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A Universal Fear of Death

Anthony Dean-Harris
Editor-in-Chief / @i_ADH

A few news items came up in the last week that piqued my interest. They aren't jazz related. These opening points may bob and weave for a while. Bear with me. It's going somewhere. There's a through line, things will connect.

Last weekend, the Hot 97 Summer Jam took place last weekend and Grantland's Rembert Browne was there to cover it. I've spoken quite highly of his work before. Hip hop isn't really my field but I always say good writing is about making the uninteresting interesting and the inaccessible accessible; Browne always pulls this off. While I loved the whole piece, what really stuck out to me was his take on the beef Hot 97 and Funkmaster Flex have with Nicki Minaj. The core of this invective churning at the moment is the belief that Minaj may no longer be making sincere work, that she may be selling out the brand. That's not real hip hop; she's making pop music. Anyone seeing where this is going because I think this gatekeeper/excommunicator kind of fear of cultural commodification sounds kind of familiar?

Later this week, actress Gwyneth Paltrow caught a lot of flack for tweeting a picture of Jay-Z and Kanye West performing "Ni**as in Paris" in Paris and saying "Ni**as in Paris for real..." All across the board of things I read on the internet and likely many other places I don't, folks gave their take on the matter. Jay Smooth, as always, seemed to have the most levelheaded direct approach, but I most appreciated Ta-Nehisi Coates discussing the plain fact of the matter that subcutures have structural boundaries. When he so simply recontextualized the matter later in the post, it couldn't have been any more clear. In Jay-Z and Kanye, men of their stature in pop culture, making "Ni**as in Paris" (I'm actually pro- me using the N-word but let's just 1) have that discussion later, m'kay? and 2) leave those little ol' asterisks there for now), they are testing the boundaries of black culture by forcing the culture at large, including the white people who lost their (public) N-word privileges some forty years ago after all that enslavement/Jim Crow/institutional racism stuff, to say it, likely with variable degrees of comfort. (Frankly, the first time I heard the song, I found the beat so initially abhorrent, I stopped playing it after ten seconds and avoided it for like two months. Now, it's sort of catchy.) The boundaries of black culture are being molded (Through the arts! So support your local arts programs, folks.) and the culture is showing discomfort. What confounds me is that we really should have seen this coming. Jozen Cummings did. A couple of black men making a song about black people living extravagantly in Paris, France and referring to those men with a constantly repurposed, controversial word to refer to black people, and now that they are in fact performing that song as those people in that named city-- who wasn't going to even mention it? But I digress (again), the boundaries of a culture are bending the the culture is showing discomfort. This sounding familiar yet?

So as time goes by and the jazz community talks about what it is today and its fight for life and vibrancy, yes, I tire of having the same discussion (while seemingly often defaulting to discussing it) but I can also see its parallels elsewhere. I can hear it when I go to church on Sunday and people talking about the world getting worse all the time ( Lawd, have mercy). I can see it every week on Mad Men when Roger asks Don "when's everything going to go back to normal?" (and how 'bout this season, y'all! What's going to happen on Sunday for the season finale? Where else is this show going to go?). Despite Nas' declaration six years ago, hip hop is not dead. Others are adding to the community, the way it's being consumed is changing, the idea of the audience is reshaping. The genre is changing. The subculture formed around that genres influence is changing as well. Everything is on average just as bad and just as good as it always has been. Things could be better and things could probably be worse. It's how we adapt to our current conditions that dictates how we navigate the world around us. The protestations about the direction of art made within this culture are not new. As Brown noted in his aforementioned piece, "It's all very interesting, because rap and hip-hop are pop music." If this talk of excommunication is coming up around what's still one of the most prominent genres in the land right now, something so massive that is still concerned about its life and its purity, should that not be any assurance that the fears we have in the jazz community aren't so special? Each community is concerned about its perpetuation. It's rather inspiring.

When we think about art as some sort of monolithic thing instead of as individuals (who are parts of cultures [i.e. what they see everyday] who are all making things that are somewhat similar to what others are doing (in order to expedite classification [Y'know, that thing that helps folks explain to other folks what something is so others can look into it and judge whether or not they like it themselves? That thing that's sort of necessary in building an audience? That thing?]) because they're ultimately making what they like (unless it's like a commission or something, but then, the artist is making a decision to like money [which ain't a bad thing, trust], right?), we're forgetting that art doesn't need to have concessions. A community can mold an individual's interpretation of works or even an individual's interpretation of the form of that community, but ultimately individuals are the root of art. The Amoean hermeneutic circle rears its head again. The author makes a work. The audience, on his or her own, interprets the work. Such is the nature of art-- in any medium, in any genre. The jazz community is not alone in pondering these things, so when we're thinking about the success and methods of others (the punk D.I.Y. ethic, integrating hip hop beats, more rock influences, restaging performances, etc.), it's comforting to know that the innovations of others are also birthed in the same fears of those others'.

Everyone is always afraid of the death of their work. Everyone is always proclaiming the death of their community. These aren't new tricks. There is no new thing under the sun. We are all the blanket. Selah.

Anthony Dean-Harris hosts the modern jazz radio show, The Line-Up, Fridays at 9pm CST on 91.7 FM KRTU San Antonio. More of his writing can be found at his blog, In Retrospect and you can also follow him on Twitter.