Thursday, April 14, 2011

Reading Polk Beats.

One of the things I resolved to do when I moved to the DC metro area was to keep abreast of the local news back home. "Home," in this case, is an adopted one; I moved to Lakeland in 2001 to go to school, stayed and worked there after graduation in 2004, remained living there while I got my master's degree, drank a lot of beer there, met my future wife there, got married there, and was generally sad to leave when I decided to do the PhD thing. I've always thought that Lakeland was a great little town overshadowed by two giants on either side: one steeped in history and old Florida mystique, the other, well, a simulacrum of the same. But like most places in Florida, Polk County is not without an uncomfortable history; segregation and racial discrimination, demolished juridically in the mid-20th century, are still deeply entrenched economically, politically, and culturally. In the local media, this history is less effaced than elided: it constantly buts up against the optimistic narratives of the contemporary south, sometimes subtly, often blatantly. Hell, a former Grand Dragon of the United Klans of America just ran for mayor of Lake Wales. (To the city's credit, he was trounced. Now let's kick him off the city commission!) Indeed, I would argue that the local press's unwillingness to confront the county's history is most evident in its cultural reporting, which--on the surface, at least--is little more than a promotional vehicle for the artists featured. Now admittedly, Polk County ought to promote itself, but the manner in which it does and the "selves" that get promoted are often tellingly ideological. This brings us to Polk Beats.

Polk Beats is a weekly feature in the Ledger's Timeout section. It comes out (nearly) every Thursday, and is actually a severely edited version of a much longer podcast conducted by local resident Mycah Pleasant. Typically, it includes a brief description of a local band or performer along with an interview with them. Now I don't know Mycah and I should state up front that my criticisms are not directed at him in particular. Rather, I think Polk Beats is merely indicative of the problematic manner in which the Ledger covers cultural production, and here's why.

A week ago, Polk Beats featured its first hip-hop artist, a local rapper named Leegit. Now at first glance, this seems commendable. The 863 has a burgeoning hip-hop scene--one that constantly interacts with much larger scenes in Tampa and Orlando--so it makes sense that Polk Beats would interview a representative of it. But Pleasant's interview and description is oddly divorced from the Ledger's previous hip-hop "reporting," which largely amounts to things like this:

"Slaying Shocks Suspect's Family" (wherein the Ledger "helpfully" includes some Dem Boyz and Wilson Boyz tunes in an article about how one of their members is being charged with first degree murder.)

or the follow-up:

"25-year-old Lakeland Rap Producer Convicted in Slaying of Girlfriend" (Can you imagine a headline that replaced "Lakeland Rap Producer" with "Lakeland Garbage Collector?" I didn't think so.)

The other major example of local hip-hop coverage includes the (eventually national) story of rapper T.O. (Antavio Johnson), whose song "Kill Me A Cop" got him sent to prison for two years:

"Lakeland Man Sent to Prison for Rap Song Threatening Police Officers" and "Lakeland Man Goes to Prison for a Song"

Johnson's case was an early example of Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd's puritanical, populist tendencies as well his perpetual overreach. Judd recently had a cameo in a laughably "positive" local music video, making sure to publicly declare afterwards that hip-hop was "not my type of music."

This video, which showed up in the local press not long before Leegit was featured on Polk Beats, represents the productive complement to the Ledger's negative coverage. It demonstrates the sort of hip-hop subject Polk County is comfortable with; that is, one that firmly believes in the individualist, neoliberal ideology that now permeates every facet of American life. The young black protagonist of the video leaves school, goes to his middle class home (unlikely), and studies all day, the implication being that--like the other children in the video--he is laying the groundwork for a future career. This is America's bootstraps theology in all of its incorrect and dangerous glory: enact the bourgeois and we'll let you into the club, honest.

Anyway, back to Polk Beats' interview with Leegit, "Lakeland Rapper Keeping It Clean." Leegit's been making music for years, but the article completely ignores his early work. The focus here is that he signed with a label requiring its artists to forego swearing--that's the puritanical, negative side (safe rap!)--but this is accompanied by a productive or positive implication: although his production is structurally hindered, "he knows he is a good enough lyricist to find other words to fill the gap." Despite his subaltern position, he'll make it after all through cunning, determination, and raw ability.

What I'm getting at here is that there's a southern dialectic of neoliberal subjecthood, constructed as much by popular religion and social conservatism (that is, negatively) as by productive secular representation, which is part of the reason why Polk Beats is so problematic. It's yet another example of the Ledger's depthlessness and remarkably context-free reporting, sure, but it also perpetuates the worst aspects of the stereotypical South--racism, economic inequality, social backwardness--while reinforcing the seemingly intractable hegemony of neoliberal ideology.

"That's a lot to put on some kid from Lakeland," you might say. Well, yeah, it is. But it took me about 5 minutes of Googling to reconstruct the history of the Ledger's relationship to local hip-hop. Even the most basic knowledge of local history adds a necessary critical component to the Ledger's worst promotional excesses. I don't think that's too much to ask of Mr. Pleasant or any of the Ledger's culturally-oriented writers.