Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Black Culture And Mainstream American Culture

Over the course of my education, I've had the chance to read plenty of textbooks, or collections or anthologies-- for example, of writings by feminists or by American political philosophers-- that have turned out to be pleasingly comprehensive and up-to-date in their scope, recognizing that the discipline they covered was still being practiced and breaking new ground. It's always nice to see acknowledgement of the accomplishments of the present-day or recent years-- acknowledgement, perhaps, from an older generation that more recent generations, and not just people remembered in a musty old book, have had something to add or say.

When I was in college or high school, I was given a great anthology of American literature. It contains whole works or excerpts from prose writers, dramatists and poets. I guess it's a testament to the breadth of the blindness that a society's racism can cause, but up until now I've never really considered the odd fact that this recently-published book (late '90s) doesn't contain any works from rappers in it. After all, what is rap, but poetry? I'm not talking about rappers who only rap about having sex with women and being a gangster-- I'm talking about rappers like Talib Kweli who rap about things like the influence 9/11 has had on our world (although one should consider that some gangster rappers can certainly put a whole lot of art into rapping about their way of life, and very influential styles of art certainly can and have originated from individuals documenting their non-typical lifestyles). We all have to admit that, and I've noticed it myself for years. I definitely appreciate writing and poetry, and as someone who has listened to rap his whole life, I can testify that there is rap out there that is very clever and creative. In fact, perhaps the most compelling aspect of a rap-piece to me is how clever or creative it is. Clever rappers are often so good that they even can use rap to tell a story or to impart a message instead of just "spitting" a more avant garde, impromptu type of work that is more of an image, more visceral, and more a pure demonstration of creative thinking and verbal skill. In my opinion, it's really weird to see art in Franz Josef Kafka, or ancient Chinese, ancient Celtic, or ancient Muslim abstract art, yet not see art in things like Wu-Tang Clan rap or the best graffiti murals (I'm sure there are a lot of theories about Kafka's writing, but I'm not so sure that any interpretation is more convincing than that maybe he was just winging it-- yet Kafka is famous and immortal, while rich white people look at rappers as if they're just winging, it and as if their can't be an apex in achievment in that kind of art when a black person from a poor background is doing it).

I've always recognized that there is rap that can achieve these heights of art, and also a lot of rap that is not as impressive. But the public's taste very often coincides with the rap that is clever or creative (Notoriuous B.I.G. and Wu-Tang Clan are just a couple of examples)-- this reinforces my opinion that it's part of good rap to be well done from a poet's point of view. So I really wonder why some of these better rap pieces have not started to make it into the literary anthologies that are given to students as textbooks. I know that rappers are not usually considered part of the literary "scene," and that other people, sometimes African Americans, write types of poetry that are similar to rap for the poetry scene-audience. But the foremost of rappers are rewarded by success in the rap scene and world fame-- this seems to back up my opinion that these cleverest of rappers are much better poets than many of these unknown poets who inhabit the poetry scene.

It seems like a very big oversight that rap does not accomplish more academic recognition; and after all, a lot of yesteryear's poetry and drama that we now give a permanent place in literary anthologies was like the rap-- the pop culture-- of its day. It just seems like a glaring omission of a big part of modern American artistic culture, an omission that I suppose might be based on (intentional or unintentional) classism and racism.

This is a pretty big loss, until it gets fixed. After all, how many aspects of our modern American culture come from African American culture? From music (like jazz music, to gospel, R & B and rock 'n' roll) to style of dress, cooking, slang, and the fist-jab, European Americans are (to an extent largely ignored by racist white Americans) a breed of people of European descent that are uniquely influenced in their culture by people of African descent. I once argued with a liberal African American professor about this-- I think I had the better part of the argument, and that his assessment that African Americans don't have much of an influence on the mainstream culture was a little too pessimistic and cynical-- but I think it is certainly true that (1) there is a whole African American aesthetic that is oppressed, dismissed and under-recognized in America, that applies to all kinds of culture and is easily seen in rap; what is really an African-American aesthetic approach to say, poetry, that is often too quickly dismissed as just meaningless babble instead of the slang and the alternative aesthetic that it is, and (2) this alternative aesthetic is a different style, but it is no less praiseworthy for that than are other styles. I don't have to like every piece of jazz or every rap song or every painting, but there are plenty of styles that include examples we don't like. Americans shouldn't look at a piece of rap or black fashion they don't like and think "this is junky, lower-class, ghetto stuff"; instead they should recognize that like any other style, some of the artists in that style are great and others are just not going to appeal to you because they are lesser artists.