Why Didn’t Macklemore Make ‘The Story of O.J.’?
“We believe he does not object to the “Virginia Minstrels,” “Christy’s Minstrels,” the “Ethiopian Serenaders,” or any of the filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied to them by nature, in which to make money, and pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow-citizens. Those performers are undoubtedly in harmony with his refined and elegant taste!”
Frederick Douglass, The North Star
There is a small but long-growing movement of people who are concerned with the amorphous definition of ‘cultural appropriation’. No one knows precisely what constitutes cultural appropriation, but like obscenity, some violations are clear when you see them. War bonnets at Coachella are verboten, if you did not get that memo it will be read to you over the loud speakers.
But cultural appropriation is kind of our thing. As a nation we lamented the loss of our native heritage with one hand while swinging a bloody axe with the other. Our law was English, our literature French, our history Greek and Roman. American culture was a synthesis of memories, rituals remembered and reconstructed at a distance. We had not had time to develop our own stories.
When we did start to find our voice, a few things stood out. Key among them was America’s racial dynamic, to use an academic phrasing that serves to flatten the narrative. Racism is more direct. So, to give it another go: key among the creative elements that felt original to American expression is the simultaneous fascination and revulsion at the enormous contributions of African-Americans despite the utter lack of humanity granted their station. America could not break Black people, America could not even keep Black people from singing and dancing. And it looked fun. So America decided to dance too.
Blackface minstrelsy was among the first recognizably American art forms, an imitation that could never be thought of as flattery. One wonders if the urge to make light of innovations by Black entertainers was driven by the inability to compete in an already slanted market.
As American culture developed, appropriation of new talent and ideas became systemic. Some performers were one-of-a-kind and had to be given a bit of elbow room to work. Not even militarized White Supremacy could replicate or replace Louis Armstrong.
But there was new technology at hand and talent scouts in the fields, often literally. Within 10 years of the birth of Rock n’ Roll in Black nightclubs, a White truck driver from Tupelo was “The King”. Black artists performed widely, some even in Europe, but their recording contracts, touring opportunities, and intellectual property rights followed the Jim Crow standards of the era without guilt or recognition.
Which brings us to the next worldwide cultural phenomenon created by African-Americans for reluctant exploitation by their oppressors: hip-hop. One of the marketing tag lines for the HBO original film “The Defiant Ones”, about hip-hop pioneer Dr. Dre and his business partner Jimmy Iovine, revolves around the widely held early belief that rap music was a fad. That it would never be relevant outside of the Bronx and South Central L.A. The fact that this notion is a part of the marketing of a 4-part documentary series tells you everything you need to know about that particular prediction.
Any cursory study of successful rap artists reveals a not-at-all-surprising familiarity with the experiences of their forebears. When Ice Cube complained about Eazy E by suggesting his former friend had “a White Jew telling you what to do”, he went on to explicitly reference the travails of artists like Chuck Berry and Little Richard. What Otis Redding couldn’t state publicly for fear of his own safety, Chuck D from Public Enemy made a central part of his recorded product for sale to the populace. Lessons were learned, and adjustments were made. The newest cultural product coming out of this historically particular group of people would be much harder to steal, because it would include resistance as a core element. A brand of accusatory resistance that is quite unpalatable to American gatekeepers, even the ‘liberal’ ones.
Of course there has been plenty of appropriation of rap music, as well as the other foundational elements of hip-hop. But when most people talk about the first wave of Rock n’ Roll you hear names like Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, and, because of his premature and grisly death, Richie Valens. The only White artist to enjoy staying power and success in the 40-year history of hip-hop is Eminem, a man who has paid constant deference to the Black origin and lifeblood of the art form. While it appears to be an honest impulse for the Detroit wordsmith, it was necessary for him to pay homage. And it wasn’t enough for some people.
It is this hard edge that has kept rap music from being utterly subsumed by the dominant culture. If punk rock had developed 15 years before it did, and in Biloxi instead of Chelsea, Led Zeppelin would have seemed like a bloated dinosaur by their third record. There was no danger of Debbie Harry or Steven Tyler taking over rap in 1987. And it wasn’t just political rappers, 2 Live Crew released a song with the lyrics “pussy ain’t nothing but meat on the bone/you suck it, you fuck it, you leave it alone”, shredding the gauzy filament of innuendo that artists like Whitesnake were still hiding behind at the time. And it felt insane, and relevant, and like no one else could possibly have done it. And it worked: when my mother found out her 11-year-old son was listening to Uncle Luke, she threw away my tapes. I got new ones.
Frederick Douglass. Malcolm X. James Baldwin. Richard Pryor. Minister Farrakhan. Tupac Shakur.
Some of these men were saints, some charlatans, most a combination of the two. But they all share a clear vision of the history of this nation that suggests we don’t want them telling their stories. They tell them anyway, in defiance, and their unique honesty about their unique experience is not something that can be easily appropriated. They have learned from each other in successive generations what makes their stories unique and they have focused on that element to the exclusion of comforting sentiments.
Weaving this painful narrative into the music has made it into a kind of kevlar with the impenetrable elements in place, even when they’re not calling attention to themselves. When Jay-Z posts a picture of his wife enjoying herself on a yacht, it is more than bragging, it is a reminder that they are capable of such success, and by extension, that African-Americans as a whole should not be assumed to be unprepared for the greater rights and responsibilities of life in a first-rate empire. It is by design that he has appropriated the symbols of success in White culture: luxury accommodations, frivolous spending, jewelry and fine dining. It is by design that he draws you in with shiny baubles, only to speak with a sharpened tongue once he has your attention.
It is by design that Macklemore could never make ‘The Story of O.J.’.