American Cultural Dynamics:
Why do White People Like Black Music?

These two matters, music and psychodynamics, come together when you ask one simple question: Just why do white people like black music? The question is an important one because at least 200 years of cultural history are behind it. That is how long white Americans have been adopting the music of black Americans for their own expressive use, with the most intense borrowing and adaptation taking place in the 20th century. It is absolutely impossible to imagine American culture without black music in all the nooks and crannies, but no one has set about the task of giving a full-scale analysis and explanation of why this has come about, though there is a great deal of historical writing on when and how it came about. I have seen the question posed by a white jazz critic, Martin Williams (in The Jazz Tradition), by a white ethnomusicologist, Charles Keil (in Urban Blues), and a New Zealander, Christopher Small, has made a strong run on the question (in Music of the Common Tongue , which, however, says little about psychology), but none of the new intellectuals have really posed the question much less set about constructing answers.

The question's answer is obvious: white people like black music because it gives them ways of expressing themselves which their own music lacks. Everyone knows that the blues and jazz and soul are sexy, and there has never been a more aggressive music than hip hop. White people listen to black music for the same reason black people do: to discover themselves and thereby find hope for the future. It is that simple, and that deep.

And the new intellectuals can't touch it because they don't have the intellectual equipment needed to deal with music and they won't use the equipment needed to handle the psychological end. The upshot of this is that none of them have written a work of cultural criticism as deep as that written by Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones). The odd thing is, Baraka has little technical knowledge of music that I know of, and little interest in the psychodynamics of racism. Still, Blues People is a substantial achievement, one that the new intellectuals have yet to confront, much less master and surpass, though some of them may have read it (Stanley Crouch, for example, has read and thrown the book at Blues People ; but, then, he seems to throw the book at everything!).

Baraka makes four points which need to be dealt with:

  1. The blues is an expressive form which arose when ex-slaves and the sons and daughters of slaves came to term with being free citizens in the United States.

  2. Jazz was the first African-American expressive form "capable of reflecting not only the Negro and a black America but a white America as well."

  3. The value structures of white America and black America are different in such a way that for Bix Beiderbecke to play jazz, he had to rebel against his culture, while Louis Armstrong was simply fulfilling the expressive ideals of his rather different culture.

  4. As whites have more or less successfully imitated black music, blacks have responded by creating new musics beyond the current reach of whites.

I don't think any of these ideas can be taken at face value, and I certainly don't intend to discuss them myself, not in the limited confines of here and now (though I have, to some extent, dealt with the last three points in "The United States of the Blues"). My point is that these so-called new intellectuals have hardly dealt with these issues at all, and it is their professional responsibility to do so. They may not like Baraka's ideas, but it is irresponsible to ignore them.

To deal with Baraka, you must, in the first place, do more than admire and appreciate music, black , white or any other music. You have to think music worthy of serious intellectual attention and be willing to make the conceptual investment required to write intelligently about it. To do that you must surely transcend the limitations of an essentially European conception of what can and must be thought about, for that conception has not been kind to music nor to other non-verbal expressive forms.

To go beyond Baraka's formulations you must explicitly take up psychodynamics. For it is psychodynamics which is at the core of white culture, black culture, and the complex dance between them. And once you understand those psychodynamics, and their relationship to music, and to dance, theater, comedy, preaching, and politics as well, you will be in a position to think about how black/white interaction through expressive culture has been so important in weakening the hold racism has on the American soul, perhaps even more important than political and legislative action.

Perhaps these new leaders fear that an indictment of white psychopathology is somehow too militant, too black, for our current progressive era. Banish the fear. After all, there are some powerful politicians who are gleefully taking us back to the Stone Age without benefit of prior nuclear bombardment. Our progressive era is looking more and more regressive by the minute.

This critique is not about being black, white, cool, hip, post-modern, or any other such striving and jiving. It is about thinking deep, following where truth leads, and being honest with your heart. It's about the blues, about keeping your soul united through states of the blues. The projective dynamics of repression aren't now and never have been the exclusive property of white people. The nastier forms of black militancy surely depend on scapegoating white and Jewish people just as white racists have scapegoated blacks. Thus, were the new intellectuals to undertake a psycho-cultural analysis of white racism, they would surely have to follow with a parallel analysis of black racism and every other color of racism under the multispectral sun. Holding people accountable for the desires and actions of the soul has nothing to do with ethnic militancy and everything to do with principle.

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Why the New Intellectuals Don't Cut It
Meanderings 2.03 -- March 1995


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