Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Unpacking The "Other" meanings of "Urban" and "Urbanization" and the effects of "Urban" culture upon the mainstream American culture


Christopher F. Brown

Prof. Sean Nash

African American Art History 



Unpacking The "Other" meanings of "Urban" and "Urbanization" and the effects of "Urban" culture upon the mainstream American culture


What is meant by the word, "Urban" when not used in the context of comparison to words such as, "rural" or "suburb?" Does the word "Urban," when used outside of the previously mentioned context mean; something negative, African American, Black, Latino, or is the word a more insidious way of saying Ethnic? When the word, "Urban" is applied to art, literature, music, dance, food, clothes, culture, or a group of people, does it denote something less harmful than something that is dangerous? Is the word another way to describe the destructive force of cultural appropriation? When the use of the word, "Urban" becomes systematic and a process for describing aspects of a culture that one might have close proximity to, but not a part of, does this then add a new meaning to the term, "Urbanization" as well as, "Urban?" Does the term, "urban" become more favorable than using other adjectives like, "street" or "gritty" and is "urbanization," in this context, the opposite of "gentrification?" All of these questions are examples of what is hidden in the meaning(s) of the words "Urban" and "Urbanization."  When I write the word, "Urbanization" I do not mean the process by which more people move and populate areas solely designed and developed for the benefit of homo sapiens. I also do not mean the shifting of cultural thoughts by which secular, and individualistic values are adopted as the primary norms and mores of the majority cultural group. When the words "Urban" and "Urbanization" are used, I will be examining why there is a sense of them implying being of African American culture, being "black" and or having sense of, or feel of "blackness," also, I will examine why one aspect of American culture views the words, "Urban" and "Urbanization" with a sense of awe and acceptance while some use and view the words as having a negative concatenation.


In America, as far back as slavery, things that African Americans did were simultaneously shunned and viewed as inherently deviant and degenerate behavior and nature; while being praised as innovative mimicked privately and sometimes openly. A primary example of early acceptance of African American culture, of early cultural appropriation, early, "urbanization" can be found when looking at the early art forms, and even the modern art forms of Jazz and Blues. After Emancipation and World Wars I & II, many African Americans moved out of the south and took their unique culture with them. What was readily liked and transmitted on radio, records, movies, and television was just as quickly mimicked. The musical art forms known as Jazz and The Blues, while some said were degrading to the soul and disruptive to the very fabric of the greater American cultural fabric and should be left to African Americans to listen and play in their houses of disrepute some, mainly the youth of America that was not African American at the time, saw Jazz and The Blues as interesting, and fascinating and simply cool and began the process of learning and mimicking what everything they could and eventually making valid contributions to said art forms.


The Blues could be found in many areas of the south but Jazz was, "city music," to hear good jazz you had to hear it live because in the south at that time, few had, or could afford, record players. One wishing to hear Jazz, to learn Jazz, had to move to the city, the "Big" city. One had to not only abandon the rural ways of the agrarian south, but replace them with the ways of the city one had to become, "urban." One did not go out into the field and gather their food, one went to the store and purchased their food. One did not raise and slaughter their own meat, one went to the butcher. One's primary source of income came from working in a factory or public service instead of sharecropping, farming, or field-hand work. Adapting to life in the city is the first and more known meaning of the word, "Urbanization" one transforming themselves to be better suited to a life in a metropolitan city, an "urban" city.  The second meaning of the words, "Urban" and "Urbanization" came when one now had time for leisure. When the transplant that moved from the rural south or some other part of rural america had money and time to enjoy themselves they went and saw the live Jazz band that was comprised of mainly African Americans. The transplant learned to appreciate this music and when they could afford record players they played this Jazz music in their homes, having parties playing this music and congregating with others that enjoyed this Jazz music and the surrounding Jazz culture. This is when the transplant would begin to be labeled as, "Urban" by those "back home."

There was also the scenario where the transplant was actually African America whom left the rural area to pursue their dream of being an artists and abandoned the rural ways of their home. The African American artists transplant that lived from gig to gig with small jobs in between was now "city folk," they had white, Latin, and maybe even Asian, friends and had rent parties with illegal liquor to fill in any gaps to pay the bills that the gigs and part time job did not. These multiracial parties would spread the Jazz culture, around just as did the speak eases.  These early "city-folk" became to define what it meant to be culturally "urban" and unspokenly, that early definition, that early label came to mean; to be a part of, to be around, to know and like, black city dwelling African Americans.


When one thinks of an "Urban" area today one might instantly think of a predominately non-rural African American neighborhood. One today might also hear or think of the word, "Urban" and instantaneously associate that African American neighborhood as being, "Ghetto." The average person today does not understand that a "Ghetto" simply means a concentration of a particular racial or ethnic group regulated to a particular area of city, town, country, or kingdom. The word it's self-originated from early Venetian use in 1516 denoting the section of the city where the Jewish population was regulated and confined to living, many of the ghettos of medieval Europe were walled off from the rest of the city and were closed at night or during Christian holidays. When the understanding of the word, "ghetto" is attained, one can derive the modern meaning and usage. The way the word, "Ghetto" is used today is meant as any area where there is a concentration of one particular racial or ethnic group. Typically, a, "Ghetto" is stereotypically thought to be recognized by large areas of blight, high crime rates, extreme poverty, and a population that has very little to no education. The, "Ghetto" residents are also believed to be low class and lacking in culture. The stereotype is continued by the belief that citizens of the "ghettos" and xenophobic and would readily pounce upon any intruders or outsiders.  This fallacy of logic is readily proven false when one examines the process of gentrification. The modern stereotype of today states that someone or something that is, "urban" is, or slightly less than the stereotypical meaning of, "Ghetto." If a female that is labeled, "Ghetto" was to dye her hair burgundy and bright pink, her and her dyed hair might be labeled nothing more than, "Ghetto," but if a female that was from the same city, but not the "ghetto" area, or even a female that was not from the same city but a city in general, long as she was not from any area or section considered "ghetto," were to dye their hair in the same fashion, then the hair style and themselves would be considered, labeled "Urban."


Understanding the stereotypical meaning of, "Ghetto" one can logically extrapolate that every, town, city, county, state, country, and nation should have, what is stereotypically understood as, "Ghettos," there should be "Ghettos" in China, Russia, Eastern Europe so one is left to question, why is it assumed, that modern ghettos are a uniquely American, uniquely African American and Latino phenomenon? One is also left to question; why is it that when one uses the term(s) "Ghetto"/ "Urban" area, one that is not from a "Ghetto"/ "Urban" area automatically associates a negative aspect to both of those terms and people from those areas have been deemed such.


When one that does not view being "Ghetto"/ "Urban" as having negative aspects one then might seek to become "Ghetto"/ "Urban." Becoming "Ghetto"/ "Urban" is achieved by supplanting oneself into a "Ghetto"/ "Urban" area and associating very closely with stereotypical "Ghetto"/ "Urban" African Americans or Latinos that they have deemed less aggressive and more mild mannered that they classically stereotyped "Ghetto"/ "Urban" African American or Latino. The one that seeks to become "Ghetto"/ "Urban" then supplants themselves into the factious "Ghetto"/ "Urban" area, surrounded by "Ghetto"/ "Urban" people and then starts the process of cultural appropriation, in reverse if it is done by a person from a culturally majority group, and transforming themselves into something that could be authenticated as "Ghetto"/ "Urban." While the supplanter might make a distinction between being, "Ghetto" and being "Urban" the larger American society as a whole might not. While society as a whole might label the supplanter as, edgy, street, gritty, or the goal "Urban" depending on the how deeply a supplanter has immersed themselves into say "Ghetto"/ "Urban" culture they might be called and labeled "Ghetto" A white woman that lives in a stereotypical classified "Ghetto"/ "Urban" area whom speaks and behaves in a particular manner that is stereotypically associated with African Americans or Latinos and does not "switch" said linguistics and or behavior when placed in professional environments such as a office, school, or employment setting is said then not given the label of, "Urban" but is in fact labeled, "Ghetto." The white woman that lives in and or regularly associates with African Americans and or Latinos that are stereotypically labeled "Ghetto"/ "Urban" but does not adopt or can switch the previously mentioned speech and behavioral patterns is said to be, Street, gritty, edgy, and maybe the ultimate goal, "Urban."


As I stated above, this is just a touch of cultural appropriation in reverse. The culture of the majority group is abandoning their own culture and adopting the culture of the minority group. As I alluded to above, this normally does not happen in rural areas where the culture of said rural area is singular so again this process is often said thought of as becoming, "Urban." This pattern and process of adopting the culture of the minority group I call, "Urbanization" because ever since humanity created cities that encompassed more than one race or ethnic group, this "Urbanization" has taken place. Romans, adopted and renamed Greek Gods as their own. The Greeks implanted themselves so thoroughly into Egyptian culture that over many generations, they spawned a half Greek line of pharaohs that in turn spawned one of the most famous Egyptian people to westerns, Cleopatra. This supplantation was again so through   most do not even know that the word, "Egypt" is actually the Greek word for, "Kemet" which in the original language meant, "Land of the blacks" and that the word, "Pharaoh" is another Greek word for "Ha-Ra" meaning "House of Ra/ home of the most high God."


The process of "Urbanization" is very important because, as with the example of the Greeks and Egyptians/ Kemetics, it could lead to the opposite and start the process of gentrification. When Art, Music, Dance, Clothing, Cooking, and most every other aspect unique to a culture has been successfully,  mimicked, copied, commercialized, massed produced, and had its significance stripped away it becomes, trendy to the mainstream culture and may not be thought of as relevant or significant to the original culture it came from.  When a slang word is produced by one sub-culture, if the majority culture then begins using said slang word, the slang word is then abandons by the sub-culture as no longer being authentic. If the previously described process is applied to entire chunks of a culture then entire chunks of the culture dies. This is not quite gentrification but has the same effect. Gentrification is the process by which the majority movies into "Ghetto"/ "Urban" areas and does not adopt the stereotypical "Ghetto"/ "Urban" culture but retains their own culture and forces out; through financial, political, or just shear numbers, the indigenous culture.


An example of gentrification of that seems quite rare in America took place in the nineteen eighties. On a ranch in Antelope Oregon a group of religious people that came to be known as Rajneeshees ended up overtaking the town of antelope. As the followers of a man named Rajneesh, today more popularly known as Osho, began to grow the ranch began to grow as well. The Rajneeshees began to expand their farms, build thriving economic institutions and even pave and repave roads. It is when they began to want to further develop the property and expand on other political exploits did the current elected officials of Antelope began to deny the Rajneeshees permits.  When elections where next held in Antelope the Rajneeshees, whom were all American citizens, outnumbered the town folk of Antelope and easily defeated all incumbent officials in every category. The Rajneeshees then created their own police force, built more shopping places and restaurants of high quality, and more public schools that operated at a higher level of student proficiency output than the previous run schools. The public schools, some have argued, were the beginning of the Rajneeshees downfall; because the Rajneeshees were a religious group, local parents argued that they were teaching their religion in the public schools which is against federal law. This investigation allowed the federal government to probe deeply into all of the Rajneeshees doings.


This example of gentrification is a typical in that the standard process of gentrification involves two separate ethnic / racial groups. The ethnic / racial group that is of the majority of the country as a whole, moves into the areas of the non-majority ethnic / racial group that are deemed, "Ghetto"/ "Urban. "Once the minority of the majority have implanted themselves into the majority minority neighborhoods that are deemed "Ghetto"/ "Urban" housing that was vastly too expensive for the original ethnic / racial group to afford is then sold to the "gentrifies." The gentrifiers are typically if not vastly, more affluent and wealthy than the already in place, "Ghetto"/ "Urban" residents so their purchasing power if extremely attractive in a capitalist economic system. As banks, and various other business owners see that they can make more profit from catering to the needs of the "gentrifiers" instead of the original population, houses and multi-unit living complexes, that were left to blight are renovated normally at the cost of kicking out the original tenants that have typically lived in said house or living unity for decades if not generations. Once the gentrifiers are securely in living habitats, normally having had whole neighborhoods renovated, local business are then left to compete with the business that the gentrifiers create or sell their business because they can not. If the already in place local business owner chooses to stay in business they run the risk of pricing out the already in place local people. Once hosing and local business has been taken over by the gentrifiers the next place left is culture.


When gentrifiers begin to supplant the culture of the already in play culture of the "Ghetto"/ "Urban" a strange thing happens. The culture of the gentrifiers is called, "Urban" culture. The gentrifiers somehow romanticize themselves as having been part of the culture that was there before they supplanted the culture. When a gentrifiers says they are from, "The Bronx, Brooklyn, Oakland, Chicago," a sense of being, tough, edgy, street savvy, and gritty is given unto them because, those that have not been to the areas where the gentrifiers have almost demolished previous culture, imagine them living in what they have come to believe is the "Ghetto" with what they have come to believe are "Ghetto" people when, in fact all of what was considered "Ghetto" is almost gone.  Since the gentrifiers can now claim some false sense of "urbaness" their art is considered, "urban" right along with the art of the people that had already been in said "Ghetto"/ "Urban" neighborhood.


When one hears "Urban Art," one might typically think black or Latino art, but it could very well be the art of a gentrifier attempting to cash in on a pseudo culture built upon reputation of the actual a people that have almost been pushed out of said "Urban" area. When on hears "Urban: literature, music, dance, food, clothes," they might attribute all of these things to residents of various "Ghetto / Urban"  areas and neighborhoods but in truth the, "Urban: literature, music, dance, food, clothes," could very well be a well-crafted, gentrified trick. "Drake" is a hip hop performer whose career is dependent upon maintaining a sense of being, "Urban." He has acknowledged that he did not come from any said "Ghetto" neighborhood that is stereotypically believed that all black men come from, but in order to sell his music to people that require him to have some association and understanding with said "Ghetto / Urban" areas and people he portrays a persona of one that does. Many people forget that he is a trained actor that has been performing since he was a young child. If he is actually performing his true artistic expression or if he is playing a role, it is left for one to choose upon their own. Miley Cyrus and Justin Biber are performers whom, after spending their childhood years being dictated to and having their image strictly controlled, adopt "Urban" personas, mimicking what is stereotypically believed to be the behavior of "Ghetto / Urban" people. This mimicry is all in an effort to break away from their former childhood image of being, "wholesome, decent, and good" setting the precedent that being "Ghetto / Urban" is somehow not decent, not good, not wholesome, and strictly adult. A horrendous aspect of this mimicry is, in truth, shows how the performer, and the people that support the perform, really view what they consider to be "Ghetto / Urban." If a person was to do an imitation of person "A" and that imitation was marked by idiocy and buffoonery, it can be safely assumed that the person that is imitating person "A" does not hold them in high regard   The irony in this is that performers like Drake must maintain the "urban" person in order to continue his artistic expression as it is while performers like Miley Cyrus and Justin Biber and abandon the "urban" persona. Drakes current fan base dictates that he continues to maintain his "Urbaness" indefinitely while Miley Cyrus and Justin Biber can change because of the wider fan base that they have.


What is meant by the word, term, label, "Urban?" The answer greatly depends on how and what an individual defines a stereotype. What is meant by, "Urban: Art, literature, music, dance, food, clothes, culture?" The answer again greatly depends on how and what an individual defines as authentic. The truth of the label, "Urban" could be a perceived belief in an idea that a gentrifier could and maybe would allow some to believe. "Urban" is defined as the, and by the stereotypes, personal experiences, and misconceptions, of every individual that hears and dare uses the word. Defining, "urban" as one thing, in one way, leaves a psychological door open for those savvy enough, for those whom are thoroughly in drenched in the ways of capitalism, to profit from portraying precisely what others believe "Urban" to be instead of what they think or believe, "Urban" actually is. "Urban" then becomes what it was in the very beginning, a word, a label, a term left for interpretation as well as misinterpretation.


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