September 4, 2015

WHEN BLACK MUSIC WAS CONSERVATIVE: At City Journal, Howard Husock has a lengthy read the whole thing article on the peak of black popular music in the ‘60s and ‘70s that’s been augmented with plenty of YouTube clips for your listening enjoyment as well:

Some black intellectuals have recognized how whites drive the commercial success and cultural acceptance of rap and hip-hop. Most prominent among them is critic Stanley Crouch, who has called the music “contemporary minstrelsy” and asserted that “no segment of our society has been more deformed and dehumanized than black American popular culture and whatever intellectual seriousness lays before it, from the sidewalk to the hallowed halls of higher education.” Crouch disdains white intellectuals who feel that they “learn something” from the allegedly authentic street culture depicted in rap and hip-hop. In a biting speech at a 2007 forum sponsored by the Los Angeles Times, Crouch recalled asking a white rap fan why he liked the rapper 50 Cent: “ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I feel like that when I put on his records I’m actually getting an experience.’ That’s just bunk, period.” One English rap admirer told Crouch that he enjoys the music because it’s “word-driven.” Crouch replied, “I don’t think that’s why people like you like it. As far as I know, there’s never been a small audience for any idiom that projects the Negro as inferior to the white man. You are not going to tell me that when you read those lyrics so-called, you think the person who wrote them is equal to you. I think that’s the point.” Crouch’s sentiments are echoed by some African-American academics—notably, Niagara University’s Raphael Heaggans, author of The 21st Century Hip-Hop Minstrel Show: Are We Continuing the Blackface Tradition?

Criticism of rap and hip-hop, at least in some black quarters, suggests the possibility that cultures don’t change completely and that the currents of optimism and uplift that characterized the classic soul period will resurface. Consider, for instance, the sign outside the legendary Marigold, Mississippi, “juke joint” called “Po’ Monkeys.” Outside what is little more than a shack in the Mississippi Delta—but one featuring traditional soul and blues—one finds a drawing that warns against entering with low-hanging pants, along with this printed admonition: “No Loud Music. No Dope Smoking. No Rap Music.”

Signs of hope can also be found in some wildly popular contemporary black music, such as 2000’s “Ms. Jackson,” the poignant Number One hit by Atlanta-based hip-hop duo OutKast. In it, the rappers appeal to the mother of the singer’s girlfriend, petitioning—almost the way one might ask a sweetheart’s parents for her hand—for acceptance. Having gotten his girlfriend pregnant, the singer pledges to be there for his child’s first day of school and graduation, even envisioning the possibility of a lifelong relationship. “Me and your daughter got a special thang going on. You say it’s puppy love, we say it’s full grown. Hope that we feel this way forever.” Even more notable is Beyoncé’s 2008 megahit “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” in which she tells an ex-boyfriend, jealous of her new relationships, that if “you liked it then, you should’ve put a ring on it.” Her husband, Jay-Z, took that advice.

Perhaps a generation marked by the persistence of a black underclass, inner-city crime, and family breakdown will eventually turn away from rap and hip-hop’s hedonism, outlaw ethos, and misogyny. If it does, black music may once again become a messenger for what America’s first black president famously called hope and change.

I wouldn’t hold my breath — as I noted last month, Motown and the Beatles were lucky to be creating their incredible music in the 1960s, when they were still the counterculture — the original popularizers of the American songbook, Bing and Frank and Ella and Nat and their songwriters and arrangers were all still alive and still making music. (And in instrumental jazz, Duke and Count and Miles and Gil and Brubeck.) Both rock and black music could survive another decade after the downfall of both institutions in the early 1970s — the breakup of the Beatles and Berry Gordy abandoning Detroit and his virtuoso house band, the Funk Brothers – because the shadows their work cast were so long. But by the mid-‘80s, both rock and black music were running on fumes. When black music in particular has lobotomized its craftsmanship by jettisoning melody and harmony, where can either form go now for what Tom Wolfe calls “The Great Relearning?”

Which brings us to John Podhoretz’s review of Straight Outta Compton in the latest edition of the Weekly Standard. After noting that Sinatra had his thug like moments – being friendly with the mob, and not so friendly with his myriad groupies, Podhoretz writes, “The difference, of course, was that Sinatra sought to make beauty, while NWA sought to embody, personify, and reflect the rage of its audience:”

And here, I guess, one has to suspend a certain kind of judgment and pay obeisance to the market. Sinatra was a voice of his time, and NWA was a voice of its time. And both have stood the test of time​—​so far.

The success of Straight Outta Compton raises the surviving members of NWA (the depiction of Eazy-E’s death from AIDS in 1995 brings the movie to a close) to the level of cultural elder statesmen. It’s been 27 years since NWA released the album that gives Straight Outta Compton its name. Ice Cube, who shouted “F— tha Police,” will soon appear in the sequel to his hit 2014 movie Ride Along​—​in which he plays a hard-bitten cop. (His son, O’Shea Jackson Jr., plays him in Straight Outta Compton.) Dr. Dre sold his headphones company to Apple last year in a deal that made him $620 million in a day​—​and, as a good employee, released his first album in 16 years exclusively on his corporation’s horrendous new Apple Music platform.

Meanwhile, the pop form they helped pioneer is now so enshrined that a hip-hop biography of Alexander Hamilton on Broadway has made its creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, the most celebrated artistic figure in America. And as for the output of NWA itself? I still prefer beauty to rage, but rage is infectious and multigenerational. For as Philip Larkin also said, “Man passes on misery to man / It deepens like a coastal shelf.”

Which sadly, is the answer to the conclusion of Husock’s article at City Journal.

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