Thursday, February 18, 2010

White Boy

Watched an interesting flick. Blacking Up by Robert A. Clift.

I loved seeing M1 from Dead Prez talk about white rappers and seeing the parallels drawn between certain white artists and minstrel shows back in the day. There were great perspectives from all over the spectrum, from Chuck D to the president of the Al Jolsen Fan Club. There were also some horrendous examples of exploitative commercialism. It barely scratched the surface of how big media has done that to the rap industry from day one, however. Real hip hop has always been underground and on the streets. Real music of any genre, too. Most commercially successful music is trash. Almost anything tailored for the masses just aint gonna fit me. I am a prissy bitch when it comes to culture. I like good art, good music, good coffee, damn it.

The film brought up lots of good questions without trying to answer them for the viewer. This idea of modern day minstrel shows without the makeup strikes a chord with me when I hear white (or Jewish) reggae artists, particularly the ones who sing in an accent adopted only for the mic. It is as unnerving to me as hearing garage bands from Tulsa go British when they try to sing their punk rock. Now, with some kid like Collie Budz who is white as the day I was born but is a native of the Bahamas, his accent is as real as his sunburn on hot days. Great. But when I read in the bio that this singer or that rapper is from Toronto, and then I hear the voice of someone from South Bronx or Ocho Rios...

Now, vocabulary? That is a different thing entirely. The English language is in constant evolution and so adding to your vocabulary phrases from outside your neighborhood is just fine with me. That is just natural and in fact, distinctly American. But when you have to put on a pseudo accent to make the music work, then clearly there is something broken with your music. Why can't you sing your songs about Ras Tafari in your own accent? If you did, I would listen. If you are singing hardcore punk rock and you are from Orange County, then go with it. TSOL did and they were bad ass. Even Sublime did the music they liked but didn't try to front. They laid down reggae lines and went over them with their white boy voices and it was great. It wasn't Jamaican reggae, it was their own interpretation.

Even more grating to me is going to reggae shows and seeing some white dread who can't smile. The pressure on the outside is as high as it is on the inside so the poor dude cannot relax and enjoy himself. Folks like this are battling to show that they are the real deal. But if you have to fight to show you are real, maybe there is something telling in that. Forget trying to get people to see how real you are and just live your life. They can't enjoy themselves at shows because their persona has become a lead mask. Instead they should take lead from people like Ras Elliot, who though a devout Rasta doesn't try to fake his lineage. He speaks in an east coast accent because he is from the east coast and he keeps it real. He will reason with you but not in a borrowed voice. And that is why he gets lots of respect at home and in Jamaica.

People have come at me with that accusation in the past. That I want to be black because I paint a lot of black people. One lady asked me why I didn't paint my own kind. I talked with her for a while and she ended up buying art. She even recently looked me up to buy a piece after a number of years. I knew why she was asking. But the thing I am doing is not a black thing. I am not taking on the painting styles of a certain black way of doing art. I just paint what I like. And I am a rebel. Are you gonna tell me I can't paint black people? Why?Do you tell black painters they can only paint black people or do you let them paint white people too? Sounds ridiculous, but honestly, I think there is too much of that. Too much compartmentalizing with artists. You, you're Jewish, only paint Jews. You're Cuban, only paint Cubans. It is one thing to celebrate your culture and keep it alive through your art, and it is another thing to only paint people like you. That is just living small. The future is togetherness and the world is growing over with vines that connect all of our races. We artists have got to get excited about this. More opportunities to portray the beauty of the world and not just our block.

Another important motivator in my life was that when I grew up I didn't see paintings of black people almost ever. In art history, even in college, all I saw was naked, plump white women and clothed white men. And a bunch of white Jesus-es. When I began my career in fine art I made a conscious decision to paint my artistic appreciation of black culture, specifically black music. I had just finished college in San Diego, at a very white school and after that my wife and I moved to a very white town. Instead of painting boat scenes that probably would have paid our bills, I painted Coltrane and Sizzla and Sister Carol. It was my own form of shining light. And in a practical manner, I thought that if I limited my subject matter I would be able to gauge my improvement as I painted many images. And I did. After that time of intense study and after doing hundreds of paintings I lifted my singular focus and expanded into what I do now. Anything and everything.

In the end, this mystery of where the line is between the races and how do we each deal with that line or if there should even be a line, is answered by the simplest thing, yet one impossible to judge easily. Motivation. Is Eminem pulling an Elvis? Is Gentleman pulling a Led Zepplin? I don't know. Did Led Zepplin know? Did those Brits know that by taking American blues music and singing it almost verbatim and making millions, never giving credit nor royalties to the source, that they were just creating a legacy of exploitation? I dunno. The proof is in the pudding. There are, to be sure, a lot of white kids running around with a gangsta limp, tryin to rap about the thug life they never had. No doubt. But, I do know that there are some mighty good rappers out there with skin as white as mine who don't try to be black, they just like to rhyme and do it well. Their motivation is simple- they grew up on this music and it is part of their life and they do it well. Ok, cool. The proof is in the pudding. And while I agree that the historical tendency of white culture stealing from black culture with no credit or compensation is undeniable, there is still room for progress. We can come together without patronizing or violating each other. I won't be buying the newest album from the Humbolt County white rasta briggade with their token black Jamaican (to prove they are legit) anytime soon, but I will not make any presumptions about any artist based on their melatonin levels. The proof is in the pudding. If the fruit tastes good, I'm keepin' the tree.