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Dear Rappers: Please Stop Dancing Like Minstrels

    So, it happened again. Another grainy video came out of a rapper dancing feverishly on a table while record label executives sat in boredom. As new Interscope rapper Eearz bounced up and down on the makeshift stage, producer MikeWillMadeIt filmed and Interscope executives looked as if they were more concerned with their dinner than anything he was talking about. It was his lifetime in a moment, merely a moment in their lifetime.

    This is the third such instance I can recall in the past two years. Bobby Shmurda infamously performed on a table for Epic Records execs in 2014. In February of this year, Brooklyn rapper Desiigner did his manic, one-man-dance-crew act on a table for XXL magazine. The lanky MC could barely stand up upright on the table, but that didn’t stop him from putting on his impromptu performance.

    If the execs were at least nodding their heads with the artist, these scenes wouldn’t be so jarring. But the collective non-chalance of the labelheads compound with the artists’ counterproductive lyrics and leaves the moments ripe for negative interpretation. XXL took their Desiigner video down—seemingly acknowledging how odd it was. A writer for the magazine and a Twitter user deemed the Earz scene “awkward,” but neither explained why.

    Many “post-racial,” “colorblind” people rarely want to take it there, but let’s be honest: the parallels between segments of mainstream Hip-Hop and the minstrel shows of yesteryear exist. When it comes to any entity in America, race has to be taken into account for proper contextualization.

    In the early 1800s, the first Minstrel shows were white men performing in Black face, depicting Black people as lazy, buffoonish and sex-crazed. When Black minstrel troupes began popping up in 1850, they were full of slaves who further-caricatured their experience. The troupes were marketed as more authentic shows, because the performers were actually slaves. Their performances served their owner’s agenda to both exploit them for profit and reinforce negative stereotypes. These “Sambo” routines frequently depicted Blacks as ever-eager to please their masters.

    Sound vaguely familiar?

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    Minstrels dancing for audience

    That said, by no means is any comparison of Hip-Hop and minstrelsy air tight. There are many mainstream Hip-Hop acts that sidestep buffoonery, and it’s also to be noted that Hip-Hop acts receive significantly more of the proceeds from their expression than any Minstrel act did. Most importantly, the intent of even the most controversial Hip-Hop artist is likely far from that of a minstrel show.

    Whereas “Sambo“ acts knew full-well the entirety of their performance was meant to cow-tow and mock their own people for the entertainment of others, kids like Bobby Shmurda and Eearz are essentially just trying to “get on” and make money by making music that they think people want to hear. They’re likely unaware of the connection, but that doesn’t mean I am.

    Seeing these kids dancing in a boardroom for their shot on a figurative conveyor belt of exploitative contracts was disheartening. The videos harken back to a time when Black people thought their worth was in their servitude to the white establishment’s interests. The scenes highlight uncomfortable similarities to the industry of minstrelsy and the modern Hip-Hop game.

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    A Group of Whites Ogling a Minstel Show 

    This isn’t meant to be a condemnation, just a wakeup call for artists to be more cognizant of their actions. Young artists who don’t know their past are doomed to repeat it. Hopefully the table turn up trend can be nipped in the bud, and young rappers can realize relationships with these labels are strictly business. Major label executives are not friends, or necessarily fans of their artists.

    Musical ability (or potential profitability) is what got the artists in the door, there’s no need for them to work overtime to prove their worthiness. Instead of laughing or staying silent about the odd disconnect in these videos, we should collectively ask ourselves: if these executives can’t even feign excitement about an artist on signing day, what will they do if bad soundscan numbers come in?

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    Andre G is a freelance writer, poet, music producer and co-founder of ColorTheFuture.org, a platform for young artists of color. @melaninaire