Australia finds itself in a weird position compared with the rest of the world. Wedged in the middle of the Asia Pacific, with a population increasingly ethnically and culturally diverse, we’ve collectively still got the blinkers on. Maybe what makes other cultures so easy to manipulate is their unreality. We all got Homer Simpson’s gaff about ‘vampires, elves and Eskimos’ all being make-believe, but for Aussies it seems that cowboys and Indians might as well be myth. ZOE KILBOURN writes.
There’s a party idea I’ve been toying with for a while, and I’m starting to feel guilty about it. The hypothetical theme: “Crunk Christmas”. Crunk, if you’re unaware, is an almost universally derided subgenre of Southern rap epitomised by Lil John. It’s mostly about hollaback choruses, codeine, and getting crazy drunk. Aside from alliteration, the party would be a good opportunity to play the Ying Yang Twin’s Christmas album (feat. “Deck Tha Club”) alongside all your other fucked up favourites with impunity. The theme stays good for Christmas in July.
Despite how hilarious the idea seemed a few months ago – and the overwhelming number of crunk renditions of Christmas carols available on YouTune – the idea makes me increasingly uncomfortable. Is it ever okay to play pretend with a culture you’re not a part of? What if that culture is crunk, and what if crunk is just a big punchline anyway? Could I get away with it? What if there was a punch bowl of, say, faux purple drank? What does it mean to want to “get away with” a party theme, anyway?
There’s a thin line between masquerade and manipulation, between having fun with a concept and hoeing into it. Although attendees at a backyard Perth trap party couldn’t possibly experience an African American subcultural youth underbelly, they can pay a kind of self-deprecating homage to it with snapbacks, basketball singlets and the dougie. They can use its codes – to an extent, even use the language – with a kind of goofy respect.
Then there’s Father. These guys, who operate via Metric Promotions via Flyrite every Saturday, are a trap, hip hop and Jersey club alternative to the rest of an EDM-obsessive Northbridge club scene. You can tell they relish the sense of being outsiders. They serve “purple drank” for a fiver a pop, charge $15 entry after 11, and have a strict anti-Air dress code (their last event’s page threatened to turn away anyone in their “Northbridge best”).
Last Saturday, they threw a Bloods and Crips night. Before the event, a Facebook user pointed out the inherent privilege involved in turning a violent subculture into a party theme. Chester Moorecraft wrote on Father’s page: “Children killing each other is now a theme for a party?…What the hell is wrong with you people? This is a real, current issue.” Moorecraft posted links to academic research which demonstrate how real gang violence is for young African American men.
Father responded to Moorecraft’s concerns with a the following status update.
“Seems some people are a bit upset about a themed club night party. Your sensitivity really matters to us so please save your souls and don’t attend,” the post reads. They sign off with a shrug emoticon, and this kicker postscript: “Cowboy & Indian parties are now not ok due to the plight of the native american [sic], neither are Pirate parties due to currant [sic] piracy issues overseas. Actually all themed parties are not ok. Fuck it lets [sic] ban partying all together so no one gets upset.”
Two streets away, the Bird was hosting Jambalaya, an Afro-kreol night. Centred on Seychelloise afropopper Grace Barbe’s band and supported by neosoul electro outfit Savoir, the event also featured fried chicken, okra paella, and dancehall dj sets. The Bird and its guests were playing with that generic idea of “Tropicana”, with mythic Caribbean heat and spice, it was done with love. Afro-kreol is a broad term, but a term that refers to a diaspora that can be explored with affection and a general respect for the broadness it implies.
Yeah, there was some audience pandering: Grace talked about the girls on the islands’ “coconuts” and gave us a demonstration of apocryphal island sass, lapped up by the crowd and eliciting an “I love island women!” from one pissed-up dickbag. That pandering, though, was backed up by incredible musicianship, a main act who work afromusical tropes with sophistication, understanding, and love, while trusting their thronging audience with respectfulness.
If, as Australians, we have to make do with the mish-mash of stolen cultural source material that comes with being a relatively young nation, what makes reappropriation manipulative? When you’re dealing with iconic material that isn’t yours – and, let’s face it, unless you’re down for an evening at Outback Jack’s, it probably isn’t – what’s playfully acceptable and what isn’t? When you’re using harmful ethnic stereotypes explicitly derided by the stereotype’s victims, as is the case of Cowboys and Indians, it’s definitely not ok. Subcultures are trickier.
A Bloods and Crips theme is a terrible reason for a “dress in red or blue” party because the Bloods and Crips are violent, predominantly African American gangs, many of whom are young, all of whom are vulnerable, and most of whom will end up injured or imprisoned. We’re not talking cops and robbers here – we’re talking a specific subset of a marginalised group. At the risk of sounding like Joel Turner, these kids aren’t overdressing and puffing chests – they’re enmeshed in a vicious cycle of punishment and crime. While you get to wear a doo-rag and instagram yourself over-zealously doing thug signs, these boys, who are as young as 12, will never get to escape an oppressive subculture where death and jail are neither make-believe nor dope themes for a party.
Metric Promotions did not respond to our requests for comment.