A Dance to the Music of Time — “Buffalo Stance”

A Dance to the Music of Time is my attempt to pinpoint exactly why I like pop music. It’s entirely subjective, but if you’re interested in starting a conversation I’ll be down in the comments. It’s gonna be published whenever I feel like it and I’ve no intention to target specific songs — when a song gives me joy or makes me think hard enough, I’ll do it on the spot.

The Song: “Buffalo Stance”
from the 1989 album Raw Like Sushi by Neneh Cherry
reached #3 on the UK Singles Chart

My music tastes are, I’ve recently discovered to my chagrin, quite narrow. My three favourite music acts are The Beatles, Electric Light Orchestra, and David Bowie, which consist of four white men, three white men, and one white man respectively. All three of them do some form of rock music or another, and not much else. Yes, two of them cover most of the sub-genres between them (and I’d actually argue that Jeff Lynne is also much more experimental than he’s given credit for), but this still feels lacking: as a person pontificating about music in public, I am expected to him a wide remit of references to draw from, to be aware of (for instance) niche Chilean bands that combine techno-grunge with symphonic folk. But I don’t, and so the imposter syndrome remains.

Is that supposed to be a bad thing? There’s no real harm in liking the Beatles or Bowie, both widely considered to be some of the greatest acts in music. The real problem comes when you take them as the alpha and omega, the sole parameters for your definition of “great music”, and refuse to give anything else a chance. All too often, we find ourselves mired in our comfort zones, looping our Fab Fours and our Simon and Garfunkels and our Taylor Swifts obsessively, never really poking our head for the other good stuff that’s just a couple of clicks away. And so over the past couple of years, I’ve been trying to get my head round other genres as well, and while there’s still a whole lot more to discover, I’ve always been pleasantly surprised at where these journeys have taken me. Pop, disco, house, funk — I don’t really love all of them, but once in a while I come across a song from those genres that gets me pumped, and I find myself shuffling my feet or swaying to the rhythm in public (an embarrassingly frequent occurrence these days). The love is there — I just need time to warm up to it.

But there’s a genre which I always keep at arm’s length, no matter how hard I try, and that’s rap. I’ve tried getting into it at various points in my life, and it’s a genre with a huge market: you’d be hard-pressed in 2021 to find a hit song that doesn’t have a remix featuring some guest rapper busting out a verse. (Try it yourself on the latest Singles Chart.) Yet despite so many years of exposure, rap and its parent genre of hip-hop continues to leave me cold. There’s something about the powerful rhymes, the eloquence of the verses, that speaks to masses, the rawness just blowing everyone away. I’m not part of that crowd: anytime a rap verse comes on the speakers, I just tune out. Hip-hop, it seems, is a genre destined to pass me by.

Well, that’s not quite true. There is exactly one hip-hop song that I have a lot of time for, one song which I’ve memorised all the lyrics to, one which I care about enough to write a long-winded blogpost on. It might run six minutes and have a bazillion rap verses, but Neneh Cherry’s “Buffalo Stance” is still a stunner whenever I hear it: there is something about her assured nonchalance that amazes me every single time, something in the way she moves and grooves that makes me wish I had even an ounce of that charm, that coolness. And that got me thinking: why this one, of all the ones on offer? Why do I think that this one is cool and the others are all just fast-paced word salads? (Meaningful word salads, but still.) And come to think of it, what makes hip-hop the last word in coolness anyway?

So it is that on my 21st piece on popular music (really? I’ve written twenty of these already?), I finally turn to my first black artist, and start thinking about a genre I’ve never really liked. This is never going to be in any way clever, conclusive or even coherent. But you knew that already.

Chapter 1: What You Hear is Not A Test

To get to the root of my ambivalence about hip-hop, we must go back to the roots of the genre itself, which of course means another history lesson. In this case, we have to start with the 1979 single “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang, widely considered to be the first legitimate hip-hop hit. And there is a LOT going on in that song — spanning almost fifteen minutes, it features three MCs trading all sorts of rhymes and boasts across all sorts of themes, bouncing off each other, trying to one-up the previous guy. But it leaves me cold: I have nothing for respect for “Rapper’s Delight” and the way it brought rap to the forefront of music, but it just seems so pointless. Nothing seems to make sense. At one point, Wonder Mike describes the experience of going over to “a friend’s house to eat” and then raps for quite some time about the bad food. He then upholds this as an example of his emceeing finesse. I know that it’s that uninhibited flow of words that I’m supposed to admire, not the content itself, but… what exactly am I supposed to feel? Am I supposed to appreciate this detailed description of rotting chicken and mushy peas? Yes. Yes I am. I don’t know, “Rapper’s Delight” just confuses me.

But let’s move forward in time to the other end of the spectrum. On the 1982 track “The Message”, Grandmaster Flash and (some of) His Furious Five, there are no light-hearted complaints about bad food to be found. Instead, we get seven minutes plus of rhymes about inner city decay, unemployment, and prostitution, with an unreasonable arrest thrown in at the end for good measure. An overwhelming nihilistic frustration accompanies the nervous laughter from the emcees, and you’re left in no doubt that they absolutely mean it when they say “don’t push me cause I’m close to the edge/I’m tryin’ not to lose my head”. He’s one step away from being all null and void, and it’s frankly scary — at least, that’s one way of feeling it. But again, my reaction is one of appreciation and nothing more. No violent outrage at the injustice portrayed. No revelatory shock. The song just sits there, quietly being awesome, never really sweeping me in the flow. I like it better than “Rapper’s Delight”, but that’s not saying much.

I’m massively simplifying here, but when asked to think about hip-hop, the first items to come to most people’s minds are usually descendants of “The Message”: songs with blunt and explicit language, songs that make a point about social ills and push against the predominantly white cultural landscape. It was (and still is) the voice of the youth, particularly the African-American youth living in troubled neighbourhoods, and always on the frontline calling for change. Yet in trying to understand the genre, I’ve also learnt just how much of hip-hop leans on a particular strand of humour. In his overview of the genre, Kelefa Sanneh mentions that the key to rap’s popularity was really down to how it was “outrageously entertaining” — constant brags and mentions of sex, artfully wrapped in a selection of crude rhymes, are what keeps the genre fresh. Granted, this insolent “stubborn vulgarity” is what also keeps it from being ossified, and allows it to remain grounded and alert to the problems of today. But let’s be honest: when Drake raps about how good he is at seducing your girlfriend, it’s not because he wants to make a point about the problems surrounding promiscuity. It’s because we’re all twelve-year-old children who think fucking somebody is funny and taboo-breaking.

And therein lies the first major problem for me: the subject of humour. People who have met me will attest to how easy it is to provoke me into debilitating fits of laughter: I have a very childish sense of humour. I, too, think that sex jokes are hilarious. Yet when I listen to rap songs, the humour feels like it’s from another world. The topics on show are crude, sharp and quite often grounded in cultures I am many miles removed from, which means that a lot of the humour key to its success simply goes over my head. My experience of “WAP”, for instance, is markedly different from most other people’s: they can’t stop talking about Cardi B’s wickedly funny analogies on female anatomy and sexual positions; I basically see a song that holds its head up high about sex positivity, and that’s it. No matter how hard I try, my head obstinately refuses to wrap around it. Worse still, a LOT of other people seem to be “getting it”, and not being privy to an inside joke is never a good feeling to have.

But I think that that barrier of humour is only one facet of a larger situation. When people talk about the quality of a hip-hop track, a lot of it comes down to whether the lyrics are any good: if they’re funny, if they’re incisive, if they make the listener think. This is true across all popular music, but it’s especially pointed in hip-hop, where you have no music to distract you from whatever the rapper happens to be saying. The lyrics, then, bear a heavier burden: they are the be-all and end-all for judging a hip-hop song. Now, rappers are by no means yobbos who’ve crawled out of the gutter — many of them are erudite, and in fact a lot of them cram more musical and literary references into their songs than the average singer. (One of the most broadening revelations of my life was when I read Tupac Shakur comparing street gangs to “Romeo and Juliet” — and all this before Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet came out.) But for every rapper who writes beautifully raw lyrics, there is another who writes the most inane shit on Earth — and when that happens, that’s it. That’s the whole song ruined. Taking refuge in the music is not an option, because it’s either a really simple and generic beat, or a sample that reminds you of better songs you could be listening to. You just can’t help but compare. (Case in point: when one listens to “Ice Ice Baby”, and hears that sample of “Under Pressure” pulsing in the background, who doesn’t wish they were just listening to Queen and Bowie instead?) William Wordsworth once said something about poetry being “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”, a description you could equally append to rap. But I’ve never really liked poetry.

I jest and oversimplify, but at the end of the day, I guess that the basic problem is that it’s just all too much. Rap’s appeal depends on conveying so much in so little time — too little time, I think, for my brain to process it all. By the time I’ve figured out what they’re saying, the rappers have moved onto the next track, the next big idea. There’s no room for me to work things out, and there’s simply too much intensity, too much humour that I don’t get. And if that’s the case, then I can’t be bothered: after all, as I’ve said for like the nth time, I’m here for an escape when I listen to music, not to hear you talk about your problems. Don’t get me wrong, “message” songs like… er, “The Message” are necessary, as are technical accomplishments like “Rapper’s Delight”. But they are monuments for posterity. They were created to be admired, even feared — but never to be loved.

“Buffalo Stance” is different.

Chapter 2: Multilayered Multicultural

Okay, so it’s cheating slightly to describe “Buffalo Stance” as a hip-hop single, or even to describe its artist Neneh Cherry as a rapper. Neneh Cherry’s debut album Raw Like Sushi is many things, but it’s not solely a hip-hop record. In 46 minutes, Cherry tries her hand at a variety of styles: hip-hop, yes, but also salsa, R&B, funk — and house music. So much house music. On the (admittedly few) hip-hop albums I’ve listened to, rapping dominates on the tracks: a torrent of words flow your way, loading your brain with information from start to finish. That doesn’t happen on Raw Like Sushi: instead, rap mostly pops up during bridges or in short bursts, always politely deferring to the music. “Buffalo Stance”, the biggest song from the album, is comparatively rap-heavy, yet these days it’s thought of as a dance track just as much as it’s a hip-hop one. We’ll get to it in due course, but the important thing to note here is how eclectic a choice it feels. Neneh Cherry carries herself with all the swagger expected of a rapper throughout the album, but it feels like just one of the many styles she can do, and she’s exploring all of them with gusto.

That potential for multiplicity was always there — born to Swedish and Sierra Leonean parents in Stockholm, Cherry spent her teenage years in the US and the UK, picking up an accent that hovers undecidedly between London and New York. (Some even say they detect a Yorkshire drawl in her voice, though it’s far too comprehensible to be from there.) She never seems to have tied herself to one particular place — even today she talks about commuting between London and Stockholm, leading a lifestyle she calls “nomadic”. Maybe all those years in all those different places had an impression on her: life in Sweden, America, Britain, all piling on top of each other for a unique effect. It’s a multilayered personality she carries onto her work, from constant generic shifts down to the minute details of the album. (On one of its tracks, she casually says “domo arigato, danke, merci” before beginning to rap. You know, like you do.)

Like its artist, “Buffalo Stance” has a gestation history that concerns endless samples and layers. Much of this is on Wikipedia, so I will spare you the long list of antecedents and just lead you straight to the 1987 single “Looking Good Diving”, a song by a pop duo called Morgan-McVey. Both were members of the Buffalo collective, which as far as I can tell was a group of half-starved artists who hung out a lot. To hear members of the group say it, “Buffalo” is Caribbean slang for a rebel, someone who can survive in the troubled inner cities. The artists, therefore, were radical. The music, however, was not. Produced by pop titans Stock Aitken Waterman, the track’s standing feature is an overabundance of chintzy synths that made the song dated even before it reached the record shelves. In the music video for “Looking Good Diving”, Morgan, McVey and his girlfriend listlessly mug around for the camera, their faces the textbook definition for “dying inside”. With a song like this, of course they would be.

It wasn’t all bad though. There was space on the other side for another track, so they decided to let McVey’s girlfriend, who he’d met at Heathrow the previous year while catching a plane to Japan, put out a track of her own. That song, “Looking Good Diving with the Wild Bunch”, was a lot of people’s first taste of Neneh Cherry. (Well, some people. That record immediately vanished into the ether upon release, and Morgan-McVey never put out another single.)

The process of creation has been a perennial fascination of diehard music fans: how did this great track get made? Where do songwriters get their inspiration from? The existence of “… with the Wild Bunch” gives us an insight into that process for “Buffalo Stance”, and it’s… mildly interesting? It’s quirky enough, and some of that Neneh Cherry attitude is already in place — the way she spits out “but you had to have style, get a gold-toothed smile” in this version matches the disdain she has in the final one. But first drafts never get published for a reason: they’re rushed out diamonds in the rough, they need a lot more spit and polish before they face the public. The energy never really gets going in “… with the Wild Bunch” — the beats start and stop, Cherry’s delivery is clipped and it’s pretty stunted at places, and when she drawls “what is he liiiiiiiiiike” near the end, well I would like nothing more than to throw my phone against the wall. It’s that irritating.

Still though, the whole thing about “Buffalo Stance” is that there are so many layers to peel back when you think about it. That rap sensibility, for one, but also the history of the song, the hard work and the multiculturality of the singer, all those things come into play in those six minutes of song. And the best part of it all? They come together like clockwork on “Buffalo Stance”. All of them just merge into one, and the combined result is smoother than anything you’ll find in rap music. She’s come a long way — and now it’s the song’s turn.

Chapter 3: Looking Good is A State of Mind

I made a mistake when I started this piece. I posted the music video for “Buffalo Stance” upstairs, but that uses the single mix of the track and is a whole 100 seconds shorter than the version you find on Raw Like Sushi. One really needs to hear the entire track to get its full effect. So here it is.

“Buffalo Stance”, like the rest of the songs in Raw Like Sushi, is about a grab-bag of eclectic things, but mostly it’s about coolness. Being cool on the street, being cool with your man. Being cool when you’re in love, being cool when you’re just hooking up. Being cool as a DJ as a singer as a brat as a lover. Everything she does, she has to look good while doing it. That’s all the song is about, yet she manages to stretch it to six whole minutes, laying down her ground rules, making sure you know what she’s like, telling us that the buffalo stance she holds isn’t just a way of life or a front she’s adopting — it’s who she is.

She knows how to look good when she’s polite. As the song opens, we find ourselves in chaos, people messing with their turntables and hitting on drums and chatting. They’re all making noise, manhandling toys, but it’s just a general cacophony that really signifies nothing. Then Neneh’s commanding voice cuts through the room: “will you stop this f—ing scratching and give me a beat?” Not the politest of entries, but she gets what she wants: a steady beat that means you stop and listen to her. Then, an about-turn, completely out of left field: “ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to introduce the hard-hat”. And the hard-hat comes in, responding to her call. “Now the tambourine! Right now!” The tambourine follows suit. If we were expecting a tough girl, a person coming out swinging with swears and trash talk galore, we’re caught off guard. There’s no mistaking the hard edge in her voice, the authority with which she commands the room, but she does it so politely. Can you imagine anyone else saying “ladies and gentlemen” and still looking like they’re completely in control, like they’re the coolest person in the room? She says that, and you can already imagine her smirking.

She knows how to look good when she’s defiant. She may be polite, but that’s only one out of her many layers. We’re barely given time to settle in when she launches right at us, her flow unrelenting and furious, her descriptions of life on the streets vividly squalid, squalidly vivid, even though it’s just a few short lines. If we paid a little more attention, of course, the picture would fray a little: why does she tell us about this gigolo who’s really a pimp? Why does he even need to look disturbed? (Does that mean all pimps are just people suffering from heavy internal weather?) But we don’t do that: we’re too busy reeling from her withering scorn. It’s not just the “gigolo” who’s getting hit: this is wide-ranging disdain which she’s dishing out for everyone at the scene. The boys who’ve run here just to get laid, the girls sitting there with their cheap hair and their cheap looks, everyone’s getting some. But she never seems to lose her composure throughout all this. She flips them all off with nary a swear, as if these people aren’t even worth it. When she wheels round to face the gigolo himself, the way she spits out that “sucker”, the way she draws out the hiss of that first letter — so contemptuous that my earphones bled from its toxicity, so mindbogglingly cool.

She definitely knows how to look good when she’s telling us who she is. She says so herself: “who’s looking good today? Who’s looking good in every way?” That’s not a question, it’s a challenge. If you think you’re cooler than she is, well then you’re wrong. In that music video, she doesn’t even wear anything fancy, just a baggy jacket over some ordinary black shirt she has, yet you sit up a little more when she’s onscreen. Later on, when she’s spitting a load of nonsensical verses about looking good with the people she hangs out with, all doing the Buffalo stance, you don’t disagree with her, even when you’re struggling to make head or tails from what she’s saying. You don’t disagree with the authority on the subject. Even the music agrees with her: those synths — so exhaustingly everywhere in her boyfriend’s song — only rise up to meet her here, when she turns at last to herself, when she’s allowed to tell us what is she liiiiiike. You can almost see the excitement building, the colour seeping into this grimy world with her at the centre. You can’t wait for her to show you more.

She knows how to look good when she’s being funny: oh yes, she does that. This isn’t really a song that leans that much on humour, yet when she chooses to be funny she’s devastatingly funny. Witness the moment when, apropos of nothing, she drops us some Cockney: “wot is he lyke? Wot’s he lyke anyway?” She dropped this on us listeners of her first draft, yet there she sounded like a whiny petulant girlfriend, the type that you hear and run a mile from. Here, the tease in her voice is much more refined, delicately balanced between the innocent and the knowing: you hear that voice, and you can’t help laughing, it’s just so ridiculously over-the-top. The answer, too, is just weird and wonderful in equal measure: “yo, man, what did you expect, the guy’s a gigolo, man!” That’s at least two too many synonyms of “man” in that sentence, but she then balances it off with a cheeky little giggle, and all is forgiven. Humour is for her yet another way of asserting herself: you think you’ve got her pinned down, then she puts on that absurd accent (what kind of Londoner speaks like that?) and throws you off balance, redefining herself once again. No wonder she’s laughing.

She even knows how to look good when she’s feeling gentle and all romantic: oh yes, she does that too, and better. After spending all those lines flaunting her attitude, winking at us, and generally wreaking havoc on our expectations, she drops this one line almost casually during the chorus: “it’s sweetness that I’m thinking of”. We don’t even have time to react before she’s back to celebrating her badassery. But God, the tenderness of that one line, the giddiness as she savours the idea of having someone sweet. She’s positively gushing with humanity as she sings that line, a softness to her edge revealing itself. In those couple of seconds, it’s like we’ve met someone else entirely, someone who’s not afraid to let you know how romantic she can be while still looking good doing it. And you admire her for it — you cheer her on for knowing exactly that “no moneyman can win my love”. She was already awesome before all of this, a thousand different expressions of cool. The revelation of love just becomes the cherry on top.

But best of all, she knows how to look good when she’s having fun. We haven’t talked much about the music, but like everything in this song, it’s endlessly enjoyable, eminently replayable. It just builds and keeps on building: five minutes into the song, with the synths humming and chiming away, you can still feel the excitement going on, the song refusing to let you go. The synths ring like church bells, the tambourine she called into existence at the very start is still going — another testament to her abilities. All of this is down to the fact that Neneh Cherry herself is excited: excited about showing off, excited about her audience, but most of all excited simply because she’s having fun. She knows you’re here listening rapt, that she’s on top of the world, cutting off a first single that will remain revered as the best debut single from any artist for years to come. The last time she does the full chorus and says “I’ll give you love, baby, not romance”, it’s the most sincere thing she ever says to us, which means it’s the nicest thing she’ll ever say to us — and she must know that, because then she doesn’t say anything for a very long time. For those precious few moments, you’re left alone with those looping synths and the seduction of her words, and it feels like a slow ascent into heaven, a warm ecstasy spreading through you and filling you from head to toe. So even when she’s just repeating “no moneyman can win my love” over and over, you really don’t care. You’re hanging on to her every word, trying to grab just one more second in this world she’s created. Her attitude sticks with you, seduces you, dares you to want more. And even when it’s all over, we do.

Chapter 4: “Wot’s He Lyke Anyway?”

In his excellent book Dreaming the Beatles (which I may or may not have read more times than the Bible), Rob Sheffield points out how the world warmed to the Beatles by making boys wanting to be girls “the absolute crux of male identity”: now it was okay to want to be “as honest as girls, as deep as girls” — and, of course, “as cool as girls”. After all, reasons Sheffield, John Paul George and Ringo had themselves taken their cues for their songwriting and their from early 60s girl groups, hungering after their extravagance and their silliness, thoroughly discarding in the process any concepts of decorum that British men (or just men in general) were expected to have. It was now okay to admit that you looked up to girls, pined after them, wished you could be like that.

It’s true. Boys just aren’t good at being cool. Every time men get called “cool” these days, it’s almost always cause they’re on TV and have put on makeup and styled their hair and look somewhat feminine. And as a deeply uncool person (I write these pieces for fun, you know?), I’m always looking at these people, wondering just why I’ve never been able to live up to that level of cool. I wish I had that confidence, I wish I didn’t give a damn. But then the need for approval or just a kind word gets too loud, or I take things just a little too personally, and then I retreat to my nerdy comfort zones. Coolness is something that I can work on for a decade, be tantalisingly close to achieving, and yet it can still feel a thousand miles away.

Listening to “Buffalo Stance”, my eternal quest for coolness gets torn in two different directions. Neneh Cherry is undoubtedly a paragon of coolness from start to finish, and I might not be a person who hops from bed to bed looking for wealthy women to support my extravagant lifestyle (again: Not. A. Gigolo.), but I felt for the poor guy when she came out guns a-blazing and slammed him for all his lifestyle choices. Not a single ounce of fury is spared — and yet she does it all so casually, so rhythmically, that you can only stand by and applaud. And that’s my problem with the song: I can never really rise to the point where I can confidently stare down pimps and call them out for leeching on young girls and having a poor fashion sense. She’s raised the bar so high that I already know that I’ll never be able to reach it no matter how hard I try. Hers isn’t the sassiness of some girl groups, which is easy to imitate but difficult to keep from being annoying; it’s a hardened self-assuredness, a knowledge that she’s seen it all and can’t and won’t be fazed by anything. (When she performed the song for the first time on the UK chart show “Top of the Pops”, she was seven months pregnant with her second daughter. Turn around and ask yourself: would you have thrown your body around so intensely when you’ve got a second lifeform inside you?) If that’s the endgoal, then why even bother?

And yet. Part of me wonders if it could be the other way round — if I could actually be that cool, at least in some aspect. It all comes back to that line which I love so much, when she lets the façade drop a little and confesses “it’s sweetness that I’m thinking of”. Not money, not attitude. Someone who just happens to be polite, who she can be intimate with. It’s not just that she sings that line with so much heart and so much sincerity; it’s the fact that she makes it the centrepoint of the song, the line that she lingers over the longest. Vulnerability, she seems to be saying, is the biggest part of being cool. Being honest and candid with what you want, refusing to hide behind vagaries or other people, that gains you respect. I loved that. I couldn’t call out pimps or rap that fast, but if vulnerability is part of the deal then perhaps I’m not a total lost cause. It’s a tiny window of hope, almost non-existent, almost delusional, but it’s there, and I hope.

But would any of this mattered if it wasn’t such a good tune to dance to? Hip-hop was always an arena for dance — badly-choreographed routines set to a discord of vaguely Afro noises were a horrifyingly frequent occurrence in my secondary school — but this is a different kind of shuffle. Those 343 seconds are a whole odyssey: you go through fury, contempt, joy, hope, love, all set against a beat and a melody that’s so exciting that you can’t help but go along for the ride. Your feet taps, your soul soars. It doesn’t sound like your average rap song, and perhaps that’s all for the better: no longer do you trip over the words, trying to figure out what they mean. That’s a pleasure that can come later. Instead, you dive headlong into it, let it all surround you, surrender to that rush of feelings. You listen to it right to the end, and then you press the “backwards” key to take it from the top: so rich is that heady mix of synths and sweat that you felt some trace of an emotion, something which was there for a moment and then was gone. You don’t know what it is. You just know that you’d like to tease out and experience it all over again, in that glorious surround.

On its own, a song that did any two of the things listed in the three previous paragraphs would have made for an awesome debut. Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” struts about the field, looking as cool as possible, literally telling you how to dance. The Spice Girls’ “Wannabe” makes sure you know the Girls can do both hard and soft. And “Baby One More Time” gets deep into vulnerability while being an absolutely awesome dance tune. (Whether Britney Spears was selling the “vulnerable schoolgirl” persona well is an entirely different matter.) But Neneh Cherry is the one person who manages to thread through all three of these effortlessly. You want to be her, totally feel what she’s feeling. I did, too. She’d broken through my defences. And I could no longer say rap music didn’t move me.

Conclusion: And the Beat Goes On

Forty years on from the first rap hit, its capacity for reverberations just continues to grow. I noted upstairs just how pervasive it was in popular culture, but it’s easy to miss just how, for many people, rap is a way of life. Some of the most groundbreaking music these days comes from the world of hip-hop — not the watered down “singer tries their hand at a couple of verses to get ‘street cred’” type, but the type which takes the listener to hell and back. For these people, it’s the best way to speak about their painful experiences of discrimination and neglect, and to educate those not in the know. When Lin-Manuel Miranda decided to write a whole musical on the rise of America based on hip-hop and R&B, he wasn’t just doing it because it was a novelty or for the lolz. (Though knowing the man, I wouldn’t rule those out.) It was because the genre had become so tied to the USA: Alexander Hamilton’s identity as an immigrant, the question of slavery and its part in the construction of the American Dream, all of these still resonated so much in the 21st century in the verses of non-white people. The genre’s only getting bigger, and it’s not going anywhere soon.

This seems like miles away from the world of “Buffalo Stance”, and even further away from me in my little home tapping happily away at words that will somehow-or-maybe turn into a thinkpiece. What does this 33-year-old single that owes as much to dance music as it does rap have to do with anything? As I’ve mentioned before, there are plenty of people who don’t see Neneh Cherry as a rapper (including the singer herself), so using this song to vent my thoughts on the whole genre seems odd. The question that plagues me, as I struggle to think of an ending for a blogpost that’s already gone on for far too long, is: why should this song matter? Why should I spend 6000 words talking about a song and its maverick status in a genre that, at the end of the day, has very little to do with me?

When I started talking about songs I loved last year, it was mostly an attempt to describe the effect that popular music has on all of us. I take the question “what does this song mean to me?”, and in answering it I assume that I speak on behalf of many more people. I try to focus on the emotional experience, because it’s the one thing that all humans have in common: regardless of race, creed, gender, intelligence, you are bound to be familiar (if not empathic) with at least some of the sentiments expressed in a song. I want to understand the ability of pop music to make us feel, feel things that we might never otherwise feel; and I want to know the meaning of these feelings too, plumb the depths of those feelings and know what it means to feel like that. But in writing this particular piece, I find that “what does this song mean to me?” is a flawed question. I am dealing with a genre that’s built on a specific kind of identity; for the first time, I am writing as an outsider. I have never really experienced life on the streets, and I’ve never really struggled with getting my voice heard. (Nor am I ever likely to put style and a gold tooth in front of the rumble in my tummy.) Like it or not, I cannot speak for everyone here.

But perhaps the real appeal of “Buffalo Stance” for me has to do with that maverick status. Because it’s so multilayered, it opens up to a lot more readings and a lot of other people, regardless of race and colour. It celebrates multiple things at once: surviving in the inner city, finding your voice, falling in love, all those things. You don’t have to be living in a rickety old tenement or met a gigolo to fully appreciate this song, and sometimes you don’t even have to if you’re into complicated stuff like “melody”. This is a song that lets you have your cake AND eat it as well — for a few, non-serious minutes, it allows you a glimpse, just a glimpse into the world of Neneh Cherry.

What “Buffalo Stance” ultimately tells me, then, is that I will probably never fall in love with rap music. That’s okay: it’s AN experience, but it’s not MY experience, and to presume otherwise would be idiotic and disrespectful. The fact that a song or a genre doesn’t mean much to you in no way means that it isn’t any good, and even as an exception, “Buffalo Stance” gave me an idea, allowed me to understand what it might be like to see the world from someone else’s eyes for a couple of minutes, and for that I can only be grateful. And at the end of the day, that’s really what popular music is about: you get a taste of paradise for awhile, perhaps something within it chimes within you, and maybe, just maybe, that experience leaves you a better person. And ain’t that just the coolest thing ever.

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