For some time I held a laughable and juvenile existentialist belief that the reason I like “black music” or black artists so much is because at one point in time, say a past life, I was an African American. This cruel belief isn’t because I aspired to be one, but more so because I found a strong attraction to the music created by Africans as well as their force and magnitude in both American history and popular culture astonishing. Yet, blackness is essential to both me and my music library. I consume black music daily. In fact, when searching for new music I strictly look for blackness first, but why? After a critical review of myself and of my music collection, I am determined to find an answer in what black music offers white listeners, using myself as a microcosm. Furthermore, through exploring myself, the topic of black commodification may unfold.
Aside from its entertainment value, music others other forms of art represent place. These mediums increasingly define landscapes and places, can identify acceptable or culturally normal behaviour, address new cultural phenomena, and discuss themes of both belonging and alienation. As such, a listener of music for example, can relate, or perhaps be taken to new worlds whilst being shown what is (un)acceptable. For example, today’s most popular music form conveys “the return of the ghetto as a central black popular narrative [which] has fulfilled [international] fantasies about violence and danger…” (Rose, Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America, p. 11). Through the creation of this imaginary space, an artist is able to extract the listener and travel aurally to these worlds. In the case of hip hop/rap genres, a white suburban male listener is immersed in a place vastly different from their realms of experience. This new space offers dissimilar dialogue and subject matter. Listen to “N.Y. State of Mind” and try to not imagine of projects, you’ll see what I’m talking about. Perhaps white music isn’t edgy enough for me, that it’s themes don’t elicit the same subjects in my familiar spaces. For the most part, especially in black hip hop and rap, this seems true.
This may in fact explain white consumption dominance in black music. It’s easy to listen to music that both glorifies and demeans other social groups. This type of entertainment away from the ordinary acts as surreality or a type of voyeurism. For example, a white male who resides in suburban yeg will listen to N.W.A.’s “Fuck tha Police”, a song that represents both police brutality and discrimination, and will likely fail to fully relate to the song’s intent. Though I don’t fully relate to this song, the song is catchy, and entertaining. It appears as though “black” spaces and places are becoming more interwoven into popular culture and our social fabric.
It is the case that rap and hip hop often allude to “entertaining” scenes of violence, expressions of profanity, as well as other “cheap thrilled” entertainment. However, there are other reasons why I, I both actively enjoy and listen and search for black music (not restricted to hip hop or rap), namely rhythm and groove. In Black Music, White Business: Illuminating the History and Political Economy of Jazz, Frank Kofsky strives to discuss both the history and politics, and economics of early jazz scenes in America. In the sixth chapter, Kofsky attempts to “scrutinize” Martin Williams (a white jazz critic). Williams states in one of his books The Jazz Tradition: “that Negroes as a race have a rhythmic genius that is not like other races, and…that this genius has found a unique expression in the United States” (Kofsky, Jazz Tradition: Black Music, White Business, p. 101). Though Kofsky quotes Williams odiously, I don’t think it’s too far fetched to reach Williams’ idea (except for Williams’ problematic concept of race). Norman Kelley mentions in his work Notes on the Political Economy of Black Music that “[President] Bush [concluded in 2001] that black music is ‘always easy to enjoy, yet impossible to imitate'” (Kelley, Rhythm & Business, p.18). Kelley mocks Bush for stating black music is “always easy to enjoy”, as if almost describing a “soft drink”, yet Kelley doesn’t reveal or acknowledge that black music is in fact impossible to imitate. For example, Eminem doesn’t speak to me the same way Nas, or Biggie do, why is that? I think I hold a similar belief to both Williams and Bush, and I think there are others who would agree. I think what both Williams and Bush are trying to state is that there seem to be subliminal rhythmic or groovable undertones immersed in black music. Black music has always pushed Western music to the brinks of accepted paradigms. Syncopation standards, vocal effects, and polyrhythmic layering (Rose, Black Noise, p.66), and many other musical effects are both different and prominent particularly in African American music, all which are derived from African roots. As part of music’s overall value, I believe music’s worth can be largely dependent on its dancibility or groovability, something I feel can be rooted in black music. This may explain why I and others like Williams or Bush always enjoy music with a rhythm or a pulse, something I feel black music can readily offer.
I’m sure if I regularly followed Billboard’s Top 100, I would notice that greater than 50% of the charted artists would be in some way connected to African America. Is being black sexy, or are black artists modern day minstrels (Strausbaugh, Black Like You, p.320)? For example, when I first listened to Adele’s 21 last year, immediately I thought of 60’s R&B. The reason Adele was so successful this year was because I believe 21 draws close parallels to black music. White consumption, white interest, and white overhauls have always been present in Black American music (Rose, Black Noise, p.5). Such was the case from minstrel shows to blues and jazz movements, but as both capitalism and North Americanism continue to increase their chokehold on all markets, commodifying blackness will continue. This is especially true when popular music has such strong bonds with defining ourselves through black music, and romanticizing black music’s themes and sounds. There seems to be a greater power at work here, whether it’s capitalism, dominant American culture, or the combination of the two. Nevertheless, the resonance of blackness and North America’s blackophilia (Yousman, Blackophilia and Blackophobia, p.366) fetish will forever exist. Perhaps it’s time to embrace something Strausbaugh suggests. Perhaps what we’re witnessing is culture-sharing: “all and everything the American experiment means” (Strausbaugh, Black Like You, p.323). We all file-share, why not culture-share?
“Blackophilia and Blackophobia: White Youth, the consumption of Rap Music and White Supremacy – Yousman – 2006 – Communication Theory – Wiley Online Library.”
Wilely Online Library. N.p., Web. 18 Feb. 2012
Kelley, Norman. R&B, rhythm and business: the political economy of Black music. New York: Akashic, 2002. Print.
Kofsky, Frank. Black music, white business; illuminating the history and political economy of jazz. New York: Pathfinder, 1998. Print.
Rose, Tricia. Black noise: rap music and black culture in contemporary America. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1994. Print.
Strausbaugh, John. Black like you, blackface, whiteface, insult and imitation in American popular culture. New York: Jer
emy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2006. Print.