Okay, so here's the situation: a White woman of a certain age (that would be me) watches a film made by a young White man (that would be Robert A. Clift) about how African-Americans in the hip-hop scene feel about White people who appropriate Black hip-hop images and rap, while claiming they do it for the love of the art form.
With me so far?
It's a complicated dance, made much more complicated by Clift's insistance on leaving no stone unturned. If there's a Black person in hip-hop out there who didn't speak into Clift's microphone, I can't imagine who it was. From DJ Cool Herc to Russell Simmons and beyond, they weigh in one after another without apology, rooted in analysis by a range of heavy thinkers both Black (such as poet-activist Amiri Baraka and the well-known and controversial comedian Paul Mooney) and White (such as Maurice Berger, historian at The New School in New York City and John Leland, author of Hip: the History). Then, to make sure our brains are really fried, Clift adds White rappers -- professional and otherwise, serious and comedic; teen-aged White "wiggers;" White Al Jolson fans; and even Stephen Foster, who is quoted as saying he wanted to be the greatest Ethiopian songwriter of all time (try processing that, why don't you?). If the film wasn't so mesmerizing, it would be utterly overwhelming.
And as you watch the film, which debuted on public television last December 19th, you don't get a minute to catch your breath either. I've watched it four times now, twice with other people and one of those times being with a student of mine who is a knowledgeable young man on the topic of hip-hop history and culture. Rather than this repeated exposure clarifying what I think about the film and its topic, however, each subsequent viewing has left me more disturbed -- and more impressed -- than I was before.
I could shrug my shoulders and beg off by citing my age, my race and my class. After all, how many women like me have a clue about hip-hop in general, let alone an ability to speak intelligently about its nuances and cultural implications?
But you know me better than that. I love to learn. Especially about the socially-constructed, political notion of race. And if I can't learn it all at once, I'll keep chipping away at it until I at least understand more than I did at the beginning. (That's why I called in my student, who graciously agreed to "school" me, knowing it would be, at best, an uphill battle.)
If four viewings, a one-on-one lecture on the backstory, and thirteen pages of notes haven't prepared me to approach this review with confidence, though, why should you rush right out to view and/or buy* "Blacking Up: Hip-Hop's Remix of Race and Identity"? Because if you don't, you've missed it. You're out of the loop. And the finest possible examination of one of the most fascinating questions of our age will have passed you by. But it's up to you.
The fact is White people have apparently always cuddled up to Black folks' culture. Even while darkies were still on the plantations, minstrels were traveling around the country "entertaining" other White people in blackface. More recently, Gauguin and Picasso boldly demonstrated their appreciation for things Black. Hugely popular radio stars Amos and Andy were, in truth, White men pretending to be Black. And Irving Berlin wrote so many of what were called "coon songs," it was said he must have had a little Black boy in a closet somewhere. On this note, by the way, I was horrified to finally realize in a blinding flash of the obvious that "Rufus Rastus Johnson Brown" (a popular song sung around many a campfire when I was but a girl) was blatantly racist. Duh. (One can only wonder what Black girl scouts sing.)
And this is the kind of thing that makes "Blacking Up" such an experience to view. Clift offers no easy answers and no get-out-of-jail-free cards. Articulate, well-meaning White folks candidly confide in Clift their heartfelt attachments to a cultural milieu of which they cannot claim any part. And their yearning writhes before us like a worm on a sidewalk, out of place and hyper-visible in its vulnerability. They not only love the music/the art/the artifice of rap, they could not (it would seem) walk away from it in any case, no matter how they are criticized, ridiculed or punished for espousing it so publicly.
Clift admits that he was himself called a "wigger" (putting "White" and the n-word together to describe a White person who wants to be Black) when he was thirteen or so, causing him to rip the page from his yearbook. It was this memory and his desire to make sense of his feelings about it that urged him to take on what ultimately became a very ambitious project. Clift didn't just seek out an adequate number to address "each side" of the issue. He somehow identified and included so many shades of perspective that some truly famous people only appear for one short quote. And yet, the tapestry of topical consideration is such that, rather than attempt to convince the viewer of anything in particular, the film outlines and presents a set of ideas simultaneously contradictory and complementary. In other words, it's sophisticated, fearless and in many ways, downright genius in its scope and treatment.
Comedian Paul Mooney kicks things off by pointing out that the White man stole Africans from Africa, so stealing culture from the Africans themselves is no new thing. And Amiri Baraka asks, "If Elvis Presley is king, who's James Brown -- God?" Hip-hop is a way for White people to "be 'hood'" without having to actually do any of the things that earn that right, suggests Power of the Wu-Tang Clan. White people trying to present themselves in what amounts to a modern day form of blackface, adds Mooney, is nothing less than a form of insanity. White "aggression junkies" that were formerly into heavy metal, posits author and cultural critic Nelson George, jumped on the hip-hop bandwagon when it rolled by. "White people should educate White people as to what's going on," asserts rapper M1 of Dead Prez, in giving props to filmmaker Clift and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's commitment to air "Blacking Up."
Then we change skin tones. "Lots of folks are looking for a license to be masculine," counters John Leland (and being allowed to say "bitch" apparently satisfies this for some of them). "I didn't want to be Black," says Andrea Van Winkle, caught in the middle of a White-on-White "race riot" in a Morocco, Indiana, high school in 1993, "I wanted to be cool." "I love Star Wars, but I've never been to space," points out White rapper Aesop Rocks. "We're not just taking; we're giving something back," claims Too White Crew, who call themselves a "tribute" band. "I don't want a box," declares White woman rapper Empire Isis who performs with another White woman in New York City using exaggerated Caribbean accents, "I want a world. It's about letting go of how you perceive identity."
See what I mean?
Still, Amiri Baraka grounds the exploration in his comments throughout the film. Reminding the viewer that White people and Black people have been blending bloodlines since the earliest days of this nation, he suggests that it can all be reduced to something James Baldwin once said: "I'm Black because you're White." In other words, he goes on to say, the working class has been separated through the use of institutionalized racism so we are no threat to the real Powers-That-Be, but we keep feeling the connections, whether we understand them or not.
Nelson George adds, "Black people grew up on this music, but they've always been uncomfortable with certain aspects of it. Now, Whites mimic it under the banner of 'entertainment,' raising the level of Black discomfort. This culture teaches us to like and consume, but not really hear."
My student -- a young man of color who often gets taken for White -- uses the web identity Defiant on his blog and has been involved in the music scene himself as an accomplished musician and rapper since his mid-teens. After bringing me up to speed on the history of hip-hop and "rhythm-applied poetry" (or "rap"), he added his two cents without a flinch.
"Rap is about authenticity," he began. "It's about being real. So White people who grew up in the suburbs and want to talk about the 'hood' are posers. You'll notice, they perform 'Black,' but then in interviews, typically sound 'White.' They use hip-hop as a commodity that can be discarded at will when it's no longer useful to them. It's not part of their past and it's most likely not part of their future either."
"Eminem," Defiant went on, "took rap and sold it to White people. He's a good writer, but who does he represent? Himself and the rich White executives who backed him when he came out of the suburbs. Mimicking is either making fun of something or commodifying it. Some say it's a form of flattery, but nobody likes being mimicked."
Paul Mooney, as quoted in "Blacking Up: Hip-Hop's Remix of Race and Identity," would, I think, agree. He likes it that White people who seemed so dead-set against having Black people in their neighborhoods, now have children who have become walking advertisements for all aspects of Black culture. Still, he's adamant: "When White people get chased by the police and shot in the back just for being White, then they can do all the hip-hop they want."
Until that time, I guess, we can at least watch Clift's film. If we have the nerve and the willingness to face one more difficult and complicated reality related to race relations in America.
NOTE: This film is available from California Newsreel.