Postmodernism, Pop Music, and Blues Practice in Nelson George's Post-Soul Culture
Jones, David M., African American Review
[T]here is something missing in black America, and symptoms of the illness are in its music. (Nelson George, Death of Rhythm and Blues xii).
We are no longer post-soul. We are something else. For now, I leave that new definition to you (Nelson George, Post-Soul Nation 230)
In a period lasting about 20 years from the mid-1980s to the early 2000s, author and music producer Nelson George published a series of books that examine African American cultural identity, popular music, and social change. This compelling series of books includes Where Did Our Love Go: The Rise and Fall of the Motown Sound (1985); The Death of Rhythm and Blues (1988); Buppies, B-Boys, Baps, and Bohos: Notes on Post-Soul Black Culture (1992); Hip Hop America (1999); and Post-Soul Nation (2003). (1) These texts examine company histories, stylistics, and noteworthy recordings among several recent genres of black popular music, with a special interest in business models, artist/producer collaborations, and other practices and innovations that have made particular genres, artists, and companies succeed and fail. The texts also probe how black music styles have influenced music consumers and public culture during an era beginning with the rise of rhythm and blues and ending with the globalization of hip hop as a musical lingua franca among world youth.
More specifically, George's texts hypothesize ways that black popular music produces a collective black cultural identity by responding to social conditions and justice-seeking movements among African Americans. Collectively, the texts raise a number of questions regarding popular music, identity politics, and social change going forward into the twenty-first century: can the multidisciplinary discourse known as postmodernism be used to point the way from traditional identity politics and racial essentialism to more rigorous and scientifically sound understandings of race, popular music, and cultural change? What assumptions and methods are most useful for examining the relationship between African American cultural identities and black popular music? In future decades, should one expect that black popular music will serve as a leading force toward progressive social change, as it appeared to do during the periods when jazz, blues, rhythm and blues, and soul music emerged?
Working from George's texts and a postmodernist/new historicist lens, my essay examines "post-soul" culture within a wider postmodernist critique of black cultural essentialism. Like George, I am interested in how popular music responds to and represents the collective cultural experiences of African Americans, and I am especially interested in the representational qualities of hip hop and blues music in the postmodern moment. I find hip hop to be an exciting subject of study because it is currently practiced widely with significant stylistic variety and a high degree of consumer and critical interest; hip hop is widely presumed, in fact, to be the musical style with the most current relevance to everyday African American life. Blues, on the other hand, is widely thought to be anachronistic as black cultural expression--once a genre engaging strong consumer and critical interest, now a subject of greater interest to committed aficionados and musicologists than ordinary music consumers or even cultural critics such as George. I do join George, though, in wondering what it means for the vitality of African American cultural expression and critical discourse to leave behind the traditions and institutions that produced classic rhythm and blues, soul, and blues, with shifting identity politics and declining black consumer interest in the blues being of heightened interest in my own critical reading of post-soul culture.
Indeed, I am glad to engage with George and others in an effort to identify where and how black popular music has brought critical insights on race, culture, and politics to a wider public--and where and how black popular music has had a less constructive role. George joins other authors such as Mark Anthony Neal, Craig Werner, Peter Guralnick, and Gerald Early in theorizing aesthetic qualities, identity politics, and the roles of music producers and consumers in the 1960's soul movement. Since the soul era, however, identity and industry politics have become more complex as activist movements have faded and the production and distribution of popular music have become integrated within corporate culture industries. In the decades since the erosion of soul as a primary metaphor for black critical and popular consciousness (ca. 1980-present in my view; in his 1992 text Buppies, B-Boys, Baps, and Bohos, George cites 1971 and the release of the film Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song as the moment when the repudiation of soul culture initiated post-soul), African American postmodernist discourse has made it clear that black experience--to use the broad term--is not unitary but multiple. By and large, African American postmodernism rejects "race" as an essential biological, social, or cultural category, a standpoint we now understand as constructionism within the field of critical race studies. More broadly, postmodernism has illustrated how black identity is constructed from several origins: historical traditions, civic institutions, the market economy vis-a-vis popular culture expression, and cultural performances that may be inherited sociologically or chosen actively, preferred by the performer in some cases and enforced through social sanction in others. In this way, African American identity is not unitary but plural, fluid not fixed; it can be politically useful or constraining and dysfunctional, a haven from white racism or a source of self-loathing. Let me cite one example of how African American identity is negotiated in public culture: within hip hop music, which has become a primary public sign of African American identity during the post-soul era, one can read fantasies of righteous black violence as a potential "path toward the restoration of one's humanity" (Worgs 41) or as evidence of nihilist impulses within black communities (West, Race Matters 17). I believe the term crisis is appropriate to signify the difficulty in coming to terms with blackness not as a fundamental essence but as a constructed, even fractured, cultural identity within a postmodern social landscape.
With the waning of soul culture, the death of rhythm and blues as George would say, critics, artists, and the public often express a feeling of regret that we as black people have lost something essential to our collective being, something politically useful and inspiring to our musical expression. In a similar vein, the argument has become common that racial integration was not a productive strategy for black community uplift, George himself conveying this sentiment by holding that "the philosophy of integration, for all its incremental improvements, has not altered the basic conditions for most blacks in America" (Death of Rhythm and Blues 199). George and many others also note with disillusionment how deeply racial stereotypes are embedded in mass media images of African Americans, even in the context of news and entertainment--a concern that underlies recent media controversies surrounding Dave Chappelle and Don Imus. (2) Calls for greater black control over media production and more positive imagery of African Americans in all media have persisted for decades and remain a contested topic in the twenty-first century. (3)
In this context George has emerged as a major critical voice, just as postmodernist discourse was gaining wider acceptance as a lens for examining African American cultural politics. George's texts are characterized by lively stylistics and compelling personal and institutional histories of what we might playfully call a golden era in African American music. Topics in these texts span from spirited rhythm and blues emerging in the 1940s and 1950s (with artists ranging from Ruth Brown and Ray Charles to Louis Jordan and Dinah Washington) to the widely and rightly celebrated era of 1960's soul music, continuing through the era of hip hop. George also highlights his journalistic coverage of the seminal New York rap bands of the 1980s and 1990s as a reporter for the Amsterdam News, Billboard, and the Village Voice. For this critical essay, though, I focus on George's use of the term "post-soul" as it describes recent periods in African American cultural production. The term distinguishes between a period of mass social movements during the 1960s (including civil rights and Black Power activism in politics, Black Arts and soul music in the cultural arena) and a fractious period afterward (1980s/1990s) that witnessed splits in the civil rights and Black Power coalitions and, by many accounts, a stalling of progress toward economic and political equality for African Americans. Amid the transition from soul to post-soul, characterized, paradoxically, by increased legal integration of US social institutions and entrenched de facto segregation, the conviction became common among critical observers that African Americans lost some things of great value; returning to the opening quotation, in George's words, "there is something missing in black America, and symptoms of the illness are in its music" (Death of Rhythm and Blues xii).
In his introduction to Buppies, B-Boys, Baps, and Bohos, George highlights specific thematic differences between the 1960's soul aesthetic and the musical output of post-soul culture. Whereas soul music illustrated "the we-shall-overcome tradition of noble struggle ... positive images, and the conventional wisdom that civil rights would transform into racial salvation," post-soul culture yielded "goin'-for-mine materialism, secular beat consciousness, and a more diverse, fragmented, even postmodern black community" (Buppies 1). The assumption that positive images would promote stronger self-esteem among African Americans and reassure the white public of the ethical soundness of progressive social policy was rejected by many artists of the post-soul era who favored starker, aggressively realist sounds and themes evocative of enduring racial inequality and soul-wrenching tensions close at home. The genre of hip hop music illustrates specific shifts and contestations between a neo-soul vibe emphasizing "empowerment, awareness, and ethnic pride among black youths" (Keyes 158), and the edgier, "highly individualistic rebellion of Afro-Americans who are marginal to, or exist on the edges of, Afro-American culture and see little use in assimilating into the American mainstream" (West qtd. in Perry 103).
In this way, several qualities of hip hop music--its ghettocentricity, its challenging of soul era cultural politics, its unlikely rise to prominence and subsequent commodification--have inspired George to think closely and critically about a common belief that hip hop music remains a righteous, current, and authentic expression of black cultural identities. These themes link George's work to a wider critical conversation on postmodernism, popular culture, and African American identity politics, joining scholars such as Hazel Carby, Herman Gray, bell hooks, Guthrie P. Ramsey, Tricia Rose, Gregory Tate, and Cornel West, among others in cultural criticism and critical race studies. This discourse on postmodernism and cultural identities includes wide recognition of difference among African Americans, rather than assumptions of essential similarity among African Americans in economic status, aesthetic taste, and personal ideology. George often alludes to such multiple standpoints in his work on recent African American cultural politics; his text Buppies, B-Boys, Baps, and Bohos highlights specific contrasts in ideology, cultural style, and class background among African Americans of the post-soul era. And yet, there is also a nod to black cultural and economic nationalism in Death of Rhythm and Blues, as George notes that "the challenge facing black artists, producers, radio programmers, and entrepreneurs of every description is to free themselves from the comforts of crossover, to recapture their racial identity, and to fight for the right to exist on their own terms" (200). Centrally, George holds that "progressive black control" is essential to retaining the expressiveness and social relevance of African American music (200). Generally, I agree with George on this point, though I find the processes of commodification and branding to be equally pernicious and pervasive, no matter who is behind the studio board, in front of the microphone, or overseeing product distribution. In other words, what George describes as crossover, I describe as commodification, a practice of branding the "'meaning' and identity" of blackness (Klein 73) for mass audiences, and thereby minimizing the visibility of alternative modes of black artistic performance, especially avant-garde, traditional, or non-commercial modes of performance.
As we advance into the twenty-first century, George observes that the post-soul period has concluded and African Americans are "grappling with a new set of identity issues," due in part to the relative youth of the African American population (two-thirds are now under age 40), and the receding of the civil rights, soul, and Black Power eras farther into history (Post-Soul Nation 229-30). Limiting his Post-Soul Nation cultural analysis to the 1990s, George does not name contemporary currents in African American life and culture. My essay builds on that point, using methods of music criticism, critical race studies, new historicism, and personal reflection to suggest that art song, avant-garde, amateur performance, and most importantly for this essay, a specific traditional music genre, blues, are worthy of greater public and critical attention as the notion of a singular black identity or consciousness continues to bear challenge and repudiation. It should be clear to all observers now that the matrix of institutions that produce, distribute, and legislate on matters related to popular music has a vested interest in reproducing past successes, even if that means reinforcing a narrow view of black culture through its sounds and images or manipulating music consumers through ad campaigns that go far beyond the simple purchase of commercial air time. These deeply rooted practices of commodifying and branding black identity clearly impede our collective ability to move beyond the current, unequal racial order and have exerted an unduly strong influence on how we understand black musical aesthetics--a point that George affirms in his skepticism about the music industry's attempts to generate "crossover" in the era of post soul.
Thus, in this extended reading of the "post-soul," my essay attends both to the repudiation of racial and cultural essentialism in postmodern cultural criticism, and the persistent commodification of black cultural identity by the institutions that produce, distribute, and historicize popular music. It is fascinating to consider how specific forms of black cultural expression carry ideological weight and economic value within a larger mass-mediated political economy. In spite of any skeptical perspectives offered by critical race studies and cultural gatekeepers, hip hop became the primary sign for blackness in post-soul popular culture due to its aura of cool, its marketability, and its implicit claim to represent black identity authentically. This essay makes a special effort to identify what principles and assumptions guide critical observers as they decide when and how to invest critical interest in commodified images of black culture--brands, if you will, including imagery and sound surrounding jazz, blues, rhythm and blues, soul, and hip hop music at varying times in the US twentieth century.
From among these music forms, blues has been theorized least within the recent critical debates on African American postmodernism, including George's readings of post-soul culture. Despite this critical inattention, it is instructive to consider how blues music as a genre has at some historical moments been reified and at other times dismissed as a representative form of African American cultural expression. After all, a conventional assumption endures that blues music remains an authentic representation of collective black experience during the first half of the twentieth century. Also, a range of music critics and aficionados over decades have called attention to the influence of blues over other musical genres (particularly jazz and rock and roll) and have argued for the transcendent aesthetic qualities of blues. Major published texts by Amiri Baraka, Robert Palmer, and Bill Wyman exemplify this reverence for blues in music criticism. (4) Since the publication of Baraka's Blues People in 1963, however, declining audience …
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Publication information: Article title: Postmodernism, Pop Music, and Blues Practice in Nelson George's Post-Soul Culture. Contributors: Jones, David M. - Author. Journal title: African American Review. Volume: 41. Issue: 4 Publication date: Winter 2007. Page number: 667+. © 1999 African American Review. COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale Group.
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