One summer afternoon in New Orleans, my friend Kevin came by my apartment on Magazine Street in his sea-green Honda Accord. We were going to an event in Congo Square, the old African meeting place, where blacks used to gather on Sundays to trade goods, make music, and dance and, like the Mississippi River itself, one of the places in that town where one still felt a rip in the seam of the world.
When I got in the car, Kevin grinned sheepishly and took out a CD, announcing he had something I just had to hear. Kevin, unfailingly courteous, mild-mannered, an achiever, practiced the politics of southern black respectability, which made it all the more disquieting when he popped Ready to Die by Notorious B.I.G. into the stereo and turned up the volume. It was the most vulgar thing I had ever heard. It was also unstintingly violent. Although groups like NWA also rapped about violence, that was protest. This was nihilism distilled. Existential desensitization as weapon and shield. Or so it seemed to me then. Kevin and I debated the rest of that afternoon whether it was, in fact, as people in those days were arguing, bad for black America.
Decades later, listening to the album through a pair of high-fidelity speakers built to reveal every nuance in the source material, I’m struck by something altogether different. Today— when the rap industry generates $10 billion in yearly revenue, and the wealthiest rapper (Biggie’s old running partner), Jay Z, is himself a billionaire—Biggie, who told of middle-market brand aspirations and “just tryin’ to make some money so I can feed my daughter,” sounds innocent.
Christopher Wallace, Notorious B.I.G.’s given name, was communicating the individual and shared lifeworld of his experience running drugs and trying to raise a family in the Brooklyn ghetto during the height of the crack plague. His listeners heard it as a metaphor for the black struggle at the turn of the twenty-first century.
In the years since Biggie’s old neighborhood has been gentrified, hip-hop has been embraced by a mainstream seeking the same authenticity generations of white Americans have long sought in black music. For most it represents their only exposure to black life. Because of this, many observers, including rappers like Nas and Azalia Banks who remain close to the form’s more political roots, have accused those who produce the most popular strands of hip-hop (which tend to traffic in representations of drug life and have become the dominant music form in contemporary America) of being a minstrel show, giving whites the stereotypes of black life they long to see and believe.
The cultural product of an artist does not necessarily belong to the artist’s racial group, but hip-hop has long prided itself on being black music, a unique and uniquely authentic representation of African American life. When the mainstream listens to it, it is often with the sense of absorbing a forbidden cultural experience, a form of crossing the tracks to the other side of town, but also bridging racial divides. Once you can appreciate someone’s culture, it becomes much harder to dehumanize them. At least that is the theory.
What happens when one performs the cliché for an outside audience for profit? What is the effect of the feedback loop of cultural output and market acceptance? The tension between authenticity and mass media, in which cultural output is increasingly determined by market pressure, has been a central facet of bourgeois American culture. Economic incentives are now crowd-sourced, for better and worse, fundamentally changing what artists make, or at least the art the public patronizes, instead of art shaping how people see, read, hear, and understand the world.
In hip-hop, commercialization has pushed art toward a celebration of materialism that accords with mainstream American values, in which the wildly successful businessman is a cultural hero and the best artist is a canny, Warholian capitalist. When we celebrate hip-hop for uniting us across the divide of race, or as the heir to the huge canon of black music, what we critique or celebrate depends on what version of rap music we subscribe to and what has informed the listening experience. Surrounding it all is the ever-present question of performance and appropriation. What level of access to black culture can nonblacks have? Who “owns” the music, yes, but what is the role of race in creation and interpretation? What are you making, for whom and why?
The Beastie Boys were the first nonblack group to achieve widespread success and legitimacy in rap. Raised by middle-class professionals in Brooklyn, they began as a punk band, and their work combines these underground forms. Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin, the founders, one black and the other white and Jewish, of the seminal label DefJam, saw in them the potential to “cross a lot of boundaries that a lot of other rap groups couldn’t.”
As the partnership of Simmons and Rubin suggests, many of the people behind the music commonly crossed these lines in their lives, but the wider culture remained largely segregated. Hip-hop is a form of musical L.H.O.O.Q., a transformation of found objects like Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades. What the hip-hop artists were finding was samples not only from other musicians but also from film, television, brand marketing, popular culture, and, most crucially, all of music. It was the sound, whatever else one thinks about it, of complex experience channeled through complex young people. The Beastie Boys’ debut album, Licensed to Ill, is the work of connoisseurs and rebels, but also teenage cutups in the John Hughes (Ferris Bueller) mold. They are less pure rappers than musical experimentalists, and one has the sense that as artists they would have discovered whatever was most interesting and daring in the world around them. In 1980s New York, that was punk and rap. The album in turn brought into the tent a number of white listeners who otherwise might not have paid attention to rap music, which was the design that Rubin and Simmons, shrewdly or cynically, intended. It was cultural boundary crossing as a political and creative statement from a group whose members were born in the years immediately after the Civil Rights Act, but also a savvy business move.
The history of black music, of course, most notably rock-and- roll, is rife with stories of white artists who appropriated or stole outright material from black creators or who enjoyed a success with the mainstream unattainable by their black peers. It was a lesson rap has always been anxious to avoid but also, like the DefJam team (whose other senior member was Lyor Cohen, who would later become global boss at Sony Music), to use in cat-and-mouse games of titillation. Not everyone was in equal control.
Black music is the sound of liberation, even in the extremes of privation, despair, whatever form of tribulation—the highest self. American music itself is, regardless of who is performing, deeply black. Blacker than most whites can admit, just as they cannot admit, or genuinely do not know, what a black place—at once the highest joy and the deepest sadness—America has always been. Someday we shall all be free.
Calvin Baker is the author of five novels. This essay is drawn from his new book, A More Perfect Reunion: Race, Integration, and the Future of America, out this week. He reviewed Frederick Douglas, Prophet of Freedom, by David Blight, for Book Post last year.
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Image: Boombox carried by Radio Raheem in the film Do the Right Thing (1989), by Spike Lee. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, DC