The problematic issue of the white audience

"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.


Anonymous said...

Your cross-site argument is a bit confused. It started out as a denigration of Delta Blues and turned into a slamming of BB King here- yet the criticisms you level at King are difficult to apply to the Delta singers.

King may have aimed his worked at white audiences, but the Delta Blues singers didn't. It's entirely possible that Charley Patton never played before a white audience in his life.

King may be "safe" and cuddly, but Leadbelly was a very violent man, twice convicted of homicide. Bukka White was also a killer, as were some others. Between the two points you had a whole spectrum of goodness/vice.

Delta Blues was music made by black people for black people, by people who were good or bad. That fact that some white people liked it is irrelevant. It's incredibly hard to pin the label of sell-out to the Delta artists, who generally had short and deeply unpleasant lives in poverty. Blind Lemon Jefferson dying in snowdrift. Robert Johnson dying in agony from strychnine poisoning. Bukka White deeply traumatised by imprisonment, obsesively churning out songs about trains. Where's the sell-out?

In Delta Blues, these themes come across in the music. Is it really so offensive for us cuddly white boys to be interested in that? To seek empathy with these injustices from long ago? Or is it only acceptable for whities to consume the unthreatening jazzy blues from a later era?


Birdseed said...

Delta blues is another one of history's Northern Souls - great music that has two very unfortunate side problems. The expertise in the subject is uniformly white, male folkies, who have distorted the contents of the genre to suit their ends. Also, it has consequently pushed away a lot of great music.

Leadbelly, for instance, was a sophisticated, articulate musician with a huge repertoire who was made to play the primitive "Negro" and perform in prison gear by his manipulative manager, John Lomax. He was fed minstrelsised "black" songs by white songwriters in what a contemporary describes as "one of the greatest cultural swindles in history".

Does that make his music uninteresting? Not really. But I'm not going to accept that he was a better musician than, say, Ruth Brown just because his music conforms better to a stereotypical image. Nor am I going to stop listening to the music of people who lived fairly normal, uncomplicated lives. How come there isn't room for both? That's what I think people need to ask themselves.

Anton Hultberg Hansen said...

I see the discussion continues. I am very pleased to see this because I think that this is a subject that needs to be adressed by the people who love music. Black music has had such deep and profound impact on me, that I refuse to be told off as a "wigger" by hipsters who are actually out to conserve a stereotypical and essentialist way of thinking (I am refeering to the likes of swedisk music journalist Fredrik Strage.
Birdseed: You seem to share my interest in global hip op. Being of danish descent, having grown up in Russia, Washington DC and Japan, I have had the chance to see hip hop grow and develop in different countries. However - few of my swedish homies have been interested. Why? Because they percieve hip hop as a ghetto thang

Anton Hultberg Hansen said...

Continued: Before it was all about New York, today it's the south. However - this hip hop elite was never interested in what was going on in Copenhagen or Tokyo. I see this as a form of essentialism - only the people from the "hood" can do it right.

Personally, I have found myself gravitating more towards european artists who have learned to appropriate the music of the african diaspora. Manu Chao is one good example, Seeed (a reggae band from Berlin that sing and deejay in both german and english is another. The swedish artist Timbuktu is worth mentioning. This new generation of artists neither copies nor exploits black music. They know it, they respect the tradition and they are not afraid to sing in their own language about their own experiences. Are they wiggers?

Anton Hultberg Hansen said...

"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."

Dear Birdseed. Please tell me: What happened to Go Go? When and why did this switch occur?


Birdseed said...

Well, actually the Go-go thing is a fairly familiar story - Go-go developed as a local scene in Washington, DC, then it "broke" (á la grime/fonkee/reggaeton/hyphy/whatever) in a bunch of European music mags (read: NME). In 1985-86 it gained a bit of mainstream acceptance, with Chris Blackwell endorsing it and compilations like "Washington Go Go Sound Attack" being released in Europe. (I've got a copy. The music is great but the cover is really embarassing, with a slang-oriented "Go-Go Glossary" in the gatefold!) I think the genre attracted a lot of "anti-electro" brits who saw a continuation of the jazz-funk material of the previous decade, plus the nascent world music crowd.

Then bands like Trouble Funk started touring Europe and playing to all-white crowds, making much more money than they ever made in DC. I've got a 1987 Trouble Funk album (produced by has-been Bootsy Collins and released on a major, Island) and it's totally fucking suck-fest awful, with bland, uncertain pop-jazz-funk offerings and extremely weak toned-down "go-go" workouts. That's a band that just five years earlier released some of the best old-school material in history!

What's a little bit interesting in this sad story is the fact that Go-go has had a bit of a revival in DC years after the hype died down. The crowd tends to be a little bit older but the music is not bad.

Birdseed said...

Oh, and that story kinda illustrates my only problem with your argument earlier - I should in theory endorse Timbuktu and Manu Chao but I just don't like their music! For me, personally, the best stuff is produced by little local scenes, from Atlanta to Jakarta, and much of the stuff I'm fond of is rather "hard" and "ghetto". I might try to push music that's not so familiar (because I have a fascination with music no-one else likes) but I have no problem listening to the "ghetto shit" too, because it actually appeals to me musically.

Anton Hultberg Hansen said...

A lot of swedish hip hop heads feel that way about Timbuktu. Personally - I grew tired when I heard his latest album. So Birdseed - is there no swedish hiphop that you find interesting?

Anton Hultberg Hansen said...

The Go-Go example illustrates the destructive power of the music journalists and the destrutive power of hype. The power brokers of music journalism are in a position where they can put Bob Marley, Trouble Funk or Mr Catra in the spotlight - and then tell them that they are "passé" a few years later. For instance - swedish music journalists keep saying that swedish hiphop is dead - without doing research to find out what groups are active. Here is the paradox - the hype around swedish hiphop that was buzzing ten years ago was created by the media. And when the journalists say that swedish hiphop is dead - it is an observation of the fact that fewer rappers are visible in the media. So I understand why you want to seek out the local scenes that depend less on media hype.

Birdseed said...

Yeah the latest Timbuktu album is particularly awful - it's barely hip-hop any more. His earlier material is okay, I guess.

I tend to go for more electronickly hip-hop (again, it's purely taste and nothing else) so I guess I like stuff like Fattarus latest album, anything Addeboy vs Cliff-produced (go Umeå!), Stacs of Stamina a few years ago, Basutbudet if that counts, the stockholm Dubstep scene if that counts... I even kinda like the Maskinen track if that's allowed. :o

Anton Hultberg Hansen said...

I guess my point is that artists have to use themselves and their own social and musical background when they make music. If you carbon-copy your favorite US emcee, the outcome will be boring. This goes for all music - from multisyllabic japanese rap to accordion-driven russian ska. And in my opinion, it does not have to be from a ghetto to be hot.

Anton Hultberg Hansen said...

...I guess that I have strayed off topic - since I am talking more about the performers than the consumers.

Birdseed said...

No, no, it's fine - all sides of the topics make for interesting discussion.