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Black Cultural Criticism, Inc.
by Norman Kelley
July 17, 2004

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Once upon a time, not too long ago, a wise minister pondered a paradox. He wondered, how is it that black intellectuals more than 100 years ago, "endowed with few resources, facing every imaginable form of racial disenfranchisement, living in a world of routine racist lynchings --conducted an intellectually serious program of cooperative and engaged research, focused on the basic life conditions of Black Americans."

The Rev. Eugene Rivers, who raised this issue, probably never received an adequate answer. Possibly frustrated at the posing of so-called black public intellectuals and the do-nothingism of the civil rights industry, Rev. Rivers, concerned about the deteriorating lot of young blacks, signed onto the Bush administration’s faith-based initiative. Rev. Rivers was decidedly old school; he wanted to improve the lot of urban bantustanistas by focusing on issues like employment, education, health and spiritual impoverishment.

Today’s black public intellectuals understand that if help is going to be extended it has to be done within the context of culture, something that an old-schooler like Rivers wouldn’t get. The best way to assist in this program, they say, is to provide the mainstream with interpreters of the urban cris de coeur that is often at the center of rap music. And obviously, those who can best do this kind of work are those public intellectuals who have been trained by the universities’ theoriocracy, which has come to influence academic discourse and studies in elite, middle and bottom-feeding rungs of academia. It’s all about cultural criticism as a means of understanding the sinews of power that course through the body politic and its culture.

Academic cultural criticism is the coin of the realm for a fair number of post-civil-rights-generation intellectuals. Schooled in the humanities (literature, feminism, critical theory, cultural studies), it has produced Afro-literary theorists like Houston A. Baker Jr. (Blues, Ideology, and Afro American Literature) and Henry Louis Gates Jr. (The Signifying Monkey) and oppositional critics like Cornel West (Prophesy Deliverance!), bell hooks (Black Looks) and Michael Eric Dyson (Reflecting Black). This rising tide of voices has even lifted the profile of an old-school paradigmer (i.e., Marxist or neo-Marxist) like Manning Marable (How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America).

Some have risen to new heights: posted at elite universities (Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Columbia), feted on television, sought after for knowledge about the black world or blackness, the recipients of large book and television contracts, with positions on boards of prestigious institutions, these intellectuals–some, at least–are living large. The term "public intellectual," however, has been appropriated by some not in the pursuit of disseminating truly critical knowledge (as in the case of a Noam Chomsky, Edward Said or Christopher Hitchens), but to become market intellectuals who present themselves as "experts" about or interpreters for those too disenfranchised to speak for themselves.

This is made possible by the fact that the "public," so to speak, has ceased to exist, and has been replaced by various discrete markets in a society that reduces everything to dollar signs. If by some chance black public intellectuals know nothing of the subject matter they are called upon to explain, that is beside the point. The point is they have engaged the public–which is usually white and has money.

Never have so many theorized about so much and said so little. This has led some of these intellectuals to embrace the cause of hip-hop, which, to some degree, has made today’s market intellectuals relevant. For beyond blackness and black issues, black market intellectuals have really little to offer.

Criticism of black intellectuals as "frauds," "failures" or miseducated has been issued by the likes of Harold Cruse, E. Franklin Frazier and Carter G. Woodson. "The philosophy implicit in the Negro’s folklore," wrote Frazier in his essay "The Failure of Negro Intellectuals," "is infinitely superior to the opportunistic philosophy of Negro intellectuals who want to save their jobs and enjoy material comforts." Frazier also laid bare the shortcoming of the pre-civil-rights black middle class in his classic Black Bourgeoisie. Today’s black intellectuals are part and parcel of a new black bourgeoisie, making up a "niggerati," if you will. (If you have a problem with such a term, go see Randall Kennedy.)

Rap, for better or worse, has allowed some of the niggerati to bolster their black credentials before both black audiences and white markets. After all, if one is a black intellectual, particularly a black market intellectual posing as a public intellectual (but functioning as a "native informant"), rap offers a chance to both interpret and profile (as well as profit). But black intellectuals have not, at least according to Cruse, been able to "see the implications of cultural revolution as a political demand growing out of the advent of mass communication media. Having no cultural philosophy of their own, they remain under the tutelage of irrelevant white radical ideas." One only has to peruse some of the above titles to confirm this view. They’re full of the usual academic spouting about "commodification," which is obviously refracted through Frankfurt School critical theory, French continental theory or British cultural studies. It seems that American intellectuals, both white and black, have a theoriority complex.

Black "public" intellectuals have engaged more in pimping off rap than actually delineating how it is situated within the political economy of the multibillion-dollar music industry -- an industry that rests comfortably and unquestionably on black talent. A case in point is Manning Marable’s online essay "The Politics of Hip Hop." In that article, Prof. Marable, director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University, performed the role of stenographer to Russell Simmons’ Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (HHSAN). The article was primarily a recitation of the mogul’s agenda (or initiative)–concerns about the "prison industrial complex, the death penalty, voter education, and music censorship"–and a primer regarding the politics of hiphop.

Missing was an analysis of how rap, particularly Simmons’ brand, fits into the music industry. This is somewhat astounding considering that Prof. Marable is the author of How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America, which analyzed how the capitalist mode of production gutted black America. But Motown is only mentioned once in that entire book, and that’s in the accepted framework of black capitalism, which, according to Marable, has the possibility of pushing the "advocates of black capitalism into the political camp of the most racist and conservative forces of white America."

Indeed, music for most market intellectuals is an afterthought, which they use as a means to an end, and that end is seldom about understanding the entire political, economic and cultural nexus of the various art forms that blacks have produced but have no real control over. Most independent rap record labels are partially owned by one of the five major labels–AOL Time Warner, Sony Music, Bertelsmann Music Group, Vivendi Universal, EMI–and serve as compradorian depots for the recruitment of young, naive artists who form a black Rhythm Nation that comes from the inner cities. Issues regarding the transparency of recording contracts, health benefits, work-for-hire clauses and Internet royalties are not raised at most hiphop summits, especially the ones formed by Simmons. The supreme irony is that white groups like the Recording Artists’ Coalition and the Future of Music Coalition are beginning to organize around these bread-and-butter issues that affect all musicians. But these aren’t seen as black issues, and certainly not black music issues.

Black cultural criticism is, then, a dubious enterprise. Black Popular Culture, a book project organized by Michelle Wallace, introduced a truncated version of black culture, basically reducing it to two art/entertainment forms, rap music and film. The book was the product of an alleged black intellectual debate about culture that was, once again, refracted through then-current academic prisms like "pleasure," identity politics, theory and cultural criticism. Another book, Soul: Black Power, Politics and Pleasure, edited by Monique Guillory and Richard C. Green, primarily treads the same path.

What’s missing from these books is any sense that "black culture" or "soul" is defined by social, political and economic environments that came out of a basic folk culture, an ethos based on a "structure of feeling" about a certain time and place in history. An academic from the social sciences may be present among the contributors, but generally one gets the impression that these cultural critics are high on the octane of questionable theoretical importance.

Given the lack of insight that black intellectuals have brought to rap, it’s not too surprising that Michael Eric Dyson chose, in addressing rap, to write a book about Tupac Shakur (Holler If You Hear Me); it’s part and parcel of the martyrdom hagiology that unfortunately defines African-American political culture. If you want to read a truly riveting interrogation of the cultural text of our time, you should see bell hook’s April 1997 interview with Lil’ Kim in Paper ("Hardcore Honeys"). hooks gets totally deep with the faux-bad gal of hiphop.

bh: What was your line on Hardcore, "take it up the butt"? Don’t be funnin’. What do you think about that?

LK: I think it’s real.

bh: Tell me what you mean when you say it’s real–that a lot of people are getting fucked in the butt?

LK: Exactly…

Kim wasn’t speaking metaphorically, either. Later, hooks, supposedly a feminist, says this about her mother and the women of previous generations: "My mother and other older generations felt that in exchange for the pussy, you should get marriage, you should get something. I’m not that kind of girl, though. I think real sexual liberation means that you’re in charge of your pussy; you don’t have to exchange it for anything."

Whenever hooks tried to steer the interview toward Kim’s persona being dictated solely by men or a marketing gesture to male fantasy, girlfriend didn’t completely swallow.

If Kim doesn’t have much to say about love (and she doesn’t), hooks sure does in her latest work. To date, hooks has written three books about love: Communion, All About Love and Salvation, with another one on the way. It was only a short but logical hip-hop from "pussy" to "love," and in taking that step hooks has followed Cornel West, her fellow intellectual poser, to the zone of profitable marketability–the ultimate goal of market intellectuals–under the rubric of "cultural criticism."

"In all modesty, this project constitutes a watershed moment in musical history," West’s website trumpets, touting his own rap/spoken-word collection, Sketches of My Culture. Here West, who has always sounded like a bad version of Richard Pryor doing his preacher routine, has produced a moment of profound Afro-kitsch. The CD offers nothing more than smooth "jazz" confections with words on top. It will easily find rotation on black radio stations for years to come during Black History Month, which has already been reduced to a time for selling black tchotchkes (as in the case of Kwanzaa).

In so many ways, West is representative of the paper-thin intellectual apparatus that is the hallmark of today’s black intelligentsia. This uplifting, "elevating" CD clearly answers the question Rev. Rivers was pondering at the top of this article. And that answer is that, unlike 100 years ago, today’s black cultural criticism is merely a performance mode for "public" intellectuals who, while presenting their anemic offerings as discourse on subjects like rap, profit while they prophet.

Moreover, black cultural criticism, and the opposing black pathology-bashing hyped by black conservatives, are mirror images of each other. Both conveniently mask the fact that the post-civil-rights generation of black intellectuals has devised cynical ways to peddle its wares to a white market. That market prefers blacks to be either funny or dangerous, but seldom fully formed beings who exhibit the good, the bad and the all-too-human.

Norman Kelley has written for The Nation, the Village Voice, New York Press, New Politics, Black Renaissance/Noir and Newsday. He is also the author of the "noir soul" mystery series Black Heat, The Big Mango, A Phat Death and Rhythm and Business: The Political Economy of Black Music. His latest book is The Head Negro in Charge Syndrome: The Dead End of Black Politics (Nation Books, 2004). This article first appeared in the NY Press. Thanks to Inbal Kahanov at Nation Books.