The Repertoire of Black Popular Culture

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Spring 2009, Volume 8, Issue 1
http://www.americanpopularculture.com/journal/articles/spring_2009/nelson.htm

 

Angela Nelson
Bowling Green State University


INTRODUCTION

Black popular culture is an arena of daily life in any culture that actualizes, engenders, operationalizes, or signifies pleasure, enjoyment, and amusement according to the beliefs, values, experiences, and social institutions of people of African descent in particular but also other racial groups in general. To British cultural studies pioneer Stuart Hall in “What is This ‘Black’ in Black Popular Culture?”, “black” signifies the black community (the site or location of the experiences, pleasures, memories, and everyday practices of black people), the "persistence of the black experience (the historical experience of black people in the diaspora), of the black aesthetic (the distinctive cultural repertoires out of which popular representations were made), and of the black counternarratives we have struggled to voice" (28).

Hall further declares that “good” black popular culture can pass the test of authenticity when the form or product refers to the black experience (history) and black expressivity (aesthetic and counternarratives).

In this same writing, Hall described three “black repertoires” from which black popular culture draws: style, music, and the use of the body as a canvas of representation.

First, I ask you to note how, within the black repertoire, style - which mainstream cultural critics often believe to be the mere husk, the wrapping, the sugar coating on the pill - has become itself the subject of what is going on. Second, mark how, displaced from a logocentric world - where the direct mastery of cultural modes meant the mastery of writing, and hence, both of the criticism of writing (logocentric criticism) and the deconstruction of writing - the people of the black diaspora have, in opposition to all of that, found the deep form, the deep structure of their cultural life in music. Third, think of how these cultures have used the body - as if it was, and it often was, the only cultural capital we had. We have worked on ourselves as the canvases of representation. (27)

Together these repertoires form a “black aesthetic” which Hall defines as the “distinctive cultural repertoires out of which popular representations” of diasporan blacks are made.

I define “black cultural repertoire” as the specific devices, techniques, figures, black objects, expressive art forms, or products of people of Africana descent that form part of their culture (whether as context, texture, or text), that are often derived from the folk tradition (see Soitos 37), that form a foundation of a black aesthetic, and that are used to create black popular cultural products. In this paper, I propose seven key components of the black repertoire: (1) the city [or space and place], (2) food/cuisine, (3) rhythm, (4) percussiveness, (5) call-response, (6) worship service and party, and (7) middle-class ideology. I will elaborate on this seven-part repertoire by defining each component and briefly highlighting their occurrence in such black popular cultural productions as music, orature, literature, and film.

THE CITY [PLACE/SPACE]

John Jeffries in “Toward a Redefinition of the Urban: The Collision of Culture” suggests that the city is a cultural repertoire from which black popular culture draws. “In black popular culture, the city is hip. It’s locale of cool. In order to be ‘with it,’ you must be in the city, or at minimum, urban culture must be transplanted, simulated, or replicated outside of the city wherever possible. The city is where black popular styles are born - especially clothing and hairstyles” (159). However, he further asserts that for “blacks in America, the social construction of race has served as a major obstacle to enjoying the ‘good life’ in the city” (160).

The idea of the hip city is found in Chester Himes’s Harlem domestic series of hard-boiled detective novels (Jeffries 159; Soitos 125-78) which included For the Love of Imabelle (1957); The Real Cook Killers (1959), The Crazy Kill (1959), The Big Gold Dream (1960); All Shot Up (1960); Cotton Comes to Harlem (1965); Run, Man Run (1966); The Heat’s On (1966); Blind Man with a Pistol (1969); and the posthumously published Plan B (1993). Following the work of detectives Coffin Eddie and Gravedigger Jones in the Harlem series of novels, Himes created a mythical cityscape of Harlem as a “city within a city” and made Harlem a microcosmic testing ground for his portrayal of African-American existence surrounded by racism, social injustice, and poverty. Himes also creatively used signifyin(g), an “African American language act whose characteristics include irony, indirection, humor and circumlocution” (Soitos 159), as executed by the detectives, and often referred to African-American food, black language, blues, and jazz.

Tricia Rose argues that “rap music’s primary context for development is hip-hop culture, the Afrodiasporic traditions it extends and revises, and the New York urban terrain in the 1970s” (26). The city, or the urban environment, is central to rap music. “Ghetto Bastard” by Naughty by Nature is an example.

FOOD/CUISINE

African-American food and cuisine, also known as “soul food,” is an American cuisine typically associated with African Americans of the Southern United States. In the mid-1960s, “soul” was a common adjective used to describe African-American culture and thus also a black style of American food. Black food, black culinary arts, and black cookbooks “operate as strategies of resistance to white appropriations of black culture, but also as a means of upwardly mobile African Americans to affirm their racial authenticity” (Witt 13).

Black food is often referenced in “blues” detective fiction. Chester Himes’s novels have numerous illustrations. For example, Mammy Louise is a common hangout for Grave Digger and Coffin Ed. Stephen Soitos argues that Himes used “black vernaculars” such as food in an attempt to differentiate his detective fiction by grounding the narrative in the experience of black people (161). Early rhythm ‘n’ blues bandleader, vocalist, and saxophonist Louis Jordan performed and recorded several songs that referenced food including “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens,” “Saturday Night Fish Fry,” and “Boogie Woogie Blue Plate.” George Tillman’s film Soul Food (1997) made food, or the Sunday dinner, the focus of one black Chicago family and attempted to show how food was a cultural restorative to that family throughout the years.

RHYTHM

The poet Leopold Sedar Senghor, first president of the republic of Senegal, states that rhythm is the “organizing force” that makes the black style (Chernoff 23). Technically, rhythm refers to the organization of musical tones or sounds to their duration and thus the flow of music in time. But Senghor’s claim that rhythm is the “most perceptible and the least material thing” (Chernoff 23) better characterizes the “personality” of rhythm, for this “least material thing” is the chief organizer and energizer in the lives of human beings (Gaston 17). Africans and African Americans use rhythm to articulate their moral, theological, and philosophical beliefs. Rhythm, the essential element in black music, philosophically communicates “religious” experience in African and African-American culture and helps its ritual participants reach “communitas.”

Rhythm in rap is especially important because it gives rap its movement, momentum, and a significant portion of its meaning. Rhythm is rap’s most powerful effect (Rose 64). Tricia Rose argues:

Rap’s primary force is sonic, and the distinctive, systematic use of rhythm and sound, especially the use of repetition and musical breaks, are part of a rich history of New World black traditions and practices. Rap music centers on the quality and nature of rhythm and sound, the lowest, “fattest beats” being the most significant and emotionally charged… Unlike the complexity of Western classical music, which is primarily represented in its melodic and harmonic structures, the complexity of rap music, like many Afrodiasporic musics, is in the rhythmic and percussive density and organization. (64-5)

Since the art of rapping is based on a precise knowledge, skill, and ability to use complex rhythms, rappers themselves boast of their skill in being able to control it. For example, Public Enemy boasts in their rap titled “Reggie Jax” that "homeboys and girls" will "testify" that "p-e-f-u-n and the K [Public Enemy funk or music] will stay" and make their "body sway" because they have the "funky beat [rhythm] on the street" that compells their audience to dance. The Jungle Brothers, hinting toward the religiosity of rhythm, say, “praise the rhythms”; while A Tribe Called Quest recognizes the high importance of rhythm by simply titling one of their raps “Rhythm.” Female rapper MC Lyte wonders, "why is it that your watch stops ticking but you keep clockin'?" and that "no matter how hard you [try], you keep rockin'?" She replies: Because I'm a “slave to the rhythm.” MC Lyte’s experience suggests that rhythm is an “intoxicating” musical element, over which in ritual (to use an appropriate term) she has no control.

In “Revolutionary Generation,” Public Enemy encourages the people to “just jam to let the rhythm run.” Similarly, female rappers Salt-n-Pepa say, “let the rhythm run.” When rhythm is allowed to “run,” people will be compelled to dance and attain a degree of transcendent “communitas.” As philosopher Cornel West articulates this in scholarly language, the “funky rhythms” of rap have a ritualistic (or religious) and cathartic function at black parties and dances (186). Rhythm that “runs” also has an aesthetic function for rappers - the aesthetic of soulfulness.

PERCUSSIVENESS

Another component of the black repertoire is percussiveness. African Americans utilize percussion instruments and an overall percussive approach to performance. "Percussion" refers to any instrument that can be rubbed, shaken, stricken, or scraped. Drums and rattles, for example, traditionally fall into this category. Mouth-slapping, an example of the use of percussiveness, is strongly evident in rap in what MCs refer to as the “human beat box.” This is a synthesization of antebellum "hambone" routines - polymetric clapping, slapping, and pounding the body - and vocal techniques whereby the artist employs precise breath control combined with lip-smacking, lip-popping, and tongue-clicking to imitate electronic music sounds (Slovenz 157).

Black music production is, to reference American culture scholar Ben Sidran, not only an activity but also a specialized technique. Sidran calls it an art of physical, emotional, and social "commitment" that commands a specific methodology in its creation (17). This specialized technique includes the percussive use of the voice, in both black artistic and vernacular speech and song. For instance, musicologist Eileen Southern points out that black gospel singers tend to sing with their mouths wide-open, making their consonant sounds short and distinct and their vowel sounds long and intense (464). This unique attention to vowel and consonant sounds is a logical occurrence to musicologist David Burrows since he contends that consonants have the greater power to convey information in the spoken language, while vowels tend to expand in intensity, duration, volume, and resonance in song (62-3). In addition to Burrows’s admitted fascination with rap - calling it an "in-between phenomena" because of its equilibrium of "spoken" and "sung" words (60-1) - the rap technique of producing sounds illustrates the most developed form to date of the percussive use of the voice.

In African-American speaking, singing, and rapping, urgency is conveyed through deliberate, accentuated percussive attacks on words, stylized grammatical structures, and repetition, as well as through metaphors and elaborate descriptions. Folklorist Zora Neale Hurston points out that while people with highly developed languages have terms for abstract and detached ideas, so-called “primitive” people exchange “descriptive words” whose “terms are all close-fitting.” In other words, she explains, people of European descent "think" in written languages while African Americans think in Egyptian “hieroglyphics,” pictures or icons (294).

Since African Americans think in terms of icons or pictures, according to Hurston, their language is characterized by the heavy use of metaphors and descriptive words. This is especially true of rappers, who obviously have knowledge of abstract words as evident in their deft ("def," as urban black youths would say) use of American English, but their heavy use of "close-fitting" and "descriptive" words contributes to the urgency in rap. When rappers Naughty by Nature describe what it is like living in the projects of East Orange, New Jersey, the emphasis on isolation and despair is made especially clear in these descriptive words: “I live right around the corner from west hell/Two blocks from south shit and once in a jail cell!” The words chosen by Naughty by Nature help to describe in "hieroglyphics" what life is like in a New Jersey ghetto.

CALL-RESPONSE

Linguist Geneva Smitherman, in her discussion of the discourse modes of Black English, says the communication process of call-and-response - the spontaneous verbal and nonverbal interactions between speakers and audiences - is a fundamental organizing principle of African-American culture because it enables black people to achieve the unified state of balance or individual and collective spiritual harmony that is basic to the traditional African worldview (104).

As another important aspect of the black cultural repertoire, the purposes and functions of call-and-response discourse modes are to establish and maintain spiritual harmony, to maintain a sense of group solidarity, and to validate aesthetic and cultural values. However, the actual configurations of call-and-response patterns in African-American culture and the typical affirmations and confirmations utilized by African Americans to encourage and ensure active participation need to be examined; for there are three primary ways call-and-response organizational techniques are experienced by them. One traditional technique occurs between the speaker, singer, or rapper and the audience of listeners. Entire phrases or verses are sung or spoken by the leader and subsequently repeated verbatim or altered somewhat by the audience or chorus. An example of this "leader and chorus" structure is illustrated in a black spiritual titled "Follow the Drinking Gourd." As with many black spirituals, a leader sings an entire verse, and then the others join with the leader to sing the chorus.

In black religious services, worshipers engage in more than simply acknowledging the sermon with an “amen” or like responses, they actually preach back (Spencer, Sacred Symphony 6). Also, the preacher makes statements that are frequently responded to before he completes his statement or thought. In this situation, as in other black speech or music events, the speaker may not have an opportunity to "call" an entire phrase or verse before a response is made. This “overlapping” in black speech or music events is related to African scholar John Miller Chernoff’s description of the African “conversational mode” in music performance (56). Adding to this theory, Molefi Asante says speaker and audience roles often shift with the audience doing most of the calling and the speaker doing most of the responding (193). In African music, as in African-American music says Chernoff, all of the musicians are playing "forward toward the beat" and "pushing the beat" to make it more dynamic (56). This is what occurs in African-American religious services when the preacher adapts and employs every verbal response from the audience in a direct search for spiritual harmony. The vitality and rhythm of life is in the unified and collective response of the audience to the speaker or rapper.

WORSHIP SERVICE/PARTY

Worship usually refers to specific acts of religious praise, honor, or devotion, typically directed to a supernatural being such as a god or God. The African-American Christian worship service is experienced with a group of believers, typically on Sunday or Saturday depending on the denomination. In general, a party is a social gathering intended primarily for celebration and recreation.

The term “party” usually denotes a smaller gathering for a personal, rather than cultural, occasion even when the occasion is simply that of enjoyment. Some varieties of party in African-American culture were created for a particular need, such as the rent party, chittlin’ strut, blue Monday affair, house shout, and too-bad party, which offered dancing, liquor, food, music, and some type of gambling. The focus of rent parties was to help someone raise money to pay their rent and to cover a few other expenses (Hazzard-Gordon 94-116).

The worship service or party is found in several black (and other) American popular art forms. For example, the worship service in the film The Color Purple (1985) was a pivotal scene and setting needed to help the audience understand the problems and motivations of Shug Avery. The films House Party (1990), House Party 2 (1991), and House Party 3 (1994) focused on the daily lives of two inner-city, black teenagers through the use of a party.

MIDDLE-CLASS IDEOLOGY

Middle-class ideology is a myth and belief found in several black (and other) American popular art forms. The middle-class ideology in popular arts is represented with affluence, unlimited consumerism, conspicuous consumption, individualism, social and economic mobility, heterosexual love relationship and/or marriage, and nuclear family. An excellent example of the operation of this repertoire component appears in African-American postwar comic strips but also in black novels, films, and television sitcoms. The middle-class ideology is significant in the black postwar comic strip because it exalts, celebrates, and centers black urban life rather than black rural life or black religious life; speaks to the urban black middle-class; expresses a vision of urban black life in America that is equal to whites socially, culturally, educationally, economically, and (implicitly) politically; demonstrates that middle-classness is synonymous with racial integration, peace, harmony, and equality; complements rhetoric of equal civil rights evident in the activities of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and similar organizations; suppresses social contradictions of inequality, racism, discrimination; and naturalizes existing society. In other words, middle-classness is racial equality and harmony.

Little Magnolia, a black comic strip written and drawn by Al Hart, appeared in discontinuous installments from January 15, 1949, to May 7, 1949, in Sepia City Press, a black newspaper in Toledo, Ohio. A traditional gag strip with four panels that included a punchline in the final panel, Little Magnolia was a self-contained strip that revolved around a precocious “tweener” named Magnolia and her parents, friends, and other adults. Middle-class ideology is clearly evident in this strip. Magnolia’s living environment and home explicitly convey middle-class status. Her home, which appears to be an apartment, has a spacious living room and kitchen, comfortable furniture, and art objects. The apron on Magnolia’s mother strongly suggests that she works in the home. Her father appears to be a white collar professional because he is shown with a vest, shirt and tie when at home and completely attired with suit jacket when at work. Little Magnolia is a cultural narrative about black middle-classness which included heterosexual marriage, the nuclear family, and conspicuous consumption.

CONCLUSION

In this paper, I described seven components of the black repertoire - (1) the city [space/place], (2) food/cuisine, (3) rhythm, (4) percussiveness, (5) call-response, (6) worship service and party, and (7) middle-class ideology - by defining them and briefly highlighting their occurrence in such black popular cultural productions as music, orature, literature, and film. I defined “black cultural repertoire” as the specific devices, techniques, figures, black objects, expressive art forms, or products of people of Africana descent.

Although these repertoires form a base from which black popular representations are made, the repertoires themselves may also serve as “important cultural restoratives” (Soitos 162; see Hazzard-Gordon) that have the ability to impart new life or promote recuperation to Africana peoples. That is, the use of and references to rhythm, percussiveness, call-response, food/cuisine, and the city in black popular cultural productions could be theorized to embody the solutions to the problems of Africana people around the world. In other words, these repertoires restore, reconcile, regenerate, and recuperate the humanity of black people.

In Chester Himes’s novel Cotton Comes to Harlem, Coffin Ed and Grave Digger assign this restorative value to jazz. Stephen Soitos summarizes the passage:

As they listen to two saxophones trade jazz solos, Coffin Ed says, “Somewhere in that jungle is the solution to the world.” Grave Digger answers, “The emotion that comes out of experience. If we could read that language, man, we would solve all the crimes in the world.” (162)

The concepts of restoration and, I would add, reconciliation, relate to theology, religion, and Paul Tillich’s theory of “ultimate concern.” To Tillich,

[Religion] is at home everywhere, namely, in the depth of all functions of man's spiritual life.... Religion, in the largest and most basic sense of the word, is ultimate concern. And ultimate concern is manifest in all creative functions of the human spirit. It is manifest in the moral sphere as the unconditional seriousness of the moral demand.... Ultimate concern is manifest in the realm of knowledge as the passionate longing for ultimate reality.... Ultimate concern is manifest in the aesthetic function of the human spirit as the infinite desire to express ultimate meaning.... Religion is the substance, the ground, and the depth of man’s spiritual life. (7-8)

Andrew Greeley, in his book God in Popular Culture, identifies popular culture as “a theological place - the locale in which one may encounter God” (9). Not only is a culture itself theological because, according to Tillich, “ultimate concern” gives birth to culture, but because popular culture (despite the perception of it being rather unclassical) is also essentially theological. What does an encounter with “God” do for people? It restores, regenerates, reconciles, and recuperates them. Cultural repertoires may function similarly in their foundational and repetitious use in black popular cultural forms.


Works Cited

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