Being self-made when you’re Pro-Black in a White world
A lot of people will tell you “if you love doing something, don’t do it for free.” Will they also tell you what navigating between your identity and content will mean for you? Unlikely. And that “be yourself” stencil advice people throw out? Even more complicated.
I find there’s a choice people have to make when they’re Black and their identity permeates their brand, their fashion, their creations. What happens when one creates something for Black people? What happens when you assimilate to be more palatable?
In rhetoric, one’s ethos is essentially their reputation. It holds context of whether a person’s qualified to speak on a subject and how well they’ll be able to persuade their audience. So of course, it affects one’s argument or speech. My dad would call it, “where you’re coming from.” Ethos is related to identity. Would anybody want to hear about why hygiene is important from someone who doesn’t wear deodorant? If anybody lied and said “yes,” I don’t wanna hear what you got to say about hygiene either. You probably stank.
In any case, identity is important when it comes to creating. Take for example, Hip Hop: it’s a genre that was created as a space for Black people to relent their frustrations of being Black in America. It’s a place where Black people can be Black without attracting any gentrifying antics because, like Jazz and Disco, it wasn’t heralded as music that had much worth. Despite the numerous White people groaning about how much they can’t stand Hip Hop, like former Disney Channel pop star, more former Hip Hop Queen Miley Cyrus saying “…‘Come sit on my dick, suck on my cock.’ I can’t listen to that anymore. That’s what pushed me out of the hip-hop scene a little. It was too much ‘Lamborghini, got my Rolex, got a girl on my cock’—I am so not that,” Hip Hop remains one of the leading music genres.
Why did I mention Hip Hop? There is a dilemma that others and I find themselves in when they try to self-make a career for themselves with creative talent: “how hard can I go?” Rapper Kendrick Lamar is known for his work that is boldly pro-Black and I live for it. I cry at a lot of his songs because I relate, as myself and as a Black person. His success and what he raps about is elevated because he is Black—he speaks about not only his own experience as a Black person, but what being Black means in America. Unless you haven’t been paying attention or willingly want to believe otherwise, being Black here or anywhere is an overt, covert, all-encompassing challenge. Just being proud of one’s identity can be dangerous. In general, Black Identity alienates people who aren‘t Black, so creators, freelancers, artists, etcetera, run the risk of not being able to have an audience who identifies with their work. When people cannot mutually identify, they’re less persuaded to “buy” into the author’s work. This disconnect can also present bigger roadblocks down the road because of the pent-up anger felt towards the system of institutionalized racism and the people who uphold and/or benefit from that system. This is a part of the aforementioned dilemma because, if you’re pro-Black, if you’re proud of being Black, if you create work that is Black, this cannot be avoided. At Kendrick Lamar’s Alabama show this year, a White fan says nigga while reciting M.A.A.D. City.
This sparked a discussion of “well if rappers don’t want other people to say it, they shouldn’t put it in their songs,” which is hideous, ugly, and wrong. I mentioned Hip Hop and Kendrick because in spite of America’s preferential whiteness, the genre and its artists still manage to survive. However, avoiding Blackness is how some artists choose to avoid the dilemma. This brings me to the other side of the coin, which is Afropunk. Founded in 2005, this art festival was created for Black punks who were not accepted by the gentrified punk community. Afropunk developed into a festival to celebrate all Black culture and has a website that features Black writing, Black entrepreneurs, and Black people in general. At some point, I submitted a picture of myself for the Facebook division’s “Afro of the Day” and had classmates at college come up to me and say that they saw me even though then (and now) I didn’t see it as a big deal. But that’s how popular this Black space was and many of my friends and I wanted to go to this festival to be a part of this. I retired this dream August of this year because the truth is, Afropunk sold out. In a manner of words, that’s what avoiding one’s Blackness in order to make a profit is. Attendees were kicked out for doing what punk does best: “Afropunk sold out for White consumption.” Many others came with shirts that had similar messages and were harassed for it, but it comes to no surprise that this would happen. As I read Afropunk doesn’t care about black people: Beyond a t-shirt, it made me think about how many humble beginnings mature and rot in this fashion. There’s many Black-owned businesses that sell their company to White owners, and so Afropunk trying to be more appealing to White people is the only outcome I foresaw for a festival that went from free to $300. To gain a following, many talk about retracting on their politics, activism, and identity in order to garner attention. With more attention, you bring in more money. With more money, who cares about having to bow here and there, right?
I’m not unfamiliar with having thoughts of toning down because at the heart of things, my own audience I’d say is pretty White. It’s difficult getting people to care and to keep caring. I don’t want to hound my own friends to pay attention to me if this isn’t something they truly enjoy. I come from a poor family, I got my degree, and I still had to go back to live with my family and the conditions aren’t great. I’ve had a partner try to
micromanage my artistic journey by saying I need to draw things other people like because my own characters aren’t interesting. At some point in life I start wondering if I’m not giving in enough and would life be easier if I just did what everyone else does to create a buzz. So far, I would say that any concessions I made to make myself more likable and to not stir the pot have not landed me in anymore money than I already have, no more recognition, or anything of the like. And I’ve come to a time where a White person has taken something like my work “From Outer Space” and used it inappropriately. In a sense, it’s opened my eyes to what kind of creator I want to be. Even if one does all the tricks, would I truly be doing what I love if I had to shrink myself in order to gain money and a following? A lot of people are content in selling themselves. I’m not a saint by any means at all, but I don’t think that’s the kind of artist or writer I would want to become.
The reality is that being a Black creator can cost you. Another reality is that it doesn’t have to.
If you are reading this and you’ve come to this dilemma, you’re Black, and you’re doing your best to create art, music, poetry, anything—I hope you found ease in what I’m saying.