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Byron was a poet, Jay-Z can’t be: academia’s marginalisation of black art

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Alex Mason illustrates academia’s marginalisation of black art forms and argues that this relates to lower attainment amongst students of colour in higher education

‘You never hear rappers being compared to the greatest writers of all time. You hear Bob Dylan, but so was Biggie Smalls…Rakim. Listen to some of the things he wrote. If you take those things and pull them away from the music, then you put them up on the wall somewhere and someone had to look at them, they would say this is genius.’ – Jay-Z

At a recent colloquium, a conversation broke out about what exactly constituted poetry and differentiated it from other writing forms. No definite conclusion was reached and it was agreed that the parameters of poetry were a difficult if not impossible thing to pin down. During the discussion, one lecturer emphasised the point by embarking on a lengthy monologue about the blurred boundaries between different art forms. Looking to end with a flourish, they paused briefly before emphatically delivering their final statement: ‘Jay-Z considers himself a poet! Discuss.’

The condescending tone of the lecturer immediately pissed me off because I knew exactly what was being communicated. What the lecturer was really saying, was the borders of poetry are in fact so blurry, even rappers can claim to be poets. That’s how undefined it is. Ridiculous, I know, but true. Discuss. Discuss. This final word was full of contempt. Shirley Anne Tate helps us to understand exactly what that means when she says: ‘in contempt, an object can be considered as inferior, dismissed, or ignored’ (p.71). In this way, she continues (quoting Sianne Ngai) it is distinct from disgust, which ‘finds its objects intolerable and demands its exclusion’. Objects of contempt ‘simply do not merit strong affect; they are noticed only sufficiently so as to know that they are not notice-worthy’ (p.71). Initially, it seems illogical to suggest that such contempt was expressed through the lecturer’s use of ‘discuss’. For ‘discuss’ is, conventionally, a neutral imperative used to open up a conversation, wherein participants are encouraged to consider the complexities of the subject at hand. It is also somewhat implicitly characterised as valuable, as something worth discussing. The use of ‘discuss’ then, would imply that the lecturer was neither dismissing the subject matter nor characterising it as inferior. However, here, the word was neither used to open a conversation about the merits of Jay-Z’s statement, or to characterise such a conversation as worthwhile. Instead, it was used to ‘notice’ the subject matter ‘only sufficiently so as to note that (it was) not notice-worthy’.

The irony, of course, resided in the fact that the lecturer was happy to assert that poetry resisted a definite definition whilst dismissing the idea that hip-hop could ever be considered part of the art form. The implication being that whilst we do not know what poetry is, we do know what it is not. Poetry is: not hip-hop. This sort of negative definition is perplexing because, when set down on paper, there are clear formal and stylistic similarities between rap and traditional “poetry”. Certainly enough to justify a discussion. And certainly enough to make the lecturer’s comment immediately suspect. For, if not aesthetics, what was it that underpinned the lecturer’s resolute belief that hip-hop is not poetry? What was it that made them look at hip-hop and simply know that it did not belong to the art form?

The answer is racial and class prejudice.

Hip-hop is an artistic form of expression that was originally created by and for black and Latino people living in the inner-city neighbourhoods of America (p.363). But whilst he is rightfully regarded by the hip-hop world as being one of the most talented communicators of the black, working-class experience in history, Jay-Z is also, outside of that world, the most widely recognised symbol of the decontextualized, exoticised and debased version of hip-hop now sold to the masses. Indeed, as well as pertaining to the physical stereotypes of ‘blackness’, Jay, from his slang to his swagger, exhibits the cultural stylistic that hegemonic society embellishes in its caricature of the black working class. And even though the multi-millionaire may have traded in his throwback for a suit some time ago, I still believe that the symbolic significance of Jay-Z, largely remains the same. I say largely because there has been a slight shift. For now, Jay-Z has started to publicly associate himself with the art forms, such as poetry, that hegemonic institutions frame as being both at the apex of western cultural production and the sole domain of the white, middle to upper classes. The significance of this is how, by aligning himself with what hegemonic society has deemed to be ‘high art’ (read – work that has been produced by the white, middle-upper classes) Jay-Z, a black man from the projects, is undermining a long-standing and firmly entrenched system of hierarchical binaries underpinning western society: white/black, upper/working class, culture/nature, mind/body, to name a few.

This system oppresses specific social groups in the West and beyond.  As many black scholars have noted, the alignment of black people with the body, as opposed to the mind, has led to their depiction (in history, in science, in entertainment, in the media) as an unthinking, emotional people who must be controlled and led by those who are capable of detached and rational thought, i.e. white people. Significantly, the logic of this binary system insists that those who are driven solely by the base impulses of the body are also incapable of producing profound art. By drawing on racist, Eurocentric formulations of ‘blackness’, cultural production can thus be used as evidence of an oppressed social group’s inability to think and, ultimately, to justify their oppression. The alignment of Jay-Z with high art, or Rakim and Biggie for that matter, seriously undermines this effort and counters the logic underpinning Western society, making the black artists from the projects a threat to social order.

It is important to recognise that the lecturer’s comment served as an attempt to counter such a threat. Ridiculing Jay-Z’s claim to be a poet, it denied Jay a claim over high art and, by extension, profound thought. It thus kept him firmly positioned on the marginalised and oppressed side of the binary system, restoring social order in the process. This becomes particularly significant when considering the spatial context in which the comment was made: a formal higher education space. Indeed, higher education institutions are heralded by hegemonic society as being bastions of intellectual thought and enterprise, which, as it has been highlighted, are in turn considered the quintessential components of an advanced culture. As such, the knowledges disseminated there, the sources from which they derive, and the people who consume them are all, by virtue of being enclosed within this esteemed space, valued as being at the pinnacle of our society. Excluding Jay-Z and hip-hop from the higher education space thus constituted an authoritative and socially legitimated declaration about their value (or rather, non-value) as sources of knowledge. Crucially, the symbolic significance of both Jay-Z and hip-hop, discussed earlier, means that it is also constituted a declaration about the non-value of black, working-class people as sources of knowledge.

Ultimately, by choosing to invalidate Jay-Z’s claim to be a poet, by choosing to deny the value of black, working-class art, the lecturer reinforced the superiority of white, middle-class culture and reaffirmed the higher education institution’s status as a white and middle-class space. I say reaffirmed because it was evidently white and middle-class before the comment was made. It was for this reason that the denigration of Jay-Z failed to disturb the atmosphere of the colloquium. Indeed, there was a distinct lack of reaction from the rest of the room, which suggested that nothing untoward had been said. And for good reason, as they reflected how the institution as a whole treated the art form. It was partly because of this that I, too, failed to react. I was used to it. However, as time went on, my silence became more to do with a fear of unsettling the atmosphere in the room, a fear of turning what I saw as being the widely held, deeply entrenched preconceptions about hip-hop residing there, upside down. This might possibly explain the silence of others though, in truth, I think not. Regardless, the prevailing silence meant that the comment was left hanging in the air, free to settle comfortably into the crevices of the room and further fortify its white, middle-class boundaries by augmenting an atmosphere that has proven toxic for both students of colour and students from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

Atmosphere is often an overlooked factor in a student’s sense of comfort and inclusion in the higher education institution. Sara Ahmed describes as a ‘feeling of what is around, which might be affective in its murkiness or fuzziness, as a surrounding influence which does not quite generate its own form’ (p.40). Importantly, she goes on to say, ‘in describing an atmosphere, we give this influence some form’ (p.40). Ahmed’s argument is that when we describe an ‘atmosphere’ we acknowledge its tangibility, its ability to alter the state of our being (both physically and psychologically) when we encounter it. Her example centres around tension, which is probably because tension is often associated with a thicker and thus a more tangible atmosphere, one that more noticeably impacts upon our bodies as it forces our muscles to contract and our breathing to become suffocated. Ahmed also points out that what is often missed when talking about tension is that we do not all experience it in the same way. What makes one person ‘tense’ does not necessarily have the same affective impact on another. It very much depends on the angle at which a person walks into the room, or the ‘mood’ they are already in (p.40). This refers as much to an individual’s social position as it does to an emotional state.

Returning to the colloquium, the fact that there was a collective ease with the lecturer’s comment about Jay-Z speaks to the fact that this collective was entirely comprised of white bodies. With the lecturer reaffirming white cultural values, already institutionally normalised, it makes sense that they would not feel any tension. It does not then follow that there was no tension in the room to be felt. For what about the person of colour, say, who enters the space at quite a different angle from the white collective?  Now I say person of colour, as opposed to black American, because, despite the symbolic significance of Jay-Z and hip-hop in hegemonic society, ‘African American popular culture’ has been ‘embraced from Brazil to South Africa to Ghana as a source of inspiration and liberation’ (p.xv). As a British Asian, I serve as one example of the global embrace of the art form’s inspirational and liberational qualities. And like many other British Asians, and people of colour from around the world, this (not unproblematic) embrace of hip-hop has led to the fusion of my personal identity with the art form. With that being said, my affective response to the atmosphere, augmented by the lecturer’s comment, was very different to that of the white collective. Unlike them, I did in fact experience tension, as the thick, murky air of whiteness (made thicker by the lecturer’s denigration of Jay-Z) forced my muscles to become that little bit more contracted and my breathing to feel that little bit more suffocated.

Critical race theorists have highlighted how this experience of tension is a common one for students of colour who are subjected to micro-aggressions in the academic space. And in a report published by HEFCE and the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, it is stated that, in response to questions about why black students are less likely to be satisfied with their educational experience, and less likely to be awarded a 1st or 2.1…the NUS survey repeatedly mentioned feelings of ‘discomfort, isolation, being the “odd one out”, feeling “unwanted, or having a sense of not belonging’ (p.65). This suggests that the cumulative impact of microaggressions is partially responsible for the substantial BME attainment gap, which, according to latest figures, stands at 12.7% at my own university (p.135). This is a telling statistic that is perhaps, at least partially, explained by the fact the department actively devalues and delegitimises the cultural knowledges and practises of BME students. Indeed, entering the academic space, the student of colour is forever forced to feel like a belittled outsider, unless they choose to leave part of their own identity at home and assimilate. Check Biggie at the door. Take up Byron. Some choice. Enter fragmented, or not at all.

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Alex Mason is a PhD candidate at the University of Sheffield. His work uses various artistic mediums, such as literature and film, to explore the ways in which systematic whiteness manifests spatially in higher education institutions. In his spare time, Alex enjoys listening to Hip Hop, reading up on Ancient History and playing football. He tweets: @adrm25.

Edited by Femi Adekunie


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