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The Dilemma Facing Black Artists

May 12, 2018

 Unlike the era of jazz in the 1920s, when black musicians published music under pseudonyms to appeal to larger audiences, black artists nowadays barely have to try for their music to end up in the hands of white consumers. In fact, white audiences are begging for black culture; they spend hundreds of dollars on Kendrick Lamar concert tickets, $20/month for Jay Z’s streaming service TIDAL, and $350 retail price for Kanye West’s Yeezy sneakers.


Though decades have gone by since the birth of jazz, or even the birth of hip-hop in the 1970s, some things have stayed the same. However, with a dramatic racial shift in consumers of historically black music, black artists are struggling with how to produce content that brings them money, yet remains true to their artistry especially when their audiences look nothing like them. Several black artists like Childish Gambino and J. Cole have addressed their cognitive dissonance towards being black and being famous in some of their most recent works.


In his song and music video, “This is America,” Donald Glover (Childish Gambino) seamlessly intertwines popular black dance moves and music to shame the appropriation of black culture. He contorts his muscles to create shapes that mimic minstrel show characters from the 1800s. He continues with moves such as the Gwara Gwara and the Shoot, ending with the classic and magnificent dance style of James Brown.


Gambino shows how the US applauds black culture — but not black people. By juxtaposing horrific gun violence and the viral craze of black dancing and music, he whittles down the black experience to entertainment for non-black people. He also points to the fact that even black people themselves, especially those in positions of power and status, perpetuate this entertainment phenomena. He makes it clear that other black artists are often too concerned with money, Twitter followers, and the allusion of fame. So much so that they often forget the realities of those with the same skin as them. They forget the everyday microaggressions, the wage gap between minority peoples and whites, the vast housing inequalities, and the unarmed black men that are continuously shot and killed. Gambino wants black people to succeed (“get your money, black man”), yet does not want them to lose their identities among popular culture.


Rapper J. Cole also discusses his confliction as a wealthy black artist in his song “1985” off of his 2018 album KOD.  He announces:

These white kids love that you don't give a fuck

'Cause that's exactly what's expected when your skin black

They wanna see you dab, they wanna see you pop a pill

They wanna see you tatted from your face to your heels

And somewhere deep down, fuck it, I gotta keep it real

They wanna be black and think your song is how it feels


Like Gambino, Cole draws parallels to white audiences who enjoy the craze of being black, yet who never understand what it is like to possess a black identity. So where is the balance? To end the systemic racism that has been plaguing the US for years, black society must normalize black culture. This means the black community needs to keep sharing hip-hop music and dance moves, but it also means the black community needs to keep showing and fighting against the realities of poverty and violence that plague America. Like the children who eagerly follow and dance around Gambino in the music video for “This is America,” it is up to the next generation of black citizens and artists to decide how they present their identities to the world.


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