Obama says in his excellent memoir, Dreams From my Father that after going through the works of the great black writers from the first half of the twentieth century, he found that art lacked the redemptive power he had been looking for in it:
“In every page of every book, in Bigger Thomas and invisible men, I kept finding the same anguish, the same doubt; a self-contempt that neither irony nor intellect seemed able to deflect. Even Du Bois’ learning and Baldwin’s love and Langston’s humor eventually succumbed to its corrosive force, each man finally forced to doubt art’s redemptive power, each man finally forced to withdraw, one to Africa, one to Europe, one deeper into the bowels of Harlem, but all of them in the same weary flight, all of them exhausted, bitter men, the devil at their heels. Only Malcolm X’s autobiography seemed to offer something different. His repeated acts of self-creation spoke to me; the blunt poetry of his words, his unadorned insistence on respect, promised a new and uncompromising order, martial in its discipline, forged through sheer force of will.”
It’s an understandable position (even if it only shows the most basic knowledge of the biographies of DuBois, Baldwin and Hughes) – and it’s finally the one which both Obama, as politician, and Jay-Z, as artist, embraced. After all, Malcolm does manage to overcome that one obstacle neither of the other three men mentioned ever does- he becomes a different kind of public figure toward the end of his life than he had been at the beginning: DuBois, despite his flirtation with Communism, eventually became discouraged by the entire American experiment, and left the country for Ghana; Baldwin certainly believed in self-reinvention (he even posits a myth of self-reinvention he imagined writing, but never did, in an essay in Nobody Knows My Name), but never got past being the “Negro writer”, and Langston Hughes, Jazz Poet and former Communist, never lived down his position as an agitator, even after he was forced to renounce his Communist ties in the McCarthy hearings. I was discussing something like this with people the other day. We make choices, people make decisions about who we are, and from there they paint us into these roles, and we find ourselves increasingly unable to escape from them. If life is a journey, and art is the vehicle, it’s a vehicle that doesn’t allow us to move beyond who we used to be in the eyes and judgement of others; and that hinders our own spiritual progress. Only “through sheer force of will” can we hope to reinvent ourselves in the eyes of others, and escape the self doubt and self-contempt that come with being locked in a role.
This is the type of public figure Obama was hoping to be.
With the rise of pop culture, especially in music, self-reinvention became part of the act. From David Bowie to Lady Gaga, our popular music artists have been able, “through sheer force of will” to go from being one type of artist to the next, and then the next, and then on to the next one. So when Jay-Z debuted in 1990s with “Reasonable Doubt” he was definitely coming on the scene as an outsider artist. All his friends were getting deals – Biggie had just dropped an album, and then came Nas’ debut – two of his good friends. But no one would sign Jay. So he took his album, made copies, and sold them out of the back of his trunk. It was mid-90’s and everyone loved an underground rapper. Jay-Z made it clear on his first album that although he was underground, he had no intention of staying there: “Nine to five is how to survive – I ain’t trying to survive / I’m trying to live it to the limit and love it a lot.”
So we have Obama and Jay-Z, two ambitious young men struggling to make a name and a place for themselves in the world, while at the same time trying to avoid the mistakes of their predecessors. It’s admirable, and really what we all do. But it goes beyond that. The two men really seem to be spiritual soul-mates in their beliefs. Jay-Z never intended to use art as a means to transform and uplift the community. He never thought that was possible. He believed in transforming and uplifting the community, but he believed it was done through personal responsibility and community building:
“Wait a minute wait a minute wait a minute wait a minute
Ace, turn that music down
I smell some reefer, now you see?
That’s why, our people don’t have anything
Because we don’t know how to go in places and act properly
(“Hey shut the fuck up!”)
Wait a minute wait a minute who told me shut the eff up?
Who told me to shut the eff up? Get him out of here
I’m not gonna continue this show, until you throw him out
Get him out right now, then I’ma continue my speech
Thank you, he’s out of here now, now like I was sayin
We gotta build our own business, we gotta get our own
record companies goin like Roc-A-Fella Records…”
The same holds true for Obama. Obama, abandoning the idea that literature alone could be redemptive, moved to Chicago and decided, instead of making a lot of money with his Harvard degree, to be a community activist in an unfamiliar town; and he started right in the black communities – the churches and the community meetings, where he hoped to expand and build on his vision. And just like Jay-Z, his ambition was as great as ever. Could he have imagined he’d be president of the United States someday? I think that’s where he was hoping to end up – a long shot sure – just like Jay-Z, (whose Roc-A-Fella Records um… Corporation, was just the trunk of truck) hoped that someday his company would be a huge capitalist player. As we know, both men saw their dreams to fruition.
I’m a fan of both men, with reservations. For one thing, I still can’t side with Obama when he says art lacks the redemptive power he was looking for. Wallace Thurman, the enfant terrible of the Harlem Renaissance, died in the very hospital one of his novels set out to condemn, declaring the Harlem Renaissance a failure; and DuBois and Alain Locke, the older, educated statesmen of the Renaissance (because if we’re going to talk about black literature, we almost have to start with the Renaissance) later agreed the experiment had been a failure. Well, it was in some extraordinary ways. The writers of the Harlem Renaissance were many and varied, and it was a self-conscious movement to create a redemptive black arts with a lot of artists of widely ranging talents, most of ranging pretty low. But then again, it was also a stellar success.
My criticism of Obama and Jay-Z comes with their inability to see how redemptive the arts really are. The redemptive power of the arts is one that begins with the self, and finally ends with others. So, while Hughes and Baldwin may have been, to some extent, locked in roles they were assigned by the public, these were powerful roles, and really had little to do with the artists’ ultimate individual freedom. As early as 1927, Zora Hurston could travel around towns in the south that were widely illiterate, and report back that when she read from Langston Hughes’ Fine Clothes for the Jew, “the listeners loved it. In fact, they loved it so much, the referred to it as, de party book.” It was a book that made them laugh at themselves, and learn about themselves by listening to themselves refracted through Langston Hughes’ play of voice and blues. In short it did what art is supposed to do – it touched, moved and challenged them.
In some ways Jay-Z taps into this same wellspring, but he doesn’t do it with the same love that Langston brings to it, and for that reason, like most rappers, he’s not meeting his audience where they are, but speaking to them from where they hope someday to be – “big pimpin’, spending cheese.”
That’s cool; only it’s a disconnect with everyday life, and really Jay-Z only loves his audience so long as they love him back. Power, as power always does, becomes its own reward, and the search for power in the hopes of redeeming yourself and your people, be it black folk or the American people at large, gets lost in power’s greedy demands; power only needs people inasmuch as it needs more and more power for the wielder of it.
Nas recognized this, and in his classic “Ether” calls Jay-Z on it:
“Y’all niggas deal with emotions like bitches
What’s sad is I love you ’cause you’re my brother
You traded your soul for riches
My child, I’ve watched you grow up to be famous
And now I smile like a proud dad, watching his only son that made it
You seem to be only concerned with dissing women
Were you abused as a child, scared to smile, they called you ugly?
Well life is hard, hug me, don’t reject me
Or make records to disrespect me, blatent or indirectly
In ’88 you was getting chased through your building
Calling my crib and I ain’t even give you my numbers
All I did was gave you a style for you to run with
Smiling in my face, glad to break bread with the god
Wearing Jaz chains, no tecs, no cash, no cars
No jail bars Jigga, no pies, no case
Just Hawaiian shirts, hanging with little Chase
You a fan, a phony, a fake, a pussy, a Stan
I still whip your ass, you thirty-six in a karate class
You Tae-bo hoe, tryna’ work it out, you tryna’ get brolic?
Ask me if I’m tryna’ kick knowledge-
Nah, I’m tryna’ kick the shit you need to learn though
That ether, that shit that make your soul burn slow”
Art’s redemptive power, then, isn’t always something you expect to come quickly, or even in your lifetime – or even in the lifetime of the next generation of readers necessarily. It becomes something that’s part of the cultural history, and must be done for personal redemption, so that others who come later can see how that manifests itself through the work. There are many layers of self-invention if you follow the works of Langston Hughes. The same is true for James Baldwin, and especially true for WEB DuBois. For all their mistakes and missteps and backsteps and frustration with the public, they were always true to the process of self-reinvention. They didn’t have to do it through “sheer force of will.” Redemption and self-reinvention is part of art’s process.
The politician or corporate mogul, on the other hand, only reinvents for the public. Just as redemption and reinvention are part of art’s process, moral compromise is part and parcel of politics and big business. So every reinvention for the politician or mogul, is in essence, a compromise, and a selling out of those who placed their faith in you. I may not know why Obama makes the decisions he makes; maybe strategically, he’s right about the things he does I disagree with. But it gets harder and harder to look for and spiritual guidance in a man whose job is to tell you only a portion of the truth. It’s the same reason Jay-Z’s so charming. It’s easy to be charming with so few blemishes. His vulnerabilities all look so cool: “I can’t see ’em coming down my eyes, so I gotta make the song cry.”
It may not be cool to struggle through “the same anguish, the same doubt” that Hughes and Baldwin struggled with; but it’s part of life and art, and life redeems itself on the other side of suffering.
-Whit Frazier (January 2010)