Wednesday, April 13, 2005

"How Blackness Became Universal"...

here's an article written by hadji williams theorizing how the definition of "blackness" is no longer in the hands of black folk.

Not long ago I met this woman at a concert. We were chatting, flirting a lot, and trying to get to know each other. She asked me what kind of music I liked. I said, “Jazz, blues, hip-hop, gospel… If it’s Black music, I’m with it.” Almost immediately she broke out laughing. When I asked her what was so funny, she said, “You said ‘Black music’. There’s no such thing as ‘Black music’. Music is universal.”

I walked away thinking about what she said. And over time as I saw more and more non-Blacks co-opting and claiming fashion, language and musical styles that came out of the Black community, I realized something: Blackness no longer belongs to Black people.

Blackness has been extracted, harvested, distilled and repackaged for mass consumption. And for the most part, it’s being bought, sold, defined and produced with little or no involvement from Blacks. If Blackness were a government, Blacks would be its figureheads with the real power held by others.

Now from what I’ve seen in society and the marketing worlds, Blackness goes thru 7 stages of extraction.

1. “What’s that?” Outsider recognition.
2. “Oh, that’s just some thing ‘they’ do/are.” Here, “it” and those connected to “it” are ridiculed and devalued.
3. “Hmmm, ‘it’ looks interesting -- bet I can do it/use ‘it’.” They covet.
4. “This could be profitable for ‘us’.” Then comes greed.
5. “This isn’t yours, it’s ‘ours’ -- it’s ‘universal’.” Then it’s taken, co-opted, redefined and commoditized.
6. “What happened? IT was so much better back when WE started it…” IT loses its cool cache as revisionist history and selective memory takes hold.
7. “What’s next?” Now it’s back to the ‘hood to see what else the natives are cooking up.

What am I talking about? Take jazz for example. Today, jazz is called “American Classical music.” The face of jazz is primarily non-Black: Norah Jones, Kenny G., Dianna Krall and others. Beyond the Marsalis family, our most popular Black jazz musicians Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday are all dead.

But when it began in the Black community, jazz, along with blues and R&B, was slurred together as “nigger music” and “race music” by White America. It wasn’t until white musicians like Benny Goodman, The Andrew Sisters, Bing Crosby, the Dorsey Brothers and others started doing their versions of jazz, did jazz become acceptable -- and even then it was mainly the white musicians who got credit for their artistry and innovations.

By most accounts, Blackness is now dangling somewhere between stages 5 and 6. The job of the music business is to maintain Level 5 as long as possible, because once stage 6 hits, it’s a wrap. Blackness will get flipped into a VH1 special. And maybe, say 10 years from now, it’ll become “kitschy” or “retro hip” and the same forces that wrecked it in the first place will return to start the cycle all over again.

I take your culture and sell it back to you!
—Danny Hoch (1)

Hip-hop is easily the most obvious case of cultural extraction in recent memory. As of 2004, hip-hop generates an estimated $10 billion-a-year in music, fashion, art, entertainment, and cross-marketing ventures (2). In 2003, Soundscan noted that the hip-hop, R&B and urban genres accounted for nearly 40% of all albums sold (3). And according to market research firm NPD Group, hip-hop and R&B CDs alone made $1 billion in 2003, lead mainly by Eminem and 50 Cent (4). (In 2004, Usher, Fiddy, Ludacris, L’il John, and Jay-Z were industry leaders.) There are an estimated 45 million hip-hop consumers between ages 13 and 34, 80 percent of whom are white (5). According to SLMG’s research, this group has $1 trillion in spending power (6).

Now let’s go to the supply side of the equation: Over 96% of America’s major radio stations, national magazines and TV stations are white-owned, while 100% of the major chain retailers and distributors (Wal-Mart, Best Buy, Tower, FYE, Virgin, Circuit City, Amazon, etc.) that carry Black music are owned by non-Blacks. Lastly, let’s factor in the still near-systemic lack of diversity on Wall Street, in Hollywood and Madison Avenue, all which create the images, ideas, brands and perspectives that shape America’s pop culture and consumer landscape.

What you’re left with is an environment where Blackness, from look to style to content, is shaped mainly by non-Black marketers, manufacturers, and retailers catering to the tastes of primarily non-Black consumers.

In the beginning, hip-hop was born of Black with some Hispanic and indigenous tribal expressions -- just as blues, funk, R&B, soul, gospel, house, jazz, and rock & roll were. But just as happened with Black artforms and generations past, cultural extraction cut, scratched and crossfaded those art forms into “white” (rock & roll, alternative, punk) or “universal” (jazz, funk, techno, blues) ones. Why? Because in each instance mainstream America decided it preferred a version of Blackness it could shape, own and most importantly control. And everyone from consumers to artists to manufacturers to marketers saw the value in engineering that extraction. And so it began...

In the case of hip-hop, labels abandoned certain Black artists in favor of “less-threatening” ones. Artists with an Afro-centric/pro-Black bent such as X-Clan, Poor Righteous Teachers, Rakim, Paris, and Queen Latifah were downplayed and pushed to the side in favor of acts with more “crossover” appeal like Run-DMC, MC Hammer, De La Soul, Salt & Pepa, Fresh Prince, and Young Black Teenagers.

Then, video channels and radio stations and magazines, craving mainstream advertising dollars and audiences, joined in by reviewing rap albums and covering more hip-hop-related stories. Traditionally white channels such as MTV (who wouldn’t even play Black artists thru the mid 80s) launched “Yo MTV Raps!” and ultimately bought The BoX, which was beating MTV in many markets due to its huge cache of videos by young Black music artists.

Next, the FCC jumped in by putting the screws to “urban” artists via various indecency hearings, fines, etc. Hollywood and Madison Avenue joined in by reflecting and promoting what mainstream consumers wanted to see from Black artists and Black life. Non-blacks (Vanilla Ice, 3rd Base, NSYNC, House of Pain, Beastie Boys, Michael Bolton, Christina Aguilera, BackStreet Boys, Britney Spears, Expose, Lighter Shade of Brown, etc.) began making their own “Black music,” bringing their version of Blackness to bear.

Certain Black artists and industry insiders joined in, too. Hustlers got into the game. So did pimps and whores. And before you knew it, Blackness had become a product and an industry for mass consumption.

And now that hip-hop -- and by extension Blackness -- has become “global youth culture,” my generation has put its stamp on the age-old, perennially marketable and comforting myth of Blackness as something you can “experience” your way into thru participation and imitation. Or you can own and control it through co-option, purchases and majority rules. It’s almost like a new brand of beer: “Blackness: all of Black people’s flavor but with none of the fattening calories and carbs of Black folks’ melanin, heritage, pain and struggle.”

But how does all of this affect Black Americans and Black folks worldwide? For starters, Black artists are under constant pressure to crossover (reach white consumers). As a result they have to tailor their image and their content to fit whatever non-Blacks want to see and hear. Black music celebrates niggers, biches, hoes, strippers, drug dealers and such because Black music’s 80% non-Black consumer base demands it, while Black music’s 90-100% white corporate manufacturing/marketing/ media/ distribution infrastructure churns it out.

Again, don’t sleep on the consumer portion of this story because despite the growing number of high-powered minorities (Stan Lathan, Sean Combs, Tom Burrell, Earl Graves, Jr., Ann Fudge, Cathy Hughes, and Ken Chenault), they are ultimately beholden to the same majority consumer base, not to mention the same marketing, media, and entertainment infrastructures. Consequently, many minority professionals end up perpetuating Black myths and stereotypes in order to grow their businesses and further their careers.

The main reason acts like X-Clan and Public Enemy lost a lot of their popularity in America is because white kids got tired of rebelling against their parents and stopped supporting them. At some point while they were chanting, “Fight the Power,” they realized their parents and their community were “the power.”

Today when you see artists like 50 Cent, Nelly, Ludacris, and others painting lyrical pictures of Black men as thugs, drug dealers, and degrading imagery of Black women, they succeed because their 80% non-Black consumer base co-signs it. So far, Ludacris has sold 10 million albums. Fiddy’s "Get Rich or Die Trying" moved 11 million. If all the Black music consumers boycotted these two artists, Luda would still have sold around 8 million while 50’s last disc would’ve moved a little over 9 million, simply due to the fact that 80% of their audience is not Black.

When people have little or no say in how they define themselves or constantly have to seek the “approval” and acceptance of those outside their community, they are living under a form of mental slavery and cultural colonialism. How free are you when you need someone else’s approval and acceptance just to be what you are? What is Black music, Black style, Black fashion, Black heritage if non-Blacks are the authorities on it?

So what’s the solution to the extraction? Let’s start with getting non-Black “urban culture” consumers to take responsibility for their part in the extraction. Then, maybe we’ll have a shot at stopping it. And until they do, the extraction saga will continue. Same as it ever was.

just some food for thought. i'll have more to say on this once i've collected my thoughts into the brown paper bag called my mind.