Lesson - Average Homeboy
Average Homeboy: Rhetorical Situation
Today, we'll be looking at our first low-stakes text cluster that we'll base our CR Exercises and RIP Exercises on. This is a video called "Average Homeboy." Here's a primer: http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/average-homeboy (Links to an external site.).
In the words of Knowyourmeme:
Average Homeboy is a single demo tape created by Denny Hazen (Links to an external site.) (a.k.a. “Denny Blaze”) in the late 1980s. At the beginning of demo tape, he briefly introduces himself as an aspiring rapper hoping to market his “average middle-class, white person’s point of view” in the rap music industry.
Of course, the story of Average Homeboy didn't stop there. Much later, the story goes, someone in the MTV offices dug the tape out of a cardboard box where it had sat collecting dust for decades. It was uploaded to Youtube in 2006, and that was the start of its viral fame.
What happened can be seen as a shift in the rhetorical situation. The shifted rhetorical elements are written in purple
With one shift—with the video's recovery and uploadment (is that a word?) to Youtube, many other parts of the rhetorical triangle have shifted. Note the interconnectedness of all of these parts! First of all, the audience has shifted. Now, the MTV executives that Denny Hazen intended to watch his video—his intended audience—have been replaced with an actual audience of, well, anyone who wants to click onto Youtube and watch it. He probably didn't anticipate, for example, that a college instructor, thirty years later, would be using his rap demo tape to teach rhetoric.
So, the first thing to note is the difference between actual audiences and intended audiences. Audiences that the rhetor never anticipated or expected could consume and experience their text—and the way they receive it may NOT be how the rhetor wanted it to be received. Consider a man writing a letter to his mistress and having it intercepted by his wife. That new audience will have a very different reaction to his rhetoric than the one he was hoping for. In this way, we are Denny Hazen's wife.
We can credit this audience shift to the shift in venue, of course. Denny Hazen in 1989 probably did not anticipate the advent of Youtube, a service that lets anyone watch a video any time they would like. The shift in historical and cultural context was something he would have had no way to know about or to prepare for.
Well, it's time to watch the video. While you do, I'd like you to pay attention to (and take notes on) the following:
-What is funny in this video?
-What makes you uncomfortable?
-Does Hazen come off as a good rapper? Why not?
Without further ado: Average Homeboy.
Average Homeboy: Response
Hazen's purpose for this video was PERSUASION: He wanted to persuade the MTV executives to give him a chance to launch a rap career. His message for this video, then, can be summed up in his own words from the introduction of the video:
"Hopefully you can see [...] how marketable it is. Hopefully you can help me get my big record contract."
"I should get a record contract."
Answer the following questions by replying to this discussion post:
1. Is this humorous? Did he want it to be humorous? What makes it humorous?
2. Are parts of this video insensitive, and/or do they make you uncomfortable? Which parts, and why?
3. Do you think this Hazen communicates his message successfully? Why or why not?
Focus: Historical and Cultural Context
One of Hazen's stated goals with this demo tape was to position his ability to fill a gap in 1980s Hip Hop music. According to Hazen, there wasn't a white rapper at the time who told the story of average, middle-class life.
The way Hazen approaches this is far from careful. To understand this more fully, it's important to look at Historical and Cultural Context. In other words, what was rap like in the 1980s? What were attitudes toward race relations in the 1980s, and how might Hazen's rhetoric have been insensitive (contributing to its failure)?
First, I'd like to draw your attention to the following lines, which Hazen uses to open his demo:
I'm not the typical rapper that you'll meet
I don't live in a box nor was I raised on the street
And as you can see, I'm not black
I don't do drugs and I'm not on crack
What types of oppositions do these lyrics present, and why might those oppositions be problematic?
Let's run the video again. This time, consider the chart I've filled out below with three columns: one representing how Hazen sees the black community, one representing how he presents himself, and one representing how he sees rich, upper-class whites, from which he also seeks to distinguish himself.
Context of Race Relations in 1980s America
Denny Hazen's text did not exist in a vacuum. It was part of (and a response to) the world outside of it–where events had been happening and trends had developed. If we zoom in on just one set of trends/attitudes—those related to race relations in the United States—we can start to see why Hazen's rhetoric was misguided.
Unless you've lived in a place (or through an era, or in a community) it can be hard to have a full working knowledge of that place's (or era's, or community's) context. So what do you do? You perform research and you find out what was going on, what people believed, what the trends were. Here, I've performed that research for you. Let's talk about what aspects of historical context at this time would have come to bear on the way people perceived Hazen's lyrics.
WHITE FLIGHT: In the 1950s and 1960s, as legal segregation between blacks and whites was being abolished in the United States, a lot of white Americans (frightened of the prospect of having to live in a multiracial neighborhood/society) fled the cities to live in the suburbs. This was known as "white flight." Idyllic images of happy suburban life from this period hide a dark undercurrent—one of intentional racial separation. Hazen talks about how he's not "from the projects" and his own house appears to sit in a suburban area. As a result of this trend, urban populations became increasingly black.
INSTITUTIONALIZED RACISM: Legal segregation had ended, but urban populations of color were still discriminated against in numerous ways. These disadvantages resulted in higher rates of poverty and, arguably, gang membership and drug use. Governmental solutions (like the housing projects referenced by Hazen) sprung up in response.
CRACK COCAINE: Hazen says that he's "not on crack." The way he constructs his lyrics seems to use parallelism to conflate crack usage with blackness. In the 1980s, crack cocaine was a drug epidemic and was being funneled primarily into black communities. At the time, crack was seen as a "black problem," and was a problem that ravaged inner city communities of color.
FUNCTION OF RAP MUSIC IN AFRICAN AMERICAN COMMUNITIES: You'll read an article about this for homework. According to intellectuals in African-American communities at the time, rap music served a cathartic function of storytelling and rebellion. With the perception that white Americans had subjugated them for centuries and were continuing to treat them as sub-human, rap music allowed a creative outlet to deliver narratives and calls to action.
Does Hazen seem aware of this context? What are the ramifications if he doesn't?
For homework, you're going to be asked to rewrite Hazen's lyrics to try and account for Historical and Cultural Context more effectively. You'll read an article on the importance of rap music in African American communities at this time, and try to make Hazen's message more effective by making it more sensitive to Cultural Context.