In high school, I was really into the work of Langston Hughes. I still am. My favorite book by Hughes is The Ways of White Folks, and my favorite essay would have to be "Bop."
I have been thinking about "Bop" lately, as it is a simple yet poignant dialogue between Hughes and a bebop enthusiast named Simple. In the brief exchange Langston is reactionary, questioning the significance of bebop music, ignorantly dismissing it as a pointless offshoot of scat. In reality, bebop is cleverly political. The "bop" is onomatopoeia, imitating the sound made when the police 'bop' black people on the head.
There's a black tradition of converting plight and angst into music with strong political connotations. Derivative of the slave hymns, jazz, rhythm and blues, ragtime, swing, bebop, and hip-hop all translate the suffering, struggle, and subjugation of African Americans, and have influenced what we now know as popular music. Bebop is especially political in nature: "Every time a cop hits a Negro with billy club, that old club says 'BOP! BOP!…BE-BOP!…MOP! BOP!'," Simple explains to Hughes. The playful sound of bebop is, in actuality, anger. Bebop grew out of violence against black people. Langston Hughes' feelings toward bebop—before he knew its significance—parallel today's anti-hip-hop sentiments, and for this reason, that essay is equally relevant today as it was back then.
There's a tendency to deny and discredit black contribution to the arts. This tendency is the reason that, for better or worse, Black History Month and BET have to exist. It's the reason Chuck Berry was never crowned the King of Rock 'n' Roll or given a fraction of the radio time that Elvis was. It's the reason old farts like my dad, and his white best friend from college (who I love dearly, and refer to as my uncle per my dad's request) think rap music lacks artistic merit. It's the reason some of my peers ironically listen to rap music, referring to it as guilty pleasure music, or worse, tuning it out completely, indicating that it is somehow not worthy of earnest appreciation. It's reason the Twin Cities has only one legitimate (albeit poorly funded) hip-hop station—KMOJ. And it's also the reason that many black people didn't get shouts outs in many of the end of the year art/lit/culture lists.
With this in mind, I present to you some important black artists to know about:
8. Flying Lotus
7. Poly Styrene
Someone other than Christopher Hitchens died of cancer in 2011: punk icon Poly Styrene. Styrene was half Somali, the lead singer of the punk band X-ray Spex, and unlike Hitchens, good for women.
6. Issa Rae
A graduate of Standford University, Issa Rae is a producer/director/writer best known for her popular web series, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl. Diablo Cody and Donald Glover are just some the series' celebrity fans—Donald even made a cameo in season finale.
(15:42 for Donald Glover cameo.)
5. Dodai Stewart
Dodai is smart, snarky, and pretty much the best thing the Gawker media blog, Jezebel, has going for itself.
4. Danielle Henderson
She created the Feminist Ryan Gosling meme, which is going to be a book soon. As the close friend of a person who had the misfortune of making it into Look At This Fucking Hipster, I get it: most blog-to-book deals are evil, thoughtlessly self-generating, and simplistic. Feminist Ryan Gosling is derivative of the Hey Girl meme, but it did something that meme didn't do: it tapped into the feminist zeitgeist. Any feminist blogger will tell you that when Ryan Gosling spoke out against rape culture in the film industry, clits rejoiced, so a blog-to-book deal about equality, and Ryan Gosling, is a not just a book deal, but a big deal.
3. Jayson Musson
Jayson Mussen is a genius and a legend. He has published funny things on Diplo's Mad Decent blog, he's one half of the rap group Little Plastic (which has collaborated with the likes of Amanda Blank and Spank Rock), he did the whole text-based art thing before Internet Poetry founder Steve Roggenbuck, he's the brilliant mind behind the popular vlog series Art Thoughtz, and best of all, he painted this:
2. Toyin Odutola
Nigerian-born artist Toyin Odutola recently illustrated rapper K'naan's New York Times piece Returning to Somalia, but she was a big deal before that. Odutola has garnered thousands of fans on Tumblr, making her one of the microblogging platform's most popular artists.
1. Roxane Gay
As an assistant professor of English, co-editor of Pank, and a regular contributor to HTMLGIANT and The Rumpus, Roxane Gay wins the Internet nearly every single day. Roxane Gay's first collection, Ayiti, published by Artistically Declined Press, was released in 2011. Ayiti, described as a "unique blend of fiction, nonfiction and poetry, all interwoven to represent the Haitian diaspora experience," has garnered rave reviews, further validating Roxane's brilliance.
Roxane inspired me to write this list after I read this.