These Won’t Dance: Rap And R&B In 2017
It all began in 1640, when three indentured servants who had run away, were returned. The two white servants were given a coupla extra years of servitude and the black man was enslaved for life, and that was that.
200 odd years later, at the start of the American Civil War, the numbers looked more like this: 476,748, 1.5% of the Nation were free blacks and 3,950,546, 12.7% of the nation, were black slaves. Needless to say, this upset the enslaved blacks no end. They responded in many ways and one was by approaching the Christian Church and looking to God to free his people (heard that one before, right?). The Black Spirituals were codified protest songs, the most obvious example being Wallis Wallis’ “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” a hidden plea to the Underground Railroad written before 1860.
Fast forward to the 1980s and the East Coast West Coast rap wars took black against white and black against black and had a different codification, as personified by Snoop Dogg who when lectured about the black community coming together jeered “That nigger is crazy”. If by then there were two clear visions of a black America, the rich and the middle class on one hand and the poor on the other hand, the diversions were within divisions. “Motherfuckers, this ain’t back in the day…” Biggie warned. In the battle for woke, gangsta took all if for only one good reason: it sounded better.
By the age of Obama, the battle for racial equality appeared won but it wasn’t. The problem was that there were two Americas and one of the Americas hated the other more than ever. Life on the street was very dodgy, whether it was white policemen using force or white supremacists burning down Churches, the black population was being overridden by a white American where the composite picture was that of pasty face uber-villain Donald Trump, where every other word sounded (and sounds like), imprison the blacks, return the Latin Americans, and don’t let the Arabs in. Meanwhile, let’s stick this bloody big pipe through Native American reservations we don’t own.
The black communities musical response was very limited at first, though this year found Jay-Z’s masterful hook “Still nigger” reverberating through the pop world, and, as Elle Smith noted,, Tomas Doncker’s “Some Ol’ Dolls” beating it to the punch. The problem with modern r&b is it can’t figure out its fight, except both Doncker and Jay-Z did this one time… here they have known it well. In the video’s for the two songs, they step back to a Jim Crow vision of racial equality. “Some Ol’ Dolls” –directed by the astoundingly gifted Dylan Mars Greenberg, put Doncker in blackface and scowl, eyes wide, anger in place while Dylann chose public domain cartons from the 30s – the 50s. As Elle Smith wrote (here): “Straight out of Walter Lantz’s [“Most racist cartoon ever!”] Scrub Me Mama With a Boogie Beat (1941), I was pulled down the rabbit hole of racist animation and watched “The Banned Eleven.” You can look it up on YouTube. We see various images of blacks as mammys, servants, crows, shucking and jiving, shuffling and dancing, and these are used in both videos. These cartoons were banned from mainstream television in 1968 and to use them now is to challenge the viewer. More than the use of the “N” word, these images provoke us to look and to listen.” The juxtapositioning of images, the double reflected Doncker, makes a certain point, that the past never ends and that in its own way these days are as difficult for people of color as those days were. That’s also the point of Jay-Z’s video, “The Story Of O.J.”
The last time silence was this loud was on Yeezus, the space “I’m not black, I’m O.J.” and then nothing for seconds, till Jay-Z’s quizzical shrugged “Okay”. The video is a “Jaybo” original animation but the images are Lantz, it looks old time, even the gray hues suggest another time but that other time is today: blacks become clichés, become figure sticks. Doncker is struggling on, it is off his The Mess We Made, and his impotence doesn’t lean him back, it pushes him forward. But his images are more striking and scarier, if the white man aren’t emasculating him, then what? They are lynching him. It seems to shake in rage. Jay-Z’s 4:44 isn’t half as good. Does the world need a cowed Jay-Z right now? So he cheated on his wife, geez it ain’t that big you great big tit. But “O.J.” saves Jaybo, and saves the entire album. 4:44 is an act of incarnation, god becomes black man and the black man in all his trivialities is “still nigger”. Jay-Z is allowed to no longer say “She wanted, us to end, cause I fucked her friend. She gave me one more chance and I fucked her again.” He has fallen to earth. Actually, it sounds like he is suffering through Stockholm Syndrome. If this is being woke, go back to sleep.
But there is still the question of blacks in 2017, there is still the question where Doncker and Hova meet in a vision of a past returned, where after all those changes culminating in the election of a black man to the highest office of the land, and the clock still ticks itself backwards: money is nicer for Hov than to the manor born Doncker but racism is realer to Doncker who is trying to remain one step ahead of it, but both of em can’t help the whirligig of race politics and they agree upon one thing, nothing has changed the way you are being told it is.
So what can a poor boy do? Both of them capitalize into capitalism, both of them use a silent pause, a mental break, so detail a return to post-kingdom hatred of black people that they can’t carve away simply because they don’t quite understand it, there are too may angles to the fight. As Doncker goes outside in and Jay-Z goes inside out, they make a similar point in different ways. They feel what they hear, and what they hear is the clock ticking backwards, to a place where the whispered n word of bigots is the least of their worries. Sing about it, talk about it, fight it, die for it,shake in boredom or anger, write about: it still won’t dance.