Persona(lity) Crisis: The troubles of performing in character

What’s in a persona. Rowan looks at the masks musicians like to wear.

The persona is key to the performing arts; it allows the artist to escape the confines of their own personality and become someone else (or at least an exaggerated form of themselves).  Similarly the audience’s knowledge that the within the performance the characters are not representations of the artists themselves, but creations, allows the audience to enjoy the piece as one of fiction.

From Sun Ra to Ziggy Stardust alternative personas have been used by musicians for these reasons.  However, there is a problem posed by the use of persona in music; personas are not always identified by their audience, and instead the performance can be (mis)interpreted as a representation of the performer themselves.

One example of this can be seen in that of Odd Future whose transgressive topics and taboo lyrics have seen the group under media scrutiny and accusations of misogyny and homophobia.  My interpretation has always been that their lyrics were so cartoonishly over-the-top, that the group couldn’t possibly be endorsing them, similar in parts to the violence in campy splatter movies like the early Peter Jackson films Bad Taste and Braindead.

Indeed, Tyler (OF ringleader and the probably the main target of criticism) has explicitly stated that he often writes from different personas (for example a serial killer), weaving narratives that due to the dark subject matter almost inevitably use liberal amounts of taboo language.

So why are some personas recognised where others are not?  Kool Keith’s alias Dr. Octagon provides a useful contrast to Odd Future – both are similar in terms of subject matter and have both been dubiously dubbed ‘horrorcore’ – however Dr. Octagon is an intergalactic time traveling gynaecologist – clearly a fantasy, character explicitly distinct from himself.

In the absence of such an obvious persona it is understandable why Tyler is misunderstood – particularly to someone whose knowledge of hip-hop is limited to the shock stories heard in the media, who wouldn’t recognise that his lyrics are over the top as they have little to compare them to.

Another great example is the recent rap battle between Guardian columnist Pete Cashmore and blogger Bentlegs.  As the two are fairly far from the stereotypical conception of an MC, it highlights the fact that the over the top lyrics are not opinions of their own, that they are playing characters trading hyperbolic insults of ever increasing intricacy to comic effect (see Pete Cashmore’s second round in particular).

I think this interpretation can be extrapolated to most of the battles which I have seen; there appears to be mutual respect between performers and following each battle it is obvious that many of them are mates despite what they had being saying about each others mums/girlfreinds/pets/clothes [delete as appropriate].  The difference is that these performers embody what most would people assume an MC is like, and therefore assume that these are not personas, but representations of their own views.

Although it is not necessarily an artists fault if their lyrics are misunderstood, are they responsible for how they affect those who listen to them? It’s possible that sexist/racist/homophobic language is legitimised by its use, paticularly when used by a figure who is idolised by their audience – even if that is not their intention.  If this is true then  these artists are contributing to and normalising bigotry, and are therefore in at least to some degree. Whilst I am certainly not advocating censorship, their stances on these issues should be clearer in order to avoid these grave risks.

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