Rap - The White Man's Burden?
In a recent column written by Ben Stein (of monotone "Buehler, Buehler" and Clear Eyes fame) - he makes a startling admission: he likes rap music. Being one of the few conservative Republicans in the entertainment industry this announcement was akin to spotting Marilyn Manson at a John Tesh concert. What were the reasons for his attraction to gangsta rap? First, he finds the rhythms compelling. Secondly, he notes the rappers fascination with acquiring financial wealth - in a capitalistic state a possible healthy sign of black consumerism. He also felt that the complaints of the hard life of young black men in the hood is the most powerful protest music he has heard since Bob Dylan in the early 60s. Finally, he sees the young men's violence toward women as a possible indictment of the breakdown of marriage, where with so many young black men being raised by their mothers - their rebellion is directed at the authority figure who gave them their upbringing.
I find Stein's musings compelling in many ways and worthy of discussion. His (unstated) premise that the subconscious Oedipal drive discovered by Freud - wherein the son seeks to kill the father and copulate with the mother (a natural one) has been replaced with an unnatural substitution of the mother is fascinating, and could possibly be used to help explain certain societal trends. The fact that so many white suburban young men are attracted to the same message may be telling us something about how our society is changing - with more 1 parent families, same-sex parents and the changing roles of both parents - (ie: more mothers working and fathers taking on child-rearing duties). Whether this shifting of the Oedipal rage is truly dangerous (since most teens pass through to adulthood and leave their rebellion behind), fluid or permanent in society as a whole is something to watch for the future.
What I don't agree with is his focus on the rhythms. I find the rhythms in rap generally to be stripped -down, dumbed-down beats compared with their polyrhthymic predecessors. What is important seems to me to be the attitude not the music itself - in other words rap is to r&b what punk is to rock. The primal urges and rawness of the attitude give a sense of the hopelessness of the black youth of today - just as punk rock gave us the snarl of the disenfranchised youth of Thatcher's England (and thousands of suburban teens in America too). Whereas the white European's use of drums was primarily for war - the African's was used for communication. The 4/4 beat of western music marched with Napoleon and merged with the machines that beat time throughout the Industrial Revolution to today. While the African's use of polyphony created a sense of community and wholeness (and war too - don't get me wrong there). It is interesting to note that recent research on humankind has revealed that we all originated in Africa before dispersing throughout the world - therefore the roots of all music lie in our common African roots and we are all Africans at heart.
In his book Invisible Man, writer Ralph Ellison observed that in America the whites were getting blacker and the blacks whiter before his very eyes. This process continues. Just as jazz came about when black artists used white instruments (trumpets for example - designed again originally for war) and chord change arrangements, and bent and revitalized them with "blue" notes and long forgotten polyrhythms, rap has come about when black artists, discouraged from the use of "real" instruments from lack of school music program funding, empowered by cheap and easy technology, while rebelling against their fathers/mothers, produce (admittedly valid) protest music while using simplified rhythms that are heavily influenced by white, capitalist, technological society. Their beating of plowshares into swords and shamanistic tribal rhythms into war drums seems to resonate in white hearts that have forgotten the old ways, but like Stanley Crouch, I find I am concerned by the watering down and possible loss of black culture which may be involved in the process. In the end, although the creative invention of rap itself is the work of black artists, for creating the ingredients and providing the stage that has in turn created a beautiful monster both threatening and pitiful - rap truly is the white man's burden.
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