Das Racist – Who’s That? Brooown!
Das Racist broke up this week and I don’t really care to discuss the details beyond to express disappointment at the outcome, although I’m not entirely sure what the duo had left to accomplish. Two mixtapes and a proper album firmly established Kool AD and Heems as hip-hop’s resident pranksters, always veering close to saying something actually meaningful before backing off and reaffirming that this was the weed-infused joke you always thought it was. They could never have gone mainstream, but I do wonder what their brand of overly educated and racially conscious rap could have evolved to become. Amos Barshad does a better job of writing a career retrospective than I ever could, but I won’t allow my memory of their music to go unremarked upon.
As an Indian-American and a man of “Afro-Cuban and Italian descent” (thanks for the specificity, Wikipedia!), Heems and Kool AD obviously don’t fit the typical rap profile and it’s this outsider status that allows them to comment on the landscape of American identity politics with a unique poignancy that is almost never touched upon in pop music. It’s easy and cliched to depict American racial struggles as a black and white dichotomy and the less nuanced branches of our media lack the interest or resources needed to explore more complex racial themes. This leads to the unfortunate (and potentially harmful) erasure of experiences lived by all people across the racial spectrum (pay attention 2016 Republicans). Das Racist excelled at exploring the absurdity of these experiences, the absurdity of ignoring these experiences, and the absurdity of their own position in the rap game like only the best stand-up comedians can. And that’s where “Who’s That? Brooown!” comes into play.
I’m not a sociologist, historian or activist and there are plenty of others that write about race better than I can, so I won’t pretend to have any insight as to when a brown identity became “a thing” or what it means to other people, but I know that I first encountered the terminology while in college. Members of the Indian Student Association introduced and it seemed like a term that could equally apply to anyone whose skin fell somewhere in between the Black Action Society and the French Club. The Black Action Society didn’t reflect my own personal experiences, and so internally I struggled to find an identity that worked for me. I wasn’t ready to claim brown as my own, but I filed the term away and quietly noted when it crossed my path. I still don’t know that claim brown for myself, but at least Das Racist made me think about it.
The video that accompanied “Who’s That? Brooown!” struck a cord with me like it would for any kid that grew up playing video games in the early 80s. After watching the video for the first time on an otherwise boring Friday night, I wanted to share its perfect balance of hilarity and nostalgia with my people. And yet, as I went to paste the link as a Facebook status update, I hesitated. What would posting this (lightheartedly) racially flag-planting video mean for my own identity?
What would my white friends think?
- Eric has shared a funny video (ideal)
- Eric is going all racial on me (less ideal)
- Eric is a weird dude and even I don’t think he’s black enough (least ideal)
And what would my black friends and family think?
- Eric has shared a funny video (ideal)
- Why is Eric claiming brown instead of black? (less ideal, but a worthy question)
- Eric is a weird dude and he’s definitely not black enough (least ideal)
That is some serious double consciousness going on right there. I never posted the link.
I’ve never been good with being honest about who I am or communicating which things are most important to me. Talking race successfully is not a skill of mine and I definitely don’t do it on Facebook. But this stuff should be talked about and I’m glad that there was enough Das Racist in the world to give me the chance to explore it a little bit. I hope that there is a Malaysian kid out there that will one day listen to Das Racist and decide that he should take a shot at being an MC. I hope that there is a Korean-American doctor that can watch the “Who’s That? Brooown!” video and feel even the slightest, strained sense of a shared identity with a recently arrived Venezuelan laborer. It’s not important, but it kinda is. Das Racist was never serious, but they kinda were.