Thursday, July 07, 2005

BKBA: Kicking it in a Kurtha

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Aug. 20, 2004. 01:00 AM

Kicking it in a kurtha

Some clothes make the man, but clearly the sports jersey doesn't cut it in Toronto's bar scene, says Black Krishna.

I was at the Bier Market, a trendy bar on The Esplanade in downtown Toronto an hour ago. It's Friday night.

Notice I wasn't "in" the Bier Market, I just showed up "at," and was told very politely that I couldn't enter wearing my brown bandana as part of my T-shirt, baggy shorts and sandals.

Now, coming from a Hip Hop Peace and Unity Fest, I expected to brave a yuppie cold shower to see friends there, and was fine with it. Plus, I'm familiar with Toronto dress codes.

Still, I ask the young lady what their full dress code policy is, and she obliges by reading a few items scribbled on a note-pad: no torn jeans, no tank tops, no bandanas, and no jerseys — except during Leaf games, when white and blue jerseys gain black-tie status. Baseball hats are fine, as are all manner of casual modest clothing such as T-shirts, jeans, and sneakers.

Except for jerseys.

I noticed the same policy in hip hop-hotbed Atlanta, where some bars welcomed the teeming masses wearing jerseys while others aggressively turned them away. This, despite the fact that most jerseys cover at least as much of the body as any other shirt and, unlike tank tops, conform to international decency standards (basketball jerseys are often worn with T-shirts underneath), even more so when oversized.

So, what's the problem?

Well, as most people know, in North America, black people wear jerseys. In fact, many others copy young black (urban) culture and wear jerseys. But at its core, it's a "black thing." So are bandanas and skull-wraps.

Thus the dress code policy may be rooted in racist and stereotypical thinking about blacks, denying them free expression, and labelling them as more likely to cause trouble if not conforming to established so-called mainstream, traditional or white clothing options.

But I'm not black, and I'm not wearing a jersey, so what's my problem? Why can't I just take the bandana off? It's just a poser-thing, isn't it? What the heck's wrong with my hair?

Well, as a South Asian born in Toronto, I wondered if I could instead just roll up and kick it in a kurtha, the pajama-style outfit worn in India and by ex-pats here, or maybe just a long kurtha-shirt with a nice pair of jeans.

If I couldn't, while my peers were in ratty beer-label T-shirts, then that would suck. But even if I could, is that really fair? What are the roots of this dress code policy? What is the logic behind it?

I can trace my East Indian cultural history back 5,000 years, and can also make a convincing argument for my Canadian Charter rights to wear a kurtha anywhere in Canada. I've even worn fancy kurthas to non-Indian weddings for appreciative audiences.

African-Americans can trace their North American history back 400 years, but weren't given most of their rights in the U.S. until 1964, just 40 years ago, with many racist roadblocks to cultural evolution kept in place.

Some still exist.

This is what makes hip hop's global dominance all the more spectacular in just 25 years, utterly eviscerating racial superiority arguments, and proving to be well on its way into a permanent and continuing place in history.

The concepts of peace, love, unity, respect, family, language, style, art, humour, and social structure are all present in hip hop, like any other society, with many regional variations, and empirically it should then qualify for culture status.

Travel around the world and you'll be able to recognize hip hop style as distinct and identifiable in any country — jerseys, hats, skull caps, baggy jeans, etc.

For a fair and equitable society based on standards from all of Toronto's varied communities, we have to throw out the tired arguments based on stereotypes, such as hip hop clothing equalling gang-banger. Hundreds of millions of hip hop CDs are sold worldwide but that does not translate to hundreds of millions of gang-banger buyers.

In fact, hip hop culture is just the opposite of a destructive force. It originally provided a window into the world of disenfranchised blacks for themselves and, later, for everyone. Much maligned in its early days, hip hop struggled because it needed to convert each fan one by one.

It has evolved considerably, but even at its most excessive it is no more extreme or damaging than any other culture's most bizarre behaviour, and objectively less damaging than nearly every Western culture's foreign policy decisions — and most of their domestic ones.

Taken as a cultural entity, it is among the least destructive on the planet. As the late rapper Tupac Shakur noted about his own tales of the ghetto: "I didn't create thug-life, I diagnosed it."

Well, we should all be glad at least some people do. It's easier than admitting the selfish and systemic faults of our more established culture, the one that actually sets the rules for everyone else.

So, either we force African-Americans to skip over their history on this continent for any legitimate cultural claim, or we concede its already globally admitted value, forged stronger in the fires of persistent discrimination, and certifiable as clearly "hip hop" or "new black" culture in Canada and throughout the world.

Outside of subjective individual taste and values, commerce is a clear and objective judge of how people around the world truly feel about hip hop. And much of the world clearly likes it.

Therefore, as a matter of communal principle, this must include widespread acceptance of the humble sports jersey as casual evening-out leisurewear.

After some thought I decided not to go into the bar, simply because I knew in my heart that if I can kick it in a kurtha, then we should all be able to kick it in a jersey .

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Black Krishna is a writer and hip hop activist living in Toronto.

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