American Gray Space
By Andre Perry | 2 November 2007
“Nigger music,” he said. He paused and thought deeply for a moment. “Yeah, that’s what we do: full on nigger music. It’s fucking great.”
I wasn’t quite sure what to say so I leaned into the couch and mumbled something like, “That sounds fascinating. I’ve got to come see that sometime.”
San Francisco hipsters filled the corners of the dark apartment. Conversations oscillated between fashion and music. I could have talked to so many people but I had chosen the musician who had tried to French kiss me earlier. He seemed like a true artist. And he played nigger music.
Was it a travesty or a triumph that this skinny, five o’clock-shadowed white guy had so comfortably described his band’s style of music to me, a skinny five o’clock-shadowed black guy, as none other than “nigger music”?
He apparently didn’t know what else to call it. He claimed that his rock band, Mutilated Mannequins, paired lyrical diatribes on racism with gripping art-rock freak-outs. He was so sincere, calm, and honest about it that I was thrown off-guard. But as he went on describing his music the age-old question lingered: was it possible for a non-black person to throw around the word “nigger” in a non-malicious sense?
NAACP representative Julian Bond said that the 2nd Civil Rights Movement will be harder because the “Whites Only” signs have been taken down. Yet their shadows remain firmly placed to doorways and water fountains. How do you challenge a ghost when you can’t even touch it?
On a visit to the University of Virginia I stumbled down fraternity row. I was a dapper, preppy freshman in college up north at Princeton. Down in Charlottesville I was a wandering drunk, trapped under a warm blanket of Gentleman Jack. I chased down the whiskey with half a case of Natural Light. Then I lost my friends at the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity house. That’s the place where they toss couches from the second-floor balcony when they get bored. I asked a group of white-shirt, dark-tie frat rats if they’d seen about four or five guys in Princeton t-shirts. One of them stepped forward, stars and bars glistening behind his eyes, and pointed in a direction that I had no intention of following. He said, “A bunch of black guys came by here ten minutes ago. They went that way.” He might have been helpful had I specifically inquired about black friends but I hadn’t and his assumptions bred something foul in my stomach. He had used the golden sword of 21st century racists. He had called me a nigger without even using the word. The invisible noun: it just needs to be insinuated — a subtle threat of a bomb that could go off at any time. I gave him a wave, both an acknowledgement that I had heard him and a dismissal of what he had to offer. I could have taken them on. I could have traded in bloody teeth for intangible pride. I could have found out if they have “Whites Only” signs in Valhalla.
That picture on the front is priceless: Elvis Costello bent over a camera taking a picture of you, turning the listener into his model. My roommate had picked up the LP from a street vendor for 99 cents. The genius of the record takes form with the third track, “The Beat,” a song that captures the essence of new wave music better than Blondie, the Cars, and Talking Heads did in entire albums. I used to spin “The Beat” and other hits off This Year’s Model (1978) at late-night house parties just when the dance-floor needed that special shot in the arm. I even own the CD, the expanded edition with all of the demos and b-sides, not to mention a copy of 1980’s Get Happy! (1980) that I picked up at the record store for a swell bargain price.
One day while driving with a friend he told me the old story about Elvis Costello calling Ray Charles an “ignorant nigger” during a drunken argument. When I heard the story my blood froze; I haven’t listened to Costello since and I feel that if I do I’ll betray some code that would put my blackness into question. I even leafed through numerous articles on the Internet detailing Costello’s frequent apologies about the incident and how he carries the weight of his remark with him to this very day.
Even though I won’t listen to him, I can’t bring myself to throw out his albums. I’m caught somewhere between my love for the music and a mistake that I can’t forgive.
"Brown sugar, how come you taste so good? / Just like a black girl should"
“Brown Sugar” by the Rolling Stones, Sticky Fingers (1971)
I listen to the Stones all the time and still something about it kills me.
“Ten little niggers sitting on a wall”
“Sweet Black Angel” by the Rolling Stones, Exile on Main Street (1972)
"Black girls just wanna get fucked all night / I just don’t have that much jazz"“Some Girls” by the Rolling Stones, Some Girls (1978)
My own inconsistencies are troubling.
Why should Costello get the sanction while the Stones have free reign on my stereo? Maybe their oft-professed debt to black musicians excuses their racial errs. Wait, Costello loves black music. Perhaps it’s the fact that they have been roundly sexist, racist, and offensive to practically everyone on Earth. But Costello appears to be one of the nicest people in pop music. It certainly must be their combination of irresistible hooks, intriguing decadence, and unapologetic rock n’ roll clichés that make them the bad guys that I hate to love. Isn’t “Allison” one of the catchiest and seemingly most indulgent pieces of pop ever written?
And speaking of a different kind of pop, New York rap group, Mobb Deep’s second album, The Infamous (1995), is one of the best albums of the last twenty years. The Infamous offers a gritty portrayal of the New York underworld that possesses the same musical honesty of a band like the Velvet Underground. If I dared to count the number of times they throw out the n-word on that album, I would find myself quite busy, perhaps needing a secretary. But why count? Their n-bombs and tales of urban violence don’t bother me when I’m listening to the music. Even though they had art-school backgrounds, their drug-lord sound is so convincing that it doesn’t matter. They pull off a hip-hop version of Lou Reed, effectively tapping into lifestyles that they observe with an artistic eye but don’t necessarily live by. When I think about Mobb Deep and their Infamous album, my reasonable side tells me that I should be bothered by their loose use of “nigger” – drug talk and misogyny aside. But it sounds so good. I catch myself in the car or listening to my iPod rattling off lines, “This nigga that I’m beginning to dislike, he got me fed / If he doesn’t discontinue his bullshit, he might be dead.” As if they were my own; somehow they could be.
Over in Los Angeles Hip-hop producer Dr. Dre makes records that people of all colors can dance and bob their heads to. He’s been doing it for years with a variety of rappers like Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg, Eminem. He is the Phil Spector of West Coast rap. And he was also a member of a band called N.W.A. (Niggaz With Attitude) and produced an album called Niggaz 4 Life (1991). Does he feel at this point in his career, when he can roll up to the Grammy Awards looking dapper and decidedly un-gangsta, that he is a nigger for life? Did he ever feel like he was a nigger at all?
Perhaps in the entertainment world it doesn’t matter what you call yourself as you long as you make pop hits. And if to Dr. Dre and others, the “nigger 4 life” lifestyle means bedding lots of women, getting drunk and high, and flaunting money, then perhaps it can be a black term for rock star; Keith Richards, Tommy Lee, and Dave Navarro all could have had guest spots on the Niggaz 4 Life album.
But the real question to consider is how the rest of the country sees the current Dr. Dre. A white, hip-hop loving college graduate working on Capitol Hill spins the latest trunk-thumping hit and to him it might just be a killer beat with a smooth flow. Perhaps the image of African Americans portrayed in most rap songs separates itself from the listener’s impressions of larger racial issues. Or maybe the real and the recorded inevitably mix. In such a scenario, the African-American experience, packaged up in tasty little mp3 blogger hits, threatens to unfold in such a way that niggers are homies are brothers are pals are dudes are your crew. And slowly, we all buy into the logic.
My brother, a successful corporate lawyer, was sitting in a Dunkin’ Donuts in a suburb of Boston, with his two-and-a-half year-old daughter. He assumed a high school football game was going on nearby when a group of teenage African American males walked into the shop and raised a little bit of hell. No, not guns and threats, just tipping the scales of the general peace. Some loud voices and lewd conversation: adolescent behavior. Whatever. An older white man asked them to keep it down and one of them rallied back, “What’s the matter, don’t you have a real Dunkin’ Donuts in your neighborhood?” As my brother began to pack up his things the boys left the shop. The Indian (or Pakistani?) manager promptly called the police.
My brother left before the police came but he relayed two thoughts to me over the phone. The first: Why did those kids have to be so inappropriately unruly — don’t they know the camera’s always on them as young black males? The second: Why the hell did the manager call the police? What were the police going to do? Nothing had really happened. No guns were pulled and no one was assaulted. My brother felt burned by both parties. He was embarrassed by the kids for bringing shame to the fragile image of the black American male and offended by the racist over-reaction from the store manager. He hadn’t done anything. He had just shown up for donuts and coffee. And that old white man, what exactly did he think? Did he see two different types of people or were the rowdy kids and my brother cut from the same rock?
From Kaplan’s popular study guide, The Real GRE: Surviving the American Social Landscape
The New New Analogy
Directions: Pick the best answer and then write an explanation for the answer you choose. If you are having difficulty forming your thoughts then read the sample answers provided below.
NIGGER : BLACK PERSON ::
A. TYPE A : TYPE B
B. PAST : FUTURE
C. INFERIOR : SUPERIOR
D. PART : WHOLE
E. ALL ANSWERS ARE CORRECT
Rapper Lil’ John grew up in a stable middle class environment. Will Smith did as well. Both entertainers are smart and successful but Will Smith has moved down a path that has allowed him to sustain a strong black identity without being stereotypically ghetto or gangster or, on the other extreme, without being a dancing minstrel sellout. Instead he seamlessly moves between different performances, from pairing with Martin Lawrence in the urban comedy-thriller Bad Boys to working with Donald Sutherland in the art-house melodrama of Six Degrees of Separation. In utter contrast, Lil’ John has chosen to cash-in on an African-American aesthetic of pure ignorance. Lil’ John calls his southern blend of hip-hop “crunk.” With genre hits like “Real Nigga Roll Call” and “Bitches Ain’t Shit” it moves like gold. Without seeing the market reports, it is safe to assume that African-American hip-hop enthusiasts aren’t the only ones picking up these records. It often takes white American dollars for records to go gold or platinum.
Q-Tip, the talented rapper from A Tribe Called Quest, once noted in an article that it was bad for rappers to use the term “nigger” in their lyrics. Yet he’s used it a number of times over the years in a number of different ways, sometimes in critiquing negative aspects of African-American culture and at other times as a term of endearment. By putting off his termination of the word in his lyrics, Q-Tip and others are acting a bit like our founding fathers: at the birth of our nation they decided to hold off on solving the issue of slavery even though they knew it was an issue with which the young country would have to eventually deal.
Chris Rock, in his stand-up comedy film Bring the Pain remarked about a civil war occurring within the black community, a war between black folks and niggers; black folks being reasonable American citizens and niggers taking on a more inane approach to day-to-day life in American society. It still stands as one of the most public and accessible essays on the oft-discussed rifts within the black American community. By using the terms “blacks” and “niggers” he immediately identified a class issue within the community: are you capable of acting in a way that is deemed acceptable and successful by Western societal standards or will you choose to act a fool?
As much as Chris Rock suggests that niggers are inferior to black people, by using the Civil War analogy he is also suggesting that they are part of a greater whole. And whether it was intentional or not, Rock’s “joke” about the class structure of the black community applies to all Americans; class is a catholically American issue. Each ethnic, religious, and social group is made up of a number of different parts that comprise the whole. After all, what would upstanding white people be without their white trash and crackers? They would all just be white – and it would be impossible for white people to define success within their own race if someone wasn’t stereotypically getting drunk and knocking up their cousin in the trailer park. How socially successful can a professional black man or woman be if some other black person isn’t around to tip the tables of ignorance? Human class structure requires us to draw these lines. So how can black Americans fight the powers that be and still be human?
He plays guitars and the name of his band is Mutilated Mannequins. They play nigger music. I am black and always looking for answers. I have no choice but to track them down.
On a foggy Saturday night I squeeze my way through the crowded bar at the Edinburgh Castle in San Francisco’s Tender-Nob district. The typical indie hipsters swell around the bar, ordering up New Castle, High Life, and Guinness, throwing back Irish car bombs and cleaning up shots of whiskey. I come in uniform — the slightly torn blue jeans, the frayed prep-school sweater, and a scarf that identifies me as a thinking man’s hipster rather than a downtown, flophouse art-school casualty. Beer in hand I storm upstairs, alone and on a mission to see the Mannequins play their music, to be convinced of their perverse Afro-centric cause.
The Mannequins bring a lot of scenester noise to the stage. The band’s three members look so intentionally special with their ’80s lipstick and clothes tighter than the bodies they struggle and sometimes fail to cover. On first listen, the music doesn’t seem so much like black music. Or music at all. It comes off like a grating performance-art headache. Melodies are scarce and lyrics are rendered indecipherable underneath the screams and bellows of the singer’s anguish. My “friend,” who plays guitar and tries to kiss me at late-night parties while telling me that his band plays “nigger music,” looms in a corner of the stage bursting into epileptic theatrics from time to time. The keyboardist humps a synthesizer with his fists and occasionally pushes buttons on a vicious drum machine.
Despite the fuss and fuzz the singer is captivating: he is black with dreadlocks, all done-up in beautiful glam make-up, positively gay, loud, and possessed.
He sings: "Caucasian neocolonist / Wanting to freak with the freakest / Seeking and searching for the scariest / Thugged out nigga pussy terrorist." And he shouts: "Welcome to the plantation / We the niggas sexing the nation / White folk, white folk be giving ovation like head / I guess we quite the sensation."
I talk to him for a bit after the show but in person he is much too art-scenester and I am too much of an indie-prepster; even our shared blackness and interest in music isn’t enough to make us want to hang out for more than five minutes. But from this night on, every time I see him tucked into the corners of a San Francisco bar with a lover in his arm, we will always nod to each other — that ever-bonding “black man nod” to acknowledge, Yes, I see you brother, and even though I’m wearing a slight tie and listening to New Order and you’re walking off with your colleagues to the power lunch with the Lehman Brothers analysts, I still got your back because, shit, we’re black and this shit is real from the back-alleys to the boardrooms.
If not by their sounds, I am intrigued by the motions of the Mutilated Mannequins. They are pushing some cultural buttons from behind their wall of noise, their lyrics attacking American racial issues head-on. Yet I leave the Mannequins’ set feeling a little bit unsatisfied, as if their diatribe is so buried under the noise a passive listener could miss it, rendering the shock futile. Perhaps they are afraid to state their case in such plain terms or maybe they are trying to represent the true nature of the race issue in America: a wealth of ideas covered up by white and black noise, screaming to be heard. If it’s nigger music then it is inevitably American music. I’ll have to tell that to my late-night friend when he tries to stick his tongue down my throat again.
NOTE: Kaplan Real American GRE excerpt is the creation of the author.
An earlier version of this essay appeared in the 2007 issue of Alligator Juniper.