Archives for category: Culture


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Charles Blow, an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times has written a rather intriguing column (and one among perhaps hundreds published in someone’s newspaper or blog or magazine each week) on America’s increasing impoverishment. It’s greatest asset, in my opinion: a salvaged James Baldwin quote:

Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.

Baldwin is apart of a slowly expanding cemetery of dead prophets whose relevance and clarity is revealed in inverse proportion to our national decline.

I was at Starbux yesterday having an insanely sweet discussion with a good friend of mine about the pulse of hip-hop – can you still feel it? We talked about whether or not it still had the power to capture the zeitgeist and if, perhaps, it might have been eclipsed or displaced by electronic music, with its voiceless skittishness (enough to drive me mad, which, I suppose, would be a primary characteristic of any kind of music vying to become a soundtrack for our time).

“All the artists are either in jail or in forced retirement [i.e. jail],” he said, citing Nas, DMX, Eminem and a few others he thought represented hip-hop’s subversive prime.

I on the other hand don’t get too worked up over all of the talk about the death of hip-hop. It never really spoke to me on that kind of of level, although it’s good to hear Andre 3 stacks again and I wouldn’t mind hearing something from the Eminem who could still shock and piss everybody off.

I told him that the truth about hip-hop is that it was never really as subversive as it put on. It’s really always been about money, power, parties and hoes. And at its most antagonistic, enraged point, its always been about the tragedy of being apart of a sub-culture that’s been historically denied the opportunity to pursue the money and power by conventional (read WASP-ish) means. Hip-Hop, for the most part, has always been democratic capitalism’s fiercest and truest believer, which is really the source of its cynicism and evidence that it’s ability to channel the ethos of modernity is probably stronger than ever.

This is also why its so ironic to hear, for instance, Wyclef’s subtle mock of Louis Armstrong, a veritable Uncle Tom (if he’s even known at all) to many blacks under forty. If we compare genres, jazz and hip-hop, which would you consider the greatest ‘sell-out’ success story?

There might not be another genre of music that has profited more from the economic policies of conservative Republicans and the rapid technological advancement of the late 20th-, early 21st-century (and the resulting inequitable economic arrangements they’ve left in their wakes)  than hip-hop. And there’s probably not another genre that’s as explicitly C.R.E.A.M.-ish and unashamedly commercial as hip-hop.

You really can’t applaud hip-hop’s entrepreneurship and billion-dollar ‘industrial’ status and its truth-telling power at the same time. Jazz (leaving aside its critical virtues) is a hobby by comparison. Name a jazz musician who can afford Mike Tyson’s old estate? Wyclef can afford to bank a presidential run, while Satchmo virtually worked himself to death (he lived in a relatively modest, but comfortable home in Brooklyn and may have even been neighbors with welfare recipients). Of course, my anecdotal analysis doesn’t entirely prove hip-hop’s inherent economic conservatism, but if we can examine the soul of a politician by auditing his bank account, what makes an artist and his or her aesthetic integrity any different?

Nonetheless, the conventional wisdom seems to be that rap is (or was at some point in its evolution), for whatever reason, politically and culturally subversive. Yeah, and Ronald Reagan was a liberal Democrat.

She [the girl above, Kiki Ostrenga] is an extreme case of an enormous uncontrolled experiment that is playing out across the world. Young people’s brains are developing while they are immersed in fast, multitasking technology. No one quite knows what effect this is having.

The culture of childhood is being compressed. Those things that young people once knew at 18, they now know at 10 or 12. No one quite knows the effect of that either.

– David Brooks, “The Saga of Sister Kiki,” The New York Times 

Last night, while in Walgreens, a pint of sherbet, an oversized bag of tortillas and a jar of salsa in hand, heading towards the checkout, anticipating a retreat into a few randomly chosen YouTube documentaries and lots of munching (and losing myself in general inside of my laptop’s nocturnal, liquid crystal glow) – after a threateningly loud clap in the atmosphere, a bright blue light, which flickered with the finality of a burst bulb – the store went dark. Then what was before a drizzle became a seamless sheet of water. Some minutes. Breaks and horns clashed. Some minutes. Sirens broke out. And another timpanic, brief blue light came and went for good measure.

Although I was starving when I came over here, the storm had all of a sudden relinquished my appetite. I was standing confusedly in the candy aisle, looking intermittently at the halted line at the checkout, which resembled a modernist bas relief (the people would be interpreted in the museum caption as being frozen in their primal, postmodern state as consumers) and the exit. There was a group of rowdy, electrified teenagers standing at the sliding doors, transfixed by the storm’s suddenness. They were mostly black. And I remember sort of abstractly (and rather crudely) conceptualizing the implications and potentialities of this – a group of rowdy, anxious black youth in a temporarily decommissioned store powerless to police itself, reduced to a white guy (I assumed to be the manager) frantically shining a flashlight and ordering me and anyone else holding merchandise to return it to the shelves immediately.

My stomach growled with annoyance. I then gently asked the guy if it was okay for me to leave the store. He said yes, rather politely. I ran into the wall of rain, not even conscious enough to castigate myself for such a show of timidity. I simply ran, like a gazelle, without thinking. I passed a McDonalds, a gas station, a Burger King – they were all black – before crossing the bridge to my apartment. Even the traffic lights and street lamps were mere silhouettes. If it weren’t for the persevering headlights and the anticipation that things, as we know them to be – cheap pints of sherbet, solitary movie nights, suspended dystopian realities with microwavable popcorn thrown in, drive-thru pharmacies, incessantly lit streets, controlled air and heat, the comforting thought of the comfort of the so-called real – were bound to resume, I would have thought that this was it. The blackout before the plunge…

Every once in a while I emerge out of the YouTube vortex with a few gems to ponder on and reconsider. The above clip is one of them. In it, the Washington D.C. television host Ralph Waldo ‘Petey’ Greene brilliantly deconstructs a very prominent American racial taboo – watch this and then, as supplements, read Stanley Crouch’s The Artificial White Man: Essays on Authenticity and (if you really want to go off on the deep end) the second chapter of Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology.

The late funnyman Petey Greene’s genius is that he was a funny man. To say he was merely talented wouldn’t do him justice. To call him a comic or even a comedian would be reductionist. Greene was honest and the highest compliment you can pay an honest man is to tell him how you really feel. Either be yourself or Greene, stone-cold Falstaffian fool that he was, would tease that self-in-hiding to the surface. Politics, protocol and etiquette be damned.

Today, perhaps since the 2007 release of the movie based on his life, Talk To Me, Greene may be remembered largely as the man whose live ‘breakdown’ on Johnny Carson preceded Dave Chapelle’s infamous $50 million change of heart and subsequent move to Africa and stands firmly in the tradition of brilliant, humorous black funnymen who were, alas, all too sensitive to humanity, their own and ours, to allow an audience ignorant of the joke’s complex core to co-opt their humor – to dull its subversiveness and diamond-sharp, universal truth by lavishing it with cheap laughter and even cheaper, albeit Wal-Mart-sized, rewards.