Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Blaxploration 80's Dichotomy

There is a fine line drawn in African American music of the 80's, a dichotomy delineated by the vapid work of say- musicians like Lionel Ritchie and his "Dancing on the Ceiling" on one hand and Public Enemy's provocative rhetoric in "Right Starter" (both released in 1987). In 1989 Trey Ellis writes "The New Black Aesthetic" a partial but endearing cultural observation of the new African American culture, he optimistically makes reference to the changing landscape of culture arising from a post civil rights generation of new artists, and the importance of stressing blackness as a medium of progress. He specifically critiques Ritchie and Whitney Houston as"- pop singers [that] have transformed themselves into cultural-mulatto, assimilationist night- mares; neutered mutations instead of thriving hybrids. Trying to please both worlds instead of themselves, they end up truly pleasing neither" (Ellis, 242) on a basis that they have "applied Porcelana fade cream to their once extremely soulful throats". Which is where I draw the line, I don't think its about how you sing the song or the tune rather the nature of the lyrics or the purpose- or inversely lack there of. The fact that "Dancing on the Ceiling" is a song about getting wasted and having fun while "Right Starter" is a sort of social manifesto and critique as a response to crime and repression in/of African American communities.

When it comes to music, especially African American music, its really difficult to say it is multi cultural- in my perspective African American music has a privileged cultural position in the 20th century- because to a certain point most white/American/British popular music has somehow developed from it. So in an effort to place PE in the matrix of what Ashe coins the post soul aesthetic music is put in a paradoxical place: where electric guitars in the 80s reference punk 70s and garage rock 60s, which are "white" music but influenced by African American music like Bo Didley or Little Richard, or Muddy Waters... the list goes on and on-the point is rebellion in white culture has just been ripping of African Americans-so as I was saying the question rises: is Public Enemy's music culturally mullato- my answers is yes. And no. In a sense that there is a twisting genres and conventions in which it is culturally seen as reflecting punk attributes, I mean yes it is perceived as a hybrid. But it does not consciously adopt attributes from white music.         

Personally what really resonates for me about "Right Starter" and Public Enemy is the sort of “taking back what’s ours” idea through music- its like punk was never white but we (youth, musical fanatics) associate it with British and American/Detroit/NY/CA bands- I mean its about this means of expression through music that is always taken back by commercial culture and re articulated as a white product-history is compressed, its made out to be like its teenagers and young adults that are unhappy-sort of the colorblind argument except it goes deeper here- its not egocentric existential dilemmas or love- its more rudimentary- its INJUSTICE. It is such a burden to carry such a great discourse that it would be impossible not to revert to nationalistic tones to make a point- so don't take it personally. As one fan puts it: “With Yo! Bum Rush the Show, Public Enemy introduce a new kind of bravado that's not just directed at other players and sucker MCs but is an out-and-out middle-finger challenge to the whole world”. So in that sense its questionable if their music can be considered mulatto. But I don't personally feel that it’s so important that a work is a cultural fusion- that doesn’t always make it progressive.

            What Public Enemy definitely does do is trouble blackness: on one hand hip hop slang and sartorial display have been associated with mainstream African American pop culture for as long as it has existed but they don't have the same discourse as a lot of their contemporaneous musicians. Rather their lyrics clearly and poetically articulates a discourse:

 Our solution, mind revolution
Mind over matter, mouth in motion

As the world turns, it's a terrible waste
To see the stupid look stuck on your face
Time bomb alarm for the world, just try it
Known to all zones as the one man riot
I'm on a mission to set you straight
Children, it's not too late
Explain to the world when it's plain to see
To be what the world doesn't want us to be  

(Right Starter)

I first heard their music in Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing"

In such a way, Public Enemy does what Ashe coins as allusion disruption- the song is an allegorical mock of the hip hop public, by musicians catering to an audience perceived as holding certain values glamorized by their predisposition to older hip hop; that creates a fragmentation form old school hip hop. It may initially sound like old school but it definitely isn’t. Where old school hip hop was say- to come back to the analogy- more like Lionel Ritchie's "Dancing on the Ceiling" -without the Porcelana fade cream Trey Ellis was talking about. That had come to define African American music of the era. Or more so anticipated bands such as PE. What I'm getting at is that Lionel Ritchie's songs and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's songs carried the same messages more or less, while one was pop and the other was hip hop, then what could be said was the entertainers message to black mainstream culture was vapid and PE was a shift of what was expected. By questioning the stereotypes represented by both pop and hip hop- thus troubling blackness.

What is amazing to me is that there is a constant palpitating vitality in the legacy of Public Enemy, a sort of poetic tendency that has been inherited by new hip hop/rap musicians such as Odd Future's Tyler the Creator.  It’s still a social commentary; very post modern and convoluted but important. Simultaneously fully conscious of historicity and its responsibility as a social document to reflect in an ironic but moving way something people know but usually repress such as poverty, racism, or crime.  

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