Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Were African Americans The Originally Composers Of "I Believe I Can Fly" Parodies?

Edited by Azizi Powell

Latest revision- November 5, 2019

I recently happened upon this online blog post about an example of an "I Believe I Can Fly" parody which suggested that "I Believe I Can Fly" parodies (and not just that particular example) were African American in origin. I'm quoting this entire post for folkloric purposes:

"Occupation: Student
Residence: CA
Performance Date: 3/06/14

"The informant is a college-age male whose parents are both originally from Pakistan. He has lived in Southern California all his life, with frequent trips to Pakistan to visit extended family. Although he graduated from a public high school, he attended a private Islamic elementary school until the third grade. He says there were Muslims of many backgrounds at the school, and one of his friends (who also happened to be of Pakistani descent) used to sing this as a joke during rehearsals for school programs. It is a partial parody of a once-popular song by the artist R. Kelly.

I believe i can die

I got shot by the FBI

My momma hit me with a chicken wing

All the way to Burger King

Analysis: The informant (and, according to him, his other friends and classmates) always thought the song was funny, both because “the original song was about how, you know, you can do anything if you try hard and believe in yourself, and like… not letting your fears get in the way of…getting your dreams or whatever. And then it’s like, oh, I got shot by the FBI and my mom hates me…So, that was funny;” and also that the friend in question was also a bit of a troublemaker, so the just the fact of him singing the rather inappropriate song when he was supposed to be singing a school song, “made it even funnier” to the informant.

From a more objective point of view, the elementary school attended by the informant was located in South Los Angeles, which has a high population of African-American residents. It is quite possible that this parody was learned from neighbors or friends who were African-American, as it seems to give voice, through humor, to anxieties about dangers which are uniquely part of the reality of African-Americans in South LA–that is, being “shot by the FBI” or otherwise victimized by members of potentially racist law enforcement or the government. It’s also a very stark contrast between the original song’s message of hope and inspiration and this version’s obvious (justified) pessimism about American society. On the other hand, the second and third lines seem to include stereotypes about African Americans’ supposed fondness for fried chicken and fast-food and their strict parenting style.

An online search reveals that parodies of this song are common among African Americans from LA to Pittsburgh, revealing how far and wide the common anxieties of this minority group spreads.

POSTED FRIDAY, 16TH OF MAY 2014 AT 05:32:19 PM"
The words "parodies of this song are common" is a hyperlink that leads to Part I of a 2013 pancocojams post about "I Believe I Can Fly Parodies"

I also recall reading a post on a blog whose name I didn't document in which the commenter noted that his or her example of "I Believe I Can Fly" parody was racial because of the reference to "chicken wings" and "collard greens". That contributor made no other comment about any racial aspect to that example.

Here's my reaction to these comments:

I very much disagree with the comments that Rabia wrote in the above quoted article that "I Believe I Can Fly" parodies "give voice, through humor, to anxieties about dangers which are uniquely part of the reality of African-Americans in South LA–that is, being “shot by the FBI” or otherwise victimized by members of potentially racist law enforcement or the government."

I also very much disagree that the boys and girls who enthusiastically and without prompting (except for my request for them to share what songs or rhymes they knew) sung "I Believe i Can Fly" parodies in the cultural presentations and recreational sessions that I held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1999 and the early 2000s were "revealing the common anxieties" [that probably are indeed actually] "felt by [many] African Americans far and wide".

I also disagree that references to chicken wings, collard greens, and -in other examples of "I Believe I Can Fly" parodies- cornbread automatically mean that these parodies are of African American origin. While its true that those food items are considered to be "soul food" dishes - i.e. African American popular food choices- other people in the United States South and elsewhere like those food items. I believe that it's probably well meaning but still socially incorrect to imply or assert that this parody is African American because the person voiced in the rhyme wanted (or, in some versions, stole) food that have been categorized as "soul food".

I also believe that it's probably well meaning but still socially incorrect to assume that the person in some versions of this parody who is shot, killed, or chased by the FBI was Black. And I don't believe that it's true that all (or maybe even most) African Americans have a stricter parenting style than other Americans. And if some African Americans do have a stricter parenting style than other Americans, I'm not convinced that the violence against the mother (hitting the mother with a garbage can or a frying pan or other such lines that -I believe- are in later versions of these parodies) have anything to do with actual dislike of or hatred for mothers.

Furthermore, in my years of informally directly and indirectly collecting and studying African American children's recreational compositions (from the mid 1980s to date), I can attest to the fact that it's rare to find examples of African American children's rhymes that even obliquely refer to "being victimized by members of potentially racist law enforcement or the government"- even if you include such examples as the late 19th century or early 20th century "Massa Massa Don't Whip Me" (whip that other "n word" behind that tree)" and the early 20th century to date rhymes "Roaches & Bedbugs Playing Ball" ("Standing On The Corner") that include these lines or similar lines:
"Oh, I'm walkin' round the corner
Doing little harm
Along comes a policeman
And grabs me by the arm
Oh, he walks me round the corner
Rings a little bell
Along comes a wagon
And knocks me in a cell"...

[Update June 17, 2017] Note that I think that both of those songs/rhymes had their sources in 19th century African American songs, but (particularly the "Standing On The Corner"/Roaches & "Bedbugs" song) were popularized by recordings and performances by White singers.
-end of update-

The record "I Believe I Can Fly" record was written, produced, and performed in 1996 by [African] American American singer R. Kelly (as per and the earliest examples of the "I Believe I Can Fly" parodies that I've collected (from direct interactions in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1999) were from African American boys and girls ages 5-12 years. However, these examples might not be the earliest parodies of "I Believe I Can Fly".

Most children's parodies of "I Believe I Can Fly" are found online on YouTube and other websites/blogs such as pancocojams, and not in published books of children's recreational rhymes. Online examples of children's rhymes -including I Believe I Can fly"- rarely include demographics. And I don't believe that any research project has been done to ascertain whether Black American children/teens know and have sung these parodies more than non-Black American children/teens.

However, "I Believe I Can Fly" parodies differ from most Black African and Black African Diaspora children's recreational compositions (rhymes, singing games, chants, and cheers) in that these examples don't have a percussive beat which facilitate the performance of some form of rhythmic body movement/s such as jumping rope, partner, group, or individual hand claps, skipping in a circle, dancing, or foot stomping (synchronized foot stepping) while the sung. rhyme is sung or chanted. It doesn't appear that "I Believe I Can Fly" parodies initially had any accompanying body movement activities, but the compositions became separated from that (or those) activity/activities, but that doesn't necessarily mean that these parodies weren't originally composed by African Americans.

Also, it seems to me that few African American children's rhymes are parodies, although one group of rhymes that might fit that definition are the "I pledge allegiance to the flag/Michael Jackson makes me gag". This is in contrast to the "On Top Of Old Smokey" parodies that I believe are of White American origin and mostly chanted by non-Black Americans. Click for an article about those parodies.

"I Believe I Can Fly" parodies were sung -and continue to be sung- by children and pre-teens of all races, ethnic groups, and genders within the United States, and by extension, in some other nations. I believe these parodies remain popular with children and pre-teenagers (ages 5- 12 years) because they provide opportunities to engage in creative play (i.e. rhyming or near rhyming composing, singing/chanting) that often tests and flaunts societal limits with little or no consequences. This limit testing/flaunting societal norms includes children's and pre-teens's singing/chanting rhymes that include profanity or other taboo words -such as the "Miss Susie Had A Steamboat" rhymes in which the "taboo" word is given in such a way that there is plausible deniability. "I Believe I Can Fly" parodies and some other limit testing and flaunting children's rhymes include references to taboo violence such as hitting one's mother or teacher, and sexual or sexualized content -and often sexualized butt shaking dancing- which cause many children to describe these rhymes as "nasty" or "dirty".

If you have demographic information about late 1990s examples of "I Believe I Can Fly" parodies (including the race, ethnicity of those people chanting those parodies), please share that in the comment section below. Thanks.
This quote and comments are included in Part I of this 2013 pancocojams post about "I Believe I Can Fly" parodies
whose link is given above.

These examples supplement examples of "I Believe I Can Fly" parodies in Part II of a 2013 pancocojams post on those parodies

The "I Believe I Can Fly" parodies that are given below appear to me to have texts (words) that are different from the examples that I collected in 1999s and the early 2000s (in the amount of references to violence, and/or sexualized references such as "dingaling", and rhyming content such as "hospital"/ "popsicle" and "chips/"dangling bits".
All the examples that are given below are from that video's discussion thread.

WARNING: As is the case with many YouTube comment threads, a number of comments in this discussion thread include profanity, and/or explicit sexual references, and/or racist references, and other inappropriate content.

I believe can fly I got shot by the fbi

mari Published on Jun 25, 2014

Mari and mike
Here's my transcription of part of these two African American children's introductory comments about and version of "I Believe I Can Fly":

“Hold on. This is a new song by Mike and Mari. We fixin* to sing “I believe I can fly. I got shot by the fbi” new version.

I believe I can fly
I got shot by the fbi
All I want is some chicken wings,
cornbread and collard greens.
I believe I can soar
I got a whoopin at the grocery store
I told my dad I can’t take no more
I got shot by the FBI.
*fixin"= African American Vernacular English term meaning "getting ready to".

"whooping" = a beating

Kris Edwards, 2016
"Real. Song. :: I Believe I Can Fly I Got Shot By The F.B.I All I Wanted Was A Chicken Wing From McDonalds Or BurgerKIng I Hit My Mom With A Frying Pan She Got Me Back With A Minivan IBelieve I Can Soar Like A Butterfly......."

Daniela Lopez, 2015
"I believe I can fly, got shot by the FBI, all I wanted was a bag of chips, then they shot off my dangling bits..."

Emily Sherratt, 2016
"my friends sing it like this"I believe I can die I got shot by the FBI all I wanted was a bag of chips but all I got was a hit in the bits"

Joey Morales, 2017
"My version: I believe I can fly... I Got shot by the FBI... All I wanted was a chicken wing... So they shot me in my dingaling... And they brang me to the hospital... And They replaced it with a popsicle... Then they slammed me in an iron door... And so much more."
Added June 10, 2017
[June 20, 2017]
Judging from YouTube videos and comments, the "Burger King" examples of this parody seem to be at least as widely known as the "all I wanted was some chicken wings and collard greens [or "corn bread and collard greens"] versions. Each of these versions are still being used in 2017. The "Burger King" versions might actually be more widely used. Its "wing"/"king" fits the "AABB" rhyming pattern while the "wings"/ "greens" does not.

That said, I wonder if the Burger King versions weren't composed later than the chicken wings and collard greens versions. That might especially be true if this "I Believe I Can Fly/I Got Shot By The FBI" parody was composed
(by Black person? or by a White person?) to joke about or put down Black Americans.

Also, the "wings/dingaling" and "chips"/"dangling bits" versions of this parody are even newer and than the "wings"/Burger King" versions.

The content of this post is presented for folkloric, cultural, and recreational purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to R, Kelly for composing and performing the song "I Believe I Can Fly" and thanks to all those who are quoted in this post.

Thank you for visiting pancocojams.

Visitor comments are welcome.

1 comment:

  1. I believe that too often people fail to document and consider the influence of race and ethnicity when collecting and studying children's recreational rhymes, singing games, chants, and cheers.

    Failure to document and consider that demographic information results in missed cultural opportunities.

    To clarify, I don't mean that children of one race or ethnicity can't perform or adapt the text or performance activities of recreational rhymes, singing games, chants, or cheers that another race or ethnicity originated. Of course, anyone can sing or chant or perform any recreational composition.

    However, I believe for the folkloric record it's important to document text examples-including the vernacular meanings of certain words & saying, tunes, tempo, performance activities, and demographics of children's recreational compositions.

    I also believe that -as much as possible- it's important to try to identify the earliest examples of recreational compositions and document the ways that the text, tune, and/or performance activities of examples of a particular rhyme (or singing game, or chant, or cheer) change or remain the same over time or during the same time with different populations.

    Some contemporary versions of "I Love Coffee I Love Tea" are examples of what I call "racialized rhymes"- adding racial identifiers to rhymes that didn't use to include those identifiers. Here's an example of a racialized version of "I Love Coffee I Love Tea" hand clap rhymes:
    "I love coffee
    I love tea
    I love a Black boy and he loves me
    so step back White boy
    you don't shine
    I'mma get a Black boy to beat your behind"...
    -African American girls, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1980s-2006

    My position is that these "I Love Coffee I Love Tea" racialized rhymes reflect the tension that occurred/occurs in newly (?) integrated school or community settings.

    It's also my position that race/ethnicity can influence what types of rhymes (chants, cheers, singing games) children know and how those particular rhymes are performed. With regard to that view, during my informal direct [face to face] collection of examples of children's recreational material from mostly Black girls and boys in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania area (from the mid 1980s to around 2006), I didn't collect any examples of what I call "gross out" rhymes such as "Greasy Grimy Gopher Guts". I think one reason why it seems that those rhymes don't appeal to African American children is that they lack the percussive, rhythmic elements that we (African Americans) usually prefer.

    I'd love to hear from others about this subject. Thanks in advance.