Ask the Experts: James Peterson on race, pop culture
March 04, 2010
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LEWISBURG, Pa. — Welcome again to "Ask the Experts," a regular web feature that highlights the expertise of various Bucknellians in a range of topics related to current news events and other timely subjects. || Ask the Experts archive
This week, we asked James Peterson, an assistant professor of English who has studied hip-hop culture, to talk about race and popular culture. Peterson has talked about these issues frequently on numerous national news shows and in major newspapers and magazines
Q: February was Black History Month. How has the significance of the month and its celebration changed over the years?
A: Black History Month is an attempt to be proactive about commemorating the contributions that African-Americans have made to this country. I think it's been that for most of my lifetime. It becomes more nuanced as we make more progress, but I don't think that the importance or the significance of it has diminished at all.
And I think having a black president doesn't necessarily negate the need for Black History Month. You might notice that our president is very leery of addressing issues of race in the public sphere. He does not want to address race at all. Having a black president doesn't necessarily mean we're going to have a dialogue about race.
I'm of the school of thought that we still need to have these conversations. We still need to engage in things like Black History Month, not just for black folk, but for everybody to understand and appreciate American history. February is a very busy month of the year for me; that's how I know we still need it. I shouldn't have to give a talk about these issues at another university. Those places should have their own folk who can do that, and we seem to be far from that point. So there is much work to do in terms of canonizing, appreciating and, still, even excavating the contributions that black folk have made to this country and to the world. Black History Month should be about the business of pushing and moving that forward.
Q: Your scholarship involves looking at how issues of race are treated in popular culture. Can you give an example?
A: If I had my druthers, I would just deal with hip-hop culture and graphic novels and thinking about issues of race and gender in those popular forms. But because I do write about that and speak about those things so often, I end up having to address other situations. For example, if people read the clips from the John Mayer Playboy interview — and I don't listen to John Mayer, I'm not a fan of his, I never really thought about him one way or the other — but when he uses the N-word, when he makes fairly racist comments about his own dating practices, that's where my work comes in handy, for people who are interested in addressing some of those issues.
The John Mayer example is interesting because — I think it was Quincy Jones and Lionel Richie — who essentially said that the hip-hop generation gave John Mayer the right to use the N-word, and that's where I think I'm most useful. I can come out and talk about the problems with John Mayer using it and how I think the N-word has nuances that are aligned along speech communities. It's really not that complicated, but if you are part of a certain speech community you can say it, and particularly if you're within the privacy of that speech community you can say it. Once it's public, like a Playboy interview, or on CNN or any of these news networks, then it assumes its historical meanings and you can't escape that. John Mayer knows that; that's why he apologized. This is where issues of race are important in popular culture. We need to challenge and use these things as teachable moments.
Part of what my scholarship is about is thinking through some of these things in more complex ways. The funny thing is that we never run out — I will never run out of those kinds of things to talk about. What we've seen through hip-hop and over the years is that black popular culture has become American popular culture and it's a very uneasy cultural miscegenation. All of these things make it clear to me — and should make it clear to us - that race is still one of the most difficult things for us to talk about in our society.
Q: You have been described as a "hip-hop scholar." How is hip-hop defined, and what can we learn from studying it?
A: Hip-hop is defined by its constituent elements, which include MC-ing or rapping; DJ-ing, or manipulating turntables to play music and produce music; breaking or B-boying, which is the kind of kinesthetic element of it; and graphic and urban visual arts, which is the more visual aspect of it.
Now, because of the popularity of the form, particularly of the form of rapping or MC-ing, we have seen a lot of black, urban and Latino cultural attributes moved into the center of the American popular public sphere, and that has changed so many things. It has changed politics, it has changed education, it has changed TV, it has changed film, it has changed advertising. You can see elements of hip-hop in all of those things. When Barack Obama pretends to brush the dirt off of his shoulders, you know that he is listening to Jay-Z. Or when you see a Pepto-Bismol ad and people are break-dancing in the ad, you can see hip-hop is very pervasive. Or, you can take a class at Bucknell with me, and we're reading very sophisticated critical texts about hip-hop cultures.
There's been a paradigm shift that hip-hop culture has been a part of — but very rarely gets credit for — that reflects a very high level of cultural miscegenation here in America, more so than what jazz did and rock did, and blues. More so than any other form of musical culture, hip-hop has done a lot to bring together people across ethnic backgrounds and racial backgrounds. It is a great potential platform for us to have the kinds of racial conversations that I think will be more sophisticated than the ones that we are having now.
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