There’s Nothing to Explain: On Blackness and Music

Edited by Joelle Robinson

Some days ago, Ben Shapiro said that rap is not music. I was going to begin by enumerating the ways that Shapiro is wrong. I was going to introduce him to the wonderful art of sampling; to acts like the Roots, who’ve placed live instrumentation at the heart of their hip hop; to hip hop artists like Erykah Badu, Tyler the Creator, J. Cole, Drake, Beyoncé and countless others who broaden the genre with every album they make. But after watching the full, seven-minute clip of his conversation with the rapper Zuby, I see that my work has been done for me. My words would be superfluous.

In any case, that introduction would have been the pathway to the real message of my paper: Shapiro is heir to a lineage of white critics of black art. Above all, his assertion that rock is a less sophisticated version of jazz, which, in turn, is a less sophisticated version of classical music betrays his racialization and Eurocentric view of music. There is nothing for him outside of the Western, and anything developed by a person of color must be a bastardization of Western music. Shapiro sees centuries of musical progression, synthesis, and innovation as degradation. This is to be expected.

It happened with Jazz. In his paper Moral Outrage and Musical Corruption Jacob Hardesty chronicles white America’s reaction to the popularization of jazz. White children adopted the new genre wholeheartedly (as they did with rap). Some saw it as a reprieve from boring school lessons, others preferred the upbeat tempo of Jazz to the waltzes of their parents. White adults, on the other hand, made the same criticism in the 1920s that Shapiro has in 2019: jazz is inferior to classical music. Unlike Shapiro, however, they lived in a time when it was permissible to be openly racist. Thus, far from hiding the racialization central to their claim (as does Shapiro), they connected “the music to a type of unrefined blackness” (Hardesty, 2016, pg. 7). It is not hard to read between the lines when a cultural critic of Shapiro’s ilk speaks; the sentiment that an “unrefined blackness” is represented in rap undergirds much of what they have to say. They dislike the music because it is inextricable from blackness.

It happened, too, with the blues — albeit in a different way. To illustrate the point, one need not look much further than Ulrich Adelt’s Black Music in the Sixties. From the 1920s to the 1940s blues music was mostly performed by black people for black audiences. In the 1940s and 1950s, as interest in African Americans grew among white populations in the United States and Europe, the blues began to become much more widely consumed. Rhythm and blues was rebranded rock and roll — thereby stripping it of its blackness — before Elvis and others took up its mantle and profited off of the work of their black predecessors. Implicit in this erasure of the black roots of rock and roll is an assumption that black art is not suitable for the consumption of white people, a desire to distance white artists from the black source of their music, and an attempt to preserve the illusion of black art as derivative and white art as foundational. A devaluing of black art is occurring even as black art is exploited.

What’s happened with Shapiro in 2019 in music, though, is really symptomatic of a larger problem, one that began some 500 years ago in concurrence with the trans-Atlantic slave trade: the incessant demand for black people to prove their worth and justify their existence. It’s the same American malady that demanded we prove that we are whole people, not just three fifths; demanded we prove we deserve the right to use the same public facilities as white Americans; and demands, now, that we prove we deserve to survive our encounters with law enforcement. I shirk this tradition, so do not mistake me: the history lesson in this piece is not for Shapiro, it’s for me — to remind me that when a critic like him speaks about rap music (while admitting that he does not like or listen to it and without any reasoned criticism) I need not listen. And I need not “explain to [him] why he’s wrong.”

Writer and M.S. Ed. student in education policy at the University of Pennsylvania

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