Going Black: The Commodification of Hip-Hop Culture

By Duppy Assassin

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.

Photograph by Juliana Kasumu

References

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 Hop’s Early Influences.” OxfordAASC. Oxford African American Studies Center, n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2016. <http://www.oxfordaasc.com/public/features/archive/0806/essay.jsp&gt;.
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&gt;.
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.

The 126-Year-Old White Gaze of Vogue

It’s no breaking news that Vogue, controversially considered the world’s ultimate fashion bible, will finally have a cover shot by a black photographer for the first time in its 126-year-old existence. The magazine’s iconic September issue, the most esteemed and awaited of the year for which even a documentary film was released, has been “lent” to Beyonce this year. She apparently has free reign over the creative production in exchange for her presence on the cover, and has picked the African American photographer Tyler Mitchell to shoot it.

Trevor Noah’s reaction to the news is my favorite, because it’s both celebratory and uncomfortable, like good alcohol – “Finally a good headline with the words “black person” and “shoot” in it! This is dope!”

What is undoubtedly a cause for excitement is also a prime opportunity to examine the historically dominant whiteness of media outlets that control the circulation of images and perceptions of global trends. Who are the major puppeteers of what’s deemed “hot or not” and why are their channel-flip-fast trends so colorful yet their playing fields so colorless? Why does it take a black person, whose extreme levels of fame and global influence almost elevate her above conventional race hierarchies, being given the opportunity to temporarily control a historically white space, in order for young black, talented creatives to break out in the absolute upper echelons of their industry? One could argue that the Vogue cover, normally coordinated by the steely hands of editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, is typically reserved for highly established photographers. But why are no black photographers considered highly established, or plainly speaking, good enough? The deeper issue is that creative industries of fashion and other arts continue to be white dominated arenas where we have to constantly be questioning whether white people and people of color are being given equal opportunities and advantages.

It all boils down to: representation matters. The truth is I could’ve tweeted about this news but I chose to write this piece instead because even now, not enough people get it to take action.

So I’ll break it down here. Why does it matter so much to have a black photographer shooting the cover of Vogue?

A photograph, although static, still serves as a medium of narrative. Images tell stories and if they didn’t, we wouldn’t care so much about Instagram and how our timelines make us feel everyday. We wouldn’t pin ourselves to screens – TVs, laptops, iPhones, magazines. Our generation has simply never been more visually generated and motivated, and the effects of this reality can’t be judged with accuracy either, because we are the first generation to live this way.

A photograph on the cover of the most famous magazine in the world has the power to influence millions of people worldwide. This means its narrative is scarily pervasive around the globe. Rihanna’s recent Vogue cover, the one with her skinny drawn-on eyebrows, has thrown the world into a tizzy, questioning the entire culture of eyebrows, and spawning think pieces on the evolution of eyebrow styling and its impact on style and beauty perceptions. See what I mean by scary influence?

When we analyze the narrative of an image, we look at several factors: what/who is in the photograph, why are they there, how are they positioned and placed, and who put them there. The creator of the image is important because in their creation, we are seeing through their eyes. The image is a product of its creator’s specific bias and perspective. If the holy grail of fashion produces images that are always shown through a white lens, then we always experience a white narrative. The positioners and placers, the narrators of high fashion, are white, so our views of style morph into constantly examining high fashion through a white lens. And this, today, is simply unacceptable. No one should have to be writing a think piece about why style, image and creativity are produced equally well and thought-provokingly by all races and cultures, and that displaying their diversity not only matters, but just signifies common sense.

Tyler Mitchell is a 2017 graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. He grew up in Atlanta, becoming a photographer in his teens, taking pictures of fashion and youth culture, particularly surrounding the local skateboarding scene. In 2015, he self-published a book, El Paquete, containing photographs of skateboarding youth, architecture and fashion in Havana, Cuba.

He has come to be featured in several prolific media outlets such as Complex, i-D, Teen Vogue and Lomography. His cover for Teen Vogue featured gun control activists Emma Gonzalez, Sarah Chadwick, Nza-Ari Khepra, and Jaclyn Corin, wearing all-black in perhaps a nod to the outfit of historic freedom fighters, the Black Panthers, with the hashtag #NEVERAGAIN.

“I depict black people and people of color in a really real and pure way,” Mitchell stated in a New York Times profile last year. “There is an honest gaze to my photos.”

 

Screen Shot 2018-08-04 at 22.27.09.png
Tyler Mitchell, 2 Men (2016). Photo courtesy of the Aperture Foundation.

Mitchell’s work is currently on display at the Aperture Foundation in New York (through August 16), in the show “2018 Aperture Summer Open: The Way We Live Now”. His vivid portraits, showcasing a refreshing tenderness, introspection and hope, of young black men, are partly inspired by 1980s street photographer Jamel Shabazz, and serve as a response to Mitchell’s own coming-of-age struggles as a young African American.


“I was always mentally placing myself in relation to others and very conscious of my blackness. There’s a form of what I can only describe as ‘racial schizophrenia’ that goes on in the mind of an adolescent boy,” wrote Mitchell in his artist’s statement for the exhibition. “I am synthesizing what I see to be a full range of expression possible for a black man in the future.”

Looking at Mitchell’s work, it seems fitting why Beyonce chose him. Although a weak song, Beyonce’s music video for “Apes**t” with husband Jay-Z also employs image as narrative in a powerful way. The couple often stand in statuesque poses in front of some of the world’s most famous paintings, including the Mona Lisa, at the Louvre Museum, what is known as a historically white space. The most famous artworks displayed at the Louvre are almost always white images and thus, white narratives, with occasional displays of people of color either as slaves, servants or savages, or depicted through a completely orientalist lens. In the video, Beyonce and Jay-Z literally place black bodies amongst the white marble floors and statues of the Louvre to assert black presence and excellence into the artistic narrative of the space they’re in. A row of black women dance in front of the painting of the coronation of Napoleon, one of history’s biggest colonizers, while Beyonce sings “I can’t believe we made it”. Jay-Z raps his verse in front of the painting “The Raft of Medusa” which depicts survivors spotting their rescue after their boat suffers from a fatal crash; the comparative slave boat narrative becomes apparent. An image of a painting where a white woman hugs a white man with a stab wound, is recreated with a black man and woman, and the stab wound morphs into a symbol of police brutality. This is emphasized further by an image of black men kneeling outside the museum, literally “taking a knee” in reference to NFL football players, led by Colin Kaepernick, kneeling at their games to protest racism and police brutality. Even the censored title becomes a symbol of erasing black presence and excellence out of global artistic, social and political narratives for centuries. And plenty more metaphors abound, too many to recount in full here.

Screen Shot 2018-08-04 at 22.29.38.png


What this video and the upcoming Vogue issue can remind us of is that there is still a lot of work to be done when it comes to diversifying the arts and its various narratives. As a society that is increasingly interconnected through media and its distribution of the arts, we need to do better when it comes to being aware of what we’re consuming and producing, and through what particular shade of lens.

 

Photograph by Tyler Mitchell

US Embassy

This is Trump’s regime
A neocolonialist bureau in a
Post-colonial city
The grey building with its well-manicured grass
Has its guards stand tall with
Cartoon moustaches that are
Anything but funny

They make you feel so small
First they spit orders into your face to
Empty yourself bare
You feel like a child who
Ate her homework
And stumbled into the headmistress’ office with a bad stomachache

Then they make you stand in silence
Even as you try to make conversation with the
Equally nervous person behind you who’s
Going to visit their daughter for the first time in 3 years or the
Hopeful student who just got into this university in Iowa or
That one in Arkansas

“Sir how old were you when you left Tehran”
“My parents are sponsoring me”
“Husband is in Philippines, ma’am”
“Virtual key accounts manager”
“Housewife”
“Sir it’s a one number question can you just answer me straight”
“Until I was eighteen ma’am”

Accents
Interrogated by some voice on TV with no soul
And we were not allowed to look, our knees
Trembling like we were waiting in line at the
Site of an execution
After all capital punishment is still a thing in
Free America

“NYU?”
“History major”
“Your visa is approved ma’am”
Such ease in my privilege I thought I moved worlds and
Tried to keep my relief in check because there were still many
Before me and after

All these words rehearsed in nervous minds and robotic ones
The white people at the counters had nuclear missiles to blow our hopes dry
And turn our hearts into a giant
Wasteland that was once
An American dream

I wanted to punch Uncle Sam and scream
I hate America
Or burn down a McDonald’s while
Showing my middle finger to Trump
But I kept silent with my head down
And as I walked out I saw a woman in a burqa
And I have never been aware of
Privilege as such

 

Artwork by Yeo Tze Yang, “I Could Live in Hope”, 2015

On Interracial Relationships, The Sunken Place and Middle-Class Whiteness

When I was around eight years old, my parents, step-siblings and I went to a Jamaican festival in Toronto. We had spent the day at the (now closed) Ontario Place, and the festival was nearby so we decided to stop there for food and live music. When we walked into the festival, I noticed an immediate change in both of my parents’ dispositions. My Dad, visibly relaxed, expanded into his social self, chatting to strangers and bouncing through like he was finally at home. My Mum became the kind of uncomfortable that doesn’t want you to know that it’s uncomfortable. All around us almost everyone was black.

I should preface this with an explanation of my family portrait. My Mum is white. I am white. My Mum met my Dad when I was five; he is the man who raised me and is my only Father. He is black. They got married when I was eight. My Dad had three children from his previous marriage who are all biracial. Then, when I was nine, my Mum and Dad had my brother, who is also biracial. But it would take me a little while to truly understand the implications of such a portrait.

At the Jamaican festival, I remember noticing another white person and thinking he looked kind of funny. The backpack he was carrying had a Jamaican flag on it and it was hiked too high on his back. His grin looked like he had Vaseline on his teeth to stop him from closing his lips. He had a sunburn. I was too young to understand my Mum’s tension and why that man stuck out so sorely. I didn’t understand my own feeling of being out of place and didn’t want to acknowledge it. I didn’t want to be different, I wanted to feel comfortable the way my siblings seemed to be. When I got home I talked to my Mum about it and she said something that stayed with me: “Zoe, that’s exactly how your Dad must feel so much of the time in Milton.”

I started noticing all the times when my Dad and siblings were the only people of colour in a social group. I wondered if they always felt the way I’d felt at the Jamaican festival when we were in public together. I noticed the way white people talked to my Dad, and especially the way people watched us when he took me out alone. What is that young white girl doing with a black man? We never experienced any direct questioning, but I noticed the same uncomfortable that doesn’t want you to know that it’s uncomfortable on my Dad’s face when he and I went out alone. I became aware of race in a way that many white people never have to, because I am part of an interracial family.

On my Mum’s side of the family everyone is white, and everyone is married to or is dating someone white. When we gather together, my Dad and brother are the only people who are not. I wonder why my Mum was the only one to look outside of her own race for someone marriage-worthy. Was it simply “easier” to date other white people? I think the idea of a racial preference in potential partners is rooted in internalized racism, or at least a discomfort with difference, which we should be engaging with instead. While in some places, this homogeneity is as a result of lack of exposure to or interaction with other races, suggesting that one race is more attractive to you than another is racist. People’s looks can vary so widely within a racial group (and that’s disregarding all the non-aesthetic, hopefully more important reasons why you would date someone). Equally as damaging is insisting that everyone from a certain group is attractive. Just because you say something positive about a group doesn’t mean you aren’t actively reducing them and flattening their complexity. My brother is beautiful, but not because he is biracial. 

In contrast to my white side of the family, my Dad’s side is much more diverse. My Dad is one of eight siblings, all of whom have children. Some have black spouses, some have non-black spouses. Even before my parents got married, I never felt uncomfortable as part of a racial minority in the family. I never felt like the white kid at the party, but as someone who married into an all-white family, I wonder if my Dad has ever felt like the black guy at the party.

I recently watched a brilliant movie, Get Out, which comments on the black psyche in upper-middle class (North) America. Directed by Jordan Peele, the film is about a black man who goes up to his white girlfriend’s parents’ house for the weekend to meet her parents. I don’t want to spoil too much because if there’s one film you should watch this year it’s Get Out. But I do want to talk about an idea that the film invented, called the “sunken place”.

In the film, the sunken place is a state of being that the protagonist, Chris, and the other black characters are pushed into by the white family who seeks to control them. So much of what I’ve watched my Dad experience in middle class North America is explored in this film; white people calling him “man”, talking incessantly about Obama, treating blackness as something trendy. When people meet my Dad, the first thing they tend to say to me about him is that he’s cool, which seems like a compliment but is part of an incredibly reductive expectation that people have of black men.

The sunken place is a result of the black person’s internalization of the white gaze. It’s what happens when black people are forcibly stripped of their identity and are molded to fit white expectations. Their true self is shoved into obscurity, and they exist in a state of perpetually falling backwards. The sunken place is portrayed in the film in humorous ways at first, like when Chris tries to fist-bump a black character who is in the sunken place and that character tries to shake his fist. Later, we see how damaging that state is: when a white man asks Chris about what it means to be black in America, Chris enlists the help of another black character who says that overall his experience as an African-American has been very positive. When Chris temporarily gets him out of the sunken place with a camera flash, the black character grabs him, his nose bleeding, and screams at him to “get out, get out, get out.”

The character who unsettled me most in the film was Chris’ girlfriend, Rose, probably because I could see so much of myself in her. At one key moment in the beginning of the film, Rose and Chris are on the way to her parents’ home and they hit a deer. Rose is driving, she pulls over and she calls the police. After she explains what happened, the police officer asks to see Chris’ driver’s license, even though he wasn’t driving and the incident won’t even be reported. Chris is about to give the officer his license when Rose argues back, using her white privilege to call the police officer out for being racist. That’s what white people should be doing, standing up for the person who has less power and calling other white people out for being racist. Rose also recognises racism in her own family and she takes Chris’ side against her parents but [SPOILER] Rose turns out to be just as evil as her parents are. Arguably, Rose is the worst one because she seduces black people with friendship and romance only to have them be brainwashed and enslaved by her white family.

So is Get Out suggesting that all white people in interracial relationships ultimately shove their partner into the sunken place? Is it suggesting that interracial romance is impossible without exploitation of the race who has less power? Rose seems to do everything right, and you could even use her as a model in the first part of the movie for how you should try to act as a white person in an interracial relationship. But the relationship still fails and ends in trauma and bloodshed. Does this mean that my Dad is in the sunken place every time he is with my white side of the family? Are interracial relationships doomed to fail? And what does this mean for biracial children who operate in both worlds? Are they always going to be half-sunk?

I don’t think that this is the message Get Out is trying to tell its audience, despite the failure of the relationship between Chris and Rose. The film is instead engaging with an idea that is part of the black American literary canon. In 1979 Audre Lorde called on feminists to recognise intersectionality and to stop pretending to be blind to difference, whether it was in wealth, race or sexuality. She argued that the master’s tools can never be used to dismantle the master’s house. “Advocating the mere tolerance of difference between women is the grossest reformism. It is a total denial of the creative function of difference in our lives. Difference must be not merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic,” she tells us. In Get Out, Chris attempts to exist in the master’s house, and to survive it he is forced to burn the house down. The film criticises the white system of power in place, and as a piece of literature it too refuses to use the master’s tools, subverting them instead at every turn.

The idea of burning down white systems of power can seem terrifying to white people. What would happen if we lost all of our privilege? White people may be uncomfortable with this film because it reveals that even when you are politically correct, and even when everything seems peaceful on the surface, black people are being damaged and exploited in horrifying ways. The film does not advocate against engagement between races, and it is certainly not against interracial romance, but it suggests a burning down of the system. Nobody can survive in the current house of white privilege, no matter how much we try not to see it.

 

Artwork by Jermaine Rogers

Alphabet for the Second Language

Why can’t I reach fully legitimacy with
My tongue
A slow and inflexible muscle
Uttering words and spitting
Contorting to make sounds and imitate accents I was not born into

A for access,
Access to picture books first
Access to academic journals second
And then B for blocked
Blocked from accessing emotions
And putting them into English words. E for English, E for Easy. English is not Easy

N for native tongue
I have no proper native tongue. A jumble of 5 or 6 languages we don’t even classify
C for classification
C for colonial tendencies. To demarcate my skin Colour as Chinese. Ching Chong. Chinoise. Exotic. Chopstick violence sticking into tender blond hair.

C for cheongsam
My mother’s wedding dress. My grandmother’s wedding dress. My great-grandmother’s wedding dress. Maybe, my wedding dress.
Tight fitting and threatens to suffocate my ability to speak. S for submissiveness. T for threats by my father to slap my face he marches over after I— I—
Cursed.
C for consumption. C for cultural appreciation. E for excuses to put it on and shed it off after.
While I still tremble with fear when I hear the words Asian girl.
Asian girl takes Big Black Cock. Young Asian Teenager Sucks Math Professor off.

D for Decolonize. Making null scars in my lineage. Reading writers who render words inaccessible to my mother. She wants me home. I hear it in the Telephone. T for technology to say “I miss you” in a wordless language

V for vehemence. Anger you cannot explain. What language? Where are the words to properly justify. Use arguments for and against. Cite statistics. BE COHERENT!

—the urge to cry when I am asked to defend my hatred towards white people. For what is there left to say

F is for Forget. Forgiveness. To let go of grudges, our people’s coping mechanism
But R for Reality
That stings your cheeks long after and never goes away
Seeing it in their ease, asking why you’re not born into it.
Why you are not beautiful. Why you feel offended. Why this sensitivity like a flu that won’t go away.

P for pain. P for pronunciation.
For my V’s and W’s, my T’s and Th’s. Their stares.
I have not spoken with ease for years. Like the story of a man obsessed with imitating the steps of the ravens, and forgets how to walk
Except I did not choose this.

T for tired. T for try and try again. T for trapped. I have no choice
But to keep writing. L for listen.
P for please, please listen.

 

 

Image by Michael Baldwin and Mel Ramsden, “Index: The Studio at 3 Wesley Place, in the Dark (IV), and Illuminated by an Explosion nearby (VI)”, 1982. 

Only in Poetry, I have power

No more white gaze on my agile tongue speaking a fifth language with an
ACCENT.

No more white gaze on the “cheaper” countries in the world, people subjected to
A VALUE SYSTEM
Of more than and less than
That they have no control over whatsoever.

No more white gaze on my mother’s eyes on my face they can pierce through your
BULLSHIT
Your jokes about their smallness relative to your lifeless ones have expired.

No more white gaze on my flavorful food if you have ordered it on the streets on your cheap vacation you had better
FINISH IT
Or think twice before you want to steal a taste of the
SUBALTERN

No more white gaze on my face I don’t need your subconscious qualifiers
The only reason you started to think some women of color as
BEAUTIFUL
Is because they still have
BIG EYES AND THIN NOSES

No more white gaze on the quaint colonial buildings my government calls
HERITAGE
They are relics of history yes but I take they are also
TROPHIES
You come back to admire when you tour the colonies
YOU SICK FUCKS

Oh just because you’re not British or White Americans you think I am not talking about you?
Your skin color shares the same guilt
You liked globalization, don’t you? So swallow the
GLOBALIZATION OF RACIAL POLITICS

You have no idea how your fellow white people have left legacies
That MADE US WORSHIP YOU regardless of where you came from
Your basic features called for immediate reverence
Your economic power forced us to smile submissively while your travel hosts laugh in our faces on TV
Your countries are great countries, where my people try all their lives to run to

I AM NOT APOLOGETIC TO WHITE GUILT
So if you feel offended by this
Try living everyday believing you’re of the inferior kind, and that you don’t matter
Or don’t
Because you will never understand.

 

Painting by Syed Thajudeen, “Springmood (Odissi)

It is more than just Rendang

It is more than just Rendang
It is more than just Rendang
It is the varied spices our ancestors first mastered and then labored for
It is the reserved sweetness of our women, smiling uncomfortably as the white official stretches his hand out for a handshake
It is the banana leaf it is served on, our connection with our land

It is Zaleha’s face of pride, serving a nationally loved dish at a British show
(Because that is how you measure achievement
You need the white man’s approval)
It is her hopeful look transitioning into one on the verge of tears, her pride being crushed at the few words
It is her British accent, fully assimilated, like the rest of us who shed our Malaysian lah’s and linguistic colors like a moth sheds its cocoon
(It’s a rite of passage to tell the world, you made it in the West)
It is her trying to shake the comments off afterwards, the bruising of ancestral pride
Feeling once again, destroyed at the monstrous hands of the British Empire

It is my stress on the Malaysian in Malaysian-Chinese
It is my smirk when a European tells me they have good food
It is my effort to recall how to speak in a Malaysian accent when my white friends ask me to “show it”
It is my growling stomach when I crave something homemade at 3am in Paris
It is my mother’s laughter at the white man’s ignorance and the internet memes
(We’ve learnt to deal with humiliation and oppression with humor)
Like our food, we survived and evolved

So, dear white people who told us it was just Rendang
Shut the fuck up.
We defend it like it is a life or death issue
Because if there’s any pride left of a nation newly postcolonial and battered with racial politics and bruised with corruption
It is in our everyday possessions, legacies, philosophies
It is in the mundane
Like the soft, non-crispy, lovingly made Rendang

 

Painting by Chuah Thean Teng, “Festival Day”