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Who Owns Hip-Hop?

February 26, 2014

This one comes directly from my hurt heart. I saw something on my Facebook feed yesterday that made my heart hurt. A lot.

I cherish my Facebook friends and their divergent perspectives. That being said, I often become annoyed with my conservative friends for what I perceive to be a myopic allegiance to deceptively straightforward ideologies. Less often, I see my liberal and progressive friends overstep the bounds of good sense and decency in their zeal to advance their own agendas.

But this one goes so far beyond my usual twinge of annoyance, into full-blown disbelief.

The background here is pretty innocuous. (Had the discussion been properly channeled, it would have remained innocuous.) Jimmy Fallon capped off his first week as the new host of The Tonight Show by performing the fifth installment of “The History of Rap,” a series of medleys of classic rap records that he performs periodically with Justin Timberlake. The medley was smartly arranged, delivered light-heartedly and with a bright party vibe appropriate to the audience, and not incidentally to this conversation, characteristic of the origins of hip-hop.

But our Facebook poster and his friends were not amused. They were having none of it. To them, it was an affront to hip-hop itself that two white guys were up there enjoying themselves and celebrating the spirit, artistry, and diversity of hip-hop. To be fair, some members of the discussion weren’t quite as upset. But those that were… oh, boy. Below are some excerpts:

 

“Boos & hisses.”

“Enough is enough. It’s almost becoming like a Pat Boone flashback.”

“thieves”

“Thieves in the Temple.”

“Standardardized [sic] Fuckery all around.”

“We love our hip hop in white.”

“jesus h christ”

“why do the roots allow that?

“I think the Roots are making bad choices as they try to survive…in a world with no real music industry remaining.”

“I need a NEW PLANET… Fuckeries.”

“…seems to me like JT and JF are just getting too fucking comfortable.”

“jt and jf… are wigger emeriti… i guess i just figured the hip hop ship had long sailed but with this it does seem to have fallen off the flat earth.”

“…they left female rappers out”

“…this is about distorting the face of history. Kids black and white now have this foolery to turn to when thinking about hiphop [sic] history.”

“Thinking about what is not performed here… can also answer some of the question of what is wrong.”

“Obviously, this country isn’t at the point yet where white guys can mock a heritage, change their accents, and mimic mannerisms.” {sarcasm noted}

 

All right, where do I begin? I usually pride myself on posting logically constructed essays, but all I can do here is express the many prongs of my frustration with this discussion. Here goes, and pardon me if I get choked up.

 

  • The poster, and presumably many of those engaged in the discussion, are themselves artists and academics who study and live this stuff. It’s not easy to dismiss these opinions as uninformed. Having majored in African American studies myself in college, I’m familiar with some of these lines of thought from an academic perspective. Their application here, however, is breathtaking in its ferocity and judgment.
  • I take issue with the term “f—kery,” which I will partly censor now that I’m not quoting directly. This to me is like bringing a machine gun to play shooting games at the fair. By expressing extreme dismay in this way, one rhetorically escalates the argument, whether the issue at hand is worthy of such language or no. Translated into more mundane terms, this is “tomfoolery,” which further translated, means “having fun.”
  • Which brings me to my next point. This series of performances is in fun. Jimmy Fallon is a comedian, and the bits he performs are comedy first, anything else second. That certainly doesn’t excuse him for acting in a socially irresponsible way, although comic and artistic license might excuse him, depending on one’s philosophy of art. That sort of discussion of subjectivity is surprisingly absent from this discussion among presumed academics discussing art.
  • Since the performance is fun, the superfluous critiques about what artists he included or didn’t include are exceedingly vacuous. Not enough females? Fair enough, but maybe that could have something to do with the fact that both performers are MALE and might not be vocally equipped to do justice to female rappers. For Part 6 (don’t everyone boo and hiss all at once), maybe he could bring on a female. Of course, if Jimmy brought his buddy Queen Latifah on to do this, she’d be labeled a sellout before she opened her mouth to begin. And can you seriously be offended that Jimmy “Weekend Update” Fallon didn’t include Poor Righteous Teachers (or insert your own favorite underground rap legend) in a five-minute medley on “The Tonight Show?” Is there no concept of “target audience” in this de facto discussion group?
  • Jimmy Fallon loves hip-hop. But he also loves many other forms of popular music. He has performed equally tongue-in-cheek yet musically astute tributes to other genres. I’m still reeling from the ridiculously dead-on Eddie Vedder impersonation he pulled off on his former late night show. Should we be less offended that he “mocked” Eddie Vedder because Vedder is white and Pearl Jam is a “white” band? Or perhaps we should call the performance for what it is—a series of impersonations.
  • And speaking of impersonations, Fallon gets clobbered in the above discussion with contradictory complaints. None of the complainants would likely admit to contradicting each other, though, because that would involve withdrawing one of the complaints. Someone compares him to Pat Boone (more on that in a later point), who is notable because of his sanitized, almost unrecognizable versions of R&B hits that he morphed into pop hits. Someone else is offended that Fallon adopts the accents and mannerisms of the rappers he’s impersonating. Sorry, both of those cannot be true.
  • I am not academically studied in the art of hip-hop, but I believe it to be fairly accurate that accent, diction, and verbal delivery are foundational elements of rap vocalization. To blast Jimmy for emulating those is parallel to criticizing a singer for following the melody.
  • As regards the Pat Boone and “thieves in the temple” comments: I can’t wrap my head around how something clearly labeled as retrospective (“history”) is being re-imagined as an overwrite of the history it references. That’s like accusing a US History textbook of attempting to rewrite the Constitution because a piece of parchment isn’t stuck in between its pages. Pat Boone practically pretended the earlier versions of the songs did not exist and made money off of sales of his watered-down versions while the original musicians received a pittance. By comparison, if someone hears a song they like in Jimmy’s medley, guess whose version they’re going to buy in iTunes? Likely not Jimmy’s, since little more than ten seconds of any song was included in the medley. They’ll go back and buy the original. Would that I had thieves like that in my temple.
  • So much of the discussion is centered on the point of why Jimmy Fallon gets to do this tribute and someone who is “qualified” has not done it. The Roots have all the bandwidth (no pun intended) in the world to record a hip-hop tribute album. Anyone in the hip-hop world, at any time, could choose to pay tribute to these classics. The uncomfortable answer would appear to be that among mainstream entertainers only Jimmy Fallon cares enough about hip-hop to preserve its legacy in this way. Most rappers are either too egotistical or too scared of the supreme insult of “biting” to execute something like this, it would appear. Speculation aside, Jimmy Fallon didn’t trademark rap medleys. Anyone can do them.

 

I write a lot when I hurt a lot. So I apologize for rambling on. My final point, the thing that hurts the most is that I am Jimmy Fallon. That is to say, if I were as talented as he is and in the position he’s in, entertaining millions of Americans, this medley would be my idea of the perfect amalgamation of comedy, music, culture, and celebration.

My generation grew up with hip-hop, so to have every vestige of ownership or celebration of its impact on pop culture snatched away from me because of the fact that I’m white… that really hurts. It seems contrary to the very power of music (and art more generally) to say that there are implicit rules about responsibly enjoying and celebrating art; rules that relate to one’s appearance or position in society.

I hate to say this, and this may come from a hurt place, but it seems to me that the next relics, after the current slow death of middle-America style conservatism, may very well be the folks that live in a state of reaction to that conservatism; and that the participants in the above discussion belong to that group. Some people actually seem more comfortable with Jay Leno telling a tone-deaf joke (literally and figuratively) about a rapper who’s in jail, than with someone like Jimmy Fallon, someone like me, someone who has grown up accepting hip-hop and other often-stigmatized and marginalized expressions as part of the real world, not some textbook “fascination with the other” or sublimated racism, but just as part of my world, our world.

To accept this is not to turn a blind eye to racial economics, mass incarceration, and the dozens of other social ills that still befall black Americans disproportionately. To accept this is to celebrate one small win in a long and continuing struggle. Lashing out against a rap medley on a talk show won’t cure these ills any quicker than accepting it in the spirit in which it was offered.

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