The Rise of the Black Hipster

The Rise of the Black Hipster,” The Root, 19 May 2009.

What happens when the hybrid hipster trend hits black America?

kanyecommedesgarconsHipsters. They’re everywhere. You’ve seen them on skateboards, in the mall and at the club. You’ve seen them shrugging dismissively in Oakland, Calif., Willamsburg, Brooklyn and Austin, Tx. And, suddenly, in Barack Obama’s Washington, too. Recently, I encountered Hector, a teenager skateboarding with friends outside a McDonald’s in downtown D.C. He’s wearing a neon T-shirt, impossibly skinny jeans, and a bored expression. So, are you a hipster or what? “Man, no,” he says. He does not care much for labels. Can he have a cigarette?

Hector is black. And these days, if you spend enough time in Union Square in New York City, Gallery Place in Washington or even Brick Lane in London, you know that there are thousands more kids just like him—black, white and brown. What gives?

By now, the traits of hipsterism are easily recognizable to culture vultures: Hipsters are white, urban, occasionally privileged, attitudinally earnest and functionally alternative. They live life at the intersection of Pabst Blue Ribbon and day-glo leggings—worn with irony, or maybe not. They listen to indie darlings like Pavement, or anthem rockers like Arcade Fire. Maybe even a little Wu-Tang. Everything obscure is good; a headband on some longhair of a man; a waifish girl sporting several thick gold chains.

The hipster—torn between ironic, “who cares if I’m wearing a tracksuit” detachment and the exhibitionism required to perform the trend—is complicating traditional ideas of identity and sexuality. And this lifestyle is all the more striking when the kids mixing white-boy silhouettes and post-punk swagger are already culturally conspicuous—when they are black.

So just what is a black hipster—a “blipster” or “alt-black”? Like many recent cultural trends, this one straddles race, politics, fashion and art. For the purposes of discussion, we’ll stick with men (though I have seen some Flock of Seagulls-looking black females out and about of late). As Lauren Cooper, a Howard University graduate who admits to an indie lifestyle, puts it, “It’s probably easier to pick out a black male ‘blipster’ than a female.”

Simply put: The racial archetypes that had defined the last 15 years of masculine street style have given way to a radically new aesthetic. Gone are the extra-long T-shirts, saggy jeans and Timbs long favored by young black men. They haven’t swapped them for the mopey, emo tees once favored by young whites. Rather, urban youth of all colors now rock snug pants, bright, oversized graphic tees, spotless vanity sneakers and hats with brims flatter than Kansas.

And a skateboard, too, if you can hack it. More than anything, these black hipsters are the “Kick, Push” generation. Just as “swagga” has gone mainstream, the racially ambiguous fashion statements of Lupe Fiasco, Pharrell Williams of N.E.R.D. or black skateboarder Steve Williams have become a prominent urban aesthetic, from mallrats in San Diego to grown men in Chicago.

Part of the blipster look is born of utility. “You can’t really wear sagging jeans without being embarrassed on your skateboard,” says Himanshu Kumar of the band Das Racist. So pin-thin pants have joined the “Spitfire shirts and SB Dunks” named by Fiasco in his now-classic skateboarding rap as markers of the new style.

And then there are the hybrid social and cultural cues American teenagers pick up every day that translate into hipster fashion and art.

Take the 19-year-old blipster I met recently on the D.C. metro rail. He wore acid-washed skinny jeans, a Boston Red Sox cap that looked like he’d ironed it and a Middle Eastern kaffiyeh around his neck. He and a friend hung off the pole inside the subway car like bananas on a hook.

Where did you get that scarf? I inquire.

“H&M,” he says.

Remembering the kaffiyeh’s significance as a symbol of Palestinian solidarity, I ask: Do you know what that means?

“Yeah, it’s Muslim,” he replies, with scorn. “I wouldn’t wear it if I didn’t know what it meant.”

Hmm. If he seems confused, he’s not alone. New York magazine has been trying desperately to separate the genuine trappings of hipsterism—Pabst Blue Ribbon, cowboy boots on men—from the insanities that populate sites like lookatthisfuckinghipster.com.

It’s a hard line to negotiate—especially when it comes to black men. Take some recent controversy regarding entertainer Kanye West, who often pushes the envelope on both sound and fashion, sporting bright green trousers and nerd goggles or pairing with Louis Vuitton to design a white sneaker which one writer panned as “a deck shoe combined with an Air Force One.” Does Kanye West Dress Too Gay? ran a breathless headline on the Daily Beast. Marcyliena Morgan, a professor who manages the Harvard Hip-Hop Archive, concluded that West is a pioneer: “While people may not adopt these looks fully, they will inevitably serve to soften the boundaries around black-male fashion.”

And, of course, there are those who hate the “blipster” label—even if they are supposedly in on the joke. “The first time I had ever heard the term used, I got pretty pissed off about it,” says Cooper. “It’s ‘Oh, you skateboard? Oh, you listen to indie music? You’re such a blipster.’ Yeah, I listen to Cut Copy and Lykke Li, but I don’t think those things negate blackness or require a classification.”

But, as with any budding social scene, it can be hard to tell who’s in and who’s out.

Asher Roth, a white rapper who favors a preppy look, became a YouTube sensation with his hit “I Love College.” Does he count? While he’s spat rhymes for Jay-Z and inked a deal with Def Jam Records, he’s also gotten into trouble for talking about “nappy headed hoes” in reference to the Rutgers University women’s basketball team, and proclaiming that “the world’s gone mad / when blacks wear plaid.” But, to look at the shoes, jackets and fitted flannels you can find in the closets of many young, black people today, perhaps it has.

Das Racist, a hipsterish band comprised of Queens-born Kumar and San Francisco-born Victor Vazquez, matches hyphy dance beats with lyrics about “the combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” that could speak for the ‘hood or the nearest gated community. And why choose? “A lot of this all [comes] from a resurgence of ‘80s culture into the boring modern day; across races—tight jeans and bright clothing aren’t distinctly un-hip-hop, so to speak,” Kumar says.

Still other blipster musical acts embrace the hip and downplay the black. One such artist is ninjasonik, a persona who insists that he’s “a band, not a rapper.” Fair enough—the hook from one of his indie hits is “I’m a tight pants wearing ass n****.” One Williamsburg-dwelling friend describes the live ninjasonik experience: “At least 100 people on stage, half of them nerdy white hipsters, half of them ‘hood hipsters, all totally getting along—it was so surreal,” he says. “Post-racial, post-sexist; it was mad crazy.”

The hipster tendency to turn social difference into spectacle seems odd for blacks who are already, by virtue of their minority status, very visible. But this speaks to another, broader trend—which is that this culture is about total liberation. Allin Bond, the black president of Happy Hour Clothing, which sells bright graphic T-shirts and other blipster-friendly attire, notes that “we are in kind of a mash-up culture. Rap is cool; smart rap is real cool; the ‘80s came back hard,” he says. “And part of being a hipster is not having any rules.”

So kids punch out the lenses of 3-D movie goggles to use them as nerd frames reminiscent of Elvis Costello; and Steve Williams, whose line of skatewear is sponsored by the mega-corporate Reebok, lists his favorite movies as both Wall Street—the ’80s flick featuring Michael Douglas chanting “greed is good”—and Belly, the ‘hood drama starring troubled rapper DMX.

Say what you will about the blipsters and their crazy tastes—but we should have seen it coming. Black folks have had plenty of role models when it comes to edgy style. Dwayne Wayne, a character on A Different World and one of the earliest templates for today’s blipsters, wore flip-up sunglasses without irony. Black rockers like Prince laid the track for musicians such as Brooklyn-based TV on the Radio, singer Kelis, who famously “screamed on a track” or even hip-hopper Jim Jones, who’s partnered with fairy-funk act MGMT and once declared himself “too fat to fit into those skinny pants.” And don’t forget the sheets, diapers and hot pants worn by Parliament Funkadelic and Earth, Wind and Fire.

In short, blipsters are proof that everything old is new again.

Dayo Olopade

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