As chapter one, verse one of Timberlake’s solo career, it’s also ground zero for the (anticipation of a) post-racial future. If you recall his running for cover after 2004’s “Nipplegate,” it’s realpolitik when it comes to salvaging a livelihood. This serves as a baseline of Timberlake’s racial politics, which carries over to the trax in question. Holding “real love” in his hands, singer declares that Latinas “still deserve the crown” and, deep inside, are priceless princesses. We know this is all a canard (and racial pandering) to get laid by the end of the song. More importantly, though, it’s the faux updating of a multiracial call-and-response, which “they don’t do . . . anymore.” Structured, gendered girls/guys section takes the cake, with Timberlake’s affected black vernacular, condescending falsetto, and interruptions of the women half the time marking the furthest edge of allowable participation. The man who sings in line does no time.
In his 2014 State of the Union address, President Obama declared that a “defining project of our generation is to restore [the] promise” of “the notion that if you work hard and take responsibility, you can get ahead” despite the “accident of [your] birth.” With the introduction of the “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative, however, we’re encouraged to think structurally, from increased pre-school (“public savings” and a return on investment!) to “fair discipline practices” in schools and criminal court systems. Lest we think he’s appealing to crusty Baby Boomers in the former and white liberals/wonks in the latter, keep in mind that young men of color are a “drag on State and Federal budgets” that should be salvaged in order to “unlock their full potential.” (But as Michelle Obama points out, if her parents “did everything right,” their children would just “have a chance.” Slim odds, slimmer hopes.) Enter Chief Keef, avatar of Chicago lawlessness. There’s a whiff of racial discipline all around. Reviewers called his album everything from “irresponsible, unforgiving, and often infectious” to a representation of African American culture. How can young black and brown men account for themselves given these odds? Here, the trax flounders: snitches, whiners, pregnant women, wanna-be drug kingpins are all objects of derision. Then again, it’s also about cuckolding you. A monetization of the outlaw—both ways. Isn’t this what the whole conversation is about?
Verbal whipping of “niggers,” who are “everything but themselves” these days. Which is to say: American Blacks are degraded, violent, sex-obsessed, pimping fools, and need to be shocked into recognizing who they really are, if the Revolution is to come. Background drums make it crystal clear: these figures must recover their African roots, and get behind the beat. But where’s the Revolution in such disciplinary maneuvering? Or: if patrolled identity normativity is the pre-condition of Revolution, then the Revolution is everything but itself.
Tit for tat. Taqwacore groups, inspired by Michael Muhammad Knight’s novel, The Taqwacores (1993), are “bad Muslims” who have adopted punk’s love of “deliberately bad music, deliberately bad clothing, deliberately bad language and deliberately bad behavior.” In the novel, the band Vote Hezbollah (actually, it’s a Muslimgauze album title) writes a song called “Muhammad Was a Punk Rocker,” in which it is affirmed that the founder of Islam “tore everything down” and “rocked that town.” In reading this trax, therefore, from perhaps the best-known group inspired by MMK, it’s important to remember that the irony is laid on with a trowel. What’s under investigation here is a certain axiomatics: the Islamic-American singer claims to have had the “cops chase me out of my Mother’s womb,” and “my crib was in State Pen before age two.” After that, adding insult to injury, “the Feds had bugged my red toy phone.” Given this post-9/11 neo-internment of Muslim Americans, everything else falls right into place: the singer turns terrorist and his hyperbolics are astounding: he’ll cut off a hand from every American man, and take the president’s daughter into his harem in order to have his “brother” anally rape her, for example. Finally, there’s one more turn in this struggle or game of tit and tat: the trax’s historical background samples imply either that America will respond to the song’s threat of Sharia terrorism in such a way as to return us to the “duck and cover” mentality of the 1950s (note the trax’s shape as a stray cat strut), or that such a neo-Cold War mentality already governed the treatment of Arab Americans since at least the 1990s. If the latter is the case, then we’re truly caught in a vicious circle. But axiomatics are not destiny, and taqwacore bands prove that American immigrants from the Middle East are more likely to become satirists than terrorists. And that’s dangerous to every form of institutionalized axiomatic analysis.
Rapping’s not a “tribe,” but even if it was, it wouldn’t be “fancy” or adorned with the lust to enforce tribalisms. Impossible, but it’s the strategic maneuver that allows for agency: claiming minimal racial identity instead of having a “Romi-et-oh or Juliette romance story” over it. “No stunts,” “sorrow,” or “pity.”
The farmworker strike in the fields becomes interminable, as growers die and “another became a grandmother.” The picket sign an ongoing attachment (“with me all my life”), and even replacement for persons. Permanent resistance as cardboard-thin, flat refusal of the intolerable, without resort to subjects.
Purportedly part of the soundtrack for the alleged Malvo sniper shootings, professing the 5% knowledge of holy black masculinity. With only the mind “free,” dualism of war/peace favors the former in the mode of Black complacency/suicide; put another way, survival becomes a “revolutionary war” unto itself. Seeking the “black nation” that can be “absorb[ed]”; submerging the necessity of taking arms in order to purify, but never exceed, the white supremacist state. To mind, much more has been taken in the name of purity. The ballot in this formulation, though, is the bullet.
Overall strategy to document (and eventually attack) the hitch/delay: the “one” is muted (surrounded by two bass notes), main bass line hobbles before the “four,” and community is waiting for the “comer[s].” “Don’t wave your hand” if you’ve “been plugged in” to the white hierarchy; revolution through active unplugging—“Don’t let ’em do it”—to avoid distractions. Free-form guitar solo and main, picked riff (no hammer-ons) lay down the formula: attack the smooth, middle-class aspirations with stiff uppercuts. The fifteen-rounder doesn’t have to last a lifetime, but you better commit to going the distance.
It can be difficult to figure ragtime. On the one hand, it’s considered a gesture to classical music—especially marches—due to its fairly orthodox approach to form and rules of harmony. (Some, like Ann Charters, have even recorded the trax in question in a more “classical” style.) Another: it’s a more “refined,” hence more respectable, version of cakewalk and coon songs. It’s also positioned as a bridge music, conduit to jazz (or “African American classical music” in more aspirational nomenclature). The same problem surrounds this trax’s title. Does it mean unequaled? Not in a genealogical narrative. Unparalleled? Perhaps, though that would completely minimize how syncretic musics are. Incomparable may be the best translation, even though we can always hone a developmental narrative of Joplin’s works and American music more generally. Things may work best this way: racialized and admired, from the gutter and the opera house, out of a respectable tradition and emanating from brothels. African American expression as both a historical index of an unequaled and evolving white supremacy while also a singular sonic node that bleeds into others.