Everything I like is like that man who first thought to take that picture of that starving black child waited for by that black vulture in that Sudan. I like what I write. I am hurting myself by liking things. My words are maybe taking pictures of myself starving me. I tell myself stories in order to clutch my throat. My throat is clutched. Please make me pretty, I don’t want to die. I want to sleep now. I know I am holding this so tightly with sleep. I know I am screaming towards this with my sleeping. What should we ask of in a world whose only word is “Work”? People are not asking of us because they are busy. I am not asking of us because I am simulating being busy. This is the best deal. This is the unasked-for gift. If I saw a starving black child my first thought would not be to take this picture of myself. Or wake. Everyone is dying. There are such pretty words for this.
Photograph by Michelle Agins, “James Baldwin in Chicago”, 1983
George Floyd’s murder revived the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, but also the #AllLivesMatter hashtag and its various offshoots. Thus, when I saw a photo of a Lebanese protester holding a sign that said #LebaneseLivesMatter on Twitter, the first thing I thought was just how unaware of the global conversation this person is. In fact, I retweeted the photo with the caption: “READ THE ROOM.”
Given the conversation on the poor judgement of some people—many of whom are well-intentioned—in trying to advocate for all lives and not just Black lives, I had a negative knee-jerk reaction to the image. But it lingered in my memory. It is undeniable that such a poster in the U.S. would be out of tune; that said, thinking about #BlackLivesMatter, a primarily U.S. movement, concurrently with other global issues is essential to understanding and thus dismantling U.S./white hegemony — which in and of itself is a global and not a U.S.-only issue.
Since October 2019, Lebanon has been suffering from its worst financial crisis since the Civil War (1975–90), which has been now exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. With inflation soaring and nearly 50% of Lebanese living under the poverty line, people hit the streets to demand their rights. I tried putting myself in their shoes: they’re watching social media explode with overwhelming support for #BlackLivesMatter, triggered, in their eyes as people unaware of the U.S. context, by the murder of one man, while thousands and thousands of people starved in Lebanon without anyone flinching.
I do not say this to undermine the Black Lives Matter movement, or to dismiss that George Floyd’s murder is symptomatic of a larger systemic issue in the United States and around the world. Anti-Black racism exists in Lebanon too. Lebanon, and the Arab world at large, are notorious for their unjust, racist kafala system—amongst many other symptoms of deep-seated racism, such as Western beauty standards, lack of representation of people of color in the media, and the like. But the issue, for those who claim that “Lebanese Lives Matter”, is about the lack of media attention— they are not denying anti-Black racism.
Social media is dominated by U.S. voices and perspectives. For instance, the country with most Twitter users is the U.S. at 64 million, followed by Japan at 48 million, and Russia at 24 million, even though the U.S. clearly isn’t the most populated country in the world. Thus, what goes viral on social media and other media outlets is often dictated by trends in the U.S. As such, people in Lebanon, and elsewhere, may see the Black Lives Matter movement as hegemonic vis-à-vis their struggles: while the whole world is talking about George Floyd and Black lives, no one seems to care about Lebanon.
(responses against Lebanese Lives Matter)
Appropriating the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag or slogan for other social justice movements dilutes people’s attention; it is a sort of hijacking of the Black Lives Matter movement. Yet it is important to note that the intention of the Lebanese people, or any oppressed group, is not malicious; their intentions are very different from those of racist Americans who advocate for #AllLivesMatter.
What we are witnessing—outside the U.S., in Lebanon and elsewhere—is a process by which the lives of minorities in the U.S. matter to the world more than non-U.S. lives, let alone lives of minorities outside the U.S. The reason the world cares about George Floyd now more than we ever did about Palestine, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, and Venezuela—the list can go on forever—is because of U.S. hegemony, a hegemony inextricable from the systemic hold of white superiority and supremacy on the entire globe.
What we have here, therefore, is white supremacy benefitting the U.S.-turned-global fight against Black racism and police brutality. This may not seem like a problem, but the fight against racism cannot happen without global solidarity against U.S. hegemony. In a recent interview, Black activist Angela Davis “hop[ed] that today’s young activists recognize how important Palestinian solidarity has been to the Black cause, and that they recognize that we have a profound responsibility to support Palestinian struggles, as well.” She also pointed in the direction of Brazil, saying “if we think we have a problem with racist police violence in the United States of America, look at Brazil. . . . I think 4,000 people were killed last year alone by the police in Brazil.”
Davis recognizes, in pointing to Palestine and Brazil even as the Black community in the U.S. and its allies are in revolt, the importance of solidarity in dismantling transnational systems of oppression that know no borders. She gestures to the reality that one cannot selectively fight against oppression, for these systems are massive, interconnected, and inertial, requiring large amounts of force to disassemble them.
In this vein, it is also my wish that those who have now garnered a platform due to these systemic structures that privilege Western voices over non-Western ones—especially on social media—shed light on injustices that inflict much of the world now, not just the U.S. and the West. I hope that those people with influence remind those who are now so passionately protesting racist legacies—from statues to names of places and institutions—also speak up against injustices in other parts of the world in the future, as they arise.
On June 23rd of this year, Ahmed Erekat, a 27-year-old Palestinian man, was murdered by the Israeli police; he was shot and left to bleed for one and a half hours. He was accused of attempting “to ram his car into border guards” despite it being the day of his sister’s wedding. Like George Floyd, Ahmed Erekat, an unarmed Palestinian man, was assumed to be violent and left to die. But unlike Floyd’s murder, Erekat’s murder didn’t elicit a global outcry. Why is that? Where are the reading suggestions about the Palestinian struggle? Where are the “go educate yourselves” posts? Where are the “check your privilege” articles?
This plea to talk about all forms of injustice, not those only occurring in the West, should not be seen as a means of hijacking the Black moment or the Black cause (which, admittedly, is often the unintended consequence of hashtags like #LebaneseLivesMatter or #PalestinianLivesMatter). Rather, it should be seen as part of the struggle against white supremacy and U.S. imperialism. The white hegemonic structures killing Black people in the U.S. are the same structures allowing Israel to annex Palestine. From this standpoint, it becomes imperative that we engage in a more nuanced and dynamic form of solidarity, else we would be, in our struggle for justice, still perpetrating the structures we are fighting against.
If we only talk about George Floyd and Black lives, we will not dismantle the system that murdered him.
This piece is in response to my overconsumption of media and how it has both exhausted and angered me. The lyrics are lines from Kanye West’s (problematic, I know), “Black Skinhead” and the South African anti-apartheid song, “Senzenina”. The latter encapsulates my exhaustion at the attack of black bodies, how “our crime is that we are Black”. Black Skinhead captures my rage and a defiant pride in my race and skin. Black women are centered in this piece; we started the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and we support Black men and our community as a whole. I’m sick and tired of the dehumanization of Black people and the exertion of control placed on our bodies. Our skin is ours, and our bodies are our own. We are not a vessel for your hatred and insecurity. Phumakim’! (Leave me alone!)
Simone Hadebe is a graphic designer and artist with a BSc in Studio Art from Skidmore College.
When La Marie Séraphique arrived in Saint Domingue in 1772, she arrived with 73 Angolan slaves and the city of Nantes in her pocket. Purchased in January 1769 by Nantes dealer Jacque Barthélémy, La Marie was at once christened and propelled into the height of the French Atlantic slave trade. Traveling across the Atlantic Ocean the West African coast and the French West Indies, La Marie captured hundreds of African men, women, and children in exchange for goods wrought by plantation slavery. In a matter of months, she would return to Nantes with sugar and other sweet luxuries, leaving the bitter truth of her dealings behind at the docks.
Thanks to the enduring records of her captain, Jean Baptiste Fautrel-Gaugy, La Marie Séraphique would go on to outlive the very trade she dealt in. A cartographer known for his attention to detail, Gaugy was said to have attended to the ship and its cargo with a kind of organizational obsession. Perhaps, this would explain his meticulous descriptions of La Marie. His elaborate drawings of the craft remain as some of the only artistic renderings of a Nantes slave ship. Named as if it were an angelic thing, these illustrations return La Marie Séraphique to the status of a cargo vessel — a beauty inseparable from the grit of labor. Drab and unassuming, the watercolors of her seem to have abandoned all richness. Even the blue seas are muted and industrial. La Marie is but a thing of tans, blacks and greys. Her vitality stowed away in the interest of utility.
Accounting for the ship’s contents, Gaugy makes little distinction between slaves and goods. La Marie’s business is one of storage and inventory. Property is no passenger. The very infrastructure of the ship articulates its strict order. Built into the main deck, an iron barrier bifurcates the vessel. In the drawing, the barricade serves to isolate the European sailors from the enslaved. White men are pictured as languishing in indulgence, feasting amongst themselves on the ship’s stern as Africans look on. An exercise in arranging and exploiting geography, the ship revels in its own might, relishing in its expansive capacity for captivity.
In Gaugy’s outline, entitled, “Plan, Profil, Et Distribution Du Navire La Marie Séraphique,” he dissects each level of the ship and its purpose. The lowest levels store the goods amassed along the journey, products obtained through thievery or transaction, though few knew the difference. On the lower deck, above the inanimate stock, Gaugy depicts the arrangement of La Marie’s human cargo. In between these assortments of the enslaved, additional goods are stored behind dividers. Indivisible from objects, their humanity is disassembled without regard, their bodies growing increasingly unrecognizable. Black and stiff, they are stowed with cruel pragmatism — persons made into product. With their arms and legs fixed on a continuum, the bodies of African people line the entire deck. The bodies are indistinguishable. Constricted and sequestered, soon even one’s flesh begins to reject regulation.
Confinement breeds dysfunction. On the slave ships, it would arrive as dysentery and dehydration, known to decimate the enslaved by 15% upon arrival to the ports. By water and by force, the Atlantic slave trade dislocated humanity from land and limb for centuries. And where the French are concerned, the sheer magnitude of the trade rested on the city of Nantes.
Embracing the Loire River, Nantes sits on the western side of France, lodged in an estuary. Made possible by the Atlantic Ocean’s deliverance, it is a city that has known a coastal existence that it should have been denied. And with all its access, Nantes turned water into wealth. Over the course of three centuries, the trading of slaves kept the city rich and buoyant. From the mid-17th century to the mid-19th century, France would organize more than 4,220 slave trade expeditions to the coast of West Africa, the majority of which were led by the ships of Nantes. By 1817, when the trade was abolished in the French colonies, Nantes would be responsible for 43% of the entire French Slave Trade. A small port with an intense hunger, Nantes’ insatiable traders would continue selling souls even after the trade’s illegality. In the end, however, the city’s riches would be spoiled only by their growing shame. For decades, the city, once ostentatious, would cower under the weight of history’s gaze. As the times changed, so, too, had their flourishing. The truth and wealth of Nantes became submerged in reputation, family secrecy resisting reparation. Once more, the city sent its sins to sea.
I arrive in Nantes in early July of 2018, and the city avoids eye contact. Yet the land and water vow to tell all of its business. A maze of uneven cobblestones and buildings that willed themselves to stand atop the sand, Nantes asserts itself through its architecture. Near the Loire, the elaborate, immaculately kept homes and offices of slave traders still stand in plain sight. Soiled by time, their stature began to sink into the sand. What remains is their bravado: across the buildings, carvings of stone heads narrate the wealth of their former owners. Busts of African faces protrude with old arrogance, a constant reminder of the city’s source of wealth. Next to this stone grandeur, the present modesty of the city falls into question. Polluting the sea’s blessings, Nantes’ own were once gluttonous in their ventures abroad. For centuries, it was not the truth of their exploits that merchants kept from advancing beyond the docks, but the enslaved themselves. The brutality of transport and the humanity of the enslaved, all but the fruits of their labors, were barricaded from reaching Nantes’ ports. Whether they died on ships like La Marie Séraphique or were sold in the French plantation economy, nearly none would arrive in the city that had financed their misfortune. Though the city ebbed and flowed in accordance with the rhythms of enslavement, few people of African descent would ever touch ground in Nantes prior to 1848, with few exceptions made for the slaves of Nantes’ most extravagant owners. Almost two centuries later, the African presence in Nantes is undeniable, yet proximity has only reinforced the city’s violent instincts.
During the only night I spent in Nantes, another black life was taken. On Tuesday, July 3rd 2018, 22-year-old Aboubakar Fofana, the son of Guinean immigrants, was shot and killed in late-night police visit. A resident of the Nantes Breil public housing estate, a largely immigrant community dislocated by over-policing and gang violence, Abou’s murder sparked three nights of rioting. In the days that followed his death, thousands reportedly marched in the streets in his honor, holding signs that read “Justice et vérité pour Abou.” Police responded with tear gas and arrests. Allegedly, one of those in custody included a 14-year-old boy. According to police accounts, he was found with a petrol can and matches in his hand. The makings of a fire.
Miles from the riotous fires breaking out in the city, I would not see the fires kindled until I was in the wake. While scrolling through Twitter, I would instead stare at the orange flames overtaking the landscape of my screen, and think of the people Nantes has forgotten. The ships it welcomed and worshipped at their expense, and the people today who threaten their barricades against memory. I wonder if there is beauty in resisting this rejection, if there is power in knowing that even a city of water and wealth can burn.
If you were to ask what the 20th century’s greatest turning point in music was, most would say the emergence of rock and its infamous counterculture. Others could bring up the post-punk 80’s synth era with its drum machines and lush electronic sounds. But it might surprise you to learn that the rise of hip-hop has had the greatest influence on modern-day music. Music informatics researcher Matthias Mauch and his colleagues, have analyzed over 17,000 songs that have topped the Billboard charts over the years, and concluded that hip-hop’s ascent has led to the greatest musical revolution in terms of chords, rhythms and tonal properties. While rap is the most ubiquitous form in hip-hop, we can understand more from the genre’s overall culture: hip-hop culture has led to numerous developments in fashion, art (i.e. graffiti), new ‘languages’ which are too often dismissed as ‘ghetto’ or ‘slang’, and new styles of dance. For the urban underclass, hip-hop is more than music, but encompasses a whole way of life.
Yet for all its ‘clout’, hip-hop culture is still so often maligned, disdained by polite (read: rich, white) society. We find it associated with all things reprobate: drugs, violence, poverty, lack of a future. Psychiatrist Alvin Francis Poussaint, and Cosby (yeah, that one) accuse hip-hop for promoting the “moral breakdown of the family”; conservative social commentator Thomas Sowell specifies that hip-hop is the largest factor holding back African-American youth. Numerous groups endeavor to censor hip-hop, while politicians blame it for “desensitizing teenagers to the effects of guns, drugs, and gangs and inciting violent incidents.” Hip-hop culture is outright tarnished, its elements deemed cancerous to social order.
Hip-hop is a socio-cultural movement that sprung up in New York City, specifically in Bronx and Harlem, by and among young African-Americans. Cultural anthropologist R.H. Codrington traces hip-hop back to three antecedents: the West African griot tradition of wandering storytellers, the black church with its ‘call and response’ style of music, and oral competitions called “playing the dozens” in which people faced off with their verbal skills. Hip-hop’s originators utilized whatever was around them in their daily lives – DJ turntables, paint spray cans, block parties, samplers and so on, in order to express themselves. They railed against the system, a system that spawned hopelessness under heavy oppressive, racist structures and spiteful policing. From the very start, hip-hop, aside from being an artistic outlet and landing pad for daily expression, was political.
However, in its late stage, hip-hop has largely succumbed to the adverse effects of neoliberal capitalism. Its absorption into capitalist systems stems from the distance that “polite society” maintains with the hip-hop world – a world that is generally lower-class/urbanized. This is an underclass that French intellectual Georges Bataille would describe as miserable for it is “excluded from the general community whilst being exploited for financial gain.” All the while, in the words of Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, polite society maintains itself as the privileged empty point of universality, perched at an elevated position from which they can gaze down at these ‘miserables’.
When polite society secludes itself from the hip-hop underclass, neoliberalism slyly steps in to fill this distance by packaging and commoditizing hip-hop into an easily consumed form in the global market. In her article “Corporate America Cozies up to Hip-Hop”, Claire Atkinson delves into the marketization of hip-hop as a vessel for merchandising products by business firms. The most revealing facet of her argument is that hip-hop’s appeal is not just limited to a narrow scope of companies: almost every corporation is trying to cash in on the hip-hop image, from automobile manufacturers to fast-food restaurants to telecom companies. Atkinson quotes the advertising agent Larry Summers: “Hip-hop is where rock n’ roll was in the ‘70s. It’s evolved into a safe place… there’s too much bling-bling in it for everyone.” Of course, by safe space, Summers implies a safe space for corporations, rather than the actual creators and practitioners of hip-hop. Polite society, on the other hand, embraces this heavily commodified hip-hop – hip-hop as product – under the guise of multiculturalism.
There are two main drives behind corporations’ engulfing marketization of hip-hop culture. Firstly, they have identified a desire in polite society to embody the other without actually becoming the other. At the heart of hip-hop is a jouissance that seems inaccessible to those outside of the culture. Hip-hop celebrates the notion of being different from the mainstream ,whether it is through one’s attire or language or even their gait. Moreover, hip-hop exalts the very libidinal pursuits that are suppressed in polite society: fulfilling one’s innermost sexual passions, seizing power, taking control of the ‘block’, defying authority. Corporations appropriate this jouissance and peddle it to those outside of hip-hop culture who wish to get in whilst still staying out. On this, Zizek quips that in “…today’s market, we find a series of products deprived of their malignant property: coffee without caffeine, cream without fat, beer without alcohol.” A person who wants to project the image of a gangster without the actual lived experience could buy and dress up in hip-hop attire in order to ‘feel’ like one. Those who do not even know what pimping in the streets is could listen to heavily sexual hip-hop songs and live out their crude erotic fantasies without literally acting them out. A teen who has never gone against the law could use hip-hop slang and rap along to the top hits just to derive the feeling of being rebellious amid their suburban comforts. The appropriation goes on and on.
Corporations also capitalize on a trend which French philosopher Rancière describes as a shift from the politics of passion to the politics of compassion, where all that polite society could offer to the hip-hop underclass [is] mere pity without actually addressing their deep-seated issues. In the music industry, the sob stories of hip-hop artists with rough upbringings are ever-emphasized so as to appeal to those who misguidedly think that buying their albums equates to ‘saving’ them from the ghetto life. In the art world, as scholar Lynn Powers notes with regards to graffiti, “in most cases the work’s popularity was based more on the novelty of being produced by poor minority criminals than on any intrinsic artistic value.” Even in today’s heavily charged political environment, with rampant (recorded) police killings and wanton mass-incarceration of the black, marginalized underclass, protest slogans from the hip-hop community are soon commodified into fashion statements for polite society to drape themselves in as a means of showing ‘support’, all whilst maintaining their privilege.
As time goes on, the corporate world’s infatuation with hip-hop culture is being taken to the most absurd, extreme degree. Philosopher Gilles Deleuze notes that in this age of neoliberalism, differentiation has taken the place of actual production. There are now ‘hip-hop dance clubs’, ‘hip-hop video games’ ‘hip-hop movies’. By the same token, essayist Thompson Ahmir quips that, courtesy of corporates, we now also have ‘hip-hop food’, ‘hip-hop politics’, ‘hip-hop intellectual’ and even ‘hip-hop architecture’. Of course, corporations will do whatever it takes to reap more profits, even if it means marketing things that have nothing to do with hip-hop as authentic ‘hip-hop’.
The commodification of hip-hop thereupon leads to a watering down of its content. As corporations try to capture as much of the market as possible, they ‘tone down’ hip-hop’s radical aspects to make it as palatable for consumers as possible. As earlier stated, hip-hop emerged as the voice of the voiceless within inner-city ghettos; it was an assertion of their abject agency. However, according to the writer Blanchard Becky, “the commodification of rap has allowed large paychecks and platinum records to erase the historical, social and economic contexts out of which rap has emerged, from public consciousness.” Consequently, the hip-hop underclass is left without a tool to speak out against their oppression. Isn’t this what polite society wants after all, a pretense that everything is fine, since the ‘end’ of politics has set in?
Furthermore, the commodification of hip-hop magnifies the simultaneous dehumanization and fetishization of the ‘other’, the hip-hop underclass, by polite society. Though these processes seem disparate, their outcome is of the same vein. The dehumanization of the hip-hop underclass arises from the dynamics of social abjection, for as Bataille emphasizes, “…it is fitting that the insolent rich evoke the bestiality of the miserables: they have taken away from these the possibility of being human.”
Fetishization, on the other hand, arises from polite society’s desire to imitate the other. This is highlighted above: we have seen how corporations capitalize on and peddle the ‘real’ within the other.
But how does this depreciation of the other manifest itself to taint the hip-hop underclass? Blanchard points out that “… rappers have been pressured to take on the limited roles that have proven profitable… that of the ‘pimp’, the ‘gangsta’, and the ‘playa.’” The artiste Michael Franti adds that “Through commercialization of today’s music, there is a lot of pressure for young black men to conform to very specific roles.” The market has a very narrow misconstrued picture of what, to use Zizek’s terms, the ‘typical’, or the ‘folklorist other’ in the hip-hop underclass constitutes. When polite society desires to become the ‘other’ by purchasing commodified hip-hop, they do not really yearn for the ‘real’ other, but rather desire to imitate the ‘typical’, the ‘folklorist other.’ This then indicates to the hip-hop underclass that they must suppress the ‘real’ in them in order to embody the ‘typical’, for this is what polite society is willing to spend money on. However, the ‘typical’ as construed by polite society is damaging to the underclass. This typical image of hip-hop as gangster, materialistic, decadent, lawless, hyper-sexualized, and drug-fuelled is ultimately absorbed back into the underclass, piling onto the socio-economic problems they already bear.
The corporatization of hip-hop has resulted in the dilution of its politics, and the fetishization and dehumanization of the ‘other.’ This deviation is encapsulated comprehensively in the journalist Christopher Farley’s perspective, which Blanchard quotes in her article:
Corporate America’s infatuation with rap has increased as the genre’s political content has withered. Ice Cube’s early songs attacked white racism; Ice-T sang a song about a cop killer; Public Enemy challenges listeners to ‘fight the power’. But many newer acts are focused almost entirely on pathologies within the black community. They rap about shooting other blacks, but almost never about challenging governmental authority or encouraging social activism.
Yes, there has been a shift in hip-hop. However, commodification alone by the corporate world does not fully account for this shift; it is an external factor after all. There are internal factors too, behind the shift of hip-hop from its socio-political aims, which most if not all critics and writers such as Blanchard and Farley fail to see. All these concealed internal factors can be summarized by one word: hate, in the Baudrillard-ian sense of the word. When Farley talks about how ‘many newer acts are focused on pathologies within the black community’, it is hate at play even though Farley does not recognize it as that. As Jean Baudrillard states, this hate is “a logo, a kind of label, one that, like graffiti displays a modality of living: ‘I exist,’ ‘I live here.’’” This hate is also an expression of alterity, for as the hip-hop underclass is secluded from polite society, it embraces this exclusion: “I won’t join the consensus. It’s not negotiable. It’s not reconcilable.” The source of this hate lies in what Deleuze observes as a change from disciplinary societies to societies of control. Thus, when Farley laments that hip-hop nowadays does not take on the big Other due to commodification, he and many other critics fail to see that in societies of control, the big Other is no longer centralized: the big Other has effectively rendered itself invisible, dissolving into the consensus of the majority. Thereupon, hip-hop no longer has a conspicuous control tower to which it can direct its protest towards. Without an object to channel its passions towards, the hate becomes self-hatred, self-destruction. This self-hatred and self-destruction then materializes itself as the perpetual violence and decadence in hip-hop culture. It is a hatred that only further aggrandizes a people whose only means of asserting the self is that very same hate.
The most vital discussion that hip-hop needs right now is of its future. And this future definitely entails a return to its past- to its role as the force of the urban underclass marching against societal oppression. However, mapping out hip-hop’s forward trajectory entails resolving both the effects of commodification and hate. Artists such as Kendrick Lamar, Talib Kweli and Dead Prez are pushing hip-hop in this direction. We can only hope that more notice, and join in.
Ali, Lorraine, and Eryn Brown. “Hip-hop, Not Beatles, Had Greatest Influence on Pop Music, Study Says.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 9 May 2015. Web. 17 Dec. 2016. Atkinson., Claire. “Corporate America Cozies up to Hip-hop.” Advertising Age. Advertising Age, 13 Oct. 2003. Web. 18 Dec. 2016. Bataille, Georges. “Abjection and Miserable Forms.” N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2016. Baudrillard, Jean. “Hate, a Last Sign of Life.” N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Dec. 2016. Blanchard, Becky. “The Social Significance of Rap & Hip-Hop Culture.” Poverty & Prejudice: Media and Race (n.d.): n. pag. Web. 10 Dec. 2016. Codrington, Raymond. “In the Beginning: Hip Hops Early Influences.” OxfordAASC. Oxford African American Studies Center, n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2016. <http://www.oxfordaasc.com/public/features/archive/0806/essay.jsp>. Deleuze, Gilles. “Postscript on the Societies of Control.” 49 (1992): 3-7. Web. 20 Dec. 2016. Mauch, Matthias, Robert MacCallum, Mark Levy, and Armand Leroi. “The Evolution of Popular Music: USA 1960–2010.” Royal Society Open Science (2015): n. pag. Web. 17 Dec. 2016. <http://rsos.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/2/5/150081>. Perkins, William. “The Rap Attack: An Introduction.” Temple, n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2016. Powers, Lynn. “Whatever Happened to the Graffiti Art Movement.” Popular Culture, 1996. Web. 14 Dec. 2016. Robinson, Chris. “The Effects of Commercialization on the Perception of Hip Hop Culture and Black Culture in Mainstream Culture in the United States.” Digital Commons At University of Denver. N.p., 2011. Web. 14 Dec. 2016. Thompson, Ahmir. “How Hip Hop Failed America.” Vulture. Vulture, 29 Apr. 2014. Web. 10 Dec. 2016. Tyler, Imogen. Revolting Subjects: Social Abjection and Resistance in Neoliberal Britain. London, UK: Zed, 2013. Print. Watkins, S. Craig. “A Nation of Millions: Hip Hop Culture and the Legacy of Black Nationalism.” The Communication Review (2001): n. pag. Web. 14 Dec. 2016. Zizek, Slavoj. “Multiculturalism, Or, the Cultural Logic of Multinational Capitalism.” N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2016.
A Black Power emblem is sold at Forever 21. Only nine dollars. Nine dollars and I can slip on a new identity. French girl. Cool girl. Black panther. Which one did you think of first?
New York is a wonderful place to try on new identities. New York is a place where identities are up for sale. Nine dollars. Nine dollars in my pocket, who do I want to be today? Maybe everybody loves New York so much because they can be whoever they want over there. They can change their gender, sex, their whole aesthetic. They can drug themselves, age themselves, shoot themselves, turn into a star. A star. A star in a black beret, smoking up. It’s so easy to reinvent yourself here because nobody really cares. Everybody’s a star in New York. You look up at them sometimes, for a moment, and think how pretty or small or bloody or distant, and then you look back down again, putting your shoes on and minding your own business. Glanced at, maybe stared, eventually faded out, and forgotten. Come to New York and you’re somebody and nobody at once. You’re a star.
I took the 3 train up to Harlem today. Outside the 135th station, there’s a research center slash museum called the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, which is a wing of the New York Public Library. It’s the only museum-like center I’ve been to where there’s loud voices and background music. A photograph of James Baldwin stares from the entrance. His eyes bulge. There’s something almost sinister about his gaze in the picture. It reminds me of a mugshot or a ten-thousand yard stare caught in a camera shutter, just a little softer. Sadder. Tender, that wound open too long. Like Baldwin can see years down a tunnel into all the sadnesses that are yet to come. But maybe he could. Maybe he could see us talking about building walls again in 2018. Maybe he could see me crying over my shoe cupboard this morning, wondering why exactly did hating each other have to be so easy, did my skin have to be darker than white, did all of it have to flounder in a pool of water, all this discourse and law and protest and trauma and property and revolution, like a layer of grease floating atop an ocean, the damn corpse, dead, hurt, but mostly unable to move, to blend in.
The Schomburg center is named after Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, a Puerto-Rican born black scholar who added his collection of 5000 books, 3000 manuscripts, 2000 etchings and paintings, and several thousand pamphlets produced by or concerning black people to the existing library Division of Negro Literature, History and Prints in 1926. His portrait hangs outside the main floor gallery in glass. I look up to him, the star. He long served as the curator and enabler of mass research, study and circulation of black cultural production, allowing the center to become what it is today: one of the world’s leading research facilities devoted to the preservation of materials on the global experiences of Africans and the African diaspora.
Harlem, is black. It might sound reductive but if you were talking to your friend on the subway, you’d nudge them and say the same. Harlem is black. Harlem has been black, blooming black, bleeding black. It was the site of the Harlem Renaissance, an enlightenment of the United States where black Americans asserted themselves socially, culturally and intellectually in their predominantly white world through the arts. I’ve written about some of its well-known figures: Langston Hughes the jazz poet, Amira Baraka, formerly LeRoi Jones, the cultural critic, and other black writers and performers who spun their pain and beauty into lasting works that both reflected a complex lived experience while comforting and uplifting those that experienced it. Minton’s Playhouse, once one of the world’s most famous jazz clubs, the birthplace of bebop, where the likes of Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie have jammed, still stands. So does the opportunity to listen to jazz music inside the small living room where Billie Holiday was first discovered – Bill’s Place. Harlem is black and just as importantly, it is an homage to an ongoing renaissance, rebirth, revolution: once called Black Power, it is now an even more pressing power struggle for the global capability to respect other races and cultures on an open and equal basis.
At the Schomburg Center, I stumble into an impromptu mini tour being given by an ex-Black Panther. He’s taking us through the main exhibit, titled Black Power!, which traces a movement that was considered to be a decade-long violent episode following the Civil Rights Movement. But it shone its impact like a torchlight down the generations, seeing into the future and entrenching itself within the present. Down ten thousand yards like Baldwin’s wide-eyed gaze. The influence of Black Power remains in current natural hair and afro-positive movements, its aesthetics present in African-inspired fashion, those dashikis and beaded necklaces and printed headscarves for sale on the streets near Lenox Avenue, and in the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, the Afropunk festival, the spoken word events carrying the beat of Langston Hughes’ rhythms, in the notion that black is beautiful, black is powerful, black is here, black matters, and in the black beret you buy from Forever 21 – nine dollars.
There is a whole section of the Black Power! exhibit devoted to The Look. A Black Panther typically wore lots of black leather, perhaps some African clothing or jewelry, a powder blue skirt, black shoes and their hair in a natural state, with a black beret. The black beret was a symbol of their revolution. Style was, and really always has been, a statement. In a politically incendiary atmosphere, the skin you wear, whether yours or something else’s, has intense and pronounced meaning. We should know.
I was slightly surprised to learn about this new political layer of meaning that the beret sitting in my closet, swiped for four euros off a street in Paris, suddenly seemed to possess. I’ve always known that fashion has the power to be a political instrument but oddly, my largely Eurocentric reading thus far has led me to believe that the beret was nothing more than a cool French girl’s plaything, accessorized best with a baguette or cigarette or both. With some Googling, I’ve now learnt that the beret was heavily popularized as a revolutionary symbol by Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, and then adopted as a marker of black pride in the seventies during the Black Power movement. The black beret was part of a uniform that signified less conformity, but unity, in the acceptance and pride in one’s blackness and its beauty. “All of us were born with our hair like this and we just wear it like this,” a Black Panther member says in the PBS documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. “The reason for it you might say is that it’s like a new awareness among black people that their own natural physical appearance is beautiful.” The beret was the cherry on top, its militant history becoming a metaphor for just how much the panthers were willing to fight for their cause, for how they saw themselves at the frontline of a real revolution. Many other activist groups took cues from the panthers and absorbed the beret into their own uniforms and certified Looks or aesthetics, allowing this small piece of fashion to have a mouthpiece of its own within their struggle. In the 2000s’, the black beret has been seen in Chanel’s fashion shows and also on the background dancers in Beyonce’s performance for a Super Bowl halftime show, who were deliberately dressed to look like Black Panthers.
Objects often carry just as many layers of meaning and narrative as a person’s thoughts. It makes sense, because it is precisely human thought and its many permutations throughout history that assigns these very meanings onto objects. A qipao has intense meaning to my Malaysian friend. Indian jhumki earrings matter a lot to me now. That precise draping of fabric and that delicate assortment of beads and metals carry the weight of entire cultures and movements and ocean waves of thought.
The conversation can easily slip into arguments about cultural appropriation and who has ownership over the meaning of objects but that’s not why I’m writing this today. Well. Perhaps I have been thinking about appropriation somewhat. I think about whether it might hurt someone if I buy and wear a Japanese kimono from a thrift store and walk around the streets of Brooklyn. I stop in my tracks. So it’s on my mind. But learning about the black beret reminds me of a crucial first step: recognizing someone or something’s complexity before acting upon it. You don’t need to unpack and research every item in your closet, no. But it’s interesting and useful to learn what different objects signify for people. When someone tells you that an object or dress or book matters so intensely as to shape and even stand as a mouthpiece for some part of their identity, listen. Listen first. Recognize the complexity that object gains from whatever meaning that is assigned to it, and how, and why, and from where, and then go from there. Understanding the complexity and nuance of something is an essential step to showing it respect. Could I have gone on wearing a beret thinking of it as nothing more than a chic, artsy hat? Perhaps. But unpeeling this new layer of the onion makes it an even more interesting object for me to incorporate in my own stylistic structure and aesthetic display of my identity. It makes me think about how and why I myself assign meaning to the other objects in my life and whether through them, I try to communicate something crucial. It makes me aware of the power of assigning meaning and narrative in order to manipulate thought in a certain direction. And what kind of consequences are bound to occur when this meaning is changed or transferred to another person’s culture or identity.
I finally enter the subway in Harlem and emerge an hour later in south Brooklyn. In this underground journey, I have passed hundreds of stores carrying hundreds of objects, all of them little nested eggs of meaning, cogs in beastly narrative machines, strands from a whole head of different identities. Perhaps Baldwin could see down to the girl paying nine dollars at a cashier, a treat from her pocket money. Her fresh plastic bag carries a black power emblem from Forever 21, all the way up to 135th street Harlem, safe and warm.
iron -y heat coming down in sheets lingering naps in the sun baking our skins detonating thought patterns repetitive rotations of ceiling fans atop our necks –
a middle-aged mother wipes her brow. fingers on necklace on beads of sweat anxiously waiting for a visa to a perpetually air-conditioned somewhere in the US they fire entrance permits in a kiln and concoct embassies out of ash scattering it on the globe as if zeus lit thunder into their hands hot shock like iron
-y on the TV screens atop mama’s head showing black boy colgate teeth, a son iron -ed flat hot across his insecurities while walking on pavements gleaming he smiles out the sun, colgate bright white snow of amerrrrrica gave soil to my dreams, yes! it did while my brothers baked hot. flat on the amerrrrican concrete under iron -y sun so hot! “i can’t breathe” still waiting on an ivy degree its cream white borders framed a body on the pavement.
irony – will you be humorous or emphatic today? america night live! mama is catching this episode whether she likes it or not on the TV screens atop our heads black boys in front of her bloom out their color on home’s village soils in the summer and their potato skins, on green amerrrrican visa receipts on a country culled of weeds, on an embassy television screen, on smoke boiled out the kettle steam of a gun barrel, on a hard slab of amerrrican concrete so
iron- y hot. mama’s son smiles down at her from above like a hope like a dream like a loss like a god like a TV screen peddling air-conditioned scenes for a land sweatier, leaking faucets of ash, than this little embassy –
irony the giant elephant in the room, constructed from its own white tusks at the scene of mama’s departure from sir seretse khama airport boarding the first of the turbulent planes to the land of the free