Race and the Theft of Soul

Dr. Baruti Kopano of Morgan State University discusses his new co-edited anthology Soul Thieves: The Appropriation and Misrepresentation of African American Popular Culture

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Story Transcript

JARED BALL, PRODUCER, IMIXWHATILIKE: What’s up world, and welcome to another edition of I Mix What I Like here at The Real News Network. I’m Jared Ball here in Baltimore.

Whether it’s Robin Thicke ripping off Marvin Gaye or it’s Lorde both copying and disrespecting black people, or it’s the racial tourism of Iggy Azalea, Taylor Swift, Justin Timberlake, Eminem, and now Rachel Dolezal, the appropriate of African cultural production or expression has forever played a major role in the expansion of Western empire, and specifically this project called the United States. Adding to this discussion are the contributors to a new anthology, South Thieves: The Appropriation and Misrepresentation of African-American Popular Culture, edited by Tamara Lizette Brown and our guest today, Dr. Baruti N. Kopano.

Dr. Kopano is a father and husband, and currently chairs the Department of Multiplatform Production in the school of global journalism and communication at Morgan State University here in Baltimore, and joins us now. Dr. Kopano, welcome, and thanks for joining us.

DR. BARUTI N. KOPANO, DEPT. OF MULTIPLATFORM PRODUCTION, MORGAN STATE UNIVERSITY: Thank you for inviting me.

BALL: In your new book Soul Thieves, your particular essay starts with a quote from Henry Highland Garnet. And I’d like to read it and start there, if we can.

You quote him as saying, you say, “You should,” he says, “use the same manner of resistance as would have been just in our ancestors when the bloody footprints of the first remorseless soul thief was placed upon the shores of our fatherland.” As you investigate this issue of black culture here in the United States, who are these soul thieves that Garnet talked about, and what is it that they’re doing? And how is it being carried out, and what does soul thievery mean?

KOPANO: Okay, thank you very much for the question. So I was struck when I first read that quote by Henry Highland Garnet by his use of the term soul thief. And so in our many studies of what we lost as people, the bodies that we lost, the land, the properties that we’ve lost, I’ve not really heard anyone capture what I think is the most important aspect of what we lost.

What is it like to have someone to steal your soul? The essence of making you the person that you are, your inner being? And I think that that captures very much our relationship as black people throughout the world. We talk mostly in this book about our relationship as black people in this country to the white power structure. So when we start to look at what has been the cost of the music and the films and other forms of mass media, I think first and foremost we’re looking at what it’s cost us as people internally.

Who are these soul thieves? I mean, they are the men and women behind the corporations. They are the men and women who bring us the books that we read most often through our school system, who bring us the music. It doesn’t matter who the artist is. What we’re asking to do here in the book Soul Thieves is to look at who really controls, who’s really behind the major structures of these industries. And so what we’re finding quite clearly is the white power structure.

And what we’re talking about in soul thievery is not just exploiting people for money. I mean, that we could just say is just a capitalist ploy. But it’s much deeper than that. The exploitation is to present certain images so that in the end we will become part of our own self-degradation. Because we believe, as George Orwell talked about in 1984, he says in the successful manipulation of the mind, the person no longer says the opposite of what is true, he thinks it. And I think that’s what has happened. I think that’s what soul thievery is mostly about.

So that now when we argue, I have actually been on debates where crowds of black people have debated the appropriateness of calling themselves the n-word. I was on a panel once and a white guy, and I don’t think he would call himself a white supremacist, I don’t think he would say that about himself. He reached over, leaned over to me and whispered, and he said, if I am a white supremacist, I am claiming victory right now. This is what has happened.

So I think that by and large, much of the culture has as its intent, through their commercial exploits, the degradation of our people.

BALL: So let me just back up here for a second and clarify that A, I also teach in that department. I need to back up, I want to clarify that I teach in the department that you are chair of at Morgan State University. And I started with–I also want to back up because I started with some of the surface-level, almost comedic examples, at least from my perspective, of this soul thievery. But more importantly, I needed to ask at the top, you know, so where do you stand on Tina Marie? This is the quintessential question of soul thievery, that perhaps, the lone, contradictory point. So I did want to just ask you very quickly, where does she factor into this?

KOPANO: Yeah, that’s a beautiful question. So what we are not saying, we are not saying that because you participate in the art as a white person that you have a disappreciation for it. That’s not what we are saying. We are not saying that you do not have the right to participate in the art. We do not say just because you are, just because you are black you have this soul power over the music, over the art.

I was listening on the way here to a public radio station, and a guest [inaud.] was a local jazz musician, Lea Gilmore, talked about her experiences traveling all over the world. And she literally said she received, I think a question–it was a question from a French journalist who emailed her or wrote her asking her what was it like growing up in the ghetto without her father? And that was not her experience. But that is the experience that he assumed that she and other black people share because of the images of black people.

There are many types of black people, as you know, with varied experiences. But what we often get from the mass media, we have a very narrow image of black people. And that narrow image has disseminated all throughout the world.

To be clear to your question, we love Tina Marie. Tina Marie was bad, man. All right, so we’ve got to, we’ve got to say that.

BALL: No, I mean, she’s always–if there’s ever, every one I have known in my life to get a pass, so to speak, it’s Tina Marie. So that’s why I was asking, sort of [inaud.]

KOPANO: So we say we like Tina Marie, John Brown gets that pass.

BALL: John Brown, well yeah, of course. Politically he definitely gets the pass. That’s right.

KOPANO: We can give him that pass, that’s right. That’s right. Then maybe there are two or three others.

BALL: You talk in your chapter, and then throughout the book there’s a theme here, the relationship of black cultural expression and American pop culture. Could you say a word or two about that, generally speaking? And a little bit about your own approach to that history in this book? What is–or maybe put another way, what function does black cultural expression play in the American popular culture tapestry?

KOPANO: So if I’m pronouncing his name correctly, the South Carolina, the young white man who was arrested and accused of killing nine black people in the church, Dylann Roof I believe is the way you pronounce his name. I read the manifesto that supposedly he wrote, and I couldn’t laugh and to say, oh wow, he should have taken my class. He should have read just a little about how the underpinnings of this country, when we talk about–and in fact, I teach a class, Communication in the Black Diaspora, and we open up the semester by reading from Holloway’s edited work Africanisms in American Culture.

And they talk about what we often refer to in America as Southern cuisine. And then he literally, through all kinds of maps and charts really shows how the food was transmitted from various parts throughout–from the African world to what we call the New World. Where we talk about what has been come to be known as Southern hospitality, really is a manifestation of the influence of the enslaved folks in the Southern states, really having that impact on what we now call the Southern culture. We’re saying, what we’re saying in this book is that there isn’t an American culture without black culture. That for the most part, all popular culture has as its roots, it owes a debt to black culture.

So I took the family recently to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. And initially folks didn’t want to go. Are there going to be any black people there? I said, the better question is are there going to be any white people there? Because literally we could not get into the interior of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame–they do a very good job there of very clearly delineating all aspects of what we call American music, and even some of the world music. There are no Beatles and no Rolling Stones, we don’t have any of these musicians if we don’t have this black music, this black creativity. They say that jazz is the only indigenous American art form. Who invented jazz?

So when we’re talking about popular culture, we have to be talking about the black contribution to it. When we look in sports, when the NBA thought that it was on its way out, you see Magic Johnson, some would say, and Larry Bird to a different degree. And what these men were able to do to save this sports form.

I’m a baseball fanatic. And there are many aspects of what we now consider to be just part of the American game that we get from the negro leagues. The use of lights, this is something that came from the negro leagues. The playing of double-headers. The so-called American baseball, white American baseball, did not play double-headers until they looked at what, the success that was coming out of the negro leagues.

So there’s so many aspects, so many things that we take for granted. We just think that’s just American. From a linguistic standpoint, okay, I just spoke African to you. That is a word that Geneva Smitherman and David Dalby and other linguists have shown that have West African connections from an African word that means, it is [yaw kay], which is an affirmation. So the word, some of the words that we use in what we would call even standard English are indeed African in origin. So to say what role, to ask what role is black culture to American culture, we are the underpinnings of that culture.

BALL: Dr. Kopano, what I’d like to do is we’re going to take a quick break here, and come back in the second segment and ask you specifically about the–you mentioned Dylann Roof already, but I want to come back and talk with you more about that and this Rachel Dolezal incident, and maybe some others that relate specifically in the immediate moment to what you’re talking about here.

So thank you again for joining us for this edition of I Mix What I Like here at The Real News Network. We’ll catch you in our next segment with Dr. Kopano in just a minute. Peace, if you’re willing to fight for it, everybody.

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