Monday, August 02, 2010

The Black Image in the White Mind: Kanye West and James Brown

I just happened to be on one of my usual intellectual procrastination sessions while working on my dissertation Sunday afternoon and came across a blog, "HYPETRAK" that had a series of video clips of Kanye West performing new tunes from his highly anticipated fifth album, which is originally titled as "Good Ass Job"(West recently announced on Twitter that he was changing album name). West performed acapella at the Facebook Headquarters in Palo Alto, California (July 27). Initially I thought, "Hey, this is a helluva PR move!" Who wouldn't think that, right? What better place for PR than going to Facebook Headquarters. It's a far cry from West's infamous Taylor Swift incident that drew national, if not international ire. As a fan of Kanye's music, I had to check out to see what Mr. West was going to do.




The first track that he did is called "Mama's Boyfriend." Before he starts performing he gives a kind disclaimer to his majority white audience, as he stands on top of what seem to be cafeteria/conference tables, that the song he's about to perform is filled with several uses of the "n-word." He informs the audience, "Pardon me, there is a lot of use of the 'n-word' but I'm allowed to use it."  The audience erupts in laughter and he begins to perform. Right before he utters one word his demeanor and posture change, reminiscent of a spoken word artist or an actor that is about to recite Shakespeare.


As he began his flow I knew where he was coming from with the song and lyrics. To be honest, I think he starts to get at some of the nuances of being a son of a single mother,  but I couldn't help thinking about another awkward performance by another pop culture icon--James Brown. The "Godfather of Soul" made an appearance on Hugh Hefner's syndicated show, "Playboy After Dark," a program that was supposed to give the viewer this feeling that they were at a private cocktail party at the Playboy Mansion.  During the show (which ran from 1968-1970) Hefner interacts with his guests, all while having some of the greatest music icons of the day perform in what seems to be an intimate setting. Sounds like a recipe for a hit show, right? Often times it was.



The night James Brown performed, that recipe seemed to be a bit surreal. Not because he was on the show, but because of the choice of song. Brown performed his black pride anthem, "Say it Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)." I have often wondered what was going through not only James Brown's mind as he performed, but also the majority white audience that were so enthusiastically reciting the chrous with him. There is just something weird about seeing the majority white audience shout, "I'm Black and I'm Proud!"  Brown never really looks at the audience while he sings as if he is in his own world.

Looking at the audience sing with him may have had the same effect on him that Dave Chappelle had when he decided to abandon his hit comedy show. It was almost as if Brown was having an out of body experience as he sang. I know I was. At some point I wonder if he thought, "Maybe this wasn't a good idea." Then again, he could have been fine with performing the tune. The whole spectacle reminds me of a scene from Spike Lee's film, Bamboozled (2000), where the entire audience is wearing blackface and before the minstrel show begins the character, "Honeycutt," who himself is dressed as a blackface version of President Abraham Lincoln, goes out into the studio audience and asks several people, "Is you a NIGGA??!!"  Each of them emphatically shouts (in their own way), "I'm a NIGGA!"

So putting these performances into a historical context--Kanye West at the Facebook Headquarters in 2010 and James Brown singing "Say it Loud" some forty or so years prior, we have spanned the turbulent 1960s and the society altering effects of the black freedom movement and Vietnam, to a republic still haunted by its inability to honestly discuss race matters. Yes, there is now a African American president, yet with the recent Shirley Sherrod fiasco, we seem to always end up back at square one--a far cry from the post racialism heralded by so many after the 2008 Presidential Election.

I am not suggesting that James Brown or Kanye West's performances are the same. I do think there are parallels and similarities. Both black men are performing to largely non-black audiences and both engage the issue of race head on in their performances. Furthermore, both men for their respective generations, have come to symbolize not only their race but tangible aspects of American popular culture. While Brown made his legacy from his mind blowing performances (that set standards only Michael Jackson would eclipse), West in many ways has taken the reins of media by being shocking to his audience and the media alike, neither entity ever really knowing what what to expect from him.  While West did not come up with an anthem as Brown is known for, his comments in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina thrust him into a different spotlight. I am not suggesting that either of these artists are activists, but they have engaged their art and their celebrity in ways that was indeed active and responsive to the times in which they live(d). (Please see Prof. Mark Anthony Neal's take on the subject.)


Additionally, I reflect back to a text written by historian, George Fredrickson entitled The Black Image in the White MindThe Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny, 1817-1914, (1971). In this classic treatise of intellectual history, Fredrickson analyzes how white Americans have perceived African Americans in slavery and in freedom from early nineteenth century to the opening decades of the twentieth. In short, he was concerned with addressing "the development of intellectualized racist theory and ideology as it applied directly and programmatically to the "problem" posed in the white mind by the presence of millions of blacks in the United States."

So when you watch the audiences that are gathered to view the art of these two performers, what exactly do they see?  Why do they clap and laugh?  Is it possible that Brown's audience understands or empathizes with the declaration of black pride?  Does Kanye's audience feel the pain of a young black boy growing up raised by a single black mother? When he utters "nigga"(more times than in any Boondocks episode or in Twain's Huckleberry Finn) do they get it? Such questions likely will never be fully answered to anyone's satisfaction.  

The questions I pose that surround these performances are by no means definitive or the last word, but I do think we cannot simply overlook these spectacles of race. In both performances the artists are unapologetically proclaiming (and aware of) their blackness. But what about the black image in the white mind?  Are whites just to sit and enjoy the spectacle of blackness uncritically? What about African Americans? Are we let off the hook by just writing James Brown off as a great performance and Kanye West, just simply being his usual self? I think we have to ask such questions. Then again, maybe I'm just thinking about this way too much.

20 comments:

Egalitarian Misstress said...

I don't think that you are "thinking this way too much." Time and time again, whether it is through commentary on Fox News or through our interpersonal experiences, "black images" are rarely constructed as versatile. People with mass audience appeal such as Kanye (I don't know much about James Brown ) continue to reinforce an image of pseudo black intellectualism. See Kanye (esp with the Katrina criticism of Bush) appears to be a person that somewhat engages in social activism, and his image of a "conscious rapper" completely bacfires against us in many ways. The most damaging being that although Kanye appears to be "conscious" he reinforces negative stereotypes about black masculinity with his alcoholic outburst, his use of the n-word with no thought or comment about it's potential damage (except for the fact that he has a right to use it as black male), his homophobic rhetoric, and arrogant demeanor. In my opinion, the example of the minstrel show that you present hits very close to home as Kanye West is one of the more influential rappers; and unfortunately "blackness" is often times constructed through the lens of hip hop.

I hope this is clear I am rambling

Ricky Ribeiro said...

What a sharp and perceptive analysis to link the Kanye performance w/ James Brown's. This parallels are obvious and quite intriguing. Great stuff. And for sure, you're not thinking too much.

M Jules Aedin said...

Hi, I followed a link here from Twitter, so you don't know me. :) But I thought this was a great, thoughtful piece. It also reminded me of another performance I saw by a black musician performing a racially charged song to a mostly white audience... I thought I'd pass it along, thought it might be of interest to you. I apologize if I'm presuming. :)

Nina Simone performing "Mississippi Goddam" in 1964 to a mostly (if not all) white audience: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NAYVaHEMK0I

Jabriel Ballentine said...

I don't think you're thinking too much, either...but you know I probably think too much as well.

Like for instance, I think of the juxtaposition of the two performances and the parallels that do indeed exist. Then I wonder: James Brown used the opportunity to coerce White folk to embrace the beauty of Blackness. Kanye's choice of material gave this crop of White folk opportunity to justify any stereotypes of the "Black Experience."

Yes, his song expresses some of the harsh realities of Black Life and the thinking/expressions of Black youth, but that is something that must be understood in context. I don't think that performance, nor the lyrics, compelled those Whites to expand their minds and explore the reasons for such a reality.

The White mind already has a warped image of Blackness. Far be it from us to support their image. Whites will not sit and enjoy the spectacle uncritically. Frankly, the placement of words in that statement is revelatory in itself, bruh! (And, I'm not making any statements about what you said or intended...just noticing an irony - one that you may have intended! lol) For, there is something sinister about enjoying a spectacle!

Lastly, if the content from Kanye's album is such that this was the best he could offer then we have to rethink many things. #OpportunityMissed

AC said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
AC said...

“To find another and truer sexual self-image the black woman must turn to the domain of music and America’s black female vocalists, who suggest a composite figure of ironical grace. The singer is likely closer to the poetry of black female sexual experience than we might think, not so much, interestingly enough, in the words of her music but in the sense of dramatic confrontation between ego and the world that the vocalist herself embodies. We must be careful here not to romanticize the singer, with her sometimes unlovely self-destructive life, as a lame reading of the content of Sojourner’s life turns it into an idea that Truth herself would probably not recognize. I do not intend to take the vocalist out of history, but to try and see her firmly within it.

The Burkean pentad of fiction – agent, agency, act, scene, and purpose as the principal elements involved in the human drama – is compressed in the singer into a living body, insinuating itself through a material scene, and in the dance of motives, in which the motor behavior, the changes of countenance, the vocal dynamics, the calibration of gesture and nuance in relationship to a formal object – the song itself – is a precise demonstration of the subject turning in fully conscious knowledge of her own resources toward her object. In this instance of being-for-self, it does not matter that the vocalist is ‘entertaining’ under American skies because the woman, in her particular and vivid thereness, is an unalterable and discrete moment of self-knowledge. The singer is a good example of ‘double consciousness’ in action.”

(“Interstices: A Small Drama of Words,” Hortense Spillers)

while reading your blog entry about two black male figures, musical entertainers, i was struck by how how much the above passage by Spillers kept coming up for me. though she is intentionally speaking about black womanhood and the relation to poetics by way of song/sound, i think there is something Spillers attunes readers to: the fact that a singer/entertainer/performance – a performative utterance itself – can be unconcerned with environment in which those utterances accrue. or, another way: maybe it doesn’t matter what the audience thinks when these two performers you theorize perform; maybe what is of greater import is the fact that they confront audience with a fact of blackness (blackness, here for me, following Fred Moten, as “a history” that is “a testament to the fact that objects can and do resist,” blackness that is “a strain that pressures the assumption of the equivalence of personhood and subjectivity.”) when viewed this way, perhaps the performances of Brown and West (though, admittedly, i’m not a fan of the latter) are not responses to white folks, maybe there is a different call, maybe there is a way that these performances are not tethered to audience acceptance or dismissal. so like, when these performers don’t look at their audience, when they continue usage of terminology that may or may not be problematic within a particular environment, maybe they are critiquing the very gathering of the crowd itself. i dunno…seems like they are mining the field that Spillers so wonderfully theorizes: there is confrontation, there is an unalterable thereness, there is a being-for-self that is actualized in the space of the respective audience without being beholden to those audiences.

and i guess if we think about blackness as a “history” (pace Moten), then we linger in the fact of blackness as an accrual, a compilation (a literal compiling, one on top of the other) of performance of the object that resists.

Conscious said...

Please help me circulate my song and video for Aiyana Jones a 7 year old girl killed by Detroit police.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rIE7efHPIvM

Research Term Papers said...

I have really enjoyed this blog and I hope that new posts are made.

BigQid said...

The link is there, but a little twisted. It says more that Kanye comes in and performs for Facebook in a suit and tie on a lunch table, which feels very slave era-ish. I understand why he has to do this, Ps and Qs and all. James Brown made Black and Proud during a time full of actual social unrest. Our fights are 90% fake and often about imagery and words. The word nigga has certainly lost most of its sting over the 40 years so much so that, while I can imagine the Playboy crowd sang along as a small show of solidarity with blacks, the Facebook crowd was identifying with being children of any single mother since we all know at least a couple. Words are only tools, and nigga, these days gets used in the same fashion as dude among black people and amongst some white people who have gotten far too comfortable with the word amongst themselves.
Bamboozled, one of my top 5 favorite films, stands as an interesting bridge between the two. In Black and Proud, the topic is blackness itself. In Bamboozled, there is a reflection on how being a nigga is something that we all can identify with theoretically, but any attempts to get us to do so is probably inspired by some intention to exploit niggas of all sorts. At the point it gets to Kanye, he uses nigga so much it literally almost loses all meaning so much so that to hang the song on the issue on race takes away from the craftsmanship of the song. Non-traditional homes is a pandemic, and he hits this vast target audience square in a way that I don't recall anyone else pulling off.
I don't think Kanye is going to do anything racial for another year or two so he can win back some white fans, which is why he won't do the "Power" video as a reenactment of the inauguration of Obama.

Tor Hershman said...

What Mr. West has and will do is.....sing about subjects approved by the status quo and make a lot a loot.

I’d do the same thingy, if'in moi 'twere getting’ some of that greenback ring-a-dingy;
however, moi ain't soooooooooo me songs izzzzzz REALLY bad ass.
REALLY BAD, anywho.

Christelyn Karazin said...

Sorry to hijack your thread, but I didn't know any other way to contact you:

A growing confederation of BWE bloggers is launching a campaign to address the out-of-wedlock epidemic in the black community. On September 22, the day Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, we will drop a 'blog blitzkrieg' regarding the importance of personal responsibility in parenthood, dubbed "No Wedding, No Womb!" (this is the attention-getter, but we are more so advocating for personal responsibility, the importance of the ACTIVE presence of mothers and fathers in raising children, access and use of birth control, etc)

I would love for you to join us! Here are some of the participants I know you might be acquainted with:
Diary of a Black & White Family, (Karyn Folan, author Don’t Bring Home a White Boy)
• The Black Snob (Danielle Bentley)
• Roslyn Hardy Holcomb, co-author, Stolen
• Lisa G. Riley, co-author, Stolen
• Black Women Deserve Better (Cherilyn Smith)
• Betty Chambers, Betty Chambers Has Spoken
• Surviving Dating (Deborrah Cooper)
• Kellina Craig-Henderson, author, Black Women in Interracial Relationships: In Search of Love and Solace
• Life Behind the Wall (Jo Bai)
• SoSoulful (Kimberly Woods)
• Sardonic Sistah Says (Renee Tecco)
• Euphorialuv (Onica Cupido)
• IR Dating Coach (Elizabeth Henderson)
• Socialite Dreams (Javonne Stewart)
• Acts of Faith Blog (Faith Dow)
• Dr. LeslieBeth Wish Ed. D. MSS
• Arielle Loren, Straight Woman Writing on LGBT Issues
• Mocha Dad (Mocha Dad)
• Veroniiblog (Veronica Miller)
• A Crush a Day (Keshia Robertson)
• Interracial Intersection (Velour Luvv)
• LorMarie.com

*We also have a special relationship with Earl Ofari Hutchinson, who endorsed my upcoming book with co-author, Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn. We are in talks with him to also contribute on Sept. 22.

This event will be covered in major national print, online, radio and broadcast outlets.

Please let me know if you'd like to join in and I'll give you additional details.

Cheers,

Christelyn Karazin
www.beyondblackwhite.com
twitter/Christelyn

Christelyn Karazin said...

Sorry to hijack your thread, but you're on Black Snob's blog roll and she's participating in this initiative, and I thought you might be interested as well:

A growing confederation of BWE bloggers is launching a campaign to address the out-of-wedlock epidemic in the black community. On September 22, the day Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, we will drop a 'blog blitzkrieg' regarding the importance of personal responsibility in parenthood, dubbed "No Wedding, No Womb!" (this is the attention-getter, but we are more so advocating for personal responsibility, the importance of the ACTIVE presence of mothers and fathers in raising children, access and use of birth control, etc)

I would love for you to join us! Here are some of the participants I know you might be acquainted with:
Diary of a Black & White Family, (Karyn Folan, author Don’t Bring Home a White Boy)
• The Black Snob (Danielle Bentley)
• Roslyn Hardy Holcomb, co-author, Stolen
• Lisa G. Riley, co-author, Stolen
• Black Women Deserve Better (Cherilyn Smith)
• Betty Chambers, Betty Chambers Has Spoken
• Surviving Dating (Deborrah Cooper)
• Kellina Craig-Henderson, author, Black Women in Interracial Relationships: In Search of Love and Solace
• Life Behind the Wall (Jo Bai)
• SoSoulful (Kimberly Woods)
• Sardonic Sistah Says (Renee Tecco)
• Euphorialuv (Onica Cupido)
• IR Dating Coach (Elizabeth Henderson)
• Socialite Dreams (Javonne Stewart)
• Acts of Faith Blog (Faith Dow)
• Dr. LeslieBeth Wish Ed. D. MSS
• Arielle Loren, Straight Woman Writing on LGBT Issues
• Mocha Dad (Mocha Dad)
• Veroniiblog (Veronica Miller)
• A Crush a Day (Keshia Robertson)
• Interracial Intersection (Velour Luvv)
• LorMarie.com

*We also have a special relationship with Earl Ofari Hutchinson, who endorsed my upcoming book with co-author, Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn. We are in talks with him to also contribute on Sept. 22.

This event will be covered in major national print, online, radio and broadcast outlets.

Please let me know if you'd like to join in and I'll give you additional details.

Cheers,

Christelyn Karazin
www.beyondblackwhite.com
twitter/Christelyn

Rochelle Spencer said...

I agree with what Egalitarian Mistress said, and with this part of your thesis, that the audience is "enjoy the spectacle of blackness uncritically." I noticed, during the Kanye performance, the multiple cell phones recording his image. In the James Brown piece, you get more interaction, more call-and-response; the audience and the performer are united in a way that isn't apparent in the Kanye West presentation.

Justice58 said...

Would you add us to your blogroll?

http://3chicspolitico.com/




SouthernGirl2

Torrance Stephens - All-Mi-T said...

nice blog, do check me out one day if you can and let me know if we can exchange blog rolls RDB

Joyous said...

LOVED this Blog!

mandela said...

Probably the most destructive being that will though Kanye definitely seems to be "conscious" they reinforces detrimental stereotypes in relation to dark-colored manliness along with alcoholic episode, his technique n-word with no believed and also opinion with regards to it can be prospective damage (aside from the reality that he's a right to make use of it as dark colored guy), his homophobic rhetoric, as well as haughty conduct.
auto insurance quotes

Broderick said...

i think with that with europeans the feeling purely entertainment we've amused them for centuries its basicly always been make me laugh now go do my work....who cares if you say a couple of conscious verses on a song go spend a couple million and save a community...we have no leadership let two more generations pass without any real leadership we will loose what little black identity we have...B.Guy

Willie Sager said...

Nice post with awesome points! Can’t wait for the next one.

HP - 14" Pavilion Laptop - 6GB Memory - 500GB Hard Drive - Black

Guzzi sager said...

very nice and impressive one sharing you have done here i like it and would like to appreciate you on this so keep it up.
Apple Laptop

Creative Commons License
Negrointellectual by Vernon C. Mitchell, Jr. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at www.negrointellectual.blogspot.com.