Saturday, April 24, 2004

T Shirt militants

Alot of American youths who are politically inactive yet make "extreme" fashion statements are what I call T shirt militants. This is a concept that could makes a lot of money, but is that a good thing?

"I got my gat in the air looking out the window like Malcolm" Ice Cube from the song "Wicked"

When I was first going to Howard, I was exposed to the image of Malcolm X holding up a shotgun looking out the window. This image had a powerful impact on black youths, along with the battle cry, "By Any Means Necessary!" When I brought the shirt on Howard's campus, I thought that it was a shirt advertising the rap group Boogie Down Productions. They put out an album entitled "By All Means Necessary", a reference to Malcolm's phrase.

However, I eventually found out the real meaning of the T Shirt. This was a common item back in the late 80's; Malcolm memorabilia. I have that shirt still, and I also have another shirt that has a bigger, more colorful image of Malcolm. Along with the memorabilia came the "black" medallions." De La Soul said it best in their song "Buddy"

"De La Soul/From the Soul/Black Medallions/No Gold"

The black medallions was another form of marketed resistance; part of the call to black unity in the late 80's. On the brighter side, these could be seen as part of a response to the Reagan years and the scourge of drugs and gangs, especially crack, which hit the streets at around that time. Black people marketed this to say that in response to Reagan, gangs, drugs and the terrors experienced in urban life, we all had to get together. This made the soundtrack of Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions so appropriate; it seemed like everything was in full swing. Gil Scott's Revolution was not coming anytime soon, but we all had to be on the same page.

"Its time to get your head ready, instead of getting physically sweaty."
Chuck D "Welcome to the Terrordome"

Later on, another fad would hit the streets, and it would prove to be very disturbing in its crossover appeal and the impact of urban marketing. The ever popular "X" cap.

I say that the "X" caps were disturbing because so many people wore it, but if you asked them what it meant, they were clueless. A statement of resistance made into a commodity by people who didn't even originate it, they just took it and ran with it. The "X" cap was originally Spike Lee's idea, the concept was taken from the Nation of Islam. In the Nation, you get an "X", which is indicative of the unknown.

When my ancestors came as slaves, they had to take the slavemasters name. Under the slavemasters name, you were property, and your beliefs, values and culture were of the slavemasters and other slaves. The "X" is indicative of a higher conciusness; you give up your slave name, and take the "X" in rejection of the slave name and all it stands for.

Now, if you asked some suburbanite who rocked the "X" cap because it was the latest fad, and would they be able to tell you what it meant? I doubt it.

But, the "X" cap is now just a lost fad; something that most people will not remember even if they sported one back in the day. After the Malcolm X movie, the whole thing just faded away faster than Ice Cube in the last scene of the movie "Boyz N the Hood".I dont even remember what I did with the one I had!

The ultimate intellectual rite of passage for most black youth is reading the book "The Autobiography of Malcolm X". At least, I think. There was a time when this was an "in" thing. In one of the old "Fresh Prince of Bel Aire" episodes, Will Smith brags about reading the book nine times. On another sitcom I saw, on the Fox Network (which is owned by right winger Rupert Murdoch), the child reads the book and he ends up confused, and the book is shown to be a bad influence, as parts of the book are taken out of context and twisted to sound disturbing and hateful. The premise of this crappy sitcom was two black teens with a black father who just married a white woman. Of course, before the kid starts hating "whitey" too much, Daddy has to set him straight or else he will hate his precious white starlet.

Currently, Malcolm X's life story was put under scrutiny because John "Taliban" Walker read the book and it was seen as a factor that drove Johnny to go to Afghanistan and hate America. Poor Johnny, he was a helpless white guy who turned bad because of hip hop and Malcolm X's book. GW said that he was a "good" kid who was somehow victimized by bad influences. Poor Johnny.

But was Johnny the ultimate T shirt militant who just took it too far? He could be a good example. The latest T shirt militant icon is now Che Guevara. His image got so popular that the glam rapper Jay Z wore his T shirt when he was on MTV Unplugged with the roots. It didnt mean anything when he wore it. Being fashion concius like he is, he wore this shirt because he felt that it was appropriate for the band The Roots and their followers.

The Roots make serious music that at its soul is rooted in Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway. Its called Neo Soul, the musical umbrella consisting of such artists as Sade, Maxwell, and Erykah Badu. Their style hearkens to the days of Afros, Panthers and Dashikis; the 60's. To me, this piece of hip hop culture is the epitome of T shirt militancy, placing style before action; image as a movement as oppossed to organizational action.

It happens to all rebellious movements; the flannel T-shirt all of a sudden was popularized by the "grunge" rock movement, and the punk rock thing was exploited big time. Its not really good or bad, but is indicative of the corporate and capitalist society we live in. It doesnt really matter what any particular thing stands for, as long as its not disruptive (I dont see any Usamma T shirts being sold on street corners) and as long as it makes cash. Che Guevara and Usamma may ultimately be on the same page; they both hated America and both believe in the use of guerilla warfare; matter of fact, Che was a master at this! However, somehow he is not equated with those particular things.

But, as for the black power and resistance movements, the commodification shows really how powerless they are now.

No comments:

Post a Comment