Tiny Doo, Billie Holiday, and the Longstanding Crime of Black Music
To all those who insist there is no such thing as bad publicity, Brandon Duncan would beg to differ.
Duncan, who raps under the pseudonym Tiny Doo, is currently facing 25-to-life for gang-related activities. He has not been tied to a specific violent crime, nor in fact does he have a criminal record of any kind. (According to the police, he was once arrested for pimping and pandering, though the case was ultimately dismissed.) Indeed, authorities do not necessarily believe that Duncan has ever been involved in a violent crime of any kind. Instead, San Diego authorities are charging him with the crime of profiting off of gang activity by making a rap album that talks about gang activity.
According to the LA Times,
Deputy Dist. Atty. Anthony Campagna noted of the case against Duncan, “We’re not just talking about an album of anything, of love songs.” The cover shows a revolver with bullets, Campagna told the judge.
The legal mechanism being used by the prosecution is CA-PC 182.5, which states that anyone who “willfully promotes, furthers, assists, or benefits from any felonious criminal conduct by members of that [criminal street] gang is guilty of conspiracy to commit that felony.” 1 It should be noted that prosecutors now say they have since uncovered social media posts that “prove” Duncan is a gang member; nonetheless, when he was arrested last May it was specifically and entirely for recording the rap album No Safety.
As of today, Duncan has already spent eight months in prison awaiting trial.
There are many ways in which we might discuss the odd case of Tiny Doo. The issue of free speech, always a hot topic round these parts, is probably the most obvious. (Though I will be very surprised if anyone here defends a 25-to-life consequence for making a rap album, even one with extremely violent and anti-social imagery.) There is, too, the legal issue. Obviously, IANABL. 2 But there are two obvious things of note on the legal side of things from a amateur such as myself: One, according to CA-PC 182.5, the authorities do indeed seem to have the authority to prosecute Duncan or any other rapper who raps about gang violence; two, it’s hard to believe that such a conviction would stand up to the inevitable appeal based on the First Amendment.
Today, however, I’d like to focus on the separate topic of race and music. Because what is happening to Brandon Duncan is not actually as outrageous and singular as we might like to think. The targeting of African American music and African American musicians — via government agency or political and social leaders — is actually as American as apple pie. As you will see, we’ve been doing it for as long as African Americans have been making music. And while there is probably truth to the claim that we’ve gotten better, the truth is we’ve never really ever stopped.
“It sounds like jungles in the dead of night.” – Harry Anslinger, Federal Bureau of Narcotics
Over at Politico, there is an excerpt of Johann Hari’s new book, The Hunting of Billie Holiday. And while I generally try to avoid linking to either Politco or a disgraced journalist such as Hari, it’s well worth the read.
In his book, Hari uses Holiday as the human prism from which to view the campaign by federal, state and local government bodies in the United States to eliminate jazz music in the early and mid-twentieth century. The campaign was actually far more widespread than the excerpt in Politico might lead one to believe; still, there is probably no better example of the anti-jazz mindset than Hari’s choice: Harry Anslinger, the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.
As Hari notes, jazz was considered dangerous by Anslinger because it was
mongrel music made up of European, Caribbean and African echoes, all mating on American shores. To Anslinger, this was musical anarchy and evidence of a recurrence of the primitive impulses that lurk in black people, waiting to emerge. “It sounded,” his internal memos said, “like the jungles in the dead of night.” Another memo warned that “unbelievably ancient indecent rites of the East Indies are resurrected” in this black man’s music. The lives of the jazzmen, he said, “reek of filth.”
Anslinger probably had more to do with America’s long-standing war against cannabis than anyone else. And while he certainly had problems with the drug itself, his main issue seems to have been with the social emergence of non-whites, especially in the world of the arts and entertainment.
“Please prepare all cases in your jurisdiction involving musicians in violation of the marijuana laws,” he wrote to his staff in 1939. “We will have a great national round-up arrest of all such persons on a single day.” Lest his staff misunderstand his main objective, as Hari notes, Anslinger added that the crackdown would affect not “the good musicians, but the jazz type.” As with all of the Bureau’s raids, the instructions were to shoot first.
It is important to note that Anslinger was not an aberration so much as a single link in a very long chain.
In the days prior to the Civil War, slave states made it a crime for slaves to possess drums or engage in drumming of any kind. This was by no means an arbitrary rule. Drums were used by slaves both as a way to communicate defiance and to plot uprisings. When you read of white Americans disapprovingly referring to the drums used in various types of black music as “jungle music” throughout US history, this is the root of it. The earliest seedling of America’s longstanding apprehension of black music was actually not the concern over the primitive dilution of white culture; it wast the fear of violent revolt.
This anti-drum strategy worked only so well, though. Slaves learned to talk and sing in odd (for the time), syncopated rhythms that mirrored the outlawed drumming styles. (Indeed, it is within this hidden and subversive vocal “drumming” that one can find the river source that would eventually lead to jazz, not to mention rock, reggae, funk, hip-hop, and really most every sub-genre of post-1950 popular music.)
In the early part of the nineteenth century, common wisdom held that in order to fully ingrain subjugation into the minds and hearts of blacks it was necessary to restrict their music and singing to Christian hymns. This, too, backfired. It wasn’t long before whites began to notice with some degree of alarm that blacks had developed their own “negro spirituals,” and that the thinly veiled, defiant themes of these songs ranged anywhere from escape (e.g.: Deep River) to bloody retribution against their masters (e.g.: Go Down Moses). Predictably, social and political leaders in both the North and the South began to speak out against the moral decay that was inseparably tied to this music, and authorities began to crack down on blacks who made too big a show of singing spirituals in public.
When seen in this context, the fearful reaction of American political, religious and cultural leaders to the advent of both the blues in the nineteenth century and jazz in the twentieth can be seen not as aberrations so much as part of a much larger tapestry. What’s more, this tapestry continued well past the jazz age.
We white Americans like to remember the war against rock and roll as a prudish stand against our being cooler than those who came before us. This is a conceit, and an inaccurate one. The reason that rock and roll was seen as a threat that needed to be censored (and in many places actually was) had nothing to do with Elvis, the Rolling Stones and Led Zepplin. It had to do with the source of the genre, which in the beginning was almost entirely made up of black musicians. The acceptance of rock had less to do with grownups being won over by it as it did with rock and roll gradually becoming seen as a white art form. This is true of every kind American music I can think of whose genesis comes from the minds and talents African-American.
The jailing of Brandon Duncan, aka Tiny Doo, is therefore nothing new. Rap and hip hop are currently undergoing the exact same hysterical moral condemnation that every from of black music in this country has had to overcome. And although I would argue we’ve probably come along way, we’ve not come nearly as far as we might like to think.
It is true, for example, that in today’s world we transform a certain number of black musicians into wealthy and beloved cultural icons even as we fret about the content of their music. It is also true, however, that we have always done this. Just as the twenty-first century has its Kanyes and Rihannas, so to did the nineteenth have its Frank Johnsons and Elizabeth Taylor Greenfields. 3
And even as mainstream society was applauding Harry Anslinger’s war against the “devil’s music” that was jazz, greats such as Duke Ellington and Mary Lou Williams were the toast of countless upper-crust black-tie parties in their honor — often being praised on those nights by the very public leaders who loudly condemned the moral lacking of their genre in the day.
It is true as well that in our modern and advanced present, we can say that our true objections to rap and hip hop are contained within those certain songs that have morally indefensible messages — murder, misogyny, drugs, outlaw mentality, etc. However, this too holds up less well to historical scrutiny. Go Down Moses, after all, has a not very veiled threat to kill the children of whites in retaliation for the crimes of their parents; a more horrific message is hard to find in most rap albums today. Yet we treat this song as an American standard; some of us even happily sing it in church on Sundays.
There is too the issue of double standards. For almost every complaint against rap and hip hop by those who would use it as culture-war fodder, there is ample evidence that similar complaints against white artists never transpire. The “fish ‘em and leave ‘em” trope might well be a poor choice of message to send to impressionable young men just starting out in the world of sex and romance. It’s also just as much of a staple of white rock and pop music as it is rap and hip hop. If there’s a popular conservative talk radio host out there explaining to his audience that the problem with whites is Satisfaction and The Wanderer, I’ve certainly never heard them. Likewise, it was a genuine controversy in our country when the rapper Common visited the White House. The problem, we were told, was largely based on his song Song for Assata. 4 Whether or not it is appropriate or for the writer of such a song to be invited to the White House is a question that’s up for debate. What isn’t up for debate is this: There is nothing in Song for Assata that you can’t find over and over in the music of Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, or Bruce Springsteen — all of who have been invited to the White House by multiple presidential administrations, none of which merited the slightest whiff of concern.
In fact, it’s worth noting that there really is nothing that Brandon “Tiny Doo” Duncan has done that hasn’t been done over and over by other artists — not just black, but white as well. And if he is guilty of the sin of making money off the public image of gangs, than so too is Francis Ford Coppola, David Chase, and the Cohen brothers. None of whom, you will notice, any prosecutor in California is lining up to file charges against. Indeed, the real reason that Duncan has been sitting in jail might well be the lethal combination of being black, being a rapper, being controversial, and having neither a major-label record contract nor a large fan base.
Regardless, Tiny Doo is far from being the first African American to be targeted for making black music. He also won’t be the last.
[Pictures: Fisk Jubilee Singers, 1882 via Wikipedia; screenshot of No Safety album, Amazon; Harry Alinger, Wikipedia, Old Plantation Banjo Drum Wikipedia, Elizabeth Greenfield, Wikipedia, Rapper Common, Wikipedia]
- Though the law specifically relates to “street gangs,” it should be noted that California’s definition of such — which is specified in CA-PC 186.22-Subdivision f — can be broadly read to include just about any group of three or more people either committing or associating with someone who does commit a felony.
- IANABL = I Am Not A Burt Likko
- History has largely forgotten Frank Johnson and Elizabeth Taylor Greenfeild, but two hundred years ago each of them was da bomb. Each used to sell out the country’s largest concert halls to wildly cheering white audiences. At the peak of their success, each was arguably the most famous and popular musical performer in America.
Taylor was by all reports a master showman as well as an unparalleled band leader, who would go back and forth from safe-for-whites standards to “negro songs,” both of which were eaten up by polite society. Greenfield, meanwhile, was dubbed “the Black Swan” by no less than the New York Times, and at one time she became so renowned that the Queen Victoria paid for here to study “English music” and perform at Buckingham palace, just to see what all the Yankee fuss was about. She went on to form a highly respected opera company in Philadelphia
- If you’re familiar with the controversy but not the actual song, you can find the lyrics here and the history behind them here.