Who Says a White Band Can’t Play Rap?

The Village Voice
March 1991

Other day they received my thin brown body at Graceland. It was 1:45 on a Saturday afternoon: I was late for my tour appointment, but a uniformed man at the gate lazily waved me on when I shouted the paper’s name. ". . . with The Vill. . . ." In I went, before all the waiting folk, because I’d come with purpose: I’d come to take in the King so’s to give him back to you.

I pressed the accelerator of my Chevy and crept up Elvis’s drive-way, and in less than a couple of seconds, it seemed, I was in his backyard. The driveway was that short. Too short. I stepped out the car and took a good look at the house and thought, damn, this house is too small for the (white) King of Rock and Roll. No no no no no: this definitely did not make sense. Graceland wasn’t a Big House. Elvis hadn’t even made a good show of it. My sensibilities as a (black) consumer were definitely offended.

And nothing inside Graceland changed my mind. Graceland is not even simple and plain–it’s grotesquely tacky. Monstrously and frighteningly tacky. Check out the living room on your right, complete with gilded piano and stained-glass peacocks (because Elvis was into all kinds of religions). Follow me downstairs, and hold on tight—those fun house mirrors in the stairwell might give you the creepies, but they make the house look bigger! Here to your left is the TV room. where Elvis would turn on his three TV sets (just like in LBJ’s situation room) and watch three football games at the same time. The camera up there is so Elvis could call you if he needed you. If he were alive Elvis would be monitoring you from his bedroom upstairs. Through here is the "Jungle Room," so named for its furniture—mutilated claws of chairs, "Polynesian" wooden surfaces, with a brick waterfall backdrop, mall-style. Elvis decorated the room this way as a gag on his father, but then he decided he liked it. Elvis lived and died in this store-bought jungle, and went to Las Vegas for fresh air.

Yes, y’all. Graceland was a very troubling place. What Graceland proves is this: Elvis could have bought anything he wanted, but he didn’t know what to buy. Looks like Elvis didn’t expose himself to much: the Great White American Consumer had no taste at all.

Which, of course, doesn’t matter. It’s not Elvis’s parochial, whitetrash taste that matters, or his bloated-ass. momma’s boy, never-met-a-drug-I-wouldn’t-take paranoia. It doesn’t even matter if Elvis made that ignorant statement about colored people and shoe-shining because the icon, not Elvis the man, is the Elvis we all know, and Elvis the icon isn’t nothing but a reflection of white American desires. Especially white American consumerist desires.

Call me Pip. A strong, consumerist Pip. Call Elvis the white whale. "In the first three months [Elvis] was with RCA," according to Marc Eliot, author of Rockonomics, "he was selling 75,000 records a day, accounting for half of RCA’s total sales." The sales never stopped. During my visit, the Graceland tour guide cheerily told me that Elvis has the most Top 10 hits (40), the most No. 1 hits (18), most Hot 100 singles (149), most Top 200 albums but (92). The guide also pointed out that Elvis is responsible for over 6.4 billion in profits to date, and that Elvis sells well in many, many countries overseas. Some names: Norway, Australia, France, Denmark, Japan, Great Britain, Holland, Sweden, Yugoslavia, Germany, South Africa. The RCA distributors in South Africa even gave Elvis an award. It’s displayed played in Graceland’s trophy room, and reads, "Ten ‘Million Seller’ Records Sold Up To the 31st December 1960." No mention of big sales in the following countries: Zimbabwe, Ghana, Jamaica, Mali, Ivory Coast, Angola, Zaire, Mozambique, Senegal, Kenya, Haiti.

No mention because there aren’t any. The ideology simply does not match: Elvis is the Great White American Consumer, not a singer of liberation songs. (Now don’t go saying it’s the music. Folks all over the African Diaspora dig country music, American pop, rock and roll, r&b, etc.) Elvis the icon is simply not Blues People. Which is not to say that Elvis the man had no "blues people" inside: those first few recordings with Sun Records, and even much of the early, catchy, RCA stuff, prove his ability to take blues and white gospel and whatever else he’d heard and sing up to those styles, and through them. This is a laudable achievement for any singer. This is the work of an artist. And, in Elvis’s case, it’s become culture consumption in the name of whiteness.

Again: no one's saving that (young) Elvis wasn’t a decent artist. No one’s saying that. What I’m saying is: Elvis is lauded as King because he consumed black music and lived. He "mastered" it, giving white folk "license" to rock, by making a basically black form of popular music "accessible" to many whites. Making it beaucoup salable.

So it’s about consumption, y’all: white culture consumption translated into white marketplace consumerism. With too much blackness, you could fuck up a very profitable equation. Remember that oft-quoted remark by Sun Records owner Sam Phillips, Elvis’s first producer: "If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars." Elvis was Phillips’s white man. Way past those first few years when his music was any stood, Elvis kept generating big bucks and attention–already an icon of chauvinistic white culture consumption, Elvis metastasized into an icon of crude American marketplace consumerism: Elvis became the McDonald’s of music. (Over 327 trillion sold!) Which makes him the Greatest in a long line of White American Consumers. Dust off those Paul Whiteman (the King of Jazz) records, or listen to Benny Goodman’s (the King of Swing) watered swing, and you’ll catch a drift of the tradition of the drift.

Elvis’s crowning wouldn’t have made any sense if black performers had been as salable as he. The (ironic) unsalability of America’s black artists resulted not simply from their being black and "dangerous," but from a huge conceptual failure: most whites simply could not imagine black culture consumption. Negroes listen to and play Negro music, not our music. Fear of the black consumer: then, as now, black artists–culture consumers who took in stuff and made it theirs, and expressed it–did not really exist in the popular imagination. Chuck Berry as "the black artist who look in country music" did not exist. Neither did cultural literates Howling Wolf, or Fats Domino, or Bo Diddley. (Or, for that matter, the Dostoyevski-reading Richard Wright or the cubism-inspired Romare Bearden.) Instead, their stuff–a blues-based performance music informed by myriad American influences–was seen as "natural black stuff" and not African-American art, or American art, as Presley’s rock and roll would be. Not American art worthy of mainstream attention. (Chuck D. an American poet? Hah!) Blacks are natural cultural resources, containers of unrefined cultural wealth and lots of (our) green. As resources, they are not consumers: they are objects, not subjects. Parasites, maybe . . . but not fellow consumers. Went the logic. And still does, in closeted ways.

What I’m saying may sound like a bourgeois Negro complaint, but consider this: director Alan Parker of Mississippi Burning infamy said he had to star whites in his film because whites wouldn’t go to see black stars. No concern about what black consumers think (or about historical fact). And consider this: as civil rights strategy, economic boycotts forced whitefolk in the South to recognize our consumer status, which, by the standards of this man’s democracy, is our humanness, no matter the class, or color. (The Montgomery bus boycott was conducted on muscle flexed from all castes–poor or rich, folk had to drop a nickel when they boarded the bus. In fact, poor folk were its principal riders.) And here I’m talking about marketplace consumerism: black subjectness as economic consumers. What about Negro subjectness as cultural consumers?

Check it out: contemporary black culturistas from Living Colour to Cosby to the Hudlin brothers to Suzan-Lori Parks to the Native Tongues to the whole entire hip hop world are forcing respect on that front, too, self-consciously and vocally by being their black subject-consumer selves: being omni-American mainstreamers.

The fact of which shouldn’t, at this late date, need proving. Because when black folk set foot on this soil we had to consume the English language, which made us consumers of white American culture. As did the whipping and the raping and all the other oppression. The ingestion of all this new culture eventually fed a new culture, which was birthed and branded Black. At the same time, whitefolk were taking in plenty of Other (grits, y’all?) stuff, too. All around, something shaky and American was going on.

And still is. Somewhere in the Great Beyond, Elvis knows this. He’s probably hearing Living Colour and Public Enemy with much much relief: they’re giving him license to sigh out a lifetime’s worth of deep white guilt. Finally some truth! Finally, some, rest! Maybe they’ll stop chasin’ me. Bless his soul: brothers like Public Enemy and Living Colour are dancing on Elvis’s grave, letting us all know that they’ve taken in Rush and Led Zep and the Stones as well as Curtis and the JB’s and Ellington and Aretha. It’s all on the table, their eclectic consumerism, be it’s plainly in their music (did I hear someone calling samplers "thieves"?). And justice is being served: black cultural consumerism is getting some recognition, because the blacks are making it so.

Which brings me to the question at hand. What will America make of white consumers of black culture who make art (non-New Kids, non-watered-down, non-imitative) in the name of "blackness," and not "whiteness." What will black consumers think? And what will whitefolk think?

I guess I’m introducing the Young Black Teenagers.

While Strolling up lower Broadway with the Teens early last fall, I had a very strange and distracting experience: though the Teens are white, they were walking a lot "blacker" than me, and they were talking a lot "blacker" than me, and they seemed comfortable being their young "black" selves. They seemed sincere, if a bit eager to please. "I don’t see black and white as a skin color," explained Kamron, whose name is an acronym for King Aries Mack Ruler of Nuckleheads. "Blackness is a state of mind. I know a lot of African Americans wouldn’t consider black." On hearing him, and taking in the spectacle, and its normality, two questions ran through my head: "Who the fuck are you Kamron?" and "What does blackness mean today, anyway?"

First: Kamron, who wears scraggly, yellow dreadlocks, is the most talkative of the five white guys who call themselves the Young Black Teenagers. They really are young, I think, and they definitely aren’t black, I think, which makes the YBT moniker straight-up and ironic an redundant (young teenagers?) all at the same time, I think. Got to say "I think" because band members DJ ATA (Attitude Times Ability = Success), Tommy Never, Firstborn, and DJ Skribble refused to give me any solid info on their ages, or racial backgrounds. Except that they were born "white" (one of them did seem sorta Latino, but no matter). I thought of Elvis: the quickest way for a "white" man to confirm his (and America’s) "whiteness" is to do something "black." And the (white) critics and the (white) academy, and the (white) public will provide the appropriate honorifics, appropriately. King Aries, at first glance, fits too perfectly.

Please brothers, please brothers, please, I thought, tell me–your brown brother —everything. Tell us everything. I had my own story, and I wasn’t hiding it. I grew up with a Jewish best friend, listening to and liking his music (which wasn’t written or performed by black people), and watching Woody Allen flicks and getting the "inside" jokes. I’m an African American, but I was, in this way, Jewish too, so it’s pretty easy for me to understand the Teens’ claims to blackness. Culture consumption: "They tune in Arsenio and Oprah and Cosby, Yo! MTV Raps and In Living Color. They check out Spike Lee’s latest flick on Friday night and dance to M.C. Hammer and Digital Underground and Bobby Brown until the break of dawn," etc. declares YBT’s press release. Which makes them–like Negro-loving Elvis–black, right? Silly as it sounds, the answer is, sort of, yes, because you are, as is said, what you eat.

The claim can be overstated, too. If, after all, having a cultural identity were as simple as listening to the right tunes, or wearing the right clothes the right way, much of the world would be black. Maybe, contend the Teens, much of the world is already black, and maybe it’s time to acknowledge it. "We’re Phase II of what Public Enemy started," says Kamron, meaning, after James Baldwin, that whitefolk aren’t going to be white anymore. So much, say the Teens, for fear of a black planet.

The gesture, of course, only represents a baby step forward. If simply watching Spike Lee and Bobby Brown and In Living Color makes someone black, then black Being is cheap and light and easy and salable, which it clearly isn’t. What’s less clear is exactly what Blackness is.

I recently went to a seminar where Lisa Williamson, a young brown woman who uses words like bullets, was speaking about community responsibilities, and how her audience of young black college students should bear them better. Midway through her comments she asked the audience to reconsider their friendships with whites. If you feel you have to censor yourself around them, she said, they aren’t really your friends. She said it, of course, with much more vigor, and she got a noisy and enthusiastic reaction out of everyone. Then she threw down the gauntlet by casting a glance askance at MC Serch of white rap group 3rd Bass, and she smiled, and everyone knew why, and we all cheered wildly, and everyone felt kind of empowered, and I craned my neck at the 10 or 12 white faces in the 400-strong audience behind me, and I saw the pale discomfort in their faces, and we all felt very very Black. Very very very Black.

But then I also felt sad and old, because even though I very much liked the taste of this feeling, I knew I’d outgrown it, and that it wasn’t big enough for us anymore.

Fact is, we blackfolk need to redefine our changing blackness, which each day becomes more "whatever lives black experience," and less "whatever has traceable African ancestry." A "white" person would, of course, need the sensitivity of a genius to "become" black–to live black experience. And the Teens aren’t geniuses yet–they are, at present, more followers of producers Hank Shocklee and Co. than anything else. Not surprisingly, their record is typically kinetic and multilayered Shocklee-funk: cuts that range from the upstart, anti-racist "Daddy Kalled Me Niga Cause I Likeded To Rhyme" to the credible dancehall-inflected "Chillin’ Wit Me Posse" to the cold rockin’ "Korner Groove" to the boyishly silly "Nobody Knows Kelli" to the anthemic "Proud To Be Black" all groove with Shocklee’s funky eclecticism. And to the Teens’ credit, they bust their racial/sexual-posturing rhymes with humility and honesty, an almost unprecedented attitude in "white" rap. So the cuts work–because the brown guys who’re pulling it all together are brilliant culture consumers, and the white boys on the mike are comfortable in their idiom. Their black idiom.

The album’s "blackness" is clear from its start. As an intro to the cagily anti-radio establishment "Punks, Lies & Video Tape," one of the album’s putative producers complains "Oh, Yo, K.G., man, they ain’t playing our boys." His homey answers, "Yo, what do you mean they ain’t playin’ our boys? Yo, they don’t know nothing. Yo, just reverse the charges on them." It’s this "reversal of charges," this (re)flexing of Black Power, that powers the album, gives it its aesthetic, and its raison d’être. White voices or no, the Young Black Teenagers are, as an entity, "black," because they’re funky cells in a greater black consumer organism. "Our boys," And The Teens’ expression is authentic, and heartfelt, and perfectly within the aesthetic of that organism. They’ve been taken in.

Which recalls the question: how do you figure blackness today? Brothers and sisters, I say this: let’s bring the autobiographical self-definition project into the ’90s by making our ex-slave narrative describe our contemporary we-self. Can right-thinking whites be part of our "we"? While I was walking down Broadway with the young white Teens, I got very distracted by the sincerity of their pop-black style, but I could also see their whiteness: none of them could feel the sickly irony I feel when I see a pale German in a swimsuit trying to get a tan, and none of them could hear what I hear when Billie Holliday day sings "Strange Fruit." Any of them could get a cab before me any day of the week. None of them could know what I feel when I use the word "sister." I think I believe the Teens have their hearts in the right place, but I guess I don’t know many African Americans I wouldn’t consider Black, and I guess I don’t know many Euro-Americans I would, even though most "black" folk have lots of "white" inside, and vice-versa (we’ve been consuming each other for a long time). Like any national designation, Black is hard to figure, but you know it when you see it, you think.

Yet who’s to say that whites who work at it can’t be part of a 1990s black "we"? The Teens aren’t Elvis. They’re just some white boys coming in from the cold. They’re carrying our Black Consumer flag. Our black flag. Phase II–Phase I, for that matter–of the American racial reconstruction project comes in redefining the fictions of blackness and whiteness, and ultimately, in accepting our common Brownness: Black + White + whatever = Brown. And Black, of course, has always equaled Brown. So maybe our Black "we" is ready to retool itself for today, and maybe this "we" is ready to take in a few good ex-whites and maybe the Young Black Teenagers will earn their place among us.