black pop, black hair, black fear?

**Updated 3/17/16** See video addendum below.

Admittedly, I still listen to the radio. I am just not willing to relinquish the FM dial.  I find worth in the way that radio gives a sense of what is popular and what is propaganda. And as I think about my preset hip hop stations and the slippages between the music played on the hip hop stations and the music played on the pop stations, I cannot help but think of how far hip hop has come from its roots, its core, and its early audiences. Musical genres like blues, reggae, hip hop, rap, and dancehall connected listeners by articulating struggle. Today, much of hip hop, rap, and dancehall may be better categorized as contemporary “black pop” as they are short on conscious content and long on “catchy vocal hooks” and “funky rhythmic grooves” (I am borrowing words from this thorough bullet-point breakdown on black pop). For an answer as at why this shift towards sex, violence, racks, stacks, and cake have been the mainstays of rap and hip hop since the mid 1990s I deflect to a Hip Hop DX interview with the “Freaky Tales” king himself, Too Short.  As a conspiracy theorist Too Short points the finger at record executives. Fair enough. But as I considered the music that I am hearing on the radio presently, the fact that popular hip hop’s content shift took place during the mid 1990s raised more questions than answers for me. Here’s why.

In 2014 Robin S.’s “Show Me Love” (1993) came back in a big way when DJ Mustard sampled it and reworked that track into the ground with “Show Me” going platinum and “Main Chick” being met with much sales success as well.  Both songs were by Kid Ink and featured Chris Brown.  To me, they were redundant, but I will try to reserve judgment.  We also saw the return of the 1992 mega dance smash “Rhythm is a Dancer“, by German Eurodance group Snap!, in the form of Jeremih’s “Don’t Tell ‘Em” 2014 single, which was also produced by DJ Mustard.  In 2012 Kendrick Lamar’s single “Poetic Justice” sampled Janet Jackson’s “Any Time, Any Place” (1993). And listening to the radio this week my memory continues to be struck by the ’90s samples present in today’s black pop.  From Brownstone’s “If You Love Me” (1994) sampled on Tory Lanez’s “Say It” (2015) to Shai’s a capella version of “If I Ever Fall In Love” sampled on Jeremih’s “Oui” (2015) it seems that the melodies of twenty-odd years ago are back. But the flashbacks do not stop there.

It might seem in step with the musical sampling that black women and black men today are donning the hairstyles that were popular during the early to mid-1990s.  What was captured in popular movies like 1993’s Poetic Justice or any of the House Party franchise films we now see everywhere. Hello, box braids and box cuts!  From Iman Shumpert on the basketball court to the everyday kid at the mall, from Gabrielle Union and Taraji P. Henson to the girls and women in school and in the office, big black hair is everywhere. Yes, the 1990s are back.

Casual popular references aside now, with the uptick in violent attacks on black bodies, I am inclined to question whether or not there are navigable links between black hair and black fear. As more black hair styles are seen in the public domain do they serve as a reminder of black pride? Do they serve as a reminder of a pride that can induce fear of blackness in a social/racial/political environment that has historically read the black body with suspicion? Is black hair contributing, inadvertently, to black fear?  Maybe I should say fear of black instead of black fear.  Whichever the order of the words, I am talking about the kind of fear that leads to gunfire. The kind of fear that leads to murder.  The kind of fear that led to #TamirRice, #MichaelBrown, #EricGarner, #TrayvonMartin, #EricHarris, #SandraBland, #FreddieGray, #SamuelDuBose, #WalterScott, #JonathanFerrell, #AmadouDiallo, #EmmettTill, and the broader reminder that #BlackLivesMatter.

Malcolm X said that chemical straightening or a conk was a black person’s attempt at whitening himself.  In his autobiography he said that the conk was evidence of black “self-degradation” (91). Indeed the 1960s Black Power Movement that began in the US and spread across the hemisphere and globe was captured in hair. In Jamaica, reggae artist Linval Thompson spoke directly to this on his classic 1976 record “Don’t Cut Off Your Dreadlocks.” Natural hair like the afro, like dreadlocks were ways for black people to express their self-pride.  So today, as black women trade in relaxers and Yaki weaves for kinky braids and closely cropped afros, their blackness is visibly essentialized.  As black men forgo cuts in favor of growing their hair taller and taller, their blackness is visibly essentialized.  Essentialized, for better or for worse, by hair choices that undeniably identify black people as black during a time when blackness continues to evoke hostile fear. And so I ask, how much is this style shift also a black pride shift?  And if it is a black pride shift, what a powerful way and a critical time to make this pride known.

Once upon a time for-us-by-us music was made with a sense of purpose-concern-awareness of realities pertaining to being black in the ghetto, being black in America, being black in the Caribbean, being black in this world.  Maybe the connections between black hair and black fear will soon be recorded using a catchy melody and set over a heavy bass line.  When that happens, and especially if it happens on the radio, I will certainly listen in.


I came across this video post (March 16, 2016) on Facebook by Black Girl with Long Hair and thought it was a relevant video to share within this post.

Indeed we need to pay attention to all of the historical and cultural signs that we encounter today.  From hairstyle to clothing style, its all worth reading.

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