My 2019 #TreefortMusicFestival Takeaways
The biggest “takeaways” I leave with come from the combination of experiences between a disillusioning interaction after my music performance coupled with an empowering experience of being asked to speak on a hip-hop panel prior to the show, have directly impacted and changed the frame in which I view my own identity. While aiming to be reflexive and honest about my identity, I have run into blind spots. These blind spots are biases where my privilege has been unchallenged and up until the moment of their discovery, are strongly held. The recognition of them is both embarrassing and empowering. I came across a huge blind spot of mine between two performances during Downtown Boise’s Treefort Music Festival 2019. I was asked to perform a spoken word piece and speak on a discussion panel regarding the advances and changes within the modern hip-hop era as well as perform my newest album, Transparent, later that evening at a local bar.
In The Problem of Speaking for Others, Alcoff presents questions that I, too have to ask myself when considering my identity within the hip-hop music scene. She poses questions like “Is my greatest contribution to move over and get out of the way? And if so, what is the best way to do this-to keep silent or to deconstruct my discourse?” (Alcoff, L 1991-92). She continues, stating there is not one right answer and it depends on the person asking it and the situation in context. In my case, I think it is more powerful to deconstruct my discourse rather than reject the opportunity or remain silent on the issues I’m unable to speak with full credibility about. While I chose to take the opportunity as it was presented to me, I also recognize the power I hold within remaining silent in the midst of credible speakers. My participation in discourse of hip-hop culture and black culture, with respect to my social location, can provide only as much supportive information as the recognition of support I hold for more credible speakers.
I was stressing more over participation in the discussion than I was thinking about performing my newest album (in front of a much larger crowd). I hold the op inion of artists in the hip-hop community to a higher standard in comparison to gain ing new followers and exposure during the music performance. After all, what kind of credibility do I really have if those who created the scene I exist in, don’t accept me? My fellow panelists, or whom I call my “elders” were David Maxwell AKA Eleven, Cornell Johnson AKA Zero, and Chris Christopherson AKA John Weighn.
I was the youngest emcee on the panel and the only female selected to speak. Although I was overwhelmed, I felt this was the perfect chance to leave a lasting impression, and hopefully earn the respect of my elders. In addition to speaking on the panel, we were asked to prepare a spoken word piece. I reached out to a professor and my producer to get their opinions on the piece, making sure that I was coming from a place of honesty and vulnerability instead of the flash and fame the mainstream media portrays hip-hop as. I wanted to take the audience and listeners back to the “roots” of hip-hop, reflecting on the privileges I hold in what we know to be the hip-hop community. I was selected to perform my spoken word piece first. My entire body was trembling with nerves as I presented, and as I took my spot back on my chair, the panelists, my elders, cheered and humbly admitted they couldn’t follow up with a more impressive piece, joking to the mediators of the discussion that I should have presented last! While I had been so terribly nervous living up to the the calibre of their artistry, I had in fact raised the bar and left them speechless.
The photo above was taken seconds after I sat down from the spoken word piece, as the eldest and one of the most respected underground rappers, Eleven gives me mad props. It also highlights a moment in the distribution of power. I had been working and performing with Zero since the inception of my musical career. He has been apart of my growth, and I consider him apart of my family. You can see how proud he is of me, yet how nervous he is to follow my presentation as he bows forward to let the engagement happen, waiting his turn to give ‘elbows’ and ‘daps’ in recognition of me as equal. This photo is the exact moment I felt validated in my community about my voice and platform. While this experience encouraged a new found confidence in my artistry amongst my peers, it left me unprepared for criticism from the general public.
Still drifting on cloud nine, I entered the local bar to feel out my surroundings before the show. As my set comes to a close, I exit the stage and initiate the process of what we call “shaking hands and kissing babies”- it’s exactly what it sounds like- going into the crowd like politicians with a "plain-folks" appeal to gain familiarity and popularity. With my adrenaline still pumping, I feel my shoulder is grabbed and turned to see young man. “Why are you talking about blackness in your music?” I was stunned and entirely unprepared for any question of that nature. Unsure of the misunderstanding, I assumed he took offense that a white girl was rapping in a “culture” that doesn’t belong to her. My first thought was that he was being racist against me because I’m white, which is defensive and shameful.
While quick-reviewing the set in my mind and trying to conjure up a response, my body language and tone of voice were becoming more defensive, yet fragile, as I loosely explained to him something along the lines of: “I try to go out of my way to make it known that my privilege, for the most part, is what has gotten me here so far, and that my experience cannot compare to women of color and other fem-cees in the industry”. It was an uncomfortable conversation and after he replied “Oh, okay.. Uhm, sorry for the misunderstanding..”, he disappeared into the sea of faces trying to get my attention. There was clearly a disconnect of who I am and what I represent between my spoken word piece earlier in the day and my performance later in the evening. I thought about my experience on the hip-hop panel earlier in the day when I had felt so understood, respected, and even validated of my placement in the scene by fellow artists reaction. With only seconds in between more comments and compliments being thrown into the air, I’m pulled again in another direction. He was a young white man, and like many others in the bar that night, was visibly intoxicated. As I leaned in to hear him amongst the roaring crowd, he confronted me with an issue he had about a racial reference in the last song of my set. He ended by stating I was uneducated, racist and implied that hip-hop does not have a space for me.
My last song, the song he had an issue with, is a track titled Machete Verses and Gold Purses. It it an upbeat song strategically placed towards the end of the set to hype the crowd up before I exit the stage. However, because the previous band needed extra time to load their gear off of the stage, my set time was cut short, leaving Machete Verses and Gold Purses as the final song and lasting impression on the audience. There are a couple different versions of this song, and depending on the version you listen to, my writing could have different interpretations as it juxtaposed with the featured artist’s second verse. My lyric is written “curly hair, call it afro/smooth rhymes, call it slo-mo” and it appears in the final verse of the two previous versions of the song. However, for the purpose of the music festival, and limitations on how many featured artists I can invite on stage with me, I performed it solo by cutting out the feature’s second verse/input.
This left my questionable lyrical content to stand alone. While I attempted to explain to the young man this was an old song and was written before I was aware of the boundaries of language surrounding my privilege, I knew I had to own up to still performing it. The man re-phrased his question, “Why are YOU saying the word afro?” I will assume his interpretation was to the effect I was claiming to have an afro, adopting a culture that isn’t my own, and aiming to get notoriety based on my acceptance in hip-hop/black culture. I felt entirely misunderstood, but knew that if the lyric weren’t my own and I was in his position, I too would have come across it with suspicion. Especially without featured artist, Natalie Grace’s second verse in the song which is as follows:
Let me go ahead and reclaim my time / Kick back and listen 'cause I got a couple qualms Somehow y'all cis men make music and everyone relate it but anyone else have bars and you're afraid of elation/ Ignant cause your mind is unopened to the unknown / Unwilling to see experience outside your own dome / You know I've been thinkin' bout it funny how I'm supposed to be fake but y'all the ones saying good guys get dealt a bad fate? / Consider valuing us as equal foremost my potential ain't a trophy for someone else/ On the right side of history or wrong hon, and if you're white don't use the n-word on my block son! / Can someone locate intelligence? Fingers in your ears when provided with some evidence
As my questionable one-liner is delivered without the backbone of her verse, it perpetuates the appropriation and generalization of both black culture and hip-hop culture. While I cannot justify my own word choice based on the reliability and delivery of Natalie’s, her lyrics are vital to the overall message of the song. Without her second verse to set the precedent for my third, my lyrics are reduced to have minimal value and a negative impact.
In the original writing of the song, my thought process did not include the understanding of representation either of the self or of the community I am participating in. The lyric is a cliche written to comment on representation of what an afro could be, and if people could claim to have an afro that easily, then my smooth rhymes could hop on the train and claim to be “slo-mo”. Up until this point, I remained untouched by the idea that there are existing phrases, discussions, and lifestyle choices that are not made for me or my participation. By even presenting the analogy that if curly hair is called afro, then concluding that my smooth rhymes could be called “slo-mo”, the statement alone exists as an insinuation that all curly hair is afro, and thus, it is appropriation and a generalization of black culture. Within stating the word afro, I was not claiming it as my own (but happen to have curly hair). I attempted to show representation of black culture, yet attached it to the credibility of my so-called slo-mo writing capabilities. The cliche was written so carelessly and amidst the success I achieved in my spoken word piece during the hip-hop discussion panel, my understanding of how the lyric could be interpreted remained as a huge blind spot for me.
Within my identity, I hold a variety of privileges that actively contribute to the opportunities I am given and shape the way I interact/am interacted with. I think of the ways I’m involved in hip-hop culture, but am excluded to second-hand experiences and interpretations of what “black culture” entails. I think of it as a Venn Diagram of sorts, in which I am able to own my experiences as a woman in the music industry, but must admit and openly state to my audience that my social location does not allow credibility to speak on experiences I’ve not lived.
In the wake of being called a racist, I have reviewed the circle of communication within my life and challenged the validity of the statement from a place of vulnerable reflection. I’ve found that aside from my involvement at 208 Music, my life does not reflect one consisting of diversity. To some extent, I close myself off from the rest of the world. As I consider myself to be a busy young woman, I often do not spend my time away from work, school, and the studio outside of the home, nor do I interact with news media. Within my college education, I have learned that the discourse in news media consisting of international culture is often impartial, biased, or partisan, often with an agenda rooted in power lying behind their messages. Like many others, I have developed a generalized fear about the media that began when President Trump was elected, and now even more so with Media studies begin the main focus in my college education. In this sense, my chances of having a life filled with conversation of intercultural value are slim. Many of the interactions I am apart of in my daily life are with people who look like me- white, usually female, college-aged… Up until this year's Treefort Music Festival, I haven't engaged in an environment that allows me to challenge the basis of my platform, which is a privilege and a blind spot of it's own. “Unwilling to see experience outside your own dome”, as Natalie Grace would say.
While the young man’s level of intoxication ultimately led to a very unpleasant and degrading conversation, I must own up to the fact that the word “afro” is not made for (white) people like me. It is not for me to characterize what an afro looks like or justify in any way. I can choose to rely on Natalie’s verse for content and juxtaposition to my lyric, but I cannot allow myself to end there as far as ownership of honest artistry goes. In retrospect, I appreciate both individuals for taking the time to bring the lyric and the privilege behind it out of a blind spot for me. While I disagree that the stated lyric is racist, I agree that it comes from an uneducated, privileged point of view. The experiences derived from both performances have comparatively been the most meaningful in my career so far. They have left a lasting impact in all facets of my identity- as a college student, fem-cee, and young woman.
Alcoff, L. The Problem of Speaking for Others. University of Minnesota Press. Retrieved from Cultural Critique, No. 20 (Winter, 1991-1992), pp. 5-32.
(2016). Machete Verses and Gold Purses [Recorded by Madisun Proof feat. Natalie Grace]. On AM [MP3 file]. Idaho, United States of America: 208 Music.