Culture's race problem: ‘For white hipsters, blackness is a thing to consume but not engage with’
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Last month, the UK rapper Dave released his latest single, Black. Sparse but affecting, and largely threaded around a few minor piano chords and a drum beat, it saw the south Londoner dissect facets of black identity through lines such as “Black is my Ghanaian brother reading into scriptures / Doing research on his lineage, finding out that he’s Egyptian” and “Black ain’t just a single fucking colour, man, there’s shades to it”. It challenges the flattening and homogenisation of a culture while also celebrating a sense of solidarity. The accompanying video featured figures ranging from scientist Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon to Raheem Sterling, the England footballer frequently savaged by the likes of the Sun.
While the track was playlisted by Radio 1 and its accompanying album topped the UK charts on Friday, not everyone was so keen. A clutch of Twitter users took offence: “If I made a song titled ‘white’ about how good being white is, it would be banned never mind hitting the biggest record,” commented one. Presenters Annie Mac and Greg James, who had played the track, defended Dave, with Mac adding on Twitter: “It’s a real issue that a song so intelligent, so thought-provoking, so excellently put together can actually offend you.” Dave himself seemed nonplussed, telling BBC News: “If they take to it then they do, if they don’t [then they don’t].” It was a clear example of an increasingly familiar backlash faced by black artists in the entertainment industry. When a piece of culture is made by a black artist, it is often considered as “too black”, and evaluated in relation to white culture.
Meanwhile, over in the US, a film created by white people but despised by the family of its black subject was, conversely, enjoying awards success. When Green Book won best picture at the Oscars last month, it reinvigorated a conversation which has echoed throughout pop-culture history, and black pop-culture history in particular. Why does the turgid black-white buddy trope still persist in cinema? The film – which tells the story of the relationship between real-life pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and his driver Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) in the segregation-era US – was, for many, a highly revisionist piece of cinema, framing Don and Tony as friends rather than employer and employee respectively. The Shirley family was not consulted during the making of the film, with his brother Maurice telling Essence magazine that the film was “a continuation of white privilege”. Writing for the Hollywood Reporter, Marc Bernardin described the film as “a problematic movie about race ... It posits that, if only we could find a common ground, we could achieve the post-racial society some thought Barack Obama’s election would usher in”. Its problematic nature extended further than the screenplay: writer and producer Nick Vallelonga, son of Tony, was found to have tweeted about Muslims “cheering” on 9/11, while Mortensen used the N-word during a press junket to promote the film.
Green Book’s Oscar shows Hollywood still doesn’t get race | Joseph Harker
The question of whether black culture in its many forms is only ever truly valued in relation to mainstream – ie majority white – culture is a complex one, and something you imagine an institution like the Academy were never particularly bothered about fully engaging with (even if Moonlight did, eventually, get its Oscar). However, it is one that refuses to go away, and which feels more palpable than ever, perhaps because more individuals are speaking up about their experiences (Viola Davis, for example, told the New York Times last year: “I just felt that at the end of the day that it wasn’t the voices of the maids that were heard,” in her 2011 hit The Help). Yet, paradoxically, when celebrating their own blackness, many artists find themselves, like Dave, judged nonetheless.
But how can you create great art in a world where being “too black” is seen as a legitimate criticism, yet culture which prioritises a proximity to whiteness picks up awards over those with radical narratives (see Boots Riley’s anti-capitalist, Afrofuturist epic Sorry to Bother You, which wasn’t even nominated at the Oscars).
Akwugo Emejulu is a professor of sociology at the University of Warwick, and was raised in Texas. She sees the current tensions between race and pop culture as differing in the UK and the US, although both stem from a larger sense of activism still being stunted by structural realities. “What’s missing from the conversation is any political will to make the changes required,” she says. “There has been very little action because, for hipster white folks, blackness is still something to be consumed but not necessarily anything to engage with.”
Emejulu says that the US has more of an infrastructure for, and history of, critiquing these kinds of things, citing the criticism that followed Green Book throughout its Oscar campaign. Despite this, she is not surprised at its Academy award, which was for her “the ultimate American story … to just deny the history and context, and use a ‘black best friend’ as a quick fix”.
If it is possible to find revisionist white narratives in pop culture, it also seems that some people are deemed “too white” for their own good. Drake, a mixed-race rapper who, unusually, came up via a teen soap, is often characterised as a phoney (“What ‘bottom’ had Drake, the former child actor from suburban Toronto ever experienced? Did it really matter?” asked the site Hip Hop DX when the Canadian star released Started From the Bottom in 2013).
Green Book's win undermines the conspicuous diversity of this year's Oscars
And what of Meghan Markle, currently at the heart of the elite institution that is the British royal family? As a mixed-race woman with a black mother, my own sense that Markle was somehow destabilising the old guard was tempered with the knowledge that she herself had just the right amount of white privilege as not to truly rock the boat (despite early Daily Mail headlines that appeared such as: “Harry’s Girl Is [Almost] Straight Outta Compton”).
“Meghan Markle is the type of black that the majority of right-leaning white America wishes we all could be, if there were to be blackness at all,” wrote Elaine Musiwa in a 2017 article for US Vogue. But maybe in the case of someone like Markle, evaluating black against white culture isn’t a bad thing, especially in acknowledgment of something like passing for white.
However – returning to Dave – what Black, capital B or otherwise, means for white audiences is often irrelevant. For Joseph JP Patterson, the founder of youth culture magazine Trench and a senior editor at Complex UK, Dave has proved his worth.
“Dave is already a proven success story,” says Patterson. “His ability to relay the inner-city black struggle, and black greatness in equal measure, has, over the past two years, seen him celebrated among some of our greatest MCs. I saw some of the comments online when Black came out, and most of the negativity came from white music fans, which – to be honest – was totally expected. Even as a professional, successful black man today, I still experience racism, so a track like this – much like Bashy’s 2007 single Black Boys – allows a sense of pride to shine through.”
Even while Robbie Williams was cringingly proclaiming that “grime needs a pop star to smash through that ceiling” on last year’s X Factor, a bigger process of cultural democratisation had already taken place, one which meant that Black got heard on Radio 1 in the first place. “[Prior to now] we handed over the control of our talent to a corporate world that didn’t value it,” Patterson adds. “Thankfully, though, we’ve learned from our mistakes. [Now] you’ve got street albums from rappers like Fredo going Top 5 and drill tracks like [Russ’s] Gun Lean going Top 10”.
The reason why the current moment feels extra fractious is really that its an unprecedented one; for every racist comment levelled at Dave’s video, there were 10 more hailing it as genius. Where Green Book took home close to $200m at the box office, Black Panther claimed more than $1.3bn. “Much of the conversation now is actually an anxiety about the fact that those who traditionally never had a voice in terms of how culture is interpreted and critiqued now have one,” says Emejulu.
“The issue isn’t just the selling of blackness to white people, it’s more about how black people, in the US or the UK, are talking back about how our culture is being misrepresented and used in a way we didn’t before,” she continues. “Someone like Dave and April Reign with #OscarsSoWhite are able to speak back. A normal person on the street wouldn’t be able to do that.”
Marc Bernardin, the writer of that Hollywood Reporter piece on Green Book and also a DC and Marvel comic book writer, also cites the huge progress that has been made.
“[Black Panther] was a film written, directed and starring black people and it did gangbusters,” he says. “Of course it had the Marvel imprimatur, but it was still a film about the black American and its relation to the black African experience. Moonlight is a smaller but still stellar example. The situation in Hollywood, in regards to black artists getting to tell black stories, is still bad, but it’s getting better because at least now Hollywood realises that there’s money to be made from that audience. These days, Green Book is the exception, not the rule, which is what made its Oscar win that much more dispiriting.”
Perhaps the fact that all of these tired narratives are being spotted both sides of the Atlantic is a sign of genuine progress, or maybe film studios and record labels are just seeing pound signs from a willing and increasingly moneyed black audience. In any case, the final hurdle might be ensuring that black creatives enjoy the freedom their white counterparts have always been afforded.
For Bernardin, that means having the freedom not to just focus on “great black person” biopics which, even in the hands of black writers or directors, can feel overworked.
“Get Out is fiction, but it contains a lot of truth – about race, class, gender in America. You make art because you’re burning to get it into the world,” he adds. “For me, all art is the pursuit of truth and the more truthful I can be about my life, and the human condition, the better it is. Even if it’s about parallel dimensions.”
Sorry to Bother You
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