Thursday, April 30, 2009
Posted by Jeremy R. Levine at 9:12 AM
In Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, Jeff Chang chronicles the historical roots of contemporary hip-hop culture. Chang notes the decline of industrial America, the rise of crack, and the prevalence of urban street gangs as three major antecedents to hip-hop. To be sure, it wasn’t gangs themselves that gave rise to hip-hop; rather, the strong territorialism of street gangs directly translated into hyper-territorialism among MCs and DJs as hip-hop spread throughout New York City.
It’s not surprising that we continue to see this pattern today. From Nas repping Queensbridge, to T.I. repping Bankhead, to Trick Daddy repping Miami, to The Game repping Compton, to Bun B repping Houston, to Kanye repping Chicago, hip-hop is most definitely a regionalist genre—with representation spanning the entire U.S.
After watching Notorious, I started thinking more about regionalism in hip-hop—basically, why every rapper in the game tries to lay claim to either a major metropolitan region or an NYC borough. There’s a fundamental problem with this, however: Far too many rappers are grossly dishonest about their humble, urban roots. Take Biggie, for example. As in the movie, he claims to be from Bedford-Stuyvesant, a Brooklyn neighborhood not exactly known for safe streets. Well, Biggie actually grew up in Clinton Hill, a very nice and relatively affluent Brooklyn neighborhood. P. Diddy’s Wikipedia page (which his people most definitely edit on the regular) lists his “true” hometown as Harlem. But Diddy grew up in Mount Vernon, a pretty nice lower-middle class black suburb of NYC. My high school basketball team actually played them in the first round of the state playoffs a few times. What about Public Enemy, arguably one of the most politically charged hip-hop groups of all time? They are from NYC’s most famous suburb: Long Island. Younger rappers are also following this trend. Take Kid Cudi. He was born and raised in Shaker Heights, Ohio, one of Cleveland’s most affluent (and integrated) suburbs. During his sophomore year, however, he moved to Solon, Ohio, a very nice suburb that contains the state’s best public school. A friend of mine from East Cleveland recently told me that Solon is the new suburban destination for affluent and upwardly mobile blacks. Yet, Cudi never reps Solon, or Shaker Heights for that matter. Nope, he reps Cleveland.
There are some exceptions in commercial hip-hop, most notably Wale who often reps Prince George’s County in suburban Washington DC. But these are few and far between; urban territorialism reigns supreme. Consider all of the beefs over residence: Fat Joe dissing 50 Cent for living in Connecticut, T.I. going to Texas to prove that Lil Scrappy wasn’t from the projects, Shawty Lo most recently questioning T.I.’s claim to Bankhead, etc. And these are just three in the last couple years that immediately come to mind.
It’s one thing for my classmates to say they are from Chicago when they grew up in Northbrook; but these rappers use their “hometowns” as claims to authenticity. It’s a little dishonest, in my opinion. I certainly don’t blame them. Just ask Rick Ross about the need to uphold a certain image to be commercially successful.
But, the suburban roots of some of our favorite (and, black) rappers makes Asher Roth’s claim to suburban supremacy that much more arrogant. The white suburbanites that Roth claims should be his base are literally and figuratively living alongside their favorite black rappers. Newsflash: black people live in the suburbs. And some of them grow up to be famous rappers.
Rakim once rapped “It ain’t where you from, it’s where you at.” But Mobb Deep’s lyric, “F*ck where you at kid, it’s where you from” is more relevant today. Yet when rappers discuss “where” they’re from, they rarely provide the full story. Far too often rappers mislead their audiences, claiming urban legitimacy when in actuality they lived a very suburban life.
Maybe we wouldn’t have to deal with white suburban supremacy from the likes of Roth if rappers were more forthright about their suburban roots.
Wednesday, April 29, 2009
Posted by Anthony A. Jack at 7:15 PM
And the Oscar for best extra in a film goes to…
When I saw the preview, in the back of my mind, I heard the old, tired, played out trumpet call: “Come one. Come all. Come see who takes home the “gold.” Does Sharon keep the title of “Wifey” or will the challenger, “The Boogie-down Blonde,” take it when all the dust clears?” Yes, I am talking about Obsessed. My initial thought was, is this Spike Lee's Jungle Fever meets Curtis Hanson's The Hand that Rocks the Cradle: the new-age epic battle for the handsome, successful, delectable black man? Happy to say, I was wrong.
I think Steven Hill directed a more nuanced film than many people will give him credit for. Hill skillfully casts race as an extra in the film, not allowing it to steal the show. Now why do we have beautiful blonde versus bombshell black? Because no one would have went to see the movie if it wasn’t so. We only need to think back a few years to Hitch when the directors only casted Eva Mendes because they thought the movie would be a flop with a “true” dark on dark (code for black on black) romance storyline. I guess what I am trying to say is that one could reasonably argue that the movie would have been the same with or without Ali Larter as Kate. The only thing is nobody would know because no one would have waited in line for tickets if Kate was, to be stereotypical for a moment, Lakisha. People wanted to see how Sharon was going to handle the white girl being near her man and, of course, the fight scene. Thus, race was bait—something external to the movie. I think the “why” should be the real discussion surrounding Obsessed.
With that said, I would be remised if I didn’t ask about the relationship dynamics between Sharon and Derek from a gender perspective. Trust was a reoccurring issue in the movie. Did anyone else catch the level of distrust between them? Was Sharon right to demand that Derek not have a female assistant after her because she became the Mrs.? Was Derek wrong for getting out of character at work and offering a shoulder to lean on to Kate, regardless of her race (subsequent craziness notwithstanding)? Although a minor detail, the battle for trust in the relationship turned out to be a major part of the movie. A key part one may argue. Remember, this wasn’t Enemy of the State where Will Smith actually had an affair; there, the distrust was valid. But here, Sharon’s jealousy(?), insecurity(?), fears(?) got the best of her. But the other side of the coin is just as dirty: Derek’s lies of omission (rightfully so) got him into trouble throughout the movie. So, what was up with the relationship?
Again, I was happy that race was in the background and not beating me over the head at every stage of the game. The movie was more about a relationship between a married couple with a crazy psycho trying to bar her way in. I left the theaters pleasantly surprised. And like Jeremy said of Tupac Resurrection, this movie was definitely worth the $12.50.
Tuesday, April 28, 2009
Posted by Jeremy R. Levine at 2:12 PM
But, Biggie > Tupac.
I finally got around to checking out the (aptly titled) Notorious B.I.G. biopic Notorious on my way back from Cleveland this weekend. Having read all the independent reviews, all the chatter from the blogosphere, and all the media hype, I can’t say I was expecting much. And, well, my low expectations were met.
I’ll spare you a review since the movie’s been out for a while, but my main beef was the film’s depiction of Biggie himself. It plays out like a 2-hour justification for Biggie’s decision to sell crack, abandon his kids, and abuse women. Spare me. I was so busy watching Biggie feel remorseful and repentant throughout the entire film that I forgot he was actually one of the greatest MCs of all time. Ok, I didn’t actually forget. But the film spent more time depicting the Lil’ Kim and Faith Evans courtships than Biggie’s actual career. In their quest to depict Biggie as a lovable “crack dealer gone good,” the filmmakers simply fail to highlight his unique talent.
We’d be naïve to think that Resurrection wasn’t a little, uh, overly sympathetic to Tupac and his various run-ins with the law. But Notorious is painfully biased. The kind of bias that makes you cringe a little. Or turn away. Or, in my case, fast forward through all the dialogue and just nod your head when Biggie’s music plays in the background.
After watching the film, I wondered two things: 1) If Resurrection were made with professional actors, instead of clips from Tupac interviews, would it have been as corny as Notorious?; and 2) How much better would Notorious have been if it were made in the pseudo-documentary style of Resurrection?
Can you imagine a Biggie biopic narrated with his own words? Or his own lyrics? We’d get exposed to every side of the lyrical genius: the good and the bad, the positive and the critical, the introspective and the self-indulgent. It would be a film that captured all of the nuance that defined his life. People live contradictory lives; sometimes they do things that make us feel sympathetic, other times they do things that demand scorn. A good film evokes real emotion—often, mixed emotions—and real criticism. Now that’s a film I’d shell out $10 for.
Sunday, April 26, 2009
Posted by Anthony A. Jack at 3:54 PM
In “Our” Backyard?
So, who has the rights to the neighborhood? Who can come in? Who can’t? This seems to be the question behind such a sign. I found this looking at Model Minority. I am in some degree of agreement with the M. Dot; it is interesting that when one hears the words “gentrification” or “gentrifier” one automatically thinks of a white person—most often, young—slumming it in the hood or a newly defined revitalization area kicking the current, mostly low-income, minority residents out. We should look at how many different groups also act as gentrifiers. However, I am cautious here as well because I think that is wrong to only look at the income of the “intruders” either for that would lead one to the same mistake as universally blaming (young) whites. Scholars have placed levels of complexity on the matter, examining the exogenous forces at play: structural forces that create in-roads into certain neighborhoods and not others. Mary Pattillo is an excellent example of a scholar who looks at the entire process within the African American community. I would like to call the attention to the role specific institutions play, in this case, colleges and universities.
I am not quite sure how much this plays out in every city but I have noticed that some schools are now “working” with city and county officials to place certain inner city areas earlier in the queue for revitalization in a new way. As part of her analysis in Black on the Block, Pattillo speaks to the role the University of Chicago played in constructing the plans for revitalization of North Kenwood-Oakland. However, I am speaking to the issue of schools actually purchasing properties in inner-city neighborhoods and resurrecting the old buildings, turning them into dorms for their students. Again, this may not be a nation-wide phenomenon but I know that it is happening in Miami, for instance. The University of Miami has literally turned what used to be a half-way house that once contained twelve apartments into a 6 apartment “dorm” of sorts. It is painted green and orange with Sebastian the Ibis (the school's mascot) somewhere on the front. I have to admit, it is nicer than my dorm room here at Harvard: full kitchen, off-street parking, lawn area for BBQ, all surrounding by manicured hedges and palm trees.
As a burgeoning social scientist, I am not saying what follows is strict causality but as soon as the University of Miami stepped in, the entire neighborhood began its crazed condo-phase. Since the (re)introduction of the building, you cannot drive down a single street where a condo has been erected, two-by-two. Coconut Grove, the other side of the tracks (not Cocowalk), never had condos and was always predominately black and low-income. Single family homes, the projects, apartments (inhabited predominantly by those with Section 8 vouchers): yes. Condos: no.
From my limited knowledge, research that includes looking at students and gentrification has primarily focused on university and college students searching out for cheap rents in big and/or expensive cities. But for institutions themselves to purchase these properties specifically for housing thier students and adopt the “buy here/fix here/sell to those outside of here” stance, then we have a new player in the game of gentrification. Am I fishing? Is Miami an isolated case? Harvard and Allston. UPenn and Philly. What new layers of analysis are added to the discussion when we consider the role of institutions in more than thier policy influence?
Saturday, April 25, 2009
Posted by Jeremy R. Levine at 10:37 AM
Nate Silver is definitely one of my favorite bloggers out there. He is the main voice behind FiveThirtyEight.com, a fantastic source for statistical analyses of political trends and voting patterns.
The above video is from a 9 minute presentation he gave at a TED conference this past February. During the talk, he discussed the topic of race during the 2008 election. More specifically, he asks the provocative question, “Can we predict racism?”
From a strictly statistical standpoint, the answer, apparently, is “Yes.” While he doesn’t get into the specifics of his methods, it looks like he ran a few linear regressions to look at the association between individuals admitting that race was a deciding factor in their vote and voting for McCain. In states like Arkansas and Tennessee, there was a very strong relationship between voting against Obama and saying that race mattered in that decision, suggesting racist voting patterns.
Around the 6 minute mark, he gets into a fascinating discussion of why this may be so. You can check it out for yourself, but the gist of his argument is that racist voters tended to live in mono-racial neighborhoods (i.e. didn’t live near any minorities). This social isolation predicts (statistically) racist voting.
In the social sciences, we typical discuss social isolation in terms of the urban poor. The general idea is that the urban poor tend to live in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty, and this spatial concentration, in turn, isolates these communities from mainstream resources, role models, and social networks.
Silver’s analysis is so fascinating because he applies this same concept to white, suburban neighborhoods. He compares the grid-style format of streets that typically defines a city to the cul-de-sac and dead-end model of suburban sprawl. He argues that the grid format of city blocks facilitates interaction among residents, while sprawl spatially disconnects residents from one another. In a sense, land-use patterns provide a spatial determinant for racism. In other words, the way your neighborhood was built may influence how you view people of different races and ethnicities.
I’m not convinced that we can actually predict racism, but I do agree that analyzing land-use patterns and more equitable, sustainable urban environments could make serious inroads in our fight against racism. Check out the video; there’s a lot of interesting questions to think about.
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
Posted by Jeremy R. Levine at 10:48 AM
The “four elements” of hip-hop include DJing, MCing, breaking, and graffiti writing. While Afrika Bambaataa claims a fifth element (a vaguely defined “knowledge and culture”), it is the four main elements that symbolize hip-hop’s history as a cultural form.
The last of these elements—graffiti writing—has certainly been the most politically charged. Politicians, police, and community activists alike continuously deride graffiti as neighborhood “blight.” They have a point: tagging destroys public property and is often linked to gang-related activity and violence. Targeted arrests for graffiti writing are part in parcel with the war on drugs, as both policies seek to eradicate loosely-defined (and often racially specific) “blight” from our urban streets.
Graffiti artists have a dramatically different take on their work. They see themselves as part of a cultural movement celebrating a dying art form. On the one hand, I agree with community activists that desire “clean streets.” Their efforts are admirable and well-meaning. However, I tend to side with the graf artists on this issue, albeit to a limited extent. While I can’t agree with tagging a public school, the art of subway graffiti is remarkably vibrant and rich. The aesthetic appeal and artistic style of subway graffiti, particularly in New York City, is undeniable.
Martha Cooper and Henry Chaifant’s Subway Art beautifully documented the burgeoning graffiti movement that took over New York City in the 1970s and ‘80s. Their seminal book of photographs and commentary spawned a generation of interest in graffiti and its relationship to hip-hop. To this day, hip-hop heads still reference this book.
The above video is the promo for their 25th Anniversary reissue set to drop soon. Graffiti has largely lost prominence in the new era of corporate hip-hop, much to our aesthetic detriment. While the tradition of breaking lives on in contemporary hip-hop dance crazes, the significance of graffiti art has noticeably waned. The rerelease of Subway Art may spark new interest in graffiti writing, but it may also bring up old debates about art, lawfulness, and public interest. Either way, it’s healthy to keep the conversation going.
Sunday, April 19, 2009
Posted by Jeremy R. Levine at 9:47 PM
Remember when white rappers needed black legitimacy to be cool? Well those days are over, thanks to a young rapper from Pennsylvania named Asher Roth. For those that live under a rock of sorts, Roth is the (next) great white hope for white kids that love hip-hop. Or, more accurately, he’s the (next) great white hope for media giants and merchandisers looking to cash in on the newest form of white pride.
You can argue this phenomenon has already happened before, say, circa 1998. A brazen young Marshall Mathers took no prisoners as he radically changed the way we produce and consume hip-hop. Eminem’s trailer trash shtick was gloriously wed with a lyrical gift, producing an in-your-face, white-ethnic-braggadocio-but-with-black-friends type of style. The dude’s angst and lyrical mastery transcended the traditional categories of hip-hop music. But, importantly, we respected him as a hip-hop artist because black folks (Dr. Dre, Proof) vouched for him. It’s not a coincidence that Dre made a cameo in his first single off The Slim Shady LP.
Part of this was a marketing ploy—he had the black guy seal of approval, and therefore we could accept him as legitimate hip-hop. But a large part was also based on respect for a culture founded, promulgated, and dominated by black folks. When he murdered (lyrically) Jay-Z on “Renegades,” it was not a triumph of white over black, but rather a carefully managed balancing act between coming to grips with his whiteness and accepting his drive to be the best emcee in the game. What I mean is that Em wasn’t going to hold back and patronize black emcees, but he was also deftly aware of his whiteness. Later, Em played a key role in the commercial rise of 50 Cent, for a while dominating the airwaves with the Dre-Em-50 trifecta. He had successfully “darkened” himself, so to speak, and we stopped talking about him as a white emcee, but rather as a great emcee. In other words, in a culture dominated by African-Americans, Eminem showed deference and respect as he balanced his unique racial identity with his equally unique skill as a rapper.
Asher Roth, by striking contrast, wants nothing to do with this contrived legitimacy. On the one hand, you gotta respect the kid’s moxie. His disregard for the black-guy seal of approval seems to suggest that hip-hop has become youth culture, not black culture. And his whiteness should not, by itself, be damaging to his career as an emcee. There is a sophisticated argument about race and the transmission of culture buried somewhere in here. Potentially, hip-hop, unlike rock music, may resist being co-opted by whites and instead fuse into a racially heterogeneous youth culture (with racially homogenous roots, of course). What if hip-hop took this trajectory of racial diversity? Maybe this cultural form would stop being used as a proxy for racism, as critics would no longer be able to blame the music for perpetuating a dysfunctional black culture. I don’t know, maybe I’m just an idealist like that.
Yet, that is not the case. Interestingly and quite arrogantly, Roth is harnessing a shtick of white privilege as he claims the authenticity of the...erm…suburbs. You know, because suburban kids can’t relate to hip-hop in its contemporary form. Why? Well, that’s a little unclear. Roth’s basic claim is that white kids in the suburbs have been consuming hip-hop for years, but have never had some one they can relate to, some one to represent them and their voices. You know, because white folks can’t relate to black folks. And, of course, because only white folks live in the suburbs. Comparing Eminem to Roth, the blog No Trivia wrote it better than I could have: “But Eminem’s use of his whiteness came from a desire to prove himself in spite of the unfortunate reputation of white rappers that came before him, not some strange sense of privilege because he’s the person actually buying rap CDs.”
In the most blatant example of white supremacy in hip-hop, Roth is absolutely obsessed with his whiteness. He doesn’t problematize his whiteness, like when Em forced us to re-think what it means to be white in his deeply personal discussions of growing up poor. No, instead Roth wants us to realize that we should like him because, well, he’s white and privileged just like us! His most recent song leak (which you can download here) details the trials and tribulations of being the next great white rapper and the subsequent comparisons to Eminem. Simultaneously, Roth reminds us that while he is no Eminem (he is from privilege and proud of it), he is unabashedly white (and therefore more relatable than those black rappers we thought we liked). Quoted in a recent New York Times piece, Roth explains the difference: "Culturally, Em was almost a black guy. My background is more stereotypically white." That's just great, Asher. How astute. It’s one thing to be aware of your racial identity; it’s an entirely different thing to embrace a privileged identity as your claim to superiority in a culture dominated by minority artists.
In an article from 2005, Brother Ali poignantly discussed white fans’ relationship to underground white rappers. "One of the hardest things we're dealing with now is the underlying feeling of white supremacy among fans who feel they are a part of hip-hop, but are listening to and prefer mostly white MCs," says Brother Ali. "They believe that Aesop Rock is better than independent artists who are Black and mainstream artists like Ludacris. These MCs are doing a lot with hip-hop artistically that they have learned from Black people, but [their fans] don't want to hear from the old-school originators because they believe it's the white MCs who created the styles they like. This isn't an underground-versus-mainstream thing—it's a racist thing." My emphasis.
Race and hip-hop is a difficult subject to parse out, and I don’t mean to make any sweeping statements here. What I do know, however, is that Roth’s brazen racial supremacy is a unique development in hip-hop. And I hope it ends soon.
Posted by Jeremy R. Levine at 10:38 AM
Nyle "Let The Beat Build" from Nyle on Vimeo.
In Why White Kids Love Hip Hop, Bakari Kitwana discusses a trend in American politics: we are moving away from the “old racial politics"—characterized by stark black-white cultural differences and cultural territorialism—and into the “new racial politics”—recognizing the nuance and fluidity between cultures and races. According to Kitwana, commerce and commercialism are the driving force behind this movement, facilitated in large part by hip-hop’s rise in commercial popularity.
As the title of his book suggests, Kitwana chronicles why white kids (like me?) love hip-hop culture, debunking a few myths of white consumption along the way (for example, the oft-cited, but unfounded statistic: “80% of hip-hop is bought by whites”). However, Kitwana is most forceful in his projection of the future. He argues that hip-hop’s multicultural appeal can be harnessed into a hip-hop voting bloc, and that hip-hop will bring blacks and whites together in more successful coalitions than years past.
Is hipster rap the realization of Kitwana’s projection?
A friend of mine put me on to the video above, shot in one take at NYU by a rapper named Nyles. In it, Nyles teams up with his noticeably multi-racial group of friends to remix Lil Wayne’s “Let the Beat Build” off of Weezy’s 2008 multi-platinum selling album Tha Carter III. As my friend Joey wrote, this video is “probably one of the dopest things I’ve seen in a while. Creativity + hip-hop is inspiring.” I couldn’t agree more.
Hipster rap culture has received considerable praise, and tremendous ridicule by the underground internet-based press. Hipster rappers, such as The Cool Kids, Kidz in the Hall, Kid Cudi, Mickey Factz, and countless others are somewhat of a throwback to A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul; their rhymes are light-hearted and their style is clean, fresh, and trendy. A hipster rapper’s wardrobe—fresh Nikes, keffiyah scarves, and pants slightly tighter than normal—stands in sharp contrast with what is traditionally associated with hip-hop culture—baggy jeans, oversized hoodies, and Timberland boots. Criticism has predictably carried homophobic undertones.
That said, hipster rap is dominating the airwaves, and hipster infused hip-hop culture is dominating streetwear style. Most importantly, this style is universal and marketed to a multi-racial youth public. Just check out the models at Karmaloop.com, or better yet, head down to their store on Newbury Street in Boston. There, you will see an almost utopian blending and conversing of youths of all races. Indeed, the very content and style of hipster rap culture makes all races legitimate consumers. In other words, hipster rap carries an inherent universal message, and both blacks and whites are equal participants.
My point is this: the "street hustler shtick" of commercial rap music (read: T.I., Lil Wayne, Young Jeezy) promotes negative images of black people that are in turn consumed by the majority of white hip-hop listeners. Underground hip-hop (read: Mr. Lif, Little Brother) is uplifting and consumed by whites, but fails to garner mass appeal. It's hard to imagine a "new racial politics" emerging from either segment of the hip-hop world; most commercial hip-hop only perpetuates stereotypes, and underground hip-hop is so marginalized that its impact is negligible. Hipster rap, by contrast, is both commercially successful, light-hearted in content, AND appealing/relatable to all races.
As the above video makes vividly clear, hipster rap seems to bring blacks and whites together in a way that hip-hop has thus far never been able to do. I admit, I was originally a hipster rap skeptic. But maybe I was wrong. Maybe the hipster rap movement is an important development for the future of multi-racial hip-hop politics. A modern day “Rainbow Coalition,” if you will. If hip-hop is the exploitation of black culture by whites, then hipster rap may even out unequal power dynamics. Better yet, if hip-hop is the vehicle for multi-racial youth politics, as Kitwana claims, then hipster rap may have control of the wheel.
Couple the rise of hipster rap culture with the election of Barack Obama, and the “new racial politics” may have officially conquered popular discourse and popular youth culture. The future looks promising.
Thursday, April 16, 2009
Posted by Anthony A. Jack at 11:33 PM
Maria Shriver has embarked upon a project to capture “an accurate and up-to-date portrait of the American woman and [develop] next steps to remove barriers to her success.” This project, "A Woman's Nation." is at once ambitious and promising. Women have always been an equal portion of the population but due to sexist, paternalistic, and/or patronizing actions of others, women have not shared equal possession of power or equal say in the running of the nation at any level. Shriver’s quest to capture the narrative of the American woman is ambitious because it is a tall order. I commend her for embarking upon such a journey. It is promising because the voice of, one may argue, silenced population may be amplified to the level that it cannot be ignored save for by the most close-minded of individuals.
Now, you know this post is not just singing the praises of such a project. One may argue that my stick I race, gender, and inequality. And yes, I’m trying to be a cultural sociologist. Thus, I stand to restate and reiterate some of the issues and concerns Black feminists and social scientists have posited in the past. When reading the announcement one already sees the potential downfalls of such a project: trying to capture the portrait of the American woman and creating a space for her voice¬ to be heard as if there is only one American woman or a singular voice to be heard. These essentialist femininity claims have crippled academic discourse for many years. Patricia Hill Collins’ sharp and accurate denunciation and debunking of Catherine MacKinnon’s call for the creation of one, unified female “solidarity” speaks to these very issues. The social group of women is not a homogenous group. We cannot continue to treat—or in this case—operate under this ill-founded presumption. The stories of women of color and also women from disadvantaged populations must not be downplayed and definitely not ignored.
Surely, the salience of one’s gender is contextual and amplified by one’s social location. I do not argue that there are no common concerns that all women of every creed, color, and class share. What I caution Shriver and other projects that attempt to document the narrative of women is to not begin such a project with the mindset of constructing a unified picture based upon essentialist identity assumptions of what it means to be female.
Again, I appreciate such a project as I believe that having a voice is having power, and “voicelessness” is powerlessness. Poet Maya Angelou writes,
A free bird leaps on the back of the wind
And floats downstream till the current ends
And dips his wing in the orange sun's rays and dares to claim the sky.
But a bird that stalks down his narrow cage
Can seldom see through his bars of rage
His wings are clipped and his feet are tied so he opens his throat to sing.
The caged bird sings with a fearful trill
Of things unknown but longed for still
And his tune is heard on the distant hill
For the caged bird sings of freedom.
But what about the caged bird who has her song taken away from her, forever silenced? What about the bird whose freedom is restricted, whose life choices are limited? Who is here to give her back her song? Who will free her? I believe that the free bird that “floats downstream to the current ends” represents the privileged members of society—primarily white males. The caged bird who can sing represents all ostracized men; although caged, they still have a voice to call out for freedom. However, we are left with the bird that even Angelou leaves behind—the caged bird who cannot “sing [even] a fearful trill of thing unknown or longed for still.” The silenced birds represent those who have been silenced throughout history—women, especially poor and minority women. In American politics, the voices of poor women are seldom heard. Globally, women who experience poverty as a direct result of their government’s economic policies or patriarchal traditions need a forum. For if we continue to dismiss, deter, or downplay the voice of all women, anyone trying to document such a rich, detailed, and awe-inspiring yet deeply troubled narrative will be flying blind. Maria, I need you to see.
Posted by Jeremy R. Levine at 9:23 AM
I can’t help but have a visceral reaction to this video.
I don’t know how to explain it, but there’s just something about Detroit that moves me. Let me repeat: Detroit moves me. I care about Detroit.
My broadly defined “research interests” include the study of urban poverty in America’s cities. To be fair, I’m more interested in integrated neighborhoods than slums, but the general idea is that I’m interested in cities, in suburbs, in places. These research interests will serve as the basis for my career as a sociologist. Naturally, these interests suggest that I should care about metropolitan inequality in the abstract, regardless of the city. But I don’t.
I don’t know exactly why Detroit holds such a special place in my heart, mind, and spirit. Maybe it was my undergraduate education at the University of Michigan. My studies of history and sociology certainly had a Detroit slant. Maybe it was my job in Detroit during the summer of 2006, working for a non-profit housing and community development organization. Maybe it was my trips to the Detroit Institute of Art or other cultural centers. Who knows, maybe it was my trips to Comerica Park for Tigers games. Whatever it is, Detroit matters to me. I believe in Detroit.
That said, there’s something about this video (and others of the same ilk) that’s slightly unsettling. When people speak of Detroit, often there’s a sense of pride in deprivation, a feeling of redemption in despair, and a connotation of dignity in decline. In this video, there’s almost a weird acceptance of Detroit’s present state, as if Detroit is special because of its decline, not in spite of it.
While I applaud Eminem’s intentions in this video, we need to change the rhetoric we use when we discuss Detroit. We can’t accept urban decline. We can’t be Detroit apologetics, trying to wash away the fact that this city’s population is dramatically declining as we emphasize Detroit’s vibrant and unique culture. We can’t jump on the Detroit-bashing bandwagon, either. We can’t write off Detroit as simply the natural result of a city dependent on a single industry. And it’s not that we have to “take the good with the bad,” acknowledging Detroit’s vast wasteland of vacant homes while we simultaneously laud the city’s perseverance. This approach isn’t proactive, nor does it address the fundamental problems this city faces.
No, we need to be critical Detroit supporters. We need target the city’s problems, collectively, and work to fix them. We need to reframe the issue of urban decline, at once harnessing the tremendous will of the city’s populace while we incorporate the support of distant suburban residents. Our framing of the issues requires that residents of Livonia realize they benefit from a vibrant Detroit just as much as residents of Corktown. We need to recognize our shared fate and common purpose in metropolitan America. We can’t turn our backs on Detroit. We can’t accept decline, nor can we simply wish it away.
Some may call me an urban idealist, but I like to think Detroit has a shot. Let’s try to convince the rest of America.
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
Posted by Jeremy R. Levine at 9:00 AM
Yeah I said it. Meghan McCain has been doing some serious re-branding of the Republican Party recently, much to the disdain of many party bigwigs. She’s basically giving the Republicans a blueprint to attract young voters, not unlike what Obama so efficiently did this last election cycle.
In a blog post, McCain, very eloquently, writes:
“I am a woman who despises labels and boxes and stereotypes. Recently, I seemed to have rocked a few individuals within my party by saying that I am a pro-life, pro-gay-marriage Republican. So if anyone is still confused, let me spell it out for you. I believe life begins at conception and I believe that people who fall in love should have the option to get married. Lest we forget, our founding document, the Declaration of Independence, grants the same rights to everyone in this country—“All men are created equal.” If you think certain rights should not apply to certain people, then you are saying those people are not equal. People may always have a difference of opinion on certain lifestyles, but championing a position that wants to treat people unequally isn't just un-Republican. At its fundamental core, it's un-American.”
So I’m not really into the whole “life begins at conception” point of view, but I can definitely agree with her points about gay marriage. She goes on to blast Obama for not supporting gay marriage, and she’s right. Obama has consistently been pretty luke-warm when it comes to equality for homosexuals. The gay activist that says “this sounds a lot like separate but equal” is 100% correct. Unfortunately, with the economic crisis, it’s going to be difficult to mobilize and push Obama to take a more progressive stance on this issue. But that doesn’t mean we should stop. What it does mean is that we should watch out for Republicans, like McCain, who might be able to alter the national discussion and change the way her party attracts voters.
Unfortunately for Meghan, she’s gotta deal with the structure of the American political system i.e. the fact that our “democracy” is (in practice) only a two-party system. Where are all the religious zealots and Chuck-Norris-succession-movement-loving nutjobs going to go if the Republicans embrace gays? They’ll start a civil war before they move to Canada. I’m actually serious about this; Meghan McCain and Michael Steele have both made admirable efforts at re-branding the rhetoric of the party, but they are beholden to larger political forces that will inevitably make their efforts futile. The Republicans simply can’t afford to alienate that section of the electorate. And I don’t see them taking Meghan McCain’s advice seriously, either.
Or, who knows, maybe this is just her push to get her own talk show. And you know what? I might tune in.
Saturday, April 11, 2009
Posted by Anthony A. Jack at 5:30 PM
To borrow from Elizabeth Browning, How do I love President Obama? Let me count the ways. As this is only a blog, I will focus on two aspects of who President Obama is with the Arizona State University’s decision to invite him as a speaker but not confer on him an honorary degree as background. First, he is the President. Hmmm. I think that Huffington Post’s coverage of this ordeal has been pretty sound and fair up to this point. I do not intend to rehash President Obama’s many accomplishments including his first historical appointment as editor of the Harvard Law Review, his days teaching some of the greatest lawyers practicing today at the University of Chicago Law School, his community leader days in South Side Chicago, and the rest of the activities that surely populate that amazing resume. But it goes without saying that he is the President of the United States. Second, he, following Marshall Gans’ philosophy and style of community engagement both at the local and national level, effectively made the lives of pockets of the population better while getting them involved in the democratic process. Some may say that these accomplishments and apparently those not mentioned are too local, too small, too insignificant to receive an honorary degree for “works of merit.” Hogwash. Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone: is that too local? Joe Klein’s leadership in New York? Too Local? I think not.
With that said, what really annoys me about the process is the way that ASU is handling it since Sneed broke the story, effectively announcing to the world that President Obama will not receive the honorary degree from ASU. I know how the conferring honorary degrees work. They are pretty much decided at the beginning of the year by a selected committee of students, faculty, and administrators. And for whatever reason, ASU did not choose Barack Obama. Ok. But let’s think about how they are basically saying now, to save face, let’s give him one anyway. In my opinion, if your initial decision was to not give this amazing individual an honorary degree, stand by that decision. For, to basically say, “Oops, we dropped the ball” a month before graduation and after saying he was too inexperienced, (if this is true I have no hope of ever receiving an honorary degree even with the real ones I have and trying to get), is wrong, unethical, wrong, and degrading. Did I mention wrong? To me, that degree, if President Obama is to accept it, has been sullied and now is worth less than what an honorary degree is worth normally.
Let’s think about it. The reports are now saying that University President Crow is now forcing a degree for Obama through causing people to place a horrible preposition phrase that would cause me to put that honoris cosa back on the shelf: after all. Barack Obama is not an after all. Nothing he has done deserves such a phrase behind it. It is adding insult to injury, not necessarily to Obama but to their institution and the entire process as a whole. Additionally, ASU has effectively disgraced the process of conferring honorary degrees in my mind; it should be a group decision from the beginning to the end and the president ought not to force that decision on others, no matter how right he may be.
This is, in no way, a show of President Obama’s character or his ability to serve. However, this incident does show how we still have a way to go in coming to grips with what it means to have Barack Obama as the President of the United States. No I am not talking about his race. I speak to the assumed resume that a president should have and how Obama has literally started to redefine what that resume should look like. Thankfully, this is not a nationwide thing. I know that my alma mater would offer (or already has) offered President Obama an honorary degree. Notre Dame seems to be thinking on the same page. Other will surely follow. Michele, the girls, grandma, and, of course, Barack should plan to be visiting colleges and universities in May and June for some years to come because I am positive other schools will not make the same mistake that ASU did, and worse, is doing.
Posted by Anthony A. Jack at 5:24 PM
Yes. I am talking about Rugrats, the early 1990s Nickelodeon cartoon that we all feel in love: Tommy, Chucky, Phil, Lil, Angelica, Dill, and the rest of the gang. Yes, I am talking about Dora the Explorer. Why? Because in looking at the two allows for a discussion about race in America, past, present, and future without staying in the stratosphere of theory and big words.
Two months ago, I asked my niece if she wanted a Dora shirt for her 5th birthday. She said no. Asked why, she replied “Dora’s grown,” meaning that Dora acts and dresses beyond her years. I had to stop and think why someone who loves Dora would abandon her. I got my answer that night while watching the news at dinner at the Queen’s Head Pub: Dora was getting a makeover. This made headline news. The silhouette of Dora shows longer hair, new shoes, and a dress that looked a little short. Again, this was the silhouette. The discussion that followed accuses Dora of being, like my niece said, “too provocative for little kids.” These were claims that the new Dora was too sexy. However, in looking at the picture above, there is nothing “grown” or “sexy” about Dora. Hell, she couldn’t stay a little girl with a backpack forever.
These criticisms of being too sexy or too grown did not pop up when the Nickelodeon finally aged the Rugrats and adopted the “Rugrats All Grown Up” theme. Angelica, the spoiled brat of the show, grew up too. She was not considered too grown or depicted as sexy after creative maturation. And she actually has make up on her face, while Dora goes o’ natural.
What was one of the main differences? Race. Dora was seen as being depicted as sexy because she is, I argue, Latina. Angelica, even though constantly in a horrible mood and doing evil things to the kids (yes, I watched the show) was white. These discussions did not happen around making Angelica look older but for Dora to be aged just a few years instantly makes her an object that is no longer a children’s cartoon character but rather has relegated her to category of sex object. I think it interesting as even something as innocent as growing up transformed Dora, with the help of mainstream media, from a cute and cuddly character adored by all to an object demeaned and degraded because of stereotypes placed upon her ethnicity and gender.
Now, please excuse the lack of sociological theory about effects of the transmission of images, stereotypes, and perception dealing with race and gender. That is for a paper, not the blog. What I just wanted to bring one’s attention to is the reality of race, gender, and the media with the background of America’s history of race relations, the political and the social. In many ways, comparing the Rugrats to Dora and the backlash over the aging of the characters is like rereading the footnotes of Brown v Board of Education again: Clark’s famous Baby Doll test. Using these two example, yes of two different time periods, yes of two different type of cartoons, shows the ways in which race still places constraints (or removes them depending on the race of the subject) for how one speaks, acts, and particularly in this case, dresses. Am I taking this too far? I don’t think so. How else would you explain the criticism launched against the new Dora when her fan base is as dedicated and as large as (or at least was) Hannah Montana’s with kids of a certain age group?
Posted by Jeremy R. Levine at 11:34 AM
Two coinciding events have put the city of Detroit, at least temporarily, back in the national spotlight: debates over the auto industry bailout and Michigan State University’s ascent to the Men’s College Basketball Championship Game, held at Detroit’s Ford Field. In the above clip from ESPN, a few former Michigan sports stars reflect on changes in the city and the impact of sports on civic pride.
The clip points to a very interesting relationship between sports and the economic vitality of a depressed city. There was some talk in the week leading up to the National Championship game about what an MSU win would mean for the spirit of Detroit, a city boasting a 12% unemployment rate leading up to the game. The implicit assumption is that the magical power of sports can uplift a city, inspiring poor urban dwellers to pick themselves up by their bootstraps as they find redemption, solace, and joy in their team’s victory.
This sports euphoria certainly has some merit. The scene at Shea Stadium in New York after 9/11 was an important moment that inspired a nation. More generally, the common love for a home team can cross racial, ethnic and class lines at precisely the times of greatest racial, ethnic, and class strife. However, the business of sports doesn’t exactly help the economic vitality of urban centers. In the clip, Detroit mayoral candidate and former Detroit Pistons star Dave Bing makes the astute observation that people rarely visit Detroit unless it’s for a sporting event. Such is the case for many cities facing dramatic economic decline--take Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Baltimore as just a few examples. The presence of a sports stadium does little to bring in sustained resources to these cities. Their spatial proximity to highways makes parking manageable and efficient, but it also makes fans’ stays brief. The fact that it’s easy to get to Comerica Park in Detroit also makes it easy to leave when the game’s over.
Some sports arenas, like The Palace at Auburn Hills where the Detroit Pistons play, aren’t even in the cities they represent. What about when a new corporate sponsor takes over the rights to house a sports team, what happens to the old stadium? We don’t even need to leave our example of Detroit to answer that question. When I was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, two groups of urban planners spoke to my Urban and Community Studies course. They were discussing the fate of Detroit's Old Tiger Stadium, the now vacant stadium that became obsolete after the construction of Comerica Park. The first group of urban planners proposed a center for cultural activities and youth baseball leagues, while the second group wanted to use the space for high-end boutiques and shops. Each made a solid case for how the vacant sports stadium could aid in urban revitalization efforts. In the end, neither proposal fully came to fruition, as the city decided instead to demolish the entire site.
As much as one can argue that sports can lift the spirit of an economically depressed city, so too is their a strong argument that sports stadiums only add to the marginalization of America’s most needy cities.
Friday, April 10, 2009
Posted by Jeremy R. Levine at 10:15 PM
Eminem’s new music video for the song, “We Made You” has caused somewhat of a stir in the blogosphere. Most hip-hop focused blogs have blasted Eminem, calling the song a lame, commercially driven gimmick. From a strictly objective hip-hop head perspective, this song is corny, trite, outdated, and painfully superficial for an emcee as talented as Eminem. However, the video has also raised some eyebrows among, shall we say, casual hip-hop listeners. Eminem’s references to former Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin has caused the politics-focused media—from the Huffington Post on the left to Hotair.com on the right—to take notice.
In the above clip from The O’Reilly Factor, hip-hop’s number one fan Bill O’Reilly waxes philosophical about rap music, left-wing politics, and misogyny. And by waxes philosophical I mean misinterprets and grossly misconstrues a rap song I doubt he even attempted to listen to. With guest Tammy Bruce, O’Reilly makes three key points, all of which are largely politically motivated and unsubstantiated by the video in question:
1) Eminem, as an artist, “means nothing” and no one over 25 cares about his music at all.
Nevermind the fact that Em is 36, and one of the most respected emcees of all time. Nevermind the fact that original hip-hop pioneers are damn near in their fifties, and still get involved with every new development in the mainstream (just ask Ice-T). Nevermind the fact that it’s been 10 years since the Slim Shady LP was released, meaning that kids who were in college when Em first hit the scene are now 28 years old. If we accepted O’Reilly’s math skills at face, we’d have to pretty much chuck away any relevant facts about age and hip-hop consumption in 2009.
2) The left-controlled media never voices outrage when a figure from the left maliciously criticizes a conservative leader.
So Eminem is a leader of the left-wing, eh? I’m calling shenanigans; how can you call him a leader of the left when he never even cut an Obama track?!? But in all seriousness, this argument comes off uncomfortably awkward as O’Reilly attempts to connect a tangentially related political agenda to a strikingly a-political rap music video.
3) Kids will see this crude misogyny and learn to disrespect women, especially conservative women that “challenge the status quo.”
The direct causal link here is pretty weak. The cultural influence of individual artists does not occur in a vacuum; there is certainly a greater context of misogyny in our nation of which Eminem’s records are only one small slice. Moreover, I question the egregiousness of the video itself, at least in respect to the Palin scene. Does it treat Palin as a hyper-sexed object of lust? Sure. But has Palin subjected her female body to objectification since the moment she entered the national spotlight, selected as the vice-presidential candidate as an exploitative ploy to attract black-fearing white women voters? YES. Sarah Palin’s popularity and rise to fame was made possible by the objectification of her body by her own party. When Palin’s gender is exploited and objectified by the Right for political gain, O’Reilly and other conservative talking heads are perfectly content. We cannot forget the basis for her body’s objectification, and bringing hip-hop and Eminem into the discussion only presents a red herring that ignores how all of us—irrespective of race, gender, class, political affiliation or any other descriptive characteristic—are ultimately culpable for her body’s objectification in pop culture by accepting the exploitative process that created her celebrity status.
Of course, this does not excuse Eminem’s objectification of women, nor should it leave him immune to criticism. Whereas it’s painfully obvious that O’Reilly and his esteemed guest Tammy Bruce barely listened to snippets of “We Made You,” I took four minutes out of my busy day and viewed the video in its entirety. In doing so, I noticed that Eminem does not simply degrade women as sexual objects; the overarching thesis of this song actually endorses one of the most egregiously false and extraordinarily misinformed arguments about female sexuality.
The central claim of “We Made You” is that all women—particularly and especially lesbian women—are defenseless and helpless when faced with Em’s manhood. They just can’t control themselves. This power-of-the-penis arrogance is most evident as Em physically battles Lindsay Lohan’s now ex-girlfriend, Samantha Ronson, for Lohan’s sexuality. The implicit assumption is that Em can, and eventually will, prevail over the butch, gender-norm-defying lesbians that control the women he wants.
It’s the classic “She won’t be a lesbian after me” lame and pathetically misinformed argument made by penis-obsessed men with little understanding of human sexuality. Look dudes, some women are simply not sexually attracted to the male sex organ, period. Get over it. It doesn’t make you less of a man. And it doesn’t give you the right to belittle them when they just aren’t into dudes sexually. It’s not just Eminem that’s misinformed here—it seems to be a huge misunderstanding in American culture. Take mainstream lesbian pornography, which is neither produced for, nor consumed by actual lesbians. Somehow lesbians, whom by definition are not sexually attracted to men, have become a major object of male lust. Eminem’s video, corny as it is, plays into this awkward and contradictory misconception.
I’m not sure what policy could correct these culturally-based misunderstandings, but I do know that videos like these certainly aren’t helping.
Sunday, April 5, 2009
Posted by Jeremy R. Levine at 5:34 PM
Welcome to Social Science Lite, a collection of our thoughts and positions on a variety of public issues and debates. Often polemical and frequently provocative, we plan to use this blog to weigh in on politics, culture, hip-hop, and other social scientific-lite topics.
Our thoughts are always works in progress, and we post largely to spark conversation and engage with the public discourse. Social science is a collaborative effort, and we invite your perspectives as we give you ours.