New American Songbook: Whitey Moved On to Mars
In 1970, the poet and musician Gil Scott-Heron released "Whitey On the Moon," a scathing critique of the space race. In the poem, he describes the conditions of earthly poverty, but always invoking the gaze of the white astronaut.
Forty-six years after "Whitey On the Moon," the hip hop group A Tribe Called Quest returned to that theme with the opening track on their final album. Titled "The Space Program," the song is incisive and focused. The antagonist is once again a space program, although now with nods toward private endeavor Space X and the Mars venture from super-capitalist Elon Musk. And again, a distinction is drawn between the living conditions for those least well-off on Earth, and the extravagance of gallivanting around in space.
Space is the moon and Mars, but for Tribe, space is also the access to room on this planet. When Q-Tip says, “Think the ones who got it would even think to throw you a bone? Moved you out your neighborhood—did they find you a home?” he’s calling attention again to the disparity between the lived experiences of people on this planet and the lofty aspirations of the disconnected ruling class.
It’s nearly 50 years after Gil Scott-Heron’s poem, and it seems the only thing that’s changed is Whitey is no longer on the moon; he’s moved on to Mars.