Hip Hop, Comics, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Exploring Black Culture

It needs to be said up front that everything I have to say in this post is wholly inadequate to the task of giving any kind of unified perspective on the topic of Black culture.  I’m absolutely, one hundred percent an outsider here, and that means that I’m going to try to tread carefully in what I say, and if there’s any criticism offered then I’m more than willing to accept it.

In recent weeks I’ve taken up the habit of reading Joseph Illidge’s column “The Mission” over at Comic Book Resources, which focuses on issues of diversity in comics and other popular media.  It’s a good column, and Illidge has highlighted some issues that I’ve become more keenly interested.  A couple weeks ago, Illidge brought attention to an upcoming marketing event that Marvel Comics is doing where they’re going to publish alternate covers for all the new number ones they’ll be launching as part of their All-New All Different line-up that feature homages to a variety of famous hip hop albums.  Illidge pointed out that while Marvel is hiring a number of Black artists to produce the covers, the creative teams that have been announced for the new line-up are nearly bereft of creators of color.  Illidge, along with many other people who follow the goings on of the comics industry, called Marvel out for failing to match its diversity initiative within its comics with a similar initiative among its talent.  For anyone who’s interested in reading more about that topic, here are a couple of articles (one by Illidge, another by Laura Hudson at Wired) that explore the facets of the issue pretty well.

This is probably the only successful find in my research. I really like this album, and for more reasons than simply the fact that it’s the inspiration for the Ms. Marvel variant. (Image credit: Comic Book Resources)

For me, the big takeaway was that as a white person, the issue of Marvel appropriating concepts from hip hop culture for a marketing scheme was largely invisible to me until Illidge pointed it out.  One major pitfall that comes with privilege is that it makes issues of oppression invisible even to well-meaning allies.  With the recent larger attention that national problems like police brutality towards Black people and the pervasive cultural racism that gives rise to people like the shooter at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, has garnered, I’ve felt like I need to try to listen more closely to what others are saying about related problems in my own areas of interest.  Furthermore, as someone who grew up in a climate where all my points of contact with aspects of Black culture (which is a phrase that, even as I continue to use it, I realize is an unfortunately over general umbrella category for a bunch of subcultures that I don’t have the experience to adequately distinguish between) ranged from disdain to indifference, I started to feel that I needed to take a more open look at things that are largely alien to me.

Since the thing with Marvel’s hip hop variants was on my mind, I decided that I should try to learn something about hip hop music.

I settled on this as a project after considering the fact that for all my attempts at developing a more progressive attitude over the past few years, my taste in music is still overwhelmingly white.  I was raised on country music, and in college after I converted to Christianity my tastes transitioned to the stuff that’s popular with white evangelicals for a few years, and in more recent years I’ve developed a taste for some folk and alternative rock (my somewhat prolonged infatuation with Mumford & Sons likely stemmed from the fact that their sound on their first two albums is highly reminiscent of the music I grew up with but doesn’t contain the cloying sentimentality that I’ve come to associate with country and evangelical music).  The artists that catch my ear are unanimously white.  I’m sure part of this is just the fact that I never learned what to appreciate about other musical genres that aren’t dominated by white artists, but that’s something I’d like to correct.

Beyond the issues of not knowing what I should be appreciating about hip hop (I did have some ideas, like paying attention to the wordplay in rap lyrics) I had other concerns in mind.  Hip hop is a vast genre with several decades of history behind it, and since my experience is so limited, I didn’t know where to begin.  I can only name a handful of contemporary hip hop artists (mostly by way of listening to my students and people I follow on Twitter talk about them), and even then I wasn’t entirely sure if I wanted to start with contemporary music.  Everything has a history behind it, and as someone who loves context, I felt like I needed more than just what was currently going on.  I figured a good place to start might be by looking into the iconic albums that Marvel’s riffing on, but that presented its own challenges.  About the only thing I found that I could say from the start that I liked was The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, which has a lot of R&B elements and also makes heavy use of biblical imagery, which I latched on to because it’s familiar stuff.  It’s also just about the only thing I’ve found in my unguided floundering which hasn’t been absolutely steeped in misogyny.

A parallel thread to my exploration of hip hop has been my growing interest in reading Te-Nehisi Coates’s new book Between the World and Me, which is framed as a letter written to his son about the experience of living as a Black man.  Coates is a great writer, and seeing his name on the byline of an article automatically raises the chances that I’ll read it through to see what he has to say, but a lot of the buzz I’ve seen about his book has been pushing it as a great representation of the Black experience as a whole.  Counter to that, as several writers have pointed out, Coates’s book is about being a Black man, and this particular experience is getting uplifted as a universal experience rather than recognizing that the experience of Black women is different and can’t be perfectly mapped onto what Coates describes.  This overshadowing of women’s experience, even unconsciously, is problematic, and it feeds into one of my major misgivings about hip hop.

The dominant trend in what hip hop I’ve heard, both in passing and while actively listening to it for the last couple weeks, is an elevation of the male experience over the female experience.  That’s a hard thing for me to ignore, since much of my focus over the last few years has been on growing as a feminist ally.  That means that I want to hear about the experiences of women rappers as well, but I don’t fully know where to look.  The only two that come to mind are Lauryn Hill (because I like that one really famous album that she did) and Nicki Minaj (because she’s probably the most prominent woman rapper in the music industry right now), and while I could definitely hit the googles to do some research, I feel largely disoriented in regard to the whole project.

So this is kind of an ongoing thing for me.  I want to know more about hip hop as an extension of Black culture because I want to develop better empathy for people living that experience, but I feel kind of stalled out.  There’s probably more that should be written which I just haven’t gotten to, but I want to finish with a serious request.  I need recommendations from people who are familiar with the genre, because just randomly listening to whatever’s available on Amazon Prime isn’t a great strategy for making much headway.  If anyone has any suggestions about what to look for, either in regards of where to find more information about trends and themes in the genre or about artists or specific songs to check out, I would really appreciate it.

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