Monday, November 29, 2021

Society causes struggle between cultures

April 18, 2001

Every year, MSU’s Council of Indian Undergraduate Students stages an exhibition of Indian culture. The show is called Satrang, and last week it sold out the Wharton Center. It was beautifully and professionally done, and it all bore a very peculiar quality.

The show was filled with hip-hop. The hosts prefaced an appeal for earthquake relief with “on the serious tip,” a group dance was introduced with the explanation that it was going to be dope, and the program gave “big ups to my peeps.” That shout-out was by Prashanth - or Po’P - who, with Debonair and the Fly Girls, performed a rap entitled “My Sister.”

You get the idea.

It would be easy to be self-righteous. It would be easy to dismiss Po’P and the entire show, as some did, by saying they “think they’re black.” It would also be stupid and wrong, because this, like everything, is more complicated than it seems.

In a performance that was an explicit demonstration of Indian culture, the language and art of black America permeated everything.

Of course, it wasn’t a demonstration of Indian culture. It was a demonstration of Indian-American culture. I normally retch at the politically correct, but here it’s appropriate. While I was raised in an Indian family, I didn’t grunt whenever I left the house. I was raised in a household resplendent with the sounds and smells of Indian languages and food, but operated in a society defined by Rik Astley and Little Caesar’s Pizza. There isn’t one of us who can claim that their Indian identity stands pristine. I speak English, I read the Times and I listen to O-Town. I think of myself as Indian, but I think in English.

So when Indian - or Chinese, Korean or Canadian - students mount an exhibition of their culture, it should be obvious that theirs is a culture informed by both their ancestry and their lives in the United States. It would be unrealistic to ask for a show free of the influences of America; it would be asking for inauthenticity.

Is it equally inauthentic for them to claim hip-hop culture as their own? Hip-hop is a way of life originating in the inner cities and black communities of America. Go to the mall and count the number of swaggering East Lansing high school students as they roll deep with their crews, talking about the new 2Pac joint being off the hizzle fo’ shizzle. If everyone who acted as if they were from the inner city actually was, it wouldn’t be the inner city, it would be the whole thing. Shouldn’t the American share of Indian-American culture be indicative of the suburban experience?

Hip-hop is incredibly popular, but there is a huge difference between appreciating a culture and proclaiming yourself part of it. Liking Starry Night does not mean you’re announcing yourself as a tortured one-eared Frenchman, and liking rap does not mean you can declare yourself to be a rapper. So the popularity of hip-hop does not in and of itself establish a right for people to see themselves as part of hip-hop.

This doesn’t mean there isn’t a right for people to see themselves as part of hip-hop - or any other tradition. We all choose our subcultures as we choose what we wear, what we listen to, how we act.

From the moment we become aware of a greater society around us, we struggle with our own place in that society. We spend adolescence trying to figure out in what clique we’re happiest, and no matter what we choose, there is an element of voluntary conformity.

You try to fit into the community you like, and you act like the others do: This is how humanity works. Do dreadlocks, hemp necklaces and tie-dye hold some greater meaning for hippies? No, of course they don’t; they’re popular within that community because, tautologically, they’re popular within that community.

There’s nothing wrong with that, and nobody is innocent of this mimicry. Abercrombie has built an empire on people who want to be part of an America that never existed. Goths, punks, candy kids and frat boys all wear their uniforms and stand for their anthems - and so do you.

So if we all consciously choose our cultures, is there no authenticity? Is there no genuine culture - because America hasn’t been around long enough, or because our composition is changing too quickly, or because we don’t want one?

I don’t think so. In fact, I think there is one community in this country that evolved a real culture, because, for centuries, its people were unable to choose how they wanted to live. That is, of course, black America. Almost all artistic styles that are recognized by the world as purely American came from our country’s black population. If there is an American culture, it is black culture, born purely out of the hardship, war and shame of our country’s history.

Perhaps this is why we react so strongly to those who choose to emulate it. Nobody raises an eyebrow at me, an Indian boy who loves female folk singers and occasionally wears a cowboy hat, but when Po’P raps, people get angry that he “thinks he’s black.” Perhaps it is precisely because the evolution of American black culture was attended by such suffering and oppression that adopting it is seen as wrong. Is a culture forged by the suppression of freedom and choice able to be freely chosen?

If you’re looking for an answer, I don’t have it. Maybe nobody has a right to black American culture except for black Americans. Maybe everyone does. I wish I knew.

What I do know is this: One of the participants in the CIUS show, one of its organizers, was a Korean guy named Mike. When I saw him, I did not feel angry or indignant. I did not feel as if someone was appropriating what was mine. I felt happy that someone appreciated and had chosen that which I had been given by birthright.

It’s just a thought.

Rishi Kundi, State News graduate columnist, can be reached at kundiris@msu.edu.

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