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During an essay as part of his six-part series with Vulture, Roots drummer Questlove discusses the notion of “black cool” and how today’s artists cannot match the cool effect of artists and figures like Miles Davis, Betty Davis, Muhammad Ali, Richard Pryor, Billie Holiday, Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, Angela Davis and Prince.
Quest writes that the problem with hip-hop is artists are now following a script instead of being innovative and that is taking away from their “cool”. Quest fears that once the cool factor is gone, the view on African-Americans as a whole will change for the worse:
These days, the vast majority of hip-hop artists follow a script because they’re trying to succeed in a game whose rules are clear. To paraphrase Barthes: American hip-hop is usually based on imitation, and it is meant to produce artists who are users of the existing tradition, not creators. And because of that, black culture in general — which has defaulted into hip-hop — is no longer perceived as an interesting vanguard, as a source of potential disruption or a challenge to the dominant. It might be worth watching if nothing else is on, but you don’t need to keep an eye on it. And that leads to a more distressing question, not rhetorical this time: Once you don’t have a cool factor any longer — when cool gets decoupled from African-American culture — what happens to the way that black people are seen?
?uest concludes his essay by saying that today’s “black cool” is a Ponzi scheme and hip-hop heavyweights only get recognized for their disingenuous celebrity:
Why haven’t any current cultural figures completely and successfully replaced the icons of the past in the Pantheon of cool? Here, finally, we have come to another rhetorical question. These days, increasingly, black cool is a Ponzi scheme that revolves around a couple of people, disingenuously at best. Everyone pays tribute to those tip-top hip-hop stars, but their cachet comes from their celebrity, and their predictable devotion to it. Do they embody black cool in the traditional sense? I don’t think they can. I don’t think any of us can. The cultural landscape now is about winning, not taking the extra beat to think your way around a problem. Today’s hip-hop stars may be the Federal Reserve of black cultural cachet, but these days they’re just printing money whose value has long ago diminished. And that’s not cool.