great tolerance for middle-class black culture of the kind above - all my middle-class hip-hopper friends here in Sweden are fond of "true school" hip-hop and underground hip-hop. Meanwhile, there's a great intolerance of working-class black music - again, the Swedish hip-hoppers usually deride it as "LCD Rap". The watermelon man is a thinly veiled depiction of the hate felt towards actual working-class, rural blacks.

I think there's a great value in working class black culture, and I try to do my best to promote it. I'm not going to go around saying it's the "real" black culture, that sort of essentialist statement only leads to dismissal of legitimate expression, but I do think that in order for there to be full, positive integration its value needs to be recognised and it needs to be stopped looking down on. We need to stop assigning stereotypes of all sorts and appreciate whatever someone wants to do, and whatever they chose to communicate. And I don't know about you, but I'm always happier when ABN comes up with something introspective than when Atmosphere does.

This is the first in a series on class. Next time I'm going to deal with segregation, elitist Obama supporters and how class issues are affected by a recession.

7 comments:

Gavin said...

You need to think this through more thoroughly. Just as supporting "middle class" black music doesn't mean you support economic uplift of black people in general, supporting what you say is black working class music does not make you support the black working class. Plus, some things are simply incorrect -- if the white public sphere wants middle class black people, then why so much gangsta stuff still there? And you castigate liberals for not recognizing black artists in other genres in the same breath that you claim (imperialistically?) Bad Brains as part of the white mainstream. They're rastas, for godssake!

Basically, you've left black artists no room. They are either "small-community, dance-oriented, working class" (i.e. ghetto) or they are selling out to whites. You've basically removed any semblance of a black audience, or any audience of color from your analysis. And this is probably because you live in proverbially white Sweden (this post reeks of your own backlash against these Swedish backpackers). Try talking to a real life black person, of any class background, and see what he or she says about who they'd rather have on TV all the time, Questlove or Lil Jon (and shall we complicate things further by pointing out that Lil Jon is from an upper middle class family of doctors?). Would they rather see Swedes getting into Talib Kweli or Young Jeezy? You might also learn that many listeners don't categorize these things by class: Lupe Fiasco is for serious listening and contemplation, Lil Wayne is for the club, but they listen to them both and value them in different ways.

And anyway, since when was a sense of musical ambition a marker of class or assimilation? Was RZA trying to assimilate with intricate jazz loops and kung fu samples? Is it trying too hard (don't you know you have to try real hard to make it out of the hood)? Does putting class labels on it say anything interesting about his music? Or is it more interesting that the music overflows these simple categories? That we can say it comes from a "black working class experience" and we have really said nothing at all?

The tricky thing is about American culture, black or otherwise, is that it's always a mixture: blacks stealing from whites who stole from blacks, working class appropriations of parodies by the rich which were born out of paradoxical feelings of loathing and desire for the working class... You simply can't chop this stuff into neat categories and prioritize one over another because of its supposed demographics, especially because assimilation is a card that can always be revoked (because your pastor is politically militant or because your dad is Muslim). To do so says nothing about the music, which should be a cardinal sin for a musicologist. To do so only posits (without proving) the unassailability of your own politics and music taste, which of course is the ultimate hipster move.

Or the short version: you could have said why "Ay Bay Bay" is better than "Oodles of O's" instead of proclaiming your class sympathies as if that would do the job for you.

Birdseed said...

Thank you for the longest comment my blog has ever had! Pity it had to be a negative one. :)

I can tell you exactly why I prefer A Bay Bay to Oodles of O's (although I must say it's one of the more tolerable De La Soul tracks) but I'm not sure it'd get at anything interesting. Perhaps the entire thing goes back to an even more basic question, one that I've often wondered about:

On a worldwide basis, beyond race and class, the music with the most distinct beats has surprisingly consistently come from a relatively marginalised group: poor people, the working class, homosexuals... How come? How come middle-class white folks like me, who inevitably have access to much better technology and straightforward access to the public sphere, can't for the life of us create as good an innovative beat-based music as the kids in the favela?

Perhaps what you call "musical ambition" manifests itself differently in different class environments, again just speculating here. I fail to see exactly how "intricate jazz loops" are more ambitious than, I dunno, the kind of free and tacit reappropriations you eloquently write about in the next paragraph... I've always seen communal creativity and community-based development as just as interesting as individual artistry, which if you scratch the surface is just as often about trying to live up to the expectations around you and trying to impress as any romantic notions of genius.

And yes, that does make me a very strange musicologist.

Birdseed said...

Oh, and one more thing, which probably doesn't come across very well in the post - it's definitely a dilemma for me, and I'm totally uncertain about it. Like I say, it really hit home in a way no blog comments ever have on similar issues.

rachel said...

see, i read this post and think damnnnnn sweden must be way dif b/c im not feeling you. "all my middle-class hip-hopper friends here in Sweden are fond of "true school" hip-hop and underground hip-hop." really, does anyone still listen to de la soul? atmosphere??!? like the old divide between backpacker / gangster rap seems so outdated (90s80s) anyway, not to mention a false dichotomy.

Thats why they call us the hh generation, b/c we listen to all of it, not just "only if they actively adopt the culture of the dominant group." soulja and hurricane and all those scenes are in vogue NOW among hipsters and proles (lol) alike. And besides, a lot of the southern rap explosion is also the product of a huge black middle class building up their industry there in ATL. Most of my middle class black friends listen to more dance rap than anything 'underground' and def dont seem to feel a need to 'backpacker' it & same with my whiteys. plus underground now is more like retro kids than mos def anyway, and with artists like lupe fiasco, etc, the distinction seems increasingly irrelevent.

I mean, why have a filter? both "cosmo" and "working class", etc are making GREAT music right now. And I know you say "I'm not going to go around saying it's the "real" black culture, that sort of essentialist statement only leads to dismissal of legitimate expression," but isn't that basically what you're saying when you state middle class hh "doesn't make for very good music" b/c "they've been forced to adapt to the mainstream culture to gain success. " isn't that making a pretty broad statement (& assumption) about legitimacy? no?

ripley said...

Hey! this is an interesting post, but I'm sorry I gotta pile on... there's also no gender analysis in this post. And yet I see some different perceptions of masculinity and authenticity at work in the way you are talking about class..

there's a stream of scholarship about the blues, by the way, that this echoes. if I remember it right it goes like this: 1960s white male musicologists focused on delta blues, made by (to caricature) a few very poor men on their porches, which was a minority genre among black folk in the south. More popular music that people called blues included women who wore furs and sang in nightclubs. But the early scholars of blues didn't find that authentic enough.
(I also see some discussions elswhere of M.I.A. following this pattern - gender & authenticity issues cycling through again)

Anyway that suggests some of what I read in our discussion about the difference between the styles of hip-hop you are talking about.

But I also think you haven't quite engaged Gavin's points about the class of the US audiences and artists in the genres you are talking about. who is really popular where and who comes from where?

Birdseed said...

Bollocks! The computer swallowed my post! What I started saying was that the issue obviously needs thinking about more for me - I've got to do another blog post on what exactly the middle class is, for starters.

As for the more specific queries, I had proper answers typed up, but they basically amounted to (longer versions of) this:

Rachel: yes, Swedes are behind the times. But so seemingly is a large American hip-hop intelligentsia with members like Brandon Soderberg. Just old age or something more?

Ripley: Good point, but the intellectual middle class tends to be overwhelmingly male as well. Certainly the Native Tongues type material appeals mostly to males and is made entirely by males, isn't it? It's possible to put a "male-authenticity" spin on class, certainly, but I think you'll find plenty of examples of more danceable, "simple" hip-hop appealing equally (or more) to females. Maybe it's marginal affinity?

Birdseed said...

Maybe I need to subtract race from a couple of the components, it strikes me. For instance, the middle class regardless of race tends to look down on working class products. Maybe that's a (partial) answer to the consumption pattern query as well?