Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Death of the Critic

Here's the paper I presented last night at the USC Annenberg School for Communication's round-table discussion on "The Death of the Critic." (Click here and here to get a quick idea of who was on the panel and what its goals were.) I wrote this piece about twenty minutes before my ride (my friend, the lovely & funny Lorraine Ali) picked me up so it's not as developed as I might have wished, but it got a pretty decent response from the crowd.

The Death of the Critic
USC; September 24 2008
By Ernest Hardy

      The thing that most interests me about this panel topic is a question that’s playing out on many fronts in America right now: What happens when resources dwindle and opportunities become scarce, when fear is stoked by diminishing outlets and fewer players on the field? As it turns out, we’re seeing the answer unfold in political, cultural and business sectors. To put it another way, when you look across the field of music criticism right now, in both the mainstream and the allegedly alternative press, you could well be watching a tape of the recent Republican presidential convention. It’s a whole bunch of whiteness and maybe a speck of color on the fringe. It’s as though Pitchfork fucked Vice and now their smug, smarmy progeny are building new plantations atop the rapidly eroding topsoil of access and cultural power. And to continue with the plantation metaphor, the slave shacks of the internet – blogs such as those by Oliver Wang and Jay Smooth; sites such as SoulBounce, with its fusion of passion and intelligence, knowledge and playfulness; and those hip-hop sites that make you want to bash your own head in from the ignorance displayed, but then will dazzle you with a post of such poetic insight that you want to pen a fan letter – those slave shacks are where the music and the criticism are still jumping.
     When I started writing almost 25 years ago, Greg Tate, Nelson George, Lisa Kennedy and countless people of color who were the peers and disciples of Tate, Nelson and Kennedy were making serious, map-shifting inroads into the world of music criticism. We have since devolved, moved backwards. There needs to be serious conversation about the relationship between marketplace volatility and contraction, and who’s then left standing as cultural gatekeepers when shit turns tight. This conversation, of course, is rooted in long problematic issues of representation and privilege in newsrooms, on mastheads, on editorial boards. It’s rooted in long problematic issues of whiteness being at the center of “journalistic standards” and the process of career-building. Because the real problem, much like with the Republican Party, isn’t just the low and shrinking number of people of color; it’s in the mindset that makes the erasure of some and the elevation of others so reflexive and natural as to go barely noticed or commented upon except by those being squeezed out, and their voices are very easily dismissed, their perspectives are undervalued in the first place. That mindset is the old and reigning filter through which much of the criticism written by people of color (those who can even still get writing gigs) is processed, resulting not only in diluted analysis and commentary, but in commentary that circles back to actually re-inscribe a racially privileged status quo and world-view that we should all be dismantling.
     I had a conversation with the great Greg Tate earlier this year in which he observed that many Black folk who in the ‘70s and ‘80s would have been poets and novelists are now going into academia because they have more freedom and possibility to come into their own as creative critical thinkers. I would suggest that the same is true for folks who at one time would have been music or film critics. That’s all great for the world of academia, its various journals and university presses, but it leaves a debilitating and collectively retarding void in mainstream cultural discourse.
     This is America’s fork-in-the-road moment, and the much vaunted “change” has to come about on multiple fronts. I’m often asked by young aspiring critics of color what steps they should take to make it. My first instinct is always to tell them to step in some other direction altogether, for their own sake. Everything is in transition right now and no one has any idea where we’re headed or how we’ll get there. It’s a dicey time for everyone – regardless of race, gender, whatever. But in terms of diversity of voices, politics, perspectives and style, it’s more precarious for some than others. And we’re already seeing what the absence of those multiple voices and perspectives can lead to. I’m not just talking about colored folks having bylines. I’m talking about the texture and vitality of criticism itself. Modern music criticism such as we get in the daily papers, glossy monthlies and fake-alternative weeklies is largely lacking in that vitality. And I don’t want to be the one who discourages a potential Obama, Kucinich, or McKinney of criticism – be they Black, Asian, Latino, Arab, male, female, gay, lesbian, trans-gender mulatto – I don’t want to be the one to step on their dream and the possibility of them pushing this shit into the 21st century, and possibly even pulling it back into relevance.


My upcoming speaking dates:

A Conversation on Black Culture and Criticism in the Arts

Speakers: Ernest Hardy and Esther Iverem
Sunday, September 28, 2008
1:30pm - 2:30pm
Baltimore Book Festival
CityLit Stage, Mt. Vernon Place, 600 block N. Charles St.
Baltimore, MD

Audre Lorde Project and Brecht Forum presents...
Ernest Hardy reading from Blood Beats: Vol. 2, moderated by Kenyon Farrow
Wednesday, October 1, 2008
7:00pm - 9:30pm
Audre Lorde Project
85 South Oxford St.
Brooklyn, NY

Robin's Bookstore, Philly
Friday, October 3, 2008
6:00pm - 8:00pm
Robin's Bookstore
108 South 13th St.
Philadelphia, PA

Buy my books here or:

Order directly from my publisher:

1) Mail your order and a money order or cashier’s check to:

Redbone Press
PO Box 15571
Washington, D.C 2003

2) Phone in your order at: 202.667.0392 (Fax is 301.559.5239)
3) Redbone email is: info@redbonepress.com

2 comments:

Ana-Maurine Lara said...

Because the real problem, much like with the Republican Party, isn’t just the low and shrinking number of people of color; it’s in the mindset that makes the erasure of some and the elevation of others so reflexive and natural as to go barely noticed or commented upon except by those being squeezed out, and their voices are very easily dismissed, their perspectives are undervalued in the first place.

Truth to Power, Ernest!

Slav Kandyba said...

Ernest -
It was great to meet you last night in person. Everything you said above obviously comes from the heart and soul, and I'll take it as such. I think to remedy the situation about the dearth of Black writers is to speak to college students. Not just any college student, but those in departments such as Pan-African Studies at Cal State Northridge. To be even more specific, I can put you in touch with Dr. Karin Stanford, who teaches "Politics of Hip-Hop" in that department, and runs the Hip-Hop Think Tank, a nonprofit that publishes a quarterly journal with academic essays. She and her students want to enter the mainstream, perhaps they can learn from your path and that of those who you draw inspiration from (Tate, George).
As I said yesterday, I respect your hustle.

Peace,
Slav Kandyba