Black Future Month ’10: Paris/Tokyo

February 6th, 2010 Posted by david brothers

The easiest thing to point to when someone says “What’s cultural appropriation?” (in the unlikely event that somebody actually wants to know the answer to that question) is the theft of rock and roll. ego trip’s Big Book of Racism!, in addition to being an incredible read, has a great series of lists about rock and roll and race. Long story short, of course, cultural appropriation is the act of taking something that “belongs” to one culture–be it music, arts, literature, drama, whatever–and taking it for your own.

It isn’t a focused movement, exactly. There are no malicious men sitting around a table, plotting on how they can steal bachata and make it there own. It tends to be a byproduct of what happens when racism and institutional racism work hand in hand. Taking rock and roll for an (extremely simplified) example– white America in the mid-1900s had no interest in letting black America onto their jukeboxes and into their clubs. However, white musicians performing what was often the exact same music was met with, if not acceptance, something more positive than racially-motivated revulsion. Over time, rock and roll became a “white” genre, something associated with your average run of the mill white people rather than blacks.

Blackface is another example of cultural appropriation, though much more actively racist and malicious. White actors portrayed black characters for the entertainment and edification of a white audience, donning burnt cork and shoe polish and emulating (or just making up) the ways that black people acted.

A more recent example of cultural appropriation are the dozens of kung fu movies starring white guys. Once Hong Kong action cinema proved to be popular in the ’70s, one way of making it even more popular for American audiences was to toss a white guy into the main role. A good example of this is Danny Rand, from Marvel’s Iron Fist. Danny is a rich white guy who ended up in a thinly obfuscated Shangri-La and ended up becoming its greatest warrior, even triumphing over the natives of the city.

In the fall of ’08, I took a work trip to Tokyo, Japan. I didn’t get as much time to dig in and explore as I wanted, but I did end up spending a lot of time in Shibuya and Harajuku. I saw a lot of people dressed like I dressed, or like people dressed back home. I spent some time in a streetwear shop where the two clerks didn’t know much English beyond “Biggie” and “Nas,” but they knew rap lyrics and fashion.
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Black History Month ’09 #18: One What? One Love

February 18th, 2009 Posted by david brothers

The thing about black culture, and this is something that’s often understated or ignored when discussing race in America, is that it is American culture, through and through. Black culture has permeated American culture across a variety of formats and in varying degrees. In music, the progression from gospel, blues, jazz, rock, and rap has run the industry for decades. Kids all over the country are wearing white tees and baggy jeans, no matter their racial background or upbringing.

Is it racial appropriation? Is Eminem a wigger because he’s a kid who grew up to be a rapper? Is Ill Bill out of line for making White Nigger, about his childhood growing up as a white Jew? Was it cool for Big Pun, a puerto rican from the Bronx, to be one of the best emcees that ever did it? Or did they grow up able to relate?

One of my favorite music videos is Three 6 Mafia’s “Dope Boy Fresh.” The important part is the video part of the music video. The song is straight, but beside the point. It’s a flip on the movie Being John Malkovich, and allows viewers a trip into the mind of Three 6. My favorite bits in the video are the young kid at the beginning (“Murcielago with the wings out!”) and the asian girl at the end (around 3:33, though 3:36-3:38 is on some next level amazing type thing).

The first thing I thought when I saw this video was “Man, that’s pretty dang cool.” It’s a video that stuck with me, though, which doesn’t happen with most. The more I thought about it, the more I felt like it was illustrating some seriously basic point, a point so basic that it was tough to put it into words. Realizing that these people were stepping into someone else’s shoes and clothes, but still looking normal was the key. Sure, the old white dude is kinda corny, like the old guy at the club who nobody knows but keeps dancing with the young girls, but the rest of them just look like people. They look natural.

It put something into perspective for me. I’ve never really bought into the idea of wiggers or whatever. C-Rayz Walz and 4th Pyramid’s “Blackout” basically killed that entire idea for me.

If you black, with a degree, and you work
and got a happy family, they say you wanna be white!
If you white, with bells, smoke weed, listen to rap
and live free, they say you wanna be black!

It’s all the same. The white kid on the bus with his short hair covered by a New Era isn’t jacking culture or appropriating ideas. At this point, he probably grew up with it. It’s what he knows. It’s what we both know.

Coming to this realization was the final nail in the coffin for both wiggers and blacks in comics being something special. Everybody’s got black friends. My mom listens to some rap, but she also put me on to No Doubt back when Tragic Kingdom came out. I’ve got white friends who consistently surprise me with their rap knowledge.

Comics, in general, treat white males as normal. Women and people of other races are notable, and are judged on a frankly pathetic scale. If you write a mediocre comic featuring a gay couple or a black guy or a woman, well, hey! Have these awards! Way to go! The barrier for quality is lower, since if you’re already doing something adventurous by even writing black people, you must be doing something right!

If you compare comics and real life, though, you’ll find a different story. It’s 2009. At this point, so many things are normal that were not previously that comics need to adjust to compensate. We don’t need Black Panther launching during Black History Month twice in a row. It’s nice, and I appreciate the sentiment, but break out of this idea that each new thing that isn’t white and male is an event.

At the same time, we need to stop rewarding people for doing the barest minimum. Ham-fisted allegories or cheap and emotionally manipulative scenes means that you’re a hack writer, not some revolutionary bringing the truth down off the mount.

If you go outside, you’re going to see someone who looks, talks, or acts like me. If I go outside, I’ll see someone who looks like you. We’re both normal. We are different, but we aren’t different. By and large, we share the same culture.

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Black History Month ’09 #03: This Is The Way The World Begins

February 3rd, 2009 Posted by david brothers

I really enjoyed the new volume of Afro Samurai. Resurrection stripped out all of the dross from the first Afro Samurai film. Romance subplot? Gone. Meandering explanations? Gone. Light characterization? Gone. What was left was a lean exploitation flick in the style of Ninja Scroll or Fist of the North Star.


I may speak on Afro (and Ninja Ninja) later this month, but Afro Samurai kind of exemplifies something I love about black, or rap, culture. It’s universal. It went from being something that wouldn’t last twenty years to one of the most dominant forms of music on the planet. Who did Britney Spears, all-american girl, go to when she wanted a hit? Timbaland and Pharrell. Rap has infested pop and dance music to an amazing level.

Looking fresh is still a huge part of rap culture and one of the biggest meccas for streetwear fashion is… Tokyo. I spent a week in Tokyo back in October and man, I could’ve spent thrice what I did on clothes and sneakers. I came home with two different books that were basically sneakerhead fetishism. Kids in fitted Yankees New Eras hit me with the head nod as I walked past and I bonded with these two dudes who didn’t speak a word of English other than “B.I.G.” and “Nas.” I used to live in Spain, I’ve been to France, and found rap fans in both places.

It’s worldwide, and that’s a beautiful thing. People talk about Obama getting elected as if it was the end of racism. Well, that’s dumb. Obama being president isn’t going to change racism. But, right now, there are whole countries full of kids growing up in and around black culture, repping it like it was their own. In a way, they have made it their own by accepting it and modifying it to fit their own culture. These kids identifying and learning from each other because they have that common ground… that’s where post-racialism is going to come from. Not from one man doing one thing. It’s going to come from sharing cultures.

It’s not going to be a flip of a switch. It’s not going to be as easy as declaring “mission complete!” or just up and deciding that we’re post-racial. There’s got to be give and take and push and pull and just something deeper than mere co-existing before post-racialism happens. This is part of why I think that having the two biggest superhero comics out actually represent their audience, and real life, is vital.

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