Saturday, September 3, 2011

Meet the New Dad, Same as the Old (Deadbeat) Dad: Justin Timberlake Pt. 1

In a previous post, I talked about the unexpected trouble caused by the success of African-American Studies (broadly) and black feminism specifically. It's a common story about subnational cultures or youth subcultures. When the underground comes above-ground, more often than not, the community that nurtured the art when no one else respected it suddenly finds that the fruit of their unassisted labor-- newly popular and profitable--is claimed as common property.

Some of you are old enough to recall (and others should avail themselves and look into) the bad old days in the history of hip-hop. Once, MTV wouldn't touch the stuff. Then they played it on a restricted hour on a Saturday night on a show called Yo! MTV Raps. From those marginal beginnings, hiphop has replaced rock as the sound of the US, exported to the world. Well, this is the way of things. And it is certainly a kind of success.

But then there's the moment when you turn on the TV, and Justin Timberlake and Jimmy Fallon are performing a "history of rap." They aren't apologizing. They know the songs and they're doing it. Am I just jaded and paranoid for noticing the Roots, the all-black back-up band whose musical talent underwrites the white boys messing around up front? Does anyone listen to what The Roots actually play behind them, or is it just assumed that, since they are the black back-up band and they sound fine that they must also sound good (enough)?

What did I want from Fallon or JT? Certainly not a disclaimer: We apologize for being white and performing these songs. That would have been ridiculous. Yet, some other things stuck out to me--and this, with only one viewing. The one song they referenced by a white rapper was cut extremely short. They just gave us the Alright stop of "Ice, Ice Baby." What's the message there? That one of the first rap songs to hit #1 on the Billboard charts did not deserve to be performed? (Ice's single and album went to #1 on Billboard's pop charts, the first double-whammy in the genre's history. Well, I suppose if I can root irrationally for the Williams sisters and any black contestant on Jeopardy, white people can go nuts for white rappers in a black-invented and -dominated genre).

Timberlake's and Fallon's refusal to sing the lyric said to me that "Ice, Ice Baby" was simply too uncool to perform. But isn't part of its uncoolness that Vanilla Ice's roots in the vanilla suburbs were exposed? So isn't part of what is happening when Fallon and JT do not deign to perform it a refusal to inhabit the illegitimate white rapper position? It seems to me that this moment establishes distance from the old white person who couldn't hang. We are the new white party boys, it says. And we don't even need your permission to be in black cultural territory, because we've moved the hood to a sound studio at 30 Rock and hired you to bring the funk to us.

In the end, I just want good art. I love Michael McDonald's soulful singing; I agree with New Yorker film critic David Denby that the best black actors clamor to get in John Sayles' movies because he writes such amazing parts for them. I think John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation is among the very smartest, most beautiful narratives of race, class, and sex in our literature. So it's hard for me to put my finger on what makes me defensive when it comes to Timberfake (now that he's off Saturday Night Live, I quite like Jimmy Fallon). I suppose it is that with the artists I enjoy, I sense they are hard-working and humble, and this combination wins them amazing, uncommon insight. They don't think they already have black culture down (hell, I been black for thirty-three years and I still don't have it down).†

Milan Kundera once wrote that love is a continual interrogation of the other. I take this to mean that when you have no more questions, you have fallen out of love -- the opposite of love being indifference (or dis-interest, as it were). So the white artists that I enjoy are those who show a continued curiosity about the black thing, the way it may overlap with their experiences and, right at the moment of identicality, breaks off again... only to return, at the moment of extremest difference, to another point of convergence. This is our shared history in this country. Its inequalities are not simply dissolved through the arrival or acknowledgement of the multiracial. To reverse a point made by Mahmood Mamdani, even if cultural identities are cumulative, political identities tend to be singular. In other words, bilingualism, mixed-parentage, and cosmopolitanism do you little good when the person sitting in judgment of your job application or your court case has one of those switches flipped. You become citizen or illegal, man or freak, Israeli or Palestinian, family man or sexual predator, and your fate proceeds accordingly until the next reading.

But it is a bit strange, now, after channeling culture, geography, and money along racial lines for centuries to suddenly declare that your black blues ain't so black after all. I find myself hearing things like That's not black: it's Southern--as if something couldn't be both. As if black is exclusionary in the ways that white was. Hell, as a discard category, black has had far less capacity to reject what gets thrown into it. The real estate (and symbolic space) of blackness has not been typically been sealed by restrictive covenants. Speaking generally we have been obliged to take in all shades and all kinds--those who wanted to be with us, and those who were banished and had nowhere else to go.

But the fact that white American culture is hybrid is the result, it would seem, either of intentional appropriation or of minority influences that had to overcome white indifference or dismissal. Claiming, then, that black cultural production is hybrid is an entirely different enterprise--one that comes perilously close to staking a claim to the very baby you once dropped at the side of the road and left to fend for itself. To the extent that white America has been a deadbeat Dad to black America (to borrow from Hortense Spillers' "Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe"), white scholars and cultural producers might tread lightly when returning to embrace the children, all grown up with no help from Dad. A rapprochement can happen, but it takes time and effort.  The claim of genetic similarity will not be enough, just as the knowledge that we've all been here together on this continent as one (un)happy family has not been enough.

 --- In one week, Part Two -- "Sports and Swagger"

† Guare, for example, builds an enormously moving story out of a simple dilemma for the white female protagonist. This gay black hustler comes into their lives, after having memorized the connections of Manhattan's social circles and learned an amazing amount of art and literary history. She decides, at his request, to take him in, to teach him the family business. Her children want nothing to do with her, but this kid wants in. After he is arrested by the police on nebulous charges, he disappears into the prison system. She tries to find him but realizes, sadly, "We weren't family. We didn't know Paul's name." This person who knew her, loved her, touched her life and invaded her dreams was gone to her forever, as if he'd never been there at all. It's this loss, and the desire to prevent it, that sparks a massive change in her life. Guare was smart enough not to pretend that we get a complete passport into someone else's community--or even into their individual psyche. But we get the possibility to work on it, to turn it  over and over like the film famous Kandinsky canvas in the film, painted on both sides.


  1. Thanks for this thoughtful and thought-provoking post. I saw the Fallon/Timberlake/Roots clip some time ago and found it a remarkable and somehow troubling document. I like your explorations of the nuances and ambiguities of the performance.The larger connections you draw help me think about the complications of my own role as a white teacher of African American studies. I'm glad to have you in my news feed.

  2. indeed, my esteemed colleague. and another thing-- so *through* with both a) unapologetic capitalization on whiteness as some kind of reverse-street-cred that otherwise halfway decent white dorks (Jimmy Fallon, Auto-Tune-the-News, etc.) use to leapfrog themselves into hipster fame and b) apologetic compensation for whiteness (and on this, sorry, I have to qualify my appreciation for the current generation of soul singers who know they owe a lot to black stars of yesteryear but aren't nearly as creative and whose production is formulaic, despite vocal talent-- the late Ms. Winehouse, Adele, Bruno Mars...) as a fake concession that actually gives nothing to contemporary black artists-- that gets you into situations where the Roots are playing as a backup band. Hence, I would recognize Justin Bieber as Justin Timberlake, perfected.

  3. Framiko, thank you as always, for reading, commenting, and fighting the good fight. Stay tuned for next week's post (already in process) which touches on white teachers of black history and culture -- as well as my own experiences as student at a high school quite similar to yours.

    And andré... If Bieber is Timberfake, perfected, then your response is my essay, completed. Thank you for shining George Clinton's Fliashlight. I hope they don't make you shoot em with the Bop Gun!

  4. Those who are younger than 30 can't remember a time before mainstream rap. I remember the "switch" of white suburban kids being almost instantaneous (right around 1988, give or take a year) and typically divided along jock/nerd lines. For white suburban kids, rap became the music of social power, and all the bullies or wannabe bullies adopted rap as their soundtrack and dove headfirst into all the style (including changing their speech) that went with it. Soon after rap entered white culture, all party rap was abandoned for gangster rap. So the suburbs went from no rap whatsoever to at most two years of Beastie Boys/Fat Boys/Run DMC, then immediately to NWA, etc., and never looked back.

  5. Thank you for your post, Jacob. Most of the progression you remember jibes with my memories. You summoned music and people I haven't thought of in years.

    I'm a little hesitant about some of the categories, though. I remember musical tastes and social identities being a little messier. The most avid white fan of hip-hop at my grade school was adept at many sports, not a bully, and loved both Run DMC and Public Enemy. How does rap fit for white kids who were jocks but not bullies? Why did white bullies think appropriating a popular black style would give them power they couldn't get from elsewhere? And how do groups like Public Enemy, with their *huge* white fan base, fit into this story -- since their primary message was about black liberation, not very conducive to white bullying or frat partying? A later roommate (white) was an absolute nerd. But this Sarah Vowell fan but also had nerdy conversations with other white rap fans about Kanye, Lil Wayne, etc. Their indie rock circle had grown to include some attention to rap. So I'm not sure if pinning it all on jocks and bullies gets at white male rap fandom. And it seems I haven't either with my frat generalization.

    I have also always had trouble with the party rap/gangsta rap dichotomy. It is not one that I ever hear from insiders in the hip-hop community. It seems more an outsider perspective. Because I can't imagine any record that got more play at parties than, say, The Chronic. Gangsta Rap. Underground, Conscious Rap, -- these are categories that seem more organic to me, somehow, than "party rap." I don't know why. Then again, I'm one of those people who believes hip-hop has to have a rapper/lyricist. Thus, Beyoncé ain't hip-hop. She's an R&B singer. But I've lost that fight, even among other black people. It's a shame. I was right, but my viewpoint will, I think, be forgotten.

  6. This is a difficult subject for you grasp because the complexity of music (its affect more so than its art) and the intertwining of white and black musicians in this country. While there's no doubt that race has a played a part in the progression of modern music (at least to a degree), at some point, music is music and a lot of musicians don't really care about the other stuff. They care about music, and you can look back through history and find a plethora of both white and black artists who couldn't care less about this subject. They care about music, and its quality.

    That is not to make your point any less valid. I think it is, as your argument addresses something different than this comment. But I'm also curious how much it really matters in the grand scheme of things.

    On a not-so-sidenote, I'm not a fan of much of the contemporary music I hear, depending on the genre, reception, and purpose of the music (to reflect, to party, to uplift, to educate...). However, from what I've heard of Adele...she's dope. Perhaps not as creative as some of the original soul singers, but I don't think she needs to be to garner the recent level of success and respect that she's achieved.

    At the same time, you suggest that Bieber is Timberlake...perfected. I'm confused, unless by "perfected", you mean that as a negative. Please explain.

  7. BG, you are right, I'm not talking about where the music comes from (who makes it). I'm talking about who gets the credit and the profits. Unless a musician is independently wealthy, I don't know any who don't care about those things. Only people who don't make their living from music have the luxury of saying music is just music and not property. Music is property for professionals ( ), and property gets into all kinds of complicated legal shit. And we know our legal codes have never been geared to respect or remunerate black art or producers.

    As for Bieber, I think andré and I were saying that Bieber has incorporated hip-hop so seamlessly as a stylistic accessory that it doesn't even seem black any more when he does it. Whereas Timberlake, being older, still has to sort of acknowledge when he's drawing on street styles that weren't so fully integrated in his childhood.