Stanley Crouch: Is Gangsta Rap a new form of a minstrel show?

On occasion, I’ve read some of Stanley Crouch’s writing, but have never really examined him in depth.  I had the occasion to do so today while stumbling around the web unintentionally and then out of curiosity.  Below I’ve posted two video presentations.  The first one is a short excerpt of a lecture he gave and the second one is the full presentation of the same lecture which runs about an hour.  I thought that this lecture was thought provoking about the cultural impact of gangsta rap and whether it’s an authentic representation of the African-American experience.

Crouch makes the argument that gangsta rap is a new fangled form of the old minstrel show that’s passed off as being authentically black. Linking gangsta rap to minstrel shows is a perspective that I’ve not heard previously and it immediately makes sense to me.  No one would dispute that the old minstrel shows and folks like Stepin Fetchit were at best a caricature of African-Americans.   No one knew anyone who behaved like that and no one would dispute that these shows existed mainly for the entertainment of a white audience who wasn’t prepared to accept African-Americans in any form other than that of a caricature.

In the days of the minstrel shows, you’d be hard pressed to find life imitating art (I use that term loosely here).  Over the years, I’ve frequently traveled up and down route 95 to a favorite vacation spot in Florida.  On a stop over in Virginia one time, I noticed a young man sitting in a car with his music booming.  No doubt, this is a scene that average person has run across on numerous occasions.  Usually, like most people, I just rush by scenes like this as soon as I can so as to get away from the annoyance of the music that I really don’t want to hear.  For some reason, I took the time to actually look the kid sitting in the car.  He had a sick vacant look on his face with a stupid grin and was dressed from head to toe in a white outfit that looked straight out of  “Yo MTV Raps”.  I remember thinking that here’s a guy imitating “art”.

This begs the question about whether the “art” of gangsta rap is a reflection of life or vice versa.  Crouch makes the argument that it’s the latter as the miscreant gangsta element is a distinct minority and that the rappers who sing about them are as much a caricature of African-American life and culture as the old minstrel shows were.  Back in the day, Stepin Fetchit was remunerated well for his foolishness as someone like 50 cent is today, but the black pride emerging from the 60’s resulted in folks like him being disowned and sanctioned as traitors to the race.  For the guardians of the cultural legacy of those of the blood Afric, the  real question before us is what sanction(s) will be meted out and how will we disown a gangsta rap caricature that is so destructive to our communities today.

The video excerpt is five minutes long and provides a flavor of the longer one.  I do recommend a viewing of the full lecture however.  These are a bit dated as the lecture took place in 2007.

  • Black Diaspora

    “For the guardians of the cultural legacy of those of the blood Afric, the real question before us is what sanction(s) will be meted out and how will we disown a gangsta rap caricature that is so destructive to our communities today. ”

    The difference: during Fechit’s heyday, blacks didn’t aspire to be Stepin Fetchit. They recognized him as a stereotype that was created by whites for the entertainment of whites. Whites in blackface as well as blacks in blackface perpetuated this minstrel farce.

    Today, we see many imitators of these stereotypical gansta characters, a creation of rap music and rap performers. In the early seventies, it was the Ron O’Neal character, Priest, in the movie, “Super Fly,” who was imitated.

    These characters, although stereotypical, were created by blacks for black consumption (sometimes with the backing of white money), just as the jive-talking black was created and imitated. Yes, jive-talking blacks existed, but they were not as pervasive in black culture as the movies portrayed, or would have us believe.

    Now to your question: We counter these negative “caricatures,” not by suppressing this supposed artistic expression, but by re-presenting blacks in the mainstream media, and throughout the black and white culture. Where black women are denigrated, create a cultural cantilevering message that celebrates black womanhood, achievements, and contributions within the black community–from both a historical and current perspective.

    This is the hard work of a cultural redefinition of black women, and perhaps not as preferable as attacking the source–rap music–but it will serve two purposes: put the lie to what’s being promoted, a negative image of black women, and disseminate at home and abroad a truer picture of what it means to be black and woman.

    Whatever the specific negative claims of those who would use the black community to advance their financial holdings, be they black or white, those claims should be met with positive, counter messages–messages that are presented with equal, if not surpassing, energy, and done consistently as a cultural reinforcement, and as an answer to the images and imagery that usually abound.

    A President Obama has done great damage to these negative images that are promoted in movies, television, video games, and books.

    The Grio is doing its part with “TheGrio’s 100.” One of those highlighted is Gabi Gregg, and there’s a host of other black women and men getting spotlighted at this site. I propose that more is done to focus on positive things going on in black communities across the nation. We all know that negative things won’t suffer for lack of coverage.

    I think that this is better than a direct, frontal attack: What you resist, persists. It’s a natural law and to flout this law will only make matters worse, and the problem more entrenched.

    • [quote]what sanction(s) will be meted out and how will we disown a gangsta rap caricature that is so destructive to our communities today. “[/quote]


      Document the antics used against Clarence Thomas, Michael Steele and other individuals who violate the IDEOLOGICAL enforcement actions of the previaling powers withing Black America and apply it to the “Hip Hop Voice Of The Street Pirates” artists.

      Instead they are seen as VALUED vote references for Black people:

      [quote]The Grio is doing its part with “TheGrio’s 100.”[/quote]

      With all due respect BD – the “Grio Top 100 Negro Leaders List” is like going before a bevy of HUNGRY PEOPLE and presenting them with a slide show of “good tasting food” and getting them to debate vigorously over which is there favorite.

      The Black community is in need of a NEW CONSCIOUSNESS
      Atop of that is the need for NEW MESSAGING, projecting this CONSCIUONESS
      Then we get to the LEADERSHIP MODEL.

      Grio did a task that was akin to debating “Who was the greatest boxers of all time?”

      NOTHING they did was going to fix the problems that we have as a community TO-DAMNED-DAY.

      That line of thinking they exhibit is actually part of the problem.

      • Black Diaspora

        “With all due respect BD – the “Grio Top 100 Negro Leaders List” is like going before a bevy of HUNGRY PEOPLE and presenting them with a slide show of “good tasting food” and getting them to debate vigorously over which is there favorite.”

        With all due respect, CF, do you like black people? Sometimes I question whether you do. The list I referenced represents “positive” role models, not necessarily black leaders. Isn’t that a good thing to bring to the fore?

        Although I can’t speak for The Grio, I don’t think it was their purpose to bring forth a black solution to address issues in the black community. That’s your schtick.

        Frankly, I personally don’t have a need for a NEW CONSCIOUSNESS, or a NEW MESSAGING, or a LEADERSHIP MODEL, and to say that the black community is in need of such is presumptuous at best.

        Yet, a solution exists. It’s not one that was developed just for blacks, but for the entire world. And, it’s not one that should be imposed on people. It’s something that people should embrace for themselves, just as the direction that the people of Egypt should now pursue as they reject Mubarak’s government is not one that the U.S. should impose, but Egyptians should freely adopt whether that direction is one with which we would approve, or not.

    • BD,
      I had forgotten about SuperFly and the other Blaxploitation films of the 70’s.  Yes, these were definitely precursors to the current installment of the “minstrel show”.  What you suggest here reminds me of a recent comment made by a friend of mine here back on the string about “The crisis affecting black boys and men”.  She made a similar suggestion.  I agree that positive images need to be promoted to counter the negative.  
      I think there’s no reason why we couldn’t do both; that is promote positive images in conjunction with meting our some sanctions.  I’ve a real problem with folks making money based on the destruction of others whether its bankers or gangsters.  One of the reasons I feel that these guys feel this stuff is okay to do is the absence of someone actually saying that it’s not okay and actually establishing a standard.  These guys are a distinct minority of our people and yet the minority dominates the majority.  I feel they do that because we in the collective have not expressed the standard and our disdain for what they’re doing.  
      What sort of sanction would I like to see?  I’d like to see an organized sustained call for a boycott along with negative publicity targeting these guys.  This not only targets them, but also those funding them.  The objective would be to dramatize the problem, force a discussion and dry up those sales.  I think sometimes we hesitate to go this route for fear of causing disunity, which is understandable given how divide and conquer has been applied, but I just feel that the price of unity is too high a price to pay when someone through ignorance or for whatever other reason makes the choice to destroy the community. I’m for making them pay a price as a counterweight to the price they’re making us pay.

      • Black Diaspora

        “I’m for making them pay a price as a counterweight to the price they’re making us pay.”

        I think each of us should follow the path that re-presents us to ourself and to our world. We should never unite with that which doesn’t make a clear statement about who we are, be it a people, or someone we’ve recently met.

        There are many ways by which we can be “united,” that is, be one with another. Sometimes we can be one by uniting with our highest value, and rejecting those with which we disapprove.

  • GangstaSauce

    In this current day, it’s difficult to find “gangsta rap” on any shelves in America. There’s tons of “trap music”, “real hip hop” and “nu-west” but nearly no real “gangsta rap”. Reason is, we made it cool to do away with the togetherness that once was the heart and soul of the music. As far as it being minstrel, you tell me what musical genre isn’t a glorification, exaggeration or satirical rendition of the lifestyle it mimics? If Bubba can shoot the jukebox, why shouldn’t we be able to “shoulder lean”? If you need more proof, take a look at my site:

    • >>As far as it being minstrel, you tell me what musical genre isn’t a glorification, exaggeration or satirical rendition of the lifestyle it mimics?<<

      Hi Gangsta,

      Thanks for dropping by and offering your views on this. I'm not sure if I get the difference between trap, real hip hop, nu west and gangsta rap. I'll make it a point to do a more in depth review of your site to gain an understanding.

      Are musical genres glorification or satirical renditions of lifestyles? I suppose the question in my mind is what came first –the chicken or the egg? Is the music an imitation of the lifestyle or are the lifestyles imitations of the music? Aren't behaviors shaped by what's frequently suggested in popular entertainment and the media in general?

      Humans generally are open to suggestion, which is why certain colors, shapes and presentations are used in advertising generally. Frequently, the idea is to create a need or behavior where there wasn't one previously. Does music really operate any differently than advertising?

  • Tgreen324

    The way I see it, the comparison of gangsta rap to a minstrel show is completely far-fetched. Gangsta Rap and Hip Hop at its best is an art form that is supposed to trigger something within the thought process of American society. When an artist such as Ice Cube, who is popular in the gangsta rap culture, recites lyrics such as ” Life ain’t nothing but bitches and money”, he is basically calling out to American society and showing them the conditions and mindset in which he has instilled. Once lyrics such as that is said, it is now up to the American people to rethink and re-examine the conditions in which black and latino people live in. As far as minstrel shows in the past, minstrel shows was a clear-cut depition of blacks during that time in the most racist and stereotypical way possible. The caracitures in minstrel shows weren’t trying to trigger in the minds of others, it was just a racist and ignorant depiction. Yes, I understand that many of the people who consume hip hop are indeed white suburbans but when you at the conditions that plauge black urban America such as pimping, drugs, prostitution and negative perceptions on women, there getting more of an insight to the underbelly of America rather than entertainment from watching rappers sag their pants and drinking 40 oz. Don’t get me wrong, there are plently of artists who glamorize the lifestyle of the gangsta persona just for material gain but essentially, gangsta rap is meant to rearticulate  the troubles of the black urban lifestyle so that other facets of American culture can rethink their own misconceptions of what is  black life. It is merely a starting point to something that should be far more greater and genuine in the evolution of people.

    • TGreen,

      Thanks for dropping by and commenting.  I like to respond to every poster and visitor to my blog and an extremely busy work and personal schedule has kept me away for a few weeks.  Please accept my apologies for the delayed response to your comments.

      I don’t necessarily disagree with the notion that hip hop culture reflects the conditions that exist in many of our communities.  But when the monetary aspect is added to the art, what we wind up with is a glorification of those conditions rather than a political statement about them and what might be done about them.  The fact of the matter is that the glorification of those conditions is what sells the records and fills the coffers of the record companies and the artists.   Making political statements in the art, as frequently occurred in the 60’s, is not acceptable because it doesn’t make money. 

      Where the association with entertainment like the minstrel shows of old comes in at is in the economic and selling aspect of the culture.  Those economics tend to create a caricature because that’s what sells and in this sense, many of these guys are unwitting minstrel artists albeit better paid than the Stephen Fitchets of the world.  In both cases, other than enriching themselves, little is produced of redeeming quality for the African American community.  The economic structure of the set up ensures that doesn’t happen. 

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