Can blackface be far behind?

Stereotypes, minstrel tunes lace hip-hop hits and videos

Critical Eye

November 26, 2006|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,[Sun Pop Music Critic]

A HUSKY BLACK MAN DRESSED garishly in drag -- blue wig, frosted lipstick -- raps and fries chicken on what appears to be a makeshift plantation as African-American children dance around him, sucking on chicken bones. The scene is from "Fry That Chicken" by Ms. Peachez, a music video that in the last two months has been downloaded more than 600,000 times on Youtube. The song has also received spins on urban stations.

It was preceded by an even bigger hit: DJ Webstar & Young B's "Chicken Noodle Soup," which for months has been a mainstay on black radio and in clubs, the video a favorite on Youtube and MTV. The nonsensical song even spawned a dance -- a shuffling, arm-flapping jig that grinning black kids perform in the video.

But another current rap hit, "Chain Hang Low" by Jibbs, makes a more direct connection to minstrelsy. As recently pointed out in The New York Times, the song is built on the 19th-century melody of "Zip Coon" or depending on the lyrics "Turkey in the Straw," one of the most popular tunes from the blackface era. Here's a snippet of Jibbs' interpolation: Do your chain hang low / Do it wobble to the flo' / Do it shine in the light / Is it platinum / Is it gold.

These ubiquitous urban hits seem to whistle in a disturbing sub-trend in hip-hop. Free of irony or tongue-in-cheek cleverness, so-called "minstrel rap" appears to be a throwback to the days when performers (some black, some white) rubbed burnt cork on their faces and depicted African-Americans as buffoons. Excluding Ms. Peachez, these new millennium minstrel rappers don't sport painted faces. But the music, dances and images in the videos are clearly reminiscent of the era when pop culture reduced blacks to caricatures: lazy "coons," grinning "pickaninnies," sexually super-charged "bucks."

"Minstrelsy has never died. It has evolved," says Tawnya Pettiford-Wates, associate professor of theater at Virginia Commonwealth University. Through The Conciliation Project, a nonprofit arts organization she oversees, Pettiford-Wates uses old minstrelsy to spark open dialogue about racism in modern America. "My problem with minstrel hip-hop is that it exploits the images but doesn't put them in any context. You just get these images and no desire to unmask or interrogate them."

The desire to challenge the images may not exist because the performers are young and probably ignorant of the history. Jibbs, the St. Louis rapper behind the catchiest minstrel rap record on the airwaves, is only 16. His debut, Jibbs Feat Jibbs, entered Billboard's pop album chart at No. 11, selling more than 80,000 spurred by the Top 10 single "Chain Hang Low."

"The problem is that the young people are unaware of the mockery -- the correlation between the minstrel shows of the past and the 'Chicken Noodle Soup' dance," says Chloe Hilliard, news editor at The Source, the New York-based hip-hop magazine. "It's the whole issue of airing our dirty laundry. It's one thing of laughing about it among ourselves. But it's another thing of showing this behavior to the mainstream as if this is all we do -- dance around and eat fried chicken."

Some argue that "minstrel rap" is just an innocuous extension of youth culture, that it doesn't warrant any sociopolitical context.

"Hasn't there always been dance songs like 'Chicken Noodle Soup'?" asks Jon Caramanica, music editor at VIBE magazine. "Haven't black and white kids always danced around, flapping their arms? It becomes easy to write-off substance-free records. I'm trying to understand why they have relevance. It's worth noting the song in its natural locus instead of putting any sociopolitical weight on it that it never intended to have."

Rap, like every other genre under pop's broad umbrella, seems to be more off-balance these days than before. Style often supplants substance and creativity. With CD sales plummeting and no respected, lyrically sharp rapper dominating the game, the time is ripe for "different" sounds and images in hip-hop -- even those with perhaps unconscious minstrel overtones.

"It's a form of escapism, yes," says The Source's Hilliard. "It's all about free, creative expression. But there's not enough of a balance. You will see 'Chicken Noodle Soup' on MTV but not enough of, say, Lupe Fiasco, because everybody wants to shuck and jive, dance and sing."

If it sells, then labels will certainly flood the market with more of it.

"There's this misconception that people want gangsta or minstrel rap," says Carl Chery, senior correspondent for SOHH.com, an urban music Web site. "I don't want to make it a race issue. But a lot of the [record label] executives selling this stuff are white. They just assume people want that from black performers. All it takes is one act, like 50 Cent or Lil' Jon, to sell a lot of records, then labels look for more of the same."

Is there a possibility that "minstrel rap" could mushroom?

"If it's a movement, it's definitely in the infant stage," Chery says. "But if it keeps going, people will have to protest about it -- at least you hope people will protest about it."

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

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