When Our Kids Own America (Chapter 2)

  • April 16, 2013

By Gene Demby

Oakland, Calif., is two time zones away from Brooklyn Park and a whole continent away from Harlem. It could either be a utopian vision of some multiculti urban future or its dystopian, post-industrial present. For a long time, Oakland was the cultural anchor on the West Coast for black Americans. If Harlem gave us the Cotton Club and the Harlem Renaissance, then Oakland gave us the Black Panthers (and thus the modern gun rights movement) and a groundbreaking resolution on Ebonics. Oakland’s black population, tiny before World War II, exploded largely due to an influx of workers at the city’s shipyards, and eventually composed nearly half the city.

But now white people make up the biggest group — Oakland’s 34 percent white, 28 percent black, 25 percent Latino, and 17 percent Asian. It’s one of the few cities in the country with significant populations of several major racial groups. It’s become a haven for young, skinny-jeaned, creative-class types — Forbes recently named the Uptown section one of the 10 best hipster neighborhoods in the country — all while the city has remained pretty violent. Although black people make up just over a quarter of the city’s population, they made up three-fourths of its homicides in 2012. Meanwhile, local television news crews are spending less time on the streets reporting on those crimesbecause their equipment keeps being stolen. It’s a city with neighborhoods on alternate timelines.

The aforementioned Uptown used to be a hub of black life in the city. But today ...

“The Chocolate City notion — gone, gone, gone!” said Benjamin Bowser, a sociologist at California State University, East Bay. “There are multiple cultures: chocolate, Vietnamese, you can’t even say Hispanic anymore, it’s Mexican and Salvadoran, Nicaraguan. We even have enough people from Africa to say there’s Nigerians, Senegalese.”

What’s happening in Oakland is definitely gentrification, but it’s not the way we often think of gentrification. It’s not white people pushing out black folks; in Oakland, it’s black folks leaving of their own volition, black folks being pushed out, black folks staying, and everyone else moving in. It would be tempting to look at this and say that it’s the photo negative of what’s happening in Brooklyn Park or that it has nothing to do with the Harlem Shake. But in fact, they converge. The city, like the culture, is shifting from ours to everyone’s.

The old-fashioned models have broken down.

When we think of appropriation, we usually think of white people taking an interest in some aspect of minority culture and profiting from it. There are outright instances of cultural theft in our living memory beneath which linger echoes of much more devastating histories. In cinema and television, people of color — from whom much had been taken — were stripped even of the chance to portray themselves in popular culture. White actors played crude stereotypes of people of color in Hollywood, if those people of color even appeared at all — Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Bill Dana as Jose Jimenez on The Steve Allen Show. These portrayals propped up a bunch of ugly myths about the cultures they were ostensibly depicting — too dumb, too lazy, too untrustworthy, too weird — that helped reinforce all kinds of discrimination. It’s hard to just shrug off, say, Johnny Depp playing Tonto, when you’re actually living in all the messy context that’s been kneaded out.

The world of music played host to most of these ripoffs. In the early days of what we now think of as pop music, even the charts were segregated. White acts could make a lot of money making whitebread versions of songs that black musicians had released, sometimes just weeks before. Pat Boone, who performed in venues and hawked products that black performers couldn’t, made his name and fortune doing so.

All of this history is still part of the story. But the story continues.

Popular culture can be a weather vane for the winds of social upheaval. Mae West was a star almost 40 years before the sexual revolution. Jackie Robinson was a baseball hero a decade and a half before the Civil Rights Movement reached its apex. The anger depicted in Do the Right Thing and Boys N The Hood later spilled out into real life during the L.A. riots. Ellen and Will & Grace prefigured greater acceptance of gays and lesbians.

Hip-hop, like the phrases “urban” and “inner city,” has long been used as shorthand for “black.” Because the genre has steadily subsumed so many parts of our popular culture, let’s turn our attention its way.

Hip-hop hasn’t proven to be impervious to the demographic changes underway in places like Oakland and Bed-Stuy and Houston, which have long been among the genre’s nerve centers. These black spaces are increasingly less black.

But let’s jump back a bit. We’ve all tacitly agreed to pretend that whole Vanilla Ice thing never happened, but back in 1990, he became the first rapper to ever hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts, and at the time, a lot of people were very worried that hip-hop’s inevitable Elvis moment was finally upon it. Of course, it didn’t go down like that.

Almost a decade later, Eminem rose to prominence — and for a stretch, he dominated the landscape. But even he needed the imprimatur of Dr. Dre, the predominant kingmaker in hip-hop.

Another decade passed, and then “Thrift Shop” happened. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, a rap duo that hails from Seattle — a town not exactly known for churning out hip-hop gems, unless you count “Baby Got Back” 66. And we do. — took over the Internet and theBillboard charts for a few weeks with a jaunty ode to the joys of, well, thrift shopping. It shot to No. 1 on Billboard and has hundreds of millions of views on YouTube, despite Macklemore’s not being signed to a major record label. 77. But as the folks at Planet Money reported not long ago, it’s a little more complicated than that.

Macklemore is a white dude rapping about the sweet joys of scoring dope secondhand clothes, and his music has neither the aesthetics nor the fascinations that are traditionally thought of as authentic to hip-hop. How exactly did that happen?

If something is everywhere and everyone trafficks in it, who gets to decide when it’s real or not?

“Unlike other white MCs, [Macklemore’s] doing thePortlandia thing,” said Josh Kun, a professor at the University of Southern California who writes about race and popular music. “He’s not fronting or trying to establish authenticity through blackness.”

Even though hip-hop is usually associated with black people, it’s been a multi-ethnic affair since its South Bronx beginnings, when black people, Latinos and Caribbean immigrants were creating party music out of pieces of whatever they could find laying around in old record collections. Latino rappers, for example, have rarely been seen as outsiders or interlopers. That’s in part because racial identity gets to be a little more fluid among people of color; the “brown people” umbrella can expand out pretty wide. But white rappers have always been and remain viewed with some suspicion. From Ice to Eminem to Macklemore, though, there has been a genuine progression in hip-hop that we miss when we cluster these guys together as “white rappers.”

Hip-hop is now the lingua franca and the background music for an entire generation of kids. And one of its dynamics — the idea of a marginalized group rapping about that marginalization — has remained essentially intact as hip-hop has conquered the world, in part because marginalization is the narrative that teenagers everywhere fit themselves into.

If something is everywhere and everyone trafficks in it, who gets to decide when it’s real or not? What happens when hip-hop stops being black culture and becomes simply youth culture?

Cecelia Cutler, a linguist at New York’s Lehman College, says that when kids who aren’t black traffic in hip-hop slang or African American Vernacular English — even if they aren’t themselves hip-hop fans — they’re not trying to mimic blackness, per se. They’re calling upon this language to signal (or “index,” as linguists like to say) some of the postures that people associate with hip-hop — coolness, toughness, hipness, swagger, separateness. The black part is being referenced, but it’s not quite the point. In some circles, Cutler said, hip-hop-inflected black speech has become a kind of prestige English.

It’s funny to think of hip-hop-inflected black speech as “prestige English.” We typically associate prestige with places like Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif.

The city is the home of Silicon Valley giants like Hewlett-Packard. It’s mostly white, and its residents have median household incomes in the six figures.

But H. Samy Alim, a linguist at Stanford, says that something pretty significant is happening in the town on the other side of the tracks from Palo Alto. East Palo Alto is a working-class town and much browner; over the past two decades, the once mostly black city has become predominantly Latino, with a large population of immigrants from Tonga, the Philippines, and Fiji.

Hip-hop itself has thrived, after all, by crossing borders without particular regard for ownership.

“You can hear the new America in this community,” said Alim.

There’s a macedoine of languages spoken in East Palo Alto. But when the young people from all these different groups are speaking to each other, Alim said, they’re conversing in hip-hop-inflected African American Vernacular English.

In other words, they’re talking like black folks.

So once some piece of black American culture slips outside that culture, when does it stop being black and just become this new thing? Where do the borders of one culture end and another begin?

Cutler wondered this, too.

“Why do we continue to call it ‘African-American English’ if ‘African-American English’ is being used by all kinds of different people?” she mused. Or, one might ask: Why do we continue to think of hip-hop as ‘black,’ if hip-hop is a universal language?

Hip-hop itself has thrived, after all, by crossing borders without particular regard for ownership. Its ethos of omnivorousness — the idea that everything can be refashioned or chopped and screwed — is a major reason why pop culture’s become less hierarchical and more “horizontal,” Kun said. “It’s been a long time since we’ve thought of hip-hop as an appropriator of things.” Technology has abetted that ethos, giving us the ability to sample bits of culture from anywhere. Now everybody is sampling everybody else.

There’s a school of thought contending that there’s no such thing as cultural ownership, according to Alim. Some thinkers argue that no bit of culture is off-limits from being glommed on to or lopped off and repurposed by someone from another group. But Alim was quick to point out that all this mixing and tinkering and re-imagining happens in a world where there are real racial disparities in wealth, power and access. This, too, is still part of the story.

But kids don’t seem to be too hung up on that stuff.

In Oakland, my colleague Shereen Marisol Meraji talked to Chantal Garcia, a soft-spoken, Mexican-American teenager. “I mean music bonds people, right?” Garcia said. “People call it black music, but I just call it rap. I just call it what it is.”

"Maybe what we're dancing around is that hip-hop has lost its identification with race."

Kun said his students are a lot less concerned with “proprietary histories” — the idea that certain people might have a unique claim to authentically interact with certain kinds of culture without being seen as appropriators — than he himself might be. “For the most part, the idea that this is original and authentic to something, they’re not so worried,” he said. “They’re like ‘Whatever, dude, it’s in my iTunes library. Can’t I just cut it up [to sample it]?’”

Kun said his students don’t share his outlook. “They tend to think of me as harping on race in terms of music,” he said. “For a 17- or 18-year-old kid, who is Macklemore appropriating? We’re getting farther and farther away from the reference.”

Confessing his discomfort with the idea, he put it out there, nonetheless: “Maybe what we’re dancing around is that hip-hop has lost its identification with race.”

READ THE ENTIRE 3-CHAPTER ARTICLE ON THE NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO WEB SITE

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