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how hip-hop failed america

Questlove’s How Hip-Hop Failed Black America, Part III: What Happens When Black Loses Its Cool?

This is the third in a weekly series of six essays looking at hip-hop's recent past, thinking about its distant past, and wondering about the possibility of a future. Read the first one here and the second one here.

Can I start this essay by asking a rhetorical question? Have you heard of black cool? It used to be something ineffable but indisputable. Certain African-American cultural figures — in music, in movies, in sports — rose above what was manifestly a divided, unjust society and in the process managed to seem singularly unruffled. They kept themselves together by holding themselves slightly apart, maintaining an air of inscrutability, of not quite being known. They were cool.

Who did this idea adhere to? People are welcome to make lists of their own, but there are some examples that we can all agree upon. Miles Davis was cool. Betty Davis was. Muhammad Ali was cool, and Richard Pryor was, and Lena Horne, and Billie Holiday, and Jimi Hendrix, and Sly Stone, and Angela Davis, and Prince. Early hip-hop had several contenders for cool, from Run-DMC to Public Enemy. And black cool, when it comes right down to it, is everyone’s cool. The baseline of the concept, in vernacular terms, in historical terms, is black. Black is the gold standard for cool, and you don’t need to look any further than the coolest thing of the last century, rock and roll, to see the ways in which white culture clearly sensed that the road to cool involved borrowing from black culture. But black cool is at a crossroads, unless it’s at the end of the road. The dynamics that historically produced black cool within the American landscape have shifted, allowing some things to be pushed to the side and others to fall through the cracks.

You can tell something’s missing when you see people trying to find it. A few years back, the writer Rebecca Walker oversaw an anthology called, as luck would have it, Black Cool. Inspired by a photo of Barack Obama climbing out of a limousine, she invited dozens of writers to reflect on the phenomenon of black cool. They made a variety of arguments regarding a variety of examples. Mat Johnson wrote about black geeks. Rachel M. Harper wrote about how her artist father taught by example that pain, released, produced cool. When I read through the book, I locked into an essay by Helena Andrews. It’s called “Reserve,” Andrews’s piece, and it’s about the mask that black women learn to wear as girls. She imagines a black woman moving through a city, negotiating the looks of others on the subway.

She seems to be doing more than everyone else by doing so much less. Your eye is drawn to her. She acknowledges your presence by ignoring it. She is the personification of cool by annihilating your very existence.

What drew me to Andrews was these four sentences, which articulated, in a different way (gender-specific, subway-specific), something that I have thought about black cool for a long time, which is that it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Black cool is part of society in general, part of white society. Black cool is the tip of African-American culture’s engagement with the broader white culture. Black cool only works the way it works because it’s part of a relationship. Look at Andrews’s scene more closely. The woman, getting attention, rejects that attention, and as a result gets more attention. Cool has an additional dimension, too, which is that it buys time. In an uncertain social situation, where the wrong decision can have disastrous consequences, cool lets you stay a beat behind while you settle on the path of least destruction. Taken to the extreme, cool can be sociopathic; taken to the right levels, it’s a supremely intelligent mix of defense mechanism and mirroring.

The idea of withholding attention is central to most human interaction, of course: The person with less interest in any relationship has the upper hand. But go wider. In talking about cool here, we’re not just talking about a man and a woman on a subway. We’re talking about a black culture and a white culture, a subculture within a mainstream culture. Any of the figures of black cool we mentioned above (Miles, Hendrix, etc.) simultaneously drew the gaze of white cultural observers and thwarted that gaze. They acted in ways that weren’t entirely predictable to white audiences, weren’t entirely safe or regulated, and that prolonged and deepened the attachment. When you looked at a picture of Miles Davis, you knew that you didn’t know what he was thinking, and that kept you looking. The dialogue between black and white cultures stayed alive and vibrant, full of productive tension.

Let’s go back to the word: cool. Cool doesn’t mean a lack of temperature, exactly. It doesn’t mean low affect or indifference. It means cool heat, intensity held in check by reserves of self-possession. Cool is social engagement masquerading as a kind of disengagement. As a result, in any display of cool, there is a slight hint of threat. What if the mask is lifted and the heat released? That threat can be physical or sexual or intellectual, but it’s always felt. Look: That person has power that he or she is not using. Think: What will happen if he or she uses it? React: I don’t exactly know, but I better keep watching to find out. (To step away from black cool for one second into the broader concept of cool, it’s worth noting that reserve is less possible than ever. Think of John F. Kennedy. During his life, there was a gentleman’s agreement to protect his privacy and the office of the president. That permitted cool. These days, privacy has been melted down. Social networking, instant journalism, and culture of humiliation have turned the private-public dynamic more inside out than a Clippers jersey. That hurts cool in general.)

But what happens when the broader culture stops looking at black culture for cues, or clues? What happens when the very idea that black culture contains something different and distinctive dissipates? A song like Lorde’s “Royals” critiques one version of hip-hop’s values, Cristal and Maybachs and gold teeth, and while it’s reductive in some ways, it’s also instructive, because it shows how the signifiers of hip-hop culture (which has swallowed black culture in general) have lost much of their cool. They’ve emptied themselves out and don’t know how to fill back up. The criticism that Lorde’s references are four or five years old, at least, does nothing to dull her point and may even sharpen it, because even if the names of the products have changed, their meaning(lessness) remains the same.

Roland Barthes wrote famously about French toys. This seems like a detour, I know, but I was talking to a writer friend of mine about a book we worked on together, and this came up in relation to the notion of cool. Barthes wrote an essay about French toys in which he celebrated building blocks for sparking the creative impulse and damned other toys for doing the opposite.

The merest set of blocks, provided it is not too refined, implies a very different learning of the world: then, the child does not in any way create meaningful objects, it matters little to him whether they have an adult name; the actions he performs are not those of a user but those of a demiurge. He creates forms that walk, that roll; he creates life, not property. Objects now act by themselves; they are no longer an inert and complicated material in the palm of his hand. But such toys are rather rare: French toys are usually based on imitation; they are meant to produce children who are users, not creators.

What’s a demiurge? Sounds scary. Is it half an urge? I have half a mind to look it up. But Barthes’s analysis of toys touches on something that’s central to culture in general, and to cool. You need at least the prospect of creation for cool — well, creation or destruction, which are two halves of the same whole. And creation and destruction depend upon some notion of unpredictability, a potential threat to the way things are. It’s important to remember here that it’s a potential threat, the moment before an innovation: Cool is more about the space between the notes than the notes themselves. But when the melody becomes monotonous, when things continue on in the same vein for too long — again, back to Lorde — cool peters out.

These days, the vast majority of hip-hop artists follow a script because they’re trying to succeed in a game whose rules are clear. To paraphrase Barthes: American hip-hop is usually based on imitation, and it is meant to produce artists who are users of the existing tradition, not creators. And because of that, black culture in general — which has defaulted into hip-hop — is no longer perceived as an interesting vanguard, as a source of potential disruption or a challenge to the dominant. It might be worth watching if nothing else is on, but you don’t need to keep an eye on it. And that leads to a more distressing question, not rhetorical this time: Once you don’t have a cool factor any longer — when cool gets decoupled from African-American culture — what happens to the way that black people are seen?

Are they seen? That’s also not rhetorical. The majority of any population listens to rules. Most people do what society tells them to, to a predictable degree. Those people don’t need to be monitored, because they aren’t any threat at all. There’s a second, smaller group that shows itself over time to be ungovernable. Most of those people are warehoused, locked away in prisons or otherwise contained. Neither of those two groups needs to be seen — not really, not in the sense of being significantly visible to the culture at large. But what about those rare people who remain ungovernable and free? What about the people who draw society’s surveilling gaze and gaze back levelly? Those people are cool. Pick your icon: Hendrix or Ali or Pryor. Think about how they handled being handled. And in black America, traditionally, the rest of us need those people. They produce a wide and welcome positive halo effect. They teach by example that a certain edginess and individuality can persist without being stamped out.

Why haven’t any current cultural figures completely and successfully replaced the icons of the past in the Pantheon of cool? Here, finally, we have come to another rhetorical question. These days, increasingly, black cool is a Ponzi scheme that revolves around a couple of people, disingenuously at best. Everyone pays tribute to those tip-top hip-hop stars, but their cachet comes from their celebrity, and their predictable devotion to it. Do they embody black cool in the traditional sense? I don’t think they can. I don’t think any of us can. The cultural landscape now is about winning, not taking the extra beat to think your way around a problem. Today’s hip-hop stars may be the Federal Reserve of black cultural cachet, but these days they’re just printing money whose value has long ago diminished. And that’s not cool.

Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson and Photo by Getty