I wanted to write about this track because my dad loves Run-DMC and this song is very much a part of my seasonal nostalgic homesickness. Even as a kid I appreciated its goofiness – the vinyl scratch over the rendition of Jingle Bells that slides into that horn riff from “Back Door Santa,” the story of Santa leaving a giant wallet full of a million dollars on the street, the campy as fuck video that just gets better the farther we get from 1987.
In an interview with the AV Club, Darryl McDaniels aka DMC insists that the song’s unexpected mainstream success comes from how real his verse in particular is, in contrast to “every other Christmas song,” which are fantasies. There’s something about his specificity, his evocation of Christmastime in a particular neighborhood in Queens with his mom cooking macaroni and cheese, that resonates beyond the usual hackneyed images of joy and good cheer that you find in a lot of classic Christmas tunes. This is a trope every writer (and person) is familiar with – the more personal your description, the more universally appealing your work becomes.
At this particular historical moment, though, with a Staten Island jury having just declined to indict a cop for murdering Eric Garner on camera and another grand jury making the same decision in Michael Brown’s case in Ferguson a week ago, I’ve been wondering about the implications of generalizing outward from a tradition that isn’t your own. As a St. Louis native who lives about 20 minutes from Ferguson, these questions of race and activism and appropriation are all mixed up in my mind with my holiday longing for home. I’ll be back in less than a month, and I’m sure I’ll find a community markedly different from the one I left in August. I can see the shift happening in my new home in Brooklyn, too. I’m angry and sad about the decisions, and I want to take to the streets and throw things at cops and dismantle this system that requires dehumanization to function. But I’m also trying to respect the limits of my participation in the movement as a white ally who can choose to engage and disengage with these issues at will.
This is something to keep in mind when engaging with the history of hip hop and its community, too. Obviously Liking A Thing is very different from trying to co-opt an entire political movement, and white people being into hip hop is common. In fact, the industry is now designed around the fact that 80% of hip hop is consumed by white men. But that doesn’t mean white interaction with the genre has become apolitical. The idea that mainstream hip hop now centers around crafting a version of “blackness” that white suburbanites like me will want to consume is disturbing. And as I watch the “Christmas In Hollis” video and laugh at its REALLY obvious humor (you are supposed to laugh at this video), there is a small angsty white guilt part of me that wonders if this experience has anything in common with the white crew member who laughed a little too hard at Dave Chappelle’s sketch and caused him to stop doing comedy for a while. Where is the line between appreciating a song like this as art or camp and appreciating it as minstrelsy?
Like most issues with any complexity, this is one where you probably need to swing back and forth between messing up in one way and messing up in an opposite way, foreignizing and appropriating the tradition, always missing that ideal middle of being a purely good human but hopefully missing it by a smaller distance each time. At this moment, though, any collective progress towards this middle feels totally out of reach, and that sucks.
My friend, who is in divinity school, recently posted on his Facebook – “In this season of Advent, it’s ok to cry out, it’s ok to say no, it’s ok to be angry: at God, at society, at the powers and principalities that be.” I’m Jewish, so his Facebook is my main authority on Christian theology. Maybe, then, this gloomy post is doing it right. Maybe this is the season to fully embrace the pain of our communal wounds and lament the incredible struggle it takes to advance even a tiny bit as a society.
Either way, the sight of Jam Master Jay in his Christmas beanie will definitely bring you at least a little bit of holiday cheer.