Don’t let the (white) man get you down

Stephen Levitt of Freakanomics talks today about the difference in viewing habits between blacks and whites in modern day America. There is some subtext in the entry that needs to be discussed:

If this one week of data is a good indicator (and I think it is), there has been a remarkable convergence in television viewing habits. A few years ago almost all the top black shows featured predominately black characters and most were not even on the big four networks. Now, there is almost a perfect match between what blacks and whites are watching and while many of these shows have black characters, none feature a predominately black cast.

He mentions previously that, while Seinfeld was very popular among white viewers, it never hit the top 50 for blacks. What does this homogenization of viewing habits mean?

To make an analogy, it had long been theorized in capoeira, a Brazilian martial art I practice founded in the culture of African slavery, that certain deviations, notably capoeira regional, were no longer truly African in their movements. They incorporated Asian martial arts movements in the 1930s, making the game more outwardly aggressive, with ‘squarer’ attacks in order to ‘whiten’ the art, and therefore attract more middle-class Brazilians to the game (who tended to be paler in skin tone). Guess what? It worked out great. Capoeira is now practiced almost exclusively by white people, and most of those who practice it practice the ‘white’ form of the art.

(See two examples of capoeira play for a demonstration of this: Regional (‘white’), Angola (‘black’).)

The same could perhaps be said of hip hop. Do we feel that hip hop is becoming whiter by appealing to the majority of their audience (aka, white people)? Hip hop has changed a great deal since the 70s. What happened? Does 50 Cent appeal to white listeners, or black ones?



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One response to “Don’t let the (white) man get you down”

  1. jason Avatar

    what up, julien –

    been meaning to chime in on this for a while now…

    first off, i can’t think of one black person that actually liked or watched Seinfeld. not to say that they’re not out there, but damned if i can find them. and it wasn’t even a question of “where da brothers at?” for me. it was just that Seinfeld was a show about nothing. ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. how does a show about absolutely nothing become so damn popular? i can’t figure that out for the life of me. perhaps i just can’t appreciate Larry David’s brand of humor (although i hear his other show – Curb Your Enthusiasm – is hysterical).

    if viewing habits between black and white have truly merged, it is probably because of the shows that make it to television and the makeup of the casts themselves. for a good long while, you had that one black character in a sea of white faces, particularly with those “pretty white kids with problems” shows (stuff like Dawson’s Creek, 7th Heaven, Gilmore Girls, or even something like Smallville – notice those were all from the same network?). i do see that changing, though. both Lost and particularly Gray’s Anatomy come to mind. good casts, great writing, and a diverse mix of people.

    honestly, i think there’s an unspoken belief in TV Land that a predominantly black cast can’t hold a national audience. (granted, The Cosby Show shot major holes in that theory, but that was an extraordinary example from 20 freakin’ years ago…) still, don’t just throw black folk into the small screen on some mediocre show just because you think that’s what i want. screw that – we don’t time for mediocrity. the black experience is a multidimensional one. and until brothers and sisters own the media avenues that distribute such content, it will be very difficult to see and witness…outside of those few well-written shows with diverse casts. and those are still few and far between.

    as for hip-hop, that’s something else. why did hip-hop change? because society changed. and the neighborhoods that birthed this music changed as well, decaying from good to bad to worse. Posdnous of De La Soul once suggested in URB Magazine that if the music seems out of control, it’s because life is out of control. “Hip-hop has no choice but to follow,” he lamented. Mos Def would echo those same sentiments in his album opener “Fear Not Of Man” from *Black On Both Sides*: “if we smoked out, hip-hop gon’ be smoked out. if we’re doin’ alright, hip-hop will be doin’ alright. so the next time you ask, ‘where is hip-hop going?’, ask yourself: where am i going?”

    there of plenty of black folk that like 50 Cent and G-Unit, Young Jeezy, Fabolous, the Dipset crew, all those cats. the heads i hang with could care less about them, and when they’re not listening to something else that offers a relief from all that, they’re creating their own music to fill the void. still, there are some that can listen to Common and The Game and like both equally. it’s all relative to them. I AM NOT ONE OF THOSE PEOPLE.

    part of me wants to say that most white kids like 50 Cent and the like because that’s what they expect of the genre, and if it’s not that, then it’s not authentic to them. but of course, that’s not the whole story. your two-parter on “how to keep 50 Cent from your kids” proved that. some brothers don’t look beyond “thug,” if that’s all they’ve been exposed to. and neither would anyone else.

    point blank: what happened with hip-hop? same thing that happened with funk, soul, jazz, and R&B: somebody other than its creators found out how to make money from it. and it is these entities that call the shots and set the trends on Billboard charts and terrestrial radio, not the creators of the music and not the fans that understand the origins. rest assured, the marketing of today’s platinum rappers as new millennium minstrels is not Afrika Bambaataa’s idea.

    yeah, i know: preaching to the converted, aren’t i?

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