Venn Diagram that Shiznit: Hiphop Studies + Disability Studies

In the third verse of “We Don’t Care,” the first track from his debut album The College Dropout, Kanye West raps,

You know the kids gon’ act a fool
When you stop the programs for after school
And they DCFS them some of them dyslexic
They favorite 50 Cent song 12 Questions
We scream, rock, blows, weed park
See now we smart
We ain’t retards the way teachers thought
Hold up hold fast we make mo cash
Now tell my momma I belong in the slow class
It’s bad enough we on welfare
You trying to put me on the school bus with the space for the wheelchair
I’m trying to get the car with the chromy wheels here
You tryin to cut our lights like we don’t live here
Look at what’s handed us, fathers abandon us
When we get them hammers gwanan’ call the ambulance
Sometimes I feel no one in this world understands us
But we don’t care what people say
My niggas

Last Friday was the third semester in which I’ve treated this song to a close reading with my sections of freshmen writers, and I learn more about it each time. In six sections total, we’ve discovered that this verse treats the politics of abandonment in its critique of civic institutions that have failed Kanye’s “we”–young, inner city African-Americans. There’s a lot going on in this song as a whole–the first verse looks at models of masculinity in the hood while the second details versions of hope and hustle–but what interests me here is how Kanye’s comments dovetail with another interdisciplinary field of critical inquiry: disability studies. Can you say intersectionality?

First there was feminism, then there was postcolonial studies, then there was critical race theory, then there was queer theory, and now there’s disability studies (in no particular order, so what?)–theoretical frameworks that use the socially out-standing experience of a given group of people to poke holes in what mainstream society considers normal, not to mention the obsession with said normalcy in the first place. Cue: disability studies, which I never would have heard of if I hadn’t graded for a disability cultures class as a grad student here at Michigan. This course was about the cultural products in which artists with disabilities explored their lives–quadripilegic dancers, stand-up comedians with cerebal palsy, Deaf actors, that sort of thing. The course was about using these artists’ own words, movements, and efforts to describe themselves to break through our medical or charity-focused lenses, our obsessions with fixing or curing or even just helping the disabled, toward the realization that these folks can think for themselves, can speak for themselves, and–with a few adjustments on our part–can act for themselves.

It was only in passing that our instructor Petra Kuppers mentioned that another aspect of disability studies is bringing attention to the institutional violences that create disability like war and poverty. Which brings us back to Kanye’s “We Don’t Care.” In the third verse, above, Kanye articulates a portrait of disability in the inner city that suggests students with learning disabilities, dismissed by teachers, seek alternative successes as stick-up kids; that welfare and crappy schoolbuses are depressing for a kid taught to measure successes in “chromy wheels”; and that the ambulance only comes around when folks get too drunk. (As a student finally explained last term, hammers = handles. Of liquor.) West restates arguments so many liberals are familiar with: “You know the kid gon’ act a fool/ when you stop the programs for after school”–but he broadens the picture, when he connects dots between foster care, domestic abuse and social services (“DCFS”), learning disabilities (“some of them dyslexic”), glitzy gangsta rap models of success (“50 Cent”), drug dealing (“we scream rock, blow, weed park”), pride (“see now we smart”), motivation, teacher favoritism and the insult of tracking programs (“we ain’t retards the way teacher thought”), stick-up kids (“hold up”), hope and resilience (“hold fast”), materialism (“we make mo’ cash”), and fear of failure (“now tell my momma I belong in the slow class”).

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