The Rise of Black Alternative Culture

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It was within the halls of that lackluster American ritual called high school that I was taught by my peers that blackness could be a restrictive and rigid thing. In the early 2000s my predominantly black high school was replete with suede timberland boots the color of caramel, snapbacks and the crisp white leather of Airforce ones. These things in addition to a penchant for mainstream rap and a black vernacular infused with the slightest edge of Southern twang comprised the uniform mosaic of what it meant to be a black teenager.

Whenever I spoke, in my accent-less “standard” English other black kids either asked me where I was from or proclaimed: “you talk like a white girl!”

I remember talking with an acquaintance from an after-school program who insisted that being black meant “being ghetto.”

These years taught me that Black people did not listen to Brit pop or punk rock.

We used a particular kind of slang and spoke largely Ebonics. We watched BET exclusively.

We were not to be overly concerned with intellectual pursuits and academics. We did not wear skinny jeans, rock Sperrys or skateboard.

To do so would not only be uncool; it was also viewed as an attempt to imitate whiteness.

I found myself craving representations of people of color that departed from this narrative. The only respite I can remember was Pharrell Williams, who wore tight jeans, fitted t-shirts and went by the alias “Skateboard P.” Even though he stuck out like a sore thumb, he seemed comfortable amidst a sea of rappers who sported jeans three sizes too big and draped themselves in conflict diamonds.

There was also the late great Suede, a trailblazing publication geared toward a multicultural female audience that showed black women with jewel-toned faux-hawks, rocking natural hair before it was in and leading lives of art, culture, and affluence that I had not seen before.

Fast forward several years and I don’t really recall things changing much until some kid with a funny name who made beats for Shawn Carter stepped onto the scene with an album called The College Dropout. Kanye West’s pink polos and boat shoes seemed to herald a revolution in the way black youth represented themselves through fashion. Jeans became smaller, boys began to wear cardigans and bowties and soon dandyism pervaded black sensibilities of what was stylish. Even Lil Wayne began to adopt aspects of geek culture into his image and released a rock album in 2010.

Beyonce’s little sis became a fixture in the indie rock scene and broke with standard notions of black femininity in the music industry with her 2008 LP “Sol Angel and the Hadley Street Dreams.” A year later filmmaker Issa Rae made it cool to be awkward and black with her viral YouTube series. Afropunk went from being a documentary about the struggle of being black and a punk in America to a nationally-recognized music festival and website.

As I consider the rising popularity of cultural figures like Frank Ocean or Issa Rae, I celebrate what I believe to be a welcome shift in how mainstream black society defines itself. For me, the cultural changes ushered in by Kanye West and Issa Rae mean that black folks are increasingly shedding an impoverished sensibility of what being black really means.

We are allowing ourselves and other black people to assert the distinctiveness of their individual black experiences without qualifying those experiences.

African-American identity is being situated less in narrow musical tastes, specific fashion choices, and diction. I believe that we are grounding notions of blackness in pride in African ancestry, race consciousness and knowledge of the black men and women whose shoulders this generation stands upon.

I mean even 50 Cent, an artist who embodied the underbelly of street culture, has opted for suits and cuff links over baggy jeans and wife beaters.

Things have changed.

I think what I love most about being a black twenty-something woman in 2013 is that I feel more comfortable than I ever have defining my cultural identity in ways that shatter archaic preconceptions of what being black is really about.

In college I joined groups like "I Don't 'talk' White" on the then newly popular Facebook, finding solidarity with other black people who shared my experience. I waxed poetic about the Harlem Renaissance, gender relations and politics with college-educated young black people when I worked in Washington DC.

Today I embrace the fact that I am a black girl who has loved Greek Mythology and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poetry since she was in grade school. I no longer feel weird about the fact that I am as likely to blast “I Put on for My City” in my car as I am “Kissing the Lipless.”

I adore high fantasy, think Sir Ian McKellan’s Gandalf is the one of the best things to happen since sliced bread and once owned a large number of comic books.

I am grateful that interests like these are no longer persistently engaged as fodder to question mine and others’ allegiance to the black race. Rather they are experiences over which I can connect with other black folks who at one time were considered "unconventional" like me.

More and more disparate interests like mine seem to be accepted as fragments that comprise the mosaic of the black American experience.

Frantz Fanon wrote in Black Skin, White Masks: “I am black; I am in total fusion with the world, in sympathetic affinity with the earth…I am black, not because of a curse, but because my skin has been able to capture all the cosmic effluvia. I am truly a drop of sun under the earth.”

Blackness is incredibly vast, dynamic and complicated and I, for one, am glad that more black people are embracing this fact.


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Assita Camara is a writer residing somewhere below the Mason-Dixon. She writes about culture at her blog The Afro-Modernist and crafts prose about culture, herstory, and life at her philosophie. You can follow her tweets about music, poetry, and technology at @assitawrites

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