Famed jazz and social critic Stanley Crouch is citing the new “Baracka Flocka Flame” parody video as the latest example of “Hip-Hop Minstrelsy.”
Crouch, a long-time critic of Hip-Hop music, cites the culture’s images and themes as more damaging to black people than anything done by whites. According to Crouch, actions such as the Tea Party making President Obama into a witch doctor and pimp on posters pale in comparison to the “dehumanization” Hip-Hop music inflicts on black people.
“Hip-Hop minstrelsy, taken to an extreme, has repeatedly outdone all crude, vindictive and simply clumsy whites whenever it comes to dehumanizing black people,” Crouch wrote in a recent article on The Root. ”Hip-Hop obviously, and no less insultingly, does it better…And now, under the banner of humor or satire, yet another minstrel monster has raised his video head from the gutter once again in the brand-new ‘Head of State,’ which has been seen on YouTube more than a million times.”
The clip has caused conflicting views amongst its African-American viewers. Waka Flocka Flame himself disapproved of the video, saying it was disrespectful to the President. Others see it as acceptable satire of public figures.
Crouch defines good comedy as art that displays the “bittersweet feeling of human frailty.” He views the “Head of State” video as nothing more than shock treatment, something he sees as problematic for many black artists.
“Profound recognition of human frailty is always collective, and the exclusion of black people from that equation of universal fact is the perpetual problem,” Croch argues. “When sheer vulgarity is thought to do the job of liberating, more than a little is lost. Shock is misconstrued as a substitute for substance. Richard Pryor was, along with Charlie Chaplin and W.C. Fields, one of the prime geniuses of American comedy.”
“Unfortunately, Pryor’s use of coarse language, and his fast and loose sprinkling of the term ‘nigger’ as both a linguistic spice and a misbegotten form of black authenticity, bedevil us to this day,” he continued. “It has become no more than a product that any unimaginative black comedian or rapper can use as recklessly and relentlessly as possible.”
“Head of State,” directed by Martin Usher and starring comedian James Davis as President Obama, can be viewed below. The entire Stanley Crouch article can be read HERE.
I met Stanley Crouch when I was just starting to seriously look at writing as a career. He was speaking at an event and signing copies of his latest book Considering Genius: Writings on Jazz (which I highly recommend). He gave me some good tips on writing and urged me to continue studying my craft and make my voice heard. Note me back in my much skinnier days below with Crouch and fellow writer Jelani Cobb.
When it comes to Hip-Hop, and even his critiques on some jazz artists, we have drastically different opinions. When Crouch talks about Hip-Hop culture, I’m always taken back to my studies of the Harlem Renaissance. Towards the middle of that 10 year cultural explosion in the 1920s, there became a contentious divide between the older, established guard, represented by W.E.B. DuBois, and young, bolder artists represented by artists like Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and Claude McKay.
DuBois wanted the creative work of the period to serve as “propaganda” to show whites, and other blacks, that we were human beings capable of high art. Crouch’s phrase of ”the bittersweet feeling of human frailty” in his definition of “good comedy,” and the belief that certain African-American art can dehumanize the entire race, is an echo of DuBois’ points in his 1926 essay “Criteria of Negro Art.”
“Thus it is the bounden duty of black America to begin this great work of the creation of beauty, of the preservation of beauty, of the realization of beauty, and we must use in this work all the methods that men have used before,” DuBois wrote. “[The] point today is that until the art of the black folk compels recognition they will not be rated as human.”
In essence, W.E.B. DuBois believed that creating “high art” without threatening stories, images and stereotypes would be the gateway to liberating black people from white oppression and dehumanization. Hughes and his young colleagues adamantly rejected this line of thinking. In sharp contrast to the Talented Tenth ethos of DuBois’ philosophy, their novels and poems brought a voice to the working class and poor.
Hughes countered that the black artist’s work should be a reflection of the ugly as well as the beautiful. Art, he justified, was at times supposed to challenge societal standards. He looked at jazz, which like Hip-Hop started in the streets and was originally dismissed as art, as the most beautiful expression of black culture in America.
“But jazz to me is one of the inherent expressions of Negro life in America; the eternal tom-tom beating in the Negro soul– the tom-tom of revolt against weariness in a white world…” Hughes wrote in his essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.” “An artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must also never be afraid to do what he might choose.”
In the glowing terms that Crouch talks about jazz, you’d almost forget the fact it came from the streets, originally thriving places like whorehouses and speakeasies. The term “jazz” itself was slang for sex. The same negative term of “uneducated blacks” that he uses to describe many Hip-Hop artists, were the same group that created and cultivated jazz in the early 1900s. Although both groups were not formally educated, through their creative spirits these black people from different eras birthed cultures that defined their generations and changed music forever.
It’s hard for me to understand how Crouch cannot see these parallels. Is there bad Hip-Hop? Of course. Waka Flocka Flame is not a good emcee or someone I would use to expose a novice to Hip-Hop. The video parody makes his work look more foolish, if anything. We know Obama is not a fool; the jury is still out on geometry college major hopeful Waka Flocka. But how anyone who studies music, poetry and literature cannot see the artistic value in the works of Scarface, Nas, Outkast, Rakim and countless others is baffling.
As much as I value some of Crouch’s work and contributions, after meeting him I made myself a vow. And that vow was never to become completely disconnected from the generations that came after me and the art they created. Sure, I knew some of it would make me shake my head and be confusing. That’s a part of growing older and becoming more conservative. But even in those changes would be artists whose work echoed the greats that came before them. These are the ones that need to be championed and not shunned if Hip-Hop culture is to survive and not go the way of jazz music.