On Tuesday night, when the nightly newscast I watch cut to Doug Jones’ campaign headquarters with the breaking news of his victory, the people on the floor waving posters were bouncing to a crunk beat and the demonic bellowing of Lil Jon. What a perfectly odd American moment.
2017 has been a lot of things, most of them incredibly dispiriting, but it is also the first year on record, according to a Neilson Soundscan consumer report, that hip hop and R&B are more popular than rock music. So it isn’t necessarily odd that you would see a room full of southern Democrats bouncing to a crunk beat; it could be seen as just one more surreal moment in a surreal year.
But let’s peel back a few more layers of this onion just so this diversion stings the eyes a little more. Lil Jon, the owner of that demonic bellow and creator of the crunk genre, was once a contestant on the Celebrity Apprentice. In one episode, he dressed up in an Uncle Sam suit. Donald Trump, the host of the show, whose only tie to the White House at that time were his demands to see the president’s birth certificate, apparently called Lil Jon an Uncle Tom. No one is sure if Trump had confused Uncle Sam with Uncle Tom, if he was just using an expression without understanding its implications, or if he was just being racist, brash and insensitive. It doesn’t really matter. All of the options are awful.
Think about it for just a second: it is conceivable that the president of the United States doesn’t know the difference between Uncle Sam and Uncle Tom. It makes you want to just hang your head.
So here we are, in this incredible moment. We are living through the apotheosis of black musical culture while simultaneously living through a presidency that has exposed the pervasive nature of white supremacy, overt and covert, in American society. White southern Democrats dance to crunk music in the city that, over 50 years ago, came to embody the racial divide in American life. It was then the city of George Wallace, the white southern Democrat who said in his inaugural speech “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
I had just assumed that if any state was going to stand for the metaphorical heart of America in 2017 it would be Florida. Post-recount, post-subprime, post-Trayvon and stand-your-ground and Pulse Nightclub, Florida seemed tailor-made to provide the country with the raw material for an existential morality play.
Alabama, it turns out, has all the right ingredients too. Religion. Sexual predation. The second amendment.
It was also the terrestrial home of Herman Blount who you probably know as Sun Ra. I remember reading a description once of Birmingham the year Sun Ra was born. After describing the city, the most racial divided in America, the author, in an attempt to make Sun Ra’s strange astral mythology a little more earth bound, reminded the reader that if you were black in Birmingham you might as well have been from outer space.
Sun Ra was a visionary bandleader; he crafted an Astro Black Mythology; his band dressed in robes that were equal parts Egyptian fantasy and Buck Rogers; his music straddled the world of Ellington, free jazz, funk, and the blip-blop tones of early synthesizers. Ra was one of the originators of Afrofuturism.
Afrofuturism wasn’t a name or concept applied by Sun Ra, but an academic concept from the ‘90s. The cultural critical view is summed up nicely on wikipedia: “In an interview, Alondra Nelson explained Afrofuturism as a way of looking at the subject position of black people which covers themes of alienation and aspirations for a utopic future. The idea of “alien” or “other” is a theme often explored.”
I’m going to suggest something a little radical and propose that we use this concept for our discussion of Lo Lifes. It wasn’t just that the clothes you were making in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s were futuristic, high tech, and full of space age fabrics that makes me want to connect these two seemingly opposite subcultures; the world of Ralph Lauren was as far from Crown Heights and Marcus Garvey village as those Brooklyn neighbourhoods were from Saturn.
The original Lo Lifes didn’t need to create elaborate interstellar mythologies to access distant worlds, they could get on the subway, hit Macy’s and come back home in a single afternoon. They returned from these boosting journeys with P Wing Sweaters, Stadium windbreakers, American flag and Chief Head sweaters, with down-filled ski coats and silk scarves.
When I first read about and saw pictures of Lo Lifes I wanted to read it as an inversion story, as a sartorial version of Depression-era outlaws grabbing whatever piece of the American pie they could updated for the Hip Hop generation in the age of consumer capitalism. But something about this reading just didn’t square with how deeply radical Lo Lifes felt. It was more than a kid from the Bronx making tweed jackets. It wasn’t that kind of American story.
I didn’t realize until recently, when all this talk of Alabama got me thinking about Sun Ra and Afrofuturism, that Lo Life culture offered the same utopian-based critique of the present as interstellar travel. It says, at one and the same time, this is what our life could be and this is what it is. In that sense, it isn’t like the Ralph Lauren story; it isn’t a climbing story, something that by the end of the crack decade must have seemed impossible for black youths. It was about saying here I am and looking fucking fantastic doing it.
Hope your well,