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Rapping Minstrels and the Performance of Hip Hop

Introduction

The minstrel show, with the peculiar structure of its performance and its socio-cultural implications, has been identified as a particularly early form of racially complicated entertainment. The appropriation - and distortion - of Black cultural forms was in fact viably exploited by White performers and directed at a White audience. As social critic W.E.B. Du Bois argues that minstrelsy was "organized around the quite explicit 'borrowing' of black cultural materials for white dissemination…it arose from a white obsession with black (male) bodies which underlies white racial dread to our own day" (Du Bois 1989: 3). Minstrelsy has therefore been identified as the first in a long, constant line of cultural parasitism affecting Black popular forms of entertainment - passing through the era of rock'n'roll to land in the contemporary cultural space of hip hop. Although the parallelism with hip hop is evident in terms of what commentator Bakari Kitwana labels a white 'banditry' of socio-cultural means of expression (Kitwana 2005: 156), some of the fundamental elements of hip hop culture and performance differ substantially from the minstrelsy and blackface performance. The paragon between a minstrel show and a rap performance is supported by similarities that range from structure, construction of characters and figure of speech, to loose social implications in the rapport established cross-culturally between the performers, the 'performed', and the audience. However, the minstrel show is essentially rooted in and envisioned for the entertainment of White middle-class culture, whereas hip hop practice and performance finds its core and celebrates Black culture at its purest form - even more some when primarily consumed by White spectators. In this context, what are the points of contact and the aspects of divergence between minstrelsy and hip hop/ rap performance? How do they relate to and feed into each other? Finally, how can the experience of the first trace a pattern of evolution for the latter?

The aim of this research essay is to evaluate correlation between the artistic form of the American minstrel show of the 19th century and modern day hip hop/ rap performance, establishing a pattern of similarities and divergences in terms of format, content as well as socio-cultural meaning and implications. A further aim is to illustrate the relationship between the two forms of popular entertainment through the systematic analysis of sample performances, contextualising the historical development of blackface minstrelsy and hip hop. The objective of the research is to produce a synthetic account of the cultural origins and progressive influence of the minstrel show and the hip hop performance, in order to envision a possible path of evolution for Black-oriented forms of entertainment.

It is evident that the average rap performance speaks of Black people, for Black people, to both Black and White people. Describing the hardship of racial conditioning of the Black American population of the hip hop era appears therefore to be a theme opposed to the idealised interpretation en vogue in the minstrel shows. The performance of rap has been however complicated, in its evolution, in terms of agency and exposure. This drastic reading of hip hop musical culture is funded in the implications deriving from the successful emergence of 'White rappers', who imitate the musical speech of Black performers, appropriate it, re-define it. The success of rap music - performed by both Black and White artists - is also marked by a disproportioned socio-cultural composition in terms of consumption. Once again in history, White people show fascination with a typically Black form of entertainment - a fascination that is eventually leading to the intentional modification of content aimed at ensuring the attention of the most financially viable audience (Du Bois 1989).

Conclusion

The historic experience of the minstrel show is recorded as the first instance of a process of cultural theft that repeated itself through the course of history and is still identifiable, in the contemporary socio-cultural scene, within the development of hip hop musical performance. Blackface minstrelsy and hip hop culture, analysed in their numerous points of contact and divergence, appear to be at the extremes of a long evolutional process rather than being two facets of the same phenomenon. The development of the two forms of entertainment analysed can therefore be approached to evaluate the emerging socio-cultural patterns that characterise the rapport between Black and White musical cultures - and envision a hypothetical trajectory of future progress.

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