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Spoken word artist Crystal Valentine performs a very emotionally charged poem titled “Black Privilege” in a poetry slam competition. One of the most moving lines in her poem tackled the issue of police brutality against black men, and the scourge of gun violence taking way too many young promising lives in urban communities. She says “Black privilege is me having already memorized my nephew’s eulogy, my brother’s eulogy, my father’s eulogy, my unconceived child’s eulogy. Black privilege is me thinking my sister’s name is safe from that list.” Valentine is one of six performing poets who represented NYU at the poetry slam this year. Her team ended up winning which was no surprise to anyone who listened to her performance.
Ms Valentine makes me proud to be part of a resilient culture who takes oppression and intolerance and turns it into extraordinary talent and beautiful artistry. If you’re not moved by her amazing 3 minute video clip, you should contact a doctor immediately because something is seriously wrong with you. She poured her heart out on that stage layering vulnerability on top of confidence on top of self critical introspection. There aren’t many people who can touch your soul with just a few words. That’s power. That’s talent. That’s the power of blackness.
This blog post started off as a comment I left on a youtube video. I realized halfway through writing my comment that it was way too long to post as a comment so I “appropriated” (lol) my words and took them to my blog. I’m explaining all this because my writing style for this one is more conversational because it was never meant to be a full blog post. Anyway, here it is: It’s amazing to see African American culture influencing the entire world. Especially in music, dance, art, fashion, and sports. Descendants of slaves created almost every new musical genre of the 20th century. Rock, blues, jazz, R&B, soul, doo wap, pop, swing, big band, etc. all came from a very concentrated number of blacks crammed into a handful of southern states in the US. Now the world has taken this gift and created some of the best most innovative music the originators probably couldn’t even fathom. Living on cotton plantations our ancestors used song, dance, and rhythm as a way to feel connected to their homeland, and as a way to communicate important information to each other that only they could understand. Living through the hell of slavery and being treated like cattle is enough to kill the spirit of most men, but they created and sang songs to inspire one another which became just as important as bread or water. I’ve heard people say that the most creative and honest art comes from pain and struggle. If that saying is true then it makes perfect sense that these extraordinary gifts were possessed by slaves and passed on to each subsequent generation as a birthright.
I could argue a pretty convincing case for artistic purity while highlighting the unavoidable negatives that come with any appropriation of culture such as compensation, recognition, and commercialization, but to do that justice I’d have to ignore how much music has become a uniter reaching across borders and oceans like a war averse cultural diplomat. Thinking about the history of my country and the deep dark oppressive history of my people both still dealing with the effects of slavery and only 50 years removed from the horrors of segregation and Jim Crow, I feel such immense pride at the things we have accomplished and created in spite of the adversity. My parents grew up in the south during segregation and Jim Crow. Those weren’t foreign concepts I just read about in textbooks. They had to sit in a back corner of the movie theater where the “colored” section was if they wanted to see a film. While shopping downtown all the bathrooms had “white only” signs on them. Just trying to register to vote could get you fired if your white boss found out, and in some cases you could end up losing your life. Coming from that history feelings of proprietorship are understandable. Our slave ancestors didn’t have wealth to pass on to us, but what they did have was culture. Not being protective of that inheritance would be a gross disrespect to the pain they endured to pass it on.
When I see a Russian hip hop artist, or a Chinese break dance crew, or a French Jazz band, respecting the art and doing it justice, it warms my heart. I think it’s pretty easy to discern the artist who are deferential to the culture from those who mimic the culture primarily for financial gain. I think we should let the universe sort them out and while that process is happening, go buy a concert ticket to see a P-Funk or Earth Wind and Fire concert. Go to itunes and download Biggie’s “Read To Die” and “Life After Death” albums. Find some old clips on youtube of the men who invented Rock & Roll (Arthur Crudup, Goree Carter, and T-Bone Walker). Go to your grandmother’s church and sing along to some old negro spirituals and watch the oldest woman on the mother’s board add 2 more verses to the song that nobody else seems to know. I’m suggesting these things because we can’t be protective and selective of parts of our culture and take it for granted at the same time. If you don’t know who Goree Carter is, then I don’t want to hear your complaint about Iggy, Lorde, or Adele appropriating our culture even if I agree that two of 3 named are doing just that.