Mark Anthony Neal never fails. He finds a way to use his love of black music to talk about everything black at once. This time, he's gotten at something that's been worrying me for awhile now: when, and why, did public black culture become so degraded? I don't just mean rap's excesses but the paltry cultural footprint we're leaving these days when we used to mesmerize with our art.
No matter how much harder being black used to be, at least we knew we were the coolest people on earth. Hang us from trees though whites certainly did, they still envied us our style and rightfully so. We bad! and the world couldn't keep its eyes off us, on stage, screen or vinyl. The Temptations, afros, Chuck Berry, Lena Horne, The Cotton Club, jazz, blues, gospel. Now, public black culture is mostly rap, reality shows, overwrought r&b and over-priced clothing lines. Neal notes:
In his too-brilliant-to-be-dismissed collection of essays bloodbeats: vol. 1, Los Angeles cultural critic Ernest Hardy writes that "selling blackness is permissible in the mainstream marketplace; celebrating it is not. Few folks know the difference." The occasion for Hardy's observation was the release of the music video for Janet Jackson's "Got Till It's Gone," of which he writes that the video "not only works the artfulness and artsiness that lie at the heart of everyday blackness but envisions a world of African cool, eroticism and playfulness that is electrifying in its forthrightness." "Got Till It's Gone" was released a decade ago and Hardy's argument is no less true today. Indeed blackness seems an industry unto itself, accessible on myriad media platforms and as pervasive as the air; there's rarely a moment where one can't conceivable choke on blackness—especially as the remote surfs past another reality show under-written by the Viacom Corporation. But where does one celebrate blackness at this moment?
Blackness is everywhere but it doesn't seem to be about much. Ironically, this occurs to me on the ever rarer occasions when black artistry does what it's supposed to, what it used to do so much more reliably—remind me that blackness is amazing. Dreamgirls, the Color Purple and Corinne Bailey Rae shocked me. They made me cry; all those beautiful shades of black and all that talent. I had no idea how much I'd missed seeing myself being incredible, transcendant. Seeing blackness loved. They literally made me ache a little—I have to get out more—and realize that I missed blackness. I think the world does, too. 50 Cent is a poor replacement for Curtis Mayfield.