Marcus might have made his task simpler if he simply asked: "what is hip?" John Leland did that with better results. John Leland's Hip: The History is the sort of book I like to read on the bus, the portentous social study of an eternal essence that makes the reader of the book appears, well, Hip. This is the perfect book for the pop culture obsessive who wonders, indeed worries, and frets over the issue as to whether white musicians can become authentic blues musicians or whether Caucasian jazz musicians have added anything of value to the jazz canon besides gimmick.
What we have with Hip is what Greil Marcus has been attempting to do for decades, which is write a coherent narrative of the margins of American culture, descendants of slaves and the children of immigrant parents, coalesced in ways in which each other's style and manner intermingled even if the respective races did not. The grace moment in history is that some beautiful things emerged from all this borrowing, posturing, and tension, the jazz, rock and roll, and a genuine American literary vernacular; the tragedy is that it took generations of racism and violence to produce the historical conditions for these vital arts to emerge. The question of Hip furnishes the theme that brings Leland's sources together--what appears is the story of two races that cannot live together and cannot be apart.
Leland, a reporter for the New York Times, has done his research and brings together the regular doses of cultural anthropology, literature, and, of course, music to bear on this sweeping, if the unsettled account as to what "hip" is and how it appears to have developed over time. Most importantly, he concentrates on the lopsided relationship between black and white, each group borrowing each other's culture and suiting them for their individual needs; in the case of black Americans, rising from slavery as free people in a racist environment, Hip was an ironic manner, a mode of regarding their existence on the offbeat, a way to keep the put upon psyche within a measure of equilibrium. For the younger white hipsters, in love with black music and style, it was an attempt to gain knowledge, authenticity, and personal legitimacy through a source that was Other than what a generation felt was their over-privileged and pampered class. Leland's range is admirable and does a remarkable job of advancing his thesis--that is the framework of what we consider. The Hip is a way in which both races eye each other warily--and is sensitive to the fact that for all the attempts of white artists and their followers to cultivate their own sound style from their black influences, the white hipsters are never far from blackface minstrelsy. For all the appropriation, experimentation, and various perversions of black art that have emerged over the decades, there are only a few men and women who've attained the stature of their African American heroes, people who, themselves, were the few among the many.
It would seem that an especially troublesome tract from the recently belated Norman Mailer's writings will be his essay The White Negro, published in Dissent in 1957 and later included in his landmark 1959 collection Advertisements for Myself. In a rough paraphrase, Mailer argues that whites need to emulate some of the jazz-inflected styles of black Americans, whom, he said, had developed an attitude, a lived philosophy in the face of the violence they face daily solely because they are black. Mailer placed a good amount of hope that the Beats might evolve in the Caucasian mind. Authenticity,a self rooted in primal reality and not lodged in a language-locked template was the goal. Mailer's assertions, to be sure, came under attack, not the least of the asides being that he was taking something of an exotic and racist view of the lives of black people. The misgivings are understandable.
Some of what Mailer said in the essay was embraced by some in the black community. Eldridge Cleaver, another man, obsessed with the metaphysics of personal violence as a response against Institutional violence, cited him favorably in his book Soul on Ice; Cleaver, though, was doubtlessly trying to rationalize the rapes he was convicted of as being political acts rather than demonstrations of pathology or, further, that the pathology itself was a result to being oppressed. It's a slippery slope, as Mailer realized. Horrible as it was, Mailer never used his stabbing of his wife Adele as an example of How-To-Be-A-White-Negro; his treatment of violence in later books was more measured, weary. All the same, the ethos of hip-hop and rap culture endorses Mailer's assertion that black Americans have authenticity and knowledge that the white community cannot have because of the fact that they live with an intimate, daily, as-is knowledge of violence as something that saturates their existence, that it might be visited upon them at any instance merely because of the color of their skin; many rappers, in principle, might agree with Mailer as well that the edgy style of hip hop is a result of their being forced to exist at the margins of the culture. Mailer writes that a significant reason that black American culture developed the way it did was in response to the racist violence that might befall them at any moment on any day. This was knowledge of violence whites did not and could not know. Mailer argued and postulated further that the cultivation of the style he wrote about, complete with its violent elements, was a canny response to the brutality that faced them. Mailer thought that whites ought to emulate the style of black culture to live more "authentically"; in either case, what Mailer talks about in the essay is that one is confronted with having to make a conscious choice in how one confronts stultifying conformity and Statist oppression. He does not argue for anything "intrinsic" in human beings and argues through the essay that one must deal with the consequences of their action. What he saw in the urban black culture of the time was a particularly acute style and manner that could accommodate and hone the violent impulse and use the energy to a more creative purpose. This presents all sorts of problems for intellectuals and gullible whites (and blacks) attracted by the flashy density of Mailer's writing. Still, it should be noted as well that Mailer modified his pronouncements. Mailer, believe it or not, matured.Mailer, I think, though he had found a magic bullet of sorts with black style and how a younger, urban youth had adopted it and used it as a means to achieve a truthful existence in a violent world without the need of pure abstraction.