All she needs is some burnt cork: Kreayshawn ‘the rapper’

Kreayshawn is the white woman rapper from Oakland, whose talentless performance of ‘urban’ ‘black’ culture, is gaining momentum in the corporate music world. Is it offensive? Yes! Does it make people angry at her appropriation of ‘blackness’ through stereotypes. Yes! Is it modern day blackface? To me it is. Is it anything new in this patriarchal white supremacist capitalist system? Unfortunately, no. Under capitalism everything has the potential to be transformed into a commodity, including racial identities, if it will accumulate profit. Kreayshawn is the most recent performer in a long line of  white performers appropriating and commodifying racist stereotypes for entertainment and profit beginning in the 1830’s with the rise of minstrel shows.

The origins of racism lie within American Slavery and the development of Capitalism in the United States. US and British capitalists worked with the ruling class of African countries to develop this system and steal my ancestors, and exploit their labor to build the wealth of this country. Constructing racial identities to support white supremacy allowed working-class whites to internalize their ‘superiority’ while Africans internalized their ‘inferiority’, which resulted in the ideological training of people to accept their different positions and roles within the racist and sexist division of labor. This was necessary in order to prevent multi-racial class struggle, which had already started to take place between Africans, European indentured servants, and the indigenous people. Working-class whites did the plantation owners dirty work of disciplining rebelling slaves rather than joining the resistance to a system that was exploiting them too. In her groundbreaking marxist feminist pamphlet, Sex, Race & Class, Selma James speaks to the power of these false divisions becoming naturalized in our consciousness affecting the way we socially interact, and the type of revolutionary struggle we build. She writes,

“The social power relations of the sexes, races, nations and generations are precisely, then, particularized forms of class relations. These power relations within the working class weaken us in the power struggle between the classes. They are the particularized forms of indirect rule, one section of the class colonizing another and through this capital imposing its own will on us all. “

Consciousness is so powerful. The racist and sexist ideology that is built into the division of labor influences the way we relate to each other. We spend more time fearing and struggling with each other rather than against the system, and all this does is strengthen its control over us all. The ruling class knows this, which is why they feed us their lies in our public schools from Kindergarten through high school and college too. They inoculate us in bourgeois culture and their version of history and ‘freedom’ to pacify and confuse us. Fanon speaks to this in his brilliant piece of anti-colonial theory Wretched of the Earth, where he goes into detail in the first chapter “On Violence” on the various methods used by the colonizers to weaken the oppressed. He highlights education early on as a particular useful way of repressing the colonized. He writes,

“In capitalist societies, education, whether secular or religious, the teaching of moral reflexes handed down from father to son, the exemplary integrity of workers decorated after fifty years of loyal and faithful service, the fostering of love for harmony and wisdom, those aesthetic forms of respect for the status quo, instill in the exploited a mood of submission and inhibition which considerably eases the task of the agents of the law and order.”

These ‘agents of law and order’ are the pigs, and they use their guns less when we passively accept our oppressive place within the system. This passivity is nurtured by our bourgeois education system and other organizations that work within the confines of the State. But the material evidence of our exploitation and oppression go beyond the point of production and our position within the division of labor. It is also wrapped up in the popular culture of our society, and reflected in the mainstream art that the masses our exposed too. Women’s body parts are commodified to sell anything from pizza to cars; black women are portrayed as ‘hoes’ in the videos and mammies in movies (still); black and brown men continue to be portrayed as thugs; and queers of all colors and gender expressions are nowhere to be found in the sea of homo-normative white gay males. None of these representations reflect the realities of my communities, but they do reflect the reality of the system and they way they choose to represent us and place us within this world.

Black people have always been a source of exploitation for the racist entertainment industry in this country beginning with the incredibly popular minstrel shows that started occurring in the 1800’s, where working-class whites would paint their faces black with charcoal or burnt cork and imitate their racist conceptions of black slaves. There was the Jim Crow character, who was a plantation slave that did little jigs for the white man. There was the Coon character, which was a stereotype of the free slave trying to be dignified (white). Then we have our dear asexual Mammy, who is sassy, independent and often a sense of comfort to white families. You can still find her image on pancake mix and syrup bottles. And our youth are portrayed as Pickaninnies, who usually look unkempt; think of buckwheat from the little rascals. Many famous white performers, including Shirley Temple (featured below in Mammy attire), have donned blackface to help their career.

The first feature length film was D.W. Griffith’s racist homage to the KKK in Birth of a Nation, where white actors blackened up to portray black men as savage rapists. Meanwhile white men, the actual rapist, continue to assault black women and nothing is done about it, because black women are viewed as unrapeable. The first talking film was The Jazz Singer, where a young jewish man defies his family’s wishes by leaving home to become a star performer. How does he make it? Blackening up. What is especially sad is that black performers also blackened up in order to get gigs in the industry. With racist white capitalists running the industry and owning all of the stages and equipment, black artists had to play by their rules in order to survive. Whites did not want to see blacks representing themselves as artists and human beings with emotions and different perspectives of the world. They wanted to be entertained by stereotypes that supported their own power and privilege in society. This was and is more than just offensive entertainment; these performances are and continue to be a reflection of the system’s belief that black people are inferior and deserving of their position within society. Many different ethnic groups have been stereotyped within the entertainment industry during the 19th and 20th centuries, but the longevity of blackface performances that still exist today when we have white women from the suburbs performing their idea of blackness is especially alarming to me. The burnt cork may be gone, but the blackface is still here.

It is important that we examine our feelings of anger when we see garbage like Kreayshawn going viral, and understand that she is not the sole problem. It is her position within the system, as a privileged white woman, that allows her to be commodified off of performing stereotypes. We cannot attack her coonery without understanding its origins within the system, and the power that supports it. Critiquing it for what it is is important, but simply banning it won’t do away with the fact that the vast majority of blacks in this country are poor and harassed and killed by the cops, who continue to view us all as thugs or hoes, as depicted in Kreayshawns ‘gucci gucci’ music video.  And speaking of killer cops Johannes Mehserle, the cop who killed Oscar Grant at the Fruitvale bart station in Oakland January 1st 2009, will be released this sunday after only serving a petty few months. A protest will be happening around 3pm in downtown Oakland. No justice from and unjust system!

Until we rid the world of capitalism, private property, and the systems of domination that support it, such as patriarchy, racism and homophobia, there will continue to be Kreayshawns exploiting the systems stereotypes, and there will be a system that continues to exploit us all in the process. When we restructure our societies into a truly communist system that operates on collective ownership and survival with principles of love and real equality, our culture and social relations will begin to shift and this will be reflected in the art that is produced. This has already happened in the revolutionary struggles and movements all around the world, where we see the art reflecting this shift in consciousness. The feminist and black power movements had a vibrant cultural component that reflected their revolutionary politics. It is not an easy task of course to simply overthrow capitalism, and overthrowing capitalism doesn’t mean these systems of domination will just melt away. We must be very intentional about rooting out patriarchy, homophobia, and racism within our communities; learning from our feminist values; and valuing everyone over the individual. This will raise the standard of our lives, change our social relations, and therefore change the culture that is produced. And hopefully, minstrelsy will be something that can finally settle in to the archives of our history as we move forward truly free.

5 Comments on “All she needs is some burnt cork: Kreayshawn ‘the rapper’”

  1. Sycorax says:

    Hey Chaka! Thanks for the dope post. I love the interesting history you give of racist cinema and the way you link that racism back to slavery in the U.S. Its so interesting to think about minstrel shows and blackface as the manifestations of how white people envisioned black people and how important it was that blacks embodied that conception if they were allowed to make it.

    Also I have never seen that picture of Shirley Temple before — BUGGED OUT! Damn.

    But I do have a couple of questions for you that I’ve been thinking about randomly. The first one is — what is black culture? In your blog at times you talk about racialized constructions being propagated by the white working class which were internalized by black and brown folks. This brings up the question of what culture is. How does one own their own culture? I originally thought of Kreayshawn as appropriating brown and black culture too and then I saw a bunch of articles talking about she really is from East Oakland and apparently grew up with a working class single white mom who had her when she was 17 years old.

    So my question is – what is black culture? Is it stereotypes based off of minstrel shows and blackface only, i.e. stuff propagated by racist whites only? Or is it also shaped by black people themselves who fight their own devaluation and in the process shape their own culture? I know you are a pretty good dialectician so I bet you would say that its both and I would agree- that culture is this negotiation between the dominant ideology and the ways it interweaves truths with falsities in order to be able to appeal to people and have some modicum of relevance. But at the same time it begs the question of how to assess if culture is being appropriated — like in your opinion, how do we think about what is black culture and how it is appropriated if we understand that what is being appropriated is both black and not (i.e. is a mix of both the people’s culture and attempts to refute their own devaluation as well as a mix of white racist ideas that stem from minstrel shows etc etc).

    Was just wondering what your opinions of that are. Also, what is your opinion of Kreayshawn using the N word and equating it with her growing up around working class peeps in East Oakland? I mean I personally don’t think its acceptable to use the N word at all, but it definitely is interesting like in the case of Eminem who pointed out that he also was legitimately poor and thus was not “playing” a role. Or in other cases of people saying that blacks are “acting white” when they are educated or gain more money. What is black culture? How do we understand what it is? And also, is there a danger of equating propertyship of culture to a particular race without also interrogating how much we equate a particular class location with a particular cultural ethnicity or race? I am not asking as a debate, I am asking these questions genuinely because they confuse me as a mixed race person who has often struggled with what “race” I am and how to understand the concept of racial identity.

    Thanks for your always thought-provoking posts.

    • chakaZ says:

      Good questions, thank you Sycorax!

      I agree with you that culture is simultaneously created by the ruling class, and also by ourselves and the communities we build and are a part of; both, at times, influencing each other. When I say culture in this post I speak carefully to not make totalizing comments. Culture reflects our own material positions in the world and consciousness, both of which are constantly shifting within ourselves and within society. There is culture that is presented to us and there is culture we create ourselves that, at times, relates to what is presented to us. My experiences have proven to me that there is ‘blackness’ that is taught to us and blackness that we unlearn and construct for ourselves. To me, Kreayshawn’s representation of blackness largely reflects what has been presented to her (and the public) through the racist media and popular culture and that is problematic. And I am not trying to just pick on her, because she is white. It is problematic to me when I see my own people perform these stereotypes just to get paid; when Kreayshawn does it it references a historical tradition of whites appropriating racist stereotypes and performing it as something authentic. That must be named and that is what I am trying to do in this post.

      When it comes to art and entertainment this has always been the case. There are some cultural performances that work with the dominant agenda of the system and get more exposure than others. This goes way back to the beginning of black peoples stay on this continent. During the Harlem renaissance there was a reason why some writers got more support and success than others. Why did the novels of celebrated black writer Richard Wright get more access and are often taught in schools today while my favorite writer, Zora Neal Hurston, died in poverty in an unmarked grave with her very important novel, There Eyes were Watching God, out of print? Wrights novels, at times, characterized black people as weak victims or as violent rapists, and this worked better with the systems representation of black people.

      Then there was Zora, who wrote about black people doing more than just surviving, but creating their own communities and traditions and culture for themselves. It was about blacks living. And it put black women in focus, talked about black women choosing their own paths and lovers. This was more controversial and the rich white people, who funded the arts were not entertained by a black woman’s thriving. Cinema has always represented black people in a certain light and when black filmmakers, independent ones, had access to film equipment a counter narrative was always pushed. I have to ask again why do some black filmmakers (in that incredibly small pool) get popular over others? Why does Tyler Perry get to be the voice of the black woman experience and Julie dash’s (one of the rare black women filmmakers) experimental film on African maroon societies that places black women and their experiences at the central focus of the film not get any exposure outside of the art cinema/independent film festival world.

      With differing black cultures one theme that always rings true to me is that when real black artist are making art that reflects their sense of themselves there is a humanizing aspect of it. Sometimes this is more articulated and sometimes it’s more subtle, but it’s always there, because if you are making art that is challenging this dehumanizing system in any way then an aspect of it is to humanize yourself and your people and to not only challenge the way the system represents you, but also how that representation is a reflection of how it materially oppresses you with your position in society. American slavery, which created ‘blackness,’ did so in a way to dehumanize us; this helped ideologically support such a violent dehumanizing system. If people saw black people as non-human then folks wouldn’t feel so bad. I believe this is how we treat animals. We don’t value their consciousness or life so we accept the disgusting way they are treated in the meat industry. The same goes with children; they are not valued in our society as as intelligent conscious beings productive beings, because they cannot do wage-labor yet so they need to be broken into, disciplined and controlled through our bourgeois education system. This education also pumps them full of lies about the system, and that helps pacify there own intuition that maybe it is all BS.

      The minstel shows and the way Black people are depicted presently did that: Black people are ignorant, stupid, child-like and in need of discipline and control (the pigs occupation of our neighborhoods). When Blacks begin making their own art this is not, often, the way we are depicted. Black artists have always challenged their racist objective realities with their own truths, but they haven’t always gotten access. When I was growing up I was always drawn towards the history and the art of black people that challenged these realities with their own truths and feelings about themselves and their people. I was poor, half black, raised by my single mother, but I was instilled with a sense of who I was that went beyond the stereotypes presented at me. I read my history. I saw my people as more than just thugs. More than what Kreayshawn is depicting in her video and ‘music’. She may be from the town and she may even be working-class (not for long), but her objective reality as a white person is different than mine and perhaps is the reason why she continues this tradition of minstrelsy rather than going deeper and seeing blackness and urban culture as something more than thug stereotypes.

  2. Sycorax says:

    Hey Chaka! Thanks for answering my questions! I think what you said makes a lot of sense and brings us away from more academic and abstract deconstructionist discussions of culture (which I have been kind of seeped in lately but which I think are unnecessarily complicated/elitist/detached from reality).

    Lately I have been thinking a lot about popular culture and analyzing its political messages with friends and stuff. I think sometimes I worry that we can get too far into this thing of distinguishing the good culture from the bad culture because it is all so subjective and historically lots of diff forces shape different cultures so how can we say what is positive for the working class and what is negative (i.e. what are the liberating messages from the more brainwashing bad stereotypical messages within a music video etc).

    But I like the way you are putting it– because it makes things much simpler for me to think about and takes the debate away from questions of whether a piece of art actually is “accurate” in its representations, or whether it is some kind of falsely exaggerated portrayal that is racist/sexist/etc. Those kind of discussions are ‘fun’ but they always kind of worry me in the back of my mind because I always worry arguments of “authenticity” lead us in a race to the bottom. Or I worry about how much they end up just putting us in new boxes again of what is “authentic” culture and who is the false or flawed one. (For a mixed race person, a mestiza if you will, caught between many different worlds, this has been a constant theme in my life) So I have been thinking about that a lot lately. I like the way you distinguish the different kinds of culture though, because it does not fall into that box of distinguishing what is the real or fake, but it seems that you are avoiding that by emphasizing that it is more about the way the artist portrays experience. It seems you are saying that its most important whether there is a humanizing portrayal of life experience, even if it is positive or negative, it is radical in the sense that it gives people a view of one another’s commonality or humanity. Oppressors cannot oppress without viewing the oppressed in a dehumanized way that the oppressed of course internalize. Its so true to think about! I remember having all this shame of being Indian growing up (all the bad stereotypes and racist things people used to say) about smelling bad, being poor, dirty, etc. When I went to India I saw all this – poverty, a million sights and smells but I saw people’s humanity for the first time and I identified with it and saw how beautiful people were and let go a lot of that shame.

    Damn now I am thinking out loud but maybe its because the debate over culture is usually about whether things are “stereotypes” which has always been kinda confusing to me. Like Apu on Simpsons (sorry for bringing in the Indian stuff it helps me to use analogies that are relevant to my own life) there are a lot of Indian people working at convenience stores, its not the falsity of what the stereotype is portraying (though the stereotypes are almost always untrue in their exaggeration) but the way that the stereotypes mimicry of the reality erases the humanity of the person by just turning them into this little tape recorded phrase played over and over again, this one-dimensional character.

    So maybe its not about Kreayshawn not being authentic, but that her portrayal of black culture has all the aesthetic qualities of black culture but none of the substance of it that humanizes the experiences that the aesthetic comes from?

    Thank you for these thoughts/insights. Veryyyyyyyyyyy helpful for me in thinking about culture and how we politically understand it and think about it.

    – S

  3. Sycorax says:

    Or not just the experience or substance that humanizes the aesthetic, but you also point to the way that Hurston’s piece brings in another perspective that is missing — the larger structural forces that cause the racism to begin with, that imbue us with these racist thoughts about different cultures.. etc.

    • SandraD says:

      I think that your article makes a lot of sense. I completely agree with you. The music industry is desperate right now and anything they can crab will do. They lost their self respect. Kreayshawn released her digital song about a week ago and she has not made the big numbers. They did spent some much money on advertisement all this week and then what? That’s crazy!

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