Wednesday, November 26, 2008

White Midwestern Hip Hop…Get Down On It

I went out to see Atmosphere on October 27th with James at the Royal Oak Music Theater. It was not a research related event, I just wanted to surprise my husband with a fun hip hop show. We have both been fans of Atmosphere for years, and other artists on the Rhymesayers label. They are a hip hop duo, Slug is the MC and Ant is the DJ. They are from Minneapolis, MN and are white men in their mid 30s. They have been making music for about ten years and tour nationally frequently. I don't know if they tour outside of the US. The Royal Oak Music Theater is in Royal Oak, one of Detroit's many middle to upper class suburbs. We have seen Atmosphere in Bloomington, IN, in Chicago, IL, and now here, and the crowd is consistently made up of young white people, mainly men, with a few people of color scattered around. That's how the show was in Royal Oak. Tickets were $20, so it was not cheap, but it was not as high as a lot of other mainstream performers are trying to charge lately. While there is some ethnic and racial diversity in Detroit's suburbs, Royal Oak, and surrounding suburbs are primarily white in population and that was evident in the crowd.

Atmosphere had three other band members with them, an African American man on keyboards, a white man on electric guitar, and an African American woman vocalist. The music was excellent. The three new members played parts of songs on their instruments that had previously been played using vinyl in past performances. The music was excellent and the crowd was live. It was such a fun show. One thing that really struck me is how moved Slug was by the crowd. He really seemed genuinely surprised by the excitement and energy that was coming from the fans: people screaming and yelling, hands in the air, fans singing lyrics, it was really intense. A number of times Slug spoke to the audience commenting on how great Detroit was, how great the people from Detroit were, how much he loved Detroit. He did not say Royal Oak, he said Detroit. Now Detroit is a weird place in this regard –people from Metropolitan Detroit (meaning surrounding suburbs + Detroit) claim they are from Detroit when talking to someone from outside this region, regardless of whether or not they actually venture south of 8 Mile Road and east of Southfield Hwy (the major roads that form Detroit's city limits).

After writing this last paragraph, I took a break and James told me about a song on an Eminem hip hop album that is about this issue. There is apparently a song on it in which he raps about people being from this area and never driving past 10 Mile Road, which is still a good two miles from Detroit's city limits. I have yet to carefully listen to the song to hear what he says, but I thought it was really interesting. For those who might not know, Eminem is a rapper from Detroit, did a movie called 8 Mile about hip hop in Detroit – which is a pretty intense scene from what I hear from some of the DJs I have spoken with here.

So, back to Atmosphere, Slug, who is not from here and probably doesn't know about the economic, racial, and ethnic dynamics of the Detroit Metro area, was clearly impressed with Detroiters. I have no way of knowing how many people in the crowd were actually from the city of Detroit. However, the majority of people in the crowd were white, like 99% of the people. Detroit's African American population as of the 2000 US census was 81%. The crowd seemed to represent suburban Detroit and neighboring Ann Arbor. I mention Ann Arbor because at one point during the show, Slug mentioned The Blind Pig club in Ann Arbor, and lots of kids yelled. These issues are extremely important to the multitude of experiences of living in and around Detroit. There have been many times I have heard about people refusing to go into Detroit because of the supposed dangers of it. They even avoid going to places like the Detroit Historical Museum which housed the exhibit "Techno: Detroit's Gift to the World" a few years ago. A panelist on a conference that I organized at Indiana University, October 2006, called "Roots of Techno: Black DJs and the Detroit Scene," mentioned this issue. She was a co-curator of the exhibit at the Detroit Historical Museum and explained the tendency of suburban residents choosing to not attend such exhibits, or to not frequent Detroit museums and other public institutions because they do not want to go into the city. Fear keeps people out. Interestingly, a DJ explained to me in an informal conversation that he doesn't like to go past 8 Mile Road in the other direction because it pisses him off – the wealth, the waste, the fear, etc., meaning he prefers to stay within Detroit's city limits. I love hearing comments and stories like that because it gives power and agency to people in Detroit, and to the city itself. Public recognition of the greatness of the city of Detroit is a really important thing. Another DJ has told me that when he plays in certain suburbs, kids have told him that they don't even go past 15 Mile Road because it's all the "ghetto" down there. Now there is an obscene amount of wealth throughout Oakland County, certainly between 15 Mile and 8 Mile. Oakland County is the county I live in. Detroit is in Wayne County. Oakland Co. contains many of Detroit's suburbs. There was an Oakland Co. government official, don't know who, speaking on MSNBC over the weekend about the bailout of the auto companies in Detroit. One thing he said is that Oakland County is one of the wealthiest counties in the country. After hearing that, everything that I see around me started to make sense. I live in Oakland Co. very close to Detroit. Anywhere I go in Oakland County, the types of cars I see on the road are surprisingly high end, expensive cars. The neighborhoods that we go through when driving around Oakland Co. are often wealthier neighborhoods with large houses, multiple expensive cars in the driveway, and large yards. It makes sense that Oakland County is one of the wealthiest in the country.

Now for Detroit, there certainly is a lot of poverty, suffering, and neglect in Detroit. And as a result, there is a lot of crime in Detroit. But that does not mean that the city as a whole, the population of the city, the art and culture of the city, education in the city, all of this deserves to be abandoned by the outside population. Detroit is a thriving, fascinating, beautiful city. And I write that and say that as a political act of advocacy for this city. But more importantly, I really believe it. People who live in Detroit often are filled with pride for their city. The public institutions like the library, art, history, and science museums. Theaters and concert halls, sports arenas, public art, there is so much in Detroit to be excited about and be impressed by. It's not an empty, dead city. You can't drive for miles and not see anyone, unless you are only looking for wealthy white people, then you might be missing all the people who don't fit that description on the sidewalks of the city. You might imagine Detroit as a desolate, ugly, nasty wasteland. I don't. So to hear Slug of Atmosphere make such wonderful exclamations about Detroit and Detroiters is strange and confusing and conflicting and exciting all at the same time.

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