I write about culture from a pro-Black perspective

Doing the Work of Interrogation; or “Whatever, as Long as He’s Gettin’ Paid.”

I recently got into a little argument, no, let’s say “discussion” about so-called “gangsta rap. Basically, the guy I was having this “discussion” with made the argument that hip-hop isn’t about integrity and creativity anymore and judging it on those terms is unfair. People will make the kind of music that they believe will make them the most money. My argument was, essentially, that is fine but it doesn’t make the music good just because it will sell, or because it fits neatly into some “idea” of a sub-genre.

Black people have this odd tendency to make money the great equalizer. This means that if you have it, everything you do is better, easier, more valuable, etc. If you have it, then you aren’t subjected to the same rules and regulations as “regular” people, except when you screw up badly (rape or murder, etc) then the rule inverts (because you have money you are obviously guilty).

This is dangerous thinking. It can lead to lazy and reckless behavior. And it can lead to lazy consumers who no longer interrogate their choices when consuming.

One of the biggest oversights of the civil rights generation was misjudging the extent to which becoming upwardly mobile would gut black communities and how much the subsequent generations would assimilate white middle class values (mostly, the overvaluing of attaining status and money). Prior to the civil rights movement, black folks lived a lot of their home and private lives away from white society. In these spaces, black neighborhoods and whatnot, black people could do the work of resisting the racism of white society and affirm the worth of their children without interference. This is much harder to do now, living in predominantly white suburbs.

Moving into white suburbia meant we had to play by their rules. Get the cars they drive. The house they buy. The “language” they speak. Gone are the schools and neighborhoods that were created to insulate young blacks from harmful thinking that exists in white society. And the result is a generation growing up internalizing rampant consumeristic, capitalistic ways of thinking.

Hip-hop has become a billion dollar industry. In the past year, black music has dominated the Top 10 on the Billboard charts, dominated scoring in commericials, and Be Cool is a huge studio movie about hip-hop, “The Industry”, staring white boys John Travolta and Vince Vaughn alongside black cultural icons The Rock, Cedric the Entertainer, and Andre Benjamin.

Black culture is being appropriated yet again.

This is to be expected. It’s the nature of a society that is built on imperialism and immigration. All these different cultures vie for dominance (or, shit, just recognition) in mainstream America.

What is disturbing is that black people, in their nice middle class berths, no longer have organized dialogue about the political and social ramifications of this newest wave of white appropriation. We are always and only concerned with the bottom line. No matter what the social ramifications of this appropriation are. We don’t question why and to what degree and what aspects of black culture are consumed by non-blacks.

This is dangerous.

You risk being labeled a “hater” if you have any kind of thought-out critique of people making money. A little over two years ago, the Neptunes and Timbaland created Justin Timberlake’s debut album, Justified, and Justin, at least in the media, received a large (some would say disproportionate) amount of the credit for the album’s creative success. Take note that when the Neptunes created Kelis’ well-received debut album, Kaleidoscope, there was a significant number of articles and discussion around how much of her “image” and “style” was created by the Neptunes. And Aaliyah was adored but she was widely considered a Timbaland protégé, even though she hand-picked Timbaland out of obscurity to help create a handful of tracks on her sophomore album, One In A Million.

But when it’s the “heir-apparent” Justin Timberlake, suddenly the fact that he lied about having created the tracks with the producers (the Neptunes tracks were rejects from Michael Jackson’s Invincible project) was barely reported in the news. Not as much as the, “I was raised in Memphis, the cradle of blues, black music is in my soul” offensive platform that the album was promoted on.

I spent a lot of time critiquing not only Justin’s racist behavior, but the complicity of the Neptunes and Timbaland in that behavior. And I got called a “hater” too many times to count. My argument was simple though. And I believe it is independent of whether or not the music is any good.

For the record: Justified is derivative and corny, well-made, yes, but lacking in a unique sound and identity. Justin comes off like a giddy fan paying homage to his influences, not a full fledged artist like he is capable of becoming.

The integrity of the Neptunes’ and Timbaland’s art was compromised when they allowed it to be perceived as less a product of their talents than it really was. And sure they are huge celebrities and work with lots of “big” (read: white) artists, but at what cost? How many people really believe that Justin wrote those songs, how many people really believe Justin is “down”? No one seemed to bat an eye at the aping of Michael Jackson’s style in the video for Like I Love You.

Similarly, where was the outcry when companies started marketing ringtones like “Where My Hoochies At?” And where was the outcry at 50 Cent’s marketing of himself as a man who was shot 9 times? Where is the outcry at Puffy, who continues to act as if his part in the media war of the East Coast/West Coast feud (and remember, it was mostly a war in print, instigated and perpetuated by media, white and black alike) wasn’t just as disgusting and manipulative as Suge’s? Where is the outcry at the changing appearance of Lil’ Kim into a living black Barbie doll?

It is not about saying that what people are doing is wrong or bad; it’s about interrogating the impact that such moves are having on other black folks. Questions like, is it a fair trade that Puffy might inspire lil’ Rasheed in Cabrini Green to be a media mogul when people have died or been injured in major events he has put together? Is it a fair trade that lil’ Tennisha in Flatbush will be a fully sexual being because she listens to Lil’ Kim if it will be undermined by her insistence in ridding herself of black “signifiers” like a wide nose and dark skin? Is it a fair trade that Will Smith is a huge movie star when he has said in interview that Jada needs to not “limit” her work to films that only “interest” black viewers, like Menace II Society? What is the message being sent to young black women? That they can’t make their own decisions? What is the message being sent to black children? That a career of your own cultural expression that caters to your people isn’t truly viable, isn’t worthwhile, isn’t as “good” as courting mainstream love and attention?

These are the kind of questions black people aren’t asking anymore. There is no critical engagement with how and to what extent our culture is being marketed. Everyone talks about BET and how all they play is booty shaking music 24/7. A more useful critique would be to interrogate why the over-sexualization (or the perception) of black women and the hyper-violence (or the perception) of black men is what middle class whites love to consume. Or, are white folks running out in droves to purchase Common records at the same rate they are purchasing 50 Cent records? Why aren’t they? I mean, there is a reason that those are the videos chosen. Would we make the same outcry if all you saw were Pharoahe Monche, Q-tip and Common videos? Is the question really about balance?

This is important work, people.

We need to understand the way in which we are perceived. It is more than just negative versus positive. It’s about balance. So-called “gangsta” rap has its place. But the only way so-called “conscious” rap will have its place as well is if we interrogate why one is favored over the other. We need to be honest about all facets of black culture. We need to drop essentialist ideas about black men as violent and “reality” as the ghetto. We need to drop essentialist dichotomies like black women are either earthy mammies (Oprah and Jill Scott) or foul temptresses (Lil’ Kim and Ciara).

It has to become about so much more than, “Well, they makin’ their money.” That statement is a copout. It means you don’t have to think about what your doing, what your consuming, what you believe in. It means you aren’t doing the work of interrogation. At what cost are a few black people becoming millionaires and (in a few instances) billionaires? What was the price paid in the socialization of a new generation of black children when Bob Johnson sold BET to Viacom and now the station is essentially MTV? So what if Bob Johnson is the only black billionaire. What was the cost?

We don’t ask these questions.

If after asking these questions, a person comes to the conclusion that all these things are okay, it’s okay that people died around Puffy (whether or not it is his fault is irrelevant, we’re discussing a climate surrounding his dealings…why are we so willing to demonize Suge and not even critique Puffy?) for instance, then that’s valid.

Because that person did the work of interrogation.

We all need to create a climate where someone can say something as simple as “Ashanti can’t really sing and that’s something she should work on,” without someone else saying “you’re a “hater. We need to remember that so-called “hateration” is not when someone has a valid and accurate critique–Ashanti isn’t the strongest singer, that is an accurate statement–but when people blindly dislike and disparage someone for no apparent reason.

It’s just as dangerous to like someone for no reason or for flimsy reasons like “they makin’ dat money” as it is to not like them. Hating Ashanti because she’s beautiful and successful is just as useless as liking 50 and Puffy because they are rich.

The Civil Rights Movement, The Black Power Movement…they had shortcomings. We know that now. They made mistakes, they took risks. We know that now. But there is a plethora of documentation of the leaders’ thought processes and rationales for why they made the choices and decisions they did.

Where is Puffy’s? Where is 50’s? Where is Oprah’s? Where is Will’s? And where is the general public’s response? Why is the only reason people give for their behavior, or the main reason, that it will make them money? At what point do we truly own our culture and our cultural icons and subject them to serious critique and standards of morality we hold ourselves to?

Posted on November 6th, 2005 - Filed under Culture

The Mechanisms of Intimacy; or “You Don’t Call Me Enough!”

In the new technological age, genuine connections are harder to find, harder to initiate, and harder to maintain and sustain. People are being raised to spend inordinate amounts of time communicating through machinces. None more so than the telephone.

The over-reliance on the telephone, means that understanding how to read a person’s expressions, understanding body language, etc gets lost. People become socialized to speak in flat generalities and trade anecdotes because there can only be so much communicated over the phone when you can’t see how the person is communicating what they are saying. For instance, someone could say “I hate him” and on the phone it can sound sincere, but in person the person might make a facial gesture that lets you know more about the situation.

Particularly, for my generation that was raised on telephones and computers and whatnot, real communication is very difficult. People tend to communicate in socialized familiarities and innuendos that do far more to tell you what media and social circles a person is privy to, but tells you nothing about who they are as an individual. This is true because people often say to me, “He’s so different from when we talked on the phone” or “He is so quiet on the phone.” People mistake phone conversation for the kind of meaningful dialogue that one gets from engaging in face-to-face interactions. And then when they realize this is not the case, they oftentimes think the person was dishonest, not forthcoming, or a liar. More often than not, what that really means is that people just feel less inclined to connect when they know that the other person can’t really tell that it’s not genuine interaction.

We feign complex and meaningful conversations on the phone! And I think we actually know it. I really do!

I’ve been in DC for almost nine months and I have run into so many people who over-rely on phone and internet for communication. And I am not a phone person. I never have been. And so it became very difficult to meet and get to know people because they demanded to be spoken to, by phone, every single day. While I understand that meeting strangers is a risk, for me after a certain point, I needed to interact with a human being.

The people that I talk to on the phone for extended periods of time are people far away who I’ve built a personal connection with prior to engaging in extended phone conversations as the primary means of communicating. My best friend lives in Delaware and we talk one or two times a week, on average. We both live very hectic, different lives and appreciate when the other has time to talk on the phone. We do not demand extraordinary amounts of time on the phone to validate the relationship. We also never assume that what time we do spend on the phone is an adequate substitute for the few times we get to see each other in person.

So many people feel that if they don’t talk to you every day then something is wrong. So many people immediately assume that if a person doesn’t call every day or every other day then that person is doing something wrong, being dishonest. This is absurd. Why don’t we consider the other alternatives, that the person could be tired from a long day, working, or shit, on the phone with someone else? Why assume the worst just because there is no phone communication?

If you require constant communication and you demand that a person call you everyday, a more useful request would be to ask for that person to spend actual time together, face-to-face. If you want them to go out of their way, why not have them go out of their way to spend face-to-face time together?

The answer to this question is our society loves the distance that is inherent in telephone communication. You can talk about everything under the sun and be really emotional about it and feel connected, while knowing that there is a level of communication that you will never get to over the phone. We spend hours listening to ourselves speak on the phone. Are we in love with the sounds of our own voice? Or is it that we are in love with the emotion that we put out even if it’s not received and then reciprocated. Telephones are remarkably one-sided. You can pour out your heart and all the person on the other end can really do is verbally reassure you. The tangible is missing. And I think that is ironically, what we love about it. We can do all the work of connecting without having to deal with it tangibly.

Telephones give a false sense of intimacy. You can wax nostalgic or poetic for hours and bore the tears off of the person on the other line and you’d never really know. Frequently, I find myself saying “mmmhmmm” or “right” just so the other person thinks I’m listening. One might say that this could just be me. But I’ve found this to be the case when I’m doing the talking as well. Telephones are all about hearing your self talk, because there is no one really there in the room with you when you do. A disembodied voice will never be an adequate substitute for a flesh-and-blood person.

We have become a society that loves the false intimacy of technology and is increasingly uncomfortable with real intimacy. It is much easier to hang up the phone than it is to leave someone’s company. It is much easier to give the best of you on the phone than it is in person. It is much easier to lie on the phone than in person.

This comforts us. Because our society does not value real dialogue. There is so much to talk about, really talk about and we spend an inordinate amount of the time (on the phone and in person) talking about everything but ourselves. When you are on the phone you can talk about yourself without having the person there to really react to what you’re saying. It allows for a wall to be placed around you. It’s like visiting a prisoner. You can cry and say “I love you” and kiss the window and it feels real to you, but it’s not real intimacy. The prisoner can never feel or truly interact with you.

I find that my problem with phone conversation is that the minute I get serious (and I know I’m an overly serious person and that is tiresome) people stop listening. The phone is for mindless chitchat. How was your day? Did so and so piss you off at work again? Is your man trippin? Did you hear what so and so did? This is what we talk about. We never talk about what really ails us, what really moves us, what really matters.

We give up agency on the phone. It’s a back and forth thing. One person says something while the person on the other end “Yesses” and “Mmmhmmms” until it’s their turn to speake. The give and take, the spontaneity of reacting to a physical presence is lost. We fall into a pattern.

I find that usually the person that is a phone person is the person that is the hardest to get to know in person. They are accustomed to the behavior of impersonal telephone conversation. So socialized to communicate in broad generalities and anecdotes, when you talk to that person face-to-face, it can often be stilted. In face-to-face communication, there is very little protocol. It is imperative that one listen and then react. We do not do this. In person, body language tells so much and we read it. You become naked in person. Vulnerability is very difficult in a society that lionizes the cold, hard man and the passionless angry woman.

This is not always the case, clearly. But my point is to interrogate why so many people overvalue the phone and then don’t feel the need to spend the quality face-to-face time as well. Frequently, it’s one or the other. I’m all for talking on the phone and doing the initial meet and greet. But it baffles me how people are so unwilling to meet face-to-face and continue from there. A combination of phone conversations and real face-to-face makes so much more sense to me. But I have met people who never intend to meet you or have conversations (unless they are on the phone). It’s odd to me. And very very sad.

Everyone on the planet uses online personals now and I often wonder if the meetings that come from that are more problematic than the old fashion dating before everything moved into cyberspace. Perhaps this merits more investigation by sociologists. I don’t know. But what I do know (from my own experience, that is) is that I never built friendships or relationships based on phone conversations. Everyone I am friends with or dated was someone I spent large amounts of time with in person. None of my really close friends are phone people, but contrary to popular opinion, they are wonderful conversationalists.

Originally written on June 11, 2005

Posted on September 28th, 2005 - Filed under Culture,Self-reflection

Black Anti-Intellectualism; or “Damn, It’s Not That Deep”

An intellectual is "a man who takes more words than are necessary to tell more than he knows."
President Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1954

"And even after all my logic and my theory, I add a motherfucker so you ig'nant niggaz hear me"
-Lauryn Hill, "Zealots", 1994

Anti-intellectualism has swept our nation, my friends. The life of the mind is not at all attractive to people. We live in times where people place everything into extremes. You're either for it or against it. Democrat or Republican. Good or evil. Gay or straight. There is no middle ground. Middle ground is for the confused, the lazy, the ideologically impaired.

When people think in such stark terms, the problem becomes that it is easy to just dismiss the other side without thinking at all. Because they are "opposite" you, they are just wrong and what that really means is that they are "wrong" because they are opposite you–you fashion yourself morally and intellectually (ironically enough) in the right and because you sit there, you needn't think at all. You simply are right. This requires no serious thought.

And it is dangerous.

I find that in conversations people will say to me, "It's not that deep." I'll mention that the black character on Jack and Bobby is completely characterless and explain why. And, "It's not that deep." I'll wanna discuss why the Democrats are a fuckin' mess and how it's their fault they are loosing ground in governmnet. And, "It's not that deep." I'll see a forum on the AIDS epidemic on TV and the panelists are all black women and wonder why the conversation is gendered and racialized in that way and for what purpose. And, "It's not that deep."

John McWhorter, author of many books about Black America (including Authentically Black: Essays for the Silent Minority and Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America) defines intellectualism in the black community as solely a racialized word wherein intelligence is associated with "being white". And so then, anti-intellectualism is seen as not wanting to "be white" and, perhaps in a perversely political way, as black self-determination.

In the mainstream, many intellectuals are much more concerned with anti-intellectualism as it relates to passivity–the unwillingness to think about anything at all and the tendency to place everything in moralistic opposition. For my purposes, I am interested in this mainstream idea of anti-intellectualism as it relates to Black America. Because it exists. It is profoundly crippling and counter-productive to black self-determination.

This kind of anti-intellectualism is not about people being truly ignorant. Most people in American are intelligent, well-read (for the most part), and articulate. But they lack the desire to think critically. It is a fundamental refusal to engage in any kind of critical thinking. "It's not that deep" is an admission that one doesn't want to think about any topic beyond what is readily apparent. It stops the conversation (for what is the response to "It's not that deep" that won't result in the discussion sputtering off into a tangent?). It means that anything that is said won't register because if it's not "deep", it is not worth hearing.

But then, the question becomes, what is "deep" enough? When will it be okay to be thoughtful and wonder why people do what they do, why black people are portrayed the way they are, why pundits are not really adequate substitutes for news or true political discourse? Why isn't everything that has anything to do with representations of economic and racial minorities, life, politics, national security, "deep" enough?

Everywhere around me it seems that people are uninterested in seriously thinking about life. It's not just the political realm that is lacking. Everyday, I'm confronted with people who continually act out the socialized scripts that keep them mired in unhappiness and bad relationships. By doing this, one doesn't have to put any thought into how they behave and how they interact with others in their daily lives. And much of what is socialized is harmful, from patriarchy to black self-hatred to homophobia, and people (whether they know it or not) enact these ways of thinking and being.

A friend of mine and I had a discussion about relationships and he was talkin about how his ex would be standoffish and he would become needy almost retaliation for his ex's behavior and how this was a problem. He attributed his behavior to his essential Aries traits and his ex's to his Scorpio traits. This to me is counter-productive. It's anti-intellectual because one doesn't have to think about how they behave and just act out some arbitrary delineation of what behavior is "natural". So, of course, he repeats this behavior often in relationships.

I commented on this willingness to repeat behavior that impairs relationships and wondered why not just change the behavior. He said, "well, yea" like it was an epiphany and then immediately followed it up with "well, he has to change to". This is anti-intellectual, as well. The propensity to shift blame, to transfer agency means that you forfeit any ability to change your situation. Clearly, the ex would have to change as well for the relationship to work, but he was not the focus of the discussion.

Similarly, I have another friend who spurns furthering his education. I am not the biggest proponent of college if one is not truly ready for it as it can be detrimental, but it seemed that he was less interested in education because he couldn't conceive of education in any other form than the one in which he currently takes part–high school. He coasts through high school and the prospect of any rigorous intellectual pursuits bores him.

These two examples are what I mean when I say anti-intellectual. It's boring to think. One can't conceive of thought in anyway that is different from what they already know. And in the former example, the ability to recognize behavior and then change it is just ignored.

This is the worst kind of anti-intellectualism in Black America. We hold so many essentialisms in Black America that oftentimes we continue enacting unhealthy behavior because it's deemed "normal" or societally acceptable. There is a certain amount of leeway you have in relationships to just act stupidly because so many other people are doing it. It's okay to be act co-dependently even if you aren't co-dependent simply because you have no other ways of expressing love and affection. You overvalue the phone conversation because cellphones are such a trend as to be (erroneously) considered actual communication.

The process of changing behavior in our society is spurned. We've become intellectually lazy and that infects every other facet of life in the Black community. My generation has access to unprecedented levels of education and even the well-educated enact unhealthy behavior. And on some level, they know it. That we have a colloquialism–"It's not that deep"–that encourages the spurning of intellectual thought is telling. It's a cop-out. It's a phrase tossed out when you just don't want to think any further.

I am deeply concerned with the lazy way in which people I know seem to go about their daily lives. And I say this in response to many of these people who tell me I think too much about everything. The Aries friend told me that I have just as many unhealthy attitudes as he does. And in response I said that I was concerned and actively engaging in dialogue that calls attention to unhealthy ways of being so that I can recognize what is deficient and make steps to change it. The dialoguing, the intellectual self-check, is the first and best step toward correcting that behavior.

If, in every given interaction with his ex, he had considered whether his behavior would be off-putting, eventually he would have learned and retrained himself to behave in ways that were affirming to both himself and his ex. Because clearly, it does harm to him as well to be constantly butting heads with his lovers.

This process of rigorous self-checking is what is needed to rectify this strain of anti-intellectualism that tells people that if it takes too long to think about it, it's probably not worth thinking about in the first place. This process of rigorous self-interrogation allows one to become familiar with the ways in which one acts in unhealthy ways and then allows you to change it.

Anti-intellectualism in America takes many forms and for Black Americans our complacency, our willingness to accept mediocrity (be it in our art and our relationships) is what is deadening the mind. One needn't read DuBois and Fanon, sit in Starbucks with a laptop and black turtleneck talking about the fall of Communism to be an intellectual.

A true intellectual is someone who is engaged with their ways of being, their willingness to be critiqued and challenged, and their ability to see that there is more to life than just maintaining the status quo.

Originally written on May 3, 2005

Posted on September 28th, 2005 - Filed under Culture