The first time writer and critical thinker Touré saw The Roots perform, they were an unknown band that called themselves The Square Roots. The group was playing at Philly’s Painted Bride Art Center, a self-described “risk-taking and innovative presenter of the arts”—a space that seemed fitting for what they were doing. The Square Roots wrapped their take on hip-hop up in musicality, and the MC acted like an instrument, blurring the tension between the rap and the beat. In turn the drummer took his rhythms to any available surface, moving off stage and steadily around the room until he was back on stage again. Touré was taken. “There was a very clear intellectualism to them,” he says, “they were all self-consciously brilliant guys who had studied music very intensely.” Touré’s own curiosity lodged him into the history of the Roots, and he became the first person to ever interview the band.
Over the years, Touré has expanded his significance beyond just his knack for picking winners and his success in building a public profile without having to tell anyone his last name. He’s a TV personality and the host of two Fuse TV shows, Hip Hop Shop and On The Record, a cultural critic, a journalist, and an author (there is a difference). His latest endeavor is Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?, a book released last week by Simon & Schuster, which sees him explore what it means to be Black today. At the heart of Touré’s book, co-signed by intellectual powerhouse Michael Eric Dyson, is the notion of post-blackness, which Dyson describes in the foreword as being embodied by Barack Obama: “Rooted in, but not restricted by, his blackness.”
Post-blackness posits that black identity is fluid, and that there is an infinite amount of ways to be black. “I would like, through this book, to attack and destroy the idea that there is a correct or legitimate way of doing blackness,” Touré states in his first chapter. He does so by consulting over 100 brilliant minds that he collected during interviews with individuals from academic, political and cultural arenas, including Chuck D, Santigold, Talib Kweli, Lupe Fiasco, and of course his old friend, ?uestlove.
Touré unpacks a lot in Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?, and it would be foolish to attempt a discussion of all of those topics here. Instead, for Okayplayer’s interview with Touré, we honed in on music—namely, hip-hop—and how he sees it functioning within what he considers to be the current post-Black era.
Okayplayer: What is the role of the post-Black musician?
Touré: For one thing, I don’t think there is a post-Black musician and a non-post-Black musician, or a post-Black person and a non-post-Black person. I feel like we’re in a post-Black era, where the freedom to do and be anything you want, in terms of identity, is here. If you choose to take advantage of it or not, that’s on you. But there is the opportunity to be someone like Santigold, who is bringing in new wave, post-punk, as well as dancehall, electronica, hip-hop sounds and creating a whole mélange that is entirely different and new. Or to be TV On The Radio, a really hardcore, brilliant rock band, or to be the Roots and pushing hip-hop in a new direction, or to be Kanye or Kid Cudi or Childish Gambino, and not being afraid or ashamed of being middle class. ‘Cause hip-hop has always been the hegemony of the working class, and the coolest kids in school are the guys who’ve come from nothing. And finally, building in the lead of De La Soul and others like them, now we have a large group of guys who are like, “Hey, I’m middle class.” Now we have an expansion of the sorts of identity choices that get to get on stage and get loved, and an expansion of the sorts of sounds that guys are able to work with.
OKP: Let’s talk more about that in relation to hip-hop. What are your thoughts on the way it operates within this post-Black era?
T: One of the things that I noticed is that in hip-hop, we started out with a somewhat one-note vision of what it means to be black—and I’m going back to early ‘80s hip-hop. It was a working class man who’s straight, who’s on the come up; he’s trying to make some money; he’s tough; street-wise; he’s a New Yorker.
Now the expression of what it means to be black via hip-hop is extremely broad. We come from multiple classes, from all the areas of America. Hip-hop’s answer to “What does it mean to be black?” has become far, far more complex than it was in the ‘80s—look at Kanye and Jay-Z, with two entirely different backgrounds. Then you look at Andre 3000 and Lauryn Hill, and the gay underground hip-hop rappers who exist, who are not mainstream, but who express who they are and their world view through hip-hop. So that’s very interesting to me, how it’s become much more complex—the vision of black identity that hip-hop presents as a whole to the world. However it’s still not nearly as complex and varied as the whole of blackness actually is.
OKP: Do you think there’s still a preoccupation in hip-hop with street cred? That ties into talking about the hierarchy of black authenticity, which elevates the hood to the center of Blackness, which you mention in your book.
T: Within hip-hop yes, the hood is very [whispers] sexy, still very cool, it’s an immediate credibility thing, it’s an immediate cool factor, immediate respect thing. It’s still this massive figure hovering over hip-hop. I’m just pleased that as we move forward, people aren’t discredited immediately because they’re not hood. I think that is a huge step forward culturally and sociologically for hip-hop culture.
OKP: How about an artist like Kreayshawn and her position in hip-hop. Does this relate to post-Blackness at all?
T: No, I would not say that. I think that it’s endemic of this era that you see white people who feel like black culture belongs to them as well, and they can take it and use it in whatever way they want to… I mean Kreayshawn in particular is an interesting example, because as opposed to Eminem, she is a poor creator of the music and not a good rapper. I don’t think she’s really skilled in music as a creator at this point, like someone like Eminem who is an excellent creator of hip-hop music, and an excellent rapper who’s learned the skill of MCing and taken it to an elite level. But for both of them, it never occurred to them that they could never do this, and I do think that this is endemic of where we are today.
I remember when The Big Chill came out, this movie I think it was the early ‘80s, and I think a lot of black people were shocked when it came out, when all these white people thought that Motown was their legacy, and was part of their cultural story—that it belonged to them as well. We knew that Motown was crossover, but there was this kind of shock like, “Oh my god, this is our music,” but no, they thought it was their music as well. Hip-hop would never have that. We would never have this moment where we’re like, “Oh my god all these white people love hip-hop so much,”—we knew that from day one.
OKP: Are you optimistic about the future of hip-hop?
T: Absolutely I am. I see new artists rising up. I see a strong underground. I see a strong mainstream. I see artists like Danny Brown, Jay Electronica, Childish Gambino I love, Big K.R.I.T. is doing really interesting things with southern, soulful hip-hop, there are a lot of really interesting things going on, and guys coming up. There’s an extraordinarily amount of good, interesting powerful hip-hop being created, and when people say that hip-hop is dead, they’re just being really lazy. It’s an easy, provocative thing to say, but it’s not true at all.