Sun Ra - Column for 2/4

About Face

I like music, in general. My tastes can pretty well be described as 'backbeat eclectic', consisting mostly of various flavors of Rock, and shading into Hip-Hop, Folk, and Classical at the edges. I'm not a big fan of Country and/or Western, nor in fact can really tell the difference between the two except that Western is more about Cowboys and Country is more about Good 'ol Boys, nor Bluegrass, nor the Blues. Not that this is in any way a dislike of all the music that falls under those categories, just that I would never have a pre-set radio dial for a station advertising them. The astute reader will notice a particular theme common to those genres - they tend to be depressing, or as I call them, "whiney".

Tragedy, whether in film, stage, or acoustical, doesn't really entertain me. I guess I don't really see the enjoyment in being depressed, although society at large caters to those who do enough for me to realize I am in the minority. I want my entertainment to make me happy, dammit, or at least to educate me or thrill me. So a musical genre devoted to how really crappy things are is pretty obviously designed for someone else.

Rap music, on the other hand, has a fairly decent sized slice inside the Venn diagram of my likes. And being in Washington DC, the Rap music market is fairly well served. (True anecdote: at the gym where I work out, the one closest to my house, the patrons are about 75% black. Of the remainder, some 12% are Latino. Recently, an affiliated gym was having its free weight area worked on, so the members of that gym came to ours to work out. Monday morning, I came to the gym and my first thought was amazement at how many white people there were! Then I grew resentful that all these white people were using our equipment. Bastards.)

So I was listening to a Rap station, and noted that for about three songs in a row, the lyrics were all about how wealthy and successful the rapper was. The gold, the jewels, the cars, the booty... it seems that the majority of popular rap music is about how incredibly loaded whichever artist is making the song is. And here's the thing about that:

It's the complete inverse of the Blues.

Both Rap and Blues are music forms that came from the black experience in America. Both originated in poor neighborhoods, and spoke to the listener about what it was like to be poor. And although they drew on the black experience, they are both forms of music that are accessible by a wide variety of cultures.

However, the Blues is defined by sadness. And it's difficult, although not impossible, to be sad when you are talking about how rich you are. So the Blues has stayed close to its roots even when its practitioners have sprouted yachts and homes in the Rockies. Whereas Rap was defined more by its beat and styling than by its content, so it has been much more plastic in nature. Its birth in the 70s was as party music, but it became harder and filled with rage in the 80s. And then, as it was increasingly captured by the music industry, was lyrically de-fanged and channelled into areas acceptable to both the artist and the producers, and one of those areas was boasting. And since Rap has always been about personal experience, as the artists became wealthy (or started as manufactured phenomena, as with pop music), one of the major things to boast about was their wealth.

Anyways. It's just interesting, that two forms of music with such similar roots have diverged so as to become opposites. As for me, although the Blues are too bitter, "I got more Ho's than Santa Claus" is far too saccharine. I'll stick to the party music.

- Sun Ra

Columns by Sun Ra