This is mostly a preliminary post to explain why I will be inundating the blog with posts over the next week or so.
I spent last semester studying abroad in Montpellier. Under the crescent-moon indigo skies of southern France, I sometimes found myself getting lost, feeling distanced from my country (the distance made worse by the changing political climate). What helped to ground me were music suggestions from my best friend. Our friendship blossomed over a collaborative Spotify playlist, and I found comfort in the way this remained unchanged, Youtube videos and Soundcloud profiles flying six hours forward in time, 4,000 miles across the globe, to my inbox.
A ten hour bus ride back to Montpellier from Paris, Noname’s Telefone was a strange but somehow fitting soundtrack to the rolling hills of the French countryside, the sun setting orange, the inside of the bus glowing golden. He’d shared the album with me on Spotify in September, and I hadn’t stopped listening to it even a month later. As the world darkened outside and the bus trudged on into the late hours of the night, I stayed up to message him about a more recent album suggestion: Aesop Rock’s The Impossible Kid. I had listened to the whole thing through only once, and was immediately struck by the incredible use of language in the raps. But it didn’t stick like Noname’s melancholic melodies and low emotive voice. My friend, contrarily, was drawn more to Aesop Rock’s quick-moving masterful vocabulary.
The conversation turned to argument, my fingers failing to keep up with my passion in the backseat of the bus, typing silently into the bright screen of my phone. We talked about hip-hop as poetry, as politics. We talked about what makes an album good. I couldn’t help but notice the way I, a black woman, found myself identifying more with the art of Noname (a black woman); my friend, a white man, was drawn more to the art of Aesop Rock, also a white man. We talked about the way he, as a white man, often feels wrong listening to hip-hop, like he’s trying to occupy a space in which he does not belong. This was heavy, complicated stuff. By the end of the conversation, topic changed as I grew too tired to think about these things, I found myself bothered more than anything else. I felt as though I had lost this argument, as though Noname had lost, and I felt that maybe this had deeper implications. That our voices as black women were being silenced by a system designed to more-readily assign merit to white men.
This became the question that I decided to explore in my Directed Study project this semester. My original proposal reads as follows:
I plan to explore the way merit is earned, inherited, or credited to artists in the fields of contemporary rap/hip-hop music and contemporary poetry. Studying and comparing two albums of the genre released in 2016 (Telefone by Noname and The Impossible Kid by Aesop Rock), and two books of contemporary poetry also published within the last year (Cannibal by Safiya Sinclair and Ghost County by John McCarthy), as well as reviews and other sources that demonstrate public and accredited perceptions of these works as works of art, I intend to explore the way gender and race affect language and style, and the way these subsequently affect the merit of the artist’s work, and even the artist him/herself. In this, I also plan to explore the similarities/ differences between rap/ hip-hop and contemporary poetry as art forms, communities, ways of expression, etc. and draw historical connections that link the two.
As most projects do, this project has strayed from the original proposal. Quickly discovering the complexities of trying to look into merit in art, a new question seemed relevant and important as I looked deeper into these two albums. Can a black female artist write outside of blackness/ the black female experience? Ought she? Are white male artists confined by the same identity bounds? Are they writing within whiteness, or is this experience a non-experience, as the idea of “white culture” is sometimes considered a non-culture? This is really the tip of the iceberg when it comes to questions I now have.
I’ll be using the blog from here on to sort of work through these questions/ vent/ post about interesting things I’m finding through readings and research/ pose questions to anyone who wants to help me answer them. Expect a lot at once, since I’m sitting on several weeks of work with this project that I want to share here!