Return of the white
Truth, lies, Da Capo's
Best Music Writing series, and the white man's burden.
By Jeff Chang
as so many meltdowns do these days, with a stupid blog entry. Late one night not long ago, my head stuffed with ideas from stacks of pop music criticism books, arrogantly nursing a big slight on behalf of hip-hop as a whole, I lay on my bed seething about a piece in the anthology Da Capo Best Music Writing 2002. The thing that had set me off was a stupid sentence in a stupid article by a stupid old white guy. Nik Cohn was his name, the piece was called "Soljas," which was first published in Granta, and the sentence went, "Calliope niggas made the St. Thomas look like church."
Reading it was like being kicked between the eyes. In 12 years of writing about hip-hop, I had never used that word unless it was coming out of another person's mouth. There were political reasons. Would I let some old white guy hang with my family for a few days, then go off and write about "these chinks this" and "those flips that"? It was personal too. If I had tried to write like that in a hip-hop magazine, could I have gotten it past any of my editors? Would I even be able step out of the house if it got published? I'd never be able to write again. And for good reason. I don't live in some gated-community color-blind fiction.
Without even reading his bio, I knew Cohn would probably never have to go back to New Orleans's Calliope or St. Thomas projects. When I remembered who he was, I got cross-eyed with rage. During the late '60s, Cohn was a London scenester and a rock journalism pioneer. When that faded, he jumped the Atlantic and reinvented himself as a hard-boiled journalist. In 1976, Cohn sold a story to New York magazine about a disco stallion from an Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn, called "Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night." But it was a fake: he invented the central character, a suave neighborhood dance-floor king, from details remembered from his mod days.
But unlike black journalists Janet Cooke, Patricia Smith, and Jayson Blair, whose made-up stories unleashed widespread panic in American journalism and ruined their careers forever, Cohn was able to cash in. His fake story became Saturday Night Fever, and with the loot he clocked, he shipped off for Shelter Island. Two-plus decades later, he admitted in the London Guardian, "My story was a fraud." But as Saturday Night Fever moved to the revival circuit and then onto Broadway, Cohn was hailed as a cultural hero who had defined an era. History was kind to this liar.
Years later, in Da Capo Best Music Writing 2002, Cohn was writing inventing? the tribal rites of Cash Money-loving ghetto youths in New Orleans. Perhaps he had been a brilliant music journalist three decades ago, even deservedly so, but this piece wasn't shit. Its presence in the book made it seem as if Harry Allen, Greg Tate, and hip-hop journalism had never happened. As if the truth about "these people" could only be told by an elderly Irishman. Exactly what qualified "Soljas" as one of the best music writings of 2002 anyway? The fact that it was first published in Granta, a British literary magazine? The fact that he was Nik Cohn? I ran downstairs for some blog therapy.
Maybe Cohn had reported everything. What he wrote felt like the opposite of truth and more like the white man's burden. But really, Cohn wasn't the point he was the tipping point. The whole damn Best Music Writing series was on my mind. I felt like Buggin' Out in Sal's Pizzeria. All the books had been edited by white males. Most of the selections were written by white males. Most of those white male editors and writers were closer to Cohn's age than to Eminem's.
"It's not hard to notice what's going on," I ranted. "If you read the Da Capo series to find out what the best music journalism is about and who the best music journalists are you would have to believe that rock is still dominant, that rap is still a marginal genre, and that women and folks of color just don't make the highest tier of music journalism. In other words, you'd be still sucking in the '70s. If Ward Connerly were a rock critic, his best-of anthologies might look like this."
OK, that last line was dumb. And yet the outrage was so clear, I felt even dumber for calling attention to it. It has been 14 years since the Source began publishing, and 10 since Vibe debuted. For the past decade, there has been no lack of writing about nonrock music by women and people of color and hip-hop-gen heads. Millions of words a year are written in English about hip-hop, R&B, dancehall, reggae, tropicalia, bossa nova, batucada, salsa, merengue, cumbia, Tejano, rock en español, mbalax, juju, Afrobeat, gnawa, qawwali, bhangra, broken beat, and it don't stop. How is it that less than a handful of pieces not about rock and not written by white males can find their way into the Da Capo Best Music Writing annual?
I went back to do the math call it my own internalized racism just to be sure. Knowing guest editor Jonathan Lethem was under 40, a white Brooklyn kid comfortable with polyculturalism and hip-hop, and loving his fiction, I figured his editing would be as good as it could get. His anthology featured 28 essays. Twenty-five were by males, 1 was by a woman (1 was a listserv transcript, another was from the Onion). Two were by writers of color. Sixteen were about rock. Eight were about hip-hop. That represented the most hip-hop coverage in any volume in the series, and hip-hop was still outnumbered two to one.
I went back to the first edition, released in 2000 and guest-edited by Peter Guralnick. Women wrote 7 of the 35 essays. Hip-hop was the subject of 4 pieces. The 2001 edition, guest-edited by Nick Hornby, was more topical featuring good, timely pieces on Napster, payola, and taxes but the numbers were about the same. Five of the 27 essays were by women, 4 about hip-hop.
As bad as these numbers were, the recently released 2003 anthology, edited by Simpsons creator, All Tomorrow's Parties curator, and ex-rock crit Matt Groening, was no improvement. Sixteen of the 20 essays were by males, 3 by women (1 was from the Onion). Half the essays were about rock. Only 2 were about hip-hop. None of the writers were of color. Final tally: in four years less than a handful of the series' writers were of color. More than 80 percent of the essays were by white males. Bottom line: I was right.
Maybe it had been late when I ranted and I had been getting delirious, but I began having serious flashbacks to that lost era between 1984 and 1996 when the word diversity was still a hopeful rallying cry, not an admission of failure, and thousands of fist-pumping students like me were marching out of class to demand it in our student body, staff, and faculty and required reading lists. But no, I told myself the morning after, it would be too much to start tossing trash cans and calling the series "music writing apartheid," or something equally inelegant and silly (although just in case someone comes at me wrong, I reserve the right). The answer was a lot simpler.
Now, as then, a generation of old white males has become comfortable in its floating world in this case, the one bounded by the Hudson and the East Rivers. And now, as then, a new generation of writers is creating a critical mass of writing that cries out to be read, enjoyed, and debated. Only problem is, they aren't doing that debating in the New Yorker (nine citations of the publication in the series in the past four years), the New York Times (nine citations also), or even the Village Voice (seven citations). In the case of the latter two publications, they just aren't being read. (And by the way, when did the New Yorker and the Times, outlets hardly bursting with alt cred, become the gold standard of music criticism anyway?) In any case, a new generation of writers goes unnoticed by white dudes lost in space (Manhattan) or time (ye olde rock paradigm).
Not to say there aren't pieces that are worth reading over and again. Lethem picked R.J. Smith's wonderful anticelebrity profile of racially ambiguous lounge lizard Korla Pandit. Groening selected Terry McDermott's fine history of N.W.A. and a Dave Tompkins-style sample-and-freestyle history of Detroit soul by a law professor (!) named Lawrence Joseph. My point is not to quibble about criteria and choices. Every year music crits erupt on listservs over what selections should have been included and what should not have. We'll do it all night and give up food, sleep, and sex. That's what we do best fuss over shit that doesn't matter at all while the real problem has a big laugh at our expense.
The usual suspects
Da Capo's Best Music Writing series doesn't exactly represent apartheid, but it does represent a nasty kind of unilateralism an old-ways devotion to narrow-mindedness articulated in elitist anti-intellectualisms uniquely available to those with Bush privilege and rock 'n' roll. "Let any revolution be incomplete while I'm in charge," Lethem is charitable enough to admit in his introductory notes. "Much of my favorite music writing last year was by the Usual Suspects, as was much of my favorite music." Groening is even less generous, calling this "a fairly dismal time in general for music, when so much dreck is so unbelievably popular, and so much writing seems just as artificially sweetened yet utterly deflavorized."
Now that may sound like a reasonable point of view if your worldview was shaped before the late '70s, you find a newsrack full of titles like XLR8R, Punk Planet, Wax Poetics, and URB daunting, and you believe music writing has been cleaved into two camps: the Blender-ized tits-and-amps mags and the New Yorker. But what kind of worldview is that anyway? With the exception of Lorraine Ali's piece on Palestinian rap, the Da Capo series has never left American shores for its sounds. At the same time some of the top music radio stations in Los Angeles and New York, the top two markets in the country, do not even broadcast in English. Unilateralism, indeed.
So even my flashbacks were warranted. Da Capo's Best Music Writing series demonstrates the old problem that activists of color, feminists, and gay and lesbian activists raged against during the 1980s. A very particular kind of worldview in this case, one that favors white, male, English-only, New York-approved, rock-centric writers and writing is passed off as the universal standard of excellence. Once again, this point seems so obvious that I'm embarrassed to write it.
Canons are never accidents. They get made. And it goes a little something like this: Da Capo Press hires a guest editor usually a white male author with literary cred, music interests, and shelf appeal. It also hires a series editor usually a white male professional with music interests, extensive editing experience, and a gardener's patience. The series editor puts the call out to select magazine editors and journalists usually white males with New York industry cred and mad guest-list access. So constituted, this informal music-crit illuminati generates articles for consideration. The series editor narrows down the submissions to 100 essays and sends them to the guest editor. The guest editor then selects 20 to 30 essays and writes an introduction. See how easy it is to exclude all kinds of points of view that are not already extensions of your own?
Now I'm reasonably certain even the most conservative of pop music critics will vote for Howard Dean next year. And it's pretty hard to imagine any music crit defending the overwhelming white-maleness of the Da Capo series by saying it's better for the kids to read Greil Marcus than Greg Tate, in the same way that Charles Murray keeps beating us over the head with his Euro-American pride. Cultural relativism, after all, is one of music journalism's founding tenets. But it gets trumped every time by rockist ideology.
One cornerstone of rockism is the mostly unexamined celebration of cultural miscegenation and racial integration. Popular music is where everybody goes to dance or yearn or snarl or dream together, the myth says. It's a utopia beyond social milieu, above the merely political. Nothing wrong with that, all things being equal. But of course, duh, they're not. Check how the back cover blurb for the 2002 anthology reads: "Nik Cohn infiltrates the New Orleans rap scene." So we're back to the white man's burden: as arbiters of culture, it's up to the (older) white guys to validate/interpret/rescue the rest of us.
An instant retort to my argument is that all the selections come down to a matter of taste. That's a nice liberal update of that old saw "We don't dumb down for diversity." Because the selection process is all about social milieu the who-you-know, who-you-hang-with, who-you-like, who-you-want-to-like-you. And the results are absolutely political.
I'm waiting for someone to write an alt history of music journalism that starts with Lester Bangs's famous essay "The White Noise Supremacists," in which he lurches up to the miscegenation myth, realizes the whole enterprise to which he's devoted his life might in fact be a racist charade, and beats a hasty retreat. This history would take the '70s not as a wide-eyed Almost Famous golden era of music criticism but as a period of decline. If white and black writers during the '60s fixated on Motown and Muhammad Ali as two very different but equally hopeful signs of racial crossover, the '70s ushered in a retreat into whiteness.
It seems ancient-pyramids-in-Egypt-type history now or maybe not but there's a reason George Clinton spent nearly two decades with meager (white) critical props, the Black Rock Coalition had music writers scurrrred, and Chuck D's line about Elvis spawned paroxysms of fury. There's a reason hip-hop journalism got started in the first place. By the dawn of hip-hop, it could be argued, rockism was actively fostering musical and cultural segregation. When the Source emerged at the end of the '80s, hip-hop journalism gave voice to those marginalized not only by the mainstream but also by rockism.
New rap poetics
Raquel Cepeda's overdue anthology, titled And It Don't Stop: The Best Hip Hop Journalism of the Last 25 Years, may provide a corrective when it comes out next year. The earliest pieces on hip-hop were written by impassioned black and white supporters in outlets at the fringes of music writing, like the East Village Eye and the City Sun, and in a small number of titles in the center, notably the Village Voice and Billboard. But when the time came for the new generation of writers to ride the most diverse group of music writers ever they chose not to fight their way into the rockstream, a strategy that would have promised endless war and a dubious payoff. Instead they opted out and embraced separate-but-equal.
To be fair, there is much that's trite and hollow and dishonest and blandly celebratory in what hip-hop journalism has become, although probably no more than in the rest of music journalism. But should the fact that hip-hop magazines now often outsell the Rolling Stones and Spins of the world be held against their better writers. As if popularity were evidence that commercialism has tainted truth in journalism? That's racism masquerading as aesthetics.
To accept Da Capo's current worldview is to accept a lie. When the editing process begins for the 2004 edition, we'll see if the editors can dismiss pieces like Rob Kenner's Vibe cover story on Sean Paul and the perils of third-world-to-first-world dancehall crossover, Corey Takahashi's Vibe piece on the Bollywood-to-hip-hop crossover, Elizabeth Mendez Berry's sympathetic and scathing farewell to Jay-Z in the Village Voice, or practically anything that's been in Wax Poetics. But if history is any guide, the odds are they will.
Cepeda's anthology has only one piece from the New York Times and one from the New Yorker. Only two pieces from Vibe and one from the Source have appeared in the Da Capo Best Music Writing series. The gulf is widening. Most hip-hop journalists would probably flip through Barney Hoskyns's anthology, The Sound and the Fury: 40 Years of Classic Rock Journalism, snort at how wack the white dude's interview with Ice Cube is, and leave it on the shelf, unread and unbought. Most don't even vote in the Village Voice's Pazz and Jop Poll, the annual critics' list that once represented something like a national consensus, began fragmenting in the mid '90s, and now seems to describe only the tastes of those who already do or would like to write for the Village Voice.
The irony the Da Capo editors face is that they need the new generation more than it needs them. An interesting theme of Lethem's and Groening's introductory notes is that, by becoming guest editors, they're faking it. "It's literally the best, and most human thing, we can do," Lethem writes. Reading it again now, I feel somewhat sympathetic. But long after my bedtime on that evil night, I had ended my rant like this: "If Lester Fucking Bangs was still alive, he'd probably be mentoring a young girl of color from New Orleans who grew up with Juvie, Jubilee, marches, merengue, magnums, samba, second line, the Sex Pistols, and the housing authority police. She wouldn't need to make anything up."