"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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.