Tag Archives: identity

Black History Month: Another side of Hip-Hop

14 Feb

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Negative stereotypes of Blacks are a staple of Black music videos that glorify gangsterism. In Rap music and videos, the minstrel-show plantation has been born again as the “hood.” While the setting has changed from an idyllic plantation to the mean streets of urban America, the process is the same: a black culture is being marketed for profit, with black performers portraying negative stereotypes. Performers claim that they represent authentic black America, while critics decry the glorification of ugly caricatures and its effects on Black youth.

Black-face.com

I’ve had some things on my mind lately, Black History Month (BHM), and a lecture I attended a few weeks ago, by masculinities author and sociologist, Michael Kimmel. By fortunate chance, I recently came across  The Black Man Can, an initiative to actively promote a positive black male image by Brandon Frame, who has helped immensely with this year’s BHM articles.

I read a couple of posts on Brandon’s site that really grabbed my interest: Is Commercial Hip-Hop the New Blackface? by Sharif Rasheed, who suggests Hip-Hop culture as a caricature of African-American youth, and the fabrication and absorption of the Hip-Hop stereotype in black youth culture in When Posing Goes Wrong: Ricky Rozay is not about that life. 

Now, as a white, Canadian woman of European descent with a love for Sam Cooke, but no understanding of Soulja Boy let alone Jay-Z, I was gobsmacked at what I read in Rasheed’s article: “Commercial Hip-Hop has become the blueprint for the streets for many of today’s youth. The lyrics tell them what to wear, how to talk, what to like and dislike. These ignorant lyricists are the slave masters that abuse young minds by whipping the oppression into them and hanging the glorification right on them.”

Glen Palmer, of The Gentlemen’s Standard, a site for distinctive men of colour, does not believe that the younger generation understands blackface, let alone black American history.

“The blackface concept still remains,” he says,“artists play to the lowest, stereotypical denominator and project an imagery that mainstream, white America believes people of color to be. The stereotypes have changed a little, as “bling” has been introduced into the equation, but the foundation is still there. Ignorant. Hyper-sexualized. Violent.”

It is alarming that young black men allow themselves to be molded into an antiquated stereotype via Hip-Hop, as is their frenzy to prove their manhood – the brand of masculinity devised by white, Judeo-Christian men.

Masculinity

In Michael Kimmel’s lecture, he explains the traditional pillars of manhood that originated in the mid-20th century that has left millions of men unable to feel, positively express themselves, and be genuine.

  1. “No sissy stuff.” In western patriarchal culture, anything associated with the feminine is a sign of weakness (an apparent cardinal sin). In Hip-Hop, rap artists often call each other out and accuse each other of weakness in their rhymes, using offensive language like “bitch nigga”,  keeping rivalries and feuds alive, and feeding the aggression that hip hop demands.
  2. “Be a big wheel.” Wealth, power, and status equals money, ice (bling), and sex in Hip-Hop culture – the spoils of white patriarchy.
  3. “Be a sturdy oak. Be reliable in a crisis/become an unfeeling inanimate object”. Glen suggested I watch Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes, an excellent documentary by Byron Hurt. Hurt discusses the projected hardness in Hip-Hop that is ego-driven and encourages men to assert themselves. This  hardness “denies men their own frailty”, and exposes their masculine insecurities, camouflaged by violence, dominance, misogyny, and homophobia.
  4. “Give ‘em hell.”  Be daring, be aggressive, be violent. The projected Hip-Hop image encourages men to threaten and kill each other, abuse women, and endanger and intimidate those around them.

The way Hip-Hop has nestled into these dated (and very unnatural) masculine expectations is startling, but as Brandon says, young black men “lack positive self-identity or  positive identity development, and look for it in other forms like commercial Hip-Hop music. The images created by these artists is merely for entertainment but Black Boys do not see it that way. They see these images as reality…a reality they want to live and embody.”

Little white lies

The scariest concept around all of this stuff is that the Hip-Hop image is false.

The caricature of the rough, tough, dangerous gangsta rapper is projected by profit-generating record labels, run by white men in suits who decide who gets signed, and who they can peddle the blackface image to (largely young white men – 70% of Hip-Hop is consumed by this group).

In When Posing Goes Wrong: Ricky Rozay is not about that life, the author outs rap artist, Rick Ross, about the lies he’s been living. Black youth hears music about drug dealing, though many of them “have never even sold candy”, toting guns and murdering, though “a good number of us have never even fired a gun and for sure never killed anyone.

“Our youth listen to these lyrics from these beloved entertainers and take it as gospel. Many take the glorified side of street life as reality and they do not see the dangerous reality until it is too late.”

A new code of masculinity

In researching and writing for this post,  I’ve processed a lot of information and believe I have witnessed the ultimate in insult – the diminishing of human potential. We desperately need a new, healthy, positive definition of masculinity for young men and boys that promotes among other things, self-respect and respect for others.

What is and was needed is a vision of masculinity where self-esteem and self-love of one’s unique being forms the basis of identity. Cultures of domination attack self-esteem, replacing it with a notion that we derive our sense of being from dominion over another. Patriarchal masculinity teaches men that their sense of self and identity, their reason for being, resides in their capacity to dominate others.

– bell hooks, African-American feminist

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Clothing, costume, identity, and lack thereof

16 Dec

Clothing is a wonderful thing.  Clothing is a wonderful palette with many options to play with like colour, garment cut, and fabric texture. One of my favourite things to do is get dressed and express myself through my clothing. For me, clothing and dressing is a joy.

Clothing is also heavy with significance and symbolism. Sure, we might need clothing to protect us, but as humans, we love to add meaning to things that have no meaning, and so the costume – and the identity wrapped within it, is born.

In The Language of Clothes, Alison Lurie states that through time, humans have silently communicated with one another through the language of their garb: “Long before I am near enough to talk to you on the street, in a meeting, or at a party, you announce your sex, age, and class to me through what you are wearing [including how you style your hair, decorate your body, and accessorize] – and very possibly give me important information (or misinformation) as to your occupation, origin, personality, opinions, tastes, sexual desires, and current mood.” (AKA the unspoken messages of our visual image.)

If clothing is the thing, costume is the meaning of the thing.

According to Francois Boucher in 20,000 Years of Fashion, “clothing has to do with covering one’s body, and costume with the choice of a particular form of garment for a particular use.” Clothing is more of a survival tactic and relies on textile manufacture and the technology of the time period; it is utilitarian, protective, and worn out of necessity.

Clothing protects us from the elements and from injury, and without it, humanity would not have flourished – nude humans could not survive cold climates we would probably all live close to the equator. Without clothing, playing sports would be suicide sans protective cups and shin guards. There is a good chance that we all may live in grass huts for want of steel-toed boots that protect our construction workers during the building process.

Costume, on the other hand, “reflects social factors such as religious beliefs, magic, aesthetics, personal status, the wish to be distinguished from or to emulate one’s fellows,” Boucher says, adding that “costume helps inspire fear or impose authority” – think warrior’s face paint and horned helmets to scare the opposing side in battle.

“In later times,” he continues, “professional or administrative costume has been devised to distinguish the wearer and to express personal or delegated authority” – think lawyer’s robes, a police uniform, a  business suit, or a surgeon’s scrubs.

We rely on visual cues to tell us who (we think) people are and illustrate who we are as individuals, but if those cues are taken away, what are we left with?

Uniforms: the removal of individuality

People looking uniform in their uniforms may be pleasing to the eye, but Lurie says that no matter what sort of uniform is worn, “military, civil or religious; the outfit of a general, a postman, a nun, a butler, a football player or a waitress – to put on such livery is to give up one’s right to act as an individual.”

Let’s take the military as our example. The military strips people of their identity by removing the visual cues that make them up, shaving their heads, and dressing them in identical costumes, to turn them into unquestioning, order-following soldiers. In the military, there are no individuals, only teams of soldiers in crew cuts.

The first thing to go when one enters the military is the hair. Hair, Sampson’s strength and our crowning glory, has a lot of ego and identity wrapped up into it, and it is the first sacrifice of obedience and submission to the armed forces. We are very attached to our hair, and I expect that having one’s head shaved must reduce the sense of self to some degree, though a soldier must feel solace being in the company of others who look just like he does.

Have a look at Elvis Presley preparing for the army – he seems to take it in stride, but then again, no one can deny his identity – he’s Elvis.

Next, your clothing is taken away and replaced with a uniform, identical to the rest in your company. No more cues as to who you are or what you stand for as an individual – you are now in a system that wants you to focus your whole being on your job. Military people do everything together, they live together, eat together, and train together. It seems that the military turns individuals into multi-person machines set on particular orders. Indeed, Lurie writes that the “uniform acts as a sign that we need not and should not treat someone as a human being, and that they need not and should not treat us as one.”

Ooh! I don’t like that much. I know that wearing a uniform is right for some people, but that doesn’t mean that I understand it. I’m very supportive of exploring one’s own identity and individuality – we are all different from each other and anyone who has or will be, so I’m not sure what drives people to sign away their individuality and look like everyone else.

Strip search

Our clothing gives us a sense of modest security and shields our vulnerability; there is confidence in clothing. But what happens when our clothing is forcibly removed? CBC’s The Current reported about strip searches this week, stating the Supreme Court of Canada’s 2001 decision prohibiting strip searches as a routine police practise, and allowing these searches only out of clear necessity or in emergency situations, with the permission of a supervisor, and performed by same-sex officers.

David Tanovich, the lawyer representing Ian Golden, a black man who was striped searched in a downtown Toronto restaurant in 2001, states that strip search practises by Toronto police are a “highly intrusive method of police intimidation.” The African-Canadian legal clinic got involved in the case, identifying Golden’s treatment as a “public lynching”.

Earlier that year, 69 year old Rosie Schwartz attended a peaceful protest in Toronto and was arrested and strip searched by Toronto police after she was told she was trespassing. She describes the strip search experience as a traumatic and demeaning assault, and says “I felt like nothing.” She sued the police in small claims court for unlawful arrest and illegal search and won.

Despite the Supreme Court ruling, strip searches are still performed and have come into the spotlight again with the recent trial of the 2008 strip search of Stacy Bonds by Ottawa police. Ms Bonds, arrested without reason, was not only roughed up by four Ottawa police, but her shirt and bra were cut off with scissors by the officers. Bonds described her treatment by police as “verbal and mental rape”. The Ottawa Citizen reports that the case against Bonds was halted by the judge who found the Ottawa police’s arrest of Bonds unlawful and called her subsequent treatment in the cells and the strip search a “travesty” and an “indignity.”

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What we wear protects us, keeps our modesty in check, enhances or diminishes body features, operates as our billboard, and is a part of who we are. When it is removed and replaced with a uniform, we become a different person, and when it is removed by force, it can be horribly traumatic and humiliating.

Without clothing, we are physically and emotionally unprotected. Without the identity cues of costume, we have little opportunity to visually express ourselves and show who we are. Without clothing and the meanings we associate with clothing, who would you be?