Evan Gabriel

Speaking from The Middle: Ebro Darden, August Wilson and Cultural Identity

In Current, Nonfiction on May 30, 2013 at 3:32 am

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How does someone compare Hot 97’s Program Director Ebro Darden with the late playwright August Wilson? And more so, why?

I recently saw an interview that New York radio station Hot 97 did with Hip-Hop’s Riff Raff, or that dude with a 16 on Harry Fraud’s “Bird On A Wire” who’s gaudy style and antics are ridiculous enough for us to question whether he is for real or not. And this question is exactly what Ebro asks Jody Highroller on Hot 97. After mumbling through his grill about custom diamonds and tattoos, which as he explains, “ain’t stickers,” Riff Raff eventually lets everybody know that despite his clothes and fucking rowdy custom jewelry, the man underneath the purple lenses is as serious as cancer.

Although I’ve read that under the direction of Harmony Korin, James Franco embarked on a character study of Riff Raff, along with this Florida cat called Dangeruss, for Korine’s new film Spring Breakers, I didn’t know much else about Raffy. Yet what I was struck by most during the morning interview was the way Ebro, who’s father was black and mother white, gasses Riff Raff on his demeanor and how it perpetuates negative black stereotypes. Through his calculated manner and pertinent points, Ebro reminded me of a modern August Wilson—who’s mother was black and father white—because he was so well spoken about the issue of identity based on race and how labels of black and white are easily dictated through popular media.

If you don’t know about August Wilson, I will refrain from diving into anything too didactic and just write a few sentence fragments: mixed playwright who grew up broke in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, dropped out of school in 10th grade after being accused of plagiarizing a paper on Napoleon, autodidact from the Pittsburgh Public Library and wrote The Century Cycle: 10 plays detailing African-American life at different intervals of the twentieth century. Oh yeah, and he won two Pulitzer prizes and a Tony Award.

In speaking about issues black and white, Ebro and Wilson are very similar in their viewpoints because they have lived the life first hand and seen the effects of what it means to “act” or “speak” black in comparison to the typical white vernacular. In his interview with Bill Moyers, Wilson breaks down his experience understanding the differences between African-Americans and other cultures. Ultimately Wilson states that black folk are specific, as any race or ethnicity is specific, based on the circumstances of upbringing. On the other hand, Ebro accuses Riff Raff of “reinforcing materialism in Hip-Hop [while] being white,” which, as he states, is wrong because he’s not from that world.

Ebro stresses that it’s unacceptable to be white in Hip Hop while perpetuating materialism in the same manner that was made fashionable by “predominately black men” who “came from an environment where they had shit, and the only way they could make themselves feel better was to overcompensate by spending money on jewelry and clothes.” In this quote, Ebro distinctly conveys, much to Cipha Sounds dismay, that due to Riff Raffs upbringing and circumstances as a white dude from Houston, he’s not merited in his rap persona.

During the Hot 97 interview, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Wilson’s elegant description of the black experience in America along with it’s subtle nuances. Where does that leave us? Is it cool, or more importantly, culturally acceptable, to be white and get your shit rowed with beads, rock an MTV and BET tattoo while being regarded as the influence behind James Franco’s gangster character in Spring Breakers?

Despite what color your skin is it comes down to this: If Riff Raff was as nice on the Mic as Eminem, Eyedea, Quel, Action Bronson or any other white rappers, then yes Raff, swerve on. If Riff Raff was, as Wilson says, raised in the circumstances that necessarily dictate one’s speech, public demeanor and cultural standing, then yes. Yet in the Hip Hop world today it boils down to skills and how much someone can pack into a flow, and this Riff Raff definitely did not bring at his Hot 97 morning session. Hell, the dude sounds like any other human who just steamed a morning L and downed three Coronas.

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  1. Interesting profile. I bet Korine put Franco onto Rif Raf.

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