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Sharp Darts: Watch My Meme

How the Web is changing black youth culture, and vice versa.



A couple weeks ago a message popped up on my Twitter account from someone who'd heard my name dropped during a talk at Harvard on black youth culture and Web 2.0. The speaker was Wayne Marshall, a writer, DJ, ethnomusicologist, and probably the only person on staff at Brandeis University who's been written up by the Fader. Turns out we share an addiction to YouTube footwork videos and DJ Nate, and a blog post I wrote about the bedroom-production juke wunderkind landed me in Marshall's presentation. I looked him up and we bonded via e-mail over our mutual obsession and a few other things. Finally I asked him to get a little formal and tell me about what he shared with the scholars that day.

First off, can you give me the broad view on black youth culture and Web 2.0? What sites have had the biggest impact on black youth culture? Or given that 2.0 is driven by user-generated content, which sites have been the most impacted by black youth culture?

I should stress first of all that I'm something of an armchair observer. There have been times in my life—when I was a high school teacher (or, better, a high school student!) or when I was actively doing beat-making workshops at urban community centers—that I've been a lot more directly in touch with black youth culture. These days my exposure is what I'm seeing and hearing on the corner or more often on my laptop.

When I think of black youth and Web 2.0, I think of creativity. The sites that come to mind are perhaps the obvious ones: YouTube, MySpace, imeem. These are places where the ability to upload, share, and comment on content has fostered a great deal of visible and audible (and shareable) activity—and that's true across the board, not just for young people of color. But for me—and perhaps this says as much about my own interests as anything—the examples that often best illustrate the vibrancy of digital youth culture are being generated by black kids. The remarkable efflorescence of regional African-American dance scenes, which were of course rooted in nondigital culture, is perhaps most striking. You can go to any of these Web sites and browse your way through hours of DIY, P2P, distinctively local (yet recognizably familiar) music/culture: Chicago juke, Detroit jit, Memphis buckin, Harlem's "Chicken Noodle Soup," Philly's Wu-tang, not to mention stuff like Soulja Boy's viral video dance routines or the countless and/or nameless routines of dancehall reggae (in Jamaica and the diaspora).

For a number of socioeconomic reasons, young African-Americans came sort of late to the Internet game but then seemed to come online almost en masse. Can you tell me more about that?

I'm afraid that the data remains to be collected to really give a sense of what people used to call the "digital divide" and now tend to refer to as the "participation gap." Basic access to computers and the Internet is no longer so rare in (urban) America, though the quality and time of that access and the levels of literacy one brings to that is another question. So far studies haven't shown race to be as much of a factor in the participation gap as parental schooling, though obviously something like parental schooling also correlates to race. The Pew Internet & American Life Project last published a study of African-Americans and the Internet in 2000. A whole lot has changed since then and a whole generation has come online via the tools of Web 2.0. At any rate, it seems remarkable—as in other realms of U.S. culture—what a conspicuous presence and outsize influence black youth have in the digital realm.

Sites like YouTube have exposed an exponentially greater number of people to hyperlocal black music scenes like juke and Baltimore club music. Do you see any effect, positive or negative, on these scenes or the music itself? When Samsung introduced their Juke phone, the ad campaign used a jukelike track composed by some guys in California, which struck me as deeply wrong.

The main effect, I think, is greater interest in the music and the place, both locally as well as nationally and internationally. This can lead to what some might see as exploitative or unfair appropriations on the part of corporations or (more) privileged kids but also to collaborative and financial opportunities for the original creators. I haven't seen much in the way of a negative effect on the local scenes themselves. Kids in Bmore are still making club music, kids in Chicago still making juke. And it's that ground-zero level of production that's always going to have an advantage in terms of actual and perceived authenticity (to bring in a rather loaded term).

The Verizon Juke phone thing was such a joke—and a flash in the pan. The dancing in the commercial did resemble footwork, but the music was watered-down, preset Miami bass or something. Totally misguided, and obviously so, I think, except to clueless consumers. Meantime—and since—kids are still making juke tracks in their bedrooms in Chicago, still dancing on street corners and in gymnasiums, and still sharing all of that on the Internet. It still remains to be seen whether guys like Chicago's 18-year-old juke prodigy DJ Nate will parlay all of this into a viable career, but it sure looks promising to me. And it's made me think a lot differently about the meaning of "music industry."

User-content-driven sites have also accelerated the speed at which the mainstream absorbs elements of black youth culture, with things like "Chicken Noodle Soup" going from a Harlem neighborhood thing to a worldwide pop phenomenon more or less in a matter of days. What do you think the effects of this have been so far, and what do you see happening in the future?

In a sense it's just an intensification of what has been a long-standing pattern of influence. African-American culture finds itself amplified in the mainstream for all sorts of reasons—some specious (primitivist fascination), some not (genuine celebration, empathy)—and, in turn, projected around the world by American imperial/corporate networks (with which African-American culture has an ambivalent relation). The radical difference is that some of the traditional middlemen (record/media companies, government, privileged appropriators/champions) have been cut out with the rise of P2P technologies. So now anyone can make a video of themselves dancing in their kitchen or driveway and put it up and it can catch on, across the street or across the globe.

Conversely, there also seems to be a rise in the number of black kids taking music/fashion/social cues from historically white subcultures like punk, which is a phenomenon I partially attribute to the Internet. How do you think this easy transmission of cultural ideas across class and racial lines has affected or is going to affect black youth culture?

I do think the Internet has been playing an interesting role not just in projecting but also informing black youth culture. There is a lot of playfulness, a lot of humor, a lot of experimentation at the heart of what kids are doing online (and off-line, of course—these worlds bleed into each other quite fluidly, maybe increasingly so). The diversity of options, of images and sounds and—dare I say?—subject positions to check out and try on is unprecedented in its way. I do think that racial politics and cultural politics are changing pretty rapidly in the United States, and that has implications for the wider world given the powerful circulation of American products and ideologies.v

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