“The fact that the suspension of judgment may be impossible does not release one from the responsibility of perception.”
– James Baldwin
By Jon Tanners
I listen to Gunplay often (the Miami riot starter’s “Jump Out” currently sits atop my iTunes most played list). When young firebrands Odd Future began buzzing two summers ago, I immersed myself in their growing catalog—one rife with enough wanton vulgarity to justify belief in every stereotype my father has ever assumed true of rap music. When possible, I have put my money where my ears are: I have never purchased anything Gunplay related (to my knowledge, all of his worthwhile releases are free mixtapes), but I own a number of Odd Future albums and I have seen them in concert.
I also happen to be a young Jewish New Yorker. I don’t actively practice—I have not voluntarily stepped foot in a synagogue in almost a decade (save for the odd wedding here and there) and I view holidays as an excuse to drink wine and eat too much. I am, however, constantly aware of my culture, often for reasons that escape my own understanding (for another essay, another time).
During their respective ascents, Gunplay and OF have each made use of that most enduring and recognizable Nazi symbol, the Swastika. On the cover of his Inglorious Bastard mixtape, Gunplay sports a modified SS Officer uniform, a Swastika and Nazi eagle replacing the first “o” in Inglorious. The proposed cover of his oft-promised album Valkyrie sports a blood red Swastika against a black background. OF has repeatedly employed Swastikas and referred to themselves as “black nazis” to rankle people like my father and align themselves with a general sense of anarchy (it feels fitting, however, that an attempted journalistic dig through OF’s main repository of photographs—the Golf Wang tumblr—yielded nothing; a sign of cooler/older heads prevailing, perhaps).
As both artists have increasingly populated my iPod, I have been largely unbothered by their imagery and its implications, disregarding the illogic nature of a Jew listening to a bunch of dudes who essentially tout the very symbol of my proposed annihilation. I was struck by this apparent paradox in the midst of the discussion regarding whether Frank Ocean’s romantic preference should have a bearing on how we hear and comprehend his music. In the case of Gunplay and Odd Future, I wondered: why didn’t I care? Why doesn’t anyone seem to care? Should I care?
The simple answer to the second question is that neither act has achieved sufficient status to reach the offense-sniffing snouts of politicians and parents’ groups (though OF has certainly drawn ire, only Frank Ocean has truly reached mainstream America, and, even then, fragmentation prevents true saturation). The sheer quantity and velocity of content on the internet sheds further light on the divide between web spotlight and general real world anonymity—a palpable fact in the example of OF’s early days, when a glut of unheralded releases lay at hidden for would-be listeners discovering the group as its reputation spread.
These facts don’t fully explain why my blood didn’t boil at the very thought of reckless appropriation of the Swastika.
The symbol is no stranger to reinterpretation. The hooked cross spent the first several thousand years of its life as an indicator of auspice, representing luck in a diverse array of cultures and contexts, from Buddhism to Celtic and German antiquity. As the adopted emblem of Hitler’s Nazi Party, the Swastika was meant to represent “the mission of the struggle for the victory of the Aryan man, and, by the same token, the victory of the idea of creative work.” In the eyes of much of the world, it now bears the weight of brutal oppression and calculated racially-based annihilation that the Nazi regime wrought on Europe during its reign.
How is it, then, that a group of mostly black teenagers from California and a new age Miami gangsta rapper adopted a symbol of Aryan superiority?
In both cases, a haphazard rebelliousness lies at the center—so sloppy that Gunplay seems to have ignored the fact that the Inglourious Basterds were the Nazi killing heroes of the film that inspired his mixtape title, not Nazis themselves (or, he otherwise realigns the name ever so slightly to better stand for whatever it is he’s trying to represent).
For OF, every image radiates a self-conscious effort to bolster the anarchic image conjured by Tyler, the Creator’s “Radicals”: kill people, burn shit, fuck school. It is, of course, not quite the dictionary definition of political anarchism, but rather representative of a somewhat sloppy approximation—freedom represented by destruction of existing social structures without much thought beyond that. As such, the appropriation of the taboo Swastika (and the similar but far less impactful inverted cross that adorns much OF merchandise) and the proclamation of Odd Future as “black Nazis” forms a cog in an attempted countercultural branding, a sort of Bat Signal to rebels everywhere that this is the music of chaos, the toppling of oppressive institutions as the world burns of its own greed and corrupt design.
Or something like that.
OF and Gunplay are, ultimately, agents of commerce indebted to this very system, the former making calculated moves in signing a distribution deal with Sony RED and aligning themselves with the aforementioned Ocean (whose persona doesn’t exactly scream Mein Kampf) and the latter a member of Rick Ross’ Maybach Music Group empire, an unabashedly capitalistic bastion of opulence.
The cognitive dissonance present here may be to blame for my absence of anger. The gulf between word and action, accompanied by slapdash usage, seems to disarm the Swastika of its mythic evil. So slipshod is Gunplay’s justification of appropriating the Swastika that it most readily prompts outright dismissal:
“…it’s just my symbol of genocide to the bullshit. Mass murdering the bullshit. Too much bullshit out here. I came to Nazi that shit. I came to Hitler that motherfucker. Put all the fake motherfuckers in the gas chamber and gas your fuck ass. That’s what I’m here to do. So niggas better walk light around a nigga. I’ma show niggas. I can talk but I’ma show niggas. All that fake shit, I’ma call that shit out and I’ma stomp that shit out. I got a mission. Just playing the game for the meantime.”
Gunplay’s use of “[his] symbol” represents a comprehension of history so brutally basic that it would be an honor to deem it a surface understanding. Simultaneously, it does attempt personal interpretation, jettisoning (though perhaps accidentally) the Swastika’s deeper meaning in favor of a simplified, though miscalculated, reading.
Gunplay and Odd Future’s careless (or, in the case of Odd Future, calculatingly careless) appropriation of the Swastika suggest a new leg in the symbol’s history, potentially sinking teeth into old readings and reengaging the notorious cross with new ones. Such disarmament perches atop a slippery slope, one that slides straight into desensitization. Eventually, something truly insidious happens: we forget. When we forget, we cease to care, and I won’t lecture you on where the progression ends.
The endgame of this questioning is a tricky matter. Do we simply stop listening to artists who bear different views, particularly if those views are hateful? Do we even need to stop listening if we’re not paying, or, perhaps more importantly, not outwardly championing the music we enjoy, keeping it to ourselves in earbuds and Spotify playlists? Can we ignore the body of work—itself potentially divorced from these views, inasmuch as it doesn’t explicitly express them (in the case of Gunplay, for example)—and judge the artist solely based on his/her beliefs? Or must we look at an artist holistically?
I often think of an ongoing conversation I have with my mother, a retired opera director. Since her teenage years, she has studied the works of German composer Richard Wagner with clerical devotion, committing every note and word of every opera to memory. Wagner is famed for his revolutionary contributions to modern music and his vision of what an opera could be—an all consuming work that dominated the senses. He was also a philosopher and noted anti-Semite whose works inspired Hitler and provided fuel for Nazi propaganda (no fault of Wagner’s own, perhaps excepting the fact that he held anti-Semitic beliefs to begin with).
Whenever I asked my mother how she could listen to Wagner—someone who certainly didn’t intend his celebrations of Nordic ideals for a nice Jewish girl from Queens—she replied the same way: “His music is the most beautiful ever written. I don’t have to agree with him to appreciate it.” (Of course, every attitude towards Wagner’s music isn’t as ambivalent towards his philosophy: the composer’s works remain banned from performance in Israel).
My point—if I have one beyond questioning and self-reflection—is that we must be careful. This point is hardly novel—some might even argue it’s self-evident. I’d politely disagree.
In an age when information can so easily fall into the slipstream of collective neglect, it is important to remember that icons have meaning beyond their appearance on a Tumblr or in a Tweet. We are conditioned to find these momentary forms of communication meaningless, the ephemera of an age in which expression is infinitely (and often regretfully) possible. You don’t necessarily need to stand on the tallest mountain top and decry every insensitive Facebook status, but don’t take casual declarations with a grain of salt. Interrogate everything—especially when it is as poorly supported as Gunplay’s rationale for his Swastika tattoo. Questioning is not necessarily convenient—vigilance isn’t supposed to be.
My mother’s stance throws a frightening wrench in these spokes, but I recognize that, in a world even more fragmented than that which shaped her, it holds weight. It does not relieve us of our duty, but it complicates the mission.