Sunday, October 22, 2006
Modern Minstrel Shows
New York Daily News - http://www.nydailynews.com
All rhyme, no reason for rap world's modern minstrels
Sunday, October 22nd, 2006
Like it or not, the precious First Amendment right to free speech gives every one of the hip-hop minstrels currently being hyped by cynical record labels and television execs a constitutionally protected right to act like complete jackasses before a national audience.
It also gives the rest of us the right to speak up and denounce such buffoonery as what it is: a direct throwback to the days of burnt cork and blackface, when fortunes were made from America's seemingly bottomless appetite for demeaning images featuring black folks shuffling, cutting up, dancing jigs and generally behaving like fools.
As recently pointed out by Byron Crawford, a blogger for the hip-hop magazine XXL, industry-backed racial clowning is so popular that it now constitutes its own subgenre: minstrel rap.
"Record labels are rushing out to sign the most coon-like Negroes they can find," Crawford wrote, citing the popularity of "Chain Hang Low," a song by a St. Louis teenager named Jibbs that is all the rage on the record charts and on YouTube, the online video service.
The song is an anthem to flashy jewelry set to the tune of "Turkey in the Straw" (Do your chain hang low? Do it wobble to the flow?/ Do it shine in the light? Is it platinum? Is it gold?).
As a New York Times music critic recently noted in a review of Jibbs' song, "Turkey in the Straw" is actually an altered version of a 19th-century minstrel song called "Old Zip Coon" (Ole Zip Coon he is a natty scholar/ For he plays upon de Banjo "Cooney in de hollar").
Jibbs is neither the first nor the biggest star in the world of minstrel rap. 50 Cent's album and movie "Get Rich or Die Tryin'" carry an unmistakable echo of a hit minstrel song from 1856 called "Root Hog or Die" - a tune based on a folk saying that carries pretty much the same meaning as 50's title. Even the lyrics barely need tweaking to sound like modern minstrel rap: (I'm right from old Virginny with my pocket full of news/ I'm worth twenty shillings right square in my shoes/ It doesn't make a dif of bitternance to neither you nor I/ Big pig or little pig Root, hog or die).
Other modern minstrel rap tunes include "Chicken Noodle Soup" and "Fry That Chicken," both of which have videos showing kids dancing little jigs while grinning and eating soul food.
It's sad to see musically untrained youngsters shucking and jiving for a bit of money and fame. Most could never dream of succeeding in a serious artistic setting like a church choir, dance ensemble or jazz band, places that require study, discipline and hard work. Many would be swiftly laughed off the stage.
Those who think that trafficking in racial selfabasement for cash is a harmless business should remember the controversial, tragic career of Lincoln Perry, whose stage and movie performances as Stepin Fetchit - a mumbling, dimwitted servant billed as "the Laziest Man in the World" - were popular in the 1920s and '30s.
Perry's minstrel act made him a millionaire movie star, but he ended up bankrupt, condemned by black audiences and all but forgotten by the time of his death in 1985.
Today's minstrel rappers are unwittingly racing down that same path - fooled by false financial promises, too lazy to hone their talent and condemned, like all who ignore history, to repeat it.