"NEGUS is as NEGUS does" Fahamu Pecou, 2013
(from NEGUS in Paris, Backslash Gallery, 2013)
60x51 in. Acrylic on canvas
Collection of Société Génerale, Paris France
The founders of the Négritude movement recognized the power of words and the power of words in action. Wielding their pens like mighty weapons, their writings became crucial devices to combat the negative, exploitive and dehumanizing social mores of their time. In a similar fashion, hip-hop culture has empowered a new generation of artists and thinkers to move beyond the structures of conventional social, economic and cultural strata and to engage with their potential rather than be limited by their so-called “place” in society.
NEGUS is as NEGUS does references the pose of the La Libertè èclairant le monde (the Statue of Liberty), a gift to the United States from France. Like the torch and tabula ansata she holds, the thoughts and ideas of the Négritude movement, like the visibility and mobility provided through hip-hop, enlightens the world to the brilliance and potentialities of people of African descent.
It is not the words of a King, but what he does that determines his legacy.
©2014 Fahamu Pecou
My daughter is eleven. And like most eleven year olds, she loves all those Disney channel sit-drams (yeah I call them sit-drams as opposed to sit-coms because the situations these tweens are dealing with on those shows is more complicated than my actual adult life). But I digress. Recently, I watched one of these shows with my daughter - a show about a couple of young girls who dance competitively. The intro features a rap song and a bunch of Disney-ish (read: white) children krumping, ticking, popping and breakdancing. I began thinking about the ways hip-hop culture has been appropriated and folded into the broader popular culture vocabulary in recent years. Now, this is not necessarily a bad thing, however what caused the hair on my neck to rise was the continued absence of Black leading characters, or any non-white leading characters on these programs. Worse than the lack of diversity is the straight jacking of hip-hop culture without the presence of those whom we can thank for its existence and popularity.
There is literally a handful of Black people on children’s programming in sidekick or supporting capacities and I honestly can’t think of a show for teens/tweens with a Black cast—despite the dependency on Black popular culture in all facets of American popular culture more broadly. I don’t even have to bring up the subtleties of the type of social conditioning, i.e. standards of beauty, engendered by the color-blind mentality these programs suggest. The misappropriation of Black culture by mainstream America is irresponsible and paints a glaring and disturbing portrait of the way society imagines Black people - either we don’t exist (positive:invisible) or we are extremes of what are seen as acceptable and proper ways of being (negative:hyper-visible).
And it’s not just the Disney channel or television for that matter. The radio airwaves are saturated with young, white pop artists with soul or worse, SWAG. You have performers like Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber toeing the margins of acceptable social values through a sort of Black-performative drag. It appears that they seek to rebel against traditional white, Christian, American values by doing their best interpretation of what they deem Black culture. Cyrus and Bieber, on the backs and backsides of Black men and women, explore the boundaries of their sexuality and masculinity (respectively). Meanwhile Australian actress Iggy Azelea’s unsubstantiated rise to stardom is a couple burnt corks short of being black face! Few have questioned her mockery of hip-hop as the media has crowned her the latest queen of rap.
Years ago the great prophet Q-Tip implored a generation of hip-hop fans to beware the pop co-opt of rap. His sentiment implied what I’m stressing here; that hip-hop culture emerged as form of resistance to dominant systems of power. It gave voice and visibility to disenfranchised Black and Brown bodies left to fend for themselves on the margins of society. However resistance movements can ultimately work against you, especially when you’re not diligent about its mission and purpose. “Resistance, once it becomes routine and recognized, can be anticipated and welcomed by dominant authorities, and fetishized and folded into the broader process of institutionalizing dominant hegemonic understandings…”, writes Richard Iton in In Search of the Black Fantastic: Politics & Popular Culture in the Post-Civil Rights Era. We see this fetishization happening as rap music’s pop manifestations round out the once sharp edges of hip-hop’s critique of society.
Don’t misunderstand, hip-hop culture’s success is in itself a victory for the resistance. But the war is far from over. Hip-hop culture remains a relevant and necessary tool even in the face of our notions of a post-racial society. As color lines blur the class and economic distinctions persist and younger generations of youth are subtly programmed to rebel without cause. In this environment hip-hop’s unique creative and expressive resistance becomes even more imperative. Hip-hop has helped empower a generation to stand on equal economic footing, but vigilance demands that that generation not trip on its own fat laces. Remember, rap is NOT pop… and if you call it that then…