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The State of Black Subcultures in 21st Century America

Can black subcultures continue to thrive and develop even though celebrities, like Rihanna and Nicki Minaj, are appropriating them?

Photos by Maurene Cooper

Earlier this year, DJ and party organizer Venus X announced she was ending her long-running club night, GHE20 GOTH1K, partly because mainstream public figures like Rihanna had manipulated and discredited her creation. This wasn't the first time someone accused Rihanna of stealing a subculture. Two years earlier, she appropriated the seapunk microculture, but her dedication to seapunk, which really only included an aqua-celestial backdrop during a performance of "Diamonds" on Saturday Night Live, was as short-lived as the aesthetic movement's lifespan. GHE20 GOTH1K proved to be a completely different—and long lasting—subcultural source for the singer. Once Rihanna embraced the subculture, she kept embracing it.

Long before Rihanna began adopting the GHE20 GOTH1K aesthetic in her numerous, and fabulous, Instagram photos, GHE20 GOTH1K existed as a life force in New York City nightlife. Most importantly, it was a sustainable and physical night existing in an actual nightclub. Hundreds, if not thousands, of young people—especially young people of color—embraced the club night's aesthetic.

In an interview with The FADER, Venus X described GHE20 GOTH1K as encompassing art, fashion, music, and nightlife. Aesthetically, she noted, "It's a combination of what people consider to be very white and very black. There are staples: North Face jackets, Timberlands. And then staples of the traditional punk and goth." It was a mix—or rather, a birthing—of something born out of her two distinct interests: the ghetto of where she grew up and the aesthetics of goth. "GHE20 GOTH1K is extremely political. It's not about expensive clothes," she told The Fader in the same interview. "GHE20 GOTH1K was one of the first places that successfully created nightlife around music that was just on the internet, like alternative rap music from gay people and a lot of different club and bass music that didn't have a home in mainstream, house, or disco."

The subculture was more than something of their own, something that helped define their multifaceted interests and identity as young people of color—it was a response to mainstream culture's ideas. Like GHE20 GOTH1K, hood futurism, another subculture, was also a response to the images and sounds of the mainstream. Hip-hop and R&B musicians developed hood futurism in the 90s. In a Tumblr post by the creator of a hoodfuturism.tumblr.com, a popular blog documenting the style, the author writes that Afro Futurism inspired hood futurism, which "is centered around contemporary black artistry combined with themes like sci-fi, science, and other components that have futuristic elements." Think spaceship-like rooms with sleek lines and coppery bodysuits that feel at home in our predictions of the future. The most definitive image of this is Michael and Janet Jackson's "Scream" video, which literally takes place on a hospitable, livable space ship.

Although hood futurism is more driven by aesthetics, its sound—a clinking, clattery array of sounds and samples that shouldn't make sense, sounds that seem as contemporary now as they did ten years ago—can be traced back to its biggest purveyors: Missy Elliott, Aaliyah, and Timbaland. The aesthetic felt like the first visual response to hip-hop's mainstream imagery and aesthetics. If hip-hop was the mainstream and the storytelling of "right now" in the 90s, hood futurism was the musical landscape of a future that was—cheesy as it sounds—out of this world. Today, both small rappers (Azealia Banks) and large artists (Nicki Minaj) embrace hood futurism, proving the subculture's relevancy as a viable alternative to the mainstream.

Hood futurism and ghetto goth's names connect them to black culture. Linguistically, these terms are most frequently shared through the prism of rap and hip-hop, if we can embrace the terms hood and ghetto as terms of places—and not just as derogatory terms employed in times of insults.

In a series of essays for Vulture about the current state of hip-hop, The Roots' Questlove broke down the mainstreaming and dominance of hip-hop culture: "Once hip-hop culture is ubiquitous, it is also invisible. Once it's everywhere, it is nowhere," he writes. "What once offered resistance to mainstream culture (it was part of the larger tapestry, spooky-action style, but it pulled at the fabric) is now an integral part of the sullen dominant."

Stealing and commodifying from these subcultural movements feel especially wrong. If these are movements By Outsiders and For Outsiders (or by The Other and for the Other), taking them from people of color is cruel. In some ways, despite an artist's race, mainstream success begins to deteriorate a performer's racial identity. A celebrity can transcend the limitations and community inherent in racial and cultural identity. For many people, to live within the experience of race or a minority status is to actively and automatically embrace people who are like us. To appropriate without citing a source is a slap in the face to traditional solidarity. A black or brown celebrity becomes nothing more than another cog in the machine of capitalism, another person buying and selling back to us the things we created in the first place.

In her book Implications and Distinctions: Format, Content and Context in Contemporary Race Film, conceptual entrepreneur Martine Syms writes about the visuals and visibility of blacks in images. In the last chapter, Syms asks, "Why not subvert the charge of being Black into an identity that we own and explore the possibilities of such a platform?" And soon after she writes, "For these possibilities to exist, the Black viewer/spectator must sit comfortably with the tension of "bad" portrayals, "unrealistic" experiences, and/or a non-diasporic stylistic approach. Black audiences are also complicit in constructing race... because the viewer/spectator is instructed to read the images and situate them in reality."

Although Syms speaks about blacks in films, this theory translates to many aspects of black culture—in particular, black identity. Creators and members of subcultures have wrestled with the experiences of the limiting mainstream and have created something that speaks to their individual interests and needs. Syms explains how she too has embarked on this cultural journey on an individual basis: "As a child nerd, a teenage punk, an art student, and beyond, I've always had eclectic interests. Somehow my parents created the perfect symbiosis between forcing me to be a token—introducing me to disparate sounds, styles, and conventions—and rooting me in Blackness," she says. "I learned who "we" are, what "we" eat, how "we" talk, but I was encouraged to renegotiate that construction to better fit me."

The ubiquitousness of hood futurism as a viable alternative to the mainstream, and the end of GHE20 GOTH1K, reminds me of other subculture movements. On my Tumblr dashboard, I'm often treated to a number of surprising yet enjoyable images and ideas: black people shrouded in flowers on Black with Flowers, young black women riding bicycles on Bicycles and Melanin, and the sort of raw vulnerability and pursuit of connections otherwise known as Black Girl Feels. All offer alternatives to many ideas of blackness and black culture; they are at once feminine and joyful. Although they don't specifically talk about responding to the stereotypes and limitations of hip-hop culture, I see them as pursuits of alternatives and multiples. Maybe all of these can exist together. As one subculture ends, people give birth to other ideas and images—waiting for new voices to embrace them and a celebrity to copy their look at an award show.

Follow Brittany Julious on Twitter.