Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Ally Ally Oxen Free

Last night I went to a Rakim/Brother Ali concert. I wasn't really familiar with Rakim before a friend told me about the show and invited me along. Lately, I've been listening to more hip hop and I really like a lot of what I've heard so I went. I had a lot of fun at the show, but it got me thinking a little bit about politics and music and how they correspond in my own head.

So, admittedly I know next to nothing about hip hop as a genre and sometimes I feel weirdly guilty about that because I wonder if my ignorance of it comes from my socio-economic and racial privilege. Is it racist for me to pretty much ignore hip hop considering how many other genres of music I listen to and considering hip hop's connection to black identity? Is it racist for me to ignore world music too? Not the in-your-face kind of racism, but the subtle kind where you just happen not to notice the existence of whole groups of people who are Other to yourself. Then again, I don't come from an urban environment, I come from a decidedly suburban one. I am not street, I have not dealt with poverty, I have not grown up surrounded by the race war that some of the harder rappers reference. Is it racist to assume that is what hip hop is about in the first place? What does it mean that the key market for hip hop is young suburban white males? That the key market for world music is aging new age yuppies?

I hate the way the Beat Generation appropriated the language of jazz and the image of the hip black male for themselves and turned it into "literature." I hate the way the early Rock 'n Rollers stole from traditionally black music like blues and gospel to create a much more popular sound. And watching a hip hop culture that rose out of struggle and community be appropriated by rich kids playing at disempowerment, I get really uncomfortable. There's a part of me that feels like I have absolutely no business whatsoever nodding my head along to lyrics that describe a reality I have been sheltered from my whole life. It's embarrassing. I am ashamed.

Which leads into a whole lot of other big questions like, what does it mean to be an ally? What does a good ally do? How do we exchange culture without allowing power dynamics to turn exchange into colonization? When I appreciate music, what about it am I appreciating? Is there a hierarchy of what it is and is not ok to like? When is music just music?

I think a large part of the confusion revolves around an ambiguity that's built the whole purpose of music. On one hand, music is about bringing people together. It's about building an emotional truth that goes beyond yourself and grabs someone who might be completely different than you, but who by some miracle can suddenly understand how you feel. Nikki Giovanni says the very most important part of poetry is empathy because without it we could never get beyond ourselves to really see other people for who they are and what they're going for. On the other hand, a huge accompanying part of every single musical genre I can think of is a style, an image, and an identity. Punk, country, indie, metal, bubblegum, classical, jazz, rockabilly . . . they all have their stereotypical listener/performer. And sometimes music isn't so much about connecting with people who are different from you, as it is with people who are exactly the same. It's about asserting an individual identity in opposition to all the others and for a person to intrude on that identity, to pretend that it is theirs when it is not, seems wrong. Particularly when that identity contains a component of oppression that you do not actually contend with.

And this leads me to the question, is it possible to develop a respectful empathy in our daily lives that can navigate both sides? Because I think music is in fact both of the things I've laid out. I think that LIFE is both. When a white woman tells a black man she understands how his oppression feels or vice versa, I think that probably is and is not true. Sometimes I need someone who will tell me they can relate to what I'm going through and sometimes I need them to admit they have no idea what that's like, but they're glad I told them and they're going to think about what I said. Neither one of those responses may be the full truth, but that tends to be what I end up needing.

The fact is, for as much as I get frustrated with male feminist allies or white allies, it's just really fucking hard to be an ally sometimes. It's hard to admit when you don't know something. It's hard to admit your complicity in a system that hurts your friends. It's hard to push past feelings of guilt that are so big you're terrified and paralyzed. But to be a good ally, no scratch that, a good PERSON you've gotta be able to put yourself on the line and show some fucking backbone.

What does this mean for me and hip hop? Ultimately, I'm going to keep learning about and listening to the hip hop that connects with me. I'm going to keep researching the history of it so I'm aware of where it's coming from, who is making it, and what it's trying to say. And you know, do my best not to be a total asshole.


Blogger ms. jared said...

you rock, vicky. you really, really do.

xoxo, jared

12:27 PM  
Anonymous Katie said...

How can I send you an article in PDF?

7:00 AM  
Blogger Vicky Vengeance said...

Thanks Ms. Jared. You totally rock tooooo. I've been bugging Edith to contact you even though she is silly and busy.

Katie, you can email it to me at Looking forward to it.

8:59 AM  
Anonymous Katie said...

Bwuh...I totally forgot what article I meant to send. :-(

2:36 PM  

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