Authenticity and Black Music.

Authenticity occupies a central position in sociology and those social science fields, which deal with subcultures and racial identity. When considered alongside music and culture, aspects of legitimacy and imagery emerge and are debated.

Imagery and Authenticity

Through representation of black urban poverty through music (both music imagery and rap lyrics), black artists have been used to give emphasis and authenticity to cultural projects. In this sense, rap can act as a type of cultural intermediary that serves as an institutionalised tastemaker. Before the emergence of white artists, ethnic groups were the primary signifier of urban music genres, but as urban music genres gained broad appeal, taste-making roles have also broadened (as well as the need for them), creating a new power relationship between ethnicity and authenticity. This has become more powerful and also more complex as rap has specialised and new sub-genres have emerged like drill.

Within the more expansive urban music genre, drill music was first evident at social gatherings, schools and outdoor activities where a new combination of melodic beats, dance, slang and fashion ultimately combined and gained popularity. In turn, this developed into a global movement. Drill artists, for instance, write and perform their music with minimal technological interference. This shows an immediate association with the artist, which might be described as more truly credible (Thornton, 1996). However this characterisation is not universally shared; drill can often be seen as a euphemism for violence or conflict.

Cultural theorist, Murray Forman (2000) in his text the ‘Hood come first’: Race, space and place in rap and hip-hop’ describes the racial-spatial dichotomy of ‘the real’ and its role in deciphering authenticity within hip-hop. He notes ‘In most cases, it stands as an ill-defined expression referring to combined aspects of racial essentialism, spatial location, and a fundamental adherence to the hip-hop culture’s principles. However, the boundaries between real or authentic cultural identities and those deemed counterfeit are usually policed from within the culture and the delineations that define ‘the real’ are taken up with deadly seriousness by those who ascribe to hip-hop cultural influences’ (Forman, 2000: xviii).

Black Authenticity in Drill

This is not to say that Drill is an exclusively non-white cultural social space. White artists and agents have been critical in expanding the field. Furthermore, key players in the mainstream cultural creative industries have fuelled the popularisation of urban music lifestyles; a point that is rarely acknowledged in the literature (George, 1998; Samuels, 1991; Stephens, 1991; Watkins, 2005).

Littlefield (n.d.) notes the way urban music genres (hip-hop) have been studied within consumer research and marketing — from its role in films (Holbrook, 2008; Suisman 2009) advertising (Scott, 1990) and retail atmospherics (Bradshaw and Holbrook, 2008; Kellaris and Kent, 1993; Kotter, 1973/1974; Milliman, 1986). Music may also be consumed in its live form (Deighton, 1992), including live music production as a consumption activity (Bradshaw, Sherlock and McDonagh, 2003; Kerrigan, O’Riley and Lehn, 2009).

Concerns over non-black participation in traditionally black avenues of cultural production or what is described as ‘the Elvis effect’ (Taylor, 1997; Hall, 1997) but in sociology as ‘cultural appropriation’ has been significant in driving the debate about ‘authenticity work’ (Peterson, 2005). Here, cultural appropriation is the adoption of an element of one culture or identity by members of another culture of identity. When appropriation is led by members of a dominant community over disadvantaged minority cultures, then this can be controversial (e.g. Young, 2010; Okafor, 2013).

In Althusserian terms (i.e. in structural and humanist terms), for black artists, the projection of ghetto association is less complicated and less contentious since the dominant social perspective ‘always already’ interpellates black youths especially males as ghetto citizens, if not ghetto thugs (Forman, 2000: 62). Interpellation here refers to a process in which we encounter our culture’s values and internalise them, as a type of unconscious internal structure. Moreover, Althusser adopts the belief that it is our exhibition of our connection to other people, and to social establishments that continually constitutes groups as subjects (Felluga,2002).

The term ‘ghetto’ as both internalised and explicit physical structure, has explicit minority connotations; being the place where members of a minority group live especially because of social, legal, or economic pressure. For example, in her work ‘Black Noise’, Tricia Rose articulates the importance of identifying with lower-class urban space through the construction of music visuals. She notes ‘rap visuals have also developed its style and its genre conventions’. These conventions visualise hip-hop style and usually affirm raps primary thematic concern identity and location. Over most of its brief history, urban music visual themes have repeatedly converged around depicting the local neighbourhood and local posse, crew or support system.

Expanding space into temporal aspects, for Rose & Wood (2005), authenticity has been defined by perceived genuineness grounded in a relationship to significant past events (Grayson and Shulman, 2000). In other words, constructed out of the spatiality of temporal events and which in many ways emphasises relational spaces and the actions of individuals.

Authenticity at the Individual Level through Social Connections

When applied to individuals, assessments of authenticity are usually based upon a fundamental congruence between how one sees oneself and how others may perceive one (Trilling, 1971; Goffman, 1959), which is a topic for the next part of the blog.

Authenticity, which is always constituted then through the social institutions that individuals participate in (Appiah, 1994) demands that the person, performance or object conforms to a set of socially agreed-upon authentic standards. Thus, authenticity is never an organic quality naturally found in things; instead, ‘a claim that declared’ and ‘either accepted or rejected’ (Peterson 2005). Where ‘authenticity work’ or the ‘effort put forth to appear authenticity’ (Peterson 2005, 1086) is too transparent that it strives to establish becomes suspect and doubtful. One of the ironies of authenticity then, noted through literature review is that it tends to emerge as an issue mainly under conditions where it is in some way threatened (McLeod, 1999; Peterson 2005). This is an area I would like to revisit in a later blog.

Issues for Urban Music

For race and urban music authenticity, several issues emerge, which are worthy of wider discussion.

  1. Evolution — Firstly, the extent to which understandings of urban music authenticity are established in fixed ideas of ‘how it all started’ or what Imani Perry (2004) calls “originalist contentions”. The originalist position certainly forms one of the most substantial claims to authenticity, as a type of provenance. However, if urban music is to be thought of as a culture as many people claim it should — at some point strict originalism must succumb to the well-established notion that both cultures and traditions are social processes which are continually changing (Clifford, 1998; Handler and Linnekin 1984).

2. Artist or space? Do questions encompassing urban music legitimacy apply above all else to the musical artist — all the more extensively include anybody asserted to be a constituent of the urban music notion? (Samuals, 1991; Watkins, 2005).

3. Defining the Artist — A third issue concerns whether the category ‘urban music artist’ refers explicitly to emcees/rappers or includes practitioners of urban music other acknowledged elements, namely deejays and association ‘beat-makers, break-dancers and graffiti writers’ (Schloss, 2004). Such definitional work needs to also consider value chains up and downstream of the artist as well as what an artist means in the context of such music.

4. Identity — The fourth question relates specifically to issues of racial and cultural identity. When discussing urban music and blackness, one speaks specifically about African American identity or black diasporic identity that transcends any specific western experience.

5. Evolution and Disaspora — Finally, urban music’s (hip-hop) polyvocality and multifaceted allure have likewise explained through featuring its diasporic starting points. Paul Gilroy’s (1993), portrayal of such music as a transcontinental flow of materials, customs, beliefs, and people that have been instrumental in shaping contemporary black subjectivity, and trans-local methodologies appear to be highly useful in exploring some of the authenticity issues relating to provenance and evolution. However, while there are shared traits of racial subjectivity, which have arisen through globalisation (Basu and Lemelle, 2006; Clark and Thomas, 2006; Gilroy, 1993.) the reality remains that being black in the United Kingdom is not the same as being black in America, Jamaica or as Congolese. Nevertheless, Todd Boyd (1997, 64) sees the connection urban music as fundamental to blackness and the relationship with creative cultural industries very differently: it is hip-hop’s ability to maintain its ‘unadulterated black cultural product’ in the face of mainstream success that separates rap music from earlier black cultural forms (Garofalo, 1994).

Some Thoughts on What is Authenticity

Michael Pastoureau as quoted in Jones (1992:7) Authenticity, and indeed falseness must be seen as a cultural social construct, which has a different meaning to different societies. McRobbie (1994: 161) perceives authenticity as an ideology ‘which provides young people in youth cultures a way to achieve social subjectivity and therefore identity through the subcultural experience’.

Walter Benjamin (1977) notes that authenticity became dogma with the new possibilities of copying, serial production, leading to aura’s loss in the nineteenth century. The nineteenth century witnessed a literal obsession or fetishizing of originality and authenticity that was unrestricted to objects and human behaviour (Schmidt, 2000). Today particularly influenced by gender studies, we no longer accept the idea of a ‘true self’ or naturally fixed identity (Apter, 1994; Lehnert, 1997; Tseelon, 2001). Alternatively, ‘given’ we understand identity as an ongoing, constructive and reflexive process (Giddens 1991; Keupp et al. 1999).

For Duden Herkunftsworterbuch (2001:55) authenticity has been used in juristic contexts since the sixteenth century, signifying genuine manuscripts and documents. Etymologically term goes back to the Latin word authenticus, meaning reliable, genuinely certified or personally handwritten — which itself derives from the Greek words authenticas and authentes, meaning the author or originator.

McRobbie (1989: 39) remarks today’s youth-cultural styles have become selectable ensembles, which can be appropriated and performed, dislocated from a former ‘original’ cultural context and meaning. But does this mean that new contemporary groups such as drill or trap are ‘inauthentic?’ Since ‘youth styles and fashions are born into the media’.


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a practising academic writer covering topics surround race culture policies regarding urban UK culture.

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