“It is this which defeats us, which continues to defeat us, which lends to interracial cocktail parties their rattling, genteel, nervously smiling air … Wherever the Negro face appears a tension is created, the tension of a silence filled with things unutterable.” — James Baldwin, “Many Thousands Gone,” 1951
If you’ve heard of Chief Keef, a 17-year-old rapper from Chicago, it may be because he signed a $3 million dollar recording contract with Interscope Records last year, soon after spending two months under house arrest at his grandmother’s for pointing a gun at a police officer. Or you may have heard his biggest hit, “I Don’t Like,” a list of things he finds disagreeable punctuated with boasts of his virility, copious drug references,and murderous threats. “We ain’t gon’ fight,” he raps. “Our guns gon’ fight…” It’s a great song, mostly due to the powerful beat constructed by producer Young Chop, but one of the catchiest parts is Keef chanting “bang bang” in the background—a sound that has become all too common in Chicago, which had more than 500 murders last year.
Chief Keef is black, as are a disproportionate number of gun-violence victims in this country, and his music has been criticized for glorifying guns, which it does. He has also been criticized for being a poor rapper. His lyrics are terse and simple and delivered in a blunt, heavily slurred monotone. The Associated Press’ Jonathan Landrum called Keef’s major-label debut “woeful” and “borderline unbearable.” Nevertheless, when that album, Finally Rich (a sublimely ridiculous title, considering Keef’s age), came out in December, it had its supporters, too. Pitchfork’s Jayson Greene awarded it a 7.5 rating, calling it “ruthlessly effective.” Spin’s Jordan Sargent gave it an 8, praising Keef’s “unalienable artistic skill that so many people are invested in making you believe he doesn’t possess.” Cocaine Blunts blogger Andrew “Noz” Nosnitsky chose “Don’t Like” as his third favorite rap single of the year and tweeted, “chief keef made a fun album. i don’t know what the rest of you critics are listening to.”
Greene, Sargent, and Noz are white, a fact that did not go unnoticed by Keef’s detractors. Ted Bawno, who's either a wealthy older white media mogul who founded ego trip magazine in the early ’90s or a fictional construction of ego trip’s non-white staff members, took to Twitter to say, “white people love chief keef because he is the Chief of Nothing and only poses a threat to other blacks in down-trodden neighborhoods.” Brian “B.Dot” Miller, who is black, and an editor at Rap Radar, took Sargent to task directly, tweeting at him to “please stop writing about MY culture,” bemoaning “cultural tourists writing about the music of MY culture” and “outsiders like yourself in hipster media that get a hard-on by overanalyzing black music.” An anonymous reader of Noz’s blog, meanwhile, wrote him to ask: “Has anyone ever told you that because you are a white supremacist you’re promoting minstrel show music like Chief Keef, Wacka Flocka and whatnot on your blog, because you want to make sure your white race stays ahead … ?”
Noz responded thoughtfully, saying that he takes pains to avoid glorifying the violent content in the music he writes about—“I take a pretty hardline stance against moralizing any art”—but chafing at the idea that the music doesn’t warrant serious consideration. “As if Chief Keef’s music is so empirically horrible that there isn’t any possible way for a reasonably intelligent human to enjoy it without an agenda—-despite the fact that thousands of people do just that!” he wrote. “Many of his detractors are simply coding their aesthetic objections as moral ones.”
Sermons of the Side Eye blogger Judnikki, who is black, agrees with Noz in theory about the amorality of art appreciation. “Fuck moralizing art,” she wrote, in a self-described “rant” on Twitter. But then she raised the problem of emotional perspective—a problem that speaks to B.Dot’s use of the all-caps, implicitly exclusive “MY.” There is an aspect of ownership in black people’s relationship to black music, she says, even if they don’t choose it, because whites in America have for so long pigeonholed the black experience. “When ppl have a history of being stereotyped and generalized they lose that sense of individual privilege …” It’s impossible, Judnikki argues, for her to divorce herself from Chief Keef’s blackness—to not see her own reflected in it. American society won’t let her. So it’s impossible for her to listen to his music free of an agenda. Thus, she does apply moral concerns to her experience of art, as much as she doesn’t want to. “Motherfuckers see us as ONE fucking unit and THAT is what we want ‘white bloggers’ to understand. Someone sees Waka and then kills Treyvon … Y’all don’t know that fuckin’ struggle of being judged based on someone else’s actions and you NEVER will ... You will never understand. Never feel the pain, shame, guilt … You get to be just you. But in America no matter how hard I try someone is ALWAYS judgin based on my skin and when the Chief Keefs appear, people are thinking OMG look at what years of oppression and demoralization have done to a group. They think: niggers.”
That is some depressing truth right there. Sad as it is, with its underlying theme of an unbridgeable divide between races and its fatalistic view of the American project—at least for our current generation—I’m glad she wrote it. For me, a white person, a rap fan who does in fact enjoy Chief Keef’s album, for musical reasons, much the same as I enjoy Waka Flocka Flame’s music, even as I find the lyrics banal and deplore much of their message—a person who likes to think that I can compartmentalize various elements of artistic expression, and appreciate music without any agenda—it’s worth giving hard thought to what it means that a black person is saying that she can’t. It’s worth ruminating on how deeply and insidiously white privilege and the black lack thereof infect every aspect of life in America—even something as simple as enjoying a good pop song.
In his essay “Many Thousands Gone,” from Notes of A Native Son, James Baldwin asserts that Bigger Thomas, the scared, hateful, murderous protagonist of Richard Wright’s “Native Son,” is the prototypical image of blackness in America—and that this affects us all. “The American image of the Negro lives also in the Negro’s heart,” Baldwin writes, “and when he has surrendered to this image life has no other possible reality.” That’s the fatalism in Judnikki’s rant: The sense of being trapped in a world where she respects the idea of a listener being able to appreciate Chief Keef’s music in a vacuum—art for art’s sake, in and of itself—but can’t make that idea jibe with her reality. Theories are good in theory, until life gets in the way.
Well-meaning white people who like violent rap music will argue against the notion that it inspires real-life violence among those who listen to it. I will argue this. But what are we to say when a black person says, “Someone sees Waka and then kills Treyvon.” And we know that she sees Trayvon’s face on the TV news and can’t not see her own face in his, and thus see her own face in Chief Keef’s, because she believes, she knows, that much of her country sees, still sees, all black faces as the same. We want it to be different, us well-meaning white people. Maybe that’s even part of why we listen to rap music, or part of why we started to, anyway, because we want to do our best to make amends, to bridge the divide. We don’t want to be outsiders; we don’t want for there to be such a thing as outsiders. We want it to be different, but it’s not.
I disagree that anyone has the right to tell anyone else what to write, or not write, about. I agree with what Noz wrote on Twitter, the day after B.Dot’s screed: “Fence in your culture and see if it prospers.” Rap music is pop music; it has gotten too big, too broad, for people to try to guard its borders. Art doesn’t need that kind of guarding anyway, even as I can see the impetus for claiming ownership (since it’s not an ownership that was necessarily chosen in the first place). It’s easier for me to listen to a Chief Keef song than it is for Judnikki, easier for me to dismiss the moralization of this particular piece of art. Chief Keef, the existence of Chief Keef, his popularity, his face on the TV, rapping about guns, poses less of a threat to me than it does her. I am a tourist in that regard.
I will continue to listen to Chief Keef’s music, and I reserve the right to praise it. But I probably won’t get off this easy. Or I shouldn’t, anyway. As much as I’d like to consider rap music, and all art, in a moral vacuum, that’s not possible. Not in America, not with our history. The past is still with us, and we share—to widely varying degrees—in the pain and the guilt. Chief Keef serves as a reminder to those of us who may have forgotten: There are some things that should make us uncomfortable. But that’s exactly why we should confront these things, all of us.