Thursday, February 11, 2010

On white people stealing Black music

As the Giant said to Agent Cooper, "It is happening again."

I often wonder how long it'll be before hip hop becomes a genre listened to only by bookish white people, as has been the case with jazz and blues for some time now. It's certainly starting already. Fifteen years? Ten? And what will young Black people come up with next to be raided by the white people of the future?

A warning before I continue: this whole essay is a huge oversimplification, and probably dead wrong in many ways. I'm thinking this through as I write and am probably way off base, but it's an interesting enough topic that I'm just gonna plunge in. So:

The narrative of white people stealing Black music is well-established, and the fact that it's a bit more complicated than that (for example, "Hound Dog," famously stolen from Big Mama Thornton by Elvis Presley, was written by the white Jews Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller) makes it no less reprehensible, no less of a stain. And of course it isn't just limited to the theft of rock and roll rhythm and blues. Like how it happened again with disco, with everyone on a scale of quality from the genius Giorgio Moroder (who at least collaborated with not-just-fronts-but-actually-brilliant-themselves Black people, particularly Donna Summer) to the atrocious KC and the Sunshine Band snatching a piece. To name a specially egregious case, there is the act of musical colonialism that is Paul Simon's Graceland, so recently, and popularly, taken even further into the realm of the blandly unrighteous by Vampire Weekend. In their defense, they do it themselves, rather than having uncompensated Africans do it for them. Progress, perhaps (though not musical).

It happens in less well-recognized ways, as well. Minimalism, for example, owes as much to the blues as does rock and roll, a fact which I tend to think is only as overlooked as it is because La Monte Young (composer of such works as B♭ Dorian Blues) is as overlooked as he is.

And of course I don't exactly have a problem with white musicians being inspired by Black music they love and respect, as most white musicians working in Black idioms tend to. The Rolling Stones and The Beatles, say, certainly worshiped Black American rock and rollers. Indeed, white musicians have a history of adding new vitality and creativity to the Black genres they take up. Note that I'm not saying they revitalize the musics, or that they are more creative. But white musicians, from The Beatles to Giorgio Moroder to La Monte Young and beyond, have a history of being in dialogue with Black music in a mutually beneficial way. Just as it's hard to imagine what hip hop would have been like without James Brown coming first, it's equally hard to imagine its evolution without the influence of German electronic music, say.

After all, "stealing" forms of musical expression is not like stealing, say, food from a hungry person. When you steal music from someone, they still have it. The problem comes in when certain powerful white people--record station owners, say, or promoters, or whoever--decide to steal the legitimacy. Going back to the example of The Beatles, the instant they hit, through no (conscious) fault of their own, "rock and roll" became something white people do. Black people might make soul music or funk music or whatever (all perfectly legitimate labels, created by the Black musicians themselves, describing what they were doing very well indeed), but it was no longer considered "rock and roll" for no good reason other than the race of the artist. "Coincidentally," right around this time a pop music auteur cult grew up around the white bands and singers, shepherded by white corporate executives and magazine writers, all focused on establishing the legitimacy of rock and roll as art at the expense of things deemed not rock and roll--that is, white music at the expense of Black music.

Sometimes the legitimacy didn't stick. Even The Rolling Stones couldn't make disco respectable to people, even though the form itself was a logical extension of the rock and roll Black musicians had been making (and The Rolling Stones had been imitating) all along. If anyone can point to a specific dividing line between soul, funk, and disco, I'd be interested to know; I tend to think it can't be done. I'm not sure why disco has the stigma it does, since so much of the music is so utterly fantastic (and is also in many ways a return to the beautiful minimalism that Young saw in the blues, a link made most explicit by the astonishing, white, Arthur Russell, but present in all disco). Certainly today what most people remember is the tacky KC and the Sunshine band stuff, the kind of music that the Bee Gees started making at the same time they stopped being a great band and started being a terrible one. Perhaps it's because it doesn't lend itself to the kind of Romantic grandstanding that rock and roll does, or perhaps it's because the only decent music in the genre was made by Black americans and weird white Europeans. Perhaps it was because it was so unapologetically visceral. All I know is that anyone who can hear "I Feel Love" and then shout "Disco sucks!" is no one I want to associate with.

The partitioning of genre by skin color seemed like it was going to happen again in the late nineties, when Eminem's first album was otherwise inexplicably considered "modern rock." True, this was the heyday of "rap rock," but Eminem's Dre-produced (but oddly unlistenable, if you ask me) music bore no resemblance to the sludgy cock-rock nonsense of Limp Bizkit and all of them, aside from the similar skin tone. But then this brief flirtation ceased, and since then the races have mixed only on top 40 radio, as God (apparently) intended.

What's interesting with the current bleaching of hip hop is that both of the major trends I identified from previous events seem not to be happening this time. First, far from stealing the genre and not giving it back, white people are just kind of silently slipping into the genre, largely unremarked on by white and Black alike. So it is that Dre produces Eminem, Timbaland produces Justin Timberlake, Fergie joins the Black Eyed Peas, and not even Lil Wayne--let alone the listening public--seems to notice that Jay Sean is a skinny white British dweeb and that Fall Out Boy couldn't be whiter if they were on the board of the National Cotton Council of America (and yes, I realize I'm playing fast and loose with the genres now, but honestly it can't be avoided, and probably shouldn't). Second, white people don't seem to be contributing much of value to the genre anymore. Sure, there are exceptions (though honestly right now El-P is the only one I can think of who's worth mentioning), but where white superstars of the past played with an expanded Black genres just as much as did Black people, in segregated dialogue, the integrated dialogue of contemporary hip hop still seems to be creatively driven almost entirely by Black people. I have no idea what to make of this. All I know is, the audience for hip hop is getting whiter and whiter with every passing day.

I have a lot more to say on this topic (I had a whole paragraph on the unusual standing of Jimi Hendrix, allowed to be rock and roll even in the late sixties, but I realized that I was qualifying my statements and contradicting myself so much that I was essentially writing like Hugo Ball). But this is already such a lumbering behemoth of a post, and such a mess of assertions and nonsense, that I'm just going to leave it here. If anyone feels the desire to respond, I'll be back tomorrow to get into a dialogue.


Euro Kid said...

I like ABBA

Justin said...

I think the racism of the music industry 50 years ago was of a different form than now; it seems that the record companies did not believe that you could market black musicians to white audiences whereas today those boundaries are much looser. I don't think hip hop will become 'white' music like Rock n Roll did.

The problem I have with music today is the corrosive effect of capitalism on art, the most profitable music today is artistically bland to my tastes, and there is very little tolerance in today's music industry to nurture bands or artists that need a few albums to hit their stride.

Jenny said...

Paul Simon worked with Africans too and they were actually grateful for the publicity. And how about the Talking Heads?

jenny said...

Also consider what a good friend of mine said:

" just heard a comedian say that heavy metal is rock and roll stripped of its black roots, and that made me sad. And then it made me angry, because if it weren't for friends of mine who where black, I probably would be missing out on a lot of metal and hardcore. Not to mention past friends of color who turned me onto bands like Kittie and Lords of Acid. There's also the fact that Bad Brains were the biggest pioneers of hardcore, an offshoot of metal.

White people can't enjoy rock, because it's stolen from black musicians (Led Zeppelin and the Beach Boys are the only objective culprits of this I can name offhand.) Black people (if you prefer African-American, message me, and I can't send you a message calling you that. I get too much shit saying the AA-word as it is.) can't listen to rock, because it's "too white" and they get labeled Oreos or Swiss Cake Rolls or whatever.

The musicians who invented, and cultivated rock and hiphop happened to black. These were individuals, but we say "black people invented it" as if all people of African descent had a meeting, and work-shopped this. Open-heart surgery was invented by an African-American, but we never call that "black surgery" or "race surgery". Let me go back a bit. Before musical integration on the radio, rock and roll was called "race music". I don't think we've progressed all that far in present day.

It sucks when Eminem outsells 2pac and Jay-Z just because he's more palatable to the white mainstream, but as much as you hate him, and know deep in your heart he's over-rated, he's a contributor, and not a usurper. Also, as much as it may annoy you when pasty-white kids try to co-op "black culture" (again, did they have a meeting?), there isn't a race or ethnic group that doesn't have some decent rappers and rock artists. Rap isn't race music. It's global.

People who say music is about background and not about math or skill aren't musicians, and probably not familiar with composer Yoko Kanno who wrote and performed all that brilliant blues and jazz for Cowboy Bebop.

I realize that there is a terrible disparity in treatment, and uneven distribution of privileges, but, like gender, race is just another construct. How do I know this? I heard it form some rapper."

zencomix said...

I don't watch American Idol. Are the contestants singing any hip hop or rap yet?

Ethan said...

Euro Kid--I also love ABBA. I actually thought about mentioning them, but then decided that their influences from Brian Wilson and Phil Spector are more significant to their sound than their disco influences, and that mentioning them would only muddy things. But yeah: one of my all-time favorites.

Justin--while I would never disagree with the idea that capitalism has a corrosive effect on anything, I think you might overstate your case a bit. There's a lot of very interesting (to me, anyway) work going on in contemporary mainstream Black music (Beyonce's use of musique concrete, Missy Elliott rhyming with herself backwards, Nas's Black Power, etc.), despite all of the limitations of mainstream success.

I recently saw (I wish I could remember where) someone point out that one of the reasons comedy gets more political and artistic leeway than "serious" work is that corporate executives have no idea what makes something funny, and so they're terrified to touch something that seems to be working. I think something similar might be true, for now, with hip-hop and what we call R&B today, though I think that's changing.

Jenny--I have far more to respond to in your friends' words than I feel comfortable doing in the comments on my own blog. For now all I will say is that I disgree, not so much on the facts (though the Beach Boys mention is a bit peculiar to me) as on the interpretation. I would say, for instance, there is a very specific reason why our racist society doesn't call open heart surgery "Black medicine" but does call hip-hop "Black music," and it's not because hip-hop isn't Black music.

zencomix--I don't watch it either, and had no idea that that was an issue. What's the deal?

Justin said...

" think you might overstate your case a bit. There's a lot of very interesting (to me, anyway) work going on in contemporary mainstream Black music (Beyonce's use of musique concrete, Missy Elliott rhyming with herself backwards, Nas's Black Power, etc.), despite all of the limitations of mainstream success."

For the sake of brevity, I may have simplified my case. I think you are right, artistic expression will still exist in whatever forms of media there are. I think some very artistically creative work , visually, is in advertising. I still think it is corrosive because of the end that it serves.

My point about entertainment is that capitalist forces squeeze out a lot of talent for the sake of turning a profit, slower developing artists are shut out - they have to be selling out of the gate to continue working, and the acceptable talent is talent that fits within what is safest. I think any creative product goes through a similar process.
First is a wild and open period, maverick business owners mix love and business. Artists flourish, its highly creative.

Next comes a stage where a few artists emerge to become huge, corporations begin to edge out the entrepreuners and managers who got into the game out of love and passion for the art rather than money.

Finally the money making incentives win out. The constraints on artists are much greater than in the previous two stages.

An analogy would be to consider fist stage like a group of talented actors who are given free rein to come up with lines and plot ad hoc, in the second stage actors are given plot outlines but still make up their own lines, and the final act is tightly scripted. At every stage, actor creativity matters, but it matters differently and is more tightly constrained as the game goes on. To round out the analogy, I should add that it gets tougher to be in the actor's troup at every stage too, in the beginning anyone can join, in the middle the actors begin tossing people out who don't cut it, at the end it is primarily the moneymen and managers, who probably don't have any talent themselves, that make cast decisions.

Hope that makes sense or sounds compelling enough to not embarrass me too much.

Ethan said...

It makes perfect sense and I agree with you. It becomes especially heinous when you add in the specific business model of the major labels, in which the terms of record deals ensure that once an artist is successful, they must produce what the record label wants or they cannot produce anything at all. That is, the alternative to the model you delineate isn't relative obscurity, it's not being able to do anything. Which sucks.

It's all just another expression of wage slavery. No matter how much you love your work (which I'm sure someone like Beyonce does), and no matter how extremely well you're compensated for it, it's still something you're given, that can be taken away at any moment--so you are not free. You must always do whatever you can to ensure that it's not taken away, which means doing what the bosses tell you to do.

Still, I can't give up my pop music. I love it.

Unknown said...

Second, white people don't seem to be contributing much of value to the genre anymore.

But, but...MC Frontalot.

Scotland said...

Outside of blatant plagiarism, can music really be "stolen"? Credit to you for pointing out that that 'hound dog' was used by a white guy, from a black woman, from a white guy. You could even use the sex card here if you so insist.

Anyway, it's simply evolution. Rock is not blues, but it certainly is an evolution from blues. While blues wouldn't be the same without the modern guitar (constructed in Spain circa 1500?... and obviously has roots elsewhere). Music is to be listened to and enjoyed. Who cares who is listening and who is making it?
To be blunt: do you even know what music is about?

Ethan said...

Scotland, I refer you to this, that I actually wrote in the entry you're responding to:

After all, "stealing" forms of musical expression is not like stealing, say, food from a hungry person. When you steal music from someone, they still have it. The problem comes in when certain powerful white people--record station owners, say, or promoters, or whoever--decide to steal the legitimacy.

Obviously it's evolution. Obviously it's complex. That is a large part of what I was writing about. The problem isn't in the music itself, but in the context in which it's made, discussed, and given legitimacy. That context is one of pervasive, systemic racism, and it's a context that music, no matter how much we love it, no matter how pure we want it to be, cannot escape.

Anonymous said...

I am Jenny's friend quoted. Please don't consider what I said. It wasn't in response to the above post, and so was not posted out of anger at anything that was written on this page. It was a collection of thoughts and opinions that I wanted to express amongst friends who know me, and felt offended by some of the opinions I was arguing against. Thanks to all for not tearing into me for my unpopular, and pretty tactless ideas.

None of this is very grammatical. I am very tired. Good night.