Monday, July 12, 2004


can it be, it was all so simple?

I was cleaning through some of my older writing archives and I came upon this 1998 Q&A with Mos Def. It came soon after the Million Youth March had ended in chaos and right before the Black Star album had dropped. I decided to retrieve and share it because there is something in this moment - of hip-hop from six years ago that manages to feel close enough to remember yet distant from where we are now too.

Damn, it's already been set off. Sally over at The Quarterwit took offense to one of Mos' comments and threw down a response. I won't repost her diatribe in toto, but the gist of it is this.

She's angered by Mos saying,
    "let's be real -- these white kids in the suburbs that buy their first Wu Tang record and lose their damn mind -- they could play an active part in the culture if they wanted to, but that's not why they bought that Wu Tang record. They bought that Wu Tang record to live out their fantasy of themselves as Raekwon or Ghost or Method or whoever..."
To which Sally replies,
    "I think this is exactly wrong. White kids who buy Wu Tang and get into hip hop are trying to be active participants in hip hop culture. Granted, they are usually annoying when they do it (see "We Use Words like 'Mackadocious'") and tend to be misguided and generally offensive. They wear Rocawear and change their vocabulary and their earnestness just makes them look absurd. But there are white people out there who aren't annoying appropriators of African American culture. We don't all just co-opt everything. I respect Mos Def and all, but one of the things he loves to do is bitch about white people in hip hop."

Now, if there's one thing I love, it's seeing white people bitch about black people bitching about white people. Don't get me wrong: African Americans can get rather defensive about any threat of cultural appropriation they perceive, but one should note that historically speaking, they got the right to be hostile. Moreover, most black folk I've had these conversations with are far more nuanced in their criticism than white people are in their defense of it, if for no other reason than that to be a person of color means constantly interrogating race whereas being white means being able to avoid those conversations most of the time.

It's as if you can never call out white people for living out their racial fantasies through popular culture even though everyone does it: white, black, brown, yellow, red, etc. I find Sally's reaction to Mos Def to be overstated, to say the least, especially because she all but agrees with Mos' critique. It seems like Sally's main beef is that Mos neglected to say, "many of these white kids in the suburbs" but she presumes that because Mos left out that the qualifier of "many" or "most", he therefore must mean all. Yet even she's willing to admit that many white kids who get into hip-hop don't do it for the culture!

I'm further amused by the fact that Sally brings up William Upski Wimsatt's "We Use Words Like Macakdocious" essay from the early '90s, one of the very first to call out white minstrels in hip-hop and one of the very things that Upski raises is the whole "I'm a special white boy" argument that white people deploy in their defense. Apparently, Sally failed to read this passage of Upski's essay since she uses it. Or what did she think saying, "But there are white people out there who aren't annoying appropriators of African American culture. We don't all just co-opt everything." was all about? News flash: that's is exactly what the "I'm a special white boy/girl" defense looks like. Upski called bullshit on that and so do I.

What is amazing, is this next line from Sally: " I'm tired of being de facto accused of being one of those white asshole kids who listens to hip hop. Is there really no such thing as someone who likes and appreciates the music?" Let's all take a deep breath and just say this, together: It's not about you. Mos, or anyone else raising the issue of race and culture, are not, "de facto accusing" any one person, let alone you: they're drawing attention to a trend. The fact that someone, like Sally, would feel so personally attacked says far more about her than it does about whatever Mos had to say. I don't mean to sound like someone asshole, bullshit psychologist but for real, I see these kind of defensive white folks all the time: in my classrooms, on the street, on the internet, etc. It's not about you! Get over yourselves!

And as for this statement, it's so utterly ridiculous, I don't even know what to do with it:
    "Mos Def cites Edward Albee as one of his inspirations. I think that's bullshit, that Mos Def would co-opt a white playwright like that. I mean, he is my people. Why should Mos Def be allowed to integrate the artistry of a European American, writing in the tradition of European surrealist dramatic writing, to his music? Mos is African American. Clearly he reads Albee so he can imagine himself as one of Albee's dysfunctional middle class white characters."
It's an attempt - a poor one at that - at reverse psychology. Clearly, Sally isn't really questioning Mos's ability to cite Albee as a source of inspiration. Her point is that "isn't it hypocritical for him to use a white playwright as a source of inspiration if he's critiquing white fans of hip-hop"? The simple answer is: no, it's not hypocritical since what Sally is talking about and what Mos is talking about are entirely different things. Mos's critique is that white fans of hip-hop are neo-minstrels (a fact that Sally doesn't even really disagree with except that she wants to make room for "special white boys/girls"). Mos isnt' trying to pretend to live out Albee's life.

Last but not least, this small aside at the end of Sally's post is just the icing on the cake. Could this be any more pathetically passive aggressive?
    "For the record, I own one Wu Tang album and two Ghostface albums, and I have never imagined myself as Method Mad, Raekwon, Ghostface, or any member of the Wu Tang Clan. Ever."
. Once again, altogether: it's not about you.

Just for the record, it's not like I have a grudge against The Quarterwit. In general, I enjoy many of the opinions expressed over there but I simply cannot abide by people who express a profoundly misguided and narcisstic attitude around race, especially as it relates to racism and relations of power (which is precisely what Mos Def was speaking to). I'm not even keen on defending Mos Def here - he's capable of doing that on his own - I'm just annoyed that the most privileged class of people on the planet can't take some constructive criticism at times.