WHEN MUSICIANS WANT TO BE SEEN MORE THAN HEARD
November 23, 2018
One thing my Mama never told me was that children should be seen and not heard. Artistry was all about being heard in my household, even when the art was visual. It was about the message, the idea, delivering to the public what can both pacify and disturb them, and expressing yourself. These are the types of things my Mother would give to me before turning on the record player, and letting me begin my own journey with those that desired to be heard.
I can be a purist when it comes to music now. The majority of my life has been about worshipping the rebels: Grace Jones, Little Richard, Prince, George Clinton, Missy Elliott, and Erykah Badu— to name a few of the eccentrics I spent my life studying. These artists taught me that rebellion was not lawless; there was an actual rhythm to going by the beat of your own drum. Their fashion style was rooted in abstract ideas and art that could elevate the public’s experience with the artwork. David Bowie became Ziggy Stardust, not to distract from the work, but to make the world he was building that much more encompassing and authentic. Similarly, Missy Elliott, had to dance in black water with a shaved head in latex to truly honoring the skeletal braggadocio in the hip-hop feminist classic video, “She’s A Bitch”. It is for this reason that I know my own imagination has been mentored by supremely talented outcasts—including Outkast.
1996 was the year Hillary Clinton made her infamous “super predator” comments that still echoes to this day as helping to help further code a generation of kids of color in poor areas as inherently violent and nihilistic. In that same year, six year-old debutant JonBenét Ramsey was murdered, which was a threat to all things white supremacy most coveted: youth, white girlhood, and wealth. 1996 was also the year Daniel Hernandez, who we’d reluctantly get to know years later as Tekashi 6ix9ine, was born. Apparently, the year of 1996 was as culturally hectic and dooming as the humans it birthed. If I were a believer, I would call these events prophetic to this current moment in pop culture we refer to as Tekashi 6ix9ine and all of his antics.
I did not like Tekashi 6ix9ine once I saw him. If I saw him 5 years ago, I might have seen him as a new strange and something of interest. However, in 2017 I instantly identified him as a racially ambiguous third wave of rappers (XXXtentacion, Lil’ Pump) mimicking the first wave of clearly identifiably Black rappers (Young Thug, Lil Uzi Vert) that were clearly influenced heavily by Lil’ Wayne as far as music and fashion, but also their relationship with drugs. Tekashi 6ix9ine looks like if NWA and Funkadelic had an illegitimate baby, but nothing about the music is as fun or good.
Goodness, or Hernandez’s lack thereof, is what I found myself pondering after learning more about the rapper beyond my initial visceral reaction to his image. I felt guilty about my reaction and frightened myself into believing that I was morphing into the music enthusiast I vowed to never be. I did not want to be the aging music critic that is too amorous about the music I heard as a child that made me fall in love with music to be able to hear and grapple with the fantastic noise being created today. I wanted to avoid making an alien out of myself.
This was a brief moment of sympathy right before finding out Tekashi 6ix9ine was a registered sexual offender, including accusations of child molestation and child pornography. This is the moment I decided that I had no need to acquaint myself with Tekashi 6ix9ine.
My decision to disengage Tekashi 6ix9ine wasn’t purely moral, even though I do believe that would be enough of a standing ground. As a cultural critic, I’m quite used to engaging bad men and their vile actions, and the work it produces. Tekashi 6ix9ine is horrible—in the way most men raised uncritically in a toxic patriarchal society are—but he is also boring and flat. This is an observation that is not unique to Tekashi 6ix9ine, but representative of a generation of rebels without a cause.
I thought the same when violent and problematic rapper, XXXtentacion, was being lauded as a rap martyr upon death. XXX wasn’t the first rapper that did toxic things that have either been ignored and excused because time passed or death. Dr. Dre, Nas, and Russell Simmons are men that have seemed to escape—or delay—the consequences to their violent acts. The unique situation that we found XXX’s in during his death is that he was being compared to Tupac without ever doing anything as good or as interest as Tupac. With his toxicity, great music or political activation didn’t come, just thinly produced tracks covered in bad poetry with no inclination toward musical or lyrical discovery that would validate such a comparison. In actuality, the things that XXX and Tupac have in common are they both rapped and they are both dead.
Tekashi 6ix9ine’s scandal around his charges of gun possession and racketeering that might find him spending his entire life behind bars played similarly in my imagination. We’ve lost plenty of artists to prison and to death because of criminal activity, but in Tekashi 6ix9ine we aren’t at risk of losing a hip-hop artist, but a hip-hop celebrity. This is less reminiscent of when Shyne, Diddy, or Snoop Dogg was threatened with (or given) prison time. This is more like when celebrity madam, Heidi Fleiss or socialite Paris Hilton were sentenced with jail time. The event is a spectacle, but it doesn’t threaten the artistic integrity or direction of a generation like it might have in the ‘90s.
This is partly because novelty acts have become the acts. The celebrity and the artist are intertwined in a way that the space the artist takes up is negotiable. Nina Simone is often quoted about how artist have a duty to reflect the times, but it is obvious that the artist in modern days actually feel more of a a responsibility to recreate the spectacle and scandals that found them rich and famous in the first place.
There is something different about this era of rebels and artistic eccentrics, and it is not just my maturing gaze. What was once done for novelty and ephemeral fun sparingly in culture is now the function that the majority of artists decide to take with the quality of the art becoming secondary, if considered at all.
Tekashi69 whether he is free, imprisoned, or dead will be quickly forgotten not because he was a bad man or horrible musical artist, but because that’s the nature of the machine he was absorbed into. They are manufacturing tattooed, fair-skinned, colorful hair-having artists just as quickly as they produced scantily-clad, blonde pop stars in my youth. Some of these ‘products’ will whether the storm and make it to Las Vegas or a media job, but many will not. Artists like Tekashi 6ix9ine will be disappeared not because his music lacks quality or because his actions are reprehensible, but because he is not profitable in prison or as a social pariah with limited freedoms because of police’s heavy surveillance of life. So, the machine will find a kid just as interested in making money and being seen as he is, and so will the cycle will continue.
My question is who do you listen to in times like this when there’s a slew of artists primarily concerned with being seen, not heard?