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Whites only party

Race trendcasting spies the Afropunk zeitgeist



To co-opt and remix Jeff Foxworthy: You might be a racist if ... you single out the lone Negro at the Arcade Fire show.

As cited in the last column, a recent New York Times Style piece by Jessica Pressler sought to spotlight the supposed trend of black indie rock fans as a rising subculture. While the benighted article triggered a bit of a blogstorm and was (justly) denounced, there's been a glaring dearth of critical attention to the ideas discussed therein. One reason: bloggers and their respondents rushed to attack Pressler so as to absolve their white liberal guilt. Although "Truly Indie Fans" was at least 15 years overdue, it inadvertently hit a mark by indicting a range of exogamous cool hunters who rush to tokenize Bloc Party's Kele Okereke and East Harlemite skate punks equally.

To paraphrase and refer to a much-quoted bit D.L. Hughley once uttered in Charlotte: If you think it's shocking that black kids, you know, rock, then you're racist like a motherfucker. Of course, the article was flawed from the git-go, being invested in the now infamous category "blipster" (black + hipster). Such categories, as well as poor marketing, limit the perception of all artists but particularly stymie black musicians in a culture ordered by racial hierarchy.

When I edited a collection on the history of "black rock" -- Rip It Up: the black experience in rock & roll, published in winter 2004 -- the project was met with resistance in process and after its completion. With the official 50th anniversary of rock 'n' roll then looming, the issue of the genre's black provenance was still very controversial. And the fighting words stem from the lineage by which 19th century minstrelsy begat the modern entertainment industry. As the questionable authorship of "Dixie" showed back in the day, the reality of cultural borrowing Eric Lott described as "love and theft" has persisted through today's debates around Eminem's stature in hip-hop, the yellowface moves of Gwenihana and crit glee over OutKast's sepia Beatlemania.

This being February, when the litany of black American achievement is trotted out for commemoration, it was beyond disappointing to have the month prefaced by the nation's leading newspaper acting like Henry Stanley amok in NYC's longstanding black rock scene. Yes, friends and colleagues of mine were quoted in the piece. And it did not run under the aegis of the NYT arts critics, but such cluelessness is still shameful.

So, blackfolks dig music other than hip-hop. Don't they have a right?

One would think that in the new millennium, after roughly 40 years of affluent black families' incursions into suburbia and the aftershocks of busing, the notion of certain interests, attitudes and cultural practices being coded solely by race would be moot. Apparently not -- and this doesn't bode well for the current ascent of multiracial Brooklyn trio Earl Greyhound (cited in the Times) nor this spring's highly touted tour pairing recent Spin cover darlings TV On The Radio with upstart Brit post-punk band the NOISEttes (led by singer Shingai Shoniwa, of Zimbabwean descent).

The appropriation of the song "Dixie," likely based on the childhood reminiscences of Mother Ellen Snowden, and now the saddling of the Afropunk milieu with the spurious slang term "blipster," meant to cheapen the very real impact and velocity of overlapping progressive black movements currently afoot, prove that there are no safe havens for colored cultural producers, not even in alternative spaces. In other words: a black artist has no utopias the dominant culture's bound to respect.

Some observers amidst the din of racist commentators at blipster mothership blog Brooklyn Vegan thought the article was timely, because hip-hop has peaked, FeFe Dobson was hyped as Afro Avril to the Hot Topic set for a minute there and, well, there's shitloads of "white-sounding" black kids showing up at rock gigs in the country's hipper precincts with really cute 'fro hawks.

Yet such interest, genuine or not, doesn't alter the salient fact that white audiences take umbrage at these kids' presence in their midst and, moreover, have not sustained any kind of aesthetic and commercial acceptance of "black rock" acts since the long ago heyday of Jimi Hendrix and Sly & the Family Stone -- and (on a different scale) Bad Brains and Living Colour in the 1980s. These acts -- name Fishbone, the Family Stand, 24-7 Spyz, whoever you like -- have usually garnered much-deserved critical acclaim. Still, the mass audience tends not to follow and, as we all know, the rockbiz has always been green (not in the way Al Gore intends).

Hopefully, none of this will have to be discussed next February, for the novelty of young blacks bum-rushing the whites-only par-tay of unfunky genres and post-indie concerts will have worn off. Or, at least gone the way of Rockwell.

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