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In Living Color

Reviewed by John Strausbaugh
Sunday, September 5, 2004; Page BW09

WHERE YOU'RE AT

Notes From the Frontline of a Hip-Hop Planet

By Patrick Neate. Riverhead. 274 pp. Paperback, $14

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RIGHT TO ROCK

The Black Rock Coalition and the Cultural Politics of Race

By Maureen Mahon. Duke Univ. 317 pp. Paperback, $22.95

Can black musicians rock? Should white kids like rap?

They seem like foolish, indeed racist, questions, but they still get asked. Popular music is a tool millions of young people use to construct personal and tribal identities, and, for better or worse, rock is identified as white kids' music, hip-hop as black. It's not primarily a question of the musicians' competence but of cultural capital and ownership.

Two new books approach the issue from different angles. In Where You're At, long-time hip-hop fan Patrick Neate, who is British and white, travels the world to find evidence of "hip-hop culture" everywhere "from New York to Nairobi, the Rio favelas to the townships of South Africa," and declares "it's a hip-hop planet." In Right to Rock, Maureen Mahon, a black associate professor of anthropology at UCLA, describes the dilemmas faced by black rock musicians who are told that "black rock won't sell to whites because it's black and it won't sell to blacks because it's rock."

Neate's book is a hip-hop travelogue. He's an engaging guide, with broad knowledge and deep understanding, yet also an inquisitive outsider who can be perplexed and dismayed by what he discovers. Looking for a global culture, he finds that hip-hop is "glocalized" -- universal, but with its meaning and uses adapted to specific social environments.

Visiting with rappers and DJs in New York, he sees how becoming a multibillion-dollar media industry has transformed street culture into branded merchandise and off-the-rack attitude. Hip-hop "was a grassroots, bottom-up expression of who you were and where you came from and its language was arcane and inaccessible to the mainstream," he frets. "Now hip-hop is the mainstream and its language . . . is the language of marketing and media." That this is such a disheartening revelation to Neate is a rare, but in a way touching, show of naiveté.

A bit daunted, Neate wanders the planet, hoping to find places where hip-hop means more than sneaker brands and bling bling. In Tokyo he encounters crowds of gangsta-wannabes and cornrowed, skin-darkened fly girls, whose embrace of hip-hop at first strikes him as entirely superficial. "Hip-hop here? It's like they read it from a book," a black American expat scoffs. Probing further, though, Neate concludes that hip-hop fashion is one way for Japanese youth to assert some individuality in a maniacally conformist society. In Rome and Rio, he finds youth ingeniously appropriating hip-hop forms to express political dissent and social discontent. For instance, MV Bill, "probably Rio hip-hop's best social critic," raps about the brutal lives of teenage "ghetto soldiers" in the abysmally poor favelas, and has been arrested for it. Conversely, in France -- interestingly, the world's second-largest market for hip-hop -- hip-hop has mutated from an underground voice of alienation to virtually a state-sanctioned art form, heavily subsidized by the French Music Bureau, a joint government-industry agency, as part of the government's mandate to promote Francophone music and combat the corrupting influence of Anglophone (i.e., American) imports. In South Africa, he learns that young people are in many ways as racially fragmented -- black, white and "colored," or mixed-race -- as they were during apartheid. Borrowing styles of language, attitude and dress from American hip-hop stars, Neate concludes, helps them build something like a common culture.

Where You're At, it should be obvious, is about much more than music. From canny observations and many conversations, Neate builds a fascinating, detailed and ultimately hopeful composite portrait of world youth who, God bless them, consume globally to rebel locally.

Mahon's Right to Rock could have used some of Neate's perspective and open-mindedness. In the mid-'90s Mahon did her dissertation fieldwork on the Black Rock Coalition (BRC), an organization formed in 1985 by Vernon Reid, founder of the band Living Colour, with Village Voice writer Greg Tate and others. Mahon became an infatuated devotee and the BRC's recording secretary; that collapse of critical distance -- she's now a self-admitted "fanthropologist" -- complete with frequent gushing and outright cheerleading, isn't good for her credibility.

The BRC's 1985 manifesto, penned by Tate, declared, "Rock and roll is Black music and we are its heirs." The BRC, it stated, "opposes those racist and reactionary forces within the American music industry which deny Black artists the expressive freedom and economic rewards that our caucasian [sic] counterparts enjoy as a matter of course." This was followed by a blue-sky list of demands: for performance, recording and videotaping opportunities, "creative funding and fund location resources for individual artist projects," and resources for education and networking. One wonders why guaranteed ticket and record sales didn't make the list.

There's much to question in this document, but Mahon is more interested in amplifying and championing it. She's most persuasive when she lets the musicians tell their own stories. Many BRC members -- who have included bands like Living Colour, D-Tripp and Screaming Headless Torsos, and solo artists like Me'Shell NdegéOcello -- represent the first generation of what Tate has dubbed "postliberated" black Americans. Growing up middle class and integrated, they developed musical tastes ranging freely from P-Funk to Yes. They say that their enjoyment of rock disturbed their peers, black and white, who couldn't understand why black kids wanted to play "white" music. As adults, they caught similar attitudes from club owners, radio programmers, record label execs and music critics -- again, black and white -- convinced there was no audience for black rockers.

As women rockers and a white rapper or two have demonstrated, you can write manifestoes listing all the demands you like, but the best way to open closed minds (and doors, and wallets) is, as Iggy Pop once said, to "rock it straight, no bullshit." Living Colour, a great rock band, sold millions of records before disbanding in 1995. Me'Shell, Fishbone, Prince and Lenny Kravitz have done pretty well for themselves too. More alternative black rockers, from Bad Brains to Mick Collins of the Dirtbombs, have thrived outside the mainstream. Expanding beyond the narrow spectrum of rock, it's hard to see how being black is a natural barrier to succeeding in pop music (e.g., Michael Jackson), and it's effectively a prerequisite in hip-hop, the biggest-selling pop music genre in the United States. (One could also argue that it contains more "racist and reactionary" elements than rock ever has, to judge by the numerous gangsta rap lyrics that have advocated killing "whitey" or "devils," the perversely counter-progressive minstrel-show caricatures that pervade hip-hop videos, and the hysterically exclusionist response to the occasional white rapper like Eminem.)

None of which is to deny that black rockers face peculiar problems of perception and acceptance, or that the BRC has done smart and resourceful things to combat preconceptions. Mahon ably documents both. By organizing concerts and festivals, working with independent labels, making their own music videos and wooing the media, the organization raises awareness and consciousness for its constituent artists. Those actions rock harder than Tate's polemics or Mahon's proselytizing. •

John Strausbaugh is the author of "Rock 'Til You Drop" and is writing a book about racial imagery in pop culture.


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