[14 October 2008]
Ishamel Reed occupies a peripheral role in US popular culture, but not an insignificant one. His voice is one of sedition and rebellion against, as he sees it, the monopoly of the Right wing and, indeed, centrist voices in the US media. Operating within many spheres of expression (music, essaying, novels, blogs), Reed rails (particularly) against the treatment of black artists as well as ordinary black people, ignoring claims that pluralism has amicably won out and calling attention to the prejudices that still exist. Underlying this is a strong sense of empathy with the underdog, and a struggle against dominant forces in American society.
Appropriately then, this current essay collection is sub-titled “Taking on the Media Bullies”. Targets of Reed’s polemic include shock jocks, voices of the Right on the radio like Pat Buchanan’s, the Clintons and white appropriation of black cultural forms like Eminem. Reed’s sense of outrage at this is palpable – resentment at the pioneers of music such as jazz and rap being overlooked commercially in favour of a white reinterpretation. He is also keenly aware of the historical precedents of this – just as he ties in the reactions of the mainstream media of the 1950s to the radical new black music of modern jazz with contemporary responses to rap music, he also looks back to the origins of black face when Jewish, Irish and Scottish immigrants would copy black entertainers to amuse their neighbours in the New World.
The pressure on blacks to conform to an idea of how they should behave is another concern of Reed’s. Articulated in the essay “The Coloured Mind Doubles”, Reed chastises the tendency of some mainstream black pundits to disregard race as an issue at all. Indeed, when I asked him of the chance Barrack Obama had to be elected as president, Reed responded: “I don’t see it happening, unless his moves to the right are successful.” A mite contradictory, but Reed is correct in pointing out the over compensation that Obama needs to do in order to prove to the Nixon-esque “silent majority” – that he can be tough on crime and international defence.
Reed writes with passion throughout, and though this can sometimes turn rambling and digressive, nowhere is this passion more evident than in his interviews with Sonny Rollins. One of the greatest saxophone pioneers, Reed’s sense of excitement about Rollins is palpable, but rather than descending into fan-boy platitudes, his approach acts as a springboard for a fascinating conversation – Rollins talks of his emergence in the 1950s, as well as his feeling for the “authentic black experience” of politically oriented modern rap music.
However, there is a sense of obsessiveness in Reed’s writing, where he does not wish to evaluate Eminem, or The Wire, or the writing of Philip Roth on its own terms, but only in relation to its apparent pilfering from original black art forms. His viewpoint is that of the seditionist, but as is the nature of such things, such fixation can narrow one’s perspective. Surely there can be merit in an art work which is inspired by, but not necessarily a direct copy of, black ideas? This approach gives ammunition to those who would like to consider Reed somewhat of a crank.
All the same, there is ample evidence to suggest the contrary in this collection. For anyone with a sense of disaffection at the state of American society as a whole, please read with interest.