In his 2011 memoir Concept Man, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen recalled a phrase his mom coined to explain risk-takers. “That person is an edge walker,” Allen’s mother would say.
Given this familial admiration for journey seekers, it’s not shocking that Allen appeared interested in some of the flashier merchandise of black popular culture, specifically thrill-chasing social misfits corresponding to Jimi Hendrix, blaxploitation characters similar to “Superfly” and NBA heroes similar to Sidney Moncrief. Certainly, a better examination of Allen’s life reveals that he cultivated some behaviors extra befitting a workaday black man than a white tech guru.
He was an Accidental Virtually-Black Man, one of the newest in a historic line of black tropes trapped within the our bodies of white males identical to Bix Beiderbecke, Elvis Presley, Larry Fowl, Eminem and so many others earlier than and after him. This isn’t to recommend that Allen was some wannabe “whigga” straining to applicable black male machismo — the nerdy, unassuming pc genius should have recognized he couldn’t have an effect on black swagger with any credibility. But, from his heroes proper right down to his spending habits, Allen appeared to determine with African-People, their artwork and even their preferences in sports activities.
Query is, why did African-American tradition appear to have an effect on him so deeply?
Proof of Allen’s fascination with black tradition is all over the place in his guide. As a child coming of age through the ’70s, he sneaked into inner-city Seattle film theaters to observe blaxploitation movies. It was a ardour so robust, he wouldn’t be deterred. He described a time when he and eventual Microsoft co-founder Invoice Gates have been confronted in a gritty northeast Portland, Oregon, movie show. “Someone came up to us one night during the closing credits and asked, ‘what are you white boys doing here?’ ” Allen wrote. “That threw us, but we were back a week later. We just found those films enthralling.”
Blaxploitation movies have been simply half of a bigger captivation with African-American tradition. Allen beloved blues and rhythm and blues, going as far as to turn into a reliable blues-rock guitarist (in a memorial tweet, famed producer Quincy Jones remembered Allen as a “dear friend” and “killer guitar player”). Allen spent his billions as a black movie star may, internet hosting luminaries comparable to Quincy and Stevie Marvel on his colossal superyachts. He acquired sports activities franchises such because the Seattle Seahawks and the Portland Path Blazers.
Obsessive about basketball, Allen boasted he might rattle off NBA participant stats inside a number of proportion factors. “I thought the NBA was the greatest spectacle in sports, equal parts athleticism, ballet, team work and individual grit,” he wrote. “The action was almost non-stop, full of vivid moments … and what could match the beauty of a jump shot swishing through the net, or a tough offensive rebound in traffic? … ”
Although he belonged to an elite class of notoriously secretive tech royalty, Allen was recognized to be exceptionally reclusive (60 Minutes as soon as in contrast him to Howard Hughes). You may even say that he adopted the social coverage encapsulated within the lately minted black catchphrase “stay in your lane.” (Translation: “Mind your own business.”) If all this isn’t proof sufficient of Allen’s kindred blackness, the pc messiah, like so many black males, by no means married.
However by far, probably the most profound black affect on Allen was rock guitar virtuoso, and edge walker nonpareil, Jimi Hendrix. Allen isn’t distinctive in idolizing Hendrix — tons of whites worship on the altar of Jimi — however Allen’s admiration for Hendrix transcended mere fandom. “I was obsessed with all things Hendrix,” he wrote of his youth. “On weekends, I sported button-fly purple bell-bottoms, a medallion around my neck, and a Mississippi River gambler’s hat — sort of a poor man’s Hendrix hat. In my bedroom I put up a black-and-white poster of Jimi playing with his eyes closed … ”
Given his monumental admiration for Hendrix, it’s not a stretch to think about that Allen seen the guitarist — and maybe different acknowledged black musical influences, together with B.B. King and Buddy Man — as extra than simply inspiring artists. Allen might have thought-about them to be kindred spirits, artists whose fiery curiosity and truth-seeking depth matched his personal.
Contemplate the similarities between Hendrix’s and Allen’s respective careers. There’s Hendrix, the Seattle-born musical pioneer who skydived with the 101st Airborne Division earlier than exploding onto the world music scene. Self-taught on guitar, he was a contemporary Mozart, a singer, songwriter and guitarist so highly effective, he virtually single-handedly impressed the late 1900s exhausting rock style that spawned improvisational acts corresponding to Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath, to not point out the freaky-deaky funk motion that gave us the Isley Brothers, Parliament-Funkadelic and dozens extra.
Allen’s profession reads like a mirror reflection of Hendrix’s. Additionally hailing from Seattle, he was a self-taught electronics whiz pushed by curiosity, intuition and pure inspiration. Though Allen by no means noticed himself as a risk-taker, his paradigm-shifting innovation, the private pc, speaks for itself. Microsoft co-founder Gates grabs all of the media consideration, however even he graciously confessed just lately that with out Allen, “personal computing would not have existed.”
All of which is to say that Allen was to pc know-how what Hendrix was to the electrical guitar: a world-changing revolutionary. Their affect is inescapable. The irony is that Allen’s now-omnipresent invention led to rock ‘n’ roll’s cultural diminishment. Earlier than computer systems muscled into the mainstream within the 1990s, pop music was entrance and middle in world youth tradition. At present, youngsters take heed to Hendrix tunes on their laptops and smartphones, applied sciences Allen both instantly or not directly impressed. He launched an invasive tech motion whose affect grows extra and extra by the day.
Reviewing Allen’s life, one is struck by how strongly Hendrix gripped his creativeness. On his official profession timeline, Allen proudly lists attending a 1969 Hendrix live performance, as if witnessing the guitarist in efficiency was in itself an achievement. As an grownup, he would use his billions to assist Hendrix’s household win the authorized rights to the late guitarist’s likeness and recordings, a deal valued at $90 million.
Most conspicuously, Allen erected a structural monument to Hendrix dubbed the Expertise Music Challenge, the identify serving as an homage to Jimi’s band, the Jimi Hendrix Expertise (the Frank Gehry-designed superstructure has since been drably rechristened the “Museum of Pop Culture”). Devoted to “the ideas and risk-taking that fuel contemporary popular culture,” the museum showcases the Fender Stratocaster upon which Hendrix carried out his generation-defining interpretation of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock. Allen shelled out $1.three million for the Excalibur ax — chump change for a man whose internet value was estimated within the $20 billions.
By necessity, blacks are shape-shifters. To outlive in a white-ruled world, we undertake a sure social fluidity that compels us to reconcile our personal tradition with that of the “mainstream.” We do that in hopes of becoming in comfortably at each the workplace and within the ‘hood. It’s a continuing, aware negotiation of two worlds that may be completely exhausting.
Allen appeared to toe an analogous tightrope, however as an alternative of leapfrogging racial divides, he struggled to resolve his latent Hendrixian freakiness with the buttoned-down calls for of enterprise. Although he by no means commented about his social awkwardness, we will solely speculate that like many blacks, this white man, for all his privilege, felt misunderstood. He was dubbed “The Bitter Billionaire” as a result of he dared write candidly about alleged slights he suffered from prime Microsoft executives. That’s in the identical realm because the willfully ignorant whites who accuse Black Lives Matter activists of being bigots for protesting racial profiling and police brutality. Allen caught a glimpse of what it’s actually wish to be black in America, the place you’re not allowed to be indignant even when your rage is justified.
Earlier than I used to be assigned this story, I shared my opinions about Allen with a black good friend. She discovered my principle fascinating, even agreeing that the pc mogul exhibited traits that accord extra with a black city upbringing than a white suburban one. However whereas she accepted my primary premise, this often compassionate lady admitted she struggled to empathize with the computing legend. “I can’t quite bring myself to feel for Paul Allen,” she confessed in a responsible tone. “Is that because I’m black?”
Might be. Though Allen suffered from what one journal described as “nerd social maladroitness,” he was nonetheless an elite amongst elites, half of a white ruling class and a tech aristocracy. He had the choice of adopting blackness on venue levels, then doffing it simply as simply. Herein lies the problem blacks like my pal have with white cultural appropriation.
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We stay in a world the place blackness, particularly African-American music, is seen because the gold normal of human expression. From singing competitions resembling American Idol and The Voice to R&B and rap artists akin to Eminem, Justin Timberlake, Macklemore and Dua Lipa, it’s not unusual anymore to listen to white people providing impressionistic simulations of black emotionalism. Ever since radio, the phonograph and tv converged to create trendy popular culture, whites have been seduced by black people’ bluesy siren track.
It’s telling that whites like Allen appear to determine so passionately with black tradition of their youth, as a result of at no time in life do you are feeling extra alienated and misunderstood than once you’re younger. To place it extra indelicately, one not often feels extra like a powerless N-word than once they’re a young person.
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On this sense, Allen could be seen as half of a continuum, a logo of privileged whites who yearn to expertise the nothing-to-lose freedom they think about most blacks take pleasure in. How else to elucidate the hovering reputation of African-American music amongst whites? For the worth of a Spotify subscription, these advantaged youngsters can luxuriate in vicarious blackness. Such a deal.
But, more and more in right now’s America, whites are studying what it’s actually wish to be disenfranchised. They’re watching in horror as deindustrialization, low wages, unaffordable housing, opioid habit, trillion-dollar scholar debt and extra lay waste to the so-called American Dream many believed was their birthright.
In post-Paul Allen America, we’re all edge walkers.