This paper examines Michel Gondry’s 2005 documentary: Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, in relation to the work of the Critical Theorist Herbert Marcuse (1888 – 1979).
At the time of filming, Chappelle was the most lucrative comedian in the USA. Enlisting the services of the innovative music video director Gondry, Chappelle sought to document his efforts of putting together a secret low-budget block party in the Bedford-Stuyvesant ghetto in Brooklyn, New York. Coming from a middle class background in Washington D.C., having been raised by his African-American mother (who has a PhD in linguistics), Chappelle is not – like his hero; the comedian Richard Pryor, who grew up in a brothel – a child of the ghetto. Chappelle’s sketch show: The Chappelle Show, shot him into the limelight in the early 2000’s, and he became renowned for his biting social satire. The show’s probably most famous sketch involved Chappelle’s humorous and controversial depiction of an elderly black male who is a blind white supremacist.
Inspired by Mel Stuart’s 1973 Wattstax, Block Party depicts Chappelle at the height of his powers bringing together artists and members of the public to attend a block party funded entirely by him. The aim of this appeared to be to create a carnival atmosphere in an area of deprivation in the manner of the ghetto parties of the 1970’s – 1980’s. By bringing the party to the block, as opposed to a popular, safe tourist spot like Central Park, sponsored by a multitude of profit-driven companies, Chappelle sought to create a more authentic event. It is apparent from the roster of artists that Chappelle recruited – who all performed for free – that his aim was not only to entertain, but also to educate. In the words of pioneering Hip Hop artist KRS-One, this party is what could be labeled as ‘Edutainment’.
As a German Jewish intellectual during the Third Reich, Marcuse settled in exile in Berkeley, California. His radical brand of social philosophy led him to become the father of the ‘New Left’ in the 1960’s and 1970’s USA counter-culture. Quite notably in relation to this paper, Marcuse served as the doctoral supervisor to Angela Davis: The Black Panther Party feminist and radical social activist.1 Marcuse is important in this reading of Block Party because of the great emphasis in his work on the power of the margins of society to affect revolutionary change. For Marcuse, such sections have the least to lose from the given state of affairs, and are thus able to literally see, feel and hear in a unique way. Marcuse thus repeatedly places great emphasis on black ghetto movements, as well as many different women’s movements. He also places an explicit emphasis on the power of art to affect real revolutionary rupture from within what he coins – alluding to Freud – ‘a repressive reality principle’.
Ghetto Hip Hop
Davis argues in a Marcusian vein that ‘‘[music] is a form of social consciousness – a special form of social consciousness that can potentially awaken an urge in those affected by it to creatively transform their oppressive environments… Ultimately, it can propel people toward social emancipation’’ (1998: 236). Marcuse substantiates such a claim in his later works including Counterrevolution and Revolt (1972) and The Aesthetic Dimension: Toward a Critique of Marxist Aesthetics (1979). All of the music featured in Block Party can be bracketed within the genre of Hip Hop. Born in the 1970’s in the ghettos of New York, pioneering artists with names such as ‘Afrika Bambaataa’, and the ‘Zulu Nation’, demonstrated a clear awareness of their African ancestry before enslavement in the USA, They also demonstrated an understanding of the Griot tradition among West Africafrom which they adapted modern Hip Hop; namely, that of an oratory tradition stretching back many hundreds of years. The noun ‘Hip Hop’ in the argot of the ghettos in which it was created refers to ‘intelligent (Hip) movement (Hop)’. For Marcuse, ‘black music’ – here he was talking in 1972 about blues and jazz, but his comments can be equally applied to Hip Hop – ‘’is the cry and song of the slaves and the ghettos which, born in an exasperated tension announces a violent rupture with the established white order’’ (1972: 114). Marcuse asserts that:
In this music, the very lives and deaths of black men and women are lived again: the music is body; the aesthetic form is the ‘gesture’ of pain, sorrow, indictment. However, with the takeover by the whites, a significant change occurs: white ‘rock’ is what its black paradigm is not, namely, performance. It is as if the crying and shouting, the jumping and playing, now takes place in an artificial, organized space; that they are directed toward a (sympathetic) audience.(1972: 114-5)
What Marcuse is alluding to is the watering down of a powerful aesthetic form once, for example, the Rolling Stones cover Otis Redding, thus transmuting pain into performance by way of unabashed plagiarism. The problem with this for Marcuse is that carnival performance – in the tradition running from Woodstock to Glastonbury – functions as a ‘‘safety valve to upturn order such that order may be maintained’’ (McKay 1996: 42). Whilst it may create a temporarily positive atmosphere, the performance ultimately merely reinforces the status quo.
For Marcuse, another language is necessary to break the all-pervasive discourse which engulfs any resistance by means of what he terms ‘‘incestuous reasoning’’ (1972: 133). He thus identifies black literature, music, argot and slang as a potentially revolutionary language of the ‘other’ (1972: 80), contra the hegemonic, incestuous discourse of the establishment. This language of the ‘other’ meets all of the criteria of Marcuse’s definition of the genuinely revolutionary, which can most powerfully reside in the margins, in what Marcuse asserts as:
The substratum of the outcasts and outsiders, the exploited and persecuted of other races and other colours; the unemployed and unemployable. They exist outside the democratic process; their life is the most immediate and the most real need for ending intolerable conditions and institutions. Thus their opposition is revolutionary even if their consciousness is not. Their opposition hits the system from without and is therefore not deflected by the system; it is an elementary force which violates the rules of the game and, in doing so, reveals it as a rigged game. (1964: 260)
To add to the revolutionary potential of Hip Hop described by way of Marcuse’s criteria above, he also interprets the ghetto as the site par excellence of meaningful resistance. Referring to the faubourgs of Paris during the eighteenth century, he observes that ‘‘confined to small areas of living and dying, [the ghetto] can be more easily organized and directed. Moreover, located in the core cities of the country, the ghettos form natural geographical centres from which the struggle can be mounted against targets of vital economic and political importance… and their location makes for spreading and ‘contagious’ upheavals’’’ (1969: 62). Hence in Block Party, we have many ‘outsiders’ using and performing black language, literature and music in the ghetto, thus encompassing all of the ingredients of Marcuse’s potentially revolutionary dynamite.
Contra Marcuse’s Revolutionary Block Party
Nonetheless, there is much to be said against the apparent revolutionary potential demonstrated in Block Party. For example, Chappelle’s humour is perpetually infused with misogyny, and his use of the noun ‘nigger’ – given that his self-proclaimed hero Richard Pryor eschewed it thirty years earlier – is unsettling and demonstrates a lack of genuine cultural and political awareness. Additionally, many of the artists that he enlists regularly demonstrate a level of misogyny in their works. As black female author and social activist bell hooks argues, Hip Hop music is often a site of black male expression of feelings of powerlessness in the system at large taken out on the ‘fairer sex’. She adds that ‘‘the openness of black males about rage and hatred towards females’’, results ‘‘at times worryingly [in] bragging in misogynistic rap about how they see sexuality as a war zone where they must assert their dominance’’ (2004: 68). Whilst the male artists in the film do not perform overtly misogynistic works, notably all three of the high-profile female performers featured in the film sing love songs eulogizing men.
Furthermore, following the contemporary Marxist theorist Slavoj Žižek’s analysis of contemporary dynamic capitalism, there appears to be what journalist Mark Fishers asserts in 2009’s Capitalist Realism,a ‘‘hard-headed embracing of a brutally reductive version of reality’’ (2009: 10), which has displaced any naive Marcusian hope that marginal culture could revolutionarily change anything. This is depicted in the film by the wearing of t-shirts promoting symbols of anti-power, that have been most likely purchased through the capitalist mode of production. Reflecting the capitalistic Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara phenomenon, whereby pictures of the revolutionary communist Guevara are sold for corporate profit on everything ranging from pens to posters, the film depicts many members of both the audience, as well as the performers wearing a de facto uniform of the safe-zone ‘one-day warrior’; namely, a t-shirt with a picture of Guevara/Angela Davis/Marcus Garvey/Marvin Gaye/Muhammad Ali, and even Chappelle’s wearing of a Richard Pryor t-shirt.
Additionally, there is no doubt that Hip Hop since the early 1990’s has been heavily corporatized, with a lot of its early dynamism and revolutionary zeal replaced with hyper-masculinity, extreme misogyny and crude materialism. A lot of the artists in the film, Chappelle included, are guilty of this to some degree. The corporate appropriation of Hip Hop involved a re-branding and marketing which involved, more often than not, a crude glorification of the most negative aspects of marginal ghetto culture. Hip Hop’s contemporary position in the mainstream, with a dross lyrical content, and formulaic beat structures renders the majority of what is released as defunct in terms of revolutionary potential as the voice of the ‘other’.
In the words of Marcuse’s peer, Theodor Adorno, ‘’what slips through the net is filtered through the net’’ (1966: 85). Thus, any revolutionary zeal from black ghetto music from the margins must necessarily be through the power of the margins of the margins. This is where there is scope in the film for evidence of Marcuse’s hope being kept alive. There are enough moments provided by artists such as the independent-label pair ‘Dead Prez’, as well as ‘Mos Def’ – who is a ghetto-native of Bedford-Stuyvesant – and ‘Talib Kweli’ in particular, which, by way of explicit references to genuinely revolutionary figures such as Huey P. Newton of the Black Panthers, Harriet Tubman and Asata Shakur, demonstrate a clear understanding of their ancestry, and do not seek to glorify the harsh realities of ghetto life, but rather seek to ‘edu-tain’ through the aesthetic medium of Hip Hop.
History has not necessarily vindicated Marcuse’s claims, but it is clear that the margins are definitely able to see things afresh – no matter how little – and to create ruptures which the mainstream, by definition, cannot. Even whilst some of the performers, including Chappelle, grew up relatively comfortably, they still possess a very novel – if not revolutionary – way of seeing the world. This is exemplified by a humorous, but noteworthy scene in which discussion centres on how Chappelle correctly predicted that the Beltway sniper in 2002 was black simply because he was ‘taking weekends off’. This apparently trivial observation demonstrates a way of seeing unlike the establishment, and substantiates Marcuse’s claims. All things considered, the worth of the film resides in the depiction of the power of the ghetto carnival, and music of the ‘other’ to challenge, uplift and have positive – leading on to perhaps revolutionary – ramifications in the spirit of KRS-One’s ‘Edutainment’.
Notes and Works Cited
- Angela Davis (1944 – ) was during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s on a most wanted list produced by the C.I.A as one of the most dangerous people in the USA. She wrote her doctoral thesis on Kant and Political Violence – some of which she wrote during a period of incarceration – and is now Distinguished Professor Emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz. (See Olsson’s 2011 Black Power Mix-Tape 1967-1975).
- Adorno, Theodor W. 1966: Negative Dialectics. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
- Davis, Angela Y. 1998: The Angela Y. Davis Reader. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell.
- Marcuse, Herbert:
———1969: An Essay on Liberation. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
——— 1972: Counterrevolution and Revolt. London: Allen Lane.
——— 1964: One Dimensional Man. London: Abacus.
- hooks, bell 2004: We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity. London: Routledge.
- Fisher, Mark 2009: Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Ropley, Hants.: Zer0 Books.
- McKay, George 1960: Senseless Acts of Beauty: Cultures of Resistance since the Sixties. London; New York: Verso.