When Our Kids Own America
CHAPTER I: Old stories
Brooklyn Park, which sits just to the northwest of Minneapolis and hugs the Mississippi River, was once the quintessential American suburb: Pretty sleepy. Midwestern. Mostly white. Jesse Ventura, the garrulous former Minnesota governor and pro wrestler, used to be the city's mayor. It was the childhood stomping grounds of a young Garrison Keillor of A Prairie Home Companion. The city's annual festival is called "Tater Daze," a nod to its potato farm origins.
The Wonder Years could have been set in Brooklyn Park.
Over the past two decades, though, the city has undergone the kind of transformation that's changing life in so many American suburbs. In 1990, around nine in 10 people in Brooklyn Park were white. By 2010, nearly half the town's residents were people of color. People in the surrounding area started referring derisively to the town as "Brooklyn Dark."
Many longtime — mostly white — residents were either moving out or resisting the tide of newcomers. As the shift got underway in the mid-'90s, a white local bar owner spoke up at a City Council hearing: "If you come from a different perspective or a different place, don't bring those standards to Brooklyn Park." A different perspective. Lurking just beneath those words is an unspoken stake of ownership: this place is ours.
This pattern seems familiar by now: "they" invade, there's tension, many of "us" leave, whether it's white folks gentrifying a brown community or brown folks ethno-fying a white one. And as long as the dichotomy was just that stark — as long as white folks and people of color could reliably play the roles of "we" and "they" — the pattern was easy to understand. But what's happening to the "quintessential American suburb" echoes what's happening to our classic "Chocolate Cities" like Oakland, Calif., Washington, D.C., and Atlanta, Ga., and what's happening in hip-hop and pop music. That old story is starting to get complicated.
In today's Brooklyn Park, there are just too many "wes" and "theys" to keep track of: Fifteen percent of the population is Asian. Eight percent is Hispanic or Latino. The 24 percent of the population that is black includes so many Liberian immigrants that the vice president of Liberia made diplomatic visits to the city in 2011 and 2012.
For most of American history, the country's racial dynamics have been cast in crudely black-and-white terms — with black folks on one side, white folks on the other, and everyone else falling onto some nebulous continuum in between. But our country is now very much in Technicolor, and many of our old ideas about its racial dynamics are getting scrambled.
Like that bar owner in Brooklyn Park, those of us who've been here for a while are circling our wagons around the places we thought we owned. And we're kind of freaking out.
You've probably heard the numbers before, but they bear revisiting: by 2043, the majority of the U.S. will be people of color, and in 2011, for the first time, children born to people of color made up more than half of all the country's births. The rising generation is already growing up in a distinctly different America, where many of those familiar black-and-white narratives already seem like distant history. Early in the 20th century, W.E.B. DuBois said that the problem confronting the U.S. over the next 100 years would be the color line. But in this 21st century, America's major question might be just what happens as that line gets blurrier.
Demographic changes — even seismic changes like those the U.S. is going through — happen over decades. It will be a long time before this young, much more plural America starts to fully reveal patterns of employment, migration, housing and wealth. But these young folks are already starting to create culture, and it bears taking a close look at what they're making to see what it might augur about the world they're going to inherit.
Exhibit A: the "Harlem Shake." (We know you're tired of hearing about it at this point. We feel you. But walk with us here.)
When the "Harlem Shake" meme was at its apex, it was inescapable. The absurdity lay in its simplicity: one person, usually in a ridiculous costume, would be dancing by themselves to Baauer's "Harlem Shake" as the eponymous dubstep-y song ramped up. But then the beat dropped and boom: everyone nearby was acting a fool and dancing, too. Every day seemed to yield dozens more random and inspired takes on that idea — people on planes, underwater, on college quads, in offices, and in NBA locker rooms recording themselves flailing about in outlandish costumes, humping things, and gyrating goofily to Baauer's hydrant of seemingly disconnected sounds.
But the videos got under a lot of people's skins, and not just because of their ubiquity. The "Harlem Shake" — the real "Harlem Shake" — was a dance that had been around for decades in the New York City neighborhood for which it was named. It bore almost no meaningful relationship to the video craze.
Defenders of hip-hop culture rose up in protest: was this year's viral video meme just inaccurate labeling? Was it mocking? Was it hijacking?
A defiant graffiti mural popped up on an uptown wall: Do The Real Harlem Shake.
This isn't just a dance, people were saying. This is a breach of social justice.
"This is about more than just the proper designation of a popular dance, it's about cultural appropriation," Melissa Harris-Perry, the MSNBC talk show host, said during a segment of her show about the "Shake." "When communities create original art, they have a right to some creative control over its definition. If you enter a ballroom dancing competition, you'd better not cha-cha during the waltz. Creative interpretation is expected to respect certain boundaries. That's what conveys the respect, and the wholesale application of the term 'Harlem Shake' to flashmob boogie-downs that are most definitely not the 'Harlem Shake'? Let's say that's problematic."
Problematic. Many critiques of the "Harlem Shake" meme used that word to express displeasure with it; it was just vague enough to be a catch-all for the hodge-podge of anxieties that the whole phenomenon evoked. Several critics summoned a familiar narrative about appropriation: white people, again, co-opting some piece of culture created by people of color.
But just as in Brooklyn Park, something more complicated was happening with the "Harlem Shake."
Moving at the speed of the Internet, the "Harlem Shake" quickly leapfrogged all kinds of borders — racial, cultural and otherwise, while the critique stayed the same.
"Whenever I look at an Internet full of (mostly) white people doing a bastardized version of a dance ... named after f----- Harlem ... and people aren't finding it at least a little problematic, it makes me feel like I'm taking crazy pills," one observer wrote.
As critics stateside were telling people not to do the "Harlem Shake," kids in Egypt and Tunisia were Harlem Shaking to protest governments they felt were violating their freedom of expression. Four Egyptian students were arrested for performing the dance. They were using the "Harlem Shake" the way hip-hop has been employed almost since the beginning: as a tool for yelling back at adults and the powerful.
If any piece of culture was being appropriated, it was by Arab kids in North Africa, white kids in Australia, and — yes — black kids in Brooklyn Park.
The old narratives just don't fit anymore.
It's much harder now to patrol the ramparts of our cultures, to distinguish between the appreciators and appropriators. Just who gets to play in which cultural sandboxes? Who gets to be the bouncer at the velvet rope?
While the Internet squared off over who got to do which "Harlem Shake" and when, battles were being fought closer to the ground over pieces of the song itself. Baauer (a.k.a. Harry Rodrigues) lifted his song's name from a lyric by a Philly group called Plastic Little, which referenced the aforementioned dance but was not about said dance. He also sampled a reggaeton song by Hector "El Father" Delgado. Delgado and a rapper from Plastic Little were pressing Baauer's record label to pay them for the DJ's unlicensed sampling of their music. Meanwhile, Baauer was suing Azealia Banks, the hipster rap darling, for releasing a song without his permission in which she rhymes over his "Harlem Shake" beat.
Oh, and where is Azealia Banks from? Harlem, of course.
CHAPTER II: Other People's Property
Oakland, Calif., is two time zones away from Brooklyn Park and a whole continent away from Harlem. It could either be a utopian vision of some multiculti urban future or its dystopian, post-industrial present. For a long time, Oakland was the cultural anchor on the West Coast for black Americans. If Harlem gave us the Cotton Club and the Harlem Renaissance, then Oakland gave us the Black Panthers (and thus the modern gun rights movement) and a groundbreaking resolution on Ebonics. Oakland's black population, tiny before World War II, exploded largely due to an influx of workers at the city's shipyards, and eventually composed nearly half the city.
But now white people make up the biggest group — Oakland's 34 percent white, 28 percent black, 25 percent Latino, and 17 percent Asian. It's one of the few cities in the country with significant populations of several major racial groups. It's become a haven for young, skinny-jeaned, creative-class types — Forbes recently named the Uptown section one of the 10 best hipster neighborhoods in the country — all while the city has remained pretty violent. Although black people make up just over a quarter of the city's population, they made up three-fourths of its homicides in 2012. Meanwhile, local television news crews are spending less time on the streets reporting on those crimes because their equipment keeps being stolen. It's a city with neighborhoods on alternate timelines.
The aforementioned Uptown used to be a hub of black life in the city. But today ...
"The Chocolate City notion — gone, gone, gone!" said Benjamin Bowser, a sociologist at California State University, East Bay. "There are multiple cultures: chocolate, Vietnamese, you can't even say Hispanic anymore, it's Mexican and Salvadoran, Nicaraguan. We even have enough people from Africa to say there's Nigerians, Senegalese."
What's happening in Oakland is definitely gentrification, but it's not the way we often think of gentrification. It's not white people pushing out black folks; in Oakland, it's black folks leaving of their own volition, black folks being pushed out, black folks staying, and everyone else moving in. It would be tempting to look at this and say that it's the photo negative of what's happening in Brooklyn Park or that it has nothing to do with the Harlem Shake. But in fact, they converge. The city, like the culture, is shifting from ours to everyone's.
The old-fashioned models have broken down.
When we think of appropriation, we usually think of white people taking an interest in some aspect of minority culture and profiting from it. There are outright instances of cultural theft in our living memory beneath which linger echoes of much more devastating histories. In cinema and television, people of color — from whom much had been taken — were stripped even of the chance to portray themselves in popular culture. White actors played crude stereotypes of people of color in Hollywood, if those people of color even appeared at all — Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany's, Bill Dana as Jose Jimenez on The Steve Allen Show. These portrayals propped up a bunch of ugly myths about the cultures they were ostensibly depicting — too dumb, too lazy, too untrustworthy, too weird — that helped reinforce all kinds of discrimination. It's hard to just shrug off, say, Johnny Depp playing Tonto, when you're actually living in all the messy context that's been kneaded out.
The world of music played host to most of these ripoffs. In the early days of what we now think of as pop music, even the charts were segregated. White acts could make a lot of money making whitebread versions of songs that black musicians had released, sometimes just weeks before. Pat Boone, who performed in venues and hawked products that black performers couldn't, made his name and fortune doing so.
Damn, folks thought. We can't have nothing for ourselves.
All of this history is still part of the story. But the story continues.
Popular culture can be a weather vane for the winds of social upheaval. Mae West was a star almost 40 years before the sexual revolution. Jackie Robinson was a baseball hero a decade and a half before the Civil Rights Movement reached its apex. The anger depicted in Do the Right Thing and Boys N The Hood later spilled out into real life during the L.A. riots. Ellen and Will & Grace prefigured greater acceptance of gays and lesbians.
Hip-hop, like the phrases "urban" and "inner city," has long been used as shorthand for "black." Because the genre has steadily subsumed so many parts of our popular culture, let's turn our attention its way.
Hip-hop hasn't proven to be impervious to the demographic changes underway in places like Oakland and Bed-Stuy and Houston, which have long been among the genre's nerve centers. These black spaces are increasingly less black.
But let's jump back a bit. We've all tacitly agreed to pretend that whole Vanilla Ice thing never happened, but back in 1990, he became the first rapper to ever hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts, and at the time, a lot of people were very worried that hip-hop's inevitable Elvis moment was finally upon it. Of course, it didn't go down like that.
Almost a decade later, Eminem rose to prominence — and for a stretch, he dominated the landscape. But even he needed the imprimatur of Dr. Dre, the predominant kingmaker in hip-hop.
Another decade passed, and then "Thrift Shop" happened. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, a rap duo that hails from Seattle — a town not exactly known for churning out hip-hop gems, unless you count "Baby Got Back" — took over the Internet and the Billboard charts for a few weeks with a jaunty ode to the joys of, well, thrift shopping. It shot to No. 1 on Billboard and has hundreds of millions of views on YouTube, despite Macklemore's not being signed to a major record label.
Macklemore is a white dude rapping about the sweet joys of scoring dope secondhand clothes, and his music has neither the aesthetics nor the fascinations that are traditionally thought of as authentic to hip-hop. How exactly did that happen?
"Unlike other white MCs, [Macklemore's] doing the Portlandia thing," said Josh Kun, a professor at the University of Southern California who writes about race and popular music. "He's not fronting or trying to establish authenticity through blackness."
Even though hip-hop is usually associated with black people, it's been a multi-ethnic affair since its South Bronx beginnings, when black people, Latinos and Caribbean immigrants were creating party music out of pieces of whatever they could find laying around in old record collections. Latino rappers, for example, have rarely been seen as outsiders or interlopers. That's in part because racial identity gets to be a little more fluid among people of color; the "brown people" umbrella can expand out pretty wide. But white rappers have always been and remain viewed with some suspicion. From Ice to Eminem to Macklemore, though, there has been a genuine progression in hip-hop that we miss when we cluster these guys together as "white rappers."
Hip-hop is now the lingua franca and the background music for an entire generation of kids. And one of its dynamics — the idea of a marginalized group rapping about that marginalization — has remained essentially intact as hip-hop has conquered the world, in part because marginalization is the narrative that teenagers everywhere fit themselves into.
If something is everywhere and everyone trafficks in it, who gets to decide when it's real or not? What happens when hip-hop stops being black culture and becomes simply youth culture?
Cecelia Cutler, a linguist at New York's Lehman College, says that when kids who aren't black traffic in hip-hop slang or African American Vernacular English — even if they aren't themselves hip-hop fans — they're not trying to mimic blackness, per se. They're calling upon this language to signal (or "index," as linguists like to say) some of the postures that people associate with hip-hop — coolness, toughness, hipness, swagger, separateness. The black part is being referenced, but it's not quite the point. In some circles, Cutler said, hip-hop-inflected black speech has become a kind of prestige English.
It's funny to think of hip-hop-inflected black speech as "prestige English." We typically associate prestige with places like Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif.
The city is the home of Silicon Valley giants like Hewlett-Packard. It's mostly white, and its residents have median household incomes in the six figures.
But H. Samy Alim, a linguist at Stanford, says that something pretty significant is happening in the town on the other side of the tracks from Palo Alto. East Palo Alto is a working-class town and much browner; over the past two decades, the once mostly black city has become predominantly Latino, with a large population of immigrants from Tonga, the Philippines, and Fiji.
"You can hear the new America in this community," said Alim.
There's a macedoine of languages spoken in East Palo Alto. But when the young people from all these different groups are speaking to each other, Alim said, they're conversing in hip-hop-inflected African American Vernacular English.
In other words, they're talking like black folks.
So once some piece of black American culture slips outside that culture, when does it stop being black and just become this new thing? Where do the borders of one culture end and another begin?
Cutler wondered this, too.
"Why do we continue to call it 'African-American English' if 'African-American English' is being used by all kinds of different people?" she mused. Or, one might ask: Why do we continue to think of hip-hop as 'black,' if hip-hop is a universal language?
Hip-hop itself has thrived, after all, by crossing borders without particular regard for ownership. Its ethos of omnivorousness — the idea that everything can be refashioned or chopped and screwed — is a major reason why pop culture's become less hierarchical and more "horizontal," Kun said. "It's been a long time since we've thought of hip-hop as an appropriator of things." Technology has abetted that ethos, giving us the ability to sample bits of culture from anywhere. Now everybody is sampling everybody else.
There's a school of thought contending that there's no such thing as cultural ownership, according to Alim. Some thinkers argue that no bit of culture is off-limits from being glommed on to or lopped off and repurposed by someone from another group. But Alim was quick to point out that all this mixing and tinkering and re-imagining happens in a world where there are real racial disparities in wealth, power and access. This, too, is still part of the story.
But kids don't seem to be too hung up on that stuff.
In Oakland, my colleague Shereen Marisol Meraji talked to Chantal Garcia, a soft-spoken, Mexican-American teenager. "I mean music bonds people, right?" Garcia said. "People call it black music, but I just call it rap. I just call it what it is."
Kun said his students are a lot less concerned with "proprietary histories" — the idea that certain people might have a unique claim to authentically interact with certain kinds of culture without being seen as appropriators — than he himself might be. "For the most part, the idea that this is original and authentic to something, they're not so worried," he said. "They're like 'Whatever, dude, it's in my iTunes library. Can't I just cut it up [to sample it]?'"
Kun said his students don't share his outlook. "They tend to think of me as harping on race in terms of music," he said. "For a 17- or 18-year-old kid, who is Macklemore appropriating? We're getting farther and farther away from the reference."
Confessing his discomfort with the idea, he put it out there, nonetheless: "Maybe what we're dancing around is that hip-hop has lost its identification with race."
CHAPTER III: The new chapters
"When I was in the 8th grade, I had a do-rag and Timberlands, but that's because that was what was happening then, that's what was going on in hip hop," said Dumbfoundead, a.k.a. Jonathan Park. "I been through all kinds of identities: that stoner s--- with Nirvana patches on my jacket, that was another one."
Dumb, as his people call him, is an indie rapper from Los Angeles, and he ginned up some serious buzz two years ago for his song, "Are We There Yet." It's textbook contemporary hip-hop — the bedding of a beautiful woman, the obligatory humblebrag about his success, and the anxieties that come with both — save for that first verse recounting his mother escaping Korea, sneaking him over the Mexican border and into the United States.
[ARE WE THERE YET VID: <iframe src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/BvX-eYO1UKM" frameborder="1" allowfullscreen></iframe>]
Dumb used to trek down to South Central from Koreatown and freestyle at this place with Apollo-like rules: if his stuff was weak, the crowd would tell him to get up off the mic.
"I always enjoyed being the only Asian rapper at functions," he said. "A lot of Asian rappers talk about this and ... people would always dis us, make Jackie Chan jokes. But to me, I always thought it was an advantage. It's hard to be heard. But if you're Asian, cats are kind of curious. Like, 'Yo, what does this guy have to say?' So I used that to my advantage. I loved just standing out, and hip-hop is all about that."
Across the world, people of Korean descent have come to dominate aspects of hip-hop culture that used to be closely associated with black Americans. For five of the last 10 years, South Korean teams have won the biggest international b-boy competition in the world, Battle of the Year. (Only once in the last 12 years has an American team placed in the top 3 at the event.)
But back in the States, as Dumb points out, Asian-Americans remain in hip-hop's background. "We play the back burner a lot," he said. "Asians deejaying, the backbone of hip-hop, we're behind the scenes."
In the U.S., as an Asian-American rapper on the mic, Dumb is still an outlier. Outside it, things look a lot different. We often say hip-hop's "gone global," leaving the boundaries of American culture and escaping out into the world. But increasingly, global culture is pressing on our borders — changing us and the things we create. Hip-hop has gone global, but now it's coming back.
When young people inherit the new America, this reconfigured hip-hop will be part of their birthright: the code-switching, style-shifting, and swagger-jacking that's always been there, mashed up with stories about thrift-shopping, border-crossing and rich South Koreans. Lest anyone get it twisted and think this new America will be some kind of Benetton ad, be forewarned: it's going to be confusing and it's going to be messy.
The other day, I picked the brain of my friend Donwill, a rapper in the group Tanya Morgan. Don said that this feeling that any of us have a special claim over hip-hop was kind of, well, fogeyish. "We grew up at a time when rap was still [not quite] accepted and was misunderstood and all that, but now it's popular culture, " he said. "A lot of these kids are literally old enough to be our children and have the same relationship to the hip-hop we grew up on as we do to the Civil Rights Movement."
My generation started writing our chapters on race during the Crack Era — the time of of Rodney King, The Cosby Show, and Menace II Society. But that was 20-something years ago, and we're still applying the templates that we created in 1992 and 1963 to the chapters that are being scripted now. Those old stories reflect a starkly different demographic reality than the one we now inhabit. It's not that those stories are wrong, it's that they're incomplete. And so we find ourselves having to assimilate into these places we thought we knew and that we thought were ours.
The Afropunk skater in Philly, the Korean b-boy graffiti artist in Los Angeles, the bluegrass-loving Latino hipster in Austin — they're all inheriting an America in which they'll have access to even more hyphens in their self-definitions. That's undoubtedly a good thing. But it's important that those stories be complete as well. If you're in Maricopa County, Ariz., and brown, the sheriff's deputies won't care whether you're bumping Little Dragon in your ride when they pull you over. The way each of us experiences culture each day may be increasingly unmoored from genre, from geography, and yes, even from race, but America will not be easily untethered from the anchor of its history. We may be more equal, but mostly in our iPods.
How the country fares in the next century will depend in part on how it deals with these dissonances. It will be determined by whether we grapple with the complications of some basic assumptions about our spaces — who gets to play and work and live in them and how they get to do that.
And so, the "Harlem Shake" kerfuffle isn't just about some hip-hop dance, but about these anxieties of ownership of the past and future, about generational tensions around acknowledgement, respect and reverence, about the understandable if futile impulse to want culture to retain something like purity, about disparities in power both real and perceived, about land and property, about realness and authenticity and race and history.
For good or ill, the country our kids are creating will work by new, confounding rules.
It's the rest of us, those of us who've been here for awhile and who still find comfort with these old modes of viewing the world, who will start to face the discomfort of assimilating. A Minnesota suburb that looks more like a Brooklyn 'hood. A "Harlem Shake" that looks nothing like Harlem.
With additional reporting by Hansi Lo Wang, Shereen Marisol Meraji, Karen Grigsby Bates and Steve Saldivar.