Black Lips’ Cole Alexander: The Latest in a Long Line of White Men Setting Expectations for Black Art

Remember Black Lips? The Atlanta rockers are as well known for their mouths as they are for their music, and neither is particularly clever. Guitarist/vocalist Cole Alexander spoke to the A.V. Club this week for their Hatesong feature, and couldn’t restrain his hate to just one artist. He started with Lorde, slating “Royals” for being “naïve” and “[self-] righteous,” before criticizing Macklemore for being racist, and Drake because “I like my rappers more ghetto and ratchet sounding.” Wait, really? And that’s not even the most heinous quote: “Personally, I like more melodramatic, ignorant rap where they’re talking about violence and anger and it’s just evil. I don’t like when it’s too conscious, I don’t like it when it’s too smart.”

Does it seem a little hypocritical to you that the same man making accusations of latent racism about his peers sees no problem with saying he likes his rappers “ghetto, melodramatic and ignorant”? Comments like this leave me wondering if privileged white artists in genres that, stereotypically, are diametrically opposite from traditionally black art forms are straight-up stupid or actually racist.

I would like to give Alexander the benefit of a doubt, but it’s difficult when the language he uses is so articulate and his sentiments sound like they could be describing post-Civil War minstrelsy. (Keep in mind, this is the same band that had a full-on Twitter war with Titus Andronicus because Titus leader Patrick Stickles was upset that people brought Confederate flags to their show.) So let’s unpack this for a second.

Pretty much since black artists were first permitted to perform in front of white men, they have been expected to adjust their acts to appeal to that audience. Look at minstrel shows: black entertainers not only poked fun at their perceived lack of intelligence for the enjoyment of whites, but they wore blackface while doing it. This isn’t exactly secret history, which is why it’s hard to believe that Alexander can’t see any problem with saying that he likes his black entertainers not to be too smart.

It’s the same story throughout the history of rock ‘n’ roll. No matter which rock history book you read, you will see that if black men are given credit for inventing rock ‘n’ roll, it’s always matched with a ten-gallon hat-tip to Elvis for bringing the sound to white audiences. Sometimes I wonder what Chuck Berry and Little Richard think of all this — and then I remember that they’ve been popular among mixed audiences ever since the ultimate beacons of white entertainment, Presley and The Beatles, name-checked them.

I could go on. I could talk about how black singers in Detroit were given a raw financial deal by Motown, whose boy- and girl-group classics are still co-opted as vintage kitsch for the older white audiences that comprise oldies radio listenership. The good old days of the ’50s and ’60s weren’t good at all for most of the black musicians who made these pop classics for the satiation of white listeners. The Temptations biopic has played enough times on VH1 for even the most ignorant of white assholes to know that.

Part of what made hip hop revolutionary is that it was a genre made for the people who created it, not for the consumption of white audiences. I’m not saying it’s a self-serving genre — I’m saying that the artists were part of the genre’s core audience in the beginning. You can control the interpretations of your art when you exist in the community that directly interacts with it, not to mention the community that influenced and understands your message.

Cole Alexander’s comments reflect a tired, stereotypically white expectation of what rap music should be — as he says, “To me, it’s just like a gangster movie. In a gangster movie, you don’t want to see polite guys; you want to see them do horrible shit.” But these aren’t actors, existing for the entertainment of people like Cole Alexander — they’re real people, people who can rap about whatever they want.

Alexander’s expectations perhaps reflect what hip hop used to be, back when it was a dialogue among people of color battling hardships that were the result of class warfare and racism in our country. Even then, these sort of views reflected an unsophisticated view of hip hop’s lyrical concerns, and today, they’re hopelessly archaic. Hip hop did not stay small. It grew, and changed, taking on other perspectives and other interpretations, and ultimately growing into a respected, highly influential artform, one that’s still evolving.

Alexander’s quotes recognize nothing of this. Instead, they’re the bleating of another privileged white man in a long line of privileged white men trying to define black art. (He’s far from the first among his indie rock brethren, too.) And worse, his ideas perpetuate negative stereotypes of black men as uneducated thugs. Personally, I’ll take Lorde obnoxiously bragging about “no post code envy” any day, thanks.

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Wait a sec. I have no love for Black Lips, but how is one man's opinion "setting expectations" for any art form? He is simply describing the type of hip hop that he prefers. Sure, there are many more mansions in the house of hip hop than there used to be, but the gangster stuff is still really popular and enjoyed by people of all races. It's almost as if you're saying that he's not allowed to like what he likes due to his skin color and that by doing so he's turning Rick Ross into a minstrel. Huh? Also, Alexander is perpetuating no stereotypes - perhaps that burden may more properly be placed on those rappers who haven't upped their game to allow for more nuance and artistry in their music.

Nowhere in the interview does he tell people what type of art they can make. He goes out of his way to make it clear that these are all his own opinions. And he's pretty much on the money regarding Lorde, Drake and Macklemore. I think this is a case of trying to drum up controversy where there is none.


@JeremyShatan  I think Jillian clarified why the cultural and historical context of this artist's opinions are more problematic and important than "one man's opinion." She also pointed out that this is a trend in similar artists with similar privilege.

And any implications of so-called reverse racism "It's almost as if you're saying that he's not allowed to like what he likes due to his skin color." indicate a true lack of understanding about the true definition of racism: when *institutions* continually uphold one/some race over others. 


@idrathernot @JeremyShatan  You are correct about the true definition of racism - however Cole Alexander is not an institution, nor is he holding up one race over others. He is simply saying what kind of rap music he likes and trying to define why. 

It's as if I said "I don't like heavy metal bands with female singers. Men sound better to me singing over loud guitars." Would that make me sexist? Would my opinion in anyway prevent women from singing hard rock or suggest that they shouldn't be allowed to do so. I think not.