Up from Hip-Hop
By John H Mc Whorter
LAST SEPTEMBER, America's most popular movie was, briefly, an amusing if rather ordinary film called Barbershop. What made the movie notorious were a few lines of dialogue. Eddie, the oldest barber in a shop in a black Chicago neighborhood that has seen better days, grouses: "The problem with us black folks is we gotta stop lying!" He then illustrates his point by means of some salutary truth-telling, exclaiming: "F--k Jesse Jackson!" and "O.J. did it!" Having thus dispatched the black leader who regards himself as the rightful heir to Martin Luther King, Jr., and indicted the canonically innocent O.J. Simpson as a murderer, Eddie closes the movie by observing that King himself was a "ho'" (whore).
As if on cue, Jesse Jackson weighed in with a fury, demanding that MGM delete the offending lines from videotape and DVD editions of the film; Reverend Al Sharpton promptly chimed in. But the movie itself was way ahead of these two increasingly irrelevant weathervanes of black opinion. To most of the characters in Barbershop, Eddie's broadsides are shocking but fair--and howlingly funny. When one customer does take offense at the Jackson comment, Eddie delivers the most quoted line of the film: "If we can't talk straight in the barbershop, then where can we talk straight?"
Meaning: the duty of black Americans is no longer to maintain, at all costs, a united front in the face of the white establishment, or to adopt a permanently defensive crouch against a mythical "racist" backlash. Nor, to judge by Barbershop, is upward striving seen any longer as antithetical to being "really black." In the film, the shop itself is the usual scruffy dive, but Calvin, the owner and the movie's protagonist, lives in a comfortable home with a poised, intelligent wife. Calvin (played by the rapper Ice Cube) is thinking of selling the shop and putting the money into a recording studio to provide a better life for the child he and his wife are expecting, but he is also tempted to keep the shop open as a bastion of community support in a neighborhood where teens so often go wrong. Either way, we have come a long distance from the New Jack City gangster cycle of black films ten years ago. There, the choice was usually presented as working for chump change at the post office or raking in the bucks selling drugs on the street. Half the cast would be dead by the final reel, and critics were always ready to hail another "authentic" cry of despair from people powerless to save themselves.
To be sure, there are signs of a countervailing message even in Barbershop, not to mention elsewhere in black popular culture, and I had better deal with them straightaway lest I be accused of sugarcoating. For instance: a subplot in the movie pits a well-spoken, rightward-leaning black barber against the one white barber; the latter has adopted a hip-hop lingo and wardrobe, flaunts his black girlfriend, and considers himself "blacker" than black. The movie gives this "white Negro" a pass, the message being the grand old canard that at heart, "black" is the street.
The same message was crystallized in 8 Mile, the recent debut film of the white rapper Eminem. Critics have fallen all over themselves to praise this movie as an eloquent exploration of interracial mixing and "working-class despair," although on both counts it is ultimately old wine in a new bottle. On the subject of class, 8 Mile is pure Hollywood formula: working stiff starts at the bottom (Bunny Rabbit, the character played by Eminem, is barely hanging on to a factory job while living in a trailer park with his drunken layabout mother), suffers stinging failure (not only does Bunny Rabbit choke in a "slam" contest under the withering rhymed insults of the local black champion, but a new girlfriend cheats on him), the sun inexplicably breaks through the clouds (Mom wins at Bingo, the factory foreman softens up), and victory arrives at last when our hero bests the rap slammer in a rematch. Hollywood has been working this routine since before the talkies.
The race message is the same old thing as well--at least once we get past the novelty of seeing a white boy running with a black crowd and prefacing every second sentence with "Yo." Some critics were struck by the fact that nobody in the movie, white or black, comments negatively when Bunny Rabbit's girlfriend has sex with a black man. But this, too, is not exactly unheard of, and besides, the filmmaker's point is rather ambiguous: the girlfriend comes from a different part of town, always seems to turn up unexpectedly, and is illuminated in a shaft of light that gives her an otherworldly air--as if black men succumb to white women only in some alternative reality.
The same ambiguity seems to extend to the Eminem character, who, "black" as he supposedly is, sleeps exclusively white. Where Bunny Rabbit does demonstrate his "blackness" is in his poverty, which, conventionally enough, turns out also to be his trump card. In the final slam contest, he silences his black nemesis by revealing a little secret: that the poor fellow went to a good school and comes from a middle-class, two-parent home. Stripped of his "authenticity," the man is left speechless as the rowdy black audience shouts him off the stage. To be black is to be at the bottom.
Many critics were also charmed by the "slam" contests themselves, in which contestants compete by means of loose rhymes set to a beat-box rhythm, mixing self-aggrandizement with ad hominem disparagement. There is indeed a certain knack to the spontaneous rhyming, but the viciousness of the insults is only another gloss on the idea that to be black is to be uncivil and perpetually alienated--itself a consequence, supposedly, of the aforementioned working-class despair. (In one scene, a weary crowd of workers breaks into a spontaneous slam contest while waiting in line at an outdoor food truck.) Must one point out that senseless verbal abuse is by no means an inevitable response to a difficult life? Black people mired much deeper in misery during the Depression created no equivalent to today's rap slamming--"playing the dozens," with its playful insults, was another matter altogether--nor is there any prototype for this sulfurous tone in any African tradition.
ON THE subject of poetry as agitprop, I should also mention the Spoken Word movement. It would be oversimplifying to say that Spoken Word is just hip-hop without the instrumental background beat, but hip-hop's cocky cadences, jagged rhythms, verbal prolixity, and alienated message are a foundational element in the mix. In "slam" contests at places like the Nuyorican Café in New York, the poets who tend to move audiences the most are the ones channeling a formulaic rage. Spoken Word performances do include tender love poems and nonconfrontational prose monologues, but an evening at the Nuyorican when all of the entries were of these latter types would be considered an off night, whereas I doubt anyone would regard a session made up exclusively of spikier offerings as much of a problem.
This past fall, in Def Poetry Jam, Spoken Word came to Broadway. The show was produced by the hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, founder of the Def Jam recording label and impresario of an earlier HBO series along the same lines. It was a rich evening. There was no denying that the nine champions gathered by Simmons were a talented bunch. Spoken Word scansion--where it exists--is on the loose side, and rhyming is optional and often approximate: the guiding impulse is to create dazzling showers of verbiage played against angular rhythms, the dazzle itself being reminiscent of operatic cadenzas. Spoken Word is also a self-consciously demotic art, aimed at the ordinary, listener. But performers clearly craft their work down to the word, and the feats of diction and memorization alone can be stunning.
Yet the adversarial fetish, if one may call it that, makes Spoken Word a narrower art than it might be. At Def Poetry Jam, three gimmicks were sure to get a rise out of the audience. One was slipping into black street flavor: a nicely placed funky or allusions to buttocks and vaginas invariably elicited whoops of approval. Another was lacing one's poems with references to Spam, or McDonald's, or other brand names from TV commercials. The third, and most constricting, was the easy reaching for recreational outrage.
The Chinese-American poet Beau Sia literally hollered his way through the whole show. I got it--he was playing against the stereotype of Asians as quiet and deferential. But whatever one's color, shouting hinders eloquence. Def Poetry Jam's poster depicts all of Sia's fellow performers wearing gentle, reflective expressions, but a more honest version would picture at least seven of the performers in glowering high dudgeon, their reigning theme a contemptuous indictment of the American status quo. Def Poetry Jam was, in fact, less a show than a rally. Facing front, proudly smug, the performers were saying that either you were with them or you were a clueless bigot. The night I attended, I started wondering around the middle of the first act how long the middle-aged white women in the row ahead of me would last; they were gone after intermission.
The ending said it all. Each poet took a turn telling us in a few tart sentences why "I Write America." The endlessly grim Black Ice informed his audience that the United States government had planned the September 11 attacks, and that therefore he just watches America; for this, he got one of the biggest hands of the night. (His sentiment was on a par with Amiri Baraka's notorious lines, delivered at his October debut as New Jersey's poet laureate, "Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed? / Who told 4,000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers to stay home that day? / Why did Sharon stay away?") At Def Poetry Jam, the lights faded out on all nine performers venting their grievances in one grand cacophony.
WHY, THEN, do I insist that things are looking up? Because, whatever the visceral thrills of continuing to play the underdog, most blacks are well aware that dignity no longer means clinging to the label of victimhood. It means refusing to let obstacles hold them back, especially when the obstacles are so many fewer than those faced by their ancestors. Even at Def Poetry Jam, the superficial nature of the black-rage routine made itself clear. Besides Black Ice's 9/11 line, the two other moments that got the biggest audience reaction were (a) when wayward black fathers were admonished to take care of their children and (b) when black men were scolded about drifting into criminality and becoming "just another f--kin' nigger." They, too, came from Black Ice.
In any case, despite the attention paid to rabble-rousers, and despite the sullen ubiquity of hip-hop, there is an ever stronger strain running through black popular culture that insists on bringing things back to earth. A nice example was last fall's Off-Broadway, musical-theater version of Crowns, a coffee-table book that celebrates, of all things, the Sunday hats worn by black women to church. In the show, a black high-school girl from Brooklyn is sent to live with her middle-aged relatives in South Carolina after her brother is shot to death on the streets. Finding her new environment dismayingly "unhip," Yolonda soon enough warms to the matchless strength of black women who make the best of a hard life with the aid of a good dose of "hattitude"--the bone-deep pride that, among other things, makes a woman look good in a flashy hat.
For Crowns, the anti-white, anti-establishment stance is just a pose, and a childish one at that. Indeed; these days, the pose is not even exclusive to blacks but common coin among America's teens and twenty-somethings--if not a defining trait well into middle age, as David Brooks suggests in Bobos in Paradise. And just as Brooks's vegetarians and Nader voters fight like the management consultants they are to get their children into top schools and nurse the returns on their mutual funds, black America's embrace of hip-hop is more costume than skin.
One way to measure the true state of affairs is to consider what has not been playing in New York lately. For one thing, no recent film has feted the black criminal. On the contrary, last summer saw two jocular parodies of 1970's blaxploitation films: the minor hit Undercover Brother and Beyoncé Knowles's portrayal of Foxxy Cleopatra, a character in the Austin Powers "threequel." As for Antwone Fisher, Denzel Washington's directorial debut, it does feature a sullen young black protagonist who is referred to a psychiatrist for anger management after getting into a scuffle, but despite his tragic upbringing, Antwone turns out to be sufficiently solid and self-directed to work out the issues and go on to a gracious life.
Theater, too, is suggestive for what is absent as much as for what is present. Six years ago, George C. Wolfe's Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk mobilized music and tap dance to preach the gospel of permanent victimhood. But last fall, at Harlem's Apollo Theater, Wolfe gave us Harlem Song, a slick little theme-park-style show celebrating the history of the neighborhood. Wolfe festooned the drama with excerpts from filmed interviews of elderly Harlem residents who, despite the horrors they grew up in, were conspicuously lacking in the "don't-tread-on-me" air of many of their children and grandchildren. In one number, 1920's Harlemites strolled to the smart strut of a vamp, ogling the black celebrities of the day and murmuring "Well, alright, then" with an air of proprietary admiration.
The show only dimly conveyed why Harlem took such a bad turn in the 1960's. Like most people who have lived through gradual societal change, the oldsters in the filmed interviews pointed to symptoms--drugs, riots, the pathologies bred in the housing projects--but missed the cause: the elevation of alienation and rebellion by America's cultural elites, and the social policies that flowed therefrom. But what was noteworthy was that Harlem Song did not exploit its musings on the 60's as an occasion for knee-jerk outrage.
After all, Wolfe could easily have recycled the angry hip-hop substratum of Bring in da Noise as a Big Ending for Harlem Song, and ten years ago he probably would have. That is when, in Jelly's Last Jam, he fashioned an admittedly brilliant, two-and-a-half hour indictment of Jelly Roll Morton, a creole musician, as much white as black, whose crime was the boast that he had invented jazz; the show's own crime was to have introduced so many people to a genius of jazz in so distorted a fashion. In Harlem Song, which was about victory, not victimhood, Wolfe was less interested in this brand of cultural politics. That also meant that the show unfortunately petered out toward the end, but at least the middle-aged white women in the row across from me were in their seats at the final curtain.
WHAT, FINALLY, about the once-popular theme of integration? Last fall, in Far From Heaven, the director Todd Haynes revisited Douglas Sirk's 1955 All That Heaven Allows, a movie in which a suburban housewife falls in love with her gardener, played by Rock Hudson. The issue then was class difference; today, Haynes made the gardener a black man. Where the Rock Hudson character was a lover of poetry, the black gardener turns out to be well-informed about modern art, discoursing casually about Joan Miró.
In the scheme of things, this last was a significant touch. In the 1950's, some white filmmakers made a point of depicting black characters who were as adept as whites in all endeavors. Bill Cosby's erudite undercover agent Scotty on I Spy, the 60's television series, sprang from the same impulse. But by the time I Spy went off the air in 1968, the days of the Scotties were numbered. As separatist ideology took hold of black America, such characters came to be regarded as so many white wannabes co-opted by The Man. Any white writer who dared to create a black like Scotty--a Rhodes scholar, no less--would have been tarred as a covert racist. What came next was, instead, Shaft--"big, bold, black, and bad"--and The Jeffersons.
Far From Heaven has not been the only place on the recent pop scene where the integrationist ideal is back. In Hairspray, a runaway hit musical set in the year 1962, a Baltimore high-school girl seeks to integrate a dance show on local television. Her otherwise apolitical parents risk imprisonment to help her in her fight, local blacks warmly embrace her cause, and her best friend blithely hooks up with a black man in a display of easy interracial harmony that is decidedly ahistorical for that place and time. The very anachronism is, however, what makes the show relevant to our time. Its message is that integration is where we are headed.
At one point in Hairspray, three of the black chorus girls appear dressed as the Supremes, ushering in a scene by belting out "Welcome to the 60's." The sequence lasts only about half a minute, but both times I was there, the mostly white audience went crazy; the Motown sound is now imprinted as America's soul food. And when the show climaxes in a rousing dance number, "You Can't Stop the Beat" (of integration, that is)--a number notorious for getting audiences to mime the choreography in their scats--the sentiment no longer feels like the pure fantasy it seemed to represent in 1988 when the film on which Hairspray is based was first released.
Of course, Hairspray is a cartoon confection. But in the world of the Broadway theater, at least, integration is not an ideal at all but a living reality, in the sense that it is now perfectly ordinary for black performers to be cast in "white" lead roles with neither producers, reviewers, nor audiences batting an eye. In last fall's revival of the Stephen Sondheim musical Into the Woods, Vanessa Williams starred as the witch, a part originated in 1987 by Bernadette Peters. Sheryl Lee Ralph is playing a patrician celebrity in the bonbon Thoroughly Modern Millie, set in the lily-white 1920's of John Held, Jr. cartoons. Brian Stokes Mitchell, who has been anointed as Broadway's best baritone, period, is currently starring in a revival of Man of la Mancha. And even the revival of Oklahoma!, which strives for gritty realism in its depiction of an Oklahoma frontier town circa 1907, features two black chorus members. Given the actuality of turn-of-the-century Oklahoma, these black performers are in effect playing white people.
The formulaic rage of hip-hop and Spoken Word is not going away any time soon. But it is a mere vaudeville, reflecting the true soul of black America no more than vaudeville reflected white America's a century ago. "If we can't talk straight in the barbershop, where can we talk straight?," Eddie asks in Barbershop. On the evidence of these plays and films, straight talk is extending far beyond the barbershop.
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