|Illustration by Geoff Grahn|
THERE IS AMPLE REASON NOT TO BEGIN A DISCUSSION of Everything but the Burden: What White People Are Taking From Black Culture with Eminem. In light of the recent war of words between rapper Benzino and Em, so much critical scrutiny has been bestowed upon America's most overdetermined rap star, it's a wonder he hasn't buckled under the weight of all that intellectual ink.
And yet here he is, hugging the headline. Where else could he be, when the very notion of cultural theft has become synonymous with this surly poster child for wiggered-out America? The Source magazine deemed him "part of a dangerous, corruptive cycle that promotes the blatant theft of a culture from the community that created it," and urged readers not to "sit back while our culture is raped and pillaged." Dramatic words, but hardly shocking. The Eminem-as-modern-day-Elvis paradigm has become a clichéd, enlightened way to dismiss Slim Shady. It goes hand-in-hand with a second well-circulated Eminem cliché, which mitigates the first: Eminem's class status is his license to blackness, elevating him above wiggers du jour like Justin Timberlake (whose whiteness is far more absolute than Em's). 8 Mile milks this notion: a white-man-as-victim fantasy of the Falling Down variety, in which the whites emerge from the black rabble, where they never belonged in the first place.
This premise is shaky at best: That for artists, authenticity of self, which is acquired via the "right" kind of upbringing (literal and metaphorical proximity to black people), ultimately produces authenticity of art or performance. So, Vanilla Ice's wack performance was a product of his inauthentic self, and Justin's work can't possibly match Eminem's. But what if Vanilla Ice simply sucked because he sucked, not because he was really from the 'burbs? And if the art sounds bona fide, does it matter whether the artist grew up with N' Sync or D-12? Why, in other words, elevate persona above performance?
Let's not forget that Elvis and much of his audience were not clueless cultural pirates. "A lot of people seem to think I started this business, but rock & roll was here a long time before I came along," Presley told Jet in 1957. "Let's face it: I can't sing it like Fats Domino. I know I can't." His fans, not to mention countless radio DJs, knew it too, which is why, by 1956, DJs like Alan Freed refused to play white covers of black R&B tunes, white teens were scouring record stores for original versions of their favorite hits, and white-power patrols panicked about the music that was "mongrelizing" airwaves and dance floors. Ultimately, of course, black artists were never paid in the way that white cover artists were. And in the end, Elvis and others could pay homage until the cows came home, but rock & roll's white fruits eventually obscured its black roots.
IN THE FACE OF PERVASIVE SIMPLISTIC rhetoric on an important subject one whose history reaches back before Elvis, back to the Jazz Age whites who stormed Harlem, back to the 19th-century bohemians who trouped about as minstrels there is need for real critical scrutiny. Enter Greg Tate, staff writer at The Village Voice, musical director of Burnt Sugar, and author of, among others, Flyboy in the Buttermilk. Tate's Everything but the Burden (he edited the essay collection) is, at least on the surface, brilliant. The cover features a white boy from the waist down sporting low-riding pants and visible boxers; on the back cover, a young black boy offers a perturbed stare.
First-person essays, like Jonathan Lethem's white-boy-who-grew-up-in-the-hood piece, do strike a chord. But the essay collection feels more like random pieces from the file cabinets of novelists, critics and artists. What, for instance, does Robin Kelley's article on the tension between Communist-era black leftists and their white counterparts have to do with the book's stated subject (which Tate calls "the all-American fascination with Blackness")? It's as tenuously related as novelist Danzy Senna's hilarious parody of academia, written in the voice of a professor in the year 2036 who has unearthed such poetic gems as "Showtime": "i just gotta know/i mean/i just GOT to know/why trifling/motherfuckers like/you are all alike?/I mean,/why you/gotta/run out on my/ass/just when they're about/to turn off the/motherfucking cable?"
Momentary flashes of brilliance devolve into pretentious postmodern garble. John Lindh's fascination with hip-hop, African appropriations of African-American pop culture these are rich, critically untapped topics. But what does, say, Melvin Gibbs mean by "Asiatic cultural production" as "an attempt to nullify the exclusionary category white"? And isn't it a bit much when writer/filmmaker Manthia Diawara calls James Brown a post-colonial Nommo, or shaman, figure? One also has to wonder about the obvious omissions from Everything but the Burden: Where is writer/actor Danny Hoch, whose 1999 film Whiteboyz is a flawed but still potent parody of wiggers? Why no Eric Lott, who authored Love and Theft, the defining book on minstrelsy?
David Roediger's essay on Elvis and Eminem would do more for Tate's volume than Carl Hancock Rux's "Eminem: The New White Negro." But Rux's piece isn't without worth: He writes that Em showcases his whiteness via a hyperwhite delivery style that allows him to, like many white Negroes before him (from Norman Mailer and the Beats to Vanilla Ice), "maintain fundamental whiteness in the context of comical blackness." But there is more depth to be plumbed here. First, Em repeatedly references his whiteness because it's what the rules of authenticity call for. Everlast, of white rap outfit House of Pain, once distinguished himself from MC Serch of 3rd Bass: "[Serch] might as well have been wearing a T-shirt that said, 'I WISH I WAS BLACK' nobody's gonna really respect that . . . [House of Pain] came out, 'Yo, we're peckerwoods, we're white trash, and we love hip-hop.'" In other words, appropriate the music and the culture, but never the racial designation.
And not all white Negroes are alike. Some, like Elvis, or George Gershwin or Irving Berlin, tapped black music for their own art but grew culturally whiter with age and success, eventually denying the origins of their work. Yet others such as Milton "Mezz" Mezrow the Jewish Chicagoan who, during the 1920s, insisted that his devotion to jazz had somehow turned him black actually grew darker in time. And if anything, Eminem seems to be moving in the latter direction: The high-pitched, neurotic whine of his earlier recordings is slowly being replaced by harsher, more "street" intonations and posturings.
So in the end, is it possible for Eminem or Elvis, or any other white devil to steal black culture? What's missing from Everything but the Burden is an exploration of this question. Culture, after all, is not a monolithic entity: It's the product of interaction between people. And it's important to draw the (often blurred) distinction between influence and appropriation, theft and hybridity. Look at "Hound Dog," a song penned by two Jews (Leiber and Stoller), handed to a Greek man who passed as African-American (Johnny Otis), sung first by a black (Big Mama Thornton) and then by a white (Elvis). Who, in the end, stole from whom?
Baz Dreisinger is a post-doctoral fellow at UCLA's Center for African-American Studies and is completing a book on racial ambiguities in American culture.
EVERYTHING BUT THE BURDEN: WHAT WHITE PEOPLE ARE TAKING FROM BLACK CULTURE | Edited by GREG TATE | Broadway Books | 272 pages | $24 hardcover