“One Deft Discursive Act”: Signifyin(g) on Police Brutality in Lil Wayne’s “Mrs. Officer”

(Two of Esu’s physical characteristics are his extraordinarily dark color and his tiny size.)

Legba’s sexuality is a sign of liminality, but also of the penetration of thresholds, the exchange between discursive universes.

The ironic reversal of a received racist image of the black as simianlike, the Signifying Monkey, he who dwells at the margins of discourse, ever punning, ever troping, ever embodying the ambiguities of language, is our trope for repetition and revision, indeed our trope of chiasmus, repeating and reversing simultaneously as he does in one deft discursive act….not engaged in the game of information-giving….dependent on the play of differences….turn[ing] upon the free play of language itself….Signifyin(g) epitomizes all of the rhetorical play in the black vernacular….[The Signifying Monkey] is the principle of self-consciousness in the black vernacular, the meta-figure itself.

-Henry Louis Gates, Jr., The Signifying Monkey (pp. 17; 27; 52-53)

My picture should be in the dictionary next to the definition of definition,
Because repetition is the father of learning.

– Lil Wayne, “Shoot Me Down”


When I started writing this blog I had an idea that to build up some content I would do a sort of “Power 20” of Tha Carter III and write a post every day for sixteen days about each of this album’s tracks. Talk about 16 bars! Even though I never got around to it, I still believe this album warrants that kind of attention. You might infer from my epigraphs above that I think Tha Carter III (2008) is a masterful and ebullient example of what Henry Louis Gates Jr. calls “Signifyin(g)– that is, the rhetorical “play of differences” that characterizes so much of African American literary troping and ultimately discourse.

Lil Wayne’s 2008 album Signifies not just in its constant practice of “repetition and revision”; rather, its embrace of “the free play of language” positions Weezy as the master of a Signifyin(g) discourse in so many aspects. This album engages intertextuality, for example in the response to Beyonce’s “Irreplaceable” that Wayne offers on “Comfortable”; in Wayne’s explicit discussion of the craft of rapping on tracks like “Dr. Carter” and “Let the Beat Build”; and in Wayne’s coded (and often sexually explicit) ruminations on the nature of language, writing, and the universe, on tracks like “A Milly” and “Pussy Monster.”

But this post is about the masterful “Mrs. Officer,” which intertextually invokes and then queers the tradition of liberatory rap, grounding Weezy’s brand of punning and linguistic play to spectacular effect.  

 “Mrs. Officer”‘s beat is infectious–the song opens with a bouncing, bouyant bass drum and a popping snare; then the flirty instrumentals open with Bobby Valentino’s voice  calling the song along: “Woo oo oo, yeah yeah yeah…” The song’s upbeat tone makes it sound like just another poppy dance track for the club. Valentino sings on: “When I’m in that thang, gonna make that body sang: Wee oo wee oo wee, wee oo wee oo wee, wee oo wee oo wee” and Wayne pops in: “Like a cop car.”

With this first simile, comparing a woman’s coital moans (probably the eponymous Mrs. Officer’s) to the sound of a police siren, it’s clear this song is going to be insubordinate, disrespectful, and hilarious. What follows is a series of nested punch lines that build in their Signifyin(g) power, their invocation of rap’s politically resistant traditions, and in (to use Tricia Rose’s term) their “ideological insubordination” (101).

Wayne’s first lines, describing getting pulled over by the police, is immediately reminiscent of the great tradition of raps songs on racial profiling by traffic cops (songs like LL’s “Illegal Search,” Mos Def’s “Mr. Nigger,” and Jay-Z’s “99 Problems.”) But before the punning has even begun, Weezy is already playing on this narrative trope–we might even say queering it:

Doing a buck in the latest drop
I got stopped by a lady cop
She got me thinking I can date a cop
Cause her uniform pants are so tight
She read me my rights
She put me in the car, she cut off [her, all the] lights
She said I had the right to remain silent
Now I got her [hollerin, howlin], soundin like a siren
Talkin’ bout…
Wee Ooh Wee Ooh Wee….like a cop car.

Where LL Cool J, Mos Def, and Jay-Z’s songs all portray the same situation, where a police officer abuses his authority to detain the rapper, in Weezy’s scenario this abusive authority is performed by a sexy “lady cop.” Abusive police force is mocked and coopted in a few lines when embodied by Mrs. Officer: “She said I had the right to remain silent/Now I got her howlin, soundin like a siren.” The lyrical play here is dense: in Wayne’s queered fantasy space, Mrs. Officer does give him his Miranda rights, but “the right to remain silent” sounds here like an act of S&M. And given Weezy’s retained male privilege, he still has the power to get “her howlin, soundin like a siren” with his sexual prowess, even when he’s unable to speak. But this dangerous siren’s song, whose powers powers wooed Weezy out of his ride and into hers, sounds like, well, a siren: “Wee oo wee oo wee, wee oo wee oo wee, wee oo wee oo wee. Like a cop car.” While other rap tracks sample the sounds of police sirens, Wayne eschews the literal signifier of police surveillance and opts instead to Signify on it. Instead of a sample, Bobby Valentino croons the cries of a female police officer crying out, her moans loud and persistent as a police siren’s.

 In this queered space, the police officer’s power does not unequivocally trump the citizen’s; instead, Weezy’s masculine power mitigates the feminized power of the state. The fact that he laughs after almost every line is a pretty good signal that he is in on the joke. Wayne describes these revised power relations:

And I know she the law, and she know I’m the boss
And she know I’m high, a-bove the law
And she know I’m raw, she know I’m from the street
And all she want me to do is fuck the police

Oh, the punch line! She wants him to “fuck the police”! How far away we are, and still how close, to the terse days of  when Ice Cube yelled, “Fuck the police! …Young nigga got it bad cause I’m brown” (NWA, Fuck the Police). Weezy’s got it bad, all right, where in 1988 “Fuck tha Police” prompted outcry and even provoked an unprecedented denouncement from the then-head of the FBI, in 2008 Lil’ Wayne is “above the law” and being begged to “fuck the police.” Snap!

And after we got done
I said lady what’s ya number she said 911
Ha! Emergency only
Head Doctor perform surgery on me
Yeah… and now I’m healed
I make her wear nothing but handcuffs and heels
And I beat it like a cop
Rodney King baby yeah I beat it like a cop
Ha Haaa… beat it like a cop
Rodney King baby said beat it like a cop
But I ain’t tryna be violent
But I’ll do the time but her love is timeless
Mrs. Officer, I know you wish ya name was Mrs. Carter huh?

In subsequent lines, Wayne continues to riff on police brutality,broadening his indictment of those in power to include a whole range of emergency services.  In Wayne’s scenario, Mrs. Officer gives her phone number as 911, which is all right because she’s also the “head doctor.” Get it?  Of course, this plea for medical attention is a play on the real consequences of police brutality whose emblem Weezy hasn’t even yet named. In this fantasy, the handcuffs aren’t Weezy’s wrists but Mrs. Officer’s. Weezy is the one in power: “I make her wear nothing but handcuffs and heels. “

Lil Wayne, “Mrs. Officer” (2008)

It is at this moment, I believe, that this scenario is exposed for what it really is: a fantasy. With the traditional power structure over turned and Mrs. Officer in the cuffs, Wayne’s character “beat[s] it like a cop”–that is, masturbates. Yes, in this “one discursive act” — that is, “Beat it like a cop,” which wayne repeats four times–he functionally deconstructs his own song, repeating and revising this culminating pun. Is he saying “beat it like a cop” or “beat ‘er like a cop”? The difference in pronoun is crucial. If the latter, we can assume he is beating up Mrs. Officer–whether by literally attacking her, or enacting the kind of violent sex play that handcuffs might entail, or just roughly having sex with her. (The Ying Yang Twins come to mind.) However, Wayne says he “ain’t tryna be violent,” and I’ll take him at his word. In fact, I believe at this moment, the discursive, narrative and sexual climax of the song, Wayne’s repetition and revision functions to revise the meaning of the whole song and to explode/expose the scenario as what it is: a fantasy. Mrs. Officer may “wish [her] name was Mrs. Carter,” but in fact it’s Weezy here doing the wishing, imagining a scenario in which Rodney King–attacked by a small mob of policemen after they pulled him over, you recall, while driving home–gets not beat up but beat off. In its efforts at revision and critique, the invocation of Rodney King is the singular “deft discursive act” on which this song’s meaning hinges.

(My conclusions here are heavily influenced by Busta Rhymes’s guest lines on the later track “La, La,” which suggest to me that for really sophisticated lyricists, apparently misogynistic lyrics might actually be coded references to masturbation and fantasy:

They movin on a nigga as I walk through the valley, ready? (Ok!)
And zoom in with the cameras like I’m dickin’ down Halle Berry (uh-huh)
My money help me do things that you nigga’s can’t believe
Like purchase persons, places all them things that you can’t conceive (ah-huh)
Like interactin with women the caliber of Janet
I-I sit and master my vision and massacre the planet (Woah!)
I hope you nigga’s know just what it is
While I’m countin my paper nigga’s know I’m handlin my biz (OK!)

Sure, Busta claims he’s got women “the caliber of Janet.” But this whole verse is full of images of fantasy and mirage: “cameras,” “can’t believe,” “can’t conceive.” But it seems pretty clear to the other men on the track, responding to each of Busta’s coding lines what our speaker is doing when he “sit[s to] master my vision and massacre the planet.” His peers’ cries of “Woah!” indicate that they heard what he was alluding to with “master my vision” and “massacre the planet.” Just to make sure they got it, Busta asks them, then reiterates with, we might imagine, an obscene hand gesture. “I hope you niggas know what it is…I’m handlin’ my biz.” “Ok!” they yell. We get it! )

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Unasked For: Haikus for Kanye and Kim

 

Kanye’s fashion show

Huffington Post: Life and Style

I care for you two

 

Patti Stanger says,

No sex ‘fore monogamy.

Get out of her zone.

 

What, say what, say what

Anything can happen. What?

What, say what, say what.

 

Duh: the banned but leaked

My Beautiful Dark Twisted

Fantasy cover

 

Kanye and Kim K.

Celebrity deathmatch, v.

Kony 2012

 

Me at home, typing.

You two, champagne, canapes.

I don’t envy you.

 

Snow White, Prince Kanye

Disney would never make that.

Maybe Warner Bros.

 

 

And Now, Back to Navel-Gazing

(While the rest of the relevant Twittersphere writes about Trayvon Martin’s death, I am going to keep writing about white people saying the N-word. Not because I am not following Martin’s story, or because I’m not heartbroken by it, but because I have nothing to add to the coverage and momentum that are already changing the trajectory of this case.)

And now, back to navel-gazing.

This morning a friend sent me this article from Grantland about Katy Perry covering “Niggas in Paris.” Of course, unlike what I just did there, Alex Pappademas titled the song “N***** in Paris” and focused on Katy Perry’s “tee-hee trangression” of sing-rapping about “ninjas in Paris.” Clever! According to Pappademas, Perry’s cover constitutes

a girl refusing to let this song’s imaginary world of swinging-dick privilege be off-limits to her. But that’s all that’s happening here; she puts the word on like a piece of borrowed jewelry and parades in front of the mirror. Her flimsy white-girl voice doesn’t reveal anything about the song’s construction or its sentiments that Kanye and Jay’s voices were covering up…

Despite Perry’s Yankees cap, despite the deep knee lunges from which she belt-sings Jay and Ye’s lines, despite my congratulatory impulses, I have to agree with Pappademas here: Perry’s shout-out to her ninjas belies a larger unwillingness to take this song seriously, to rap it with her head up, to allow the transgressiveness of her own act to fill up her chest and shoulders so that instead of suggesting (as Pappademas thinks her cover does) that “Being married to Russell Brand was as bad as being married to the legacy of centuries of racism,” Perry’s cover could have embraced genuine empathy for what it means to be a nigga in Paris.

But more important than Pappademas’s story is one he links to, “An Awkward Moment at That Jay-Z Concert,” in which author Rembert Browne reflects on the various audience  responses  when Jay-Z (accidentally?) invited his largely white SXSW crowd to sing along at a touchy moment. Mostly because I agree with him, I’ll quote Browne at length:

The more recent and obvious example of this is last year’s debatable song of the year, interestingly not titled “Ball So Hard,” but instead “N—– in Paris.” As soon as this Jay-Z/Kanye instant hit was released, the way the lyrics of this song were handled by the public could be documented in a very lengthy dissertation. From people referring to it as “Ninjas in Paris” to radio stations simply calling it “Paris” to the fact that the entire song is a buildup to the line “Got my N—– in Paris, and they going gorillas” makes this, again, another case where one of our popular culture’s least-discussed yet most-uttered and thought-about words gives people a very interesting decision to make.

My personal beliefs on the matter are irrelevant, but if you insist, I guess I’ll say that the action by some of our more famous, influential black celebrities to aid in the okayification (or “deconstruction,” if you must) of the word by launching it to the forefront of the pop culture sphere is something I believe to be a good thing. What’s problematic, however, is the process of pretending like the word doesn’t exist. Trust me, it’s real. The decision to say it or not say it is very much up to the person, and I respect that, but it’s real and if you are one who has no issue with it being a part of your own vernacular from time to time, you really haven’t a right to censor anyone else.

That, there: that the word(s) nigga(er) are “one of our popular culture’s least-discussed yet most-uttered and thought about word.” Yes. Yes! This is the thought I kept thinking when the most recent iteration of racist gibberish against Obama made its rounds–that our refusal to say this word preserves its most enshrined space at the blotchy center of our national amnesia.  “Least-discussed yet most-uttered and thought about word”–you know, like white news anchors all across the television-scape faulting Rick Perry for his “N-word-head” ranch. Maybe my willingness to pronounce and inscribe the actual true syllables of nigger or nigga out loud and on the Internet with my identity attached is a willingness to take responsibility for the fact that what I’m doing here is controversial–unlike Katy Perry, who as Pappademus terms it is “somebody get a transgressive thrill out of (basically) saying a forbidden word in public without actually putting her adorkability on the line.” Thank you, Rembert Browne: “What’s problematic…is pretending like the word doesn’t exist. Trust me, it’s real.” I guess that’s what I’m hoping for when I allow this word into our classroom space: a reckoning with the persistence of racist language. How can we fight racism when we pretend it’s gone?

Then again, Katy Perry is a rock star and I’m just a self-involved adjunct lecturer blogging from Michigan.

I have this one student, a freshman, who keeps wanting to talk about what the hell white people are doing in hiphop–as fans, as rappers, as witnesses. Near the beginning of the semester he told me, “I just got into hiphop music last year, and I really like it, but I didn’t know what I was doing because I am just. so. white. Like a small town white guy from Michigan. But then I signed up for this class, thinking it would be kind of weird, but then YOU walked in” (paraphrase). That is, me, TB, white person. White girl, plagued by the same problem of authenticity that he is. So who’s gonna legitimize anyone in this room?

And this student keeps returning to that same question, which I originally answered by saying that the answers I’d heard and read were unsatisfactory, but which after multiple negative definitions still is in need of a positive. See, the question is, Why do white kids love hiphop? And, no disrespect to Bakari Kitwana, but this question has not been answered, it has only been mitigated. White fans and rappers have been derided as imitators, co-opters and thieves; our purchasing power has been termed a necessary evil, a sort of redistribution of wealth from our parents to rappers’ pockets; the statistics have been denounced as misrepresenting actual listens, since The Source is read thirteen times for every purchase, or whatever it is.


But my student asks me again: Why do white kids love hiphop?

And for once, as a white kid, it’s my experience that’s valuable here. Here is the question that I am actually entitled to answer, the instant when my participation in hiphop as a white kid is an experience of value. I love hiphop because the bass drum hits my chest as hard as it hits yours. I love hiphop because I love literature and rap is. I love hiphop because it rode the airwaves into my bedroom radio as a kid, because it featured prominently on the soundtrack to Chicago I grew up with. I love hiphop because I am also angry and proud and filled with curse words and swagger and bitterness and hope. I love hiphop because it’s funny. I love hiphop because it’s true. I love hiphop because it’s critical and because I am trying to be better at being critical every day. I love hiphop because I believe what it articulates about the government, the police, the new world order, the legacy of white supremacy, the persistence of misogyny, the ineffability of spirituality in a materialistic society, the end-all-be-all of a hometown, the importance of community, the subjectivity of the individual. The power of language and a beat.

So what?

A Very Short Close Reading for All the Anti-Reproductive Health Haters Out There

Tell my cousin Jerry, to wear ‘is condom,

If you don’t wear condom, you see a redrum,

Wo, oh, oh oh,  you sucka MC’s you got no flow…

– Wyclef Jean, “Gone Til November”

In nine words, Wyclef acknowledges a more nuanced portrait of reproductive health than the entire Republican party has evidenced in months of speeches, campaigning, and proposed anti-contraception and anti-choice legislation at the state level. What does Wyclef say? In the persona of a young man leaving his girl “til November,” Wyclef issues some parting wishes. (“And give a kiss to my mother.”) In one notable line, quoted above, Wyclef asks us to “tell my cousin Jerry, wear ‘is condom”–good advice for any young man seeking to avoid illness or children. But Wyclef goes on: “if you don’t wear condom, you see a redrum.” What work a quick allusion to The Shining does!

Of course, in Stanley Kubric’s 1980 film, the nonsense word “REDRUM” is written on the bathroom door by a psychic little boy (gifted, in fact, with the eponymous “shining”); viewed in the mirror, the word reveals its meaning: MURDER. (With a backwards R. Because little kids are involved. Cute, right?) So when Wyclef raps, “If you don’t wear condom, you see a redrum,” he uses the allusive power of that word to do a few things. First, most basically, to mean murder, that is, abortion. The assumption here is that Jerry is not trying to be a daddy. Well, Jerry, if you don’t wear a condom, you’ll see a murder go down. What did you expect? However, part of the power in the word “redrum,” simply “murder” backwards, is its aural evocation of “red room.” In The Shining, the whole Overlook Hotel becomes a sort of red room, a murderous space. In Wyclef’s line, it’s Jerry’s partner’s uterus that becomes a red room. So “redrum” packs the double punch not just of denoting murder (or here, abortion), but also of conjuring a red space brimming with potential tragedy.

Into this simple allusive line, Wyclef builds surprising moral accountability: if “you,” cousin Jerry, don’t use protection, “you” will be the one to “see a redrum.” That is, you hold responsibility for the tragedy of the abortion to follow. There, too, lies a subtlety missed by so much of our current discourse: that it is precisely because abortion is a tragedy–a “redrum” in all its connotations–that contraception is so essential. In our current discourse, women’s bodies are present but their agency is excluded. So, too, in Wyclef’s line, where there’s no mention of a woman except for her redrum. But while current debates propose the uterus as a site for men’s policing, Wyclef envisions the uterus as a site for male responsibility and accountability.

MLA Style Guide (I made it, so enjoy it)

This guide focuses on formatting the body of your writing using MLA style, and covers issues like punctuation and formatting. Works Cited is covered briefly at the end.

1. Titles of longer works are italicized or underlined, while shorter works’ titles are put in quotation marks.

Ex.     “All Falls Down” is my favorite track on The College Dropout.

Ex.     That’s The Joint: A Hip-Hop Studies Reader includes traditional articles like Oliver Wang’s article “Rapping and Repping Asian: Race, Authenticity, and the Asian-American MC,” as well as interviews like Christina Veran’s “Native Tongues: A Roundtable on Hip-Hop’s Global Indigenous Movement.”

2. Punctuation goes inside quotation marks, except in the case of an exclamation or question mark.

Ex.     I really like the song “All Falls Down.”
Do you like “All Falls Down”?
I love “All Falls Down”!

3. However, if the exclamation or question mark is part of the quotation, it says inside the quotation marks.

Ex.    She asked me, “Do you like ‘All Falls Down’?”

4. On a related note, quoted material inside another quotation is denoted by single quotation marks instead of double. Italics stay italicized

Ex.     In her paper, Susie Michigan wrote, “West’s themes on The College Dropout are inconsistent; ‘All Falls Down’ is a more meaningful track than ‘Get Em High.’”

5. To cite a source, use a parentheses with a the author’s last name and the page number, placed after the quotation or direct paraphrase. If you have not stated the author’s name, use her last name in the parenthesis. The parenthetical goes after the quotation marks but before end punctuation. Use line numbers for plays, but not for song lyrics.

Ex. Rose writes that graffiti, breakdancing, and rap all evidence “flow, layering and ruptures in line” (38). Though her concepts are rooted in the work of Arthur Jafa, Rose extends his concepts by viewing them not just as stylistic constructions but socially significant (Rose 39).

6. To cite a quotation quoted in another’s work, mark it as such in the parenthetical with “qtd”.

Ex.  Rose quotes Queen Latifah’s assertive “Ladies First”: “The ladies will kick it, the rhyme it is wicked/Those who don’t know how to be pros get evicted” (Queen Latifah qtd in Rose 164).

7. Use corrective brackets sparingly, especially to clarify missing information (such as substituting a name for a pronoun). Preserve the integrity of a quoted line by setting up quotations so as to avoid brackets. It’s okay if quotes don’t have perfect grammar. They’re rap.

Ex. DON’T: In “We Don’t Care,” Kanye raps that he “as a shorty [he] looked up to the dope man, [who was the] only adult man [he] knew who wasn’t broke man” (West, “We Don’t Care”).

Instead, set your quotation up to avoid these brackets:

Ex. In “We Don’t Care,” Kanye describes admiring the local drug dealer as a child: “As a shorty I looked up to the dope man, only adult man I knew that wasn’t broke man” (West, “We Don’t Care).

8. Quotations of more than 4 lines should be excerpted from the text and indented ½ inch from the margin. Include them without quotations and place the citation outside the end punctuation. Continue the rest of the paragraph without indentation.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., writes of a 1983 New York Times article about a group of students from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, who, put off by the tests by McGraw-Hill they took each year, wrote their own test and sent it off to the publisher to be completed. Gates writes that “The examination, a multiple-choice intelligence test, is entitled ‘The In Your Face Test of No Certain Skills.'”‘ The students’ teacher allowed the students to write their own test after “one of [his] students looked up and asked what the reason for the test was, because all it did to him was make him feel academically inferior” (65-66). [sans bullet,obvi]

  • The students devised a test to measure vocabulary mastery in street language. They sent ten copies to McGraw-Hill, where eight employees took the test, only to score C’s and D’s. One of the test’s questions…is an example of the most familiar mode of Signifyin(g). The question reads, “Who is buried in Grant’s tomb?” The proper response to this question is, “Your mama.”…”Your mama” jokes about in black discourse, all the way from the field and the street to Langston Hughes’s highly accomplished volume of poems, Ask Your Mama…The presence in the students’ test of this centuries-old black joke represents an inscription of the test’s Signifyin(g) nature, because it serves as an echo of the significance of the test’s title, “The In Your Face Test of No Certain Skills.” (Gates 66)

As an example of Signifyin(g), the story of“The In Your Face Test of No Certain Skills” resonates easily with high school students.

Works Cited

[Note: Works Cited in MLA style should be alphabetized and single spaced, with the all but the first line indented. Please see the Purdue Online Writing Lab for more details and information about constructing your MLA style Works Cited page.]

Gates, Jr., Henry Louis. The Signifying Monkey: a theory of African-American literary criticism. Oxford University Press (1989): New York.

Rose, Tricia. Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. Middletown (1994): Wesleyan University Press.

Veran, Christina. “Native Tongues: A Roundtable on Hip-Hop’s Global Indigenous Movement.” That’s the Joint! The Hip-Hop Studies Reader. Ed. Forman and Neal. 2nd ed. Routledge (2012): New York.

Wang, Oliver. “Rapping and Repping Asian: Race, Authenticity, and the Asian-American MC.” That’s the Joint! The Hip-Hop Studies Reader. Ed. Forman and Neal. 2nd ed. Routledge (2012): New York.

West, Kanye. “All Falls Down.” The College Dropout. Roc-A-Fella Records, 2004. CD.

–. “We Don’t Care.” The College Dropout. Roc-A-Fella Records, 2004. CD.

Beyond the “Ghetto University”: Visions of an Organic Black Pedagogy in Kanye West’s “The College Dropout”

She need her daddy, baby please–

Can’t let her grow up in that ghetto university.

– Kanye West, “All of the Lights” (2010)

Educated fools, from uneducated schools.

-Curtis Mayfield, “(Don’t Worry) If there’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go”

On the surface, Kanye West’s 2004 debut album The College Dropout presents two contrasting visions of education. The first is the mainstream college atmosphere West chronicles rejecting throughout the album: “My freshman year I was going through hell, a problem/still I built up the nerve to drop  my ass up outta college” (West, “Get Em High”). The second is the education gained on the streets, what West in a later album names the “ghetto university”: “Sittin in the hood like community colleges/This dope money here is lil’ Trey’s scholarship” (West, “We Don’t Care”). This dualistic portrait of education seems to correspond to sociologist Elijah Anderson’s description of the “decent” and “street” families who populate his study of urban Philadelphia, Code of the Street. In his work, attitudes toward education are a central axis on which a person’s value orientation of decent or street can be plotted: decent folk value education, while street folk eschew it.

However, I want to suggest that in his debut album, Kanye West advocates for a third way that rejects the conformity and assimilation of college and the defeatism of street life. In his lyrics, Kanye expresses an urge to leave college for his own version of success. In “Get Em High,” quoted above, he continues on: “My teacher said I’m a loser, I told her why don’t you kill me/I give a fuck if you fail me, I’m gonna follow/my heart…to the plaques or the stacks.” And in “School Spirit,” a similar sentiment: “Told ’em I finished school, and I started my own business./They say ‘Oh you graduated?’ No, I decided I was finished./ Chasin’ y’all dreams and what you got planned/Now I spit it so hot, you got tanned.” But it’s in West’s music, not his lyrics, that the content of his real education is exposed.

In her Black Nose: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America, Tricia Rose argues that hiphop’s practice of sampling is a digital manifestation of longstanding Black cultural practices that privilege the curation and remix of available sounds into a new creation that is continuous with the old. She writes, “Rap production resonates with black cultural priorities in the age of digital reproduction” (75). Positioning the birth of hiphop as an artistic recovery in the face of the social and political traumas of the 1970s and ’80s, Rose sees rap’s attention to “flow, layering and ruptures in line” (Jafa qtd on 38) as Afrodiasporic prioritization of repetition and polyrhythmy reasserted in the face of postindustrial collapse. To Rose, “sampling in rap is a process of cultural literacy and intertextual reference” (89). Sampling “is about paying homage…It is also a means of archival research, a process of musical and cultural archaeology” (79). Recycling older musics in contemporary contexts “affirms black musical history and locates these ‘past’ sounds in the ‘present'” (89). In Rose’s attention to literacy, research and history we see the basis for a pedagogy based on learning Black culture through sampling.

Rose quotes Hank Shocklee of Public Enemy who “offer[s his] lack of training as an explanation for the innovative nature of [his] approach” (81). Shocklee says, “In dealing with rap, you have to be innocent and ignorant of music.” But “we have a better sense of music, a better concept of music, of where it’s going, of what it can do” (qtd in Rose 81-82). But Rose rejects Shocklee’s claims of his own ignorance. Instead, she argues, Shocklee

…is really referring to the differences between formal Western and black musical priorities as they are worked out, often contentiously, in the creative realm…Shocklee’s innocence is his lack of Western formal training….He, too, employs “knowledge” and musical strategies, not innocent (value-free) ones, but strategies commonly found in black musical traditions that often involve different cultural priorities. When he claims that to understand or deal with rap music you must be innocent, he suggests that a commitment to formal Western musical priorities must be abandoned…(82)

If we extend Rose’s assessment of Shocklee’s “innocence” as a rejection of “Western musical priorities,” we might see in Kanye West’s The College Dropout a similar false ignorance. By narrating his experience as a “college dropout” over a remixed soundtrack of Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield and Luther Vandross, Kanye articulates a new cultural canon in the place of the White canon he abandoned when he left school.

Take, for example, “Jesus Walks,” a nearly perfect amalgamation of two seemingly dissimilar tracks–a gospel song and a soul ballad–against whose juxtaposition West triangulates an experience that refuses to settle into neatly religious or secular categories. The basis of “Jesus Walks'” beat is a looped sample of Arc Choir singing “Walk With Me”; the choir provides “Jesus Walks” with its familiar theology: “Jesus walk with me, with me, with me.” But West’s influences do not end there. With a very short vocal sample of the word “Nigga,” West directs us in his music–and, if we are reading closely, his album credits*–to Curtis Mayfield’s “(Don’t Worry) If there’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go.” Since the vocal sample here is so small, Rose is helpful here when she characterizes sampling choices as a “paying homage” and a “(re)locating these ‘past’ sounds in the ‘present.'” With a single word from Curtis, West affirms the continuity of African American experience and roots his production of knowledge in the wisdom of an honored predecessor.

Aretha Franklin, “Spirit in the Dark”

But the real portrait of a pedagogy rooted in what Rose calls “black cultural practice” is on West’s track “School Spirit.” The recycled chords of Aretha Franklin’s original “Spirit in the Dark” have barely sounded when West calls out, “School Spirit, motherfuckers!” I hear his triumphalism as a revised, “Look Mom, I got an A!” In Franklin’s original, she sings of “getting the spirit in the dark.” She asks, “Tell me sister, how do you feel? …Do you feel like dancin’? Then get up and let’s start dancin’.” The song encourages its listeners to move to the Spirit within them, to pay no heed to what outsiders think. She instructs us to “Rise, Sally rise, put your hands on your hips, and cover your eyes….with the spirit in the dark.”

While Franklin sings of eschewing conformity and “gettin’ the spirit in the dark,” West paints a portrait of college students as zombies in a conformist dance of Greek life. “Alpha, step. Omega, step,” he raps. “Kappa, step. Sigma, step.” n a move reminiscent of Rose’s vision of rupture and continuity, West doctors Franklin’s vocals so that she sings under him of “People moving…in the dark.” It’s clear that for West, the “dark” was college. The end of Franklin’s “Spirit in the Dark” dissolves into a choral frenzy over speeding piano and banging tambourine. West manages to parody on her original even as he honors it; “School Spirit” concludes with mock Black Fraternity rituals: “I feel a woo comin’ on, cuz, I feel a woo comin on, cuz. Woo! There it was.” In his sample of Aretha Franklin–and his triumphal repurposing of her “spirit” with a potent blend of homage and parody–West projects a new model of education based in the study and citation of African-American cultural texts.

*And we know now, after the release of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, that West hopes we are reading his credits. For this (currently) penultimate album, credits and guest artists are printed on the inside of a fold-out poster in gold. Straight A’s.

2397 miles / 72 gallons = 33.3 mpg (or, On Generations)

the ancient Eurasian trade route: the Silk Road!

I just got back to Ann Arbor from a week-long road trip with my beau that had us stopping in a ton of cities throughout the Southeast: Nashville, Atlanta, Savannah, Charleston, Wilmington, Durham, and Asheville. Besides the awesome people and scenery that populated that trip, the driving itself was an opportunity to listen to a LOT of music. For my part, I did a lot of catching up: on older Soul and Motown like Curtis Mayfield, James Brown, Aretha, and Parliament; geographically relevant rap like Goodie MOB’s Soul Food (1995), which popularized the term “Dirty South,” plus a couple albums from the North Cackalack group Little Brother; and some newer stuff like Tyler the Creator’s Goblin and a few of A$AP Rocky’s mixtapes. (A$AP’s catchy lyrics are still swirling through my head: “I’m a pretty motherfucker, Harlem’s where I’m reppin…”

On this trip I also found myself thinking about generations. Between these generations of music, the cousins I stayed with in Savannah, the multilayered relationships between friends we visited, and the reeking historicity of the South (at least to this Yankee), generationality seemed ever present, as we zipped between colonial-looking Charleston and the post-apocalyptic swimwear superstore that is Myrtle Beach.

There is a Hebrew phrase, “L’dor va dor,” which means “From generation to generation.” In the Jewish liturgy the phrase signifies the passing down of Jewish knowledge–literally, “L’dor va dor nagid gadlecha,” means, “From generation to generation we will proclaim Your greatness.” But in my experience of Jewish ritual practice, l’dor va dor is also invoked to connote a sense of the resilience and historical presence of the Jewish community; the phrase signifies cultural strength and unity, and carries with it the positive injunction to teach our children how to be good Jews.

But lately I have found myself thinking about the negative that can be passed from generation to generation. Throughout our recent Southern tour I was surprised to see Confederate flags, plantations advertised as tourist destinations and even retirement communities, and a sign on Savannah’s historic riverfront that insisted the Georgia legislature had never wanted to legalize slavery. Really guys?

I found myself thinking about a recent conversation with an adult cousin who, after telling me she’d been reading my blog, asked, “So what’s the deal with misogyny in hiphop?” After giving her a bunch of answers that positioned hiphop artists as a historically marginalized population with misdirected frustration that mirrors the misogyny of wider society, I had to stop and confess–the deal is, no one knows what the deal is. I spend so much time defending hiphop, this was the first time I really confronted the end of the excuses. There is no excuse. “I enjoy the music,” my cousin said, “but what do I tell my daughter?”

I thought of the recent controversy surrounding the rapper Too $hort and his videotaped advice on XXL.com on how young men ought to force unwilling girls into sexual acts. Most incredible to me was an interview the rapper subsequently gave to dream hampton on Ebony.com, which appears to (and hopefully does) express the genuine kind of moral awakening that can prevent misogyny and other forms of hatred and violence from being passed down from generation to generation.

Recently a student and I were talking about what new rappers he was listening to these days and he mentioned A$AP Rocky.

“Aesop Rock?” I asked.

“No,” he said, “A$AP Rocky. Like with a dollar sign.”

“Older white guy?” I tried again. “Aesop Rock.”

“A$AP Rocky,” he said again.”He’s a Black kid from Harlem but he has this southern thing going on.”

“That’s funny that his name is a riff on Aesop Rock.”

“I don’t think it is,” my student said. “That’s just his name.”

“There’s no way it’s not related,” I countered. “They’re almost identical!”

But we had to agree to disagree. The thing about generations is, it’s as easy to forget as it is to remember. Question is, what are we passing on?