From one Jewish hip-hop artist to another…

SoCalled’s 2007 song “You Are Never Alone” and Drake’s recent Sprite commercial, presented without comment except to thank Matt for the heads-up.

Ke$ha, white girl rap and the utility of genre classifications

The other day, Jon Caramanica of the NYT checked out the “TiK ToK” singer’s rap credentials, situating her in a lineage of white-girl rappers from Debbie Harry to Peaches to Lady Sov.  Caramanica argues that, while Ke$ha is a rapper, she’s also a pop artist, and this has larger implications for how we think about blackness, whiteness, rap and hip hop–namely, that while rap and hip hop as genres and musical practices used to be only “black,” now they are so common, pervasive and popular that people like Ke$ha are redefining them as “white,” too.  He places Ke$ha within the burgeoning white-lady-electro-rap trend.

Take a listen to the first bit of the song:

As an aside, I personally think her flow sounds a lot like Fergie’s and wonder why that wasn’t discussed more.  Anyway.

I think it’s obvious to anyone that Ke$ha does, in fact, rap during this song.  I wouldn’t go so far as to call her a rapper per se (and neither would Latoya Peterson over at Jezebel).  Here’s why.

Along with Caramanica, I think it’s pretty clear that rap used to be considered a black-only practice, but is now more culturally acceptable for white people to do (though this is, of course, often contentious).  I also agree that “TiK ToK” has quite a lot of rapping in it but is not a “rap song” per se.  Why?  Because she’s white, she’s female and because it’s being used the way dance-pop songs are used and marketed the way dance-pop songs are marketed.

Latoya Peterson attributes the music business’ classification of Ke$ha as a pop artist as “intentional mis-labeling” that speaks to a larger “fear of [racial] cross-pollination” in musical genres–i.e., hip hop=”black” and pop=”white” and ne’er the twain shall meet.  Which is, of course, the way it was quite explicitly for a long time and still is, implicitly.

I don’t think it’s mislabeling, though.  Rapping per se does not make one a “rapper.”  Just as someone who plays a violin can be a classical violinist, a fiddler, a klezmer, a “trad player,” or what have you depending on the musical scene they’re a part of, someone who raps is not necessarily a rapper.  Because Ke$ha, her handlers, and the musical public don’t attribute to her the other qualities that people generally associate with “rappers”–blackness, maleness, urban poverty, flashy stuff–she’s not a rapper.

This shows why genre classifications are pretty useless much of the time, and can often serve to reify nasty ideas about race, gender, class and all the rest.  When we define a genre as the exclusive provenance as a particular type of person, and censure those who don’t conform as somehow inauthentic, we run into a whole bunch of problems.  The homophobia in hip hop, for example, is connected to constructing that genre as the provenance of macho black misogynist masculinity–which, of course, is not the only type of black masculinity (nor, lots of people would argue, a positive type of black masculinity).

Ke$ha raps, yes.  There are also lots of other influences on her song, just as there are on almost every other song, ever.  Peterson spotlights the myriad ways in which contemporary musicians have crossed the imaginary and rather silly borders of genre in the past couple years:

It is this environment that allows for Lil’ Wayne to cut a rock track like “Prom Queen,” that gives space to hip-hop violinists like Miri-Ben Ari, Sarina, and Nuttin But Stringz, to allow neo-soul crooners like Van Hunt to sing ballads and then thrash on guitars, and have one of the most downloaded albums of the decade be a mash-up between Jay-Z and the Beatles. We are in a world where the K-pop sensation The Wonder Girls can open for the All-American Jonas Brothers, and where traveling DJs take Baltimore House and Baile Funk all over the globe, while artists like M.I.A, Esthero and Nelly Furtado dabble in any and every genre they please.

Genre can be helpful in certain ways, most notably to record labels and music-store clerks who have to organize things.  But given that so many artists so openly acknowledge the diverse influences on their work, and given that the internet and digital media more broadly is giving so many people access to tons of new sounds, why bother forcing people and things into narrow categories?

I’m personally more interested in looking at the many ways in which musicians and listeners are part of multiple communities at the same time, and all of the sources from which they draw inspiration–not policing the boundaries of a small, boring genre box and worrying when things don’t fit neatly inside.

What was really groundbreaking about “Rapper’s Delight”?

Matthew Guerrieri of the Boston Globe argues that the truly original thing about the 1979 hit rap single “Rapper’s Delight” is the fact that it doesn’t have a chorus, that staple of the pop-song form since, he says, the 1840′s, when the blackface group Christy’s Minstrels popularized the chorus.

I’m not buying it.

First, what music scholars call “strophic form“–varied verses alternating with the same refrain, or chorus–goes way back, to medieval European folk songs and perhaps even earlier, or in other places (we have no way of knowing precisely because they weren’t usually written down, or written about).  Since then, plenty of musical forms, from hymns to yes, pop songs to jams to lots of kinds of folk music to the twelve-bar blues have relied on this form.

Christy’s Minstrels may have popularized the use of vocal harmony on the chorus alternating with solo verses in the contemporary United States, but that’s nothing new in the grand scheme of things–this practice was commonplace in many musical traditions, from West African music to responsorial chant in the pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic Church.

The really original thing about “Rapper’s Delight” was that Sylvia Robinson and the Sugar Hill Gang found a way to get the new musical style of rap to the mainstream.  While rap had already been around for a while at this point, people were mostly performing for fun and for parties and other events–it wasn’t considered a business opportunity.  Robinson capitalized, not without contention from other folks in the rap scene, on the infectiousness and grassroots popularity of the style and made a hit song, paving the way for people like Russell Simmons, Rick Rubin, Diddy, Jay-Z and many other hip-hop entrepreneurs.

“Rapper’s Delight” is a good song, but it’s not that original per se in terms of its form or other aesthetic parameters.  It was truly groundbreaking because of what it represented and foreshadowed: hip hop’s potential as a very lucrative sector of the music business.

Here’s a short clip of “Rapper’s Delight” (it’s really closer to 15′):

Also, I think with a little stretching of the standard rules of formal structure, you could consider “I said a hip hop the hippie the hippie to the hip hip hop and you don’t stop, the rock it to the bang bang boogie say up jumped the boogie, to the rhythm of the boogie the beat” a chorus of sorts.  Just sayin’.

XXL ranks Jewish street cred; some Jews not happy about it

As you may have heard, hip hop magazine XXL put up a blog post ranking members of the hip hop community with numbers of stars of David per their Jewish street cred.  Some regrettable stereotypes find their way into the article (pickles, money, business skills), but I interpreted it as a tongue-in-cheek rundown of the visibility of Judaism in the hip hop world lately (what with Drake, Russell Simmons’ PSA, and all that jazz).

Others didn’t find it quite so funny.  Carly Silver over at New Voices, a magazine for young Jews, got pretty upset about this (h/t Emma Morgenstern), worrying over XXL‘s use of stars of David as rankings, saying that they’re holy symbols (huh?) and believing that this ranking implies that the magazine is worrying about the role of Jews in hip hop.

I’m not trying to downplay tensions between African-Americans and Jews, and the fact that hip hop has historically been a site of tension and negotiation between black people and white people at times.  And I’m not trying to downplay the fact that many Jews are sensitive to their historical status as an endangered minority.  But let’s take a step back.

First, despite the fact that Silver interprets XXL‘s ascription of Jewishness to certain hip-hip figures as a sign that the magazine doesn’t think they have street cred, Jewishness has long been a way for white people to be more accepted in African-American musical communities.  While Ashkenazi Jews are firmly in the “white” column of America’s racial binary today, this only became true 50-60 years ago–much later than other ethnic groups that we would commonly consider white.  Before that, Jews were for the most part considered nonwhite or “not-quite-white.”  Because of this, Jews generally had an easier time negotiating African-American musical styles, primarily jazz at that point (or musical styles that played on the most pernicious stereotypes of African-Americans, such as blackface).

While Ashkenazi Jews are no longer considered nonwhite in the same way, this engagement with African-American music hasn’t stopped, and many of the social interactions are similar.  Rick Rubin and the Beastie Boys, for example, were given a degree of credibility within the early hip hop community in NYC partly because they were Jewish–not the same degree of credibility that black artists had, but more than non-Jewish white artists (or producers, in Rubin’s case).

In a musical culture that’s widely discussed as “black,” Jewish people–and white people more generally–stick out and are considered novelties (despite the fact that “white” people, especially Jews, have been involved with “black” music since the age of minstrel shows, generally on the business end, sometimes respectfully and fairly and oftentimes not).

While I can’t say that XXL‘s commentary was the most tastefully-done article I’ve ever seen, it doesn’t surprise me that the recent high visibility of Jews in hip hop was considered interesting to write about.  And I wouldn’t worry too much about the stereotypes.  While they’re slightly tacky, they’re pretty consistent with the way a lot of publications do rankings and lists.  A lil’ bit racist/(hetero)sexist/classist across the board?  Yeah, probably.  Specifically anti-Semitic?  Probably not.

Yikes: Amy Winehouse raps about being Jewish

You guys, I love Amy Winehouse, I love Judaism, and I love rap…but this makes me cry a little inside.

Tablet‘s description:

More saliently, it includes the following flow from Ms. Winehouse: “Oh, snap, I never knew, I never knew that, well, I’m a Jew/Well a Jew makin’/Anyway, if you can smoke bacon/Then I reckon that, um…”—at which point she changes the subject to the drumming prowess of her friend Zalon. If we’re following the logic correctly, what should fill in the lacuna at the end of that line is that, if you can smoke bacon, you can smoke crack. And if you’re a Jew who smokes bacon—really, what can’t you smoke?

On the upside, the guy playing drums and singing (Zalon?) is actually pretty good.

Quick hit: Jay-Z teaches Oprah how to rap

Click through to see this amusing interaction on Jezebel.

I find Oprah’s awkwardness extremely interesting–here is a woman who has the self-confidence to appear on national TV almost daily and is the face of a multibillion-dollar media empire; who speaks publicly about weight and health issues; and in general seems pretty okay with herself.  But here she is, quietly freaking out about rapping.

It’s fairly well-established within hip hop studies that many baby boomer middle-class or wealthy African Americans tend to have negative opinions of hip hop, viewing it as trashy and aesthetically unappealing in comparison to R&B, jazz, Motown, etc.

So, I can’t help but wonder if Oprah, who is probably America’s most famous member of that demographic group, was so uncomfortable because of some age/class baggage vis-à-vis hip hop going on.

Tuesday links

Should Jay-Z be a relationship role model for the black community?

Jozen Cummings over at The Root argues that, now that Jay-Z is tied with Barack for the coolest, most influential married African-American man, he should use that power to encourage young black men to put a ring on it.

I’m skeptical of the research Cummings cites, not in terms of methodology but in terms of agenda and what’s really driving the “marriage crisis” for black women.  I agree that it’s hugely problematic if someone can’t have the relationship status they want just because they belong to a certain demographic group or–heaven forbid!–are incredibly successful.  And I hope this doesn’t showcase how some women, unfortunately, still have to choose between personal success and familial success.

But read further.  According to the article, most people commit to others with similar levels of education.  One of the reasons that successful black women might not be finding black men to marry, then, is because fewer black men than women go on to higher education.  This is the real problem.

Jay-Z is hugely influential–Cummings mentions that

[Jay-Z] still has the ability to write the kind of rhymes young people follow as though they are gospel.  On his 2004 album The Black Album, Jay-Z rapped, “I don’t wear jerseys/I’m 30-plus/give me a crisp pair of jeans/[expletive] button up,” every guy ditched their throwback basketball jerseys in favor of button-up dress shirts.

Okay, fine.  But this doesn’t work so well:

When it comes to the marriage discussion, black men need to get involved. Black women are already on board. This week one of them will probably buy one of the two books written by Harvey or Hill or read another article in Essence about what they need to do to make a man happy. Meanwhile, by this time next week Jay-Z will probably have the No. 1 album in the country and a big reason will be because young black men everywhere listen to what he has to say and live vicariously through his lyrics.

The way Cummings paints unmarried successful black women as desperate is really unflattering, unfeminist and undignified.  The solution to the situation is not to make black men decide that marriage is cool and snap up desperate successful black women on a whim.  The solution is to encourage black men–perhaps using Jay-Z’s formidable powers of persuasion–to be similarly successful.

Just putting a ring on it won’t solve anything.  But if successful African-American women and men can find equals to date and marry–if they so choose, let’s not advocate marriage as a universal necessity here–because everyone in the community has access to education and is getting pop-culture messages encouraging success and working hard, then that would go a long way toward solving the problems Cummings laments.

Tuesday links

  • Finally, a music magazine that isn’t self-absorbed!  I love reading music magazines, but at least once per issue the entire enterprise gets on my nerves.  Here’s an article about a new publication, the Journal of Music, that appears to be trying to cut the fawning hyperbole and provide intelligent music news, analysis, and history that takes a more panoramic view than most publications.  I’ll let you know how it is after I check it out.
  • Jay-Z takes down Bill O’Reilly and O’Reilly flounders around for a comeback. Click through for an amusing clip at The Source.
  • Racialicious thinks about the transcendent power of Michael Jackson’s dancing abilities and ruminates on his approach to race.
  • Hooray, something having to do with Woodstock that isn’t mistily nostalgic and overblown!
  • The Walrus checks out Rip! A Remix Manifesto, a new documentary on copyright laws and why and how they’re a mess in the digital age.  It’s inspired by the work of Lawrence Lessig, Stanford law prof and intellectual property revolutionary extraordinaire (and a Penn alum whose book my year was assigned for our freshman reading project), and mashup artist Girl Talk.  Oh, and you can watch the film for free or cheap.  Click the first link in this paragraph for instructions.

Quick hit: Breaking down gender and sexism in Lil’ Wayne’s music

Samhita over at Feministing describes work she recently did, helping kids analyze gender in pop culture and then having them blog about it.  She comes at Lil’ Wayne’s work from a feminist, gender studies perspective, but given that the analysis is with respect to music this works equally well as ethnomusicology.  Take a look!

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