Stereohype: Little Brother’s The Minstrel Show
In an era of hip-hop that can literally make you wonder if your I.Q. has just dropped upon listening to it, Little Brother are a refreshingly heady bunch. This much-slept-on crew hailing from Raleigh/Durham, North Carolina brought an astute, witty, and keenly observant perspective to the hip-hop game on their 2005 sophomore effort The Minstrel Show, and it still rings true today. Consisting of rappers Phonte and Big Pooh and producer extraordinaire 9th Wonder, the group likens the current state of rap music to that of a modern day minstrel show. Examining rap music’s current trifecta of materialism, misogyny, and violence, Little Brother contends that the same stereotypes of centuries past still infect our culture today, albeit in a new and more insidious form. Moreover, Little Brother posits that many African-American artists within the music industry are complicit in propagating these age old myths and stereotypes, and by proxy, devalue the overall worth of hip-hop, and tarnish the image of African-Americans as a whole.
To say that Little Brother’s comparison of today’s rap music scene to a minstrel show is profoundly apt would not be an overstatement. Minstrelsy has the unfortunate distinction of being the first American “art form”, its origins buttressed in the ridiculing, lampooning, and dehumanization of African-Americans. Moreover, minstrel shows adhered to a specific template of stereotypes for Blacks—most notably the images of the ignorant, violent, savage “Brute”, the pandering, gaudily dressed fop or “Dandy”, and the concept of the oversexed Black temptress called “Sapphire”. Interestingly (and sadly), these racist constructions continue to find fertile ground within the realms of the music industry, television, and cinema—and, as a result, the collective American subconscious.
One does not have to look far to find evidence for Little Brother’s claim. In fact, the examples are legion. Regarding the image of the dangerous, volatile Brute, artists such as 50 Cent and The Game offer tales of carnage and misogyny almost completely devoid of context, qualifiers, or political commentary. The role of the Dandy is skillfully portrayed by rappers such as Snoop Dogg, and, perhaps more egregiously, Flavor Flav. The Black woman as an insatiable seductress is portrayed handily by Little Kim, Trina, and the myriad of “video vixens” seen on MTV and BET. A special mention, however, is deserved by VH1 for its unabashed perpetuation of modern day minstrelsy. VH1, once the channel of choice for young, white, urban professionals, has devolved into a veritable freakshow of African-American parody. Mind-numbing offerings such as Flavor of Love and I Love New York can simultaneously evoke feelings of disgust, disbelief, and sociological fascination within the discriminating viewer. Idiocy such as The (white) Rapper Show is essentially akin to watching Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer. The entertainment portion of the program lies in watching the legitimate hip-hop artists (who were somehow goaded into participating in this nonsense) hide their contempt for the show’s contestants. Moreover, it is truly a sad state of affairs for African-American depictions in the media when Flavor Flav, an integral member of the iconic Black nationalist rap group Public Enemy, is reduced to epitomizing the “Dandy” of old, a Jimmy “J.J.” Walker for the new millennium.
Consciousness raising never sounded as sweet as it does on Little Brother’s The Minstrel Show. The soundscapes provided by 9th Wonder are nothing short of genius. The producer’s tracks possess an ethereal, otherworldly quality that takes sampling to new artistic heights, and his signature sound makes him a favorite among the THC crowd. 9th Wonder seemingly opens a dimensional aperture into a world where 70’s funk, soul, and R&B meets late 80’s underground hip-hop—and together, they reign supreme.
Little Brother’s lyrics do not adopt the overtly political “My Uzi Weighs a Ton”/“Fight the Power” rallying cries of Public Enemy, or the ideological and verbal Molotov cocktail approach of dead prez. LB uses sardonic wit and mockery as their weapons of choice. The group spoofs UPN’s depictions of African-Americans with the contrived “UBN” (see if you can figure out the acronym), and scoffs at the “I wanna sex you up” banality that pervades today’s R&B. “Diary of a Mad Black Daddy” throws sly jabs at Tyler Perry’s pseudo-dramas, and “5th and Fashion” derides the almost obsessive infatuation of some African-Americans’ with designer brand status symbols.
Little Brother’s The Minstrel Show raises important questions regarding the portrayal of African-Americans in the media. While not as intellectually heavy as say, Common or Black Thought, the observations they make are still all too relevant. The claim that many of the depictions of African-Americans in the media are rooted in racial hegemony is indeed food for thought. It becomes imperative that we as African-Americans ask ourselves, knowing our history and legacy, “What are the origins of the images we see in the media?” “How culpable are we in perpetuating these stereotypes?” “Are they laughing with us or at us?” Perhaps most importantly, “How do we view ourselves?” Self-deprecation and humor has always been used as a reservoir of strength by oppressed peoples—but there becomes a point where self-deprecation becomes self-degradation. It is vitally incumbent upon us to know the difference—and in this regard, Little Brother gets it right.
Todd Wells is a student at Chicago State.