African American male rappers have long endorsed products in commercials. Google “A Brief History of Rappers in Soda Commercials” and “20 Best Rap Commercials of All Time.” There’s nothing inherently problematic aesthetically, creatively, or politically about non-black rapping. I am curious about the television ads and viral YouTube videos that use hip-hop solely to entertain primarily through a comedic end. Such creations beg critical exploration.
Most recently, the December 2013 “Xmas Jammies” YouTube video of a middle-class white, heteronormative nuclear family from Raleigh, N.C. — mom, dad, two kids living in suburbia with their two-story home and brand new 2014 red Toyota Prius V that matches their new Christmassy red and green pajamas. The video Christmas card updates friends, family, and now the cyber world on the accomplishments of the children and the parents via a cover of Will Smith’s “Welcome to Miami.” The kids are adorable; the perky parents talented actors and performers. The piece is technically flawless and even attention-grabbing and they rightfully choose Smith’s music since he is a mainstream non-gangsta rapper — lacking homophobia, excessive glorification of material excess, and misogyny. Nevertheless, trappings of middle-class whiteness achieve the cute, clever, and ultimately silly funny at the expense of another’s cultural creations. Theirs is one of the many examples of whiteness constructing blackness through mockery, what Spike Lee calls “coonery and buffoonery” when critiquing Tyler Perry’s Madea franchise. “Xmas Jammies” even includes an offensive home movie excerpt within the video of the little son doing some school play decked out in full “Indian” costume and dancing with his other little female classmates presumably costumed as Pocahontas. With over 12 million views, “Xmas Jammies” is yet another iteration of the all-American family — educated, attractive, thin, and privileged — urning to imitations of constructions of blackness for fun and silliness.
“Xmas Jammies” flirts with the disturbing wave of corporate and personal performance that resurrect 19th century American minstrelsy of T.D. Rice, and later Al Jolson and Amos ‘n’ Andy — a popular entertainment where mostly white males blackened their faces and pretended to be blacks unintelligent or unaccomplished coons and buffoons solely for the amusement white audiences. Blacks like Bert Williams later blackened their own faces for commercial reasons, and blackface-on-black actor minstrelsy is as much about American marketplace as well as about individuals who participated in these entertainments representing highly problematic and regressive constructions or race, gender, and class.
A bevy of mainstream American commercials with white middle-class families rapping and dancing with over-exaggerating postures and gestures as though they are the stereotypical black “gangsta” rappers and blinged out thugs exist. They are applauded as creative genius on national morning talk shows that neither critique nor problematize the social constructions at play. Jim Edwards observes in Moneywatch (May 2010) that “the joke in all the ads is that the characters are white but everything they’re doing appears black — or at least underlines how non-black they are. In other words, these ads are only funny if you accept their stereotypical premise: That black Americans like to chant songs about their hustler lifestyles while white people mostly don’t.” Christine Huang, head of cultural trends at Globalhue, an ad agency specializing in campaigns that target minorities, also concludes from the range of ads and companies that “the joke here is that there’s no black people in the ads. It’s a modern take on blackface or ‘minstrelsy.’”
Such participation of the corporate world in this cultural mocking for comedy is clear in the “Toyota Swagger Wagon,” a video with all of the exaggerated hand gestures, Ebonics and slang. Interestingly, the family steps out the “gangsta” rapper role multiple times during the performance to assume their more sensible whiteness as responsible adult parents, all again for comic mockery and costuming. The ad challenges the construction of the uncool white “soccer mom and dad” and the image of carpooling and PTA — as passionless whiteness. Some scholars of American minstrelsy say that putting on blackface literally and figuratively was liberatory for whites caught in order and structure of “whiteness.” Blackness, on the other hand, then gave whites permission and a venue to “let it all hang out.” The manifestations of these white liberatory efforts have not been flattering to black folks creatively or culturally. The lyrics to the performance are telling.
When examined closely, what comes off on the surface as cute is a mockery of language and culture, re-inscribing whiteness as social accomplishment, smartness and intelligence, social order and structure and blackness as chaos and wild. In the case of these two white families, blackness as performance to entertain other like-minded ones.
Critiquing these performances is not about political correctness run amuck or about cultural or political hypersensitivity. It’s about acknowledging when and how a dominant culture mocks, stereotypes, or otherwise caricatures another culture as one-dimensional rather than acknowledging the extent to which a cultural subgroup has substantially transformed dominant culture domestically and globally in new and innovative creative expressions. Statistically, young white males are the biggest consumers of mainstream hip-hop music. If it so easy to devalue a legitimate cultural creation by reducing it to entertainment and laughs, it’s easy to devalue the creators of that original cultural expression.
• Ahwatukee resident Neal A. Lester, PhD, is a foundation professor of English and director of Project Humanities at Arizona State University.