Academic journal article Americana : The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present; Hollywood

The Repertoire of Black Popular Culture

Academic journal article Americana : The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present; Hollywood

The Repertoire of Black Popular Culture

Article excerpt


Black popular culture is an arena of daily life in any culture that actualizes, engenders, operationalizes, or signifies pleasure, enjoyment, and amusement according to the beliefs, values, experiences, and social institutions of people of African descent in particular but also other racial groups in general. To British cultural studies pioneer Stuart Hall in "What is This 'Black' in Black Popular Culture?", "black" signifies the black community (the site or location of the experiences, pleasures, memories, and everyday practices of black people), the "persistence of the black experience (the historical experience of black people in the diaspora), of the black aesthetic (the distinctive cultural repertoires out of which popular representations were made), and of the black counternarratives we have struggled to voice" (28).

Hall further declares that "good" black popular culture can pass the test of authenticity when the form or product refers to the black experience (history) and black expressivity (aesthetic and counternarratives).

In this same writing, Hall described three "black repertoires" from which black popular culture draws: style, music, and the use of the body as a canvas of representation.

First, I ask you to note how, within the black repertoire, style - which mainstream cultural critics often believe to be the mere husk, the wrapping, the sugar coating on the pill - has become itself the subject of what is going on. Second, mark how, displaced from a logocentric world - where the direct mastery of cultural modes meant the mastery of writing, and hence, both of the criticism of writing (logocentric criticism) and the deconstruction of writing - the people of the black diaspora have, in opposition to all of that, found the deep form, the deep structure of their cultural life in music. Third, think of how these cultures have used the body - as if it was, and it often was, the only cultural capital we had. We have worked on ourselves as the canvases of representation. (27)

Together these repertoires form a "black aesthetic" which Hall defines as the "distinctive cultural repertoires out of which popular representations" of diasporan blacks are made.

I define "black cultural repertoire" as the specific devices, techniques, figures, black objects, expressive art forms, or products of people of Africana descent that form part of their culture (whether as context, texture, or text), that are often derived from the folk tradition (see Soitos 37), that form a foundation of a black aesthetic, and that are used to create black popular cultural products. In this paper, I propose seven key components of the black repertoire: (1) the city [or space and place], (2) food/cuisine, (3) rhythm, (4) percussiveness, (5) call-response, (6) worship service and party, and (7) middle-class ideology. I will elaborate on this seven-part repertoire by defining each component and briefly highlighting their occurrence in such black popular cultural productions as music, orature, literature, and film.


John Jeffries in "Toward a Redefinition of the Urban: The Collision of Culture" suggests that the city is a cultural repertoire from which black popular culture draws. "In black popular culture, the city is hip. It's locale of cool. In order to be 'with it,' you must be in the city, or at minimum, urban culture must be transplanted, simulated, or replicated outside of the city wherever possible. The city is where black popular styles are born - especially clothing and hairstyles" (159). However, he further asserts that for "blacks in America, the social construction of race has served as a major obstacle to enjoying the 'good life' in the city" (160).

The idea of the hip city is found in Chester Himes's Harlem domestic series of hard-boiled detective novels (Jeffries 159; Soitos 125-78) which included For the Love of Imabelle (1957); The Real Cook Killers (1959), The Crazy Kill (1959), The Big Gold Dream (1960); All Shot Up (1960); Cotton Comes to Harlem (1965); Run, Man Run (1966); The Heat's On (1966); Blind Man with a Pistol (1969); and the posthumously published Plan B (1993). …

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