Jazz, genre fusion as stereotyping, and Gershwin

George Gershwin was an internationally renowned composer most famous in the 1910s through the 1930s. Starting out as a song plugger, he eventually worked his way up the food chain as a composer, and he got so far up that, when he asked Maurice Ravel to teach him composition, Ravel said that Gershwin should teach him (1)! Much of his body of work is still performed today, such as “Rhapsody in Blue”, the opera “Porgy and Bess” and the most famous song from it, “Summertime”, and “Fascinating Rhythm” (2).

The most prominent feature of Gershwin’s compositional style is the fusion of jazz with other classical advances in composition. Other composers of the time period, like Copland, were also fusing genres, but Gershwin was more outright about including specific techniques and harmonic progressions that were known to be used solely in jazz. “Rhapsody in Blue” is a prime example of this. Gershwin also was inspired by French composers like Ravel, Debussy and Nadia Boulanger, and fused those along with jazz and other American musical tropes (1).

While Gershwin helped bring attention to jazz as a legitimate genre amongst concertgoers (3), many Black musicians share understandably mixed feelings about how Gershwin adopted Black music conventions. One of the primary reasons for these criticisms comes in “Porgy and Bess” (here is a link to its most famous number, “Summertime”).

The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess and the Quest for American Opera – UMS –  University Musical Society

“Porgy and Bess” is a story about Black characters that stereotypes a lot of their actions, as the novel upon which the opera was based was written by a white man and displayed how he thought Black people lived (6). Within the plot, there is a cocaine dealer with purchases made off him, a murder, and marital infidelity, which isn’t abnormal for the plot of an opera, but in the context of minstrelsy stereotyping that Black people thought infidelity was fine, it is certainly questionable (4). In terms of cocaine, it was demonized at the time and was stereotyped as a Black drug that caused them to commit more crime, especially in the South (5). Karen Henson also argues that each character in “Porgy and Bess” represent certain common minstrel characters: Porgy resembles ‘Samba’, the cocaine dealer Sportin’ Life represents ‘Trickster’, and Bess represent ‘Jezebel’ (7).

Apart from how problematic “Porgy and Bess” is, there were positives in getting actually Black actors and featuring Black styles of music more respectfully than most in the traditionally white-dominated field of opera at the time. While helping jazz and Black music become more respected and legitimized was helpful, other people were also doing it at the same time just as well as he was who were actually Black, like Burleigh and Joplin. Efforts should be made to uplift Black voices from this time period more.

Sources:

(1) “George Gershwin.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, November 6, 2022. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Gershwin#Musical_style_and_influence.

(2) Paul Whiteman Orchestra. Fascinating Rhythm. Vinyl recording. New York, New York: Victor, 1924.

(3) Downes, Olin. “Gershwin Caused New Jazz Values.” The New York Times, July 12, 1937, 86 edition.

(4) Lemons, J. Stanley. “Black Stereotypes as Reflected in Popular Culture, 1880-1920.” American Quarterly 29, no. 1 (1977): 102–16. https://doi.org/10.2307/2712263.

(5) Courtwright, David T. “The Hidden Epidemic: Opiate Addiction and Cocaine Use in the South, 1860-1920.” The Journal of Southern History 49, no. 1 (1983): 57–72. https://doi.org/10.2307/2209306.

(6) “Porgy and Bess.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, October 23, 2022. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Porgy_and_Bess#Synopsis.

(7) Henson, Karen. “Black Opera, Operatic Racism and an ‘Engaged Opera Studies.’” Journal of the Royal Musical Association 146, no. 1 (2021): 219–30. doi:10.1017/rma.2020.27.

The Misrepresentation of Native American Culture in Mass Media

In the modern day of 2017, so much of our lives are spent online. We as people have the universe at our fingertips – with so much information out there, what all can be considered trustworthy? An issue with the concept of Mass Media is that anything and everything can be found somewhere online. Anyone who is able to access the internet is able to contribute their information and knowledge. Like moths to a flame, we are instantly bound to the first bit of information we see and accept it as fact. This leads to many issues spanning across many topics. In the past few years, the concept of “Cultural Appropriation” has exploded across everywhere and everything. To be correct when describing, defining, or demonstration any form of culture is so incredibly vital that issues arise when someone does this incorrectly. With it being so easy to misappropriate a culture in Media, what are we able to trust and how does the mass media change our perception of different cultures through their ideas of appropriation?

Native American culture is found in the roots of this country’s foundation. Often, when considering American history we forget that America was populated BEFORE 18th century colonization. The culture of Native Americans is one that has been appropriated for hundreds of years, through music, art, dance, etc. Because of this, our concept of this culture has been warped by pop culture and media as demonstrated in this cartoon…

This cartoon presents the problem of misappropriation. This boy only identifies “Indians” as the overly stereotypical form displayed in movies, sports teams, or cartoons. To him, this girl who looks “normal” doesn’t fit that stereotype and thus he questions her cultural authenticity.

Another example of this kind of appropriation occurs in cartoons. One example in particular is in Seth Macfarlane’s TV cartoon comedy “Family Guy”. In the episode The Life of Brian the episode begins with Stewie and Brian running from a band of Indians in a modern day city. They explore and make racist remarks about their ways of transportation, medicine, clothing, and music.

These two clips, both from the same episode, demonstrate the racist humor that Macfarlane is demonstrating. Examples like having the doctor at the hospital stand in a bunch of poses to try to cure disease, using smoke signals instead of phones, and having their most popular song be mono-tonal unison chanting are prime examples of Native American Appropriation. This kind of appropriation Macfarlane uses can even be found in other forms of music, such as Dvorak Symphony No 9 movement 2, largo. In this movement he references Native American tribal melodies. Of course, what he notates is only a small, itemized fraction of what the actual melody would have been and what it was to represent. Was Dvorak trying specifically to be incorrect, probably not, but still – some find this use of melody an unfair representation of the true culture. 

In 2017, being able to rid our minds of ignorance and to be able to fully understand and be aware of the sensitivities of other cultures is imperative. The massed media and pop culture has shaped our minds around what being a Native American or an “Indian” means. These stereotypes are preventing us as a nation from knowing the rich and long history of Native Americans and their culture. As Russell Means says in this video: “A nation that does not know its history, has no future”

Sources

Kanke, Marie. “The Harm of Native Stereotyping.” Blue Corn Comics — The Harm of Native Stereotyping:  Facts and Evidence. August 08, 2006. Accessed September 25, 2017. http://www.bluecorncomics.com/stharm.htm.

TheUlleberg. “Family guy – Native American/Indian Radio.” YouTube. March 07, 2014. Accessed September 25, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=octtLcjJshw.

Jinpaul11. “Family Guy – Native Americans.” YouTube. May 07, 2017. Accessed September 25, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PGcW3kjcFSU.

Diesillamusicae. “Dvořák: Symphony №9, “From The New World” – II – Largo.” YouTube. September 02, 2011. Accessed September 26, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ASlch7R1Zvo.

Framesinmotion2007. “How Hollywood stereotyped the Native Americans.” YouTube. October 31, 2007. Accessed September 25, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_hJFi7SRH7Q.

Walt Minstry: Jungle Book’s Blackface Performance

Disney’s The Jungle Book, released in 1967, was a huge box office success. The film was praised highly for its attention to voice casting as a primary identifier of character’s personality and animation. Unfortunately, it is this exact quality which creates some problematic issues.

The monkeys of the jungle are racially coded as black, a problematic choice of animal characterization, and further worsened by aural stereotypes. In their essay “The Movie You See, The Movie You Don’t,” scholars Susan Miller and Greg Rhode note that “Jungle Book frequently relies on verbal class and gender stereotyping for its “innocent” fun, displacing the visual black and white of Song of the South onto aural stereotypes.” While the animation of monkeys would clearly not be racist, specifically representing those monkeys as African American puts the innocence of intentions a little more into question.

The very lyrics and style of the song King Louis sings become quickly controversial in light of the black coded nature assigned to his character. The famous song, “I Want to Be Like You” which King Louis and the monkeys sing, is all about the desire they hold to be human. The refraining chorus states: “Ooh, ooh, oh! I wanna be like you, I wanna walk like you, talk like you, too ooh, ooh. You’ll see it’s true, ooh, ooh! An ape like me, ee, ee. Can learn to be Juoo ooh man, too ooh, ooh.” Writing an entire song about the monkeys desiring recognition as humans, and clearly coding those monkeys as black poses an incredibly racist issue in the film, highly inappropriate for a children’s animation.

Next, the issue of the black coded nature becomes further problematic by the fact that they are once again played by white actors. Just as Jim Crow in Dumbo was voiced by white actor Cliff Edwards, so King Louis is voiced by white actor Louis Prima. While it would clearly be racist to choose African American voices to present these stereotypes, it is in many ways worse to choose a white actor to play a clear racial stereotype as this is the exact premise behind blackface minstrel performances.

Even within the plot of jungle book itself, the idea of minstrelsy is promoted by the fact that Baloo dresses up in monkey attire, and proceeds to imitate and sing the same song as King Louis. Baloo, as a non-monkey, donning “monkeyface” and performing in exaggerated style, his perceived understanding of what that means, is a close parallel to blackface in which a white, dons “blackface” and proceeds to imitate a black coded performance based on offensive stereotypes.

Comparing the images of Baloo in monkey attire, with images of blackface performers, once again the similarities are disturbingly similar. The hair, large lips, cartoonish body language, Baloo is clearly putting on a blackface performance with King Louis.

jungle bookblackface

The images and parallels, promotion and reinforcement of blackface minstrel performance in today’s society is still present and alive in areas many don’t realize. Perhaps more disturbing is attempting to understand how to respond to such images in our culture. It is difficult to determine the intentionality of these types of images and stereotypes present in The Jungle Book. Are the creators deliberately placing racist material in their films, or are these simply embedded structures that people promote without realizing or understanding the implications of their meaning? Would boycotting any film which presents these stereotypes prove helpful in any regard? Ultimately, the only way that a society can change is through each individual influence on it. Becoming better educated in historical traditions, mistakes, and problems can help us become more aware of them in today’s society and prevent us from incorporating them into our own productions of art, actions, or words. By understanding the history of traditions such as blackface and minstrelsy we can become more aware of their presence in films such as The Jungle Book and make better judgments and criticisms of their problematic issues and hopefully prevent the continuation of them in future films.

Works Cited:

Miller, Susan, and Greg Rode. “The Movie You See, The Movie You Don’t.” From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender, and Culture.” Ed. Bell, Elizabeth, and Lynda Haas, Laura Sells. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995. 86-103. Print.