Damn it feels good to be a gangster

Just a warning- this is a post about some questions I have.  I don’t think there will be any answers, mostly just thinking aloud.

I was thinking about this scene from Office Space today

Because I was listing to Waka Flocka Flame at my desk.  With my headphones on.

I like this song.  It’s got a palpable sense of anger and dread hanging over it.  It’s not something I listen to every day, but for whatever reason I was in the mood for it.

But I was listening to it with headphones on.  Frankly, I might feel a bit like Michael Bolton from Office Space if someone heard me listening to it.  Why though?  I mean, it’s just music, right?

I think there are two jokes in that scene- one is the ridiculousness of a nerdy white dude rapping and the other is when he sees a black man selling flowers he not only rolls up his windows, but he locks his door.  The implication is obvious – if he had just rolled up his window we could assume he just didn’t want to be hassled.  But locking the door means he’s actually afraid of that man.  He’s rapping to scary black music, but he’s afraid of black people!

I found this scene funny when I saw it, but there’s something deeper to it that I’m trying to pick apart.  I mean, why can’t this dude sing along to some rap music?  I have a cousin who refers to herself as a “country chick” but she’s spent her whole life in Orange County, living within a five minute drive of the Pacific Ocean.  It wasn’t until about a minute ago when I was trying to think of an example of someone I know whose musical taste is way outside of their life that it even occurred to me that there’s anything unusual about that.  Actually, I don’t think it’s that weird.  Country music is as much suburban people music as it is music for rural people.  If she were claiming she could drive a tractor that would be weird.

The other thing is that the guy who made the movie is a white man- Mike Judge in a movie directed at a white audience.  We’re all supposed to look at this and laugh.  Because we’d all know that a white man listening to rap is weird.

I’m going to skip discussion of whether singing along to rap music by white people is OK, if a certain word is used.  My opinion on that subject isn’t really all that interesting.

I was young in the 90s so I was around for the big freakout about “gangster rap”.  But in the end, part of the appeal of gangster rap for white people is that they’re living vicariously by listening to it.  It’s exciting to identify, if only in the most abstract sense, with someone bravely looking at a world of constant danger and fighting against it.  Even conquering it.  I’m not saying there’s nothing ethically questionable there- for some of these rappers this is their real life, and sometimes that music has real life consequences for people.

But I always thought it was odd that right around the time people were freaking out about gangster rap, one of the most critically acclaimed and popular movies was this:

Goodfellas

Gangster MOVIES!  FREAK OUT EVERYONE!

But seriously, what’s the difference?  I’m no more Italian than I am black.  Just like I’d probably have no luck moving to the ghetto and joining a gang, I’d never make it as a mobster.  But for some reason, listening to music is taken as an endorsement of something, but watching a movie is not.  If someone walked into the room and I was rocking out to Waka Flocka Flame, I might turn it down and be a little bit embarrassed.  But I wouldn’t hastily try to change the channel if I were watching The Godfather.

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8 comments

  1. Interesting observations. Even more interesting questions. I like that you not only listen to music, but think about its social implications. Not enough people do that.

    My husband, who could be called Black but is definitely cafe au lait, hates rap. Hates the whole gangsta-ghetto gestalt. He and others like him worked their asses off distance themselves from that culture, to become people. Not Black people. Not Negros. Just people.

    So he hates it, resents it. It enrages him. And he hates well-to-do black dudes who grew up in the suburbs and never lived the lives they rap about pretending to be so down. You should hear Denzel Washington on this subject. He and my husband sound exactly alike. And Bill Cosby, who says the same stuff, but rather more forcefully. I don’t know how they feel about white people and rap — but they so dislike rap I can’t imagine they would find much positive in it.

    As for the musical merits? I have heard some (white) people say that they feel the music gives them a window into something they otherwise couldn’t understand. I don’t actually believe it. I think they get a vicarious kick our of it and think it makes them cool. Maybe they just like the music but I have serious doubts about that.

    Me? I can’t separate the musician, the music, and the message. They are not separable for me. I can’t bring myself to listen to Wagner because he was such a raging anti-Semite. I can’t watch many movies because the message of hate in them overwhelms me. This includes westerns I loved when I was a kid and Disney movies made during less sensitive times.

    Call me a wuss, but everyone is busy grousing about how political correctness is cramping their style. This sounds like a thinly veiled yearning for the good old days when you could, by virtue of being male and white, stomp with cleats over women and anyone with skin darker than yours. I think political correctness is the least we can do to stop insulting people to their faces and if it cramps someone’s style, they can get over themselves.

    But hey, I’m one of those left-wing-liberals Fox News like to rant about … an obvious danger to American freedom.

    1. I could see your husband’s view of that too. I have talked about it a bit, but there are some “white” artists that dwell on themes that are very negative, both in what they mean for the person making the music, and what they mean for people that their music is directed at. It’s tough because a lot of that anger and hostility comes from a place of feeling disenfranchised, powerless, or just not fitting in, which I can sometimes relate to. But that doesn’t make it good thing either.

      As far as it giving a window into people’s lives- I think it can. There are some great albums that are made that way. Nas’ Illmatic is the best one that I know of that does that. But you’re right, most of it is just vicarious enjoyment. I’ll admit that for me it often is. And it does trouble me at times, because of where it came from and because it’s not a life I could ever really experience. It’s fiction in the sense that some of the most famous rappers certainly were posers and not every story is true, but it’s reality in the sense that the sort of things they talk about do happen. Then again, I might enjoy watching Rambo, which is fiction, but the USA is almost constantly at war, so it’s kind of not fiction. Our society has some negative aspects (to put it mildly) and that ends up in our entertainment.

      I could never get behind the idea that “political correctness” is a bad thing. Trying to consider other people’s feelings is a good thing. Trying to think about how we arrived at our opinions is a good thing. Treating people like individuals and understanding their story is a good thing.

      One other thing- part of why I puzzle over these things here is that honestly, I don’t want to be constantly asking the handful of black people I do know for their opinions. Because I’m sure that can be tiresome for them- I know from being an American abroad that knowing every answer you’re giving is being taken as definitive by the listener is a burden. I mean, they’re my friends, not a resource for cultural understanding. Plus if it does come up I want people to know I’ve given it some thought, even if it’s wrong.

      1. I’ve always got Garry on my right hand to talk to. I don’t have many white friends. It just worked out that well. BUT. We are all older generation, baby boomers, college educated and no matter where and how we grew up (I’m the only one who was middle class — Garry and our friends were poor), we have similar goals, beliefs, etc. We fought for civil rights and remember when there WAS no civil right amendment and people were dying in Mississippi. So many younger people seem unaware what a struggle it was to change the world from what it was, to what it is. They dismiss it as no big deal.

        It WAS a big deal. However difficult things are now, they were worse back then. But. We can’t speak to how people feel now. Different experiences, different realities. Different worlds.

      2. It’s hard to know what younger people are going through now, and what their struggles are. I know for my generation, we might have seemed complacent to a lot of people, but that complacency was more like resignation to the fact that were outnumbered and had so little power. I look around now and see some of the old fights being fought again- voting rights, for instance, and that’s pretty depressing. But the youth are winning some important fights too, like on gay rights. So far I don’t think there’s ever been an easy battle against human prejudice. It seems to stay with us no matter how hard we fight it.

      3. Yes. Historically, everything has happened before. We never seem to learn a lesson and remember for longer than 20 years, After that? We wind up doing it again. That’s the way the world goes round.

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