Monday, March 06, 2006

Bob Marley -- Exodus

The Academy Awards were fun to watch. I liked Jon Stewart's touch. I much prefer his sort of humor and presence to Billy Crystal's. Jon Stewart managed, to me, to poke fun at the fundamental nature of the awards and yet also manage to honor them more by the things he chose to comment on.

This is a bit late for Black History Month, but here goes...

I like that the hiphop song from Hustle and Flow won best song. Mainstream hiphop has long been corporate, leeched of any relevance except as the inheritor to disco's mixed legacy of music-to-party-and-foreplay-to; perhaps the sight of its practitioners, diamond-studded grilles in place, up there with the rest of the elites will spur creative kids to break off from the corporate hiphop of today and make new, vital music from the streets, much as punk rose in England as a response to the excesses of prog-rock, glam-rock, etc, etc... Imagine, the new Clashes, Jams, Damneds of hiphop could be out there right now on the streets. Who knows. Could happen.

Because I find it amazing how thoroughly hiphop has been coopted by corporate America. Is there anything more ironic in music? Think about it -- last night, we had the Academy Awards, pretty much the ultimate insider party, embrace pretty much the ultimate outsider song--

an it seems like I'm duckin dodgin bullets everyday
Niggaz hatin on me cause I got, hoes on the tray
But I gotta stay paid, gotta stay above water
Couldn't keep up with my hoes, that's when shit got harder
North Memphis where I'm from, I'm 7th Street bound
Where niggaz all the time end up lost and never found
Man these girls think we prove thangs, leave a big head
They come hopin every night, they don't end up bein dead
Wait I got a snow bunny, and a black girl too
You pay the right price and they'll both do you
That's the way the game goes, gotta keep it strictly pimpin
Gotta have my hustle tight, makin change off these women, yeah

Others had messed with this sort of embracing of the outsider -- Curtis Mayfield sang ABOUT thugs and pimps and hustlers in Superfly, and early hiphop adopted the same stance. Rappers would describe the streets around them and the characters they observed, but their stance was that of a chronicler. Often, those rapping about fringe characters took on the mantle of the "griot" or tribal storyteller and keeper of the neighborhood history... the idea was that the rapper was adopting, perhaps, the persona of the pimp or dealer for the song. This has, in time, changed. Over time, the stories stopped being about dealers and pimps and started being told by dealers and pimps, people who either admit -- no, brag of their gang, pimping and dealing pasts/presents, or failing that, at least embracing the ethic of being a pimp with all the nastiness that implies.

How quickly we saw Public Enemy's defiant and, to white America, threatening, Malcom X style strident calls for unity and pride-- things like the lyrics in "Righstarter (Message To A Black Man)"

Our solution - mind revolution
Can't sell it - no you can't buy it in a potion
You lie about the life that you wanted to try
Tellin' me about a head - you decided to fly
Another brother with the same woes that you face
But you shot with the same hands - you fall from grace
Every brother should be every brother's keeper
But you shot with your left while your right was on your beeper

where the hiphop artist stands like a prophet calling his wayward brothers away from their lives of dealing to lives of unified struggling against oppression, to today, where hiphop by and large ignores injustice and celebrates black on black crime. And White America is eating it up.

And how ironic that Queen Latifah, who started out with notably feminist lyrics and was one of the early challengers of the whole "bitches and hos" trend, has been so cleanly subverted by corporate hiphop that she was nothing but excited to have one more "bitches and hos" song win an award.

I am an observer, of course, and I don't really know much of Black American experience. Perhaps my rant is really one more way the white oppressor keeps down the Black Male of America. Perhaps last night was a good night for African-Americans and shows the acceptance of a legitimate mode of expression, and people like me who find fault are just racists who will poke at whatever minorities do. But to me, the gangsta/pimp persona seems to me to be a new wrinkle on the Uncle Tom, Stepin Fetchit, or Aunt Jemima persona--

Hattie McDaniel, a great, great actor (and who was noted by Clooney last night, was the first Black to get an Academy acting award) once remarked, in response to a question about the dearth of good roles for Blacks in 30s/40s Hollywood, that she'd rather portray a maid than actually have to work as one. And in the past, White America was only comfortable seeing Black faces on TV and movies when they were servants and amiable dunces, perhaps with some sort of innate wisdom that comes from being less civilized than Whites, but that's it.

Today, things have changed. Whites are comfortable seeing Blacks in capacities that threaten physically -- gangsta, dealer, pimp, convict -- and it's even better that they are threatening other Blacks, not Whites. Just as long as Blacks are not threatening intellectually, financially, emotionally. Just as long as Blacks are directing their anger at Black America. Black performers have a choice, just as they had back in the 30s... they can have principles and an appropriately limited audience at best. Or they jump on the bandwagon and pimp themselves out to the highest bidder and play the role that White consumers want them to play.

Sure, you can name Black actors who make good movies and play real characters on TV and in movies. You can name hiphop artists who don't buy into the commercially successful gangsta/dealer/pimp persona. But not that many.

Sidney Poitier was the first Black American cast for a part not specifically written for a Black in The Bedford Incident(1965). He played a newspaper reporter. His being black was absolutely irrelevant to the role. He was just a great actor (in a scary but mediocre movie). So how far have we come in the past forty years? When you look at actors who you know can be considered for any role in any movie, you can name Denzel Washington, definitely. Will Smith, as long as it's action adventure movies. Perhaps Morgan Freeman. Don Cheadle? A great actor, but he is always playing roles dealing with race. You can say Eddie Murphy, but we're talking Disney movies for kids. If you want to see Black actors allowed to play roles that depict the whole range of Black experience, all the range of characters that involves, you have to look at movies made by African-Americans, like Barbershop, Big Momma's House, or Roll Bounce.

Oh, I dunno. Back to work.

No comments: