[18 February 2009]
Chris, beat that bitch witta bat! The night of the 2009 Grammy Awards, R&B teen-idol Chris Brown turned himself into criminal authorities for battering his girlfriend, pop princess Rihanna. At the BET Awards last year, Chris stole the stage with label-mate Ciara, while his lady watched and cheered from the crowd. The duo claimed any heir to the Beat Street, break-dance moves of the early ‘80s wedded to Paula Abdul/Janet Jackson collaborations of the late ‘80s and ‘90s, or the pop-lock-and-drop-it of today. And Chris can get real Krump! Audiences this year certainly looked forward to Chris and Rihanna’s scheduled performances this year.
‘Beat that bitch witta bat! Beat that bitch witta bat!’ This was one of the most popular House songs in the black gay club in my city during my high school years. Queens and the dancers amongst them like me from the local school of the arts, could be found grinding against one another in the splits on the floor. The singers presses there faces against the mirror, screaming in high falsetto, as we break it down- literally. The Percolator is still one of the fiercest streaks to come from that scene.
“I’m gonna get me a shotgun, baby, and stash it behind the bedroom door. I may have to blow your brains out, baby. Then you won’t bother me no more.”
Much like the lyrics cited above from Eric Clapton’s 1998 “Sick and Tired”, pop anthems celebrate the physical abuse, rape and coercion of women. Despite whatever undertones The Prodigy may have meant, it is probable that crowds only heard violence with their 1997 “Smack My Bitch Up!” Certainly hip-hop is the most explicit to do so to date, yet the natural inequality of women has always been a quality in American popularized culture. See: NWA’s 1989 “Slam her ass in a ditch”; Notorious B.I.G.’s “Kick in the door wavin’ the four-four / All you heard was poppa don’t hit no more.”
Rape narratives are equally as rampant, and as explicit as NWA’s 1991 “Punch the bitch in the eye / Then the ho will fall to the ground / Then you open up her mouth / Put your dick, move the shit around.” More subtle is 50 Cent and Justin Timberlake’s “She Wants It”, an excuse that men have convinced themselves of compliance even when she’s screaming No! Edward G. Armstrong has a more in-depth discussion of misogyny, rape, murder in hip-hop.
In entertainment, this gender, race, class hierarchy is best exhibited not by the Al Jolson minstrel shows of the Reconstruction era, socio-political propaganda specifically targeted towards humiliating these newly identified African-Americans in hope of further subjugating these newly freed slaves. Indeed, a great deal of the identity, which Cornel West calls the ‘blues’ sentimentality, was born from the specific conditions of black bodies bonded in chattel slavery in the new world. “A philosophical disposition towards the world,” West professes in his sermons, “a tragic comic hope, a way of looking unflinchingly at despair and still enduring!”
In sticking to mainstream media, I am reminded of how essential the blues perspective remains to the American psyche. It isn’t that Euro-American culture is devoid of hope. It is that the processes of becoming white in America, of ordaining a white identity, has sanitized a great many senses, beyond the Anglocized names of Ellis Island. A pre-Haj Malcolm X would say that ‘white folks have lost their minds’. However, the blues sentiment really settles upon the brother when he envoys to Mecca for his mandatory visit. It is then that El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz understood the redeeming value of humanity.
Ignorance is bliss.
We cannot heal the wounds lived by a generation of folks raised by crack heads- the Shanequas, Sharquans and LaVagina’s of the ‘80s—without a holistic approach, or unless and until we recognize the government’s role in facilitating inner city access to coca concoctions from Columbia and poppy seed products from Afghanistan. The Black Panther Party for Self Defense says that it’s a C.O.N.spiracy, yet ideologies have been so polarized that the wider/whiter American psyche would believe that not even a single government bullet has ever been spent in assassination, so cloaked is their view.
It’s not only that comedians like Bernie Mac boasted that blacks have relative restricted access to explosives and other tools of terrorism. Worse is that some of our soldiers have been recruited to sell blacks out in words and beats on hip-hop tunes, committing soul murder and suicide with each utterance. Crooks like Nellie sliding a credit card down a black woman’s ass, while chanting “It must be the ass ‘cause it ain’t yo’ face,” validate the infamous Willie Lynch letter circulating the Internet. The letter claims that some dismal figure in the past collected and seeded insidious ways to oppress Africans in the New World. The Wiki version of this letter goes, “The Black slaves after receiving this indoctrination shall carry on and will become self-refueling and self-generating for HUNDREDS of years, maybe THOUSANDS.” Indeed, with Negroes like Nellie neatly assimilated into the hegemonic beat, white racism really does not have to exist for blacks to perceive and profess oppression.
Despite this, one does have to consider that assimilated white consumers overwhelmingly like their Negroes a certain way. For example, Denzel has portrayed real-life characters that have made real dents in the ‘white supremacist capitalist patriarchy’, from writer/producer/director Spike Lee’s 1992 Malcolm X, to Melvin Beaunorus Tolson in 2007’s The Great Debaters. The veteran actor won the top Oscar for portraying a drug-dealing, dirty cop in Training Day. Moreover, Oprah produced the pre-Civil Rights era saga about the first national champion black college debate team, which grossed just over $6 million in the US it’s first weekend. That same year, American Gangster opened in twice as many American theaters, and earned more than USD 43.5 million in profit its first weekend. In short, the audience interested in seeing a drug-dealing, rogue cop trumps any audience interested in seeing an entertaining film about the birth of this nation’s most revolutionary and transformative civil conflict of the century.
In The Great Debaters, Denzel Washington’s character recited the following excerpt of Lynch’s letter, in a Great Depression period flic when lynching was firmly a regular form of terrorism specifically targeting black bodies by white:
“Take the meanest and most restless nigger, strip him of his clothes in front of the remaining male niggers, the female, and the nigger infant, tar and feather him, tie each leg to a different horse faced in opposite directions, set him afire and beat both horses to pull him apart in front of the remaining niggers. The next step is to take a bullwhip and beat the remaining nigger males to the point of death, in front of the female and the infant. Don’t kill him, but PUT THE FEAR OF GOD IN HIM, for he can be useful for future breeding.”
Despite the misery surrounding the validity of Lynch’s letter, Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation failed to break plantation politics; his successor essentially built the political birthing center for Jim and Jane Crow. Recall that the overwhelming majority of paying patrons of the multi-platinum Hip-Hop stars don’t look like them, don’t live like them and yet harbor an insatiable desire to devour packaged urban ghetto pain. The white hegemonic voice in media and pop culture too often eschews the opportunity to unpack the psychological damage done by this legacy, what some used to call ‘white guilt’. Masses of white people in America will never be able to cure the apparent insatiable taste for these sorts of ‘self-refueling and self-generating’ self-hate of Black characters in popular culture as a form of internalized racism.
Many focus their aggression towards rightfully weeding out thin charges of racism, yet so much so that they deny their own potential contributions towards racial healing. And while I’ve had my share of do-gooding white folks crying on my shoulder, plying for forgiveness, a treatise of racism should bring more to bear than an ego trip. To be clear, white guilt, and eschewing any discussion of race- what I call the undercover assimilationist, salad-bowl diversity model- are both steeped in the privilege of ignorance, certainly entangled in hierarchy associated with class, gender and race. Failing to explicitly talk about race ignores voices like Tim Wise, a southern white man who breaks whiteness down in words and candor unmatched by any finger pointing Negro or do-gooding white. I am hard pressed to believe that there is nothing in between. The masculine face of violence, too, has such a normal and accepted voice.
Men like Chris Brown belong to the ‘slap-a-hoe’ tribe, according to comedian Eddie Griffin in the film John Q. Yet by dismissing him, the fact that he has openly spoken about witnessing him mother suffer physical abuse in the home, and the fact that he has apparently mimicked this behavior in his own adult life, diminishes needed attention towards our collective tolerance for this behavior. Change poison, as the Buddhist saying goes, into medicine.