“History, the smiler with the dagger ‘neath the cloak”-William Chaucer

Oh, boy, where are those elusive songs? The half-remembered lyric or verse, the chord change, but never the title and certainly not the artist. After an hour discussing this phenomenon with a friend, does anyone recall a fairly bland, ‘70s AOR track about James Dean? It’s not David Essex (‘Rock On’), mind you if I could find an instrumental of the Essex song! It’s not The Eagles’ “James Dean”. The only lyric I can recall is “he had a smile…rarely, and even then it was a smile, but barely”. I guess “Boys of Summer” will have to suffice. No it won’t. Instead it’ll be the despised yet brilliant “Dreadlock Holiday” by the apparently vilified 10cc What is so compelling about that song? It’s not nostalgia, I didn’t hear it until two years ago. Yet it is a ‘pre-emptive’ rebuke to an English micro-talent, Sting, who claimed that The Police were the band that introduced reggae to British & American ‘kids’. Please! The soggy, uninspired 10cc did that in 1976, and Stevie Wonder released the prescient, totally original “Master Blaster” before Stuart Copeland could roll a joint (with his toes).

Even more peculiar is that the band’s superb playing on that song almost overrides the appalling lyrics. What is the song about? It’s the story of a white English guy who goes on holiday in Jamaica, is nearly mugged by a group of Rastafarian men-who he demands respect from because he does, then doesn’t, like reggae. Next verse: bolting away from these ‘thugs’, he encounters an absurdly exoticized Jamaican woman at a bar who tells him “my harvest is the best, and if you try it, you’ll like it”. No doubt he liked it. But “Dreadlock Holiday” is an uncanny song. Why? Because, whether 10cc knew it or not, they were describing very precisely the ambivalence & ambiguity that is always present in the white, male tourist in a Black country, who is at once terrified/repulsed by the “natives” and yet drawn to ‘them’ in the unending colonial dialectic of pleasure/terror, excitement/fear, exotic/ordinary. Now if you think this is a ridiculous ‘academic’ approach to a song that was in the Radio 1 Top Ten, I can only say that it is a great pop song, and despite the actual content of the lyrics, I can’t pry myself loose from it. Therein lies the dilemma of digust/delight particularly with regards to music. This has a great deal to do with the sound of a piece of music and less to do with its lyrical content (unless it’s instrumental, of course).

The larger issue is that Frantz Fanon and Amilcar Cabral talked about this racialized desire/fear dynamic in the mid 1950s. And it hasn’t changed at all. At least 10cc expressed this openly in the lyrics to “Dreadlock Holiday”. We are now in a completely different era, one in which that song might well be attacked for its racism and exoticization of Jamaica, which was, after all, a British colony for a very long time. Now, as shapes change and open expression of white privilege is no longer acceptable within bureaucratic multiculturalism, in which citizens (consumers) are told to tolerate the racial ‘other’. And ‘tolerance’ suggests that the ‘other’ is intolerable to begin with. Very little progress, no?. What does this produce?

In the sphere of popular music and popular culture, the most immediate way to comprehend the shift in racialized positions throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, is simply to close one’s eyes and pick an arbitrary example of white supremacy’s extraordinary ability to adapt itself to new contexts. Hollertronix. There it is. Why single out these two guys? It’s not to lay blame at their feet. There are dozens of other instances of the same phenomenon. That it takes under a minute to find an example is troubling, to say the least.

But the most recent Hollertronix flyer is floating about, and their website speaks volumes. The front page of their site hints at what they are doing. Why is Flavor Flav on one their flyers? The history of these DJs is even more offensive. The question I have to ask here is: Why the need for Black hip-hop artists, from Lil’ Jon to Flavor Flav, in addition to images of Black women in their publicity material, and unnamed Black faces ‘holding’ pieces of text, or the Black men at the center, on the very first page of the site? Clearly, this is not accidental. They have a graphic design company under contract. The pictures they provide are, finally, the visual evidence of their appropriation of Black culture. The audiences in Philly, New York, and Sundance are overwhelmingly white. But, there are a sufficient number of photographs of Black people suggesting that their music crosses racial boundaries or simply that they have a ‘multicultural’ following. But isn’t this reminiscent of the standard undergraduate catalogue at any given non-HBCU, in which the cover photograph nearly always depicts at least two students of color, smiling, and is then dotted with other photos showing ‘racial harmony’ to convince would-be applicants that the institution is truly ‘inclusive’ and is a comfortable place for Black people and other students of color? (I hope not to insult the reader’s intelligence, by stating that HBCU is the acronym for ‘Historically Black Colleges and Universities”).

Returning to Hollertronix, Why on earth are they represented as crunk DJs? Certainly crunk has been exposed to a wider audience in the last two-three years, as Lil’ Jon and The Ying-Yang twins signed to TVT, Three 6 Mafia are on Sony, etc. But what is the relation between white people and emergent Black musical genres such that white people are so eager to begin playing/making/producing a given Black genre almost as soon as they hear it? It has been happening in the US for decades. The last thing to do is read me as saying that there is some absolute racial purity at work when Black people invent a new cultural form. I’m talking very specifically about Black culture as a whole way of life. I can’t claim Black folks own crunk. But you might well want to own something in a country in which your ancestors did not own their own bodies.

Consider crunk’s origins. it began In Black strip clubs in Atlanta and Memphis. Fortunately, the extraordinary ingenuity and pace with which Black culture, in all its forms changes form, shape, and content is too complex for white kids to mimic as it emerges. But the popularity of Hollertronix arises, at the very least (on the part of cops, for example), from the fact of youth and whiteness, which, in the US, will take you a long way. The old maxim ” you’re free, white, and twenty one” is far more than just an idle comment.

That crunk began to attract a young, white, suburban audience it no shock at all. But I ask that you consider this: For as long as the US has defined itself, Black people have been the object of both fear and fascination, terror and allure, lust and hatred. During enslavement, this took the form of lynchings, rape, torture, humiliation and numerous other kinds of violence. Those acts have been made ‘illegal’ and Abraham Lincoln made the so-called ‘emancipation proclamation’. The unconscious power of the fear/fascination dynamic and its analogues has not diminished one iota. Hollertronix are merely one instance of this terror/allure dynamic, the sadomasochism which defines black/white ‘relations’ in the US.

The French psychoanalytic theorist Jacques Lacan may seem completely out of place here. Nevertheless, he described what he called the ‘objet petit a’ (‘the small object’, in a literal translation). What is this and why here? My answer is simple. The ‘objet petit a’ is ‘that which is in the person more than themselves’. Imagine if someone asked you to write down all of the things/attributes of a person with whom you were in love, a checklist of sorts. Yeah, you could do it, but wouldn’t the ‘essence’ of the person, the real source of passion be missing from a mere mechanical list? Of course. That missing element is the ‘objet petit a’, that ‘thing’ about the person that is more than their ‘positive’ or ‘loveable’ qualities. The passion/love can’t be named in mere language.

This digression is not as far from the earlier argument as it might appear. In the US, white people have, for a very long time, felt fearful and fascinated by Black people. There are innumerable reasons for this, and the I may have driven away a lot readers already. One of the ‘things’ about Black musicians (of every stripe) that keeps white people spellbound is their ability to seize hold of the most ordinary of Western instruments and turn those instruments inside out , make them do things their inventor could not possibly have envisioned. John Coltrane. Albert Ayler. Kool Herc. Grandmaster Flash. I’m rattling off the names of those who immediately come to mind. Frankly stated, white musicians (or DJs) are tremendously envious of this ad hoc, improvisational, reconfiguring of musics/instruments (electronic or otherwise). So many white musicians think that Black musicians possess that ‘objet petit a’, something that is in those musicians more than themselves. How else to account for white musicians intense desire to mimic Black musicians? (As Elvis once said. “I don’t know anything about music. In my line, you don’t have to”). Of course he doesn’t need to know. Black people wrote the music & lyrics, and he was the mouthpiece, the charming whiteboy with a hint of the transgressive qualities so many white people believe are inherent to Black people en masse.

I’m not trying to insult your intelligence in saying that Hollertronix are not Elvis Presley. Nevertheless, the owe their success to the co-opting not only of Black visual images (Lil’ Jon, Flavor Flav, and the Black women dressed as strippers on their flyers) but Black, regional, vernacular art forms (crunk, in this case) that brought together an amalgam of Southern black music that speaks to a certain Southern blackness that has nothing to do with the East Coast. I emphasize the regional here only because it’s crucial to understand how radically different Black life in the Southern US has been, in contrast to the the East and West Coasts, since the first enslaved Africans arrived in 1619.

Finally, though, this is not about a politics of blame, finger-pointing, and accusation. There are thousands of white musicians/DJs/performers from the mid-17th century to the present who, in one way or another, have re-enacted the same old thing. The fight to be won here has nothing to do with banning or boycotting Hollertonix, casting them out into the desert. Rather, it is to emphasize the need to remain vigilant, to be always aware of how white supremacy and its desire to regulate the mobility, life chances, and representations of Black people, will continue until a vast, widespread understanding (among all people in the US) of its power leads to its demise.

Fredric Jameson once memorably said: “History is what hurts”.

I’ve got a CD in front of me by a group called West Indian Girl. The group’s members? Two white kids who emerged from the broken heart of Southern California’s post-rave culture. I bring this up as a conclusion because it speaks to the phenomenon I’ve been talking about above. And that phenomenon, to risk repetition is constantly taking new shapes and forms. That these two white guys would call themselves ‘West Indian Girl’ is so grossly offensive, that I’ll need to calm down before…

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