Questlove On Cool: "How Hip-Hop Failed Black America" Pt. III
Questlove on cool from Miles Davis to Lorde in pt. 3 of his "How Hip-Hop Failed Black America" essays for Vulture
Questlove returns with Part 3 (Revenge of The Jedi? it damn sure ain't the last crusade...) of his essay series for Vulture, which details "How Hip-Hop Failed Black America." The third in the intellectual franchise (Read Part 1 and Part 2 here) this is my favorite so far. First off, Professor Questo's exposition of the attitudinal thread that connects Miles Davis (seen demonstrating the "forehead freeze" above), Muhammad Ali, Richard Pryor, Billie Holiday, Angela Davis and Prince is about as close to a manifesto for Okayplayer as I can think of; an excellent definition the often hard-to-define quality that connects the artists we cover from Aaron Neville to THEESatisfaction. Secondly, these bold-face names are mostly a wire frame upon which to hang an intelligent discussion of that what's happened to that precious quality--in a word, cool--from a man who knows the subject well and can back his musings up with both accurate assessment of the lyrical impact of Lorde's "Royals" and the theories of Roland Barthes. Personally, this is the type of shit I could read (and argue about) all day. In fact, I could go on off on a nut right now about how cool may be a classical societal and artistic value--on par in certain West African traditions with the status that catharsis or hubris held for the Greeks--but you should just order a copy of Robert Farris Thompson's book Flash Of The Spirit and then read Questlove's essay below. You'll be cooler for it. -ed.
Can I start this essay by asking a rhetorical question? Have you heard of black cool? It used to be something ineffable but indisputable. Certain African-American cultural figures — in music, in movies, in sports — rose above what was manifestly a divided, unjust society and in the process managed to seem singularly unruffled. They kept themselves together by holding themselves slightly apart, maintaining an air of inscrutability, of not quite being known. They were cool.
Who did this idea adhere to? People are welcome to make lists of their own, but there are some examples that we can all agree upon. Miles Davis was cool. Betty Davis was. Muhammad Ali was cool, and Richard Pryor was, and Lena Horne, and Billie Holiday, and Jimi Hendrix, and Sly Stone, and Angela Davis, and Prince. Early hip-hop had several contenders for cool, from Run-DMC to Public Enemy. And black cool, when it comes right down to it, is everyone’s cool. The baseline of the concept, in vernacular terms, in historical terms, is black. Black is the gold standard for cool, and you don’t need to look any further than the coolest thing of the last century, rock and roll, to see the ways in which white culture clearly sensed that the road to cool involved borrowing from black culture. But black cool is at a crossroads, unless it’s at the end of the road. The dynamics that historically produced black cool within the American landscape have shifted, allowing some things to be pushed to the side and others to fall through the cracks.
You can tell something’s missing when you see people trying to find it. A few years back, the writer Rebecca Walker oversaw an anthology called, as luck would have it, Black Cool. Inspired by a photo of Barack Obama climbing out of a limousine, she invited dozens of writers to reflect on the phenomenon of black cool. They made a variety of arguments regarding a variety of examples. Mat Johnson wrote about black geeks. Rachel M. Harper wrote about how her artist father taught by example that pain, released, produced cool. When I read through the book, I locked into an essay by Helena Andrews. It’s called “Reserve,” Andrews’s piece, and it’s about the mask that black women learn to wear as girls. She imagines a black woman moving through a city, negotiating the looks of others on the subway.
She seems to be doing more than everyone else by doing so much less. Your eye is drawn to her. She acknowledges your presence by ignoring it. She is the personification of cool by annihilating your very existence.
What drew me to Andrews was these four sentences, which articulated, in a different way (gender-specific, subway-specific), something that I have thought about black cool for a long time, which is that it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Black cool is part of society in general, part of white society. Black cool is the tip of African-American culture’s engagement with the broader white culture. Black cool only works the way it works because it’s part of a relationship. Look at Andrews’s scene more closely. The woman, getting attention, rejects that attention, and as a result gets more attention. Cool has an additional dimension, too, which is that it buys time. In an uncertain social situation, where the wrong decision can have disastrous consequences, cool lets you stay a beat behind while you settle on the path of least destruction. Taken to the extreme, cool can be sociopathic; taken to the right levels, it’s a supremely intelligent mix of defense mechanism and mirroring.
The idea of withholding attention is central to most human interaction, of course: The person with less interest in any relationship has the upper hand. But go wider. In talking about cool here, we’re not just talking about a man and a woman on a subway. We’re talking about a black culture and a white culture, a subculture within a mainstream culture. Any of the figures of black cool we mentioned above (Miles, Hendrix, etc.) simultaneously drew the gaze of white cultural observers and thwarted that gaze. They acted in ways that weren’t entirely predictable to white audiences, weren’t entirely safe or regulated, and that prolonged and deepened the attachment. When you looked at a picture of Miles Davis, you knew that you didn’t know what he was thinking, and that kept you looking. The dialogue between black and white cultures stayed alive and vibrant, full of productive tension.
Let’s go back to the word: cool. Cool doesn’t mean a lack of temperature, exactly. It doesn’t mean low affect or indifference. It means cool heat, intensity held in check by reserves of self-possession. Cool is social engagement masquerading as a kind of disengagement. As a result, in any display of cool, there is a slight hint of threat. What if the mask is lifted and the heat released? That threat can be physical or sexual or intellectual, but it’s always felt. Look: That person has power that he or she is not using. Think: What will happen if he or she uses it? React: I don’t exactly know, but I better keep watching to find out. (To step away from black cool for one second into the broader concept of cool, it’s worth noting that reserve is less possible than ever. Think of John F. Kennedy. During his life, there was a gentleman’s agreement to protect his privacy and the office of the president. That permitted cool. These days, privacy has been melted down. Social networking, instant journalism, and culture of humiliation have turned the private-public dynamic more inside out than a Clippers jersey. That hurts cool in general.)
But what happens when the broader culture stops looking at black culture for cues, or clues? What happens when the very idea that black culture contains something different and distinctive dissipates? A song like Lorde’s “Royals” critiques one version of hip-hop’s values, Cristal and Maybachs and gold teeth, and while it’s reductive in some ways, it’s also instructive, because it shows how the signifiers of hip-hop culture (which has swallowed black culture in general)have lost much of their cool. They’ve emptied themselves out and don’t know how to fill back up...