A Detour Into Pop Culture

I watched about 30-40 minutes of this year’s Grammy Awards, long enough to see Keith Urban’s performance with Gary Clark, Jr. (and then I lived through some performances I quickly forgot).  I watched Paul McCartney and the former members of Nirvana win the award for Best Rock Song, which they all claimed to have just thrown together in a two-hour jam session. When I listened to Gary Clark, Jr’s album the next day, I wondered if the McCartney/Nirvana folks won more by nostalgia than because they truly had the best song. I know how I would have voted.

In the days that followed there was a lot of talk about Macklemore winning the best new artist award, among others, and Kendrick Lamar, who many thought should have won the best new artist award instead. I don’t care that much about who won what, really, but there was an internet firestorm about whether Macklemore somehow robbed Kendrick Lamar of a well-deserved shot at a Grammy.

One article in particular, Brittney Cooper’s essay in Salon “Macklemore’s Useless Apology: Grammys and the Myth of Meritocracy”, took me back to many a conversation I had as a college student about racism, white privilege, patriarchy, ideology, and all the –isms that go along with those concepts. One conversation in particular came flooding back to me.

When I was a graduate student in English in the early 90s, my favorite writers were black American novelists, particularly Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, and Ralph Ellison. I wanted to specialize in African-American Literature. The obvious question weighed on my mind: What right did I, a middleclass white woman, have to research and teach African-American literature?

One day I had the immense pleasure to drive the distinguished professor Nellie Y. McKay to the airport after she gave the keynote speech at a literary festival on campus. What better person to ask? She was a pioneer in African-American and women’s literary studies. She was trapped in my car; we were taking a detour because I had taken a wrong turn. I nervously broached the subject. Did I have any right to pursue this?

“Of course you do!” She said. But she warned me. I’d have to be excellent. I’d have to know my stuff. I’d have to study the writers and all their works inside and out. I’d be challenged, especially by black students, who would ask how I dared to teach them about their experiences. “Tell them honestly,” she said. “That you cannot and will not try to teach them about their experience as black people. You will teach them about literature that happens to be written by black people.”

And she went on to say that if we were all limited to teach only that with which we had direct experience, then she as a woman, as a black person, would never be able to teach works by her favorite authors: Melville, Faulkner, Joyce, Eliot, Cather, Welty, O’Connor, and so on.

I thought of that conversation after I read the Brittney Cooper’s article and saw some of the responses to it. Yes, there’s a very long history in our country of black artists being bilked of monetary and personal artistic rewards for their hard work. Yes, sometimes we think there’s an imbalance in who gets the accolades (remember Kanye West’s reaction to Tayor Swift’s win at the VMAs?). There is a long and convoluted history of artistic influence that is enmeshed in our diverse and complex culture—often at the expense of artists of color. Though its origins are very troubling, this artistic influence—from the blues, from gospel, from jazz, from oral traditions–is incredibly rich and is so tightly enmeshed in the fabric of our country now, that we couldn’t untangle it even if we wanted to.

But I think Macklemore is being scapegoated a bit here in this current debate. He wrote and produced an album that has enormous appeal across demographics  and that sold millions and millions of copies. He didn’t vote for himself—others nominated him and gave him the wins. He tried to do the right thing by reaching out to Lamar and it backfired in the court of internet opinion, but if he’d stayed silent…?

My daughter’s 8th grade language arts class has been discussing this issue of white privilege (some would say Macklemore won solely because of this) vs. artistic integrity (some would say Lamar lost, but still has this) this week—at this point she’s ready to get back to Shakespeare. Her description of the kids’ discussion reminded me of how easy it is sometimes to believe that there are clear cut answers to the questions of race and culture and merit in this country. Should Macklemore’s hip hop be discounted because he’s white? Should Lamar’s hip hop be considered better because he’s black?

I think Nellie McKay would take a thoughtful pause before answering those questions.

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