(It’s been two years since my last post on this blog. I’m glad to be back! Enjoy!)
So Far to Go:
Post-Racial Pop in the Age of Obama
“[I]n order to understand the outlier I think you have to look around them—at their culture and community and family and generation. We’ve been looking at tall trees, and I think we should have been looking at the forest.”
Malcolm Gladwell, author of Outliers: The Story of Success
My most recently published book, The Nightmare and The Dream, is, in a nutshell, a comparative study of rival African-American ideologies and the icons who embodied them. Obviously, I like to think it’s about so much more than that, but really that’s what it is. Nightmare was the culmination of an idea that I pursued as far as my mind would allow it to go. I was fascinated by the similar stories of these men’s lives; I still am. Which is why 23 year-old hip-hop sensation Drake (along the range of feelings his crossover success has provoked in people) is so interesting to me. I need to understand why The New York Times has boldly anointed him the “new face of hip hop,” corporate America is ardently pursuing his services and Hollywood is chomping at the bit. I think he’s trying to understand why. I think we are all trying to understand why.
I have a theory: Drake is pop culture’s answer to the Age of Obama.
Hear me out.
Who’d heard of Drake in 2008? I certainly hadn’t and I like to think I stay up on my pop culture. Even when I began to hear his music in 2009 I didn’t pay much attention. He sounded like someone biting Kanye’s style. But, as the Age of Obama has settled in over the last year, he’s stuck. Now he’s considered, for the time being at least, a fixture.
Maybe we should take a step back before we go any further. What exactly does it mean to be living in the Age of Obama anyway? Meaning, does it have a look? A feel? Well, in the nearly two years since the election one controversial term has materialized in the American discourse: post racial. As a society we’ve struggled to come to a consensus about the meaning of the term (let alone its merit), but we seem to agree it has something to do with the idea of Americans transcending their fixation on race as a criterion for assessment of any kind.
That being said, some of the characteristics I would expect to see reflected in a post-racial society are a broader acceptance of and openness to difference, improved cross-racial alliances and an end to discriminatory practices against people on the basis of race. Anyone who’s seen recent employment, housing, healthcare, education, and incarceration data would agree that we’ve yet to reach these lofty ideals as a society; however that hasn’t stopped the pop-culture industry from spending the last couple of years bulldozing us into the post-racial era. Whether it’s the perceived wave of celebrities adopting black babies, slick ad campaigns bending over backwards to celebrate cross-racial bonding or Hollywood hits glossing over racially sensitive subtexts and storylines (The Blindside and Avatar), we’ve been inundated with post-racial innuendo that more often than not blur the already fuzzy line between race and class. In the end we’re left to sift through the morass and figure out where we really are on our own.
Nightmare’s subtitle is Nas, Jay-Z and the History of Conflict in African-American Culture. As one perceptive reviewer put it, the book’s aim is to position hip hop (both the music and the culture) within a larger historical framework in order to decipher the coded messages it’s trying to tell us about ourselves. In it I argue that Jay-Z remixed the conventional Horatio Alger myth in the ’90s and ’00s. He told us the story of his transformation from the ultimate outsider (drug dealer) to the ultimate insider (mainstream darling/mogul) over and over again and we responded to it, over and over again. Why? Because our belief in that upward mobility hustle is imbedded in our DNA. And then, to his credit, Jay-Z has an uncanny feel for the moment and sense of timing. “Hard Knock Life” told the tale of the hustler’s come up, “Big Pimpin” captured the late ‘90s stock market frenzy, “Heart of the City” was the balm that soothed our post-9/11 angst and “Empire State” signaled the resilience of the great American city.
The book is my way of legitimizing hip hop to myself and anyone else who cares, of saying just because it’s music doesn’t mean it’s just music. I believe, firmly believe, that art tells us who we are, where we are up to, what we believe, what we care about—all of that. This is art’s most important function, why so much of the most important art goes unnoticed for generations. We don’t want to see ourselves.
Thing is, we can never avoid ourselves, just the parts we don’t want to see. It’s a helluva condition. The artist always looks, though. She can’t afford not to. She stares into her soul and extracts. After spending years studying his work, my sense is that Jay-Z has remained relevant for almost fifteen years because he’s always looked inside himself and revealed what’s there given, even when that self wasn’t pretty.
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