October 23, 2002
Arts and Entertainment
IN NICK MCDONNELL'S debut novel, Twelve, there are two ways rich Upper West Side New York white kids live with hip-hop. Some of them listen to it as part of their daily sound mix. Charlie plays Nelly on his Discman while sitting in first class on his way to a Key West binge. Chris plays a Tupac MP3 off his hard drive while he makes out with a girl who just wants him for his vacationing parents' party-ready town house. Even the adults know hip-hop: at a cocktail party staffed by brown women in black uniforms, Eminem is small talk between aunts and their teenage nephews.
And there's the other way: that of Timmy and Mark Rothko, whom McDonnell describes as "two more white kids playing black." They wear FUBU and Timberlands and copy black hip-hop speech. They want to be black like the black they hear on CDs and the black they see on MTV, another pair of wanna-be down white Negroes on the run from themselves. In this version, though, when they scribble down numbers for a drug deal, they do it on the back of a Producers ticket stub they grabbed off their mom's dresser.
Somewhere between the white kids who like black music and the white kids who want to be black is rapper Paul Barman, who, like most of the kids in Twelve, is white and Jewish but who is from suburban New Jersey (not uptown Manhattan) and who didn't go to a country-club boarding school (though he did graduate from Brown University). In fact, on his first full-length, Paullelujah!, Barman doesn't easily snap into most paradigms of black-Jewish identity swapping. He's not writing songs about blacks or for black artists (as Harold Arlen and George Gershwin did), and he's not, like so many white Negroes of the past, trying to slip into another racial outfit. "I not only loved those colored boys, but I was one of them," white jazzman and drug dealer Mezz Mezzrow wrote in one of the great bibles of white Negroism, 1946's Really the Blues. "I was going to be a musician, a Negro musician."
With Barman you never have to wonder if he's white, you never have to search for the erased Jew, and at least for now, you don't have to slap him around for trying to be what he's not. Whiny, sarcastic, and language-obsessed, the songs on Paullelujah! are songs about whiteness and Jewishness and the uneasy relationship between the two. Being white and a Jew is as much Barman's subject as anything else. On "Bleeding Brain Grow," he asks, "Did you notice both black women and jewesses wore wigs?" and then tells us his grandfather "made a damn nice lampshade. They stretched his tanned flesh out like a bandaid without the sterile pad." On "Old Paul" he's a Yiddish-dropping "caucasoid" who complains that "people repping clones accused me of using rap as a stepping stone" before asking, "Is it 'cause I go for the laugh? Because I'm not from the ave?... Was I to rap like France was to Morocco?"
On his first EP Barman wrote a song called "Joy of the World," in which he is about to have sex with a woman and pulls out a gold coin condom only to find that it is in fact chocolate Hanukkah gelt. It's a funny bit, and Paullelujah! is full of self-deprecating moments just like that, but in the end, the Jew in black music that Barman gives us is a sexually self-hating yet sexually ravenous hip-hop Woody Allen who would make Norman Mailer's original take on the white Negro proud: white men want to be down with black culture because black guys do it better. Barman says he's "bad sex and slapstick," and a radio commentator included on the album remarks, "Even his own fantasies put him down." In an interview he did with Rolling Stone in 2000, Barman even copped to the real reason he originally wanted to rap: a black hip-hop kid from Harlem whom he met at summer camp had already had sex by the time he was 13.
If he were included in Leon Wynter's new book, American Skin: Pop Culture, Big Business, and the End of White America, Barman might be explained as a product of what Wynter dubs "transracial America," a post-Word War II corporatized nation that has taken the Jim Crow signs down from the gates of pop culture. Barman grew up in the era of Michael Jordan Nike ads, BET, Oprah, and hip-hop profit dominance, the era that Wynter believes has helped to end the racial order of the past because so many nonwhites are now suddenly so visible and so available in the mass media. Barman certainly works for Wynter's thesis, but his reliance on racial difference as pop performance is also proof that "the end of white America" has to be about more than getting Mean Joe Green on a Coke spot. Because in the end, Paullelujah! uses Barman's easy access to hip-hop not to silence white America but to give it another voice.
E-mail Josh Kun at firstname.lastname@example.org.