Here’s a random creepy fact: one of the tunes that float out of ice cream trucks all summer is a racist song called “Nigger Love a Watermelon Ha! Ha! Ha!,” first recorded 1916 or before. Have a listen.
During slavery, the African population’s supposed taste for watermelon was used to suggest that they were stupid. As I wrote in an earlier post:
…defenders of slavery used the watermelon as a symbol of simplicity. African Americans, the argument went, were happy as slaves. They didn’t need the complicated responsibilities of freedom; they just needed some shade and a cool, delicious treat.
Googling around, I learned almost nothing about the song. It seems clear that it’s not an inside joke between Black people, making fun of the stereotype. Instead, it’s an earnest, intended-to-be-humorous song meant to make fun of Black people. But I could find little contextualizing information. I also don’t know if the tune was also set to other lyrics that were or weren’t racist.
Still, the fact that the tune is an ice cream truck classic reveals how our racist history is still part and parcel of our everyday lives.
A slideshow of members of the punk scene in Burma, however, offers another version of cultural appropriation. Their fashion is clearly inspired by the punk scenes of Britain and the U.S., which started in the 1970s.
Accordingly to an interview with Ko Gyi at Vice and an article at Spiegel Online, some members of the sub-culture believe themselves to be rebelling against an oppressive state, others are interested in “non-political anarchism.” While their music has to pass through state censors, they are talented in pushing their lyrics right up to the limit and deft in using metaphor to get their point across.
This is a fully different kind of appropriation, the kind that is about fighting the establishment, not spicing it up with “colorful” bits of marginalized groups. It is more akin to feminists and gay liberation activists borrowing the tactics of the civil rights movement. Alexander Dluzak writes:
In Burma, punk is far more than just a superficial copy of its Western counterpart. Here, what is probably the most rebellious of all subcultures in the Southeast Asian country is going up against one of the world’s most authoritarian regimes.
Cultures can borrow from one another, then, in ways that both empower and disempower. It will be fascinating to see if this particular appropriation can shape the future of Burma.
We’ve been covering the saga of Russian protest punk group Pussy Riot for over a year now. The feminist collective performed guerrilla musical protests around Russia against Vladimir Putin. One in particular, in a church, ended with members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina sentenced to two years imprisonment for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”. The human rights implications of this sentence attracted much worldwide attention, with Amnesty International and celebrities like Sting, Yoko Ono and Madonna speaking out for the women.
Which is what makes this video by Blush lingerie an intriguing conundrum. While it legitimately promotes the freepussyriot.org fundraising site to help the women, it is also promoting a product using a woman’s sexuality as the bait:
On the first anniversary of the Pussy Riot concert in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, the Berlin based Lingerie label blush supports the free pussy riot movement with a sexy protest march through icy Moscow (-15° C). Support Freepussyriot.org!
This is no Femen action, in which women’s bodies become weapons of protest. It is a commercial for sexy underwear that pays for its appropriation of a radical feminist cause by directing people to that cause.
Is this irony?
Tom Megginson is a Creative Director at Acart Communications, a Canadian Social Issues Marketing agency. He is a specialist in social marketing, cause marketing, and corporate social responsibility. You can follow Tom at workthatmatters.blogspot.com.
Cross-posted at Racialicious.The Harlem Shake is a syncopated dance form that first appeared on the New York hip-hop scene in the early 1980s. Here is what it looks like:
In 2012 music producer Baueer created an electronic dance tune, unfortunately calling it The Harlem Shake. Baueer’s song inspired an Internet meme in which people rhythmlessly shake their upper bodies and grind their hips in a tasteless perversion of the original dance. For example:
The irony of an African-American cultural relic being white-washed to the point where other people of color perform its bastardized version is not lost, and this takes on a whole new level as teams with majority African-American members such as the Miami Heat and Denver Nuggets add to the fake Shake canon. Personally, I’ve been “video bombing” anyone I see incorrectly referring to the new version as the Harlem Shake with this:
A major problematic of this meme is that it takes an already marginalized group in America, one whose history and culture has often been appropriated and co-opted in fetishistic ways by the white majority, and makes a mockery of not just them, but an entire dance tradition. This is not lost on residents of Harlem, many of whom recognize cultural appropriation and malrepresentation when they see it:
In spite of a number of calls online from African-American writers, artists, scholars and supporters like myself to bring attention to the real Harlem Shake, every day there is instead a new group adding to the misappropriated dance. When you Google “The Harlem Shake” you must scroll through pages before you reach any posts about the actual hip-hop tradition.
This literal erasure of black culture and its replacement with an absurdist movement and meme needs to be considered in light of African-American oppression and institutionalized racism in the United States. Supplanting the sinuous artistry of the Harlem Shake with frenetic styleless arm flailing and hip thrusting is yet another brick in a grand wall of symbolic and structural violence that further relegates an entire culture to the margins, both on and offline.
As the Harlem residents said in response to the meme: “Stop that shit.”
Over at Feministing, Maya Dusenbery made a great observation about the conservative response to Beyoncé’s Super Bowl halftime show. Conservatives widely criticized her for sexually objectifying herself. She made her “sex appeal the main attraction,” said one commentator, who said that Beyoncé “humping the stage and flashing her lady bits to the camera” made her “sad.” Another said that her performance was “tasteless and unedifying.”
Dusenbery notes that the definition of sexual objectification is the reduction of a person to their sex appeal only. And, ironically, this is what the conservative commentators did to Beyoncé, not something she did to herself. Sexual objectification is not found in a person’s clothing choices or dance moves; instead:
[Objectification is] watching Beyoncé’s show — where she demonstrated enormous professional skill by singing live, with an awesome all-women band I might add, while dancing her ass off in front of millions of people — and not being able to see anything besides her sexy outfit.
Indeed, these conservative commentators are arguing that Beyoncé’s talent can only be fully be appreciated in the absence of sex appeal (whatever that might look like). And that is the problem. Dusenbery continues:
These commentators reflect a “culture in which too many people seem to find it difficult to understand that it is possible to simultaneously find a woman sexually attractive and treat her like a full human being deserving of basic respect.”
Right on. To me, Beyoncé’s performance — along with those of her band mates and fellow dancers and singers — embodied strength and confidence; the pleasure of being comfortable in one’s own skin and the ability to use your body to tell a story; and the power that comes from being admired for the talents you’ve worked so hard to cultivate. I don’t see how you could watch this and only see a sexual object:
Hip-hop music is frequently described as violent and anti-law enforcement, with the implication that its artists glorify criminality. A new content analysis subtitled “Hip-Hop Artists’ Perceptions of Criminal Justice“, by criminologists Kevin Steinmetz and Howard Henderson, challenge this conclusion.
After an analysis of a random sample of hip-hop songs released on platinum-selling albums between 2000 and 2010, Steinmetz and Henderson concluded that the main law enforcement-related themes in hip-hop are not pleasure and pride in aggressive and criminal acts, but the unfairness of the criminal justice system and the powerlessness felt by those targeted by it.
Lyrics about law enforcement, for example, frequently portrayed cops as predators exercising an illegitimate power. Imprisonment, likewise, was blamed for weakening familial and community relationships and described a modern method of oppression.
Their analysis refutes the idea that hip-hop performers are embracing negative stereotypes of African American men in order to sell albums. Instead, it suggests that the genre retains the politicized messages that it was born with.
Steinmetz and Henderson offer Tupac’s “Crooked Nigga Too” (2004) as an example of a rap that emphasizes how urban Black men are treated unfairly by police.
Yo, why I got beef with police?
Ain’t that a bitch that motherfuckers got a beef with me
They make it hard for me to sleep
I wake up at the slightest peep, and my sheets are three feet deep.
The authors explain:
Police action perceived as hostile and unfair engenders an equally hostile and indignant response from Tupac, indicating a tremendous amount of disrespect for the police.
Likewise, Jay-Z, in “Pray” (2007), raps about cops who keep drugs confiscated from a dealer, emphasizing a “power dynamic in which the dealer was unfairly taken advantage of but was unable to seek redress”:
The same BM [‘‘big mover’’—a drug dealer] is pulled over by the boys dressed blue
they had their guns drawn screaming, “just move or is there something else you suggest we can do?”
He made his way to the trunk
opened it like, “huh?”
A treasure chest was removed
cops said he’ll be back next monthwhat we call corrupt, he calls payin’ dues
Henderson offers Jay-Z’s “Minority Report” as a great overall example:
As a sociologist who happens to DJ — or is that the other way around? — I’m always curious to see how DJing is depicted in popular culture and advertising. Ever since the 1970s, when the disco craze helped push the prominence of DJs into the public realm, disc jockeys have become iconic symbols of nightlife culture. Within the milieu of the dance floor, DJs serve as what Sarah Thornton once described as ”orchestrators of a ‘living’ communal experience.”
As such, the image of the DJ standing behind a pair of turntables has become ripe for appropriation by liquor and cigarette companies in particular. For them, especially in print ads, the DJ serves as a visual shorthand for any number of values they want their product associated with: culturally hip/cool, entertainment/musical mavens, the source of good times, etc. However, when it comes to that shorthand, this Smirnoff ad from last summer may have come up just a little too short.
At first glance, this image of a DJ working the turntables, with a cleavage-baring admirer looking on, seems uncomplicated: Smirnoff promises a fun, sexy time. However, a closer examination of the mise en scéne yields some instant problems.
There are no records on the turntables.
There’s not a mat on the turntables. Especially in a nightclub setting, DJs always use felt mats that sit between the platter and record. This not only protects the vinyl surface from the platter but by reducing friction between the record and platter, the DJ can “slip” a record into play at just the right moment. Hence, felt mats are called “slip mats.” In short, it’s very strange to see a turntable without a slip mat.
There’s no needle on the turntable arm. Therefore, even if they had bothered to put records on the turntables, Mr. Hip DJ wouldn’t have been able to actually play them.
There’s no visible DJ mixer. The mixer is absolutely crucial, allowing the DJ to switch between two audio sources, i.e. what makes “disc jockeying” possible to begin with. Normally, the mixer would sit between the two turntables so its absence in the image is conspicuous.
The gesture — hands posed over both turntables — doesn’t make sense; it’s not a pose that any DJ would ever employ. Normally, you would have one hand on a turntable, the other hand working the mixer but no nightclub DJ would be manipulating both turntables, simultaneously. He looks like he’s trying to play bongos. (A scratch DJ, aka turntablist, may work both turntables for certain techniques but scratch DJs aren’t typically nightclub DJs – hard to dance to someone scratching).
When this ad made its rounds on social media, theories were bandied about to explain just what went wrong in this ad. The most plausible explanation is that the Smirnoff campaign selected a stock image hastily but that still opens up the question of how no one, from the original photographer, to the people in the image, to the people working on the Smirnoff ad itself, seemed to realize just how ridiculous this image was. It’d be akin to a car ad where someone is pretending to drive a car… from the backseat. With the wheels missing. And facing the wrong direction.
Of course, the vast majority of people know what driving a car is supposed to look like. One conclusion one might draw from the Smirnoff ad is that while the basic image of a DJ has some resonance in the public imagination, as a practice/craft, DJing isn’t actually well-understood at all.
Dr. Oliver Wang is an associate professor of sociology at Cal State Long Beach. He contributes regularly on music and culture for NPR’s All Things Considered, KPCC’s Take Two, the LA Times, and KCET’s ArtBound. He also writes the audioblog Soul-Sides.com.
Cross-posted at Racialicious. Sociologist Jooyoung Lee is writing what sounds like a truly fascinating book. Titled Blowing Up: Rap Dreams in LA, it follows a series of young Black men who are trying to make it as rappers. ”Together,” Lee writes, “their stories show how rapping — and Hip Hop culture more generally — transform the social worlds of urban poor black youths.”
The video below gives us a taste of his findings. In it, he’s asked why he thinks rappers are “so maligned in our culture.” He explains that it’s because people often “take violent and misogynistic lyrics” literally. Doing so, however, is to misunderstand “how the creative process works.” He goes on to explain how one of the men he studied was pressured by a music label to cultivate an image that conformed to stereotypes of young, urban Black men.