What Happens When Hipster Racism Meets Hip-Hop Homophobia and Misogyny

In January of 2007, Carmen Van Kerckhove coined the phrase “hipster racism”  in her article The 10 Biggest Race and Pop Culture Trends of 2006. One of the examples she cited as evidence of this was Sandra Bernhard stating on The View that Mariah Carey’s comeback at the time was due to jokes Bernhard made about Carey “being black only when it’s convenient”. Bernhard took credit for Carey’s “nervous breakdown”, thus providing Carey experiences to draw on for her music. Bernhard, who is popular in the lofty, lefty hip cultures who “embrace” gay comics and “others” may have figured she could make this joke because she is both gay and “liberated”. The tolerable comfort level amongst “white” performers indicates, we perceive, a relaxed atmosphere when it comes to race in America.

The epitome of hipster, cutting edge culture Bernhard may or may not be, but she does function in a neo-liberal context that puts her “above” racism. She is liberated, accepting, and hey, she’s gay. It’s not possible for her to be racist, right? Clearly, this is just a funny little way in which we all poke fun at the stereotypes of groups of people. But it’s okay, because Bernhard, as a lesbian, is marginalized herself, and therefore understands the good-natured fun that “others” can have at each others expense and have it not be racist.

The problem occurs here in that Bernhard, sitting on The View at  10 AM local time, in front of a stay-at-home audience of upper class women (target audience, I mean, I stay at home, but I’ve never watched The View) who are probably white, have no idea Bernhard is gay, says this to an audience that is not “hip”. It doesn’t really matter what audience she says it to. There’s always an assumption on her part that she can take expense at Carey for her race because she’s a public figure and Bernhard’s not a part of the establishment. She’s cool. The housewives and whoever else is able to watch The View still doesn’t know that. Even if they did, does it really matter?

I recognize this is a long way to go to talk about hipster racism, but it frames the concept that “cool” and “accepting” and “different” and “unique” and whatever other outlying adjectives we use to describe our pseudo-liberal, faux-progressive selves, are basically ways of making us feel better for the stupid things we do. However, I want to look at hipster racism in another context. By now, we are all aware of Goblin by Tyler the Creator. It’s been hailed in Pitchfork and The Onion AV for its lyrical prowess and excellent production brought to us by an inner city prodigy with a difficult past. What neither of these reviews, written by men, most likely in their 30’s (such as myself) to a hipster driven audience, filled with “alternative” (yea, I’m bringing it back) types of people fail to mention is the excessive use of the word faggot over and over again in the first track alone.

Tyler, the Creator. Photo from Wikimedia, licensed under Creative Commons.

This mental attitude has not gone unnoticed by other major press, but sadly not so much in America. Alex Macpherson at the Guardian posted a May 9th article entitled Is Hip-Hop Homophobia at a Tipping Point where he looks specifically at the language used on the microphone. Macpherson quotes Tyler the Creator from an NME article wherein the lyricist states “I’m not homophobic, I just think ‘faggot’ hits and hurts people.” Clearly then, this statement makes further defense of Tyler the Creator’s homophobic stance a fairly moot point. He recognizes the power of language and understands that words have the ability to offend. And yet, this gets passed off with repeated coverage and praise by so-called alternates to mainstream music and news media. Pitchfork’s abundant coverage of Tyler the Creator and his rap crew Odd Future this year includes 19 news articles, a review of his new solo album, two songs included in their “playlist” section, 8 appearances on their video feed “forkcast” and two features on their “tv” section. It may not be quite Radiohead numbers, and sure Pitchfork seems to be mimicking the sensationalism of the likes of NME with its often overblown coverage, but in reviewing all of this material, there is no commentary, no backlash, not even a note really about the complete and utter vile homophobia replete in this art work.

This here is an indication of hipster racism. There is a fear by established, yet  self-proclaimed alternative media, to avoid conflict. It is a media outlet generated by a largely white, Generation-X, new adult class for a post-Gen-X music scene, that is more abundant, robust and crazier than we ever imagined. It seems that history has in fact, not been forgotten, but lessons do not seem to have been absorbed. The violence and misogyny of late 80’s rap music was fairly well documented, fought over, argued and criticized.  One of the arguments that kept being brought up by academics and community leaders was that white cultural anthropologists, white academics and white media couldn’t possibly understand, and therefore were not qualified, to critique black culture, black society and black art work. Never mind that even their most successful crossovers were once full of sexist and violent songs against gays and attacks on other non-white races were aptly included. Jeff Chang’s book on Hip-Hop history Can’t Stop Won’t Stop tackles this issue fairly comprehensively. Chang recalls a post-Rodney King Los Angeles, mired in anger and a Hip-Hop community responding through their art. Chang points to albums produced by Ice Cube at the time, full of themes of anit-Korean sentiments, misogyny and the death and violence that plagued the neighborhoods that Ice Cube was familiar with and speaking from. A review of the public reaction and Mr. O’Shea Jackson’s responses to white media were included, in which a back and forth about the content, context and ownership were fought over. It’s clear to me now, that my generation, who are the established media have not forgotten any of this; both the content of the art under review and the reaction and often vilification those critics received is largely ignored.

As such, an oversensitivity seems to have developed amongst younger, white media moguls who refuse to take any type of stance on the content of art made outside of communities they feel a direct connection to, by race, proximity, taste or whatever qualifier they require to appear objective. This of course creates an interesting dichotomy. Rapper Eminem, who we are all familiar with at this point has endlessly been criticized for his homophobic, violent, misogynist lyrics since he first emerged into the public consciousness. What’s interesting though, is his awareness to race in regards to his involvement in Hip-Hop. During an October 2010 interview with Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes, Eminem states:

“I felt like I was being attacked. I was being singled out. And I felt like, is it because of the color of my skin? (emphasis mine) Is it because that, you’re paying more attention? Is it because there’s certain rappers that do and say the same things that I’m saying. And I don’t hear no one saying anything about that. I didn’t just invent saying offensive things.” 

The ability of the media to take Eminem to task over the last decade for his lyrical content was not necessarily unwarranted. But what is interesting is, that at least to this point in history, he remains the only white hip-hop artists to emerge out of the underground culture and into the greater public consciousness. Further, he did it in such a familiar fashion, latching on to the language and cultural norms that are widely prevalent in Hip-Hop. And while he is not the first mainstream rap artists to use homophobic language and portray homosexuality as a negative, emasculated lifestyle, nor was he the first attacked for such things, he did become the easiest target. White journalism finally found an enemy in the Hip-Hop nation they no longer had to feel guilty at taking issue with. He’s white, he’s one of us, we can hold him up, criticize and vilify him and talk about the wrongs of society and not make it an attack on black culture and black people.

The problem of course is that Hip-Hop is not confined to America or black communities. It is perhaps the most diverse, wide-reaching and global form of expression that includes a community of millions in countries all over the world. So, while mainstream hip-hop coming from America continues to be portrayed in the public eye by mostly black performers, there are millions of non-black, non-American kids out in the world that have embraced and adopted and co-opted the culture, fashion, music, mannerisms and speech that hip-hop has created. As such, the safe attacks on Eminem seem less like actually confronting the serious issues and more like a failed act of saving face in which cultural racism exists.

We are now left with a media culture that glosses over the actual content of Hip-Hop music and it’s ability to now globally perpetrate homophobia and misogyny. Perhaps we believe, here in hipster land that we are far too educated and sensitive to be racist, homophobic or sexist. After all, most of us I am sure can look at our Facebook pages and see lists of friends, ex-lovers, and family that come from all walks of life, from all sorts of different parts of the world. This is a luxury that my parent’s generation fought for that we have come to enjoy and embrace. However, it is just this misconception that leads us to believe we no longer have an obligation or even the right to rise up in opposition to things that are wrong, in any culture, community or country. Our sensitivities to our “differences” that we know to be innocuous has led us to fear saying anything that might be construed as racist because we allow these differences to divide us. But there is no similarity on this planet like the similarity between people. We share the ability of language and with that the ability of expression. So our ideas, beliefs, emotions, experiences and lives are shared in a way other living things on this planet are not privileged. And yet, when the expression of ideas that are harmful, violent and hateful are perpetuated and the people who engage their art in these practices are celebrated, rather than challenged, we validate them in our silence.

Photo Used Under Creative Commons by Rishabh Mathur

I’ve seen a positive light however, both in Hip-Hop and in white hipsters uneasy embrace of its underground culture. Himanshu Suri of the lovable, straight shooting, no bullshit, in your face but still party music Das Racist recently posted his reaction to a post-Osama Bin Laden world. Suri did this  partly through the context of recalling his own life as a teenager in down town Manhattan on September 11th. He recalls days of organizing other students as they walked from their school, just blocks away from the World Trade Center. Suri’s poignant recollection is as follows:

My friends organized all the South Asian/Middle Eastern students into a group that would walk together that day. The time we spent organizing was worth it, as we specifically wanted to make sure no one would harass the girls in our group who wore a hijab. We were already sensing the racism we would face. Indeed, later that day, someone yelled at our friend, “FUCKIN PALESTINIAN”  or some other unoriginal racial comment (as most are). But that person wouldn’t dare cross the street and say it.

These are the words and experiences of Hip-Hop’s most well embraced hipster band. Das Racist hails from New York, mecca to hipster-dofus life and are praised both for their ability to rap about fast food combination chains and call out whitey on his racist shit. All why doing it in a laid back, but ferocious style. They’ve hooked up with a hot lot of blogs, other rappers and producers. I can’t think of anyone whose serious about rap music, or just great music in general, who isn’t burning up on what they come up with next. But what continues to baffle me, is the lack of response from white, hipster media to what Suri is continuing to bring to light. Once again, guilt and fear allows us to let others shout, scream and yell, justifiably, about the things we should bring up. There is, no doubt, a culture of inherent, systematic and largely ingrained racism in America. We, the educated class, the ones with access to education, information and the privilege of knowledge through learning as well life’s experience continually fail to self evaluate. Within that evaluation, we fail to take any kind of stance when it matters, when we can have a direct effect. We instead allow, or possibly force those that feel threatened and disenfranchised, to suffer further. So they pick up the pieces and succeed where we fail; to learn history, to understand our neighbors and to embrace difference. The bitterness I find in Das Racist’s work does not feel unwarranted.

Hipster culture is lazy, its engrained in the lack of cohesion, the slacker attitude adopted from preconceived notions of youth culture, heightened awareness of the surface and a reduction of the substance. It hides its fear in a party attitude of fuck all nonsense. But why can’t we have fun and be deadly serious? Why can’t we be deadly serious about having fun? If I’ve learned anything from the likes of rap music and the hip-hop nation, those parts I respond to, those that reinforce the positive, it’s that we can have a revolution that’s also a dance party. Why can’t we be self introspective about our bullshit and have that not lead to guilt about calling our fellow brothers and sisters out on theirs? We can take stock of our own shit, admit to it, improve it and constantly work on it. We can also stand up to what we know to be inherently and absolutely wrong. We don’t have to live with fear. All we have to do is be honest.

1 Comment

  1. Erik, great article. You opened my eyes to a few things I was unfamiliar with.

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