Meet the People Who Gave Birth to Hipsterism -- Hint: They Aren't White Kids from Williamsburg
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
The following excerpt is adapted from Rebecca Walker's introduction to the Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness (Counterpoint, 2012) which she edited, and Dayo Olopade's chapter from the book, "The Hipster."
"Black Cool .. is made up of elements that can be traced back to a place, a people, and a culture, elements brilliant writers take on in this book. In [this book Black Cool], Michaela angela Davis says Black people own this cool, and should not give it up for pennies on the dollar. I say Black Cool can be shared, but its genus cannot be forgotten, cannot be erased again. Can Black Cool be tried on, adapted, assimilated, co-opted? Yes. Can its birthplace be denied? Only by those invested in gratuitous erasure." -- Rebecca Walker
The Hipster by Dayo Olopade
Mali in the 1960s was a hip place. It should not have been so: Bamako, the capital, anchors a landlocked wedge of West African desert and grass. Yet the country’s unusually young, urban population spent the first decade of Mali’s freedom from French colonial rule smoking Marlboros and drinking locally brewed Castle lagers, doing the eyebrow-raising things that hipsters do. A decade later, a dysfunctional, militarized government would force a sudden good-bye to all that, but for the boom years, Bamako boomed, and a young photographer named Malick Sidibé took its pulse.
Sidibé’s open-air works freeze Black bodies on white nights, dancing, clapping, sweating, and chasing smoke rings in flight. His studio portraiture distills this exuberance into pure pulp. In one photo, Fou de Disque, a young man vamps in profile, his face hidden by the lapel of his period-perfect trench coat. His Afro is lean, but a halo of vinyl records pasted on the wall behind him recalls a Medusan tousle of hair. Another black-and-white, Yeye, depicts a teen with an impossibly slim waist easing into a pose that the differently proportioned Fat Joe would popularize with the 2004 single “Lean Back.” In Malian bogolan prints, Elton John sunglasses, and fey disco pants, the kids are cool without dispute. Their outfits are just outfits. The fun is really fun.
Contrast the purity of the Malians’ self-regard with the tortured and performative notions of the hipster in contemporary America. The traits are as obvious as a neck tattoo:
Hipsters are urban, privileged, attitudinally earnest, and functionally alternative. They live life at the intersection of Pabst Blue Ribbon and Day-Glo leggings—worn with irony, or maybe not. The prototype listens to indie darlings like Pavement, or anthem rock like Arcade Fire. Maybe even a little Wu-Tang.Everything obscure is good: homemade pickles, a headband on some longhair of a man, a waifish girl sporting several thick gold chains. And, for the most part, the hipster is white.
Of course, the origins of the word, as Mark Greif takes care to point out in the collection of essays on hipsterism produced by n+1 magazine, are Black. Norman Mailer parsed “The White Negro” in a 1954 issue of Dissent magazine: Indeed if one is to be a man, almost any kind of unconventional action often takes disproportionate courage.
So it is no accident that the source of Hip is the Negro, for he has been living on the margin between totalitarianism and democracy for two centuries.
James Baldwin famously scolded Mailer for his fetishization of Black cool. But, in a sense, Mailer was right: The hipster will always be defined in opposition to majority culture. For the white hipster—torn between ironic, “who cares if I’m wearing a tracksuit” detachment and the exhibitionism required to perform the trend—such opposition requires effort.
The explosive outer edges of American punk culture today have been colonized by Mexicans, some of whose very presence in the United States is transgressive. By contrast, white, urban twentysomethings bought (into) the physical trappings of hipsterism out of necessity. It’s the curse, perhaps, of majority culture. Lacking both social outsidership and whatever traces of melanin that would brand one as truly outré, young white Americans are forced to perform any distinctions with aggressively curated eclecticism. John Leland calls this “Caucasian kitsch.”