Has Conscious Culture Been Commodified?

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An abridged version of this column appeared in the February 19, 2016 issue of the Indianapolis Recorder Newspaper. 

I can think of very few things that a price tag can’t be placed on. Whether that price be currency related or an opportunity related cost most anything these days can be profited off of. The way you style your hair, the science behind how and when you decide to order a cup of coffee, and they language you use when conversing with your friends and family are the lifeblood of the American marketplace. African-Americans spend billions of dollars a year on consumer goods and in 2013 Nielsen declared that African-American consumers are more relevant than ever.  It is for these reasons that brands make it their business to try and master or even predict your preferences.  However, their manufactured clairvoyance usually doesn’t pass the smell test. It’s how you end up with things like a McDonald’s chicken tenders commercial disguised as an R&B music video or the ill-fated Mary J. Blige, “What’s in the new chicken wraps?” spot for Burger King, one that was never supposed to see the light of day but thanks to the magic of the internet found its way to YouTube where it can be scoffed at in perpetuity.

This cycle of watching you, packaging you, and selling you back to you is nothing new. Yes, tongue twister I know. It was the subject of a fantastic Frontline documentary produced by PBS in the early 2000s titled The Merchants of Cool which explored the symbiotic relationship between counterculture and the media. It’s free on the PBS website and I would encourage you to watch it and share it with a friend.

In hip-hop culture, where authenticity is everything (or at least at some point it was) popular artists are routinely criticized and labeled sell-outs for their participation in this system. Particularly artists who are labeled conscious or attempt to have a conscious moment. How dare they try to talk about “real ish” while being backed by the machine? Enter Beyonce at the Super Bowl and Kendrick Lamar at the Grammy’s.

Ernest Owens of the Huffington Post said of Beyonce’s halftime show, “Being a visible face for female empowerment and black excellence is admirable, but exploiting that favor for capitalistic gains is disappointing.Whether you want to admit it or not, that’s what Beyoncé did with her new single “Formation” and it’s sad to see how many people are buying into it.” This week an IU student editorial stated that she drew inspiration from a “hate group.” The misinformed writer was quickly checked as several took to the comment section to educate him on the true legacy of the Black Panther Party.

Though the Kendrick backlash hasn’t been quite as rough, many critics have called into question the sincerity of his performance as well.

Here’s the thing, isn’t dissing Beyonce and Kendrick’s performances because of their supposed corporate influence a sort of “throwing the baby out with the bath water” move?  Are they less aware or are their efforts less genuine and impactful because CBS may have profited? Look, I get it. Someone may have figured out a way to commodify this revolutionary-esque moment we’re experiencing. Is it wrong that that’s not what I care about right now? Maybe if you’re one of the detractors you see what Bey and K. Dot did as nothing more than an artfully packaged sedative meant to keep us happy, dancing and distracted. If you’re one of those who celebrated and reposted their performances online over and over again perhaps this is your James Brown “I’m Black and I’m Proud Moment.” As a Black person living in America, no one needs to preach to you about what it’s like. You know all too well that there is a lot to be enraged about. But does that mean we should stop creating art and celebrating moments like this? You may argue that Beyonce and Kendrick are nothing more than puppets and their shallow attempts have no righteous merit. I’m gonna say you’re wrong.

Riddle me this, if you were the puppeteer wouldn’t it be lot easier to prop these two up with messages of death and destruction instead of pride, hope, and liberation?

Beyonce and Kendrick may not change the world but what they did may spark the minds that do.

On another note, Bill Clinton and Meryl Streep have recently come out as mixed and African respectively. Right. To quote Paul Mooney in his infamous “Ask a Black Dude” sketch on the Chappelle Show (a highly rated television series on a major network that undoubtedly made lots of white folks rich yet no one seems to negate the impact of),“Everybody wants to be a (fill in the blank) but nobody wants to be a (fill in the blank).”

One of my favorite people, Tim Wise, summed it up this way, “First it was Meryl Streep saying “We’re all African,” and now it’s Bill Clinton saying “We’re all mixed race,” both of which are utterly banal biological and genetic truths, but which sidestep entirely the matter of who carries the systemic and historic burden of those identities. White folks who way back had a familial connection to Africa are not experiencing life as such in the modern era. Nor did such a scientific fact mean much in determining who would and would not be enslaved here or subjected to Jim Crow laws. I don’t recall hearing about white-presenting folks insisting on the back of the bus because “we’re all African.” Likewise, Black folks in the U.S. who have European ancestry a) know how that happened and why b) as such are not particularly impressed (nor comforted) by the biology lesson, and c) would probably much appreciate it if folks like Bill Clinton, in possession of this importance knowledge, had thought to do something to make their bank accounts “mixed race” when in office.”

I couldn’t agree more.