Which Sketchy Songwriter Stuffed Miguel + Kendrick’s New Track Full of Rape Logic?

Miguel is a stylish new R&B crooner with a new post-Akon/Neyo aesthetic, so I’m sorry that his new single, “How Many Drinks,” is full of predatory one-liners. The music is sultry, true. And whenever it comes on the radio, I admit I groove for a second before I remember what song it is.

I’m not the first listener to be turned off by. At the LA Weekly, Shea Serrano describes “Why This Song Sucks.” (Answer: because it’s rapey). At Madame Noir, Clark Gail Baines asks whether it’s ok to still jam out to a song that, if its lyrics were directed to her at a bar, would have her “two step[ping] in the opposite direction.” And while the video posters at Clutch, Rap-Up, Absolutepunk.net and 2DopeBoyz don’t say anything of the kind, commenters at all four compared the lyrics’ scenario to “date rape.” But the best treatment of the song came in Twitter conversation between @BShariseMoore, @UrbanGrief (Lisa Good), and @sisterprofessor (Dr. Zada Johnson) in a series of tweets, from which Johnson segued into a great discussion of the falsetto in R&B, and BShariseMoore follows up with a blog post that breaks down the song’s questionable lyrics.

https://twitter.com/BShariseMoore/status/337445212051877888

It’s a damn shame Miguel’s people didn’t notice a sociopath wrote their new track. This song is filled with really classic predatory logic, from using alcohol as a weapon for committing assault, to distorted thinking that blames the victim for something she didn’t choose. I know you guys think I”m being a total killjoy here. And I’m thinking of the scene in 40-Year-Old Virgin when Steve Carrell is told to go for the drunkest girls in the bar, and he ends up with Leslie Mann, who of course is hilarious and it gets very funny. But the depiction of Mann as the aggressor is disingenuous. In real life, real drunk girls are vulnerable to real predators, not affable adult virgins.

Even if it’s not fun, it’s important to look at lyrics like these to remind ourselves how blurred conceptions of consent are in our popular culture, and in popular depictions of courtship. Miguel’s lyrics describe a seduction that focus entirely on his wants and his needs, which describe a pickup as a process with only one ending, whose only variable is not whether a woman might want to sleep with him or not but only “How many drinks?” it will take to get her there.

The song opens with Miguel’s assumption that because he’s attracted to a woman, he’s entitled to her.

Frustration: watching you dance.
Hesistation: to get in your pants
Come closer, baby, so I can touch
One question: am I moving too fast?

So the song opens with Miguel, presumably at a bar, “watching you dance.” Immediately he feels “frustration,” which I’m reading as both sexual frustration but also anger: you have something he wants. But it’s all about his feelings, not yours. He feels frustrated, so you need to “come closer” so that he “can touch.” (What, is he supposed to come over to you? Ask you to dance? Too lazy.) Miguel has “one question: am I moving too fast?”–but from the lyrics that follow, it doesn’t seem he cares what your answer is. He already knows how the night will end, and your opinion doesn’t matter.

‘Cause I ain’t leavin’ alone, feel like I could be honest, babe,
We both know that we’re grown
That’s why I wanna know
How many drinks would it take you to leave with me?
Yeah, you look good and I got money
But I don’t wanna waste my time
Back of my mind I’m hopin’ you say two or three
You look good, we came to party
But I don’t wanna waste my time

The chorus is where things get aggressive. “I ain’t leaving alone,” said instead of sung, is an almost threatening statement. It suggests to a woman that there’s only one way out of here, and it’s with me. The next two lines sport some faulty logic: Assumption: “we’re grown” (meaning what: we’re both DTF?); ergo (“that’s why”) there’s only one question here (“I wanna know”): “How many drinks would it take you to leave with me?” Miguel knows you’re coming: you’re a grownup, right? And, because he’s grown, and you’re grown, and he looked at you, your desires must be identical to his. Or if they’re not, he doesn’t care. The “one question” he asked you is not, “Do you want to go home with me?” or “Are you attracted to me?” or even “Wanna fuck?” It’s, How drunk do you have to be, or how much money do I have to spend, or even how much do I have to talk to you “to get you to leave with me,” which if you do, I will assume that is consent to sleep with me (though it isn’t).

via npr.com

via npr.com

The next few lines strike me as pathologically narcissistic, as Miguel lays out what he’s comfortable with in this situation (spending money) and what he’s not comfortable with (you spending his money without the payoff). Twice Miguel repeats that “I don’t wanna waste my time.” This line would read hugely different to me if he said “I don’t wanna waste [your] time,” giving some small indication of the woman’s subjectivity, like that she could be disinterested in him. And why is the “back of my mind hopin’ she’ll say two or three”? Because then she’ll be good and drunk? Or because more than that is expensive and who needs four or five, honestly? Miguel, in the “back of your mind” you should be sayin, I hope I’m being respectful of this woman’s boundaries. She seems kind of drunk,  maybe I should ask for her number and call her tomorrow. 

Kendrick Lamar’s verse on the song is interesting because it shows how rape culture and alcohol culture intersect.  On “How Many Drinks,” he raps, “Pool full of liquor then we dive – in it/Knowing if I lick her I might die – in it.” The first part of this couplet is lifted from Lamar’s track “Swimming Pool (Drank),” where the voice of an experienced partier explains to Lamar, “First you get a swimming pool of liquor then you dive in it.” However, as one of my students V. J. demonstrated in a great paper last near, “Swimming Pool (Drank)” is a polyphonic narrative that uses multiple voices to demonstrate a really ambivalent attitude about drinking. Yes, one voice advises “diving in,” but another voice, identified as Lamar’s “conscience,” reminds Lamar that he’s “drown in some poison abusin’ my limit,” and the chorus depicts the anomie of a life of binging, hangovers, and the real boredom of addiction.

But this ambivalence is totally lacking in Lamar’s track on “How Many Drinks.” It’s almost as though he misquotes himself, takes his own words out of context, and distorts the meaning of (and tarnishes the subtlety of) his original song. Lamar’s lyrics don’t have the same narcissism as Miguel’s: his lyrics, which aren’t so brilliant, depict the choice to get together as one he and the woman make together: “Ah, what do we have? Your empty heart and my empty bottle and yellow cab.” That is, it takes two people’s desire, not just one: she’s had a break up, he’s had some drinks, there’s a taxi waiting outside. What’s really striking to me about Lamar’s verse is the effect it has on our reception of the sampled song, “Swimming Pool (Drank).” Because as listeners there’s this impulse to read the values of “How Many Drinks,” which is about getting a girl drunk so you can bang her, onto “Swimming Pool,” to forget that the latter actually questions alcohol culture as self-destructive, and instead remember it as a binge drinking anthem.

At the end of the remix, Miguel tries to spin his sleazy pickup as an exercise in women’s lib with a dash of YOLO:

I ain’t judgin’ if you do decide that you might be f*ing tonight
What? More power to you if you do decide that you might be f*ing tonight
Let’s go, shit, we only live once right?

Whatever action verb is used for sex is mixed out, but it sounds pretty clearly like “fucking” to me. Sorry, guys, but this is what rape scholarship calls “cognitive distortions.” In Miguel’s outro, the cognitive distortion is that while earlier in the song he was the one deciding “I’m not leaving alone,” suddenly the woman is an engaged participant with agency and choice. These lines also function to remove Miguel from responsibility while implicitly shaming the female. Suddenly “I ain’t judgin'” her decision to be promiscuous. Of course, these lines are laden with implicit judgment. In fact, they are nearly victim-blaming. Suddenly the empowered woman “decide[s…] to be fuckin’ tonight.” What happened to the girl you only had one question for? The sarcastic congratulations, “more power to you” only makes the line more offensive. They equate women’s victimization with women’s empowerment. If you wants to be liberated, go ahead, but you’re gonna get fucked. By Miguel. Yucky.

Advertisements

Obama’s Inaugural: A Progressive Exegesis of the Constitution

via huffingtonpost.com

via huffingtonpost.com

My last semester of college I took a remarkable course taught by Eddie Glaude, “The American Jeremiad and Social Criticism.” Structured to explore the space between Michael Walzer’s Interpretation and Social Criticism and Edward Said’s Representations of the Intellectual, the course achieved a number of complex goals. It offered a history of American civil-religious discourse from colonial times to the present, but it also explored how, from America’s inception, African American discourse had critiqued the lofty promises of a slaveholding enterprise. The Exodus story was central to the course (as it was in Glaude’s own recent work) and to the basis of Black critique of American rhetoric. While early pilgrims saw the colonies as “God’s New Israel,” as a deliverance from bondage, African-Americans saw that “there’s bondage on both sides of these blood red waters.” Freedom still needed to be fought for, and rhetorically defended, in the not-yet Land of the Free.

walzer

Walzer’s Interpretation and Social Criticism is essentially conservative: he advocates for the position that laws and morals are best derived from interpreting and re-interpreting sacred texts: the Bible, the Constitution, earlier tropes and symbols. He writes, “moral argument is (most often) interpretive in character” (21). That is, we make our moral arguments through interpreting earlier texts, histories, events. On the first day of Glaude’s class, we watched Obama’s recent “Yes, We Can” speech, delivered after winning the South Carolina primary. In that speech, Obama suggests, with some historical hubris, that his phrase “yes we can” is actually a “timeless creed that sums up the spirit of the American people in three simple words.” With this speech, Obama introduced a vision of America rooted in change versus stasis, but he rooted this vision always in reinterpreting the past, not challenging it. Then we watched Will.i.am’s remix of the speech, where celebrities speak along with Obama to a slick, optimistic beat. Obama’s speech and Will.i.am’s video were both acts in remix: Obama remixed past tropes into a speech, while Will.i.am remixed a speech back into pop culture. Despite his obvious enthusiasm for this liberal, African-American presidential nominee, Professor Glaude was ever skeptical. He pointed out how then-Senator Obama’s speech drew on earlier tropes from American civil-religious discourse, how Obama’s genius was in weaving together themes, tropes, and even inflection and cadence from previous presidents and prophets.

william yes we can

I thought of Professor Glaude’s class this morning, while listening to President Obama’s inaugural address. Obama displayed the same fluency with American tropes and cadence that Professor Glaude pointed out to us eight years ago. The President’s speech today was a triumph of Walzerian re-interpretation. Taking the Constitution as his template, President Obama’s speech presented an inclusive portrait of “We the people” and a progressive understanding of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Bucking the critics who see him as an enemy of the Constitution, Obama rooted his progressive vision within that foundational document, re-claiming the Constitution for American progressives.

glaude exodus

The President’s approach, however, was a conservative one. He argued from within our canon, not against it. Instead of challenging the Constitution’s language, Obama critically re-interpreted it. By referencing “Seneca Falls, Stonewall, and Selma,” Obama read America’s movements for women’s rights, gay rights, and civil rights back into a document that cared little–nothing–for women, gays, or people of color. In so doing, Obama reified the power of the Constitution, but he also rededicated himself to a document that can be interpreted powerfully and progressively. He advocated for equal pay for women, gay rights, a path to immigration, livable wages, an end to endless wars, a vision he rooted in the Constitution. This morning’s speech was a masterful display of a moral argument made through interpretation, worthy of our professorial President.

Five Weeks of Lesson Plans – on @ProfTriciaRose ‘s Black Noise…and Writing and Stuff

(Ed’s note…this has been in drafts too long, but i’ll update it later (maybe) with images, some missing assignments I haven’t included yet, links and sound. Enjoy. It’s been a busy Oct-Nov)

Hey y’all. So my students are through one paper cycle and on to the second. The first cycle focused on close reading – we looked at a lot of songs in class, their paper assignment was to close read “We Don’t Care” or “All Falls Down,” and for homework we were reading 2 books that did close reading of their own: Elijah Anderson’s Code of the Street and James Cone’s The Spirituals and the Blues.

Now we are into our second paper cycle, where we’re working on making more complex arguments by putting two texts in dialogue with each other. Their second paper assignment (which you will see below) asks them to put a claim from one of the books (Cone or Anderson) in dialogue with a claim from The College Dropout. For homework we are reading Tricia Rose’s book Black Noise, and taking lessons from her about how to make arguments using multiple sources. So, if you have Black Noise you can follow along!

LESSON PLAN 6.1: Black Noise, “Two Words,” and Finding Claims

1. Exploring the introduction and ch.1 of Black Noise.

  • Close read the title of the book. What is “black noise”? What meanings does that phrase have to Rose?
  • Rose is very present in the introduction. Why might she identify herself so clearly? What is gained/lost by her presence in the text?
  • Close read to understand the title of ch. 1″ “Voices from the Margins: Rap Music and Black Cultural Production.” What does “cultural production” mean? (2 interpretations of word “culture”)

2. Remember the 2 parts to an argument? Claim/statement of opinion + defense with reasons and evidence. On pp. 1-3 Rose makes a lot of claims.

  • In pairs isolate 3 claims Rose makes in her first few pages. Work to understand them and then think, what evidence will she need to show us to defend that claim?
  • Go over some examples in class–understand Rose’s argument – note that reading her text critically will involve looking for/at her evidence. Suggest students keep their eyes peeled on how Rose manages different types of sources

3. Listen, looking for claims, to “Two Words”

  • In pairs, focus on one verse – via this poetic language, what claims are Mos Def, Kanye making?

4. Hand out Paper 2 Assignment:

Pre-write assignment due Mon 10/22 (bring to class):

To prepare for your second paper, please write 2 preparatory paragraphs. In the first,  isolate a claim and synthesize the argument for that claim as elaborated by EITHER Elijah Anderson in Code of the Street OR James Cone in The Spirituals and the Blues. In another paragraph, bring in a claim made anywhere on The College Dropout by Kanye West or one of his guest artists and begin to suggest how this claim challenges, confirms or adjusts the claim described in the first paragraph.

Paper 2 Assignment:

For your second paper, in 6 pages, please compare a claim made by Anderson or Cone with a claim made by West or one of his guest artists. Your paper should propose an argument about the relationship between these two claims, by using one to challenge, extend, or adjust the other.

This assignment asks a few things of you: identify and discuss a claim made by either Anderson OR Cone in the course of his work. Discuss and assess the ways in which the author presents and defends his claim, noting the strategies he uses to make his argument. Examine evidence from The College Dropout to critique or qualify the author’s claims. How do comments made by Kanye West or one of his guest artists challenge, confirm, or complicate the claims presented by the writer you considered? Or, conversely, how do claims made by Anderson or Cone challenge, confirm, or complicate claims made by West or one of his guests?

Successful thesis statements will make an argument about the relationship between two texts, not about the nature of an issue in the world. Successful papers will shed new light on both the book you choose and the song in question, by drawing innovative connections between the two. Please do not use outside evidence besides those detailed above—focus on the texts and what they can tell us about each other!

LESSON PLAN 6.2: Using structure in arguments about multiple texts

UPDATE: Ok, I just saved this as a draft for 5 weeks. But I am going to valiantly pick up right here and soldier on. Where were we…Week 6? Using structure, you say? DO IT.

1. Rose Ch. 2 “All Aboard the Night Train”: Flow, Layering and Rupture in Postindustrial New York – what is Rose’s argument about in this chapter

  • pp. 23-25 on black music at crossroads in American history- examine each paragraph to see how Rose handles introducing another scholarly source. What was Willis’s claim? Rose’s critique? How does she incorporate what she wants to use from his argument into hers? (scavenger research)
  • pp. 38-39 on flow, layering and rupture – what’s Rose’s argument about hiphop style? how is it related to the postindustrial urban context?

2. For today, students had to write a 2-paragraph Paper 2 prewrite (above)

  •  make sure your partner’s two claims are clearly articulated, with evidence, whether implicit or explicit
  • Make sure the book claim is analytical, not factual
  • How well did your partner give context/trace argument behind that claim?
  • Raise 3 questions about the relationship between 2 sources – which text is the argument about? – discuss a few
  • Reminder: be aware of complexity – no 100% correspondence

WEEK 7.1. NO CLASS – whew!

WEEK 7.2 – sample workshop

For this class, we got into our workshop groups so the groups could interpersonally gel for a class-long workshop-style activity on structure. I handed out a sample pre-write that used Rose instead of Anderson or Cone:

XXX

I explained that this is a way for us to think more about ch. 2 of Rose and practice complex structure. Then I asked students to read the prewrite closely and critique it like they did their partner in the previous class: looking for how well the claims are articulated, raising 3 questions, looking back at Rose to see if her concepts are fully engaged. Then we listened to “Family Business,” the lyrics to which are not included in their coursepack: the idea is to force them (on a rare occasion) to actually listen to how sounds are used and manipulated in the song. I asked them to take notes as to where they noticed flow, layering or rupture in the song, and then we filled up the board (I made them write) with what they noticed. #Crowdsourcing !! Then I returned them to their groups and asked them to write a thesis for Hypothetical Tessa,  to push her argument, to decide which text is the subject of the hypothetical essay and which is a tool being used to make that argument, and finally to write out a structure for this paper. At the end of class, we came together and compared what arguments we made (trying, always trying, to make them more specific) and compared structures. Womp, womp!

WEEK 8.1. – WORKSHOP! SCORE!

Things to look out for as you workshop:

  • Introduction: is it clear what the 2 texts are, and how they’re related?
  • Is evidence closely analyzed?
  • Structure: is information given as needed? Are concepts clear? Are discussions of a single text split up in awkward ways?
  • MAKE SUGGESTIONS. Push the argument to be more specific, to be its best
  • Play with at least 1 big change – what would make this essay more readable, organized, specific? It is okay to ask WHAT IF.

WEEK 8.2 I CANCELLED THIS CLASS TO GO TO A CONFERENCE. SWEET!

WEEK 9.1

1. Rose ch. 3 – “Soul Sonic Forces: Technology, Orality and Black Cultural Practice in Rap Music”

  • Close read the title of this chapter to remind us of its argument- how do (and what are) “technology, orality and black cultural practice” in the context of Rose’s argument?
  • #Crowdsourcing : Split into small groups and find at least 3 places where Rose answers the question, “Why might a rap artist choose to use sampling in their music?” EG WHY SAMPLE –> write that shiz on the board

2. Listen “Spirit in the Dark” by Aretha Franklin – what is it about? how does the music sound? what is the mood or attitude of the song? what values does Franklin preach? what does she mean by “spirit”?

3. Listen “School Spirit” by Kanye West – what is it about? how does the music sound? attitude/mood? values? “spirit”?

  • Why might Kanye sample Aretha– how do the songs intersect?

4. Could we make an argument using Rose’s concepts (on the board- WHY SAMPLE?) that makes a claim about the effects/uses of this Aretha Franklin sample in “School Spirit”? Small groups:

  • brainstorm possible arguments
  • everyone write 1-2 sentences on how you will use rose to make an argument about Kanye’s sample of Franklin
  • how would you structure this essay? outline it as a group
  • Come back together as a class, think bout structure a lil’ more. Ask: how long would this paper be? (Cuz one day your teacher is gonna say, “Write ten pages about anything we’ve covered this semester.” Word.)

WEEK 9.2 – Sorry, this was a kind of disjointed session

1. MLA – In which I quickly read through my own MLA style guide

2. Signifying – in which we look at an assigned excerpt of Henry Louis Gates’ The Signifying Monkey (and in which conversation I mentioned that “That’s what she said” is a kind of signifying, because it takes your inane statement – “Just put them [the groceries] in the back [of the car]”  and sexualizes it through an implicit repetition and reversal to highlight physicality)

3. Listen – “School Spirit Skit” #1 and #2 – How is this signifying? on What?

3. Rose ch. 4, “Prophets of Rage: Rap Music and the Politics of Black Cultural Expression”

  • small groups: who are the parties involved in the political encounters in this chapter? –> board
  • read public/hidden transcripts together (100)
  • What are the hidden transcripts in the “School Spirit” skits? What public transcripts are they criticizing? Using what methods as Rose describes?

WEEK 10.1

1. Rose ch 5 – “Bad Sistas: Black Women Rappers and Sexual Politics in Rap Music”

  • How does Rose use the concept of dialogue (147-148) in her chapter’s argument? Who are black women rappers in dialogue with?
  • Thinking about hidden/public transcripts in the context of this chapter–> partners look at excerpts of either Salt N’Pepa’s “Traamp” or MC Lyte’s “Paper Thin” and ask what hidden transcripts are these women rappers articulating? What public transcripts are they criticizing?

2. Paper 3 assignment: Cultural Study

3. Listen: Kanye’s “New Workout Plan”

  • What does Rose’s chapter tell us about male sexual narratives that we could look for in West
  • Note he’s signifying on a workout video
  • Listen: is West sexist or critiquing sexism? Or both?
  • Can we interrogate his attitudes about gender, power, relationships?

4.2, 5.1, and 5.2: All of My Lesson Plans on Cone’s “The Spirituals and the Blues”

Y’all, I am so tired.

LESSON PLAN 4.2: Intro to Cone

1. Spend some time with the Table of Contents. What does it teach us about the subject matter of this book? About the questions Cone will ask?

  • What is Cone like as a speaker? What are his aims in this text? Anyone look at the year (1972)? Context?
  • Explain that even though this book is hard, it gives us a theological vocabulary with which to discuss “I’ll Fly Away,” “Spaceship,” “Jesus Walks” and “Never Let Me Down”

2. Groups of 3-4: After we all read pp. 5-6 together, split into 5 groups and each group is responsible for fully understanding and explaining to the class one of the 5 claims Cone makes about black music:

Black music is unity music. … Black music is functional … Black music is a living reality. … Black music is also social and political. … Black music is theological. (Cone 5-6)

Speaking of which, what’s the difference between theology and religion? What does it mean to claim the spirituals are “theological” as opposed to merely religious?

3. Listen: “I’ll Fly Away” + Spaceship”

  • What does “I’ll Fly Away” add to “Spaceship”? In other words, what might we miss in the latter if the former was excluded?
  • Do we see any concepts from Cone resonating in “Spaceship”?

 

LESSON 5.1

1. Collect their first final papers! Then congratulate them, then… reflective writing!!

  • List the different steps you took to write this paper, as though it was a lab report, from receiving the assignment through turning it in today.
  • Which step was the hardest and which was the easiest? Why?
  • Assess your process – not the product but the process. Did you set goals? Did your steps work? Would you change them?

2. Discuss Cone ch. 4 “God and Black Suffering” and ch. 5 “The Meaning of Heaven in the Black Spirituals”

  • What is the relationship between faith and suffering in the spirituals? What attitude to the spirituals take?
  • What are the multiple meanings of Heaven Cone sees in the spirituals?
  • What kinds of questions does Cone ask of the lyrics he analyzes?

3. “Jesus Walks”

“God show me the way cuz the devil tryna break me down.

I wanna talk to God but I’m afraid cuz we ain’t spoke in so long.

Jesus walks with me…

  • Can we apply Cone’s questions to Kanye? What is the image of God he gives us in his lyrics, or of Jesus? What about the devil?
  • A music video makes choices about how to represent a song: is it literal; does it draw our attention to certain storylines, sounds, or themes; how is the artist positioned in the video, if at all; etc.
  • Compare 2 versions of “Jesus Walks” video, asking above questions of each.

 

LESSON PLAN 5.2 (meet in computer lab)

1. Cone- “The Blues”

  • What’s the relationship between the spirituals and the blues?
  • p. 100 Cone says the two genres share the same “ethos” – what does that mean?
  • What does Cone mean by absurdity? “But absurdity int he blues is factual, not conceptual. The blues, while not denying that the world was strange, described its strangeness in more concrete and vivid terms” (101). What, in the view of the blues, is so absurd? “The blues…recognize that there is something wrong with this world, something absurd about the way that white people treat black people….The blues caught the absurdity of black existence in America and vividly and artistically expressed it in word and suitable music.” (112)

2. Introduce a PARADIGM SHIFT: From doing primary source work to secondary source work

  • Remind me what primary vs. secondary sources are?
  • In the first part of class, we wrote about primary sources and read texts that wrote about primary sources. (Anderson had his transcripts, Cone has his lyrics.) But now we are going to write about primary sources and secondary sources together, just like Tricia Rose will in the next book we read.
  • Strategies for using secondary sources: VERBS!! Verbal weapons with which we wage our wars!! acknowledge – add- admit – agree – argue – assert – believe – claim – comment – compare – confirm – conclude – contend – declare – deny – dispute – emphasize – endorse – grant – illustrate – imply – maintain – note – opine – point out – reason – refute – reject – report – respond – suggest – think – write

3. (For today, everyone had to analyze a music video of their choice and post it on the class blog.) Teams of 2: pick a post neither of you wrote, read it, watch the video. Then summarize the author’s take on the video and challenge or expand their analysis using 3-5 of these verbs.

Week 2.2: Decent and Street Norms in Anderson’s Code of the Street

Hi friends – today’s lesson plan is pretty focused on Elijah Anderson’s ethnography Code of the Street, so take out your copy if you’re following along. Also I just illustrated proper use of your/you’re. Also I should mention these lesson plans are for 80-minute sessions, though today’s was a little short.

LESSON PLAN

1. Logistics- reminder of participation paper deadlines, come in to office hours

2. Ch. 1 “Decent and Street Families”: “Decent” and “Street” – what are these two categories? where are these terms from? understanding “norms”/”normative” (32, 45) and “oppositional culture” (32)

3. Diane’s story (pp. 43-45)- evidence and claims. What work does Diane’s narrative do for Anderson’s argument (i.e., what claims of his does she provide evidence for?) – How does Anderson analyze her words? (What conclusions does he draw?) Does his framing of Diane have any holes? (Any blind spots, points he didn’t make but could have, biases we see?)

4. Answer the above questions re: Yvette’s story (53-65) in small groups of 3; then recap as a class

5. In-class writing: write a mini-workshop letter to Elijah Anderson about chapter 1. 3 components: what is his argument? 1-2 things he did well; 1-2 questions, concerns, suggestions. Use quotes!

NOTES

2. As always, with lesson planning on reading-focused days it’s a balance between covering concepts and comprehension on the one hand, and making sure we’re drawing lessons for our own writing from the text we’re studying. So in today’s lesson I wanted to make sure the students recognize “decent” and “street” as normative categories “that the residents themselves use” (35), and understand that these two categories of people live mixed together, that they all follow the “code of the street” but while decent folks follow it to be safe, street folks believe it to be normative. In past semesters we’ve done writing exercises where I ask students to reflect on what the norms were regarding education in their homes or communities growing up. However, today we focused more on critical thinking skills and building the confidence it takes for a college writer to actually feel comfortable “criticizing”–that is, examining critically–a published writer.

3. To that end we looked at how Anderson includes long tracts of first-person narratives from his interview subjects and scrutinized them as evidence. This approach also has the added boon of keeping students focused on the content of Anderson’s arguments instead of their reactions to them, which have a tendency to spiral off into tangents about how these parents differed or didn’t from their own parents. Instead, I waited until the end of class to ask students how they reacted to, for example, the extremely strict parenting styles we see in this chapter.

4. Small group work always just forces more students into the conversation. Many aren’t comfortable with the whole class setting or only speak when there’s pressure for them to do so, which definitely increases in a group of 3. I try to do some small group work every day–this is a tip I got back in college when I taught ESL for a summer. They say language learners should speak 70% of class time, and small group work is a way to get a high percentage of the class speaking at once, where only 1 person can really talk at a time when the class is together.

5. This last activity had the joint function of introducing workshop letters (more on that next time) and also reinforcing the point I made throughout class that we’re working towards beginning to think critically about the published texts we’re studying. So actually writing down at least one question or concern about this chapter forces students to concede that even this great book is subject to our scrutiny as college writers.

And now I’m gonna go home and eat some dinner. Peace and happy new year to the fellow tribesmen out there. -T

#Occupy Invisible Man…and Then Return it to the Library: Notes on an Overdue Book

Does this ever happen to you? You take a book out from the library, start reading, and almost immediately realize (prompted, perhaps, by the urge to underline something) that this is a book you’ll return to again and again, it ought to be annotated, ever on your shelf, and perhaps you should stop reading immediately, go buy the darn thing, and process it pen in hand. Well, that was me and Invisible Man. Library property notwithstanding, I couldn’t help folding up bottom corners of important pages, and I’ve been renewing its check-out online all summer, since I read it in June. The time has come for me to record what needs recording, unfold those folded pages, and let Invisible Man appear to the next thirsty reader.

(Irony of ironies, when I first went to check this book out, four or five copies were actually missing–invisible–from the library. Maybe because it’s so good? But definitely time to get mine back into circulation.)

I picked it up on a tip from visiting scholar Adam Bradley–the author of The Book of Rhymes and The Yale Anthology of Rap. He was at Michigan to give a lecture and we got talking about his early work in the Ralph Ellison archives at Harvard. Ellison, he insisted, had much to say about hiphop. After a first unsatisfying stint with Ellison’s Collected Essays, I finally found my way to Invisible Man. Now, three months later, bear with me as I work through my enigmatically dog-eared but un-annotated copy, as I rewrite, riff and remember…

He was an odd old guy, my grandfather, and I am told I take after him. It was he who caused the trouble. On his deathbed he called my father to him and said, “Son, after I’m gone I want you to keep up the good fight. I never told you, but our life is a war and I  have been a traitor all my born days, a spy in the enemy’s country ever since I give up my gun back in the Reconstruction. Live with your head in the lion’s mouth. I want you to overcome ’em with yeses, undermine ’em with grins, agree ’em to death and destruction, let ’em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open.” They thought the old man had gone out of his mind. He had been the meekest of men. The younger children were rushed form the room, the shades drawn and the flame of the lamp turned so low that it sputtered on the wick like the old man’s breathing. “Learn it to the younguns,”” he whispered fiercely; then he died. (16)

That, there, was the first shock: learning, so early, so explicit, so extra-curricular. And learn what? The art of signifying, of subterfuge, of saying yes and knowing no, of nodding along but knowing so. This page, appropriately, I left un-marked. But my first dog ear returns to a similar concept, after I hard realized with much joy that our titular character would spend the first part of his story at school.

“Ordered you?” he said. “He ordered you. Dammit, white folk are always giving orders, it’s a habit with them. Why didn’t you make an excuse? Couldn’t you say they had sickness–smallpox–or picked another cabin? Why that Trueblood shack? My god, boy! You’re black and living in the South–did you forget how to lie?”

“Lie, sir? Lie to him, lie to a trustee, sir? Me?”

He shook his head with a kind of anguish. “And me thinking I’d picked a boy with a brain,” he said. “Didn’t you know you were endangering the school?”

“But I was only trying to please him…”

“Please him! And here you are a junior in college! Why, the dumbest black bastard in the cotton patch knows that the only way to please a white man is to tell him a lie! What kind of education are you getting around here?” (139)

 

(Check out Melissa Harris Perry on Clint Eastwood treating President Obama as an “invisible man” in her blog post and on her show.)

And then a moment that really struck me, the vignette that not only launches our hero into politics but reminded me so strongly (now, one year later) of the stated goals and principles of Occupy Wall Street. Indeed, this section of Invisible Man warrants its own post, essay, critical study, as the invisible man and a crowd of citizens functionally occupy an eviction.

“We’re dispossessed,” I sang at the top of my voice, “disposessed and we want to pray. Let’s go in and pray. Let’s have a big prayer meeting. But we’ll need some chairs to sit in…rest upon as we kneel. We’ll need some chairs!”

“Here’s some chairs down here,” a woman called from the walk. “How ’bout taking in some chairs?”

“Sure,” I called, “take everything. Take it all, hide that junk! Put it back where it came from, It’s blocking the street and the sidewalk, and that’s against the law. Put it out of sight! Hid it, hide their shame! Hide our shame!”…

“We ought to done this long ago,” a man said.

“We damn sho should,”

“I feel so good,” a woman said. “I feel so good!”…

“Let’s march…”

“It’s a good idea.”

“Let’s have a demonstration…”

“Let’s parade!” …

“What’s going on here?” a gold-shield officer called up the steps….”You,” he called, pointing straight at me.

“We’ve…we’ve been clearing the sidewalk of a lot of junk,” I called, tense inside….

“You mean you’re interfering with an eviction,” he called, starting through the crowd.

“He ain’t doing nothing,” a woman called from behind me.

I looked around, the steps behind were filled with those who had been inside

“We’re all together,” someone called, as the crowd closed in.

“Clear the streets,” the officer ordered.

“That’s what we were doing,” someone called from back in the crowd.

“Mahoney!” he bellowed to another policeman, “send in a riot call!”

“What riot?” one of the white men called to him. “There’s no riot.”

“If I say there’s a riot, there’s a riot,” the officer said. “And what re you white people doing up here in Harlem?” (281-283)

My next folded corner was prompted by a theme that has interested me since I researched feminist theology in college: the theme of self-actualization or coming out–what W.E.B. DuBois called that “second self” and what feminist theologian Judith Plaskow termed “the yeah, yeah experience” of realizing that other women have had the same experience of difference that you have. This is a theme you may hear more about from me: I’m not only interested here in the overlap between of-color, queer, and feminist literatures and ways of thinking, but also of the more general notion that every fully human adult person has to undergo some sort of coming-into-coming-out experience. Here’s Ellison’s take:

And the obsession with my identity which I had developed in the factory hospital returned with a vengeance. Who was I, how had I come to be? Certainly I couldn’t help being different from when I left the campus; but now a new, painful, contradictory voice had grown up within me, and between its demands for revengeful action and Mary’s silent pressure I throbbed with guilt and puzzlement. I wanted peace and quiet, tranquillity, but was too much aboil inside. Somewhere beneath the load of the emotion-freezing ice which my life had conditioned my brain to produce, a spot of black anger glowed and threw off a hot red light of such intensity that had Lord Kelvin known of its existence, he would have had to revise his measurements. A remote explosion had occurred somewhere…and it had caused the ice cap to melt and shift the slightest bit….Only a drop, perhaps, but that drop was the first wave of the deluge. (259)

And this one, which reminded me of my abiding sense that more people are different than not, that minorities are a majority, that the queer, disabled, of color, female, poor of the world added together make many more than the various normals do:

Let’s get together, uncommon people. With both our eyes we may see what makes us so uncommon, we’ll see who makes us so uncommon! (344)

At the end of this speech, our protagonist adds:

I feel, I feel suddenly that I have become more human. Do you understand? More human. Not that I have become a man, for I was born a man. But that I am more human. I feel strong, I feel able to get things done! I feel that I can see sharp and clear and far down the dim corridor of history and in it I can hear the footsteps of militant fraternity!…With your eyes upon me I feel that I’ve found my true family! My true people! My true country! I am a new citizen of the country of your vision, a native of your fraternal land. (346)

Beautiful lines which harken to Ellison’s commitment, stated in his essays and especially in his comments that “”Richard Wright is no spiritual brother of mine” (I paraphrase, I think), to a humanity that is beyond race, that uses race only to transcend it. But our narrator’s later reflections belie the newness, the novelty, of this novel, and I marked them for my craft-lesson frustrations with them, for their belaboring an already-made point:

Words, phrases, skipped through my mind; I saw the blue haze again. What had I meant by saying that I had become “more human”? Was it a phrase that I had picked up from some preceding speaker, or a slip of the tongue? For a moment I thought of my grandfather and quickly dismissed him. What had an old slave to do with humanity? (354)

And here, a joy of novel-writing that no essay can ever accomplish: fiction’s distinct dialogism, its capacity for dialogue, for two modes of thought within one piece of prose:

“And you, mahn,” the Exhorter said, “a regl’lar little black devil! A godahm sly mongoose! Where you think you from, going with the white folks? I know, godahm; don’t I know it! You from down South! You from Trinidad! You from Barbados! Jamaica, South Africa, and the white mahn’s foot in your ass all the way to the hip. What you trying to deny by betrayin gthe black people? Why you fight against us? You young fellows. You young black men with plenty education; I been hearing your rabble rousing. Why you go over to the enslaver? What kind of education is that? What kind of black mahn is that who betray his own mama?” (371)

More on learning:

“You’ll learn,” he said. “You’ll learn and you’ll surrender yourself to it even under such conditions. Especially under such conditions; that’s its value. That makes it patience.”

“Yes, I guess I’m learning now,” I said. “Right now.”

“Brother, he said drily, “you have no idea how much you’re learning– Please sit down.”

“All right,” I said, sitting down again. “But while ignoring my personal education for a second I’d like you to remember that the people have little patience with us tehse days. We could use this time more profitably.” (465)

And later, the question of leader vs. leaderlessness returns when our hero faces his superiors:

“Our job is not to ask them what they think but to tell them!”

“You’ve said that,” I said, “and that’s the one thing you can tell them yourself. Who are you, anyway, the great white father?”

“Not their father, their leader. And your leader. And don’t forget it.” (473)

A Genesis shout-out:

And back and high on the wall above him there arched the words in letters of gold: LET THERE BE LIGHT! The whole scene quivered vague and mysterious in the green light, then the door closed and the sound muted down. (498)

And a reminder of the book’s weighty, tangible use of symbols::

I took a cab. Hambro lived in the West Eighties, and once in the vestibuleI tucked the hat under my arm and put the glasses in my pocket along with Brother Tarp’s leg chain and Clifton’s doll [a mammy figurine]. My pocket was getting overloaded. (500)

And the boomerang comes back again:

It was a joke, an absurd joke. And now I looked around a corner of my mind and saw Jack and Norton and Emrson merge into one single white figure….I was simply a material, a natural resource to be used….I didn’t know what my grandfather had meant, but I was ready to test his advice. I’d overcome them with yeses, undermine them with grins, I’d agree them to death and destruction. Yes, and I’d let them swoller me until they vomited or burst wide open. Let them gag on what they refused to see. Let them chocke on it….would this be treachery? Did the word apply to an invisible man? (508-509)

And in anticipation of Lil Wayne…

“I would take up residence underground. The end was in the beginning.” (571)

So I’ll end with an epigraph I’ve used before, on Signifying, from Weezy:

I see the end in the beginning

So I’m not racing, I’m just sprinting

Cause I don’t wanna finish

They diminish, I replenish. (“Let the Beat Build, Tha Carter III)

These have been Notes on a Future Seminar Paper. Peace, y’all.

Week 1.2: Beware of Framing

This is one of my busiest lesson plans of the semester, so let’s roll!

LESSON PLAN:

1. Logistics: blogs? books? use names

2. Argument reading: what is argument? types of arguments? this class has an organic approach to argument with our texts as our textbooks; introduce the rhetorical triangle

3. Thoughts on The College Dropout? themes? value of the interludes? did you look at lyrics–why or why not? themes resonate with you? what arguments did Kanye make?

4. High school flashback: what did you look for in a close reading/literary analysis? Put literary techniques on the board. Introduce idea of author’s intention as the basis for close reading. Doing work – making an argument

5. Listen to “We Don’t Care.” Groups of 3 each close read a verse apiece; afterwards, share what they found. Speculate on the how: the little choices that create a big effect. (If there’s time, as a class, consider the rhetorical stance of the chorus.)

NOTES

1. Since this is just the second class, there’s always new students, people having trouble with buying books or access to the blog, etc. It always bums me out that some students tend to miss this class session, which is really important. But what can you do?

This is also a time for me to remind folks to say their names when they contribute something to class discussion, and to use their classmates’ names if they refer to them during conversation. So that later, when Kenny is like, “Yeah, I agree with what he just said,” I go, “Who?” and Kenny squints across the room and says, “Uh, what’s your name again?” and Stan is like, “Stan,” and Kenny says, “What Stan said before, about…”

2. I gave the class a short reading for today which introduces argument as essentially the statement of an opinion followed by reasons for holding said opinion. So I just want to make sure they read that and understood it, and draw their attention to the fact that this term “argument” is just a new word for a structure they already knew: a thesis with supporting evidence or justification or whatever their high school English teacher called it.

Then I tell them that in this class we’re not going to use a rhetoric textbook because I find them pretty boring, but instead we’ll use our authors as our master rhetoricians–Kanye West, Elijah Anderson, James Cone, Tricia Rose, Chinua Achebe, George Orwell–and try to ape some of their techniques for our own writing. I also draw the rhetorical triangle on the board and tell them these three elements of argument are actually really prominent in Kanye’s songs: logos or argument; ethos or the qualifications of the speaker; and pathos or appeals to the audience. We don’t need to master the Latin terms but should keep our eyes peeled for how Kanye manages these three elements of his “rhetorical stance.”

3. Here’s where I say, “When I was in high school we called it a close reading when we’d look at a poem or a piece of prose and analyze it for literary elements. What did you call it?” And I hear, “Close reading, analysis, commentary,” etc. Then I ask what terms we’d look for, and I put them up on the board. You know the list: meter, rhyme, allusion, metaphor & simile, motifs, diction, structure, characters, setting, plot, alliteration, etc. There are usually way more than this up on the board when we’re done, and they function to plug students back into that high school English brainspace and also remind them that they know a lot of stuff.

A few of these terms I sort into another column to the right of those above: tone, message, emphasis, argument, themes, irony. I step aside so that everyone can see the list and I say, “When I was in high school, doing a great close reading was like a checklist: the more of these terms you identified, the better your essay was.” This got a lot of nods on Thursday. “But in college,” I continue, “it’s not enough to notice these things: we have to make an argument about them. See how I divided these terms into two categories? On the left we have all the small choices an author makes: word choice, alliteration, a metaphor, repeated symbols that create a motif. And on the left are the larger effects that these choices create: irony, themes, an argument. The small choices do work to create larger effects. So part of our job as college writers is to start to make arguments about the work an author’s choices do.”

Here I pause for questions. Some blank stares are ok, because these concepts are gonna come back to haunt us. I go on: “I also want to introduce the notion of an author’s intention: the idea that an artist makes choices that matter. This is really foundational to close reading, because the moment we deny an author or a hiphop artist her intention, close reading stops. We say, ‘It doesn’t matter that he says “we” instead of “they,” and so we stop digging into that language. So I want us to grant not only our authors but our rappers the faith that they chose their words and each word matters. Okay?” Mostly self-explanatory, but I’ll add that I think this disclaimer is especially imp0rtant in a hiphop classroom when so many extracurricular forces tell us everyday that rap is garbage and it’s not art. So even if students know each word matters in a poem, I like to remind them that this is still true for a rap song.

5. Split into groups of 3. I assign each group a verse of “We Don’t Care”–each verse will have 2 groups working on it, ideally across the room from each other. I tell them we’re going to listen and then each group will close read their verse, looking for these terms up on the board and starting to surmise about work. What word choice creates emphasis? How do certain characters elucidate a theme? Then we listen and they break into groups. I like to wander around, keeping folks on task. A lot of students do a great job getting the argument of the song, but have more trouble digging into actual words. So I ask them, what about that alliteration? What does that do? What about that repeated word? Is that significant? And encourage them to actually make marks on their papers. Underline. Circle. (Yesterday I used the phrase “break the seal” to some surprised laughter.)

When we’re done, we go through the verses as a class. I like that each verse had more than one group working on it. Students tend to think they exhausted a verse, but another group will invariably have found things they didn’t. So this reinforces the value and the potential depth of close reading, as does the fact that in ten or fifteen minutes they’ve only dealt with one verse, and there are two more plus a chorus. This is also an opportunity to push this “work” idea more. You found alliteration or a character? What does that do? Or you found a message? In which words or phrases do we see that effect created?

And if there’s time, which there wasn’t on Thursday, we can look at the rhetorical stance of the chorus as a class:

Drug dealin’ just to get by, stackin money till it get sky high (kids sing, kids sing)

We wasn’t ‘sposed to make it past 25, joke’s on you we still alive

Throw your hands up in the sky and say, “We don’t care what people say.”

Who’s “we”? Who’s “you”? Do they really not “care what people say”?

Finally, homework, which is a pre-write assignment for the first paper: write 2 typed, double-spaced pages on the title of either “We Don’t Care” or “All Falls Down”: say everything you can possibly say about those three words, what they mean, why they’re used. (In the past, I had students write a “close reading” of a whole song, but I hope that focusing them on the title will push attention to language and word choice. We’ll see on Tuesday!)

That’s all, folks! See you soon.

Congratulations, Monsieur Hollande: What Obama Could Never Do

On Sunday, fiscal conservatives the world over freaked out when France elected its Socialist candidate for president, Francois Hollande, and ousted the incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy. While I am interested in the shifts this upset will cause in world affairs, I am more interested in the following campaign advertisement for Hollande, discovered by Pitchfork and brought to my attention by a friend.

 If you were wondering what I thought “Obama could never do,” it’s release a campaign video like this one. I mean, Obama invited Jay-Z to his 50th birthday bash and Fox News headlined its coverage, “Obama’s Hip-Hop BBQ Didn’t Create Jobs.” But because Hollande, a white man, does not have to worry about his electorate remembering that he is a Black man, he can explicitly reach out to French voters of color by featuring them in a campaign ad backed by the Jay-Z and Kanye West track “Niggas in Paris.” Umcensored.

Slate calls the ad “unlikely”; Pitchfork calls it “confusing” and “strange.” Neither seem to analyze it beyond the pun “That shit Creil,” where Creil is the name if a city shown a few times in the ad that is pronounced like Kanye’s “cray.” But this ad is amazing to me for so many reasons that neither publication seems willing to explore.

Fox News’ Obama birthday banner image

First, the title of the song. Hollande’s commercial literally depicts “Niggas in Paris,” even as it totally recontextualizes the subjects of the song. In the original, Ye and Jay are high-rolling American Black men partying in an idealized Paris. Jay raps, “If you escaped what I escaped, you’d be in Paris getting fucked up, too.” But in Hollande’s ad, these niggas in Paris aren’t high-rollers and they’re in their own country. In fact, the video is explicitly concerned with portraying people of color as French citizens, with constructing the French voting citizenry as a racially and culturally diverse body. Much of the ad consists of a multiracial cohort of people holding out their voter cards and smiling wildly. One of the first shots is of a woman in hijab, a symbol of Muslim religious practice that has become controversial  in much of right-leaning Europe. (In fact, full face veils are actually illegal in France.) There are also a lot of shots of Hollande speaking enthusiastically to folks who do or don’t look like him. Indeed, Hollande’s advertisement suggests that the people it depicts are more than “niggas in Paris,” that is, outsiders to be labelled in a place that does not belong to them: instead, they are French citizens with the power to shape their country’s future through voting.

A comment on Slate claims this ad was created by supporters, not by Hollande’s campaign itself. I don’t know. I wish Melissa Harris-Perry was here to talk about the construction of citizenship. But it’s all good. This video still rocks my political socks. What do you guys think?

“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! )

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.