From The Veil to The Earbud:
Limits of Black Representation in Music
W. E. B. Du Bois’s book The Souls of Black Folk is laced with bars of music—all excerpts from Sorrow Songs, spirituals written and traditionally sung by African Americans since the period of slavery. As he writes about the “color line,” which he considers to be the most egregious issue we face today, Du Bois laments that there can be no true integration until black and white people are brought together in all aspects of life. Du Bois writes of a “conspiracy of silence,” by which the white, privileged population is able to “ignore the darker half of the land” (132). He participates in his own act of resistance against this silencing conspiracy by making the Sorrow Songs about which he writes finally visible—incorporating them at the beginnings of his chapters. However, lack of black musical representation in contemporary media may demonstrate that there are limits to appreciation of art across cultures. While black churches may still sing the hymns of their ancestors, honoring the spirits of those who died in slavery, when this music reaches a white, mainstream audience, an integral quality of the art form is lost.
After establishing the current state of the black population as he sees it, Du Bois moves on to enumerate the many disconnections between black culture and mainstream, white culture in the United States. He writes:
There is no true American music but the wild sweet melodies of the Negro slave [. . .] Will America be poorer if she replace her brutal dyspeptic blundering with light-hearted but determined Negro humility? or her course and cruel wit with loving jovial good-humor? or her vulgar music with the soul of the Sorrow Song? (14).
Though Du Bois asks these questions, he implies his own answer: no, in fact, America would truly gain something beautiful if all people were to embrace the many things black culture and tradition had to offer. His argument is reminiscent of Alexis de Tocqueville’s on the universal benefits of equality when he goes on to write: “The white man, as well as the Negro, is bound and barred by the color-line” (133). Du Bois imagines a world free of segregation of all kinds—this, he claims, will enrich the lives of all.
Throughout the piece, Du Bois also comments on the inherently empowering quality of music for black people. In writing about John in “Of the Coming of John,” he describes the moments surrounding Jones’s empowerment to commit murder—his final act of emancipation from the white man. First, when Jones’s drive to live and be free is awakened: “He would not like to be listless and idle, he thought, for he felt with the music the movement of power within him” (171). Later, when he kills the white man who is the very source of his oppression, Jones walks away “softly humming the ‘Song of the Bride’” (179). He has finally freed himself, armed with the power granted to him through music. As Du Bois confidently asserts, in conclusion:
The Negro folk-song—the rhythmic cry of the slave—stands today not simply as the sole American music, but as the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side the seas [. . .] it still remains as the singular spiritual heritage of the nation and the greatest gift of the Negro people (180-81).
His dream is clear—incorporate black music into American culture (as it is, truly, the heart of America already), and true integration can begin.
Claudia Rankine, author of Citizen, offers a contemporary opinion on the inclusion of black artists in the music industry today—one that very much complicates Du Bois’s seemingly simplistic vision for the future. Rankine describes Hennessy Youngman’s argument that “black people’s anger is marketable,” explaining that the black artists most visible to us today play into this ultimately inauthentic “performance of blackness” (Rankine 23). She goes on to insist that this communication of personal struggle connected to a history of oppression is limited:
Youngman’s suggestions are meant to expose expectations for blackness as well as to underscore the difficulty inherent in any attempt by black artists to metabolize real rage. The commodified anger his video advocates rests lightly on the surface for spectacle’s sake (23).
In response to Du Bois, Rankine would claim that the inclusion of black artists in the mainstream is a mere illusion: and perhaps not only to those non-black individuals who claim to be exposed to “the black experience” by listening to hip hop, but also to black artists themselves, whose attempts at self-representation are halted from the outset; there is no real outlet for their anger, and thus what they must produce to thrive in the industry is a contrived, marketable anger.
Clearly, Du Bois’s call for inclusion of black culture in mainstream society must be interrogated—what should this inclusion look like, and is it really as simple as replacing “her vulgar music with the soul of the Sorrow Song?” Du Bois calls attention to the complicated nature of the future he hopes for when he writes of the current state of music in his time:
Side by side, too, with the growth has gone the debasements and imitations—the Negro “minstrel” songs, many of the “gospel” hymns, and some of the contemporary “coon” songs,--a mass of music in which the novice may easily lose himself and never find the real Negro melodies (Du Bois 184).
The music Du Bois describes here is inauthentic—it is a form of cultural appropriation on the part of white people, and thus the soul of the black spiritual music behind it has been lost. So can black representation, as it exists now, in the music industry really be representative at all?
This false view of reality imposed upon black people by white society seems directly connected to Du Bois’s theories of “the veil” and double-consciousness. Double-consciousness is defined as “this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity” (Du Bois 8). This phenomenon, Du Bois argues, is majorly responsible for perpetuating internalized racism and the division of races he calls the color line. “The veil,” then, appears to be the symbolic manifestation of double-consciousness. Du Bois writes of a veil worn by black people in the United States that renders them ignorant to their situation—rather than being aware of their own oppression and marginalization, black people still living under the veil have been forcefully conditioned to believe that their positioning at the bottom rung of society is both natural and just. In “Of the Coming of John,” he describes the enlightening moment that occurs when the veil is finally noticed—and in being noticed, is lifted.
He grew slowly to feel almost for the first time the Veil that lay between him and the white world; he first noticed now the oppression that had not seemed oppression before, differences that erstwhile seemed natural, restraints and slights that in his boyhood days had gone unnoticed or been greeted with a laugh. He felt angry now (169).
The veil as a symbol is interesting to unpack; veils are physical barriers between the wearer and the outside world, and vice versa. However, they are translucent—light and images can pass through them to some extent, creating the illusion that the wearer can see (when, in reality, vision is distorted). Thus, the physical nature of veils fits smoothly into Du Bois’s concept of double-consciousness—the black wearer can see himself only through the distorted lens of mainstream, white society, and is entirely unaware that this phenomenon is occurring. When he recognizes it, the veil is inherently lifted (at least to a degree).
These concepts seem to lie at the heart of the state of black representation in music today. While black presence in music may give the public the impression that representation exists, mainstream, popular music is catered to and marketed towards the white population—and this appropriation creates a false sense of appreciation. Amandla Stenberg of The Hunger Games fame speaks in an online video about cultural appropriation, demanding we face the question: “What would America be like if we loved black people as much as black culture?” Certainly, there is a significant distinction. A video of Kanye West’s song “New Slaves” as performed at the Made in America music festival in 2014 begs a similar question. Kanye performs his song about the current state of the African American community in America to a largely white audience, and white spectators can be seen singing along, joyously shouting the words as though they ring true in their own lives. The video raises a number of questions, as it places the song in the context of a specific performance. How is appropriation affected by audience? Here, it would seem that audience is precisely what marks the event as appropriative—had Kanye been singing to a largely black audience, the song could be enjoyed by people who might actually identify with its message and the history of black bodies embedded in the lyrics and genre.
Another level of appropriation is unearthed with a discussion of the performer—how is appropriation affected by who is singing? While a recording of “The Gospel Train” (a Sorrow Song) sung by a number of black artists is beautiful and rife with emotion, these traditionally African American spirituals are sung in predominantly (if not entirely) white church settings even today. Perhaps this transfer of cultures is not appropriation if it serves a purpose for another marginalized groups—as many songs related to standing up, fighting, and overcoming are traded organically between movements and across heritage. But the taking on of oppressed groups’ art by the majority, who never experienced the struggles that brought out these emotions, is a false claim to the fight that led to their inception.
Yet despite all of this false integration, this “mass of music in which the novice may easily lose himself,” the Sorrow Songs live on within African American communities across the country and are appreciated by those who intend to honor their ancestors. Du Bois’s vision has by no means been lost—rather, it has been hidden in a jumble of media seeking to cater to those who hold the power and money in society today, white people all too eager to appropriate “catchy” music and claim it as their own.
Amandla Stenberg: Don’t Cash Crop On My Cornrows. Perf. Amandla Stenberg. Hair Hype Magazine, 2015. YouTube, 15 Apr. 2015. Web. 28 Sept. 2015.
Butler, Phil, Brady Walker, Thomas Trimmer, William Grant, and Mary Lee. The Gospel Train. 1939. American Passages: A Literary Survey. Web. 28 Sept. 2015.
Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Library of America Paperback Classics, 1990. Print.
Kanye West – New Slaves – LIVE at Made in America 2014. Perf. Kanye West. DeGenerationIce, 2014. YouTube, 31 Aug. 2014. Web. 28 Sept. 2015.
Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: An American Lyric. Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2014. Print.