Sunday, October 02, 2005

Interesting Blues Article

Thanks a lot to Jim Hauser for allowing me to re-print his thought-provoking post on the blues as protest music:

In response to my post on blues as protest, there's been some discussion about the importance of understanding the blues vs. blues as entertainment. Here's an example of why I think it's important to understand and not just be entertained.

A few days ago, I saw John Mellencamp on the Tavis Smiley program. And
Mellencamp was complaining about rap music. He indicated that this type of
music has him concerned because it's setting back black America. He said
something like rap (i.e. gangsta rap) is nothing but Stagger Lee in gold chains.
He's right about Stagger Lee. Gangsta rap is Stagger Lee--magnified and
multiplied 1000 times. I know that he has a love for the blues, but, based on
his comments, I doubt that he understands the blues.

The blues--at its core--is a music of resistance. All black music is. And
Mellencamp doesn't understand that Stagger Lee, a black man who was so ba-a-a-d
that he could do as he pleased, was a manifestation of an oppressed people's
will to be free. Maybe Mellencamp would find Stagger Lee more to his liking if
he did a little research. If he did, he'd find that great black writers like
James Baldwin and Sterling Brown saw Stagolee and other legendary black badmen
as heroes. Baldwin even wrote a poem about him titled "Staggerlee Wonders."
And both writers loved the blues.

I've been researching Stagger Lee for years and I've even created a
devoted to him. I have recently become more and more interested in trying to
understand the significance of gangsta rap. Like Mellencamp, I'm a blues lover,
but I've got very different ideas about gangsta rap. Here are my thoughts:

Gangster rap might be at least partially understood by looking back at Richard
Wright's "Native Son", one of America's most important novels. Wright's novel
showed the dehumanizing effect of racism on the oppressed. Native Son's main
character, Bigger Thomas, is a literary version of Stagger Lee. Bigger was a
big and powerful black man who bullied his friends, hated everyone (black and
white), and committed murder. He was a monstrous by-product of racism. Native
Son was Wright's warning that white America's racist ways would come back and
bite it in the ass. And now gangsta rap is like a pit bull with a grip on both

White America tried to escape Stagger Lee and Bigger Thomas by moving to the
suburbs and by building gated communities. Bigger Thomas envied the freedom and
riches of white America and he had a burning desire to get his piece of the pie.
He finally found a way to get that piece. He changed his street name from
Stagger Lee to Ice-T, Ice Cube, Schoolly D, etc. And he smuggled himself into
white America by stowing away in the stereo systems of the children of the
people who built those suburban havens of "safety."

And the devastating effect of this is that the white Americans who sent Lloyd
Price's "Stagger Lee" to the top of the charts now have grandsons who want their
ride pimped and think it's cool to apply terms like "bitch" and "ho" to women.

Ralph Ellison's novel "Invisible Man" argues that racism has terrible effects on
both sides of the racial divide. White America suffers for its racism and
gangsta rap is a great and totally unexpected example of this. But not
unexpected to all--if Wright and Ellison were alive today, they would point to
gangsta rap and say "I told you so." While we fret over terrorism, we are blind
to an even bigger threat; our failure to correct the injustices of centuries of
slavery and racism is causing America to crumble from the inside.

When John Mellencamp goes on national TV and starts talking about gangsta rap setting back black America, he's only partially correct. It's setting back black AND white America. And if he's going to finger point, he should point out that white America is really at the root of the whole thing.

I can understand why Mellencamp, much of white America, and many African Americans do not like gangsta rap. But, personally, I hold out a lot of hope for it. Why? Bob Marley once was a representative of the rude boys, gangsters who were the Jamaican counterpart to Stagger Lee. (He and his band, The Wailers, were originally named The Wailing Rude Boys.) Today, he is a symbol of human rights.

Send comments to: Tim