“Great White Hope”
The “great white hope” was a phrase first coined in the 1967 play of the same name by Howard Slackler about a character loosely based on Jack Johnson, the first African-American World Heavyweight Champion who won the title in 1908. After winning the title from a white man in Australia, Jack Johnson defended his title until losing it 1915. Based on real life rumors, in the play and later movie starring James Earl Jones, Johnson throws the fight buckling under the social pressures against him from a resentful white society. Johnson was the first to deal with the issues of being a black superstar, everything from his open affection for white women to his outspoken taunting of his opponents, many of who were hoping to become the next “great white hope” by defeating him.
Often, there seems to be nothing more thrilling for white audiences than to see a white artist or athlete competing and dominating in American sports and entertainment. It is even more thrilling because of African-American dominance in both of these areas. White athletes dominated in the early history of sports in America, during the existence of separate racial leagues, with whites originally labeled as more athletic and intelligent. With integration in sports came the phenomenon of great African-American athletes who not only broke the color barriers but also raised the standards of athleticism.
Ultimately, the white hope concept exists because of how color often defines people before their experience, as if they are one in the same. Since analogies teach that experiences are universal and transcend color and “race,” it is no wonder why music and art programs, which encourage analogous critical thinking, have been cut so heavily in public education available to poorer people. Without an education teaching how relative the human experience is in all of its colors, shapes, sizes, and sounds, people, especially the poor, become more vulnerable to what seems to be a systematically limited exposure of experiences associated with certain colors (such as uncontrollable rage with blackness or stiff rhythmic expression with whiteness). A well-oiled Uncle Tim system keeps different colors (and other divisions) polarized enough to sell to each side mechanisms that help cope and survive with the other, including drugs, weapons, and even music.
In addition to making white people feel more entitled to enjoy black influenced pop music, hip-hop and R&B, “white hopes” of these genres arguably facilitate the sales of black artists albums of the same genres. From my experience and from what I’ve heard from others in the business throughout my career, most white pop/R&B artists make (and pay their musicians) a lot more than black pop/R&B artists. Perhaps many of these black artists would not even have as big a white audience, and as big sales, without white hopes in their genre. Perhaps without the advancement of artists like Justin Bieber, Eminem, and Justin Timberlake, black artists like Chris Brown, 50 Cent, and Usher would not sell as well to white audiences. And without an Adele, Britney, or Gaga, artists like Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Nicki Minaj may not be as readily embraced either. Let us not forget after so many years being known as mostly a hip hop group in the 90s, how much more quickly the Black Eyed Peas became pop after the white female member, Fergie, joined their group. Generally, it seems white audiences need white hopes in order to better relate to a more talented pool of black artists.
Ironically, behind nearly every great white hope of black music these days, there is a black producer. Eminem had Dr. Dre, Timberlake had Timbaland, Pharrel, and Questlove. and Bieber has Usher. This relationship is reminiscent of the relationship between Huckleberry Finn and Jim, Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed in Rocky III, Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman in Shawshank Redemption, Tom Hanks and Michael Clark Duncan in The Green Mile, and the list goes on an on. Yes, America has a love affair with black men that can lead the way for white boys, and the love affair continues with these gifted black men producing and molding our great white hopes, hopes that can make them a lot of money.
Interestingly, having a black producer does not mean that their white protégés sing about material that would benefit the disenfranchised black community. Their goal is to make pop music, not socially conscious music. Eminem’s anti-authoritarian, cynical, often juvenile, misogynous, and violent material seems to be less about uplifting disenfranchised youth and more about seducing them into buying his controversial music. Timberlake’s crooning and rhythmic singing is mostly about relationships and seduction. Bieber gets a pass because he’s not even 18.
It’s interesting how few white hopes in soul music today intelligently question or criticize society. The most socially conscious song by a white soulful artist in the past ten years is John Mayer’s “Waiting for the World to Change.” Even then, the emphasis, (ironic or not) is how the “fight isn’t fair,” that the system is too strong and there’s nothing to do but wait, which is exactly what the system wants. In a sentimental haze, listeners (especially gaga girls) end up doing just that, “waiting for the world to change.” “When they own the information they can bend it all they want,” is a good case for why it is hard to find popular white socially conscious songs in the mainstream today, unlike the days of say Bob Dylan and Janice Joplin.
Artists of the 60s and 70s like Dylan and Joplin, who wrote and sang some of the most powerful and socially conscious songs were not the most photogenic people. Perhaps systematically, an Uncle Tim system has watered down socially conscious messages (audio symbols) along with increasing eye candy (visual symbols) to distract people from the real problems that ail the world. For example, in the documentary Before the Music Dies, legendary singer/songwriter Bonnie Raitt, and musician Branford Marsalis are interviewed discussing how the music industry has changed.
Raitt: Sex has always sold and beautiful people have always been at the helm of pop music, but in the late 60s and 70s [unlike today] you could be a singer/songwriter and not be cosmetically George Clooney and be able to have a hit record.
Marsalis: Superficiality is in. Depth and quality is out…Today Ray Charles would not get a shot. Today Stevie Wonder would not get a shot. They’re blind.
Or consider Eryka Badu’s tirade the business in the same documentary: “First you need to get some breast implants. What’s hot is the butt implant. You really want to rock somebody’s world and make it in this business you better get you an ass implant. Get you some calf implants too if you’re going to be wearing those stilettos…Create your own publicity. Do some ho shit. If you are a woman you have to tongue kiss another woman. If you want to make it you’ve got to do it… Just be butt naked somewhere. Butt naked with glitter on you and a beeper…”
However, while the 60s/70s era may have had more socially conscious music, while it may have been an intensely revolutionary time when people challenged stereotypes and entitlement issues, it was also a time popularly known for extensive drug use – the fashionable coping escapist mechanism/ritual of that time. It’s a shame that the revolutionary spirit of this era is so closely associated connected with drug culture; it seems that whenever people call for the same type of peaceful rebellious ideals, they are often believed to use drugs. There are plenty of people, including myself, who share these ideals who don’t smoke or drink. Like everyone else, I have my own vices, but vices do not define a person’s morality.
As much as civil rights progressed during that era, it is a shame that the morality of that era is so inextricably linked to the looks, sounds, and rituals of the time. If a cultural revolution, like the 60s/70s were to happen now, it would have to have its own symbols. The music would have to be more self-aware, have a healthy amount of cynicism so as not to get caught up into the unsustainable path of free love, and answer hard questions about race, division, and authority that even with all of the progressive movements, marches, and speecheThese questions most likely could have been answered in full if the most revolutionary leaders and artists of the time lived long enough to help confront and answer them.
Unfortunately, many of these brilliant minds (politicians, religious leaders, and musicians) fell victim to an unsustainable drug culture an authoritarian system encouraged by demonizing it, or were assassinat often under mysterious and incompletely understood circumstances. Whether it’s the Kennedys, King, or Malcolm, there always seem to be unanswered questions. If there were inside jobs that killed so many activist people in that era, perhaps those responsible were Uncle Tims and the people they controlled. It seems so many of those activist contemporaries (artists and politicians included) who ended up living past that revolutionary era, ended up getting old, and being assimilated and marketed within the system as hopeful figures of change, but change as a sentimental idea and feeling, not one of action.
The difference between a “great white hope” and a regular “great hope” is whether or not one addresses how “the problem of the Twentieth Century [was] the problem of the color line.” Like so many of the popular white soul singers today, “great white hopes” do NOT address this problem, one that continues into this century. I am often baffled by how one never hears mature talented white male artists like Timberlake and Eminem discuss the racial dynamics within their music careers or life. Aside from Eminem’s Hollywood-ified watered down autobiographical movie 8 Mile, and admitting to knowing his place in society by refraining from the use of the “n-word,” his most honest admission as a white guy doing black music seems to be in his song “Without Me,” when he claims to be the “worst thing since Elvis Presley to do black music so selfishly and use it to get myself wealthy.” Still, this is more than I have ever heard from Timberlake relating to black music on black people’s terms, whose only discussion about race I’ve observed was by default in a Rolling Stone interview about working with Al Green: “Hearing Al as a kid made me want to become a singer and showed me that it was OK to have a softer, more falsetto voice. However as an 11-year-old kid in 1992, it was hard to see Green’s R&B influence when Timberlake sang country songs on Star Search.
Historically, white pop artists, since Elvis and even Paul Whiteman before him, have had difficulty openly discussing the racial dynamics of popular music or its black musical heritage except when naming white influences in the same breath. Sometimes this lack of discussion brings to question whether or not these artists even realize the depth of that heritage. It seems that black people’s influence on white popular music often is not given much credit beyond what amounts to be a referenced footnote or sound byte summarizing the hundreds of years of struggle under white oppression it took for these influences to occur. The same ambiguity many of these “great white hopes” have in discussing the race issue reflects the ambiguity generally white audiences seem to have when relating to the more “black” influenced elements of popular music. Important to remember is that even the most white-sounding American popular music has blackness in the sense that pretty much anything with a backbeat on beats on 2 and 4 is black influenced (African).
Even on the occasion of recognizing black influences, it often seems white Americans are too quick to note how universal music is, conveniently disregarding how the specific struggles that contributed to these influences were far from universal. Just as we never hear “great white hopes” like Timberlake, Eminem, or Bieber discuss how race applies to their music or life, features and biopics like VH1’s Behind the Music and Inside Hollywood shy away from the issue as well. Instead, these shows focus on less taboo subjects that influence their music and movies – their intimate relationships, issues with parents, bad management. All the while, the public, especially young girls, excitedly awaits their white prince in shining black armor (or princes if it’s a boy band) to perform their black music for them.
Our hypocrisy may be hidden in our language, but not in our actions. These actions can be observed in how both white and black people enjoy black influenced popular music. Generally, average white people do not equally express their joy and feelings in hip hop or pop with the same skill level or conviction that Eminem, Timberlake, or most black people seem to. In fact it often seems that white people (with the exception of white novelty super athletic b-boys on dance competition shows/movies) change how they relate to black influenced pop music when in the presence of black people. This Uncle Tim behavior is commonly seen on television, movies and advertisements, when white people are shown shamelessly dancing (awkwardly) and singing along with every black American vernacular lyric in pop/hip hop music only to suddenly stop and be embarrassed when surrounded by one or a group of black people. Perfectly parodied examples of this are Andy Samberg’s Saturday Night Live musical skits, “Ras Trent” and “Shy Ronnie.” I commonly witness this dynamic at the many bar and bat mitzvahs I perform, where young white adolescents “wild out” in a joking and often spastic manner, especially when in the presence their black friends, who contrastingly often dance more relaxed, skillfully, and rhythmically. It gives one pause to contemplate how conscious adolescents are about relating their personal “race” to the black music that has become so popular.
Instead of addressing this issue, popular media geared towards white youth seems to encourage these tendencies. On a January 7, 2009 episode of MTV’s Wild’N Out, a television show featuring Nick Cannon and a bunch of guest comedians, there was a skit featuring a few of the white comedians dressed in stereotypical hip hop attire performing an original rap called the “black” walk. The video basically made fun of white people who try to look, sound, and walk black. It’s classic white people making fun of how they relate to black influenced popular culture and music, politically correct humor at its finest.
The most interesting aspect about white comedians making fun of white people doing “black things” is that they end up looking like incredibly awkward caricatures so far removed from anything that looks “black.” I have never seen a black person walk the way that these white comedians claim is “black.” I don’t think white comedians or satirists are even aware of what they are making fun of. It seems to have come to a point when any silly looking movement a white person does to black music is a white person trying to be “black”, when in reality they aren’t coming anywhere close to a passable caricature. The difference between these white comedians and 19th century minstrels is that instead of imitating stereotypically childlike black culture by dressing in blackface, these white people imitate stereotypically white soulful impotence by dressing in caps and jerseys. Interesting how just as black minstrels like Amos ‘n’ Andy were black performers who imitated white caricatures of black people, these white Uncle Tims seem to be the next imitation of an imitation, only this time the focus is the imitation of a white person imitating a black person, perhaps more accurately the imitation of a black person imitating a white person imitating a black person.
Speaking of comedic caricatures and white hopes, Justin Timberlake walks a very fine line between the two. At least to me, it is gets confusing whether he is supposed to be taken seriously or laughed at. It all seems to depend not upon on his material, but upon how he is being packaged at the moment. For example, one moment he is the white hope singing and getting down with all of the black producers everybody idolizes. The next moment he parodies white hopes like the Bee Gees, 90s white boy bands, appears in Andy Samberg’s white caricature SNL videos, and then turns around to help Jimmy Fallon on his Late Show shamelessly celebrate the mostly black history of hip hop. Arguably, over the past few years Timberlake has done more acting in movies and satirizing on television than writing/singing any chart topping hits. It would be interesting to know where Timberlake himself draws the line.
It would be interesting to hear Timberlake’s take on when he thinks his performance should be taken seriously versus when they should be laughed at. After seeing so many of his parodies on SNL, when he was featured on Timberland’s single Carry Out (2010), I wasn’t sure whether to take him seriously or not. Where does the joke begin and where does it end? Are the vocal falsetto runs supposed to be a parody of Barry Gibb, or is he really feeling it? Are his neck and shoulder movements supposed parodies of white wannabes or is it now supposedly legitimate “swag”? I guess for me it is personal, because these are hard questions for myself to answer and many people often think of me as funny before thinking I have serious dance or musical skill. I often need more than two minutes of rhythmic, soulful relentlessness to shake off all of the Uncle Tim white caricatures audiences are used to seeing in order to let them know I’m for real, I’m not joking, and I take this music very seriously – flamboyance and “smizing” included, thank you very much. I’m just wondering how Timberlake does it. It probably helps to have handlers, producers, and a whole industry to provide the proper contextual cues.
Within the context of giving back, it is surprising that “great white hopes” do not take more photo ops working with black youth in poorer communities. A PR person would think that in this day and age of being politically correct, giving back to the communities where so much of this musical heritage originates would not only legitimize these white artists’ talents, but also their patriotism. One would think these artists could afford the charity and use the tax write-offs. They could give a master class, a seminar, and inspire some children who don’t get many opportunities to be inspired especially by people of class and color. The very least these “great white hopes” could do is say thank you to the black community not only for embracing them but also for providing the history that has created the music they express and profit from. Imagine if one day, two page ads were taken out in the Rolling Stone, New York Times, Daily News, and The Post thanking the African-American community and promising payback, and then were signed by every living great white hope in soul music from Michael Bolton and Michael MacDonald to and Eminem. Imagine the kind of dialogue that would inspire, the pathways of communication that would open, not to mention the white guilt that would be released by such a simple action. How much more easily would such an action facilitate constructive dialogue about race and entitlement than silly white comedians with their sports caps, jerseys, doing modern day minstrel walks?
The reason why great white hopes do not contribute to a constructive dialogue about race or other divisions is because it goes against political correct within an Uncle Tim system. Political correctness within an Uncle Tim system mean giving lip service and flirting with racial equality and justice without really doing anything about it. This hopelessness is echoed all over popular culture. For example, in the ending of South Park’s episode, “My apologies to Jesse Jackson,” Stan finally says to Token, the only black kid: “Token, I get it now. I don’t get it. I’ve been trying to say that I understand how you feel but I’ll never understand. I’ll never really get how it feels for a black person to have somebody use the ‘n word’. I don’t get it!”
Token happily replies: “Now you get it Stan.”
Stan: “Yeah I totally don’t get it!”
Token: “Thank you.”
Cue ending credits.
This comic example of hopelessness and fashionable cynicism feeds the system in two ways. One, there is a sense that there is no way to equate any type of relative pain between black and white, that there is no hope of finding a universal human commonality to bridge the gap. Two, while Stan, the white kid, admits he cannot relate to the black kid, Token’s smugness (actually the smugness of South Park’s white writers Trey Parker and Matt Stone) leaves us with the impression that everything within the white experience (Stan) is completely relatable, that there is nothing within a white experience as mysteriously painful and exclusive, or can come as close to being a comparably red (or in this case black) badge of courage like hearing the “n-‘word” as a black person. While this morality seems to be progressive, it slickly perpetuates the same old Uncle Tim system that encourages visual symbols (like race) insurmountable separations— separations that cause anxiety, competition, and envy, which trigger the desire to consume various coping mechanisms the system is glad to provide either during commercial breaks or real life.
In order for a person to become a “great white hope,” they have to prove that they will not get in the way of these profitably divisive symbols. The rises of Timberlake and Eminem seem to point to two main vetting processes for proving worthiness. While both of these men are extremely talented, the symbols of their race seem to encourage, however temporary, fantasies that an equally accessible sensual utopia exists and that all material differences between black and white have been confronted and fully diffused.
While both artists perform and make “black music” rather well, showing the potential of such a utopia, they stay out of the system’s way by the things they leave unsaid, namely issues of BOTH race and class, the causes behind those issues, and their personal investment in them. What is left out in all of these great white hope’s stories, among other things, is an honest discussion about social chemistry with black friends, teachers, producers, and black artists in the same industry. What do their black friends and contemporaries really think about them becoming so successful singing and performing black music? The media never addresses these subtle but powerful social issues that keep white and black people forcefully smiling at each other and making polite conversation while some monetary or social exchange ensues – a pat on the back, and arm over a shoulder, a signing of a check, a crack of the whip. No, we never hear our great white hopes discuss these issues in the mainstream. The closest we get to is seeing images of Eminem doing rap battles in front of hostile black crowds taunting his artistic virility. Of course, he overcomes in true “great white hope” Hollywood fashion.
The first vetting system for crowning great white hopes is by keeping an eye on young talent that go through the ranks of Disney or any other kid television company (Nickelodeon, for example) Timberlake, many of his former boy band members, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Miley Cyrus, and the Jonas Brothers all had careers in Disney television before turning into pop icons and great white hopes. An artist steeped in the television tradition is less likely to make waves with big corporate interests, automatically learning how to play the game, saying the right things at the right time, and doing what they’re told. Also as a result of being raised in the climate of the cutthroat entertainment business, they also have a better chance to be fully consumed in their own ego distracting them from how the system uses them to turn profits.
The second vetting system for crowning a white hope, as in the case of Eminem, is by backing extremely talented, raw, edgy, and anti authoritarian artists ONLY if they are ALSO a walking soap opera, an unstable emotional train wreck waiting to happen. God bless her, Amy Winehouse was another example of such a great white hope. These are individuals who often come from very rough, poor, or abusive upbringings, who put urgency, fire, and rage into black soul music, and burn up everything around them in the process, going in and out of rehab, and often having tragic family and relationship disputes. As much as they have issues with the injustice in the world, they are often too consumed by their own issues to . The system crowns these hopes as much for the potential gossip they will create, which make it on various news programs to keep people glued through commercial breaks, as their actual soulful talent.
A third vetting system, as in the instance of Justin Bieber, is YouTube. Just as “video killed the radio star,” many have noted how “YouTube has killed the video star.” Again, this is relative. Ultimately, it seems that the system in the form of big business is on the lookout for “white hopes” and anybody else that feeds into the profitable balance of “jokes, stereotypes, or novelties” to be sold to a dumbed down public. Evolution of Dance Guy is a stereotypical joke white hope. Bieber is a great white hope novelty in his ability to sing soul. Even an argument can be made that the Far East Movement’s “G6,” blew up on YouTube because of the novelty of Americanized hip hop influenced, tech saavy and fashionable young Asians Or is that a stereotype now? Other artists who “blow up,” and get record deals from YouTube are extreme stereotypes of their symbols, like Soulja Boy’s “Superman” who introduce the latest black urban vernacular, dance, and fad, or Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream,” the latest incarnation of sexually explorative ingénue eye candy. As mentioned before, the relative viral YouTube status of my own internet videos over the years hits are due to my novelty status as a funky dancing white trombone player. Just look on how many comments and posts mention me being white guy.
Great white hopes exist not only in music and sports. White hopes are also people who comment and promote these stars, especially when they incorporate dancing and black music on their shows. Ellen Degeneres and her talk show is arguably one of the biggest promoters of white hope in media. Even a commercial for American Express, which features different successful and philanthropist Hollywood stars to promote its credit line, uses the image of Degeneres dancing with a caption underlying it reading “dance to the beat of your own drum.” As much as I feel Degeneres is a brilliant comedian, social commentator, observer, and helps many people on her show, the interpretations of how people dance on her show including herself are true testaments to the “emperor not wearing any clothes.” How many times is it going to take for the public to tire of seeing white people in business, politics, and Hollywood suck at dancing while Timberlake, Usher and Obama become the unattainable dancing ideal for “natural” soulful integrity?
Ellen and most of her non-musical guests are terrible dancers. This doesn’t make them bad people. Ellen is the perfect example of a white person who is so enthusiastic about dancing to black influenced pop music, that people are enamored with the enthusiasm and the almost scandalous idea of white people enjoying black music on national television without any “noticeable” embarrassment or shame. After all, it’s been a long time since Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, a show that used to feature many white people dancing for fun. It last aired in 1989, though and most likely could not compete with the more fashionable MTV. So with VH1, MTV, and BET, featuring well-directed, edited, and airbrushed images of sexuality in hip hop/pop videos with formally educated hip hop dancers, Ellen is one of the few shows on today that regularly features everyday average people dancing.
The issue that stares everyone directly in the face on Ellen is how differently and awkwardly white people dance from the minorities on that show. Since the dancing is featured as a sideshow, before any interviews happen, the dancing never becomes an issue for deeper discussion beyond noting it as novelty. How groundbreaking it would be if Ellen would dedicate a show to the deeper issues that influence the ways people dance that have made her show so welcoming, and comforting and non-judgmental. Perhaps the producers are afraid of just that – judgments, or even worse – realizations.
Maybe Ellen could discuss why people dance differently on her show than just showcase how. Instead, the show could focus on how race, culture, and sexuality affect the ways people move to music, this big un-discussable taboo issue which has made her show so popular. Maybe it is being a white lesbian that makes Ellen dance like a white man. Because of her glorified Uncle Tim abilities inside a white lesbian woman, Ellen seems to enable and excuse the majority of white people, soulfully and out of touch with rhyth to people who are stereotypically more skilled – people of color. As inviting as the “great white hope’s” ignoring of these issues seem, in order to really claim being a champion for the people (the oppressed, the working class, LGBT, and any race) these issues– material, sensual, and ideological – need to be addressed openly to truly facilitate respect of everyone’s entitlement to do everything.
On a personal note, to fully include myself within the great white hope issue, there are many reasons that could be given as to why I haven’t gotten as famous or as much backing within the system as comparable to some of those mentioned above. Perhaps it’s just because I am a trombonist, a not very marketable instrument compared to guitars or singers. Maybe it’s because I’m not as handsome, charismatic, or young; maybe it’s simply because my vibe is not right. Maybe I’m just not as talented. Or maybe it’s because I’m too aware of my symbols, which scares the system and makes me off-putting, Maybe my awareness and desire to call out how the system works is destructive to those who support it so that nobody will let me talk for more than thirty seconds on camera. Maybe that’s why I’ve never been on Ellen. Maybe I’m too much of a radical, but not a marketable one like Lady Gaga or Eminem. I do not have enough issues to be both “soulful” AND a walking soap opera. I don’t have enough anti-authoritarian appeal as a drug addict, a promoter of violence, a fashionista, or a hypersexual icon to be gossip worthy. That’s okay. I’m writing this book to expiate my own demons and tell my story whether the system supports it or not. Besides sometimes we need to work through and expiate all our demons and delusions before we get to the truth anyway.
Don’t get me wrong. I am very grateful and humbled to find comfort in the music I play and dance to, to find my escape, my refuge, my platform, my expression, all of which is worth more than the largest mansion or the ability to go to the most exclusive parties. I’m just grateful to be able to pay my bills, while the feeling of music – the rhythm, the tonality, and its rituals – gives me all the recognition and self worth I need. I’m prepared to admit after all is said and done that all of these theories and observations are only in my head as a result of me trying to deal with not being as materially successful as I wanted or thought I would be. But what if it’s not all in my head? Ultimately, perhaps I have not become a “great white hope,” like so many have expected, because I stand for something