Vernacular and Tricksters

29 Nov

Hello, gentle readers. Before I get to the meat of this entry, please read this:

I think that little missive could be a great starting point for some of my upcoming research. Nicholas Payton is a terrific player and a searing intellectual mind (he’d probably smack me for calling him intellectual).

Jazz and hip-hop have two major things in common: they rely on the vernacular of a people, and both put stock in trickster characters – the unreliable, disingenuous narrators or principal players.

Vernacular, in fact, means “slave.” Its Latin root is a word that the Romans used to refer to people in bondage. So some scholar thought they were being really clever when they labeled the cultural milieu and language of African Americans as “vernacular.” These days the term is used to refer to the inner cultural workings of any distinguished group, from WASPs to goths to what scholar Adam Bradley eloquently terms “the NPR demographic.”

(As an aside, I don’t look down on NPR listeners; I do, however, feel that NPR is pseudo-intellectualism at its finest, and is very good at conveying talking points to an audience of white liberals who then regurgitate what they hear/read to seem tolerant and educated. I am a white liberal, but I also question everything I am told – especially if I agree with it. The NPR demographic seems blissfully unaware of institutionalized racism – white privilege. Ever heard a white liberal brag about how some of their best friends are black? You see my point. If you aren’t a racist, you don’t have to define your friends by their color.)

I participated in a Skype interview (seriously, that is the coolest thing for scholars – you can interact with people and have real-time, face to face discussions! I love it) with author/scholar Adam Bradley. Dr. Bradley holds a Ph.D. from Harvard and was a student of Cornel West. That fact alone is reason for me to worship the ground he walks on, as Cornel West is a personal hero of mine and a man with the brilliance to change the world. Dr. Bradley teaches English literature at the University of Colorado – Boulder, and is a Ralph Ellison scholar.  He’s also a hip-hop scholar and just completed work on a memoir with rapper Common.

Bradley told a very funny story about Jay-Z appearing on NPR to promote his memoir, Decoded.  It was quite surreal, Bradley said, to hear Jay-Z being interviewed by a white woman with perfect diction about what it was like “growing up in the ghetto.” And to emphasize his point, he over-articulated every syllable in “ghetto” in the style of the interviewer.

Bradley’s point was this – it was a bit of a rude question. And an obvious one.  Asking Jay-Z this question was like tripping an alarm – HEY! HE’S A RAPPER! AND A BLACK GUY! It’s as if the ghetto is this mythical place that people can visit, like on a vacation. Not a way of life for millions of people in our country. It just seems like a bit of a stretch – like NPR is trying to appear fascinated by how the “other half” lives. This sort of pseudo-intellectualism just reinforces cultural boundaries and perpetuates the myth of the Other. That, and anyone who has every listened to ONE Jay-Z album knows exactly how he feels about living in the ghetto.

I really liked Dr. Bradley. I might email him and pick his brain, since I am a budding young scholar of black music.

Read Payton’s essay, and you’ll understand what I do a bit better.


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