I’ve been thinking about and listening to a lot of Louis Armstrong lately. It all started with me thinking of my grandfather and Armstrong’s “Black and Blue.” I’m almost surprised at how well Armstrong’s music translates across time. It resists whatever elements of its own time that would have held it there. I watched an exceptional conversation on youtube that Robert O’Meally facilitated between Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch about Armstrong and his legacy. At one point, Marsalis linked Armstrong to a conversation about dignity that I found intriguing. Marsalis contends that Armstrong’s favorite trumpet player was Joe Oliver because “he played with a lot of dignity.” So what’s striking to me is that minstrel images still cling to Louis Armstrong’s presentation at the same time that you encounter the dignity of his music. There is no question that Armstrong played himself up as a clown before white audiences and was legitimately accused of “Uncle Tomming” by scores of black folk. However, his artistry and excellence of craftsmanship overcomes the social limitations that informed his self-presentation. His seeming collusion with a will to emasculate him gets overridden by the grandeur of his sound. Thus, his music, the quality of it, its sophistication, its dignity, mounts a strong challenge to the sole triumph of the denigrating potential of his exaggerated grinning and bucked eyes. His command of the notes restores his humanity. So what of the dignity and integrity of contemporary music?
I know this question may seem kind of stale to you but let me try to reinvigorate it through a discussion of how I am thinking of it anew. I was in a meeting recently where the goal was to try and help an organization to develop a mission statement. Our discussion leader wanted to prompt our thinking around a series of words. One of the participants responded to the list of terms that included “integrity,” “excellence,” and “discipline” by saying that she wanted “‘integrity’ off the list because like “love” it was so overused as to be meaningless.” I found her remarks deeply affecting. How can one say anything meaningful, I wondered, without “integrity” and “love?” While I certainly appreciated the point about the diminished value of overused terms, I thought it equally damaging to respond through the concession of such important words. “What might it require to make “integrity” a resonant term?” I wondered. “How do you reposition “love” so that it resounds in useful ways?” Rather than toss “integrity” and “love” aside, I wondered how they might be salvaged so that they would be available for our employment. I thought about this as I watched about six minutes of “Niggas In Paris.” What do we do with this legacy of dignity and integrity of performance as it contends with contemporary musical expression?
Maybe it’s a moralizing question, but it came up for me when I saw a clip from the “Watch the Throne” tour from Paris where Jay-Z and Kanye West performed for three hours at the Palais Omnisports de Paris-Bersy. The pair reportedly performed their wildly successful single “Niggas in Paris” eleven times for over 50 minutes.
The song begins by focusing on the improbability of being a black man with freedom and wealth. It further engages the rappers’ sense of disorientation surrounding the improbability of their freedom and wealth and how that gets negotiated in their relationships with others. For the many of us outside of this notion of good fortune, they document their wealth in concrete terms. And so we get a chronicle of the many exceedingly expensive goods they can purchase without fretting the expense. Since I don’t spend very much time dreaming of consumer goods beyond what I can afford, I was unfamiliar with the Audemars brand. When I looked it up, I saw watches that cost over one million dollars. The least expensive ones cost over two hundred thousand dollars. I love watches. Even as a child I enjoyed them. My first one was a Mickey Mouse watch with a black leather band. I enjoy the craftsmanship of a well made timepiece, but I can’t imagine spending one million dollars on one. I just can’t imagine that my experience of time would be worth the expense of the watch. I don’t accept that a million dollar watch makes one’s experience of time more meaningful. So even if I had the money, I can’t see that I would own an Audemars watch. Now, I do like having a clean environment so I think finding clean, well-maintained, and safe lodging is important. But since $965 a night is out of my price range, my own trip to Paris did not involve plans for a stay at Le Meurice. When I looked up Jay’s reference to the Le Meurice, I thought its citing a good example of his noted thoughtfulness. Given the royal suggestion in the title of he and Kanye’s CD as well as their tour, the hotel’s description as “the hotel of royals” and the pied a tier of “celebrity royalty,” Jay’s reference fits. The hotel’s history was also of interest to me as 1771 gets cited. The Atlantic Ocean was filled with the traffic in slaves at this time. All of the people coming and going into the hotel that Jay cites did so with slavery as its backdrop, as a part of the business that afforded and defined the luxuriousness and opulence of it. That Jay can be one who enters the hotel as a guest and not an item of exchange or a unit of capital in the Atlantic world economy stands out. But what also stands out is how disconnected from the visual economy of this legacy his references were.
Though there are many images of the transatlantic world economy that could have been used to reinforce the point of Jay’s reference, none of them were. “NIGGAS IN PARIS” stands in for all of these other more compelling images. It lights up in white letters against a black screen and flickers on and off for over 50 minutes. There are examples of how “niggas in Paris” have experienced discrimination that could have also resonated with a French audience. Nearly two years ago now, the French police were shown on video dragging pregnant black women on the ground, sometimes with their barebacked infant children on the cement in order to stop them from protesting their eviction from apartments in the Seine-Saint-Denis suburb of Paris. Why not loop this very disturbing video? The ethnic tension between North African French and European French as well as the religious intolerance confronting the Muslim population in a secular state since September 11 could have given Jay and Kanye plenty of material to draw from. Perhaps fusing his song “Glory” about his daughter Blue Ivy and those related images might have been set against the girls in French schools who were prohibited from wearing veils. It seems to me that the nearly one hour looping of this song could have been more meaningful had it worked better with the conditions on the ground. There are marginalized folk in Paris now who are feeling the kind of estrangement that Jay and Kanye have moved beyond. So what is the relationship between the world they came from, the place where they are performing this song, and the people who are rockin’ with him over it? In general, how does the sense of disorientation of those who would expect to be marginalized in the States relate to the disillusionment of those ethnic and religious minorities living on the edges, the suburbs, the banlieues, in France? What was the crowd actually responding to? Were they rejoicing in Jay’s unlikely ascendency? Energized over extending a similar unlikeliness to the minorities in their midst?
What Louis Armstrong’s example shows us is that dignity humanizes. I don’t want to dismiss the possibility of there being dignity in Jay and Kanye’s performance but I found it hard to find. Even as someone who believes that words can be recuperated and put to novel uses, I found their use of “Nigga” merely excessive; it just feels like waste. I understand that a part of the song’s goal is to provoke but I wonder if the provocation itself contains some dignity. In other words, what about their performance can meaningfully endure beyond their time in the way that Armstrong’s music did for him? Given that they spent over 53 minutes on that song, what was the point? Some websites that I looked at that discussed “Niggas in Paris” as it was performed this weekend seemed to revel in the fact that the duo made history in backing up this track eleven times; but so what? Even though their goal is to entertain, the will to entertain does not negate a consideration of the place and role of dignity. Armstrong’s example highlights this point. His musical performance was always in conversation with his self-presentation. The contemporary example, I think, allows us to engage the way that dignity still matters at the party. A party that makes dignity irrelevant is a dangerous affair, I don’t care how rich its hosts. (I think the new Great Gatsby film makes this point.)
It is not a good idea for us to enter into any space and to imagine that “dignity” has no place; that it should be taken “off the list.” The force of dignity to recover the force of our humanity makes it a worthy aim for our ambitions.