22 May 2009

I Ain't Hip

Dear Gayle,

Don't you just hate trends now that the internet is around? Two kids wear ties around their waists and sing "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go," and the next thing you know, the blogosphere is babbling about this new "thing" happening in [insert random locale here]. What I find most irritating about these moments is how many bloggers and the media treat these mini-events as if somehow they're are new and ahistorical, without precedent, as if it was something they had never before seen. Like a black president. Oh wait. Nevermind.

I felt this irritation when I checked out what was happening over at The Root the other day. An essay on the site called, "The Rise of the Black Hipster," couldn't have been more irritating if it had been printed on sandpaper and given to me to use as emergency toilet paper. (I didn't mean to imply the article was shitty this early, Gayle, but if the trucker cap fits...) You guessed it. The article is about all these weird-dressing and -acting black people the writer has been spying lately, I guess--perfect fodder for The Root. Instead of just calling them regular-ass Negroes in ostensibly funny (for Negroes, of course) clothing, they go by the term "black hipster." Excuse me, Gayle. I mean "blipster." For nothing says trendy more than a portmanteau. You know you're hot shit when you've gone the way of the spork. Anyway, the byline, "What happens when the hybrid hipster culture hits black America?" should have alerted the smoke in my head to start slowly billowing from my ears. Surely, there was no where to go but up, right? (Wrong.) Either way, I have plenty of water on the brain to create the necessary steam. Once my initial skim revealed that one of the paragraphs began with "Asher Roth" the cranial liquids began to bubble like a recently opened can of Faygo.

Of course, to recognize a black hipster, one would have to know what a regular, um, white hipster looks like, right? And thankfully, the author tracks that for us--not. She writes, with no hint of irony, "By now, the traits of hipsterism are easily recognizable to culture vultures," and goes on to describe the hipster tendency to rock skinny jeans--that would give even the most modestly endowed young man a hysterectomy--bright t-shirts, a taste for the underground and esoteric, and of course, Pabst beer. Apparently, young urban black folks have taken up this style recently. She notes (again, no irony), "Simply put: The racial archetypes that had defined the last 15 years of masculine street style have given way to a radically new aesthetic."

The assumptions in the piece are many; all of them irritatingly (yes, you've noticed a theme) problematic. First, well, the traits of hipsterism aren't as recognizable as we might think. The term "hipster," what it means, who it describes, et cetera has been long debated. Just because you've recently noticed that more and more nigs are covering their ass cracks with Sonic the Hedgehog boxers and jeans that fit doesn't mean they're all hipsters. Second, how about giving the reader a little morsel of the word's etymology? Surely being a (black) hipster goes beyond rocking a Members Only jacket and listening to afropunk. What hubris (or laziness) one must have to ignore (the possibility of) lineage, and treat this whole schtick as if it were fresh! Forgive me, Gayle, but I thought it went without saying that nothing, especially in this post-modern world, is new under the sun.

Perhaps going beyond "Hey! Look! A black kid on a skateboard!" might reveal some pretty interesting things, some stuff that might give one pause before applying the term to black folks or other people of color for that matter. And we might learn stuff, like the term's West African roots, which might lead us to think that the term was racialized long before Kanye put on purple Reeboks. We might even peruse the Norman Mailer essay on the subject. (I know. I know. "The White Negro" is totally not available on the internet; we'd actually have to pick up a book to read it. And then there's that whole stabbing thing. Oh, Norman...) Perhaps we'd learn that the term was used initially to describe white folks who were appropriating black culture, and later evolved to describe rather apathetic white kids who could voluntarily marginalize themselves for the sake of being, I dunno, awesome.

What would we do with those revelations? Maybe we'd think long and hard about what it means to apply a term associated with folks who could easily eschew labels--purely because whiteness allows them the privilege--to black people. Maybe we'd ask whether or not alleged black hipsters were entitled in the same kinds of ways. Maybe we'd question what it means to apply the phrase used to describe people who evacuate various expressions of race, gender, and class of all meaning for the sake being "cool" to the group they originally appropriated. Can one appropriate an appropriator? Especially when it was your shit they appropriated in the first place?

Maybe we'd think--as a homie on Facebook responded when I posted the article--that black people have been doing this shit for years, and that calling someone a "blipster" really intimates acceptance of a narrow construction of blackness. Doing so keeps white at the center, making them tastemakers, while the expression(s) of people of color remain mere reactions. Further, accepting this stuff doesn't compel us to interrogate the constricted notion of blackness one gathers from popular portrayals of black culture. Rather, embracing and employing the phrase "blipster" in such a way implicitly agrees with what those images profess: that black is one thing, and every black person who isn't that is somehow special, indie, alternative.

Frankly, "hybrid...culture" hasn't come to black America. Hybrid culture is black America. Black culture is inherently a hybrid and radically inclusive. Just because they don't tell that you on your t.v. (on the radio) doesn't mean it's not true.

So, no. I ain't hip--just black, whether I listen to Santigold or merely put ice on the gold. And if you know like I do, you're just black, too.

Later, Gayle.


P.S. It's good to be back. I missed you.


Anonymous said...

i missed you too.

Anonymous said...

this reminds me of the backlash artists get when they play guitars, particularly, in a rock and roll sense.

summer of sam said...

@anon: do you care to explain?

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