16 April 2013


NPR's new Code Switch blog features a knockout long article, When Our Kids Own America from Gene Demby of Postbourgie. It's about how the critiques of appropriation and gentrification and cultural ownership that have been common in social justice circles in recent decades don't apply well to the world we live in now. Here's a taste:

Hip-hop is now the lingua franca and the background music for an entire generation of kids. And one of its dynamics — the idea of a marginalized group rapping about that marginalization — has remained essentially intact as hip-hop has conquered the world, in part because marginalization is the narrative that teenagers everywhere fit themselves into.

If something is everywhere and everyone trafficks in it, who gets to decide when it’s real or not? What happens when hip-hop stops being black culture and becomes simply youth culture?

Cecelia Cutler, a linguist at New York’s Lehman College, says that when kids who aren’t black traffic in hip-hop slang or African American Vernacular English — even if they aren’t themselves hip-hop fans — they’re not trying to mimic blackness, per se. They’re calling upon this language to signal (or “index,” as linguists like to say) some of the postures that people associate with hip-hop — coolness, toughness, hipness, swagger, separateness. The black part is being referenced, but it’s not quite the point. In some circles, Cutler said, hip-hop-inflected black speech has become a kind of prestige English.

It's long, and it's all that provocative and smart. Check it out. And the official NPR comment thread is already looking lively. Here's something I said to the author on Facebook:

I've already been circulating this article, because it's a home run. Bravo. I live in the SF Bay Area and you've definitely captured something about Oakland: my friends half-tease me when we are in Uptown and I say, “This looks like the America I was promised.”

I think you've managed a nuanced description of how the way we have been talking about appropriation has often been a little screwy. Minstrelsy and deracination are all too common, yes, and bad for all the reasons we know, and deserving of the vigorous critique they get. But the rhetoric of “appropriation” has been too broad and sloppy a brush. The implication that group X owns cultural idea Y and practice Z and so forth never really made sense. Culture just doesn't work that way; it's always a stew of overlapping influences.

These days, our mediasphere makes that process faster, and therefore more visible; I think that's part of what you're pointing to here.

But I suspect more importantly, you're describing is the generational effects of some victories. Bigotry is a long way from being over, but we have a lot of young people who aren't poisoned by it in the same ways. And the effort to break the hegemony of White Culture has worked: a lot of people are seeing a lot more culture from folks different from themselves. It would be absurd to imagine that young people coming from that experience would dutifully obey the boundaries of what culture they supposedly do and do not “own” because of the racial identity which they viscerally know is socially constructed.

No comments: