hip hop music

June 7, 2003

Stagolee (Re)Revisited

About a month ago I posted an excerpt from Cecil Brown's new book "Stagolee Shot Billy". Todd Boyd reviews the book in today's NY Times, and he's not too impressed.

I'm pasting in the entire article since the NY Times decided to start making links unavailable for free after 1 week. (Although given recent circumstances it's easier to understand why they want their older material hard to access).

Is Stagolee's Stetson Like a Rapper's Baggy Pants?


Stagolee has been immortalized in song for years by Ma Rainey, Duke Ellington, Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead and the Clash. As the legend goes, Stag Lee Shelton shot a man in 1895 named Billy Lyons in a barroom brawl in St. Louis because Lyons touched Stagolee's immaculate Stetson hat.

To Cecil Brown, a novelist who heard the story while growing up on a tobacco farm in North Carolina in the late 1950's, "Stagolee is a metaphor that structures the life of black males from childhood through maturity." The very name, he writes, "is an in-group catchword conveying knowledge of what it means to be a black man."

In "Stagolee Shot Billy," Mr. Brown sets out to trace the Stagolee legend and explain how it still resonates today. In his eyes, Stagolee is the forefather for what in hip-hop is often referred to as an "O.G." or "original gangsta," a direct link for gangsta rappers with their gun-toting, womanizing and utterly nihilistic ways.

Yet if Stagolee is this important, why is it that no one born after the assassination of Malcolm X, much less someone born into the hip-hop generation, has much knowledge of this supposedly transcendent archetype?

Mr. Brown's personal passion for the legend comes through in the pages of his book, and his skills as a novelist shine most brightly when he relates the details of Stagolee's life. But that passion seems to have also clouded his judgment of the Stagolee character's importance, especially its significance to contemporary culture.

Sure, it is easy to say that all of black masculinity owes a debt to Stagolee in the same way that one could argue that contemporary Hollywood movies are really updated Greek tragedies. But Stagolee, a legend of oral culture, is about as relevant in today's mass-media-dominated digital age as a horse-and-carriage on a crowded Los Angeles freeway during rush hour.

It is interesting how both haters and defenders often try to link hip-hop — the prevailing popular-music form of the late 20th and early 21st century — to older black music. The haters make the link to minimize its cultural impact by portraying it as a copy, not an original, the defenders to argue for its acceptability as an updated African-American folklore with beats and rhymes.

Yet if anything, hip-hop is indebted to more recent cultural products. Tony Montana, the Cuban drug lord in the 1983 film "Scarface," in all his excesses, has much more impact on the mind-set of hip-hop gangstas than does a figure like Stagolee. So does Christopher Walken's living embodiment of Norman Mailer's "white Negro" in his portrayal of the character Frank White in the 1990 cult classic "The King of New York." Neither of these characters are African-American, but many hip-hop gangsta figures have been able to appropriate their imagery and make it specific to their own circumstances.

Alas, Mr. Brown's attempts to analyze contemporary culture often come across like Bill Cosby trying to do Chris Rock. This shortcoming is most apparent when Mr. Brown tries to equate Stagolee's life as a pimp with the use of the pimp metaphor in present day hip-hop culture. Relying on the work of the historian Robin D. G. Kelley, Mr. Brown writes, "It is difficult to understand the reason for recent glamorizations of the pimp's image without also looking at the origin of the pimp in the 1890's in cities like St. Louis."

What is missing here, though, is a discussion of the way the culture of pimping offered a certain power to those engaged in the practice. The pimp or mack functions like the Mafia don in Italian-American culture. This character is a cipher that helps critique mainstream capitalism while also affirming it in a most extreme fashion. One need only check out Iceberg Slim's novel "Pimp," the 1973 film "The Mack" or the Hughes brothers masterly documentary "American Pimp" (1999) to find a sustained counterargument to both Mr. Brown's and Mr. Kelley's weak analysis.

Mr. Brown also misunderstands the style of hip-hop, writing, "In the 1890's, the Stetson became a symbol of black male status; in the late 1990's, baggy pants became a signifier of status."

First of all, the baggy pants, or saggin, as it is called, originated with prisoners, who were not given belts, so their pants sagged. In addition, many hip-hop-inspired fashion labels, starting with Cross Colors and Karl Kani and now with Sean John and Rocawear, began making strides in the marketplace and culture by designing jeans cut specifically for blacks. (Other labels designed for whites were often too tight, so people bought them several sizes too big to fit better.) This style was never about status in the way a Stetson hat was or a Gucci hat is now. Instead, it could be read as hip-hop's ability to redefine the culture around it.

Blacks were not being manipulated by the culture, as Mr. Brown suggests, but rather transforming it.

Stagolee and the more mainstream character of Uncle Remus are often part of nostalgia for the kind of Southern existence that can be found in guided tours of former slave plantations, and they have become quite popular. It is this nostalgia that seems to drive Cecil Brown and his attempt to resurrect a long dead icon from a forgotten era. But while the history of Stagolee, both real and imagined, is useful, the application of his aura falls short when trying to ascertain the meaning of someone like 50 Cent and his restoration of the gangsta aesthetic in the present.

Posted by jsmooth995 at June 7, 2003 5:37 PM

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