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Tuesday, May 31, 2005
I had wanted to do a post on Sasha's minstrelry piece, but then I got busy, and then I saw there was a lengthy ILM thread on it (which Sasha replied to) so I wasn't going to bother. But then I read the damn thing and the points I wanted to cover weren't even brought up, except once or twice. So whoopee, here we go.

(A disclaimer or two up front. The piece was presented in the context of both an EMP panel/debate and a book on minstrelry, neither of which I have any familiarity with besides the summaries people have posted. Also, I have no idea if this is what Sasha's trying to say, just that it's a productive way to read it.)

The thing I particularly liked about the piece (besides the fact that he explicitly draws some conclusions, which is not necessarily something you can rely on Sasha for, bless his heart) is--and this didn't really dawn on me until the third page or so--is that while our immediate association with the term "minstrelry" is a negative one, he's being more or less neutral about it. It's just a descriptor there for purposes of comparison. And, indeed, if you like modern pop (and I mean that in the broadest, Pop-III sense) and you're being honest with yourself, you have to be fiercely ambivalent about minstrelry, because, from what I understand, modern pop wouldn't exist in its present form without the historical existence of minstrelry. That almost all the music we listen to is engaged on some level in playing with race is hardly news, and while our liberal sensibilities might recoil a bit at this notion, if you're a fair-minded lover of pop, it's hard to argue with the results, to say nothing of the fact that black-music-as-played-by-blacks is the dominant musical form in America today. While there's something distasteful about racial appropriation (on all sides), it's far more shocking to our sensibilities than actually damaging to race relations, especially when stacked up against economic and political factors, and there's been so damn much racial appropriation in pop--again, on all sides--that there's really no clear way of saying who's stealing from who at this point, at least on a groupwise basis (individual artists will always steal, sometimes unfairly, from other individual artists). And that's why minstrelry is a productive comparison if you look at it as a value-neutral form rather than a charged term.

What Sasha seems to be doing here is to suggest that white musicians, by restraining their minstrelric impulses, are actually doing a disserve to themselves and to music. This obviously runs counter to our traditional understandings, but I think he makes a fairly good case for it with the love/theft dynamic. Let me unpack it a bit and see where it goes.

The basic idea here is that theft is OK when coupled with freely expressed love, and when both are fully admitted. This is to say that there is a point where by your theft you are doing more to advance the music than to hold it back, and at this point the sense of shame you're expected to feel as an inheritor/magpie in the kitchen is no longer a positive trait. The assumption here is that the people we can legitimately call "theives" lacked the love for the genre and thus had their own interests rather than a collective interest (for the style, for the scene, for the listeners) at heart, profit over pleasure, etc. etc. Those unfortunates who possessed both love and theft got caught in the middle of an awkward dynamic. Because if you do possess a real love for a form that you're undeniably stealing, and you're actually really good at making music in that form, what are you supposed to do? Not express that skill because you'd be taking the spot of someone more real? Might be a valid argument if that was an actually possible outcome, but that's in no way guaranteed without some sort of regulation designed to enforce aesthetic morality in the arts, which I assume we all agree would be a bad thing. So ultimately we need to draw a line between the management and worker class in music when it comes to this appropriation thing. White label owners profiting off the royalty-free compositions of their black artists is a bad thing, but is it really so horrible that Elvis got big? Don't forget to look behind the curtain, please. The love and the theft are often coming from different divisions of the corporation. (Believe you me.)

This all goes in cycles, and what was theft once gets stolen again, taken back, reclaimed. But if you don't express your love because you're worried about getting called out on your theft, it's ultimately just as much, if not more so, a selfish act as it would be to hold back on the theory that it's impolite to wear a mask in the public square. Put your shit out there and see if people like it, and fuck them if they want to call you a thief. Because you are, and that's fine.

I like Sasha's piece because it seems to be putting the value of collective good equal to the value of individual, or group, fairness. I like it because it encourages us to be honest about the legacy of theft in the music we love and to realize that you can drop the shame act a bit and still be OK. If you love it, you love it; no apologies necessary.