Category Archives: Pop Culture

Straight Outta Compton: Perfectly Imperfect

O'shea Jackson, Jr. as Ice Cube in "Straight Outta Compton"

Love them or hate them…actually, do both.

I was never anywhere close to the man that N.W.A. portrayed themselves to be in their music, nor did I believe everything that they espoused, but from the first preview I saw, I knew that I was going to see Straight Outta Compton. On opening weekend I showed up to Harlem’s Magic Johnson Theater damned near giddy, in full N.W.A. themed regalia. Days later, even after reading commentators searing assessments of its purported failures, I felt as guiltless as an overly aggressive cop, confident that the movie’s whole is greater than the negation of its parts.

That negation has focused mostly on two conflicting ideas. The first is that the movie is so whitewashed compared to N.W.A.’s true history that it borders on Disney fare. On the other hand, you have the view that the film is unashamedly immoral in general, and unapologetically sexist in particular. If you’re particularly lucky, you might even find these criticisms in the same thinkpiece.

Since half of the producers are either former members of the group or the widow of one, certainly the motivation to tidy things up would be powerful. Many assume that that’s the only reason why Dre’s assaults on women, both confirmed and alleged, don’t appear, and I certainly agree that the Dee Barnes incident, a matter of public record, was conspicuous in its absence.

Personally, I hoped to see Dr. Dre’s run-in with Barnes depicted in order to learn what drove him to such a dark place. Done well, its appearance could’ve added further complexity to the film and to the public’s understanding of Dre as a person, not to mention cast further light on the issue of violence against women.

But even with that disappointingly gaping hole, I can’t believe that anyone who was previously unfamiliar with N.W.A. saw the movie and left thinking that those dudes were on the Vatican’s short list for beatification. After all, Dre was just one member of a five man squad, and there was enough bad behavior on display by all of them to get the idea that this crew was ready and willing to get plenty dirty.

No, they didn’t depict the infamous assault, but neither did they avoid the lyrics brazenly portraying violence against women and men. Eazy-E still bragged about his inclination to smother your moms and all that. There are numerous on-screen fights, threatened fights, guns, and threats with guns. Likewise, they didn’t hide the so-called homophobic and anti-Semitic lyrics, and definitely not the bootylicious pool and sex parties. (Mental Note #1: Throw a pool party. Mental Note #2: Get a pool.)

On the real, the negative side of N.W.A. was practically a supporting character in this film. In fact, for some people there was too much negativity on screen, especially as it relates to the role of women, who were either minor characters or sextras. For those feminists, the film not only failed to uplift women, it stuck a knee in their backs and held them face down on the floor.

This is normally the part where I acknowledge the truth in the contrasting POV while urgently opposing it, but in this case, all I can manage is a confused hell to the naw.

Now, I didn’t know any bitches or dirty-ass hoes during N.W.A.’s heyday, and I’m thrilled to say that I’ve met extremely few women worthy of those pointed sobriquets more than 20 years later. But make no mistake: like the truth, they’re out there, probably in equal proportion to the skeevy, manipulative, doggish males who are their natural counterweights. Still, though they were always careful to point out that not all women are bitches during interviews, N.W.A. seemed to be constantly besieged by wack ass females, forcing me to wonder if the United Queendom of Bitchland and Hodesia was some kind of micronation nestled in a cozy corner of Compton.

I mean, these dudes talked about bitches a lot. It’s a fact. Their scandalous parties were real. Also a fact. They were touring artists, which means that they had access to a lot of women willing to get…adventurous…on any given night. This is common sense. Misogyny it may be, but is there any wonder that this stuff showed up in the movie?

In a much less cited section of Selma director Ava DuVernay’s now famous Twitter commentary on Compton, she had this to say:

I saw @ComptonMovie last night w/ friends at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza in South Central…And damn, they got it right…I saw the cavalier way that women were treated in hip hop spaces early on. Window dressing at most. Disposable at worst. Yep, that happened.”

If the ho-calling and womanizing hadn’t appeared, wouldn’t that be a prime example of the supposed sanitizing that so many are up in arms about?

The same thing goes for why there weren’t any females in starring roles. This film is about N.W.A. The last time I checked, N.W.A. was five dudes. Anyone else in the movie is there solely to give insight into or act as a foil to those characters. Period. So, if you want to see a movie with strong female leads about a group that skyrockets to stardom and then implodes, just rent fucking Dreamgirls.

With that said, the women who do get some shine in this movie play crucial roles in keeping the main characters grounded, while simultaneously moving them forward. Whether it’s Dre’s mom, or Ice Cube and Eazy-E’s wives (no doubt standing in for other women in some instances, such as Cube’s erstwhile manager and business partner Pat Charbonnet), each of them steps in at pivotal moments to exert powerful influences on these men’s emotional and even commercial lives, putting them back on track and keeping them rolling in the face of potentially catastrophic setbacks. I can’t help but see this as a deliberate attempt to acknowledge women’s behind-the-scenes contribution to the N.W.A. legacy.

And yes, those nods to the women in their lives does humanize them a bit, and I’m not going to sit here and pretend that you’re not supposed to walk out of the theater appreciating N.W.A. as highly gifted, driven visionaries. Hell, you better believe that if I have a hand in my biopic, you’ll come away believing in your tender heart of hearts that I founded Netflix, conceptualized summer Fridays, and invented yoga pants.

Real anti-heroes don't die.

Real anti-heroes don’t die.

Still, The World’s Most Dangerous Group and their heirs don’t want you hailing them as heroes, but as the ultimate anti-heroes. Their music and the exaggerated characters they played in it must be understood as standing in the same tradition as the gangster flicks from 30s down to the 80s, and especially the blaxploitation films of the 70s. They didn’t invent their content, they just brought it to a different medium and updated it to reflect the realities of the crack era.

The movie, like the music before it, reflects this thrilling, fucked-up aesthetic. Some of the people who made them did foul things before and during the production of this beautiful shit. But if you stopped consuming every piece of art, food, or clothing because someone involved with the production of said item did something bad, egregious, or vicious, then you’d be uncultured, hungry, and naked.

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Iggy and Azealia: Good and Evil In Black and White

The coin has two sides.

The coin has two sides. (Left: Revolve Clothing; Right: Jason Nocito/Spin Magazine)

I’ve spilled virtual ink on Iggy Azalea, Azealia Banks, and their complicated relationship to each other and to music before. Twice in fact. But that was back in 2012, during this particular play’s first act. It looked like both were poised for big success and that we were destined to witness even more episodes of The Flora Wars because of it. But that was only half right.

Thus far, commercial competitiveness hasn’t been a defining element of the relationship between these two at all; it’s been the overwhelming unevenness of it. A month after Iggy’s debut album “The New Classic” dropped in April 2014, she was already standing toe-to-toe with the Beatles as the second artist in history to simultaneously occupy the #1 and #2 spots on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. The album itself wasn’t exactly a blockbuster, but it debuted at #3 and has gone on to sell over 420K units in the U.S. alone as of early December 2014 (and that’s before counting the “Reclassified” reissue). Meanwhile, Azealia’s first official album finally made a surprise landing on November 6, 2014 and lo, the critical acclaim rained down in buckets…but sales have not. It entered the Billboard 200 at #30, selling 11K or so albums in the U.S., and if its second week sales of about 4K were any clue, it won’t be setting any records unless Black Jesus decides to grant Ms. Banks a holiday miracle.

“Black Twitter” (whatever that means) would like you to believe that Azealia is a 21st century lovechild of Nina Simone and Moms Mabley, while Iggy is just a cultural appropriator, an interloper looking to make several million fast-twerking bucks off of hip-hop culture. On the other hand, there are those who cast Iggy as a beautifully enchanted, fat-bottomed elf (the Tolkien variety, not the Christmas variety) from the Outback, who made her mark in a highly competitive genre despite being the wrong race and sex, and despite torrents of venom spewed her way by a rabidly envious, tragically wasted talent in the form of the Great Serpent, Azealia Banks.

The truth is that they’re both wrong.

We all know that Vanilla Ice was a pretender who hid behind a papier-mâché street resume and hi-top fade, but can we really say the same thing about Iggy? I’ve never heard of her misrepresenting who she is or where she’s from, in any sense of the words, as an attempt to gain acceptance or recognition. If you want to argue that because Iggy raps in an accent that is uncharacteristic of her race or where she’s from that she’s faking the funk, I’ll kindly ask you to pop in a Dana Dane tape or stream some French Montana and have a sofa’s worth of seats. Iggy grew up listening to black American rappers, so she raps like a black American rapper. Simple mathematics.

Then there’s the unspoken implication that talent is the deciding factor for whether someone gets an unrestricted pass into the Halls of Blackness. J. Cole’s recent words aside, very few black folks have anything to say about Eminem or Justin Timberlake. Of course, Eminem and J.T. happen to be top-class artists, and I’m not suggesting that Iggy is in their league. With that said, let’s be real: as a professional rapper, the woman is at least average.

I enjoy the hell out of “Work” and even as far back as “Pu$$y,” her talent was obvious. If her tracks were movies, maybe they wouldn’t be “Mad Max” yet, but cats are trying desperately to throw her in the discount bin with “Crocodile Dundee II,” and dude, that’s just wrong. I can think of multiple currently hot rappers who I’d rank like 13.7 levels below Iggy. (Cough. Migos. Cough. Young Thug.) The fact that there are constant rumors swirling that her mentor T.I. writes most/all of her lyrics, despite any real proof, should be a strong testament to her skill. Yet the hate persists.

And Iggy’s biggest hater is her nemesis, Azealia. She certainly not lonely though, ‘cause over the years Ms. Banks has gotten into more beef than a top-class Wagyu stud. I mean, the woman is firece, fiery, and flamboyant, and woe to he who trips her wire. She’s bickered with what seems to be a never-ending cavalcade of other artists and industry insiders, most importantly Interscope—which had been her major label home since 2012—before they dropped her in the summer of 2014, prior to even releasing her album. The woman has burned more bridges than the Luftwaffe, and as I’ve said before, she just seems so damned mean.

Then, last week, Azealia did an interview on Hot 97 where she articulated the frustrations that led to her most recent attack against Iggy. During the conversation, she talked about the latter’s silence in the wake of recent police violence and her view that it reflects a general lack of true concern for black people on Iggy’s part, despite an avowed love for their cultural artifacts. Overall, she lent a powerful voice to the sense that despite a general consensus that she and other black women like her are tremendously talented, many seem happy to ignore their contributions to culture.

“When they give these Grammys out, all it says to white kids is: ‘Oh yeah, you’re great, you’re amazing, you can do whatever you put your mind to.’ And it says to black kids: ‘You don’t have shit. You don’t own shit, not even the shit you created for yourself.’ And it makes me upset.”

Her teary emotional breakdown inadvertently exposed the depth of the wounds that she’s been nursing these last few years as a black woman in her early 20s, trying to navigate the landscape of an industry built on the immolation of your kind and the appropriation of its gifts. Despite being a thirtysomething black American man, I understood her plight in a deeply personal way, without ever having walked specifically in those mesh, platform wedge boots. There’s an undeniable truth to her recognition that there’s been a consistent effort to mine black cultural talent, refine and repackage it for white audiences, then enjoy the fruits of that appropriation.

Still, I wasn’t ready to lay the blame for that at Iggy’s feet…and Iggy wasn’t ready to accept it. Instead, she pointed at Azealia’s “piss poor attitude” as the cause for her inability to capitalize on critical success. With uncharacteristic bellicose gusto, she went on taunting Azealia: “Make it racial! make it political! Make it whatever but I guarantee it won’t make you likable & THATS why ur crying on the radio.”

The truth is that they’re both right.

It’s easy to look at the two artists’ mismatched outcomes and see a classic good vs. evil struggle in progress. The simplicity of a story with a well-defined hero and villain can be seductive—it’s worked nicely as the foundation for mountains of myths, fairy tales, and movies, and it makes for effortless moralizing—but the best modern storytellers understand that real life isn’t always so simple. They know that the boundary separating hero and villain is often blurred, if it exists at all. And it’s actually there, in that moral no man’s land, that we find Iggy Azalea, Azealia Banks, their allies, and their armies, engaged in a pop cultural proxy war for control of black identity in general and black female expression in particular. The ones funding the war on both sides are the millions of white fans who prop up an exploitative system, most of whom are just young, dumb teenagers, woefully and sometimes willfully ignorant of the real cost of the album that they just downloaded, even if they jacked it for free.

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Beyoncé, Booty, and Feminism

Close-up of Beyoncé

1990 Madonna called. She wants her whole steez back.

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Beyoncé is a superb entertainer. One minute, her voice is the piercing blare of a trumpet and the next, it’s the gentle lilt of a cello. Of course, her body is equally as flexible, just as exquisitely crafted, and almost as thrilling to witness. Unassailable talent allows her to occupy an enviable position at the peak of pop culture, and she’s used that lofty site as a promontory from which to speak directly to the hearts—and importantly the egos—of millions of females who have come to see her as the embodiment of the ideal woman: talented, strong, and sexy. Queen Bey is a feminist icon, and she deserves to be one. However, there are those who would have us believe that BEYONCÉ, her latest album, marks her biggest step thus far in a retreat from the forefront of the feminist movement.

I say that those people are either overwrought feminist pedants or overly inhibited conservatives. Or they’re idiots. ‘Cause you know, there’s always that element.

I mean, look, the woman made some songs about being a strong woman. OK, she made quite a few of them. Hooray! Also, she’s managed to have a ridiculously successful solo career for more than a decade, when most acts appear and then disappear so quickly that you wonder if that’s why they call it pop music. Hooray again! Oh, and she’s seemingly happily married to a really rich and famous guy and has a cute little daughter, too. So now all of this somehow makes her a standard bearer for modern feminism? Or at least modern black feminism?

I’m sorry, but no. All it means is that she is a woman who has lived the kind of self-determined life that the foremothers of women’s equality envisioned for their sisters and daughters…and that she’s aware of that fact. I don’t doubt that Beyoncé honestly wants to encourage girls and women to think of themselves as self-sustaining, dynamic beings who are fundamentally equal to any man, but Elizabeth Cady Stanton she ain’t.

Perhaps a parallel example will assist in illustrating my point.

After he helped invent gangster rap, but before he started making feel-good movies, Ice Cube made a lot of passionate, pro-black music. Was I disappointed as I gradually watched Cube melt deeper and deeper into Hollywood, to the point where he’s actually game to do comedy bits with Conan O’Brien, possibly the whitest looking dude ever birthed? Not no, but hell no, ‘cause I never once got his vaguely menacing, yet somehow cherubic visage confused with that of Stokely Carmichael’s.

In the same way, members of the Yoncé Ate Sasha school of thought need to relax and understand that by releasing this album and the accompanying videos she didn’t forsake some kind of feminist mission, because dude, she never had one. Beyoncé doesn’t owe little girls, working mothers, the queens at the MAC store, or anybody else anything except good music and a good show. To the extent that she chooses to inspire a sense of inherent beauty within young women or to write lyrics that help generate female self-confidence of any kind, it is a good thing. Her decision to tilt the content of her art a little more towards sex in the bedroom…or the kitchen…or the limo floor…does nothing to negate her expressions of feminist positivity.

I fail to see why anyone’s in a tizzy over Yoncé’s sexy lyrics and skintastic videos at all in the first place. Curse words. Who cares? Bathtub intercourse while inebriated. Zzzzzz. Fleeting shot of supermodel’s tongue grazing the upper half of Beyoncé’s right mammary. Yawn. Allusion to oral sex and errant ejaculate (see Lewinsky, verb). Getting there, but let’s not phone the Thought Police just yet. Multiple potential references to anilingus…OK, sure that’s freaky. But hell, it wasn’t even explicitly stated. That’s just my interpretation. Other artists get far nastier on a regular basis, with no playful metaphors or euphemisms acting as prophylactics during their aural sex romps, so the only thing I’m left with is the idea that this new album is shocking folks only because Beyoncé’s behind it.

That begs a question for all of you grooooown women out there: What’s worse, a sexist man who won’t let you fully realize your multi-faceted identity or a feminist woman who doesn’t want you to display more than one side of it? Recall Yoncé’s sample of author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie reminding us of exactly what a feminist is:

“Feminist: a person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.”

So, even if Beyoncé isn’t leading the vanguard of 21st century feminist freedom fighters, forsaking her because she’s being just as loud about her sexuality as she’s been about female empowerment is unnecessary and unfair. In the end, it’s perfectly fine for her to sing of self-determination while shaking her fine ass in peek-a-boo shorts. After all, she woke up like this.

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You Ain’t Got the Answers: Part Two

What's a king without a crown?

What’s a king without a crown?

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In my last post, I ended with a reference to Kanye’s um…somewhat emotional interaction with radio host Sway. And when I say emotional, I mean fucking Megatron is reincarnated and he’s looking for Starscream. Seriously, you could’ve heated like 20 working class Chicago homes for the winter with the fire coming outta Yeezy’s nostrils during that interview.

That brings us to writer Christiana Mbakwe’s take on the Kanye Problem. First, let me say that she at least treats her subject with enough respect to acknowledge his positive attributes and the potential value that his recent protests can provide. Still, she argues that this positivity is being obliterated under the weight of his woes, the origin of which lies in some type of mental disorder, whether it be autism, PTSD as a consequence of his mother’s death, or heck, even drug addiction. Yes, you read that last one right. To Ms. Mbakwe, that Hennessy botttle at the Taylor Swift incident and subsequent behavior over the years are signs that he’s “unravelling” and desperately in need of a therapist. This makes me wonder how often the British Ms. Mbakwe gets to party with Afro-Yanks. If she did, she’d know that when celebrating, some brothers hug a bottle of Henny harder than they hug their girl…even if she does look like Amber Rose.

But hey, maybe dude is a little mental. So am I. And so are you. Psychological scars are the cost of living. I have no doubt that the death of Donda West still affects Kanye deeply, and anyone who doesn’t allow him that either grew up on Vulcan or got the wire hanger treatment one two many times. However, when we leap past acknowledging emotional difficulties and their concomitant bad behavior all the way to diagnosing someone as mentally ill—based solely on cherry-picked media moments in a life lived in public—we head into dangerous territory. At that point, it becomes all too easy to marginalize a person with unpopular views. Just label them a ranting madman and POOF! Watch all of their credibility slide away like so much blood on a leaf.

Seriously kids, there’s just insufficient evidence to say that Kanye is crazy. Does he have anger management issues? Yes. He should learn to contain and focus it because, unfortunately, many of us can’t see past the rage to glean the truth and significance of his words. Does he declare his own genius too often? Probably. While I’m totally on board with reminding these muphuckas of who the hell they’re dealing with, if you overdo it you chafe their delicate little egos and trigger widespread outbreaks of Tall Poppy Syndrome. This explains why folks get so up in arms when Kanye compares himself to heroes like Steve Jobs. What the detractors can’t seem to understand is that when Kanye likens himself to those people he’s not literally saying that he’s just as great or has done anything that’s just as important as any one of them per se, but that he dreams in the same expansive way and needs someone to help him realize his vision.

Steve Jobs (and Steve Wozniak AND Ronald Wayne) got Apple’s first computers built with financing from a vendor who took a leap of faith and filled their order for crucial components based solely on the word of a would-be first customer. Even then, Jobs was eventually booted out of the company in disgrace and didn’t reappear at the forefront of business for a decade. His return to reshape the consumer electronics industry only happened because Apple bought NeXT, his struggling company, and brought him back home with it. Likewise, you might not even know the name Michelangelo today if it weren’t for the rich and powerful Medici family who gave him commission after commission from the time he was a young man. Jesus of Nazareth was scorned, homeless and executed as a criminal, but now his worldwide faithful call him the King of Kings. He owes that not to a miracle, but to his follower Paul, possibly the best marketing guru ever, whom he never even met.

Each of these men displayed varying degrees of talent for their chosen vocations at the onset of their moments of truth. It ranged from undeniable in the case of Michelangelo, to unproven in the case of Jobs, to still disputed in the case of Jesus, but they all eventually succeeded in making a legendary impact. Without major support however, their visions would have withered and died and their names would have crumbled in the unrelenting winds of history.

The notion of getting it done yourself is a fantastic motivational tool, but it’s just that: a fantasy. No one gets it done by themselves. The idea that great entrepreneurs are self-made is a myth that’s central to the American consciousness, but to take a large scale commercial vision from concept to reality in an insular, exclusive, and capital intensive industry like fashion requires a patron. Kanye is searching for that patron. Should he find one, he may succeed in breaking down walls and democratizing high fashion. Or, he may just break down. We’ll never know unless somebody helps him do his thing, just like somebody helped Steve Jobs and Michelangelo. Oh, and Jesus, too.

Amen.

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You Ain’t Got the Answers: Part One

"Who gone stop me, huh?"

“Who gone stop me, huh?”

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A couple of months ago, I wrote a piece on Kanye West and his frustration with his inability to break into the fashion world. I thought that would be that. In the last couple of weeks however, I’ve watched the anti-Yeezus stream grow into a river threatening to flood the internet. The deluge has consisted of nasty one-liners, thoughtful psychological profiles, and everything in-between, but it’s all had one thing in common: overwhelming negativity.

The Wall Street Journal’s Christina Binkley seemed to delight in underscoring just how hard of a time Mr. West is having. While her scathingly sarcastic piece took pains to underscore just how unimpressive Kanye’s designs have been thus far, she largely chalked up his failure to penetrate fashion’s inner circle to his inconsistency. “In order to be sold, clothes have to be produced,” she reminded us.

I’m no expert on the fashion industry. I mean, I don’t know Ricardo Tisci from fucking Ricardo Montalbán. Still, to these eyes what Ms. Binkley conveniently seems to be overlooking is the fact that for clothes to be produced, one must have access to a means of production. In addition, once the clothes are successfully produced, one must have access to a means of distribution. The fashion industry is not the technology industry. You can’t just rent office space, buy a couple of computers, put up a site and start looking for yacht club memberships. Producing a fashion brand at the level Kanye desires requires substantial capital and, apparently, some imagination on the part of the investor. No offense to the relative success of Pharrell Williams’ Ice Cream and BBC lines, but if I hear one more comparison between Yeezy and Skateboard P’s fashion pursuits I’m gonna pop an ollie into a boardslide…on somebody’s fucking head. Pharrell’s joints are streetwear brands. I’m sure Kanye could get the money to start one of those faster than you could say “cultural ghettoization,” but our boy is aiming for Ralph Lauren style and status.

So, in order to achieve the consistency Ms. Binkley chides him for lacking, he needs a shit ton of support from one of the handful of people who controls the gears of production and distribution…and he’s not getting it. That’s why, after rather cogently and calmly answering the question of why he can’t just do it himself on New York’s Hot 97 radio station, Kanye went BANANA NUT APE SHIT on radio host Sway’s show when asked the same thing.

I’m publishing the second part of this piece on Friday. Press the little button up there on the right and subscribe to make sure you get the whole story!

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King Kong, Kanye, and Me

King Kong

“They see a black man with a white woman at the top floor, they gone come to kill King Kong.” – Kanye West, Black Skinhead

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I remember the first time I saw King Kong. I’m not sure if it was the quaint, goofy-looking classic from 1934, or the 1976 version with a seriously hot Jessica Lange. What I do know is that I was watching it as a kid on local TV in St. Louis, Missouri.

The looks of unmitigated terror appeared suddenly on the faces of the crowd that had come to see Kong, the spectacular star of the show, then rippled out across the streets of New York City in tandem with our protagonist’s bottomless rage. He ripped and smashed his way across the urban landscape, and in the blink of an eye, Kong had gone from being an unmissable bit of vaguely threatening and therefore palpably exciting exotica for the bored bourgeoisie, to a raving, uncontrollable beast. Windows were smashed, cars morphed into tangled mounds of steaming metal, and (I could only assume since this was a PG movie) people died. I was rooting hard for Kong though, and that’s even more true now.

You see, in the decades that have passed since that evening in my grandmother’s living room, I went on to attain what is, by anyone’s measure, an elite education: Hotchkiss, Harvard, Columbia Business School. I’ve worked for some of the blue-chippiest companies on the planet, beginning with the one that pretty much defined the concept of Wall Street. Started from the bottom, now we’re blah, blah, blah. Except it’s not true.

Despite my inscrutable educational accomplishments, obvious intellectual curiosity, well-documented affability, and noted charm (ask somebody and see if you ain’t heard), since my early career days I’ve felt the imposing presence of The Cage. DuBois called it The Veil, others refer to it as The Glass Ceiling. Pick a nominal metaphor. The point is, it sucks, and I use that word deliberately. As a black person in the U.S., it’s all around you: a cage initially fortified by blatant racism, now maintained by the institutional variety and reinforced by the ignorance of its passive beneficiaries. You can feel it, even if your face isn’t actually smashing into it at that very moment, and the cold realization that you can only move but so far begins to suck the very life out of you. Near the end of my time at one of those companies I was so despondent and angry that I wore all black to work every day…for three months. Some of us just aren’t content living in captivity. I’m not. Kong wasn’t. And neither is Kanye West.

Recently, Kanye appeared on Jimmy Kimmel’s late night talk show, ostensibly to clear the air between him and the host after Jimmy did a parody of Kanye that Yeezus made known he did not like. After hearing of this, I decided to check out Kanye’s latest “rant” for myself. Considering my knowledge of the man, I expected that I’d hear multiple declarations of his own greatness, I anticipated being treated to wild parallels between him and famous historical figures, and I presumed that all of it would proceed from his lips at a dizzying pace, with not a hint of irony. That’s par for the Kanye course, and yes, it was all there. What was also quite apparent however, was that along with the awesome amounts of self-aggrandizement, I was watching a man who was trying desperately to free himself from a cage too small. See for yourself:

Kanye made a name for himself as a beatsmith and rapper with a big sense of style and an even bigger mouth. The public and the media ate it up. Critical accolades poured in, with some even crediting him with bringing back the musical aesthetics of hip-hop’s Golden Age. Everybody loved the Louis Vuitton Don. What Kanye has been trying to tell us for a while now though is that he hasn’t been the Louis Vuitton Don in a long time. In fact, he wants to put his name (or his mother’s to be more accurate) on your back, but has found himself running up against barricade after barricade. In his own words: “To have a meeting with everyone…and everyone kinda just looks at you like you’re crazy…And you just cannot overcome it.”

Sing, dance, and rap well, and you're a genius. Complain that you're being limited...now you're some kind of crazy clown.

Sing, dance, or rap, and you’re entertaining. Do it well, and you’re a genius.
Complain that you’re being systematically constrained…now you’re a clown.

It is in this sobering context that I see his legendary Twitter diatribes, the famed New York Times interview with Jon Caramanica, and yes, this latest appearance on Kimmel, as hallmarks of a man who has decided to stand defiant, beat his chest, and devote the core of his being to demolishing the bars keeping him from the full measure of greatness. The anger has been building for a while. His indictment of George W. Bush during the Hurricane Katrina telethon was an early sign of the rage within. The Taylor Swift incident was another. The mean old gorilla threw shit all over the pretty little girl’s dress. Look, some people may get hurt during this process. Anger is no friend to discipline. But it takes fury to break out of the perfumed hellholes reserved for the likes of people like me and Kanye, and accordingly I have just one word for those that happen to be nearby when we finally bust out.

Run.

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Somewhere In America: Twerking As Cultural Artifact

"Oh, I ain't got no ass? So why you lookin'?" Well, played, Miley.

The Zen of Miley: Don’t try to see the ass. Realize that there IS no ass. It’s only then that you’ll see it.

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Sometimes, I use the internet to look at images of sexy women. Often, these images move. If seen by my mother, about half of them would cause her to reevaluate her opinion of me. I am not necessarily proud of this.

With that said, last week I came upon a little gem that, while somewhat suggestive, was pretty lame…I mean, tame. It featured champion surfer Anastasia Ashley warming up before a competition. Have a look for yourself and I think that you’ll agree that it’s not exactly the stuff of which empty Kleenex boxes are made.

As I watched this pro athlete alternate between stretching her quads and pumping the briny ocean air, I found myself smiling and shaking my head. The smile was me wondering whether “Bubble Butt” was an ironic choice for the accompanying song or if the video’s creators actually believed that Ashley’s certainly cute, yet hardly rotund posterior was actually bubbly. After all, I could show those cats women that would make her rump look like perfect Euclidean planes. On the other hand, the head shaking was motivated by at least a smattering of annoyance.

I mean, this was just another example of cultural appropriation, and not a very good one, right? After all, the media calls it twerking, but what Anastasia Ashley and Miley Cyrus were doing was NOT twerking. For the love of Magic City, it was booty popping…although Miley’s since gotten it right. (See below, starting at 1:26.) And while we’re at it, the 70ish bpm, bass heavy, snare rolling music that these EDM dudes are making is not trap music. Trap music is defined by rap lyrics that are drug related (thus the trap moniker) delivered over Dirty South beats, not by exaggerated components of said beats themselves. Or is it? After taking a minute to consider, I had to reevaluate my position.

Culture is creativity in collective form, and like all species of creativity, it can only reach the height of its expression when shared. A bedroom masterpiece is no masterpiece at all: it’s only after a creative act has been consumed, evaluated, critiqued, and celebrated by others outside of it that said creative output acquires value, and that value is measured by the extent to which it inspires a desire for ownership. In the case of individual works of art like paintings, evening gowns, or songs, this translates to buying (or stealing) them. When it comes to communal art, i.e. culture, this means acculturation. We take the best from other communities, making it ours, with our own accumulated experiences and aesthetic POV, transforming it into a new artifact to be claimed by someone else further along the cultural chain.

Unlike artistic efforts by individuals, we cannot choose who consumes, takes ownership, or modifies cultural output. Culture is the original open source software. It’s constantly re-imagined, renamed and remixed. There are no intellectual property laws protecting it, and thank the gods for that. Otherwise, we’d have no surfing, no bikini (at least not by that name), and no hip-hop, which means no Anastasia Ashley bustin’ it open on the beach. You may not like what she did, how she did it, or that white girls like her get so much attention when they do it, but the fact that it happened is actually a beautiful thing. While Anastasia and Miley are still twerkin’, we can sit back and reflect with pride that somewhere in America, a black girl is riding a killer wave.

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Filed under Pop Culture, Race, Social Issues