“Everything about being indie is tied to not being Black”—says Micah (Wyatt Cenac), the central character in “Medicine for Melancholy,” a 2008 film produced by indie director, Berry Jenkins. Micah makes a keen, yet tattered observation. Yes, the ideology of the ‘hipster’ nation—an “imagined network” of aesthetically daring youth—disavows mainstream Black culture (i.e. rap music, slang, stereotypical garb, etc.), commonly addressing the issue of race in ironic jest, stylish appropriation, or the naive assumption that we live in a “post-racial society.” These factors, however, should not require an African American to expunge his heritage in-exchange for the opportunity to test the limits of his wardrobe. Such an argument would be inherently flawed: how can a universal aesthetic object be distinctly ascribed to one race or another? The origin of the term ‘hipster’ itself is at the heart of this very debate.
In “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster,” Norman Mailer discusses the burgeoning society of white men during the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, that for all extensive purposes adhered to African American culture—dress, music, and slang included. This fixation with Black culture by White Americans speaks to the appropriation and re-appropriation that continues to epitomize pop culture— a cycle has only been accelerated by the introduction of new media forms such as the Internet. For instance, “voguing,” the dance style made iconic by Madonna, was actually pioneered by young African American homosexuals in Brooklyn years prior. They, however, received no attention following the style’s integration into the media scape—a boundless apparatus capable of erasing the creator, inserting a new one, and enlisting countless consumers.
During the act of appropriation, the target is stripped of his agency, while the subject incorporates the ‘other’ into his imagined network. The victim of appropriation has no say in this process, as the scape functions in the intangible realm of the visual. Your eyes are drawn to aesthetically pleasing objects, catalyzing consumption irrespective of the commodity’s origin. But appropriation is not a one-way process simply harping on the ‘exotification’ and subsequent ‘commodification’ of minorities, as African Americans and non-whites—both inside and outside the of the borders of the U.S.A.—often adopt aspects of White culture that the mainstream media has demarcated from them. Many of today’s rappers can often be seen spewing vulgar lyrics while decked out in country club apparel.
And so arises the binary between freedom and imprisonment—forged by the assumption of free choice within a market of empty commodities, whose inherent cultural essence has been distorted by the modern nature of capitalist circulation. But if the appropriated too have the agency to appropriate, is it an endless cycle for revenge? Or perhaps it is a competition: who can extend the borders of their “imagined network” the furthest via the consumption of foreign commodities and estranged identities?
Appropriation blurs the lines between originator, tailor, and consumer. Aspects of various cultures are constantly exchanged in an ongoing process of cultural diffusion, yet the pervasive mainstream media attempts to blind us from this fact by often equating culture to race. In this manner, Black youths are informed that what they see on BET is exclusively Black, while hipster happenings are targeted primarily to a White audience. Consequently, Black hipster culture is widely disapproved of by those who adhere to illusory notions of ‘blackness,’ which are reinforced by the abundance of stereotypical black images (from past and present) that are disseminated by the media scape.
Counter-ideologies—such as the modern day ‘hipster’— “are composed of elements of the Enlightenment world-view, which consists of a concatenation of ideas, terms, and images, including ‘freedom,’ ‘welfare,’ ‘rights,’ ‘sovereignty,’ ‘representation,’ and the master-term ‘democracy’” (Appadurai, 9-10). However, because of the media scape’s ability to turn basically anything visual into a commodity, representation cancels out any real stab at freedom. As Appadurai points out, our so-called ‘democratic freedom’ is synonymous with our consumer-choice. But if the apparel we buy at Urban Outfitters or avant-garde international boutiques like Opening Ceremony is already detached from its origin and obscured from the social relations responsible for its production, we really have no choice at all. Each purchase is a blind purchase, facilitated by the fetishism of both the consumer and the producer. Whether or not we legitimately believe that a mini-kimono selling for $500 at Opening Ceremony is a genuine American product, we buy it and flaunt it, as though we had ourselves created it.