Black Popular Culture

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Black Popular Culture






Although black popular culture involves all people of African descent internationally, U.S. black popular culture is often highlighted because it is within U.S. culture and U.S. culture is increasingly exported to the entire world. Black popular culture is the part of all black cultures that is concerned with pleasure, enjoyment, and amusement; that represents the identity and politics of black cultures according to each culture’s beliefs, values, experiences, and social institutions; and that is expressed through aesthetic codes and genres. British cultural studies pioneer Stuart Hall in Black Popular Culture (1992) describes the “black repertoire” of which black popular culture originates as involving style, music, and the use of the body as a canvas of representation. He further qualifies “good” and authentic black popular culture as the kind that refers to black experiences, black expressivity, and black counternarratives. Eight distinguishing features characteristic of popular culture are also applicable to black popular culture:

  1. Its components of people, objects, activities, events, and the arts.
  2. Theological aspects, including ultimate concern, faith, religious symbols, and revelation and ecstasy.
  3. Cultural struggle, resistance, contestation, and opposition.
  4. Production, circulation, consumption, reproduction, and distribution.
  5. Its socially constructed nature.
  6. System of signs and symbols.
  7. Mode of communication.
  8. Commodification, commercialization, and stereotyping.

In general, black cultural expression has always been a way of resisting racial oppression, articulating experiences of resistance and struggle, and articulating oppositional identities. Historian Kevern Verney in African Americans and U.S. Popular Culture (2003) notes several key issues that exist between black popular culture and the concepts of race and racism. These include:

  1. The persistent negative stereotyping of African Americans in popular culture, and the impact this had on the racial perceptions of both black and white Americans.
  2. The role of popular culture in holding back or facilitating change in U.S. race relations, particularly between blacks and whites (but with far-reaching impact on race relations of all groups in the United States).
  3. The recurring historical paradox that whereas white Americans have frequently recognized black cultural achievement, African Americans themselves continued to be perceived as socially and racially inferior.
  4. The enormous, and continuing, contribution made by African Americans to U.S. popular culture.
  5. How Hollywood and the entertainment industry in particular have encouraged racism through misrepresentations and caricatured images of African Americans.


The intellectual genealogy of the study of black popular culture begins with the first collection of Negro spirituals (or black spirituals), Slave Songs of the United States (1867), edited by William Allen, Charles Ware, and Lucy Garrison, and the work of several African American intellectuals, professors, and composers. Ethnomusicologist Portia Maultsby explains in her essay “Music in African American Culture” (1996) that the introduction to Slave Songs of the United States and research by scholars such as Maud Cuney-Hare (1874–1936), R. Nathaniel Dett (1882–1943), W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963), Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960), Alain Locke (1886–1954), Eva Jessye (1895–1992), James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938), James M. Trotter (1842–1892), and John Work (1901–1967) were the first scholarly studies on African American music, focusing particularly on black spirituals. They represent early attempts to provide a sociocultural context for understanding the complexities of this black American religious musical tradition.

In all, these studies not only initiated the scholarly study of black music but also initiated the study of black popular culture. The connection between the study of black music and the study of black popular culture is important to note because music has been often characterized as the central element of all black cultures. In his book Black Talk (1981), sociologist Ben Sidran states that black music is both conspicuous and “crucial” to black culture. In addition, he contended that music was “not only a reflection of the values of black culture but, to some extent, the basis upon which it is built” (p. xxi). Stuart Hall concurred when he described black music as the “deep form, the deep structure” of black popular culture (1992, p. 27). Sociologist Ellis Cashmore, in The Black Culture Industry (1997), describes black music as being “virtually synonymous with black culture” (p. 3). Furthermore, when describing an African American aesthetic in her book Signifyin(g), Sanctifyin’, and Slam Dunking (1999), Gena Degal Caponi asserts that music is the “key” to the aesthetic she is discussing and the “fulcrum of African culture and the expression that sustained African aesthetic principles in the Americas” (p. 10). Scholarship on black music provides cues for locating and discovering other forms of black popular culture.


The leading black intellectual who bridged the gap between the study of black music and black popular culture was sociologist William Edward Burghardt Du Bois. Du Bois, a preeminent scholar-intellectual, wrote

extensively on the sociology and history of African Americans and pioneered the editing of numerous journals of opinion devoted to racial issues. Not only did Du Bois analyze black slave songs in his Souls of Black Folk (1903) and The Gift of Black Folk (1924), he also wrote about the sociological implications of popular culture and blacks in a little-known article in 1897 titled “The Problem of Amusement.” Du Bois did not label the phenomenon he was describing and pondering as “black popular culture” but rather “the question of the amusements of Negroes” (2000 [1897]). However, it was an inquiry into black popular culture because he referred to dancing, playing cards, drinking, smoking, and playing football, all of which are activities considered to be popular culture.

In “The Problem of Amusement,” Du Bois described late-nineteenth-century black urban attitudes toward popular culture, what institutions among them conducted popular culture, and what the “tendency of indulgence” was toward particular types of popular culture. Whereas Du Bois maintained that the pursuit of popular culture in the city by young black men and women from rural communities was “disastrous,” he believed amusement was a necessary and legitimate pursuit. Du Bois reveals an interesting problematic that had to do with conditions that were peculiar to urban black Americans and their pursuit of popular culture at that time. The first condition was that African Americans were excluded from mainstream public amusements in the cities to which they migrated and, second, that the chief purveyor of popular culture to black people was the black church, which in theory was opposed to modern popular culture. Du Bois concludes that the activities of the black church should become differentiated and that it must surrender its default function of providing “amusement” for its members to the school, home, and other social organizations. This was because he surmised that it was difficult for the black church to deny the need for popular culture while at the same time dissipating its spiritual purpose by furnishing popular culture activities for its members.

Largely a sociological analysis of the role of popular culture in the lives of late-nineteenth-century urban black Americans, Du Bois’s essay revealed the need to study black popular culture in American culture, connected the production and experience of black popular culture to American culture and society, articulated the importance and relationship of the black church to popular culture and its members, and formulated questions about the issues of pleasure, race, racism, and the African presence in America.


Scholars of black popular culture generally examine it from two broad theoretical approaches: popular culture as object and popular culture as practice. This is to say that one type of scholarly work about black popular culture isolates its forms and discovers and interrogates its components. The other approach regards popular culture as a practice that facilitates an understanding of how political, social, and economic conditions and contexts affect the everyday lives of people. Therefore, for example, the first approach might examine rap music and describe its aesthetic and its relationship to African traditions, while the other approach would seek to explain how the rap aesthetic or its relationship to African traditions could empowers its creators.

The first two edited volumes of essays on black popular culture are aligned with the “popular culture as object (or text)” approach. Essays in Marshall Fishwick’s Remus, Rastus, Revolution (1971) and Harry B. Shaw’s Perspectives of Black Popular Culture (1990) investigated and introduced (as was the case with Remus, Rastus, Revolution) relatively unknown forms of black folk and popular expression to American scholarship on culture. Many of the contributors in both volumes incorporated semiology, or the system of signification, to explore such black cultural forms as the Sambo stereotype, the calypso tradition in the West Indies, and the black tavern. Interestingly, both volumes included essays on the Sambo stereotype, which demonstrates the enduring importance of representation and image in U.S. black popular culture. Also aligning with the “popular culture as text” approach, Gena Dagel Caponi’s Signifyin(g), Sanctifyin’, and Slam Dunking: A Reader in African American Expressive Culture (1999) focuses on building an aesthetic of black expressive culture (which is essentially black popular culture) in the areas of music, dance, orature, sports, and the display of the body.

Edited volumes of the 1990s were informed by the “popular culture as practice” theoretical paradigm. These include Gina Dent’s Black Popular Culture (1992) and Joseph K. Adjaye and Adrianne R. Andrews’s Language, Rhythm, and Sound: Black Popular Cultures into the Twenty-First Century (1997). Both volumes are informed by cultural theories of the British tradition of ideology, hegemony, and counterhegemony; the French tradition of semiology; and the construction of reality and black feminism and postmodernism. Essays examine such questions as production and consumption; youth, gender, and sexuality; technology, capital, and labor; the relationship between mainstream and the marginal; and popular culture as a site of resistance. In the British tradition of cultural studies, Ellis Cashmore’s The Black Culture Industry (1997) examines how black culture has been converted into a commodity (usually in the interests of white-owned corporations); how blacks have been permitted to excel in entertainment only on the condition that they conform to whites’ images of blacks; and how blacks themselves, when they rise to the top of the corporate entertainment ladder, have tended to act precisely as whites have in similar circumstances.

Harry J. Elam Jr. and Kennell Jackson’s 2005 collection of essays on popular culture and global performance, Black Cultural Traffic, is significant for its stress on the actual movements of black cultural material from place to place geographically. Elam and Kennell describe Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic (1993) as the seminal work promoting black cultural traffic. Contributors analyzed various forms of black popular culture and “tracked” them in travel, observing what happened to the materials as they crossed local, regional, national, racial, and ethnic boundaries. They also extended or challenged the meaning of such concepts in cultural studies as authenticity (the capacity for cultural

productions to be true to their roots and origins), appropriation (the borrowing, or theft, of an element of cultural expression of one group by another group), hybridity (the idea that traces of other cultures exist in every culture), globalization (the increasing global connectivity, integration, and interdependence in the economic, social, technological, cultural, political, and ecological spheres of everyday life), commodity (the reference to such cultural expressions as music and style as standardized for consumption by the masses), and cultural tradition.

Apart from these approaches is Kevern Verney’s African Americans and U.S. Popular Culture (2003), which analyzes the role and significance of race in several major forms of popular culture, including sport, film, television, radio, and music. Verney’s study is useful because it is an introduction to the history of African Americans in U.S. popular culture, examining its development from the early nineteenth century to the present. In addition, books and essays by black scholar-intellectuals Michele Wallace (Dark Designs and Visual Culture, 2004), Michael Eric Dyson (Reflecting Black: African-American Cultural Criticism, 1993), Todd Boyd (Am I Black Enough for You?: Popular Culture from the ‘Hood and Beyond, 1997), and Mark Anthony Neal (Soul Babies: Black Popular Culture and the Post-Soul Aesthetic, 2002) should be noted because of their specific intent to explore black popular culture for insights into contemporary black American culture.


The popular and academic interest in hip-hop culture and its expressive domains, rapping, graffiti writing, break dancing, emceeing, and deejaying (through mass media coverage in newspapers and magazines and in the presentation of conferences, publication of books, and college course offerings) has grown exponentially since the early 1990s. Murray Forman and Mark Anthony Neal’s edited volume, That’s the Joint!: The Hip-Hop Studies Reader (2004), attests to the depth and breadth of hip-hop cultural productions. This increase in popular and academic attention to hip-hop culture is the result in part of the fact that hip-hop culture and rap music, through globalization and the transnationalization of U.S. popular culture, is circulated internationally, giving birth to other hip-hop forms and genres in such disparate regions as Colombia, France, Poland, Bosnia and Croatia, Japan, Brazil, South Africa, Jamaica, Cuba, and Native Hawaii.

Hip-hop culture is decidedly global, urban, and connected to youth culture, according to Halifu Osumare in Black Cultural Traffic (Elam and Jackson 2005). Hip-hop culture, particularly rap music, brings together some of the most complex social, cultural, and political issues in contemporary American society. According to cultural studies scholar Tricia Rose in her seminal work on rap music, Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America (1994), rap music is a black cultural expression that prioritizes black voices from the margins of urban America. These voices articulate the pleasures and problems of black urban life in contemporary America and the shifting terms of black marginality in contemporary American culture. Rap music’s multidimensional nature builds from its primary context of development in hip-hop culture, the Afrodiasporic traditions it extends and revises, and the New York urban terrain in the 1970s.

As publications by Michael Eric Dyson (Holler If You Hear Me: Searching for Tupac Shakur, 2001) and Jon Michael Spencer (The Emergencyof Black andthe Emergence of Rap, 1991) demonstrate, race, racism, religion, and spirituality are connected to hip-hop culture, just as they are connected to black popular culture in general. For example, negative stereotyping persists in the entertainment industry especially through rap videos that disseminate misrepresentations and caricatured images of African Americans and that portray black females as sexual objects. Stereotyping is also seen in such television programs as MTV’s Pimp My Ride and VH-1’s Flavor of Love that subtly exalt the “gangsta” lifestyle. While hip-hop culture, particularly through the lyrics and videos of rap music, illustrate the culture’s valuing of sexism, consumerism, and violence, it also reflects ultimate concerns about life and death, hopes and fears, self-affirmation, social and political liberation, and the ethic of truth telling. Hip-hop culture is a microcosm of and is the epitome of contemporary U.S. black popular culture because it encompasses the meanings, values, complexities, pleasures, and experiences of being black in the United States.

SEE ALSO Hip-Hop Culture; Rap Music.


Adjaye, Joseph K., and Adrianne R. Andrews, eds. 1997. Language, Rhythm, and Sound: Black Popular Cultures into the Twenty-First Century. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Boyd, Todd. 1997. Am I Black Enough for You?: Popular Culture from the ‘Hood and Beyond. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

———. 2002. The New H.N.I.C. (Head Niggas In Charge): The Death of Civil Rights and the Reign of Hip Hop. New York: New York University Press.

———. 2003. Young, Black, Rich, and Famous: The Rise of the NBA, the Hip Hop Invasion, and the Transformation of American Culture. New York: Doubleday.

Caponi, Gena Dagel, ed. 1999. Signifyin(g), Sanctifyin’, and Slam Dunking: A Reader in African American Expressive Culture. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

Cashmore, Ellis. 1997. The Black Culture Industry. London and New York: Routledge.

Dent, Gina, ed. 1992. Black Popular Culture: A Project by Michele Wallace. Seattle, WA: Bay Press.

Du Bois, W. E. B. 1903. The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches. Chicago: A. C. Mcclurg.

———. 1924. The Gift of Black Folk: The Negroes in the Making of America. Boston: Stratford Co.

———. 2000. “The Problem of Amusement.” In Du Bois on Religion, edited by Phil Zuckerman, 19–28. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

Dyson, Michael Eric. 1993. Reflecting Black: African-American Cultural Criticism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

———. 1995. Making Malcolm: The Myth and Meaning of Malcolm X. New York: Oxford University Press.

———. 1996. Between God and Gangsta Rap: Bearing Witness to Black Culture. New York: Oxford University Press.

———. 2001. Holler If You Hear Me: Searching for Tupac Shakur. New York: Basic Civitas.

———. 2004. Mercy, Mercy Me: The Art, Loves, and Demons of Marvin Gaye. New York: Basic Civitas, 2004.

Elam, Harry J., Jr., and Kennell Jackson, eds. 2005. Black Cultural Traffic: Crossroads in Global Performance and Popular Culture. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Fishwick, Marshall, ed. 1971. Remus, Rastus, Revolution. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green University Popular Press.

Forman, Murray, and Mark Anthony Neal, eds. 2004. That’s the Joint: The Hip-Hop Studies Reader. New York: Routledge.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. 1988. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gilroy, Paul. 1993. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hall, Stuart. 1992. “What Is This ‘Black’ in Black Popular Culture?” In Black Popular Culture: A Project by Michele Wallace, edited by Gina Dent, 21–33. Seattle, WA: Bay Press.

Kellner, Douglas. 1995. Media Culture: Cultural Studies, Identity and Politics between the Modern and the Postmodern. New York: Routledge.

Maultsby, Portia. 1996. “Music in African American Culture.” In Mediated Messages and African-American Culture: Contemporary Issues, edited by Venise T. Berry and Carmen L. Manning-Miller, 241–262. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Neal, Mark Anthony. 1999. What the Music Said: Black Popular Music and Black Public Culture. New York: Routledge.

———. 2002. Soul Babies: Black Popular Culture and the Post-Soul Aesthetic. New York: Routledge.

Osumare, Halifu. 2005. “Global Hip-Hop and the African Diaspora.” In Black Cultural Traffic: Crossroads in Global Perspective and Popular Culture, edited by Harry J. Elam, Jr. and Kennell Jackson, 266–288. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Rose, Tricia. 1994. Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.

Shaw, Harry B., ed. 1990. Perspectives of Black Popular Culture. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green University Popular Press.

Sidran, Ben. 1981. Black Talk. New York: Da Capo Press.

Spencer, Jon Michael. 1991. The Emergency of Black and the Emergence of Rap. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Verney, Kevern. 2003. African Americans and U.S. Popular Culture. London and New York: Routledge.

Wallace, Michele. 2004. Dark Designs and Visual Culture. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Angela M. Nelson