It doesn’t take much to grab my attention.
For example, I happened to hear an interview on National Public Radio with Peter Rosenberg, apparently notorious in the world of hip hop for his characterization of Nicki Minaj’s “Starship” as pop (read “crap”) rather than authentic hip hop. Minaj took exception, cancelled her concert, and entered into a heated exchange with Rosenberg over the next few years.
Please understand that not only do I have no dog in that particular fight, but also have absolutely no credibility when it comes to music aired in the last three decades; I’m not stuck on Perry Como’s “Hot Diggity Dog What You Do To Me,” even though I can sing along. No, I can bust a mean move with “Hey, Mickey, You’re so fine, you’re so fine , you blow my mind, Hey Mickey” It’s got a good beat,” as they used to say on American Bandstand. You can dance to it.
I absolutely do not know real hip hop. Rosenberg and Minaj live and work in a climate I cannot understand, but I did understand Minaj’s response to Rosenberg’s assumption of the role of “gatekeeper” to the world of hip hop.
“I don’t know your resume,” she said. “I don’t know who you are. What’s your resume?”
By resume she meant with what authority, with what experience, with what right did Peter Rosenberg take it upon himself to pass judgment on her and her music? It’s an interesting way of thinking about the judgments we make, similar to the principle underlying the word “warrant”. Is this action warranted? Do you have a warrant to search my car?
Peter Rosenberg grew up in Chevy Chase, Maryland, a comfy suburb of Washington, D.C., one of many suburban towns that included restricted covenants with the purchase of property; until the 1960’s, the purchase of a home in Chevy Chase was restricted to White buyers. Nicki Minaj was born in Trinidad Tobago, was raised in Queens, New York, and has been active in the rap and hip hop scene since 2007. Rosenberg hosts radio shows, a YouTube series, Wrestling With Rosenberg, and considers himself a guardian of authentic hip hop as he expressed in an article in The New Yorker:
“I will go toe to toe with almost anyone in terms of knowledge, trivia, and love of this music.”
What sort of resume would warrant that assertion? Does a resume in this case demand living experience of the culture that gave birth to hip hop? Can appreciation, love, mastery of trivia, bring authority? Minaj thinks not.
I’m thinking about my resume, including professional experience, of course, and a variety of life experiences. I am a parent, a husband, a brother, a teacher. I write every day but can’t call myself a writer. I have studied English literature, medieval history, American film, Native American literature, and nuclear propulsion and engineering. Not an expert in any of those fields, particularly engineering. I am male and not much of an expert there either. I love dogs and cats equally but live with dogs. I can name every candy bar sold in New England from 1956 – 1967. Undeserved blessings have come my way. Unwanted trials have also landed from time to time. I know something about injury and fear. I have been hired, and I have been fired. I have lived in every quadrant of the nation and outside the United States.
Mistakes? I’ve made a few. I’ve hurt people I love. More than once. I’ve missed opportunities and squandered good fortune. My juvenile record is sealed, so I don’t have to share much about that chapter.
At the other end of the spectrum, I was briefly a lay eucharistic minister, and I sang the National Anthem at a Green Bay Packer’s game in Chicago. I haven’t been to church or Chicago in decades. I have walked most of the Upper Yosemite and have hit a bear with a frying pan. I belong to a fellowship of men and women who share experience, strength, and hope. I know famous people. I know homeless people.
“Who are you? What’s your resume?”
With what authority can I claim the sort of absolute conviction about anything that Rosenberg does with regard to the true nature of hip hop music? I’m no authority on children even though I love mine extravagantly and can answer trivia questions about each. I know a lot about sports but would not presume to instruct a linebacker in the proper method of bulldogging a two hundred pound running back to the ground.
I’m not sure I have a specific cultural identity; I have certainly been guilty of cultural appropriation as I’m not always sure when appreciation slides into appropriation. As a young man, back when Bill Cosby was funny, I copied his delivery. As a storyteller, I told tales from West Africa, from the Aroostook band of Micmacs; I told stories told by Jews in Eastern Europe and stories told by Polish immigrants in Pennsylvania. I’ve told Appalachian stories and Lithuanian stories.
Because I loved them.
But, told them with what warrant? What in my resume allowed me to attempt a dialect not my own? I’m embarrassed now to think of the chutzpah I summoned to use words such as chutzpah (It’s somehow less egregious in print).
The universe delights in keeping me off-balance as was proved yet again as I began working on this piece. The next time I turned on the radio, I caught the tail end of a conversation between Black authors describing the impact of stories collected by journalist Joel Chandler Harris (a White Georgian) and presented in Uncle Remus, His songs and Sayings: The Folklore of the Old Plantation. The stories are presented in the dialect that Harris attributed to the slaves who had told the stories when Harris had worked on plantations as a boy. Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Bear, Br’er Fox came from animal stories told by Uncle George Terrell, Old Harbert, Aunt Crissy on the plantation, closely related to stories told in Africa.
Widely admired when published, the stories were favorites of Mark Twain who read them to his children. By the 1920’s, however, they were seen as stereotyping and demeaning the African-American experience of slavery. The Disney version (Song of the South) made plantation life seem downright jolly (“Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah”) and Uncle Remus appeared to delight in spending his days entertaining White children: “Chillens! We’s all a-gwine home.” Needless to say, Disney has buried the film in its archives, unwilling to add it to the cycle of films to be re-released in a regular rotation.
But the authors who spoke were grateful to have heard the stories told as they were. The stories might have been lost had Harris not put them into print, and the dialect as well. One author had heard the stories as read by his father and hears them in his father’s voice still. Harris did not own those stories, but perhaps at that moment they were his to protect. We don’t know if Harris considered himself an expert on plantation stories; it’s unlikely that he thought of himself as a gatekeeper.
In closing I am reminded of yet another interview on NPR, this one with Johan Kugelberg. Kugelberg is the creator of the Cornell Hip Hop Collection, the largest assemblage of artifacts associated with hip hop music. Kugelberg, a former record executive and observer of pop culture, had sought the earliest artifacts of hip hop from its start in the South Bronx in the early 1970’s and donated that collection to Cornell University which has added to the collection in order to present the history of hip hop as it spread from New York City. And, how it has changed.
Kugelberg grew up with skateboards and punk music. He describes himself as an essayist on subculture; in an article describing his collection, the New York Post called him, “The Indiana Jones of Punk and Hip Hop”.
“In just a few minutes, the Swedish archivist and author produces an original manuscript of John Coltrane’s music dated from the 1950s; a 1982 Danceteria poster for one of REM’s earliest New York City shows; a 1984 invite to an advanced playback of Madonna’s second album, “Like a Virgin,” at a Chelsea strip club; a first-edition copy of Robert Frank’s seminal photography book, “The Americans” (signed to his publisher Barney Rosset); and a sweat shirt worn by Afrika Bambaataa during his early DJ gigs in the 1970s.”
So, Swedish punk skater travels to Cornell on a regular basis to work with others on the collection’s advisory board – Jorge “Popmaster Fabel” Pabon, MC Sha-Rock, Grandmaster Caz, and Zuu Queen MC Lisa Lee – on expanding the collection and preserving the history of the culture(s). Kugelberg began this work in response to those who thought hip hop was unimportant. As the Post reported, Kugelberg took a longer view.
“My only response was that it was like being in 1925 and saying country-blues isn’t worthwhile, or being in 1947 and saying that Charlie Parker is not worthwhile. Beginnings are always humble.”
The difference, I think, between Johan Kugelberg and Peter Rosenberg is that Kugelberg celebrates a culture and Rosenberg seems to claim ownership of a culture not his own.
Humility. That’s a pretty good resume.