Disclaimer: Sorry for the delay. We’ve had a hard time finding people to talk to for our fourth installment of “Deck.” However we did find a trio o hipster-ish folks who opened their mouths- and their hearts- to us, touching on one of the biggest controversies in hipster culture right now: that of the so-called “blipsters.” Consider this one of the more educational writings we’ve done.
For hipsters, the man known to the rest of the world as Colonel K is hardly a radical in the ink-and-barrel sense. On most of the days he holds court at colonelkspeaks.blogspot.com, he prefers to pass judgment on the latest indie album, t-shirt, or IPA beer. Deep, analytical discussions are of politics and pop culture, are hardly par for the course there.
Except when they are. Case in point: a January 2007 article in the New York Times entitled “Truly Indie Fans” that got under his skin. From the very moment his eyes saw the “Styles” section, complete with a photo of a lone black man standing outside a skateboard boutique store while a gang of mixed-race youths sit aimlessly on the sidewalk he knew he had to respond. Although the Colonel’s post, titled- appropriately enough- “Reactionary Piece 2007” was more of a impassioned plea for more fact checking on the part of the Times reporter than it was a screed against the Gray Lady’s perceived institutional racism.
At issue were a few errors and misconceptions- most notably the belief that black musicians are trying to “reconnect,” in the Times words, with the rock genre, a mere 40 years after the Jimi Hendrix Experience came and gone from the scene.
“First off, black artists did not ‘leave’ rock music ‘to white people and fans’,” K wrote passionately yet politely. “In the mid-1950s, record labels frequently had white artists such as Pat Boone re-record Little Richard and Chuck Berry songs so that they could appeal to white audiences. It wasn’t until the Beatles and the Rolling Stones came along that original black artists got due credit.”
It was a single point of fact. But for the legion of people- mostly African-Americans- who followed Colonel K’s missives tirelessly, it was a tantamount to calling the Times out on what they saw as an implied slight, not just on black hipsters in general, but African-Americans as a whole.
Within days, the article circulated through the internet, cited as evidence by everyone from Gawker to Mother Jones of the Times evil, racist intent. For the small but vocal community of African-American indie fans and musicians, the very demographic the Times was attempting to profile, the Times article was a double insult, both to their intelligence and their sense of pride.
“A black kid listening to rock music is not a culture phenomenon,” Tower Records employee and Colonel K follower Amber Williams said via email. “The media seems amazed that a kid of color that isn’t living up to their stereotype is unique, which is bullshit.”
William’s brief contribution to the discussion was to set up a group on MySpace to explore the issue of race in music journalism- a roundtable, so to speak. Only three people signed up, and within weeks the account went dormant.
Yet the Colonel and Williams weren’t revolutionaries trying to disseminate a conspiracy about how the Times was trying to exploit black people with hip profiles of urban youth who listen to TV on the Radio and wear hipster shades. They were- and are- musicians, writers, intellectuals. People with both substance and style.
And unfortunately for the Times, they were both black.
Two years later, the Colonel, AKA Patrick Kigongo, is philosophical about the entire affair. In an email interview, he is frank about his feelings towards the Times, but it is a frankness tempered by hours of reflection and inner thought.
“I didn’t like it,” he says of the article. “The author was trying to cover too much ground. It would have made more sense to focus on black kids who adopted ironic street wear and tight jeans from hipsters or the emergence of black musicians in rock music, particularly indie music, but not both.”
For a man who came across as angry and defiant in 2007, it is a remarkably balanced view. Two years is a lot of time to re-think a few paragraphs written hastily on a computer. But for some of Kigongo’s followers, that’s not enough to shake off the feeling of being exploited and used for what amounts to professional and personal gain.
“A hipster is a hipster whatever race they are,” Williams said. “It [the article] is just another way of creating a sub division group for minorities.”
While Kigongo and Williams were incensed, for the woman at the crosshairs of the controversy, the backlash was a lesson in how not to handle a features story with people of color.
“It was probably the most interesting and fulfilling and educational reporting experience I have ever had,” Jessica Pressler said in an email interview. “But it was also super painful.”
Although she is no stranger to controversy-see her article on Philadelphia as the sixth borough-the blister article, as the New York Times story is commonly known, put Pressler in an incredibly hot seat. Scrutinized, demonized and categorized, she became yet another poster child for how the mainstream media is out of touch with the black community.
Since then, she’s moved on to bigger and better things- an editorship at New York Magazine, a marriage to a handsome young banker- but while she has put her experience with the New York Times behind her, the words she wrote in 2007 still reverberate in young journalists’ minds, as much an example of why journalist shouldn’t be conducted by committee as it is a tale of how 40 years after the Civil Rights Marches of the 1960s and 70s, journalists, even music journalists, still can’t get their heads around the concept of race in America.
“It went through nine editors plus the music people,” Pressler said. “And after everyone had their way with it, it came out sounding pretty weird and stilted.”
Kigongo agrees. “She bit off more than she could chew with that one,” he said.
Making a bad situation worse was the phrase she coined to describe the hip young people she talked to- “blipsters.” A fusing of the words black and hipster, it connotes a young black person of means who dresses down in ironic T-shirts and skinny jeans and indulges in the hipster lifestyle, with all the implications that has.
Although the term has for better or worse been accepted in the mainstream, due to its notoriety and the ease with which it spread among the internet populace, it only served to make the rage many urban, indie blacks felt about the article multiply a hundred fold.
“I find the hipster label absurd,” Williams said. “Most people I know never heard of the word ‘blipster’.”
For Kigongo’s friends, the term was nothing short of offensive.
“They disliked it because they thought the author was perpetuating existing stereotypes about black people,” he said.
Yet as in all things hipster, the term inspired as much affection as it did repulsion. In an equally famous essay, writer Dayo Olopade embraced the word, describing the culture as a form of “total liberation.”
“The racial archetypes that had defined the past 15 years of masculine street style have given way to a radically new aesthetic,” she wrote in a 2009 article for magazine The Root. “Gone are the extra-long T-shirts, saggy jeans and Timbs long favored by young black men.”
For Olopade, the issue is less about race- she sees the hipster phenomenon as a manifestation of the so-called “post-racial” society personified by the election of Barack Obama and the popularity of bands such as TV on the Radio among individuals 18 to 25. The social issues raised by Olopade underscore the complexity of a subculture that is just as likely to embrace the kaffiyehs of the Palestinian Diaspora as it is tight jeans.
As for the people profiled in “Truly Indie Fans,” they have moved on as well. Douglas Martin, the then-23 year old ex-Tar Heel who listened to Nirvana as a teenager, is a successful folk-rock artist and blogger, cutting several tracks with his band Fresh Cherries From Yakima. He also runs a website- titled un-ironically- “Fresh Cherries from Yakima.”
Racket Magazine attempted to contact Mr. Martin, however he did not respond to a request for an interview.
Nev Brown, a photographer known for his work with Vice Magazine, among other alt weeklies, continues to post photos at his blog, Fiddle While You Burn.
LaRonda Davis, the co-founder along with Living Color band member Vernon Reid of the Black Rock Coalition- a nonprofit corporation dedicated to informing the public of black artists’ participation in the history of rock and roll among other things- continues to work for the Coalition.
Damon Locks, the publicist and lead singer of The Eternals, has branched out, running a website devoted to mix tapes from ex-girlfriends and boyfriends of musicians and laypersons alike, cassetefrommyex.com, as well as a personal website, damonlocks.com.
For Pressler, the article she wrote has become a teachable moment, a hard lesson that continues to inform her coverage, from live blogging Gossip Girl episodes to profiles of artists and musicians.
“You can’t really distill the entire history of race and music into a 1500 word essay in the [New York Times] Styles section. Who knew?”
Kigongo has a simpler take.
“You can’t classify us,” he said.
In the next issue: We interview a satirist and a sex expert (among others) about one of the age old rituals of humankind: dating, and how hipsters are, naturally, putting their own ironic spin on it.