Insider or Outsider? A Brief History of the Classification of Black Music
Anaïs Duplan on Popular Language, Outside Figures, and the Struggle for Recognition
In The Death of Rhythm and Blues, Nelson George writes about the question of assimilation versus self-sufficiency as a primary strategy for empowerment for American Blacks. For George, both are necessary, “but only assimilation, the strategy that dilutes the racial power bloc in exchange for an American identity of dubious rewards, has dominated the thinking of most Black Americans.” If this is true, it’s worth asking why––just as it’s worth asking whether things have changed since George made this assessment in 1988, 16 years before the advent of Facebook.
New technologies, like social media, purport to help us better apprehend and navigate our environments, expand the range and depth of both our sensory and social experiences, exert force, execute tasks. “Every technological change begins with a spiritual revelation,” said Nathaniel Mackey. “It seems to me that one of the questions that you’re asking is: what are the spiritual revelations brought out by the technologies that we’re dealing with?”
On the one hand, social media affords everyone a sympathetic audience. For many disenfranchised people, this may be an entirely novel experience, allowing new kinds of communications, admissions, confessions, and catharses for those who have been societally silenced. These novel utterances increase the possibility for communication within communities in the way that encoded lyrics and songs have served as a means for Black people to safely communicate with each other in hostile surroundings. What these communications on their own can’t prevent, however, is the way that they are decoded and categorized by other agents in those hostile surroundings.
The music industry’s categorization of Black music as “race music,” for instance, derisively emphasized the differences between Black and white musicians’ work. The term was replaced by an alternate classification, “rhythm and blues,” between 1948-49 by major labels such as Billboard, after independent labels had already begun to make the switch. By the time that large music industry players revisited their language, however, “the idea of segregating the music of Black performers had become well ingrained within the American psyche,” writes Lawrence Redd in “Rock! It’s Still Rhythm and Blues.”
The matter of whether historic segregation of Black and white cultural production is a result of––or whether it’s led to––continuing xenophobia is a frustrating chicken-or-the-egg question. As the musician Mal Devisa said to me over Skype in the winter of 2014, “We are socialized and brought up in ways that reinforce that our way of life is the right way and we should be afraid of anything else.” She was in Amherst and I in Iceland. She continued:
We should fear being alone. We should fear god. Those ideas tie into why it’s easier for us to reject people that don’t look like us. […] I think of the fear of losing control to someone else and why that is, in particular, a fear that some people of color, women, and people with disabilities harbor, sometimes for life. I think of the restriction one feels when they are given options to reach and expand out of their comfort zone and the crippling fear that they will be rejected or confused or embarrassed, so they don’t budge. The fear of the unknown can be a big part of life and can either propel you forward or absolutely tie you down. […] When music is involved, this idea of not knowing is incredible. […] Music is a vessel in which we reconstruct ourselves and are able to see ourselves as something more than afraid, more than a human in danger of losing control.
To this day, the music industry’s classification schema carries on the practical segregation of musics, done today more covertly than in the 1960s and 70s through “deracialized” genre classifications. What remains the same is an ongoing felt need amongst white cultural agents to negotiate the presence of Black artists in a largely white cultural framework. This has led to conflict between Black and white cultural producers in the competition over large-scale institutional and corporate recognition. Protesting the music industry’s genre classification system, for example, a group of Black recording artists left the 1972 Grammy Awards ceremony. They felt that white artists were receiving awards that would have been given to Black artists, if not for the fact that pop and rock were the de facto white genres and soul and rhythm ‘n’ blues de facto Black genres.
Despite ongoing conflict, Black cultural workers have continued to fight for recognition on and through mainstream broadcast and entertainment media. Martin Luther King was speaking to a society that had begun to accept Black radio disc jockeys’ presence in popular broadcast media when he addressed the National Association of Television and Radio Announcers in 1967, eighteen years after the start of the first Black-owned radio station, WERD, on which the first words spoken were, “Good morning, Atlanta. We’re here.” King states:
…and in a real sense you [Black radio announcers] have paved the way for social and political change by creating a powerful cultural bridge between black and white. School integration is much easier now that they [pupils] share a common music, a common language, and enjoy the same dances. You introduced youth to that music and created the language of soul and promoted the dance which now sweeps across race, class and nation. It is quite amazing to me to hear the joyful rhythms, which I found time to enjoy as a youth here in Atlanta years ago, coming back across the Atlantic with an English accent (applause) or to see the Senator Javits and the Senators Kennedy lost in the dances which we created. Yes, you have taken the power which Old Sam has buried deep in his soul and through amazing technology [have] performed a cultural conquest that surpasses even [that of] Alexander the Great and culture of classical Greece.”
Notwithstanding King’s optimism about the overall cultural impact of Black radio, the racialized categorization of Black and white––or more broadly, insider and outsider––cultural production has caused many contemporary Black artists to show an aversion to classification in general. In his interview with DAZED reporter Chal Ravens, electronic musician Actress describes his love of dancing to music that had an ‘in-betweenness’ to it as a young boy. “The music I was into was new jack swing, music where you really had to break your body. So (clicks fingers) I just feel that, you know, and the sort of in-between-ness of it. I’m never (clicks fingers steadily). I’m always finding those gaps that are in between.”
In the same interview, Actress also details his interest in the “outsider artist” James Hampton and the artwork that Hampton created privately in a rented carriage house over the course of 14 years, The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly. “I think Black people are much more protective about what they do than other artists, and I definitely feel that way,” said Cunningham on Hampton, who died of stomach cancer in 1964. Shortly after his death, Meyer Wertlieb, Hampton’s landlord, found the Throne in his garage. Wertlieb also found Hampton’s notebooks and the notes he’d written on the walls of the garage. Eventually, Wertlieb remitted the sculpture to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, where it remains today, in the Folk and Self-Taught Art collection.One difference between outsider and insider artists is that cultural writers tend to talk about outsider artists’ handling of and access to their materials with a certain amount of bewilderment.
Artistic classifications form a part of the larger battle over popular language, which is itself part of a battle over who is “inside” and who is “outside.” One difference between outsider and insider artists (though no one ever calls them insider artists) is that cultural writers tend to talk about outsider artists’ handling of and access to their materials with a certain amount of bewilderment. Indeed, the creative processes of outsider artists can be surprising, but only if compared to the behaviors of a relatively normative non-artist human beings––not so much if compared to those processes of traditionally skilled, professional artists.
Cultural critic Casey Cep, whose writing on bigotry in the Deep South in the time of Harper Lee appears in the New Yorker, creates a picturesque story about Hampton’s life and the construction of the Throne:
The ebullient, elaborate sculpture is made from aluminum foil and light bulbs, cardboard boxes and coffee cans, jelly jars and wood scraps. Hampton scavenged some materials from the trash bins of the G.S.A. and salvaged others from around the city, hauling discarded furniture in a child’s wagon and collecting foil anywhere he could, including the wine bottles and cigarette packs of strangers.
When the night was as deep as a well, Hampton would go to the garage to glue, staple, tape, and tack his treasures together. A few 500-watt bulbs hung from the ceiling, bringing light to the darkness of his workspace, and, piece-by-piece, the 180 objects of Hampton’s masterpiece came to occupy almost 300 square feet. The center throne itself is seven-feet tall, its foundation an old armchair with a red cushion. Flanking it are dozens of ambos and altars, crowns, lecterns, tablets, and winged pulpits—like Isaiah’s vision of the Lord enthroned, even the wings have wings.
Cep’s description has, to my ear, an undertone of exploitation. Beginning with a literary cliche––the deep and dark night––as the setting, Cep evokes a harried and maniacal Hampton who works to prepare for the Second Coming of the Lord. The unnecessarily superlative rhetoric of the “masterpiece” in Cep’s reconstruction dramatizes the existential conditions of both the Throne and its maker. Cultural critics often portray outsider artists as extreme figures in this manner, as if their informal and yet dedicated participation in artistic creation constituted an extenuating circumstance.
As Cep notes in her article, “Cracking the Code of James Hampton’s Private Language,” art writers have struggled with how to interpret the works of outsider artists, whose capacity to carry out artistic intentions is fundamentally called into question. Hampton’s Throne wasn’t “a work of symbolism, but a literal readying for the Second Coming,” writes Cep. “Hampton’s work exists in that ambiguous category of outsider art, a comfortable term for collectors and curators, but an uncomfortable one for many who believe these artists are either deranged or devout. What little we know about Hampton’s sense of vocation is known only through his writings, most of which are written in a private language.” Cep stops short of questioning whether collectors’ and curators’ own private language is causing at least some of the discomfort she points out.
The impoverishment of the art establishment and its language is a function of its failure to speak gracefully about outsider figures. In a more general sense, it illustrates the inability of the common language to conceive of outsiders as equals. This is demonstrated most acutely in the social lexicon surrounding “the black body.” The necessity for such a dehumanized phrasing is, to my mind, a sign of severe structural turbulence in the common language and imagination. In The Black Dancing Body: A Geography from Coon to Cool, Brenda Dixon Gottschild writes:
We have created constructs that subliminally or consciously […] drive our actions and reactions along racialized pathways. Black dance is one of these constructs. Taking this line of thinking a step further, the black dancing body exists as a social construct, not a scientific fact. However, this phantom body, just like the phantom concept of a black or white race, has been effective in shaking and moving, shaping and reshaping, American (and now global) cultural production for centuries. It has been courted and scorned—an object of criticism and ridicule as well as a subject of praise and envy.
The black body dancing, singing, moving is and isn’t a social construct. The black body shaking and thriving is a reality to dwell in—a reality that is neither present nor past, but one that comes about by way of the performance of a future-point when that body is beyond both construction and abstraction. In order to experience such a future, you must go with the black body/artwork to the realm into which it is attempting to project you. You must leave your present self and take up your future self, which has always been you.
From Blackspace: On the Poetics of an Afrofuture by Anaïs Duplan. Used with the permission of Black Ocean. Copyright © 2020 by Anaïs Duplan.