Who Leads This Dance: Reflecting on the Influence of African Americans on Popular Culture

Article excerpt

Popular culture is a complicated and contested space. The politics of representation are always in play, and across the history of popular culture in the United States there has persisted a strained dance between White Americans and African Americans, wherein African Americans produce cultural artifacts and White Americans create spaces for widespread distribution and consumption. It is essential to recognize this relationship, because for a culture to sustain itself, there must also be a consumption of that culture; otherwise, it will fall into its own idiosyncratic obscurity. But this dance of culture is ultimately a vestige of our racial malaise, and the architects of African American culture have always been aware of their positions in that dynamic--barring those who were swindled out of rightful compensation for their creations.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to talk about a pure African American culture in the sense that how we see ourselves is consistently mediated by the representations we see, and individuals either fight to subvert those representations, blindly accept them, or willfully accept them. Moreover, when White Americans begin to embrace and participate in African American cultural artifacts, how do we make sense of that move? For example, last summer I went to the annual Blues and Jazz Fests in Chicago, a city with a high percentage of African Americans. But as !

walked through Grant Park and observed the participants, I realized that there were far more White Americans than African Americans in attendance. This raises the question, "What exactly is the influence of African Americans on popular culture?"

As Stuart Hall points out:

   What we are talking about is the
   struggle over cultural hegemony, which
   is these days waged as much in popular
   culture as anywhere else... Cultural
   hegemony is never about pure victory or
   pure domination (that's not what the term
   means); it is never a zero-sum cultural
   game; it is always about shifting the balance
   of power in the relations of culture... (1)

In today's popular culture landscape, the influence of African Americans is indisputable. Regardless of the media stream, the presence and voices of African Americans can be seen in myriad and powerful ways. For example, Black comedians and social critics like Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, and Dave Chappelle pushed the envelope of subject matter and stage presence for both stand-up and sketch comedy, and challenged the popular American mind to think differently about race and social relations. But in the case of Dave Chappelle, who rescinded a 50-million-dollar deal to continue his groundbreaking and popular show, The Chappelle Show, a significant reason for his retreat was that he no longer felt free to make his show. Although Comedy Central, the cable channel home of the show, whose parent company is the corporate media conglomerate Viacom, made a great deal of money off Chappelle's creation, the show's success would not have been possible without Comedy Central and Viacom's promotion and the overwhelmingly White audience's consumption.

That does not eclipse that we are seeing a larger imprint of African American influence on popular culture. Aaron McGruder, through his award-winning comic strip and cartoon, The Boondocks, ingeniously challenges stereotypes of African Americans; he injects an acerbic wit into the comics, and his characters force viewers to continuously challenge how race and the assumptions they make about people affect us all, even though the larger message often gets obscured for the uncritical consumer. Tiger Woods and Venus and Serena Williams have changed the face of professional sports and advertising, and the Williams sisters have begun to make inroads into the fashion industry. African American scholars and public intellectuals like Michael Eric Dyson, Mark Lamont Hill, bell hooks, Julianne Malveaux, and Cornel West have influenced popular culture by directly challenging dominant ideologies, eloquently encouraging consumers to reconsider their assumptions and ideals across social, political, spiritual, and cultural subject matter. …