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.

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.

Best search terms used to find this blog

I checked out my blog stats just now and was really amused by how some people get here via Google.  A few recent highlights include:

  • “is it true lady gaga got 2 body parts”: Why, yes, I’m sure she has several.  A cursory glance at paparazzi photos show two arms (complete with hands), two legs (ditto feet), a torso (with however many subdivisions you’d like to make with that), a head with everything in its normal place, and generally a bunch of weave.
  • “joan holloway extraordinarily competent”: After saving the British exec’s life post-run in with the lawnmower, I would say yes (assuming this is a question).
  • “what is a pig’s life cycle”: Listen to this and you’ll find out.
  • “the masculinity of the taqwacores”: Sounds like a good title for an early-20th century British novel.
  • “creepy whitye supremacists” and “talk radio xenophobia”: Seem to go together pretty well.
  • “coulter dominatrix”: I assume this refers to Ann.  How terrifying.
  • “jay z needs to be a role model”: You should probably tell him this, not me.

This could be a good recurring feature.

Kosher punk

heeb’n’vegan posted a review of several Jewish punk concerts back in August and I am now finally getting around to discussing it.

This trend isn’t surprising to me at all, besides the fact that it’s surfacing in the late 2000′s as opposed to the 80′s or 90′s (but I could be wrong, seeing as I was but a wee child back in that day and was primarily listening to Paul Simon, Mahalia Jackson and Raffi on LP and cassette tape, and not Jewish music).

I’m writing a chapter for my thesis right now on why explicitly-Jewish hip hop makes sense in the context of the klezmer revival (and why the klezmer revival makes sense in the context of the folk movement of the mid-20th century).  There have been two broad trends in Jewish-American music in the 20th and 21st centuries (basically since mass numbers of Ashkenazi Jews came to the US): 1) less-observant Jews making music that is a hybrid between whatever music they were making before, i.e. traditional secular music from their home in Europe, and American popular styles; and 2) Orthodox Jews (mainly since the 60′s) making kosherized versions of popular styles so that the kids don’t go off the derech–i.e., regular pop music has lyrics that the Orthodox community considers objectionable, so they make music that sounds just like regular pop music, but has “Torah-approved” lyrics.

This seems to be primarily an example of the latter.  The band Moshiach Oi! (Messiah Hey!, more or less) has songs like “I Wanna Learn Torah” and “Shabbos,” which have straight-up Orthodox lyrics and straight-up punk aesthetics.  Their song “Am Yisroel Chai” (the people Israel live, which is the title of a folk song that they reinterpreted) has lyrics that to my mind showcase the worse side of Orthodox ideology:

We stand for life, they stand for war

We stand for peace, they stand for more

We stand for G-d, they stand for death

We’ll scream “Am Yisroel Chai!” with our last breath

Right, because all the goyim clearly have no morals.  Moving on.

The band CAN!!CAN seems to be doing a bit better, viewing the use of punk as within the evolving, innovative aspect of Jewish tradition–and using punk to welcome people who might be otherwise alienated from the Jewish community back in.  I won’t argue with that.

Jewish punk seems to be in the stage Jewish hip hop was in back in the 80′s: some Jewish musicians are playing non-overtly-Jewish punk, and there are some Jewish punk bands that are overtly Jewish, often parody mainstream punk bands (like the band Shabbos Bloody Shabbos) and don’t incorporate Jewish aesthetics, though their lyrics are almost exclusively “Jewish.”

Back in the 80′s, we saw hip hop bands like 2 Live Jews making songs with titles like “Kosher as We Wanna Be” and “Wash This Way” (a takeoff on “Walk This Way” referencing netilat yadayim).

Now we have much better-sounding stuff from Jews exploring Jewish identity while using hip hop and traditional Jewish music (however that’s defined) as a more fluent vernacular:

Give Jewish punk 10 years and I expect great things.

The pitfalls of gospel tourism

Fiqah over at Racialicious and Possum Stew has an extensive, fascinating and much-needed take-down of Harlem gospel tours, from a personal perspective.

As you may know, there are plenty of African-American, largely Baptist, churches in Harlem which are well-known for their excellent (primarily gospel) music.  It’s not necessary to be a believer to appreciate the talent and incredible sound, and Fiqah herself describes how she’s not religious, but rather goes to church with a friend occasionally just to appreciate the music.  This doesn’t seem at all problematic to me; a few people going occasionally, behaving respectfully toward church community members, and appreciating good music can only be positive.

However, to make money, some churches have opened up to “gospel tours,” which essentially means white Americans and European and Asian tourists paying money to come in and hear the music.  But Fiqah describes some downright disrespectful behavior: nonstop talking, cell phone conversations, and worst of all, acting like the service and the music were spectacles to be gawked at instead of human beings making some good sounds in the service of their beliefs.

When people’s experiences on these tours have been written up, it sounds uncomfortably like old-school ethnomusicology (read: “I went to a faraway place with strange brown-skinned natives and listened to their crazy music.  They are so sensual and primitive!”):

I meet Tim Rawlins at the Memorial Baptist church choir practise. He’s rare proof of the fact that white men can sing gospel. He says I’ve got to surrender to the music – feel it – and forget I’m English.

Tim: “What I like about gospel music, is that it breaks from that old European tradition which separates intellect and reason from feeling and really in Gospel music you feel with great thought and you think with great feeling…”

That probably means loosening up physically too. When the elderly women start to practice I find myself entranced watching the soloist, Lonnie Gray. She’s 77 years old but she’s out there, her face enraptured, her hips swaying, moving with the rhythm – feeling it.

Please, spare me.

The takeaway: respectfully appreciating, enjoying, potentially participating in, learning about music of other communities, and hopefully thereby building relationships across communities = good.  Fetishizing those communities and reinforcing existing problematic power structures = emphatically not good.

Ethnomusicology has largely moved on from this approach; maybe we need to be doing more as a discipline to help educate mainstream society on respectful, egalitarian ways to learn about musical communities.

Nothing like a little racism…

…to get the High Holidays off to a great start, right?  (The answer is “Wrong,” fyi.)

Apparently Tel Aviv’s religious council is warning that shofars made in China may be smeared with pig fat (which is a little pas comme il faut, but not technically un-kosher, I believe, unless you’re snacking on your shofar–correct me if I’m wrong) and that one shouldn’t purchase shofars made in Morocco, because, according to a rabbi on the council,

It’s disrespectful bringing a shofar prepared by an Arab on Shabbat into a synagogue.

Right, I guess I forgot that “love thy neighbor” doesn’t apply during the month of Elul…

Creepy white-supremacist girl group

The Pendergraft sisters are a terrible, creepy, white-supremacist duo from the Ozarks.  Jezebel and the Southern Poverty Law Center have already said pretty much everything that needs to be said about them (note: Jezebel has a video if you want to listen to them).  The academic-music part of my mind wants to discuss how music is working with (repugnant) nationalist/ethnic ideologies here.  The part of my mind that enjoys listening to good music is just aghast at how anyone, even creepy white supremacists, would be able to tolerate listening to them as they are possibly the worst band, purely on aesthetic grounds, that I have heard in a LONG time.  I’m sure the artistic pickings are slim in white-pride circles, but seriously, this is beyond belief.

The part of my mind that likes listening to music is winning.  It’s hard for me to take people like this seriously on an intellectual basis.  They’re clearly hateful and potentially dangerous people (Holocaust Museum shooter, anyone?) who need to be called out and monitored, but I feel like the bulk of society’s racism-fighting energy needs to be directed toward less-explicit but more-influential forms of it that occur in more-mainstream culture: structural issues like housing and employment, and the subtler ideas that many people carry around and don’t necessarily perceive as racist (i.e. what neighborhoods are “safe”).

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