AfroPunk Weekend

So, I have recently fallen in love with all things AfroPunk. I have known about the film since it’s debut, but kept missing it’s screenings, cuz, well, I lived in New Orleans which only had one screening and I was out of town then…

Anyway, I missed the film yet again on March 22, but damn near broke my neck to get to the Delancey that night to see my favorit artist
Joi perform for the first of director James Spooner’s Liberation Sessions – Black rock/punkster musicians who rock the crowds after the film screenings. Brilliant marketing, James!

Anyhow, I saw the film and loved it (I’ll review it later), and have been a walking/talking billboard, and been up in the Liberation Sessions parties.

So I am recommending you put down the damn bottle rockets, and get your 4th of July fireworks on at BAM, and at the Delancey (168 Delancey St. between Clinton and Attorney Sts. 212-254-9920 ) this weekend for the film fest and three nights of fly ass music.

Black Rock not your thang? Well, on Sunday night, the Ubiquita crew and DJ Cool Marv is serving up a stankin’ ass brew of soul, funk, disco, house, and some mo fly ass shit. If I don’t see you there and you live in the 5 boroughs, you’re whack!

Is Gay Marriage Anti-Black?

Is Gay Marriage Anti-Black?
By Kenyon Farrow
March 5, 2004

I was in Atlanta on business when I saw the Sunday, Feb. 29th 2004 edition of the Atlanta Journal Constitution that featured as its cover story the issue of gay marriage. Georgia is one of the states prepared to add some additional language to its state constitution that bans same sex marriages (though the state already defines marriage between a man and a woman, so the legislation is primarily symbolic). What struck me about the front page story was the fact that all of the average Atlanta citizens whom were pictured that opposed gay marriages were Black people. This is not to single out the Atlanta Journal Constitution, as I have noticed in all of the recent coverage and hubbub over gay marriage that the media has been real crucial in playing up the racial politics of the debate. For example, the people who are in San Francisco getting married are almost exclusively white whereas many of the people who are shown opposing it are Black. And it is more Black people than typically shown in the evening news (not in handcuffs). This leaves me with several questions: Is gay marriage a Black/white issue? Are the Gay Community and the Black Community natural allies or sworn enemies? And where does that leave me, a Black gay man, who does not want to get married?

Same-sex Marriage and Race Politics

My sister really believes that this push for gay marriage is actually not being controlled by gays & lesbians. She believes it is actually being tested in various states by the Far Right in disguise, in an effort to cause major fractures in the Democratic Party to distract from all the possible roadblocks to re-election for George W. in November such as an unpopular war and occupation, the continued loss of jobs, and growing revelations of the Bush administration’s ties to corporate scandals.

Whatever the case, it is important to remember that gay marriage rights are fraught with racial politics, and that there is no question that the public opposition to same-sex marriages is in large part being financially backed by various right-wing Christian groups like the Christian Coalition and Family Research Council. Both groups have histories and overlapping staff ties to white supremacist groups and solidly oppose affirmative action but play up some sort of Christian allegiance to the Black Community when the gay marriage issue is involved. For example, in 1990’s the Traditional Values Coalition produced a short documentary called “Gay Rights, Special Rights, which was targeted at Black churches to paint non-heterosexual people as only white and upper class, and as sexual pariahs, while painting Black people as pure, chaste, and morally superior. The video juxtaposed images of white gay men from the leather/S&M community with the voice of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, leaving conservative Black viewers with the fear that the Civil Rights Movement was being taken over by morally debased human beings. And since Black people continue to be represented as hyper sexual beings and sexual predators in both pop culture and the mass media (pimps & players, hoochies & hos, rapists of white women & tempters of white men), conservative Black people often cling to the other image white America hoists onto Black people as well – asexual and morally superior (as seen in the role of the Black talk show host and the role of the Black sage/savior-of-white people used in so many Hollywood movies, like In America and The Green Mile, which are all traceable to Mammy and Uncle Remus-type caricatures).

Since the Christian Right has money and access to corporate media, they set the racial/sexual paradigm that much of America gets in this debate, which is that homos are rich and white and do not need any such special protections and that Black people are Black – a homogeneous group who, in this case, are Christian, asexual (or hetero-normative), morally superior, and have the right type of “family values.” This, even though Black families are consistently painted as dysfunctional and are treated as such in the mass media and in public policy, which has devastating effects on Black self-esteem, and urban and rural Black communities’ ability to be self-supporting, self-sustaining, and self determining. The lack of control over economic resources, high un/underemployment, lack of adequate funding for targeted effective HIV prevention and treatment, and the large numbers of Black people in prison (nearly one million of the 2.1 million U.S. prison population) are all ways that Black families (which include non-heterosexuals) are undermined by public policies often fueled by right wing “tough on crime” and “war on drugs” rhetoric.

Given all of these social problems that largely plague the Black community (and thinking about my sister’s theory), one has to wonder why this issue would rise to the surface in an election year, just when the Democratic ticket is unifying. And it is an issue, according to the polls anyway, that could potentially strip the Democratic Party of it solid support from African-American communities. And even though several old-guard civil rights leaders (including Coretta Scott King, John Lewis, Revs. Al Sharpton, and Jesse Jackson) have long supported equal protection under the law for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community (which usually, but not always means support of same-sex marriage), the right wing continues to pit gay marriage (and by extension, gay civil rights) against Black political interests, by relying on conservative Black people to publicly speak out against it (and a lot has been written about how several Black ministers received monies from right-wing organizations to speak out against same-sex marriages in their pulpits). But many Black leaders, including some I’ve been able to catch on television recently despite the right-wing’s spin on the matter, have made the argument that they know too well the dangers that lie in “separate but equal” rhetoric. So, if many of our Black leaders vocally support same-sex marriage, how has the Christian Right been able to create such a wedge between the Black community and the gay community?

Homophobia in Black Popular Culture

Some of the ways that the Christian Right-wing has been so successful in using same-sex marriage as a wedge issue is by both exploiting homophobia in the Black community and also racism in the gay community. In regards to homophobia in the Black community the focus of conversation has been about the Black Churches’ stance on homosexuality. It has been said many times that while many Black churches remain somewhat hostile places for non-heterosexual parishioners, it is also where you will in fact find many Black gays and lesbians. Many of them are in positions of power and leadership within the church – ushers, choir members/directors, musicians, and even preachers themselves. But let me debunk the myth that the Black Church is the Black community. The Black community is in no way monolithic, nor are Black Christians. The vast majority of Black people who identify as “Christian” do not attend any church whatsoever. Many Black Americans have been Muslim for over a century and there are larger numbers of Black people who are proudly identifying as Yoruba, Santero/a, and atheists as well. The Black community in America is also growing more ethnically diverse, with a larger, more visible presence of Africans, West Indians, and Afro-Latinos amongst our ranks. We have always been politically diverse, with conservatives, liberals, radicals and revolutionaries alike (and politics do not necessarily align with what religion you may identify as your own). It is also true that we are and have always been sexually diverse and multi-gendered. Many of our well-known Black History Month favorites were in fact gay, bisexual and lesbian.

Despite our internal diversity, we are at a time (for the last 30 years) when Black people are portrayed in the mass media—mostly through hip-hop culture—as being hyper-sexual and hyper-heterosexual to be specific. Nowhere is the performance of Black hyper-masculinity more prevalent than in hip-hop culture, which is where the most palpable form of homophobia in American culture currently resides. This of course is due largely to the white record industry’s notions of who we are, which they also sell to non-Black people. Remember pop culture has for the last 150 years been presenting Blackness to the world – initially as white performers in Blackface, to Black performers in Black face, and currently to white, Black and other racial groups performing Blackness as something that connotes sexual potency and a propensity for violent behavior, which are also performed as heterosexuality.

And with the advent of music video, performance is as important (if not more) as song content. As Black hip-hop artists perform gangsta and Black Nationalist revolutionary forms of masculinity alike, so follows overt homophobia and hostility to queer people, gay men in particular. Recently, DMX’s video and song “Where the Hood At?” contained some of the most blatant and hateful homophobic lyrics and images I have seen in about a decade. The song suggests that the “faggot” can and will never be part of the “hood” for he is not a man. The song and video are particularly targeted at Black men who are not out of the closet, and considered on the “down low.” Although challenged by DMX, the image of the “down low” brother is another form of performance of Black masculinity, regardless of actual sexual preference.

But it’s not just “commercial” rap artists being homophobic. “Conscious” hip–hop artists such as Common, Dead Prez and Mos Def have also promoted homophobia through their lyrics, mostly around notions of “strong Black families,” and since gay Black men (in theory) do not have children, we are somehow anti-family and antithetical to what a “strong Black man” should be. Lesbians (who are not interested in performing sex acts for the pleasure of men voyeurs) are also seen as anti-family, and not a part of the Black community. A woman “not wanting dick” in a nation where Black dick is the only tangible power symbol for Black men is seen as just plain crazy, which is also expressed in many hip-hop tunes. None of these artists interrogate their representations of masculinity in their music, but merely perform them for street credibility. And for white market consumption.

It cannot be taken lightly that white men are in control of the record industry as a whole (even with a few Black entrepreneurs), and control what images get played. Young white suburban males are the largest consumer of hip-hop music. So performance of Black masculinity (or Black sexuality as a whole) is created by white men for white men. And since white men have always portrayed Black men as sexually dangerous and Black women as always sexually available (and sexual violence against Black women is rarely taken seriously), simplistic representations of Black sexuality as hyper-heterosexual are important to maintaining white supremacy and patriarchy, and control of Black bodies. Black people are merely the unfortunate middlemen in an exchange between white men. We do, however, consume the representations like the rest of America. And the more that Black people are willing to accept these representations as fact rather than racist fiction, the more heightened homophobia in our communities tends to be.

Race and the Gay Community

While homophobia in the Black community is certainly an issue we need to address, Blacks of all sexualities experience the reality that many white gays and lesbians think that because they’re gay, they “understand” oppression, and therefore could not be racist like their heterosexual counterparts. Bullshit. America is first built on the privilege of whiteness, and as long as you have white skin, you have a level of agency and access above and beyond people of color, period. White women and white non-heteros included. There is a white gay man named Charles Knipp who roams this nation performing drag in Blackface to sold-out houses, north and south alike. During the 2004 Valentine’s Day weekend, he performed at the Slide Bar in NYC’s East Village to a packed house of white queer folks eager to see him perform “Shirley Q Liquor,” a welfare mother with 19 kids. And haven’t all of the popular culture gay images on TV shows like Will & Grace, Queer as Folk, etc., been exclusively white? No matter how many Black divas wail over club beats in white gay clubs all over America (Mammy goes disco!) with gay men appropriating language and other Black cultural norms (specifically from Black women), white gay men continue to function as cultural imperialists the same way straight white boys appropriate hip-hop (and let’s not ignore that white women have been in on the act, largely a result of Madonna bringing white women into the game.).

There have always been racial tensions in the gay community as long as there have been racial tensions in America, but in the 1990’s, the white gay community went mainstream, further pushing non-hetero people of color from the movement.

The reason for this schism is that in order to be mainstream in America, one has to be seen as white. And since white is normative, one has to interrogate what other labels or institutions are seen as normative in our society: family, marriage, and military service, to name a few. It is then no surprise that a movement that goes for “normality” would then end up in a battle over a dubious institution like marriage (and hetero-normative family structures by extension). And debates over “family values,” no matter how broad or narrow you look at them, always have whiteness at the center, and are almost always anti-Black. As articulated by Robin D.G. Kelley in his book Yo Mama’s Dysfunktional, the infamous Moynihan report is the most egregious of examples of how the Black family structure has been portrayed as dysfunctional, an image that still has influence on the way in which Black families are discussed in the media and controlled by law enforcement and public policy. Since Black families are in fact presented and treated as dysfunctional, this explains the large numbers of Black children in the hands of the state through foster care, and increasingly, prisons (so-called “youth detention centers”). In many cases, trans-racial adoptions are the result. Many white same-sex unions take advantage of the state’s treatment of Black families; after all, white queer couples are known for adopting Black children since they are so “readily” available and also not considered as attractive or healthy compared to white, Asian and Latino/a kids. If Black families were not labeled as dysfunctional or de-stabilized by prison expansion and welfare “reform,” our children would not be removed from their homes at the numbers they are, and there would be no need for adoption or foster care in the first place. So the fact that the white gay community continues to use white images of same-sex families is no accident, since the Black family, heterosexual, same-sex or otherwise, is always portrayed as dysfunctional.

I also think the white gay community’s supposed “understanding” of racism is what has caused them to appropriate language and ideology of the Black Civil Rights Movement, which has led to the bitter divide between the two communities. This is where I as a Black gay man, am forced to intervene in a debate that I find problematic on all sides.

Black Community and Gay Community – Natural Allies or Sworn Enemies?

As the gay community moved more to the right in the 1990’s, they also began to talk about Gay Rights as Civil Rights. Even today in this gay marriage debate, I have heard countless well-groomed, well-fed white gays and lesbians on TV referring to themselves as “second-class citizens.” Jason West, the white mayor of New Paltz, NY, who started marrying gay couples (to the dismay of New York Governor Pataki) was quoted as saying, “The same people who don’t want to see gays and lesbians get married are the same people who would have made Rosa Parks go to the back of the bus.” It’s these comparisons that piss Black people off. While the anger of Black heteros is sometimes expressed in ways that are in fact homophobic, the truth of the matter is that Black folks are tired of seeing other people hijack their shit for their own gains, and getting nothing in return. Black non-heteros share this anger of having our Blackness and Black political rhetoric and struggle stolen for other people’s gains. The hijacking of Rosa Parks for their campaigns clearly ignores the fact that white gays and lesbians who lived in Montgomery, AL and elsewhere probably gladly made many a Black person go to the back of the bus. James Baldwin wrote in his long essay “No Name in the Street” about how he was felt up by a white sheriff in a small southern town when on a visit during the civil rights era.

These comparisons of “Gay Civil Rights” as equal to “Black Civil Rights” really began in the early 1990’s, and largely responsible for this was Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and a few other mostly-white gay organizations. This push from HRC, without any visible Black leadership or tangible support from Black allies (straight and queer), to equate these movements did several things: 1) Piss off the Black community for the white gay movement’s cultural appropriation, and making the straight Black community question non-hetero Black people’s allegiances, resulting in our further isolation. 2) Giving the (white) Christian Right ammunition to build relationships with Black ministers to denounce gay rights from their pulpits based on the HRC’s cultural appropriation. 3) Create a scenario in their effort to go mainstream that equates gay and lesbian with upper-class and white. This meant that the only visibility of non-hetero poor people and people of color wound up on Jerry Springer, where non-heteros who are poor and of color are encouraged (and paid) to act out, and are therefore only represented as dishonest, violent, and pathological.

So, given this difficult history and problematic working relationship of the Black community and the gay community, how can the gay community now, at its most crucial hour, expect large scale support of same-sex marriage by the Black community when there has been no real work done to build strategic allies with us? A new coalition has formed of Black people, non-hetero and hetero, to promote same-sex marriage equality to the Black community, and I assume to effectively bridge that disconnect, and to in effect, say that gay marriage ain’t just a white thing. Or is it?

Is Gay Marriage Anti – Black?

I, as a Black gay man, do not support this push for same-sex marriage. Although I don’t claim to represent all Black gay people, I do believe that the manner in which this campaign has been handled has put Black people in the middle of essentially two white groups of people, who are trying to manipulate us one way or the other. The Christian right, which is in fact anti-Black, has tried to create a false alliance between themselves and Blacks through religion to push forward their homophobic, fascist agenda. The white gay civil rights groups are also anti-Black, however they want Black people to see this struggle for same-sex unions as tantamount to separate but equal Jim Crow laws. Yet any close examination reveals that histories of terror imposed upon generations of all Black people in this country do not in any way compare to what appears to be the very last barrier between white gays and lesbians’ access to what bell hooks describes as “white supremacist Christian capitalist patriarchy.” That system is inherently anti-Black, and no amount of civil rights will ever get Black people any real liberation from it. For, in what is now a good 40 years of “civil rights,” nothing has intrinsically changed or altered in the American power structure, and a few Black faces in inherently racist institutions is hardly progress.

Given the current white hetero-normative constructions of family and how the institutions of marriage and nuclear families have been used against Black people, I do think that to support same-sex marriage is in fact, anti-Black (I also believe the institution of marriage to be historically anti-woman, and don’t support it for those reasons as well). At this point I don’t know if I am totally opposed to the institution of marriage altogether, but I do know that the campaign would have to happen on very different terms for me to support same-sex marriages. At this point, the white gay community is as much to blame as the Christian Right for the way they have constructed the campaign, including who is represented, and their appropriation of Black civil rights language.

Along with how the campaign is currently devised, I struggle with same-sex marriage because, given the level of homophobia in our society (specifically in the Black community), and racism as well, I think that even if same-sex marriage becomes legal, white people will access that privilege far more than Black people. This is especially the case with poor Black people, who regardless of sexual preference or gender, are struggling with the most critical of needs (housing, food, gainful employment), which are not at all met by same-sex marriage. Some Black people (men in particular) might not try to access same-sex marriage because they do not even identify as “gay” partly because of homophobia in the Black community, but also because of the fact that racist white queer people continue to dominate the public discourse of what “gay” is, which does not include Black people of the hip-hop generation by and large.

I do fully understand that non-heteros of all races and classes may cheer this effort for they want their love to be recognized, and may want to reap some of the practical benefits that a marriage entitlement would bring – health care (if one of you gets health care from your job in the first place) for your spouse, hospital visits without drama or scrutiny, and control over a deceased partner’s estate. But, gay marriage, in and of itself, is not a move towards real, and systemic liberation. It does not address my most critical need as a Black gay man to be able to walk down the streets of my community with my lover, spouse or trick, and not be subjected to ridicule, assault or even murder. Gay marriage does not adequately address homophobia or transphobia, for same-sex marriage still implies binary opposite thinking, and transgender folks are not at all addressed in this debate.

What Does Gay Marriage Mean for All Black People?

But what does that mean for Black people? For Black non-heteros, specifically? Am I supposed to get behind this effort, and convince heterosexual Black people to do the same, especially when I know the racist manner in which this campaign has been carried out for over ten years? And especially when I know that the vast majority of issues that my community—The Black Community, of all orientations and genders—are not taken nearly this seriously when it comes to crucial life and death issues that we face daily like inadequate housing and health care, HIV/AIDS, police brutality, and the wholesale lockdown of an entire generation in America’s grotesquely large prison system. How do those of us who are non-heterosexual and Black use this as an opportunity to deal with homophobia, transphobia and misogyny in our communities, and heal those larger wounds of isolation, marginalization and fear that plague us regardless of marital status? It is the undoing of systems of domination and control that will lead to liberation for all of ourselves, and all of us as a whole.

In the end, I am down for Black people who oppose gay marriage—other folks “in the life” as well as straight, feminists, Christians, Muslims, and the like. But I want more than just quotes from Leviticus or other religious and moral posturing. I want to engage in a meaningful critical conversation of what this means for all of us, which means that I must not be afraid to be me in our community, and you must not be afraid of me. I will struggle alongside you, but I must know that you will also have my back.

Forever Saying This Right Now

I was away for a conference this weekend and had no cell and no internet access, deep in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, only to find my blog had been visited by none other than Oliver Wang, who is beginning to strike me as the kind of person who simply must, no matter the circumstance, have the last word. Pity.

Be that as it may, I am not going to fully respond in this blog at this time to him, because I did not write “We Real Cool?” to attempt to have any kind of conversation with him, but more or less wrote it to say, “Fuck off!” So, let me make this brief. Call it “uncalled for” or “petty” or whatever, but you know the way that panel and that audience went after me was uncalled for and petty, and you were the moderator(!), and you let it happen. That’s a passive agressive way of saying “fuck off” don’t you think (Not to mention blogging about it later, and then getting mad that I did not remain the anonymous Black person you could blog about and wouldn’t answer back. Isn’t that what this is really about?)? But I like to say “fuck off” in no uncertain terms, and not with alot of bullshit niceties the way people act like they’re doing when they are really hostile and mad as hell. Just be mad as hell! Why act like you’re trying to be civil when you know you are also trying to tell me, albeit politely or passive aggressively, to “fuck off” too?

Or is that you think I am really trying to build with you? I don’t know why people don’t understand the difference between making an intervention and wanting to have a discussion. They aren’t one in the same, but the “Left” is so full of people who are “trying to build,” that they think that anything that comes from your mouth is an attempt to reach out. Not so. Why can’t people just stop what they’re doing and think about some shit before trying to write about it or do organizing? If you have been made to re-think some shit, then simply do that, THINK!

Now, on the issue of the Immigration Act–(and it’s relationship to the Civil Rights Movement) and the intentions or consequences of it–I will return to that issue at a later time. Not wanting to mirror the kind of knee-jerk tendency I am talking about, I am in no rush to defend my analysis on that. It is clearly a subject that a lot of assumptions are made about on the Left, and I will deal with those assumptions in a different format, in a more formal way. I don’t want the seriousness and the gravity of the stripping away of those assumptions to be done in the heat of the moment, and least of all on a blog. Hell, I am trying to write reviews for AfroPunk and The Emancipation of Mimi for God’s sake!

And that’s all I have to say on that. But is it me, or am I forever saying this right now?

We Real Cool?:On Hip-Hop, Asian-Americans, Black Folks, and Appropriation

I am posting this piece I wrote in December to my own damn blog. I emailed it out, and it was posted on Chicken Bones. I just read a great piece by Sharon Woodsen Bryant about Black/Latino relations in the wake of the Vicente Fox comments. She asked in her piece “Will someone please write about racism of non-whites against Blacks?” Well, I did. So I thought I’d re-post the following piece (and hopefully beef up the traffic hits to my blog!). Also, There’s been a long argument on Jeff Chang’s blog about George Yancey’s book, and Oliver Wang continues to talk shit about me 6 months later, and never is his critique of my critique of him the same. First, he responded to the E-drum listerv that I was basically a liar, but when someone else posted (who also was at this particular event) that I was not only telling the truth, but was fairly nice in not describing the other fucked up things that went down. Now, on Chang’s site, he says my essay was “uncivil”. His words. Not mine. Without further ado, “We Real Cool?”:

We Real Cool?: On Hip-Hop, Asian-Americans, Black Folks, and Appropriation
By Kenyon Farrow © 2004

I went to an event in Philly on Friday, November 19 at the Asian Arts Initiative, an Asian American “community arts” space, entitled “Changing the Face of the Game: Asian Americans in Hip-Hop.” I cannot pretend I didn’t already know what I was getting myself into. The title of the event itself expresses a level of hostility to Black people – Since Black people are the current face of the game, and for whatever reason, that needs to be changed. But anyhow, I went, ready to see what was gonna go down…

The Main Event
Oliver Wang, Asian American writer, cultural critic and graduate student at UC Berkeley (where he teaches courses on pop culture), the opening speaker and panel moderator, gave an opening talk about the historical presence of Asians in hip-hop. Mr. Wang’s research into the annals of hip-hop history unearthed an emcee (who claims to have cut a record before “Rapper’s Delight”) from the South Bronx, whom Wang declares as the “first Asian in hip-hop.” He then describes him as “half Filipino and half Black.” I couldn’t help but wonder how this emcee identified himself and how he physically looked, and why his Blackness was now a footnote in Wang’s historical re-write. As Wang continued on, he painted hip-hop music and culture as this multi-culti “American” artform that everyone’s had a hand in developing. By doing so, Wang very skillfully ignored the reality that Rap was in fact created by Black youth (and Latinos from the Caribbean – many of whom are also of African descent and certainly ghettoized as “Black” in the NYC socio-economic landscape) in the South Bronx (or in Queens, depending on whom you ask). Wang went on to say that the only reason why Asians were drawn to hip-hop was because of the music. He also said that “hip-hop is the most democratic music because it doesn’t take the same skill as playing classical music.”

Wang then asked a follow-up question to the panelists. Uh-oh! The panel included spoken word duo Yellow Rage, DJ Phillie Blunt, Chops of the Mountain Brothers, a Cambodian-American rapper named Jim, and his friend, the lone Black panelist who is an MC from Philly. Borrowing from the hip-hop romantic comedy Brown Sugar, Wang asked each panelist to talk about when they “first fell in love with hip-hop.” All of the panelists, save the Black man, talked about hearing some rap song on the radio and falling in love, because it expressed “who they were” and “their experience.” Jim admitted he grew up in the burbs and came to hip-hop out of his isolation. At least that was honest. Michelle, from Yellow Rage, anointed herself the hip-hop historian (or shall I shay griot?) for the evening. Making jokes about her age, Michelle reminded the audience to pay respect to hip-hop’s roots and remember “the old school.” The panel was asked another question by Wang and then he opened the floor for questions from the audience.

After squirming in my third-row seat for the duration of the talk, I had my opportunity. Quickly raising my hand, I was passed the mic. My question/statement was: In all of the talk thus far, we have conveniently skirted around the issue of race. But let’s be real, when we’re talking about hip-hop and hip-hop culture, we mean Black people, which you de-emphasized and de-historicized in your intro talk, Mr Wang… Now, we know about the history of Black popular culture being appropriated and stolen by whites, as in the case of Blues, Jazz, and Rock & Roll. And now there’s hip-hop, and since we live in this multi-racial state which still positions Blackness socio-economically and politically at the bottom, how does the presence of Asian Americans in hip-hop, this black cultural artform, look any different than that of white folks in Jazz, Blues, and Rock & Roll?

The jig was up. I was the rain that ended the parade (or shall I say charade?). The room quickly turned to palpable hostility and anger. Since they were already clearly pissed, I decided to throw out a follow-up question: Mr. Wang, you that Asian people in hip-hop just like the music, which I find hard to believe since hip-hop also came into prominence in the day and age of music video – where image and representation are as important (if not more) than the music itself. That being the case, what is it about Black people (and especially Black masculinity in the case of hip-hop), and what they represent to others, that is so attractive to other people, including non-white people of color?

The Body Slam
Well, that did it. They were mad as hell. I mean, how dare I bring up Black people and appropriation, as if Asians can’t possibly appropriate Blackness in the same manner that white folks do! It couldn’t be, not while I’m in a standing-room only crowd of “conscious” Asian youth with locks and hair teased out (and often chemically treated) to look like afros!

Well, that panel couldn’t get that mic around fast enough! Some of the responses were too asinine to even bother with a critique. But I will tackle the main points. The first to respond was the lone Black man on the panel. Responding to my second question, he spoke in a condescending, yet gentle tone (you know, “brother to brother”) about us “being a soulful people” and that’s why everyone wants to get with our shit and how I should see it as a “compliment.” Well, I am fine with you getting with it – on the radio or video or whatever – but does that mean you get to have it? Better yet, take it, and then use it against Black people to promote the image of us as intimidating and politically and culturally selfish? This is exactly the narrative that was used to promote Eminem and is being used now for Jin: both of them are framed as real “artists” and “lyricists” who stand dignified in the face of Black “reverse racism” and hostility (watch 8 Mile, read much of the press written about Jin’s appearances on 106th & Park)—as if Nas, Bahamadia, or Andre 3000 & Big Boi aren’t really artists but, as Black people are expected to do, just use “the race card” to get ahead. And to treat Blacks as “soulful people” is the same as seeing us as primitives (with some genetic code programming us to gleefully wail and shout, shake and shimmy) who make this lovely music yet are too docile to be really intelligent, ingenious and artistic.

Several of the panelists at this event went on to critique commercial rap artists for being materialistic, etc. For example, after putting his arm on his Black friend’s shoulder and telling me that we need to “recognize that Blacks are on the bottom,” Jim concluded by telling me that “it’s about class, not race” and how he tries his hardest to be “conscientious.” This is the same guy who earlier emphasized how capitalism diluted the politics of hip-hop without talking about Asian Americans’ role in the capitalist structure. Instead of dealing with this very important issue, the Asian-American panelists acted as if they were “more real” than Black commercial artists. So, because they get to be “underground” (which loosely means someone without a record deal), they get to be “real” and “authentic” over Black artists who have been commercially successful. I have my own critiques of commercially successful Black hip-hop artists and their materialism, misogyny, violence and homophobia – which I have written and spoken about as well—but I was not about to give that over to some hostile non-Black people to use to make themselves more “down.”

Michelle of Yellow Rage flat out screamed on me, in an effort, I guess, to “keep it real” with her duo’s namesake. Starting several of her sentences with the phrase, “You need to acknowledge…” she went on an on about how she is sick of people (I guess Black people) saying that hip-hop is a Black thing. This Ph.D. candidate (who specializes in both Asian and African American Literature) went on to tell me that I need to “stop being so divisive” and “read my history” via the likes of cultural critics Tricia Rose and Nelson George so that I can learn and ultimately “acknowledge” that “nobody has a monopoly on culture.”

And least of all Black people. As the descendants of slaves, the property of others, nothing belongs to us. Everything we do, including hip-hop and spoken word, can be done by anyone else. And yet, Yellow Rage made a name for itself by critiquing appropriation of Asian culture by non-Asians, including Black people (specifically hip-hop artists). So, to the author of Ancestor Worship (a phrase generally referring to Black African traditional religious practice) and member of Asians Misbehavin’ (which appropriates the name from the Black musical revue of Fats Waller’s music, Ain’t Misbehavin’), I say to you, Michelle, if Asians have certain cultural boundaries that need to be respected (e.g. Chinese/Japanese tattoos, chopsticks in the hair, etc.), then why does that not apply to Black people? Maybe this is something Michelle can ponder as she works on her dissertation called “Untying Tongues” (which appropriates the title of the late Black Gay filmmaker Marlon Rigg’s work, Tongues Untied).

So I asked the first, and apparently last question of the Q&A. Not caring to see the “performance” part of the evening (though I’d have to call the panel a performance as much as the concert), I left the event, dealing with the angry glares on my way out. I thought it was over. But then a friend sent me a link to a commentary on the cultural possessiveness of Blacks over hip-hop on Oliver “aka O-Dub” Wang’s site written by Mr. Wang himself (http://www.o-dub.com/weblog/2004/11/hes-your-chinaman-jin-jin-everywhere.html).

The Aftermath
So, in a larger blog about Jin and Asians in hip-hop, Wang writes about the Asian Arts Initiative event. Describing how I raised the question I did, Wang responds:
“I’m constantly frustrated by these kinds of defensive attitudes around cultural ownership though I am quite aware of how they arise. The gentleman in this case was correct in noting that African American culture has suffered through a long history of being exploited to the gains of others and there is great concern that hip-hop is simply next on the list…Communities may think they ‘own’ a culture but that’s not how culture works. It’s not an object you can chain up. Culture doesn’t care about borders – it spreads as fast and as far as the people who consume it will take it. I agree, yes, culture can also be misappropriated and exploited. But if people are really worrying about hip-hop becoming the latest example of Black culture being emptied of content and turned into a deracinated commodity, the problem doesn’t lie with Asian American youth. Or Latino youth. Or even white youth really.”

It’s interesting – or more accurately, disturbing – that Wang uses the metaphor of culture being “chained up” in relation to African Americans. Wang, like Michelle from Yellow Rage, refuses to deal with what the legacy of being property (always owned, and never owners) means in the case of Black people and claims of ownership over culture. So, where Black people are concerned, both historically and contemporarily, it’s all good. We make everything for everybody. Wang goes on assert that the “The color line here is painted in green. You want to talk about cooptation? Talk about corporations…” (right now W.E.B. DuBois is rolling over in his grave). So I guess, as Wang puts it, the real (and I guess only) problem is corporations who promote hip-hop and make money off of it—of which some executives are Black, Wang is eager to point out.

That’s almost slick, Ollie. But not quite. People who don’t want to deal with their own complicity in the reproduction of anti-Black racism are very quick to point out corporations as the culprit. Interestingly, while emphasizing corporations, Wang doesn’t talk about his own relationship to them or that he makes a living writing for such corporations about a music that allegedly doesn’t require much skill or that he works for a university—which is also a corporation—and gets to have some control over the production of knowledge about hip-hop. Instead of addressing this, Wang goes out of his way to point out that there are one or two Black people in some level of decision making capacity in the music industry. But why doesn’t he talk about how virtually none of them actually own the labels, and fewer are in control of any means of production and distribution?

The narrative of blame the corporation, but not me (or any living breathing person), and don’t talk about the bodies it oppresses in the meantime is such a mirror of the white nationalist narrative. It, to me, is the same as the white person saying, “Don’t blame me for slavery. My grandparents didn’t own any slaves. They came from Russia in 1902. And didn’t Africans sell their own people into slavery? And didn’t some Blacks own slaves?”

Well, maybe your “immigrant” ancestor did not own slaves, but they certainly benefited from a nation that valued whiteness above all else. And they got jobs in industry (that Black people clearly needed and couldn’t get easy or any access to) and amass wealth in a way Black people have been prevented from doing collectively. A handful of rappers, athletes and talk-show hosts doesn’t change the fact that a recent study by the Pew Hispanic Center deemed that Black families are the only racial group in the United States who saw their wealth decrease in recent years. And your grandparents didn’t end up here by accident, no more than mine accidentally left the shores of Africa – “chained up.” They came because the US wanted to balance a growing Black non-enslaved population with more white people. So the US took who they could get.

By the 1960’s the US again decided to balance a “mad and organized-as-all-hell” Black population by relaxing immigration to bring in more non-Black people of color. So, in many cases, the non-Black presence in the US was specifically set up in relationship against Black people. Even if your family was here before the 1960s, look at the history of every contiguous state formed between the American Revolution and the Civil War. The question of slavery is at the heart of the founding of every single one. The “slave,” the “nigger,” and the “criminal” are historical and contemporary positions that Blackness occupies. This reality is something everyone is forced to deal with, and yet nobody wants to be one of them.

So, what Asian Americans and Asian American politics (and I think “People of Color” politics as well) has yet to fully deal with is that we can’t talk about capitalism and corporations in some abstract sense. If we do then we ignore how one’s positionality against Blackness and Black people in a white supremacist context helps to define the issues of ownership, property and parameters and how they are racialized. Just because you aren’t phenotypically white doesn’t mean you can’t uphold white interests politically—as Wang likes to point out in his example of the Black executive—but Black people as a whole cannot function politically in the same way that non-Black people of color can in the current global paradigm (Yes! Global. Let’s talk about sub-Saharan Africa in relation to South America, the Middle East or Asia, if you must). So, not being Black is what seems to matter more under capitalism than being white.

The Final Round
So, corporations are but one manifestation of the American project. But history and culture are also an equally important part of that project. History and culture inform narratives that form people’s logic and assumptions, which root themselves in the subconscious. We could overthrow all corporations tomorrow, and if our narratives stay the same, or simply shift shape without being utterly transformed, some other new and oppressive shit (aimed at Black people!) will take it’s place. And take the prison’s place. So, don’t put all your focus on corporations, or laws, or cages without dealing with the logic that makes us assume we need them in the first place. There’s an old saying my grandmother has: “I’m not dealing with the form, I’m dealing with the essence!”

The essence is exactly this: Let’s un-assume that because we’re all up in hip-hop that we’re all on the same page. Let’s un-assume that because you might try to look like me or sound like me (or how you think I do both), that we are working towards the same goal, or that we even have the same enemy. I don’t think, despite efforts to think otherwise, that this was really ever Black people’s assumption.

To close, let me share a story that I think is very telling and illustrates everything I’ve been getting at here. I was living in New Orleans last year, and had just arrived for 2003 Satchmo Festival celebrating the life of Louie Armstrong. The event takes place in the gentrified Fabourg Marigny, and over that August weekend, cafes and restaurants fill with Brass Bands, Jazz and Blues artists. I sat outside a coffee shop one day listening to an incredible quartet with a group of Black people I had just met, while the cafe was filled with folks from all over, including whites, Japanese tourists and Asian-American college students. One Black woman said to her friend, “Girl let’s go in!” The other replied, “No, I’d rather stay out here. I can’t experience it the way I would if it was just us. I always feel like part of the minstrel show when they be up in it. And there ain’t no place in New Orleans where they don’t go now…” I turned to her, and gave an “Uh-huh,” wanting her to know I was there to bear witness to what she’d said, and glad she’d said it. I, too, chose to stay on the outside for the very same reason. Asian Americans in hip-hop need to consider this Black woman’s concern, as well as this question: If first-generation white European immigrants like Al Jolson could use minstrelsy (wearing blackface, singing black popular music and mimicking their idea of Black people) to not only ensure their status as white people, but also to distance themselves from Black people, can Asian Americans use hip-hop (the music, clothing, language and gestures, sans charcoal makeup), and everything it signifies to also assert their dominance over Black bodies, rather than their allegiance to Black liberation? People who now think that jazz is for everybody never think about what the process was to get jazz to that place, nor what that means for the people who invented it. This thought leaves me with one last – albeit very frightening – question: Will my niece and nephews be at a festival for Lauryn Hill fifty years from now, also standing on the outside looking in?

Lazy Blogging, pt. 7

I stole this from Merv who stole it from Steven who stole it from Bernie.

So although this is not the most original post, being 30, shit like this makes a queen real nostalgic and introspective…

10YEARS AGO I
Just ended my sophmore year in college.
Decided Rastafarianism was not for me.
Had a cousin and lifelong friend die violently in May, both age 20.
Listened to Tracy Chapman’s “Matters of the Heart” album all summer.
Started spinning quickly towards a year-long depression.
First time not returning home during the summer.

5 YEARS AGO I
Was a working actor.
Did 2 Productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Macbeth in one summer.
Lived in Jersey City.
Was abandoned by a friend/roommate whom I haven’t heard from since.
Was always at The Wonder Bar.
Was living far below the poverty line.

2 YEARS AGO I
Lived in Harlem.
DJ’d a house party and met the love of my life.
Was sleeping with a brotha who lived with his gf and newborn around the corner.
Published my first essay.
Was high-tailing it out of NYC, headed for The Big Easy.

1 YEAR AGO I
Was living in New Orleans, preparing to return to the Rotten Apple.
Doing anti-prison organizing.
Did healing work with Chief Sharon Caulder, PhD, one of many mentors.
Comitted myself to a relationship in a way I hadn’t ever before.
Drove more than I walked.

YESTERDAY I
Got really excited like a kid at Christmas cuz my boo is comin’ back from Cali.
Was thankful.
Swore I was finally free of my coffee addiction.
Watched a PBS Special on Ella Fitzgerald.

TODAY I
Drank Coffee.
Started reading The Evidence of Things Not Seen again.
Need to raise $20,000.
Put on jeans I know I need to wash.
Woke up at 6am.

TOMMOROW I WILL
Need to raise $20,000.
See my boyfriend.
Work on my solo book project.
Hopefully talk to somebody I want to work with (I emailed you, JS! Hit me up!).
Not drink coffee.

5 THINGS I HAVE LOYALTY TO
Myself.
My biological and chosen family.
My writing.
Black people.
Summer.

5 THINGS I CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT
Music.
Soul Food.
Peace and Quiet.
Books.
NYC in the Summer.

WITH A GRAND… I WOULD BUY…
A new laptop.

5 BAD HABITS I HAVE
Working for nonprofits.
Not writing daily.
Coffee.
Spending too much money frivolously.
Not seeing my family enough.

5 SHOWS I LIKE
America’s Next Top Model
Girlfriends
Divorce Court
CBS Sunday Morning
American Idol (only during auditions)

5 Places I’ve Lived
NYC.
New Orleans.
Cleveland.
Delaware, OH.
Jersey City, NJ.

3 NAMES I GO BY
Kenyon.
Kenny (only bio family and friends who knew me from 18 and under).
Cynamon Jones, La Jones for short, or C. Jones-Chinchilla (I am the wealthy hick that married a Chinchilla. They can’t take me.) .

5 THINGS I LIKE ABOUT MYSELF
My knack for transformation.
My eyes.
My laugh.
My writing style (or voice).
That country twang that comes out when I really relax.

3 THINGS I DISLIKE ABOUT MYSELF
My apathy when it comes to working out.
I procrastinate.
That I didn’t decide to be a writer 10 years ago, when I thought I wanted to be an actor.

3 THINGS THAT SCARE ME
Being Broke.
Being Dependent on other people.
Amanda Lepore.

3 OF MY EVERYDAY ESSENTIALS
OJ.
Music.
NPR.

3 THINGS I AM WEARING RIGHT NOW
My dirty ass jeans.
A T shirt Merv gave me for my b-day last year.
80’s style rubber bracelets.

3 OF YOUR FAVORITE PERFORMERS/ARTISTS
Joi.
Gaudi.
Badu.

On DEEP THROAT

Cynamon Jones: you know. i’m pissed that this old ass white man has declared himself deep throat. I mean THAT’s MY NICKNAME! Ask anybody in front of Badlands! 😉
britrican: ROFL
Cynamon Jones: i know. i’m stupid.
britrican: or just ask anybody underneath the overpass in front of your house.
Cynamon Jones: hell, JUST ASK ANYBODY!
britrican: HA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!