Blacking Up: Hip-Hop's Remix of Race and Identity. Winner of the American Library Association's 2011 Notable Videos for Adults Award
Hip-Hop was created by urban youth of color more than 30 years ago amid racial oppression and economic marginalization. It has moved beyond that specific community and embraced by young people worldwide, elevating it to a global youth culture. The ambitious and hard-hitting documentary Blacking Up: Hip-Hop's Remix of Race and Identity looks at the popularity of hip-hop among America's white youth. It asks whether white identification is rooted in admiration and a desire to transcend race or if it is merely a new chapter in the long continuum of stereotyping, mimicry and cultural appropriation? Does it reflect a new face of racial understanding in white America or does it reinforce an ugly history?
The film presents a diverse group of white rap fans (often referred to by derogatory terms such as "wannabe" or "wigger") and performers with very different ways of expressing their relationship to Hip-Hop music and culture. Against the unique backdrop of American popular music, Blacking Up explores racial identity in U.S. society - how do white youth define and express themselves culturally? Why would creating an alternative persona be attractive to white suburban youth? What does "authenticity" mean in reference to Hip-Hop, an art form often based on "sampling" music from other performers? How does this type of performance affect the communities being emulated? How do white performers impact interracial dialogue and the cultural landscape? These questions are examined in fascinating vignettes featuring:
A tense Hip-Hop battle between white and black students at Indiana University-Bloomington
A backlash against "wiggers" in a Midwestern white community
A revealing analysis of how rapper Vanilla Ice was marketed to mainstream audiences
Performers whose use of racially-charged symbols beg comparison to minstrelsy
A black-owned New York bus tour that specializes in bringing outsiders into the neighborhoods where Hip-Hop was first invented - replete with complimentary "bling"
The documentary places the issues of cross-cultural appropriation and desire in historical context, drawing parallels between the figure of the white Hip-Hop fan and previous incarnations of white identification with black culture. Blacking Up addresses the legacy of blackface performers such as Al Jolson (introducing us to the contemporary Al Jolson Fan Club). In addition, jazz figures like the "hipster" and rock and roll icons like Elvis Presley and the Rolling Stones are considered within a broader context of white appropriation of black cultural expression. The film posits that identifying with black culture has offered white performers and consumers a means to lift inhibitions, and in the case of Hip-Hop has given white men license to act aggressively masculine.
Throughout the documentary there is insightful commentary by African American cultural critics such as Amiri Baraka (who draws parallels to the beatnik era), Nelson George, Greg Tate, comedian Paul Mooney and Hip-Hop figures Chuck D, Russell Simmons, M1 of Dead Prez, and DJ Kool Herc. Blacking Up will be a useful resource for courses in Media Studies, Cultural Studies, Sociology, African American Studies, Anthropology and Cross-Cultural Dialogue as well as for Student Services programs.
Robert Clift is an Assistant Professor of Film Studies in the Department of English at the University of Pittsburgh. His first film, Stealing Home: The Case of Cuban Baseball, was broadcast nationally on PBS in 2001. Other films include Road Comics: Big Work on Small Stages (2012). He is currently making a first-person documentary about his uncle, the actor Montgomery Clift.
A co-production of Limbic Productions, Inc. and WTIU, produced in association with ITVS with funds provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting
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