And maybe the vocabulary and verbiage of African-American culture is powerful in the sense that it disseminates its aural imagery and influence in the same way that women as the masters of their own image and cultural diffusion empowers them. The language and style makes its way into the general culture and people sing along because the songs are inherently catchy and melodic. Is it sexist for men to blast feminist political anthems like “I Will Survive” or “Rebel Girl”? At best it’s comical and at worst it’s annoying. Even if the singing is ironic, the enjoyment and influence of the song is there, sharing the airwaves with cock rock and Michael Bolton. I won’t make the claim that songs about race and gender are interchangeable, but there is something telling here. In cases like this, the anti-group (e.g. men, white people) are being influenced in a way that is under the dominion of a black or female art form owned by that oppressed group.
Let’s examine the opposite with my introductory anecdote driving in black neighborhoods. What if I were driving through Bed-Stuy or Harlem blasting Nirvana or Merle Haggard? Immediately this appears as a bigger Fuck You to the community than any Biggie or Tupc song. The community is being altered in a form akin to gentrification. Playing Wilco or the Talking Heads with the volume cranked at 11 is the musical equivalent of putting up an eight-story condominium between a Baptist church and ramshackle brownstones. I won’t assume that all members of the community are going to be grinning ear to ear seeing a white boy reppin’ Goodie Mob, but I see white boy rock as far less graceful.
During the writing process of this very essay, I spoke to one of my students while substitute teaching. For the past few months I had been working at a school consisting mostly of African-American students. I have only seen three white-passing students in the entire student body. Ironically, what had bonded the student and I previously was my recognition of him singing lyrics from Kendrick’s song “ELEMENT.”. I asked this student the question of this very essay, running over the bullet points made earlier. His and another student’s response? “Just be respectful. Know where it comes from.” The simplicity of the attitude startled me. Maybe what it comes down to is that black artists are making music for the world, and the fact that other races and peoples coming to it is in itself a major accomplishment. For these teenagers, my very question and interest in responsibility, ipso facto, proved that I was respectful. The respect for me as a fellow listener came from my apparent appreciation of the music and the acknowledgment of my race in a genre predominately black. Maybe the now established dictum of “check your privilege” would be sufficient for my question.