Hiphopopotomus – The Hip Hop Culture and Considerations of Race

by evanbaden

I am going to try and be a little more thourough this week and make some points about each essay, then go off on my own for a bit.

Howard Winant starts us off this week. In The Theoretical Status of the Concept of Race he proposes that there have been two definitions of race over the past some-odd hundred years. The first is to look at race as an objective characteristic. If you are black, then you are black (and I guess you behave a certain way) and if you are white, then you are white (and I guess you behave another way) and this continues for all the other races. He says the other way that race has been looked at over the past centuries is as a social construction, architected with the intentions of subduing a certain people.

What I realized while reading this is that I have always confused terms when thinking about race. I am a big believer in evolution and that people living in certain areas developed in ways to suit those areas. I feel like that is pretty sound and scientific, although people get really touchy when talking about it. However, that is not race, that is biology. There is no objective look at race (my opinion) like the one Winant has mentioned because it is not focused on what “race” actually is. It has confused terms. That type of looking focuses on biology. The issue, and the problem with the idea of objective looking, is that even if it were the best way to look at race (which it is not), the only way to study it would be to examine people that had only had similar ancestors. In this day-in-age, that is so rare that it is stupid to even consider an “objective” look in a positive light.

And back to my original point, looking at biology is not looking at race. Much of those biological differences are only skin deep. The idea of “race” is a social construct, that is obvious to me. Which then gets to Winant’s larger point:

The main task facing racial theory today, in fact, is no longer to critique the seemingly “natural” or “commonsense” concept of race–although that effort has not by any means been entirely completed. Rather, the central task is to focus attention on the continuing significance and hanging meaning of race. It is to argue against the recent discovery of the illusory nature of race; against the supposed contemporary transcendence of race; against the widely reported death of the concept of race; and against the replacement of the category of race by other, supposedly more objective, categories like ethnicity, nationality, or class.

Something that I heard over and over again after the 2008 election was that, because of Obama’s election to U.S. President, race was no longer an issue in this country. Every time I heard that I thought “how naive”. While there has been a lot of progress made since the civil rights movement 5o years ago, race is still an immense issue in this country. I would submit the political environment today as evidence of those issues. No other President in recent years has drawn as much scorn as Obama has. From accusations that “he is not a citizen” to “he was not born in the U.S.” to “he is a muslim attempting to undercut the great and infallible Christian religion.” And these are not argued by a small extreme group, Fox News proudly has Donald Trump on to discuss the investigation into Obama’s birth certificate. I am curious to see, when the next white President is elected, if he has to go through such hoops.

The questions I have are “how do we get to a point where ‘race’ is no longer a determining factor in how we view people?”, “should we get to a point where ‘race’ is no longer a determining factor in how we view people?”, and “would our country be a better place to live if we were to dismantle the idea of ‘race’?” While “race” can be viewed as a negative, there are also a lot of people that proudly identify with their “race” and heritage. I don’t, in fact I don’t even really know what mine is completely, but would it be a disservice to eliminate “race” for those that do proudly identify with it? One of the big criticisms of America is that it absorbs all cultures and strips people within a generation or so of all of their cultural history and homogenizes them into “Americans”, even if other sections of the population do not view them as so.

I did think that Barbara Jeanne Fields had an interesting quote from an article that Winant cited. She said, “…once historically acquired, race becomes hereditary.” I found that really interesting, although I am still trying to grapple with whether it is correct or not. If you learn your “race” a certain way, will you be doomed to act in accordance with it? While I think the statement has some merit, I also think there are about a million other factors that figure into America’s race issue. Those include the monstrously large issues of income disparity and education disparity, which in tandem are able to keep a certain population of people at bay.

I think one proposed solution could be to attempt to strip the economic and educational barriers that have been imposed on minorities and to let the cultural identity remain. Maybe there is no way to save cultural identity. Capitalism’s nature, and it’s greatest defense mechanism, is to absorb and adopt anything that stands in it’s way, that includes cultural identity. So maybe, regardless of what is done, any cultural identity will be lost.

This line of thinking is just creating more questions than it is answers, so I will move on.

Next up were two articles by Holland Cotter. The first was a review of Only Skin Deep, a show which took place at the International Center of Photography and that examined race and racial identity throughout America’s history. He enjoys the fact that show covers such a broad range of racial exploration, bringing in images from pre civil war all the way up to the contemporary and juxtaposing those images. He pulls out several examples of images he thinks fit well. However, his one disappointment is the lack of content that he finds with some of the images. Some of the more famous images are fine because the context is already known, but there are lots of images that have no labels and no context, leaving the viewer unawares to what the image means or how it fits with the tenor of the show overall. He is disappointed that the catalog, which would have been a good place to have covered this, did not. There were lots of great essays, but it seems that he wishes it would have gone further.

The next article by Cotter was more enlightening than the review. Here he begins to examine the issue of multiculturalism in the contemporary art market. This article really made me think about Lorraine O’Grady, more on that in a minute. Cotter delves into the problem with the art market and the attempt to diversify it. He begins by noting that the racial make-up of the US has changed radically over the last 50 years, however the art market has remained much the same, dominated by whites.

There was an attempt to diversify, and there was much worry about doing so. What Cotter finds is:

neither the best hopes nor worst fears were realized. Instead, a middling solution was struck, one that seemed to serve everybody’s purposes but had intrinsic liabilities. Instead of a periphery-to-center integration, group affiliations were drawn deeper along racial and ethnic lines. Black shows, Latino shows, Asian-American shows proliferated. A theory-based way of talking about art, race and culture was brought in from academia and served for a while as an empowering common language, but it soon became diluted through overuse and misuse.

I really like where he ended up going with this argument. Although much progress has been made, the idea of having shows based on racial lines creates a number of problems. The advantages of these types of shows, he points out, are that more artists that have been marginalized in the past have a chance to exhibit art, and therefore the possibility to expand beyond the small scope of those exhibitions. The problem is that it pigeonholes those artists into only being able to make work about race. And while race is still a large issue in America, you shouldn’t be relegated to having it as your only subject matter just because you are not white. It reminds me of a quote from Lorraine O’Grady’s talk. As an answer to one of the questions from the audience, she said, “most of the artists that I know that consider themselves ‘post-black’ are making work about ‘blackness.'” That was so interesting and insightful to me.

Cotter also brings up the fact that only a few of these artists are embraced, making it seem like there is growing progress in the mainstream art market. He says:

The art world, market-driven and self-protectively conservative, operates on a token system and always has. It chooses a black, Latino or Asian artist and assiduously promotes each one. Recycled in A-list shows and handed endless prizes, these artists come to represent all the other ”others” not present. It’s no surprise that before long the chosen few begin to be talked about resentfully as affirmative-action cases.

He finishes by noting that post-black or post-ethnic may be the way to go and that even though shows that are drawn upon ethnic or racial lines are problematic, they are many times still the only option for artists of racial minorities to exhibit work.

Finally we get to the behemoth (okay, not really) essay The Sound of Light: Reflections on Art History in theVisual Culture of Hip-Hop by Krista Thomson. I found this piece really interesting in how it examines the way that light is used to exemplify the audacity that is current rap culture.

I can already tell I will be going off on a number of tangents during this part of the post. The first thing I want to talk about is what I see as the timeline of hip hop to rap. I don’t really believe that hip hop exists anymore, nor did it exist for very long. Generally, the birth of hip hop is traced back to late 70s and the collapse of the disco era. The first major artists to break through in the hip hop genre were artists like Run D.M.C, Will Smith, Slick Rick, and LL Cool J. These artists were making music that did not often deal with the problems of race. There were some that were dealing with race, one of those being Public Enemy.


With NWA and Ice-T on the west coast, I think hip hop began to die. Now there was a lot of focus on “race” and the situations that many young black men living in poverty were finding themselves in. The success of this sub-genre led to the notion that it was commercially viable. Dr. Dre and his portage Snoop Dog would come to prove how lucrative this could be.

Capitalism’s best defense mechanism is to adopt, and as with many things that begin to revolt against a current capitalist system, rap became part of the system. By the late 90s and into the 2000s, mainstream rap was diluted (for the most part) into a substance-less money making machine. This would be the era that coined the term “bling”. Toward the mid-2000s there was a slight change in some of the mainstream with the emergence of conscious rappers such as Blackstar (Mos Def and Talib Kweli), Planetary, Esoteric, Common, J-Live and the largest commercially of the group, Kanye West.

I think Kanye West is a particularly interesting example of both falling into the tropes of commercially controlled rap music and trying to rebel against the establishment. I just want to talk for a minute about the song All Falls Down, his first single that was played over the radio off his first album, The College Dropout. Thomson mentions that West is one of the few rappers that makes references to slavery, and I think also the current state of black affairs in America. Thomson refers to the same song. It struck a cord with me because when it was released I was taking a course on black culture that focused on the time period from the slave trade through civil rights. From the song All Falls Down:

We shine because they hate us, floss cause they degrade us
We trying to buy back our 40 acres
And for that paper, look how low we a’stoop
Even if you in a Benz, you still a nigga in a coop (coupe)

West makes specific references both to the promises made to slaves (that they would receive 40 acres and a mule) and that he tries to gain acceptance from the white majority by purchasing “things”, however, even if you have made enough money to buy a Mercedes, you are still just viewed as “a nigga in a coop (coupe).” He continues on in  All Falls Down:

We buy our way out of jail, but we can’t buy freedom
We’ll buy a lot of clothes when we don’t really need em
Things we buy to cover up what’s inside
Cause they make us hate ourself and love they wealth
That’s why shortys hollering “where the ballas’ at?”
Drug dealer buy Jordans, crackhead buy crack
And a white man get paid off of all of that
But I ain’t even gon act holier than thou
Cause fuck it, I went to Jacob with 25 thou
Before I had a house and I’d do it again
Cause I wanna be on 106 and Park pushing a Benz
I wanna act ballerific like it’s all terrific
I got a couple past due bills, I won’t get specific
I got a problem with spending before I get it
We all self conscious I’m just the first to admit it

106 and Park with Kanye West and 50 Cent

In this second example, we can see West commenting on some of the very things Thomson mentions. First, West makes mention that he has been made to “love they wealth”, which would refer back to Thomson’s notions of rap stars cueing on the classic portrayal of the rich white man, although in West song he is referring to the slave owner and not necessarily European royalty. He also mentions “bling” by referring to “Jacob”, also known as Jacob the Jeweler – the best known jeweler to rap stars, claiming to have purchased $25,000 worth of jewelry before buying himself a house. He also mentions the idea of being seen stating, “I wanna be on 106 and Park pushing a Benz,” making the reference to the popular rap chart show “106 and Park” on BET. He wants to be seen with his Mercedes, one of the trademark signs of success in the rap world. And just as a side note, West routinely referrs to himself as the “Louis Vuitton Don.”

I really liked Thomson’s examples of the prom goers hiring photographers to make them feel like stars. The first thing I thought of was the MTV show “My Super Sweet 16”, a show focused on rich teens who wanted to have blowout 16th birthday parties. These parties were all about them being the star of the party and everyone adoring them. I think this is a perfect example of the crossover that the rap culture of excess has had on youth. Many photographers are usually hired at these events to make the birthday boy or girl feel like they are famous. MTV heightens that experience by actually putting it on TV. I also like the notion that the kids are not actually concerned about the real images that are captured at the event, but it being more about creating a mind-image of themselves being watched. Berger talks about this phenomenon with advertising, substituting yourself for the person in the ad, wanting to be idealized and idolized.

I find Thomson’s observations about the music video especially right-on. I was hoping she would talk about the videos as I was reading. I especially like the idea of the glowing black skin. Thomson mentions that “Bodily shine helped to increase slaves’ worth.” I immediately thought of video vixens, and West’s video for Golddigger (about a woman trying to get at your money) is a prime example. The video, directed by Hype Williams, showcases a number of beautiful black women, however, it over-sexualizes them, many times only showing specific–sexualized–parts of them. By presenting the women in this way, it commodifies them and turns them into desirable objects instead of a person. This video is also a perfect example of the shine used on their (the women’s) bodies.

The videos are also important because they allow the viewer (and listener) to visualize the ‘conspicuous consumption’ that may be hard to visualize by just listening to the music. Lil’ Wayne’s Lollipop would be a good example of this visualization. The song is not really about possesions, however, the video is filmed in Las Vegas, at a mansion, and in a limousine. Even though the song does not mention any of these specific things, picturing them allows the viewer (and in the future when they are just listening and not viewing) to envision themselves singing the song in those locations, becoming the star.

I also just want to take a moment to look at how Pop-country has adopted the same visual effects that rap videos have used to elevate the stars. While the two musical worlds seem very different, they are actually quite similar. The use of lights and flashing things, as well as adopted terminology such as “bling” help to bring the musical genres closer. And as with both pop-country and mainstream contemporary rap, the videos and lyrics are all about being seen and possessions.

I only really want to focus on two of the artworks featured in Thomson’s writing. The first is the painting St. Sebastian II by Kehinde Wiley. The pose is what interests me in this painting. Thomson thinks “his pose could also be read as much as a gesture protecting himself from the glare of lights as basking in its visibility.” This was not at all what I thought about looking at this painting. The first thing I thought of was that the figure posing looked like he was being pressed against a pane of glass. This was mainly because of the way that the figure’s head is turned. Then I noticed his hands, one stretched out above him a nd the other behind his back. The first thing that came to my mind with this pose is that this is the pose that someone who is getting arrested makes. Usually they are pressed up against a car hood or window, told to raise their arms, then the police officer places hand cuffs on one hand, bringing it down and behind his back. Then the other arm is brought down. This is the pose just before the second wrist is cuffed. I think it is an interesting juxtaposition and I would be interested to hear Wiley’s take on the pose. Many of his poses are glorifying, but this pose seems different and I think that the reference that I have picked up is hard to miss.

The other artist, and one I am glad that Thomson chose to include was Paul Pfeiffer. I remember watching his videos for extended periods of time. The way that black athletes are animalized is interesting. It makes me think of a recent Vogue cover featuring basketball star Lebron James and supermodel Giesel Bundchen. The cover was much criticized for falling prey to a number of racial tropes, most notably the angry animalized black man with the helpless white women


While I can’t find it anywhere, there is a video that Paul Pfeiffer has made of a basketball player celebrating after making a basket. The imagery in the video captures a lot of what has been talked about in Thomson’s piece. There are camera flashes going off all over in the crowd, the player looks into the camera and screams, appearing to be in pain. I find this work both beautiful and a fitting comment on the power dynamics of the NBA, which mimics power dynamics between white slave owners and their slaves. Basically a bunch of really rich white guys effectively “own” players (a great percentage of whom are black and from inner city neighborhoods) and make them compete against each other. Now those players may be making significant amounts of money, but the relation to the slave trade is hard to ignore. That being said, I love basketball and the Celtics. Go Celtics!

The last thing I am going to mention, and this will be quick because I am tired. But I wish I had the time to fully examine the power dynamics between white and black when it comes to the rap industry. Many of the labels that rap artists belong to are run by white men. These labels tend to be the one’s that reinforce black stereotypes to their audiences. The labels that are owned by black owners, such as Dr. Dre and Jay-Z, tend to be willing to take more chances on experimentation and music about racial impact. Kanye West tells the story on the final track of his first album about how he went to a number of white-owned record labels looking for representation and was told that “Jesus Walks” one of his many single hits, could not be played in a club. It was finally Jay-Z’s record label, Rockafella, that was willing to take West on. It is great to think that there has been a lot of advancement made, but then, when you take a closer look at the images that are being put forth to a young audience, and it is sometimes hard to see the progress.