For most of my life, I've been an avid lover of hip-hop.
More specifically, the rhetoric behind the trap music sub-genre has reverberated many of my own mantras. Yes, I am a feminist and no, I am not a drug dealer. However, the culture is much deeper than what meets the eye and ear at the surface.
Trap music speaks to those of us who were not afforded the luxury of being born with a silver spoon in our mouths, yet so desperately craved to make something else shake. It offers hope to those seeking to escape the symptoms of sociological, psychological and economic marginalization while allowing us to practice self-expression — as that's often the only thing we truly have ownership over.
From the super chill rhythm, melodic hook and whimsical wordplay to the moody percussion, trap music plays a supporting role in the black free-thinker’s ascension to freedom, fame and financial stability. Growing up in the United States’ thousands of inner cities, public housing projects, wards or boroughs once provided ample room for aspiring to achieve something ‘higher’ than their familiar socioeconomic strata. However, once gentrification comes into play, it becomes a whole new song.
Trap artists openly speak about past struggles while on the come up, attributing much of their success to the neighborhoods they were raised in. Now, many popular zip codes have become grounds for what policy makers call "urban rehabilitation." An area that was created to keep ex-slaves away from the non-black, property-owning population now houses high-rise condominiums, a Starbucks and a yoga studio.
I’ve lived in and visited many major cities in the U.S., witnessing firsthand the rapid growth of gentrification. Social polarization is the very foundation from which trap music arose; now the genre’s artists and fans have nothing to truly call home. I listen to my favorite artists proclaim their love for a neighborhood that was, at one point in time, a glorious Mecca for black culture.
Any sign of an Afrocentric population that learned to make do with the socio-economic margins that they were dealt by the U.S. government is deteriorating faster than our decades-long neglected apartment complexes. Spatial restructuring is forcing minority people and small black-owned business owners out of the very neighborhoods we helped build. As if the appropriation of our culture was not enough, the exploitation of our community epicenters is yet another thing stolen from the grip of underprivileged minority communities in America. What I can hope, as a lover of hip-hop and trap music, is that the artists and fans come together to keep the movement alive—despite the constant attempts of cultural disenfranchisement.
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Although you might not realize it, Portlandia has failed you.
The hit IFC-comedy scores laughs about everything from biking and hipsters to extreme localism and weird bookstores. Although calling Portland white is akin to saying it rains there (duh), failing to address the elephant in the room is anything but funny. We ain’t mad at Fred and Carrie because some of these events and groups are fairly new, but here are six of the blackest things the show didn’t spoof:
Partners In Diversity organizes the quarterly Say Hey! event series, which attracts a multicultural crowd — something visually unlike anything you’ve seen on Portlandia. They literally welcome new black people to Portland and shower you with gifts, drinks, food, drinks, praise (maybe an exaggeration... and did I mention drinks?) in hopes that you’ll stay a while.
Black Investment Consortium for Economic Progress
BICEP is a group of community leaders interested in augmenting Portland’s black community through commercial real estate investment, opportunities and revitalization. BICEP has developed the Soul District (yessss!), a neighborhood reclamation project that will feature black-owned businesses. Take that, gentrification!
Da Lab is dedicated to changing the narrative of black love in Portland by gathering black singles and couples for healing, connection, love and kinship through events, group outings + dinners, workshops and more. You WILL leave with a new friend or a (potential) boothang.
Hands Up is a powerful series of seven monologues commissioned by The New Black Fest in response to the Mike Brown and John Crawford shootings, among others. The August Wilson Red Door Project, whose mission is to change the racial ecology of Portland through the arts, puts on the monologues and facilitates a talkback after each show. Gripping perspectives, informational and all-the-feels inducing; did I mention that all the playwrights and actors are black?
Young, Gifted, and Black/Brown
In their own words, “Y.G.B is more than just a party it's a community. We come together to get down, celebrate each other and honor all things YOUNG, GIFTED and BLACK.” This year-old collective has created a safe and welcoming space for black and brown people centered around music and social events. They’re taking it to the next level with a showcase at PICA’s (Portland Institute for Contemporary Art) Time-Based Art Festival.
Like Shark Tank? If so, you’ll love Pitch Black even more. This pitch event features black entrepreneurs, and the crowd decides the winners. Black folks, investors, founders and politicians all in the same room + deals on deals and ca$h shmoney!
What other awesome things are happening in Portland that shows like Portlandia overlook? Let us know in the comments below!
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Stephanie is a recovering lawyer turned life coach, business consultant and matchmaker from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She co-founded Da Lab, a safe space dedicated to changing the narrative of black love in Portland. Enthusiastically inconsistent; continually progressing. Follow Stephanie on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and at her...
Another video. Another black person lying dead in the street. Another police officer, nameless, faceless, shouting into radios, “he’s dead.” A mother feels a pang in her stomach, her ears ring a sound she’ll never hear again. Charlotte, North Carolina. Ferguson, Missouri. Tulsa, Oklahoma. Baton Rouge, Louisiana. And those are just the ones that make the news. The Washington Post (the paper of Watergate) keeps a running tab on who police are shooting. It seems they’re shooting more and more. And they’re fearing more than ever, too.
There have been days of protesting in Charlotte. People are fed-up. They’re tired. Day one ended in bloodshed after a man shot a protester in the head. Point blank. The crowd erupted. Social media followed suit. First, we heard that a protester shot his activist kin. Then, that it was the police. Now, finally, the truth: an assailant opened fire on Justin Carr setting off a tidal wave of rioting. The response was deafening, as usual.
What's going on
The violence feels senseless. The reactions to black people doing completely ordinary things seem absurd at best. And King Mez, a North Carolina emcee on the rise, agrees. “Unless something comes out that’s firm, hard evidence, it’s hard to pinpoint what’s actually going on,” he stated. “It doesn’t feel right to me. Especially since it’s a recurring theme.” Such a recurring theme, in fact, that the political right has readily jumped to the fantastical idea that the “mainstream media” is race-baiting, so ready liberals are to suit up for a racial holy war. How arbitrary those folks would rather do some magical thinking than deal with the reality: African-Americans, Latinos, and other POC are disproportionately affected by policing strategies that value escalation.
“That’s the thing that frustrates me, too,” says Mez. “People are always talking to us like we’re crazy like we’re supposed to be beyond this. I don’t even see how that makes any sense. We’re still dealing with this to this day.” His voice rises and falls in waves. You can feel the tension in it. His fear. Fear that all our lives are up for grabs in this free-for-all of a situation. We hit them with #BlackLivesMatter. Some argue that we’re separatists. We hate America. We want this discord, and, most disturbingly, that we deserve it.
The narrative of race
The narrative is a simple one. "Brown people commit the most crime, they argue. Of course, they’re the ones we should watch the closest." But these institutions have given themselves away. For, if you’re watching us as closely as you say you are, then it stands to reason that you could be stacking the deck. Who's watching the folks this media narrative presupposes is not committing a crime? And, the kicker, who is watching you? The examples of oversight are almost too numerous to claim. In June of 2015, an officer approached a young, black woman in a parking lot in Austin, Texas. The resulting exchange went viral. The officer body slammed her and generally acted the fool. She was arrested and placed in the back of another cruiser where she asked the question on everyone’s mind. The officer replied that blacks had “violent tendencies.” He elaborated, “Ninety-nine percent of the time … it is the black community that is being violent. That’s why a lot of white people are afraid. And I don’t blame them.”
I do. These narratives are costing us our lives. But what King Mez wants to know is where are the artists that are willing to speak out about these issues? “As an artist, I feel like I’m excited to do the things I can do with this art to make things better. But I’m really disappointed in anybody who ain’t using everything they have to make this sh*t better,” he notes. “I’m disappointed in the artists who won’t use their voice.” There are a few that are.
The artful protest
Some of the best musical output this year has been "protest" records. Jamila Woods Heavn and NoName’s Telefone are exuberant, somber redresses to bigotry. Colin Kaepernick’s silent kneeling during the National Anthem inspires both an image of prayer and of defiance. And Charlotte, too, has been artfully protesting. Through curfews and state emergencies, they’ve marched.
Even now that partial viewings of the dashcam and body camera videos of police officers involved in the shooting were released, still they march. Because, despite the rhetoric, protesting is an act of love. It’s a peaceful reminder that people matter. Mez wants to show that, as well. And he understands how hip-hop’s influence can shape the world. “Hip-hop is the most influential culture in the world. Even pop music sounds like hip-hop. Hip-hop culture influences the whole world. All we have to do to be together, but people’s minds are on so many other things,” says Mez. “It’s so much bigger than me. It’s so much bigger than my career. I’m so passionate about this.” With everything going on in his home state, how else could he be?
The Last Question
Blavity: Is there anything you do for self-care? It can be hard to watch all the media around this stuff.
King Mez: I’m going to be honest with you. It’s hard for me to watch [the videos] all the time. I definitely don’t like to see, but I honestly, in some instances, force myself to watch it. I want to feel those emotions. [That] will directly affect my art, directly affect the way I carry myself and the decisions I choose to make. What a lot of people don’t even realize is at this point all the decisions you make as a black man you’re not just making for you. You’re making them for everyone. You’re making them for the culture. As an artist, it’s not just about you anymore. It’s about everyone.
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I went to a predominantly white university. In fact, I went to one of the whitest universities in the country. It’s a huge, beautiful campus in the middle of Illinois that is known nationwide for its party culture, playing host to the largest college greek system in the world and its Big Ten football team. It’s the kind of school those college bro comedies are based on. With black people only making up about 5 percent of the population, our culture was not the foundation of the educational or social makeup. But that doesn’t mean we were just lost souls trapped in a world of Ugg boots and North Face windbreakers.
My friends who went to HBCU’s are quick to point out that I missed out on an "authentic" black college experience because I went to a PWI. They insist that the strong sense of community and belonging was a direct result of learning amongst their black peers. Some have even suggested that they could never attend a PWI because of the erasure of black culture and community. And that is where I always have to correct them.
I certainly wish I didn’t have to deal with the racist macro- and micro-aggressions my peers and I experienced at our institution of higher learning: Nooses hung in front of our cultural house, fraternities and sororities throwing parties with racist themes and guests in blackface, our events being over-policed, our intelligence questioned, and my peers not understanding why I wore a bonnet as I checked the mailbox. But those experiences did not destroy black culture at the university. In fact, the adversity made our community stronger, more organized, and if we’re being honest, kind of lit.
Even at a school that was the pinnacle of whiteness, I still had a black college experience.
First, consider the logistics. I mentioned the school I went to was only 5 percent black. But the total population of the university was 46,000. With more than 2,300 black folks, there were more of us at my PWI than some HBCUs entire populations - including Morehouse, Spelman, Dillard and Fisk. These demographics are not uncommon for many black students who attend public, in-state universities that are predominantly white. Many of us transitioned into those colleges from all-black high schools and communities. And as the saying goes: You can take us out the hood but you can’t take the hood out of us.
Chicken and spades parties were official events held by members of registered student organizations. The entrance steps and patio of the student union, which sat at the head of the main quad, was unofficially called “The Stoop.” And in true black neighborhood fashion, it was the place where we all congregated during the day to discuss racial politics, spill tea, shoot dice or just chill between classes. We held double dutch tournaments. Instead of bake sales we opened temporary candy stores where students could their childhood favorites like Flamin’ Hots with cheese and Frooties.
For homecoming weekend, there was a completely separate lineup of black events for the week that made our small college town look like All-Star weekend. The annual step show competition hosted by our black greeks brought visitors from across the entire Midwest to our campus for the festivities. We were constantly out locally, doing community service, creating, organizing, mentoring and collaborating. We had an equal number of naturalistas and baddies with freshly-installed bundles. The impassioned activists were sometimes on point, but sometimes extra and annoying on our campus, too. We were black… AF.
I know the HBCU debate is serious business for some folks, so let me state for the record that I don’t have a dog in this fight. I see both the pros and the cons of attending an HBCU over a PWI. With the current student debt crisis that unsurprisingly affects black folks disproportionately more, my only advice on selecting a college is: Follow the coin!
But if your concern in choosing a university where you're a minority is that you'll somehow miss out on a college experience that supports your blackness, you might be mistaken.
HBCUs have a rich history that has shaped the story of blackness in this country. They are an important part of black culture that can’t be denied. But I haven’t seen a “List of things you’ll only understand if you went to an HBCU” or “X Types of people you meet at an HBCU” that hasn’t also described my college experience perfectly.
This reinforces what we all know to be true about blackness — it’s resilient.
It stretches across time and space, despite intentions. Just as black culture is still flourishing in a country of anti-black racism and state violence, black culture is alive and well at PWIs, too.
We’d love to hear from you! If you went to a PWI, comment below and tell us what events and traditions kept black culture alive and lit.
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It was his swing — it was always about his swing. There was a bravado in the batter’s box, a swag to the saunter at a time when “swag” wasn’t in our lexicon. The same year I was born, on May 16th, Daryl Strawberry was brought up from the minors and started his first game with the New York Mets. His saunter screamed a certain kind of emblematic Black Power, the one that would be released on a diamond made of grass rather than a street full of protestors, or cell of incarcerated “what ifs." It was the same feeling I got watching Tyson punch, the strength of a hundred broken homes and poverty lines fueling the gloves. I cried when he lost to Buster Douglas. I cried during the Tyson documentary because even with the brutality of past, there was a softness and strong tinge of regret in his speech, the kind that makes us forgive. The Strawberrys, the Rodmans, Goodens, Jordans and Bo Jacksons of the world would come alive with an unbridled, unabashed “F--- it, I’m still here” in eras of slum lords burning down tenements for insurance, displacing thousands upon thousands of black and Latin families in sections of the Bronx, pre-Reaganomics, post-Watts Riots, the failure that would be Boston busing and the crack epidemic.
I was born on January 10th, 1983. I was fortunate enough to have a big brother eight years my senior, one of those big brothers who inadvertently taught you about life and living by living his. He was my cultural hub, and the only thing resembling what could be a father figure and role model other than Heathcliff Huxtable (and we see how that panned out). So naturally, I turned to him for any and everything related to sports, music, and dealing with the opposite sex.
My brother was a die-hard Mets fan.
Littered about our Smurf-colored walls were Daily News, New York Post, News Day clippings, and any other kind of paper you could cop for a quarter at the local newsstand near the bootleg man, near the Petland, on that corner of E. 188th and Creston Ave. in the Bronx in the early '90s. Those clippings, before the days of Instagram, Twitter feeds, Facebook algorithms and 24-hour news cycles, were our food source. Clippings of stolen bases, game-winning homers, shout-outs, “almost there” no-hitters, a sacrifice fly, broken records, line-up changes and trade deadlines. There were also clippings of Hulk Hogan slamming Andre the Giant, and a young me assumed Pay-Per-View meant you would pay the paper people to let you view the World Wrestling Federation telecast we couldn’t watch — me being part of the last contingent of folks in my 4th grade class to get cable in our apartment.
There were clips of Patrick Ewing dunking on everybody before his knees told him slow down. And later, adorning the chipping paint job of the yet-born-again walls, were The Source Biggie interviews and Sports Illustrated covers with John Starks dunking on what seemed to be the whole city of Chicago. There would be clippings of Mark Bavaro, hands in the air, saying all that he could say in Buffalo, and Leonard Marshall running with a pigskin cradled in his giant manpalms recovering a Joe Montana fumble, the fans knowing what that would mean to that team at that time during that game. We got a collect call from our biggest brother from Elmira following Christie’s missed field goal. There would be Vibe covers with Diddy and B.I.G. before it became just Diddy, and Angie Martinez crying on the radio for what would feel like forever, 5-mic album ratings and free posters snagged from the HMV record store my brother worked at.
When we didn’t have much other than our mother and ourselves, we had sports. And we had music.
And somehow, those two things would be and still are synonymous with the experience of struggle that is Ghetto America. This is primarily because, nowadays, professional teams and the athletes that make up the bodies that fill the jerseys (the same bodies that fill clubs and coliseums and venues and stadiums) happen to look like me and the kids I grew up, rapped, played with and around — black. Now, more than any time in the history of entertainment, sports and media, the faces being captured by camera lenses and film crews, those dominating air time and fields and courts and radio look and sound like the America I was raised in.
We opened fire hydrants in the summer because it was hot and humid and water is free in America (unless it has lead in it, then the price tag is equated to slower motor skills, death and a careless government). We played stick ball in front of our buildings and stole milk crates from schools only to cut out the bottoms and screw them into the concrete walls to practice Shawn Kemp-like dunks. Or, when times were harder than most, rounding out wire hangers with our small hands and hanging them over door frames, rolling up college-ruled paper sheets and playing best of seven’s until the downstairs neighbors complained about the shuffling of feet. We’d beat on lunch tables and rap in staircases until our throats numbed and scratched. We’d see crowds of young men and women in a circle and bodies bobbing and swaying to sounds and we’d know what was happening. We still do — the music some version of a glorious lullaby.
These acts of substitution, of placing ourselves in the shoes of the ones we’ve admired and emulated the most, was not unique to the ghettos of America.
But there was a certain kind of magical mystique when the only comfort you had was a tape deck with a Kool G. Rap cassette stuck inside and a Nerf ball because your playground was a crack vial forest with the tops hidden in its grassy parts — the Easter eggs you never asked for. Or when playing outside too late was more than a game of scrimmages, but of life and the depletion of it.
The 1994 New York Knicks squad, the Fab Five squad of C Webb and Jalen Rose, that UNLV Running Rebels squad of Larry Johnson and Greg Anthony were the preeminent leaders of that hodge-podge of black culture. Hip-hop meets Mookie throwing the garbage can through Sal’s Pizzeria meets Illmatic; brash, bald-headed, gold teeth and gold chains, the Pennys and Shaqs, the Ken Griffey Jr.s and Karl Kanis of our youthful existences, would usher in a new dawn for the baggy jean and wheat Timb set . Our rules would be no rules, highlighting the fears of middle America with each mic-dropping, crotch-grabbing, Spalding-crossovering, bat-throwing home-run hitter.
The times have shifted.
The new ones are named LeBron and Durant, Cam and Kendrick. They are our new ambassadors at this witching hour. Carmelo Anthony challenging athletes to do more, Jordan seeing hell freeze over and issuing a statement not involving horrible dad jeans and overpriced sneakers — this is our new normal. The faces have changed, but the stories surrounding the strokes and swishes, the boom-baps and sweat-soaked party halls still glow as they were. And the ghetto will always keep a speaking role in those stories, these stories, our stories, because it always has.
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When I watch The Get Down, I'm in awe of how it shapes the story of a budding New York City subculture built mostly around the energy of poor, black and brown people. That subculture grew into the global hip-hop landscape that exists today. By honestly bringing forth the queer spaces that supported hip-hop in its infancy, The Get Down also shed a light on how important those underground spaces were for young people coming of age and developing a sense of identity.
Even though I wasn’t born until a decade after the events that inspired the show, nearly 800 miles away in Chicago, I can tell you a thing or two about growing up and finding black joy in a city that otherwise makes little room for young, black folks.
During the late '90s and early '00s, the thriving subculture was unfolding in basements, project apartments, skating rinks and community centers all over Chicago’s South and West sides, and eventually all over the black Midwest. Anyplace dark with little-to-no adults, a loud enough speaker and some juke tracks could create the infectious atmosphere that defined my adolescence: The juke party.
What Midwesterners probably think of first when they remember a juke party is the grinding that coupled dance partners did, which was a huge part of the scene. Sure, you can go to any party or club and witness two people grinding on the dance floor. But until you’ve seen the toe-to-ankle-to-knee-to-hip coordination that’s required to juke and the tricks and flips that come with it, you might as well have been watching somebody hit the Carlton.
Yes. It was explicit. It would have made most parents clutch their pearls to witness. I won’t front like juking wasn’t — at times — a fully clothed simulation of a kind of sex more outrageous than any I’ve had as an adult. And I’m also not flexing as if these events were completely outside a context of desire and sexuality. Just like The Get Down, juke parties document the story of a city, its youth, their gender performance and their coming of age. My friends and I were navigating desire and sexuality when just about everything else had been sorted out and decided for us.
Juke parties were the formal courting rituals for those of us who couldn’t afford to be debutantes (and some of us who could, but still liked to bust it open on the weekends). We didn’t reject respectability politics, we flipped them on their head. It was in these spaces that we created and defined ourselves.
But being cute and looking for bae weren’t the only things that happened at juke parties. These parties were the spot for creative expression and showmanship. An emerging circle of guys, and sometimes a few girls, meant that a footwork battle was in the works. This complicated freestyle dance was masculine and often cheered on by a homie holding up the collar of the dancer’s white tee to give the impression that his feet were dangling off the ground. Unofficial bobbing and hip rolling competitions were also in full effect. These required feminine precision but could be pulled off by guys, too. After practicing at home and in your neighborhood for weeks or months, juke parties were where you showed up and showed out with your peers as judges. It was a way to make a name for yourself in your community, an aspiration that many of us had just as Dizzee did as a young tagger.
I remember the feelings of anticipation for an upcoming juke party at the skating rink near my house. I would look at my outfit laid out on the bed three or four times during the day. I would be giddy and anxious with excitement while the hours seemed to drag by. I could expect one of my homegirls to knock on our door attempting to sell a stolen disposable camera so that she could pay her own admission for the festivities. I would stay out of my mother’s way to avoid giving her a reason to say I couldn’t go. I would dance around the house all day to make sure my moves were still in order. It was an escape. Even though I usually dressed comfortably enough to dance and fight, I always felt safe. I never felt more in control, more independent and more free than I did walking onto that dance floor with my homegirls.
For young people today, desire looks like a subtle squint in the eye, a filter that singes the skin with an unnatural glow or a perfect pout in the lips. Admiration and respect are measurable entities, quantified via the amount of likes and heart eye emojis, or an intentional private, direct message on a social network.
Subcultures often become mainstream commodities thanks to the internet. Juke culture was gritty, but it feels sacred to me. I love that the closest you can get to witnessing it is grainy videos with bad sound posted by Wala Cam. With so much black cultural production being credited to the South and the East Coast, this Midwestern girl is happy to say that juking was ours. It was a beautifully explicit mashup of creativity, expression and connectivity. I carry both nostalgia for it and a yearning for the kids I’ll have one day to have a similar space that will make me sick with worry about what they’re doing, but grateful that they can get down, too.
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Jay Z, Amar'e Stoudemire and Pharrell Williams are just a few of the recognizable names that trust their fades to New Jersey barber, Johnny "Hollywood" Castellanos. When it comes to that crispy cut and clean line-up, labeling Hollywood as a barber is like describing Frank Ocean as a singer — it's just deeper than that.
In his newly released documentary, The Fade, London filmmaker Andy Mundy-Castle captures the cultural importance of the black barbershop as he follows four barbers on three continents, revealing the universal importance of barbering in black communities across the globe.
Check out the trailer below for the feature length documentary now available on Vimeo demand.
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There's so much about Africa and its people that one can draw inspiration from. With Twitter hashtags like #IfAfricaWasABar and African philosophies like Ubuntu being shared and talked about on global platforms, there's so much culture to embrace. Africa is ever-shifting, and there are so many narratives within it to be shared. These TED Talks lend ears to emerging voices. The speakers share their individual experiences, talk solutions to widespread problems faced by the continent as a whole, offer encouraging words by way of African philosophy, and remind us that we have the power to define our experiences in an effort to shift the culture. Check them out below!
Siyanda Mohutsiwa: How young Africans found a voice on Twitter
Boyd Varty: What I learned from Nelson Mandela
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: The danger of a single story
Achenyo Idachaba: How I turned a deadly plant into a thriving business
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Nothing would have made 16-year-old hip-hop-head version of me run away screaming for a safety only the ghost of Marcus Garvey could provide more than the sounds of banjo. But now, years later, I spend an unreasonable amount of time in a rocking chair with a 'jo pickin', grinnin' and feeling super black about it all.
Seem like a strange sentiment? The well-known scene from Deliverance (no, not that scene, this scene) and decades of hillbilly showmanship might agree with you. But the banjo is much older than all of this.
Africa, or rather African slaves, gave America the banjo.
These roots to the banjo are known to seasoned pickers. Blea Fleck, amazing banjo player and lifelong white man, filmed a documentary in 2008 titled Throw Down Your Heart, in which he journeyed to Africa in search of the banjo’s origins.
“I thought it was important for people to realize where the banjo comes from because it’s been associated so much with the white southern stereotype,” Fleck said in his documentary, “A lot of people in the United States don’t realize the banjo is an African instrument.”
In a handful of early paintings, black folk were illustrated picking the banjo as a part of an intimate culture. Notable examples include The Old Plantation by John Rose in the late 1700s and Henry Ossawa Tanner’s The Banjo Lesson in 1893. In 1781, Thomas Jefferson wrote about slaves’ relation to the banjo on his own plantation. Jefferson stated that, “the instrument proper to them is the Banjar, which they brought hither from Africa."
Up until the 19th century, the Banjo was exclusively black as hell. Unfortunately, the banjo was so black that it ended up as a prop in racist Minstrel shows to exaggerate black culture for white entertainment. Aside from a handful of pickers such as Gus Cannon, early blues players settled for guitars to separate their music from the laughed at tunes of Minstrel theatre. Overtime, the banjo was phased out completely from popular black music, but continued on as a fundamental instrument in the folk tunes of poor folk, most notably in the South.
But just because the banjo was black doesn’t answer why it is black.
Common narratives of where “black culture” originated, or what it is now, tend to start from a misnomer. It's assumed slaves of the Americas had no culture other than the fragments gained from observing white folks in the big house. This is aggravatingly false, and a main contender of why we’ve lost so much history as a community.
African slaves brought artistic symbols and imaginative storytelling. They brought traditions, dialects and communication full of wit. Clever similes and put-downs didn’t start with Sanford and Son, our contemporary flavorful language has a significant past. For example, in The Art of Rap, KRS-one explains the origin of rap battling and the tradition of “The Dozen,” done by slaves throwing around put-downs at the auction block.
But arguably above anything else, Africans brought musical traditions that have penetrated centuries of Americana.
Blues, jazz, spirituals, rock 'n' roll, hip-hop, reggae and ska all have elements from the rhythmic thread of the African tradition, and yes, even banjo.
Black historical significance is often downplayed in a fit of what Editor-in-chief of Very Smart Brothas, writer of supa-black stuff and all-around great modern cultural observer, Damon Young describes as “white tears.” According to Young, white tears is a “phrase to describe what happens when certain types of white people either complain about a nonexistent racial injustice or are upset by a non-white person’s success at the expense of a white person.”
Take, for instance, Black History Month, a time when mainstream culture regurgitates the same five or so historical figures of blackness in its self-righteous attempt at diversifying the common understanding of America’s past. I’m not a meteorologist, but my hunch is that more white tears fall in February than any other time of the year. For a convoluted number of reasons, white folk hold onto whiteness for dear life as if somehow all white contributions to society will be replaced in every textbook by black faces.
In February and beyond, there’s a continuous attempt to downplay any lingering impacts of racially-motivated atrocities while also remaining annoyed by anything to do with “black pride.” Even when unintentional, American culture tends to forget the fruitful blackness of its past, and antagonists claim a war on Whites when simply discussing the existence of black contribution.
It's in producing white tears that the banjo becomes black again.
Including the banjo as a hallmark in black contribution to America would mean acknowledging yet another occurrence of cultural and historical suppression. It’s an example of yet another time we were forgotten about and not included in the peachy history of American development. All the while, the uneasy conservatives of the country will claim that adding a little color to the banjo’s history is another attempt to replace white history with black history.
Oddly enough, the banjo is the perfect example of our history. This is an instrument that helped construct songs of plantation life as well as the coal mine. The banjo has been held by the enslaved and the American Victorian. It’s as American as apple pie and fried chicken. There’s room for everyone, no matter how uncomfortable the history lesson might feel.
Taking back one’s stolen history from exploitation and exclusion means a win for a deeper cultural identity.
The more of our roots we connect with, the more we learn about how we became our present selves. For so long, the black American story began from slave ports, when in reality, there are elements of common culture even today evident of a distant and elaborate past. The African diaspora exceeds the marginalized box black culture is so often shoved into.
Contemporary musicians such as Dom Flemons, The Carolina Chocolate Drops and Valerie June have pushed against the confines of what culture allows of blackness. Every day, as we gain more of our whole identity in a historical context, we destroy the barriers of what blackness should or can be.
“African-American kids and old folks have no problem with our music,” stated former Carolina Chocolate Drops musician Don Flemons in the book Banjo Camp!, “It’s the ones in between who aren’t that far out of the country and are just making it in urban culture who say, ‘What do you want to play that kind of music for?’”
Picking banjo serves as my little way of taking back a piece of black history.
As my fingers pluck and knock against the strings, I imagine distant relatives doing the same, and I can’t help but feel an inner connection to something far greater than myself. Am I the Nas of banjo playing? Not even close. Escobar status is far outside of my abilities. But, can I play songs like those my ancestors picked more than 200 years ago with sounds of white tears falling like raindrops in the foreground? Damn right.
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