[this is an excerpt from a final-paper-in-progress called “’Write the story yourself’: Literacy as Social Practice in Hiphop Feminist Art, Scholarship, and Activism”]
In her “Hip Hop and the Black Ratchet Imagination,” L. H. Stallings points to the way that Issa Rae, the creator and star of the web series The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl, has her protagonist J “strap on hip hop” as an outlet for her righteous anger (136). Stallings is referring to those moments when, in fits of frustration, J sits down on her bed and writes furious, explicit, gangsta-inflected rhymes. In her text, Stallings focuses on J’s male-oriented gender performance to explore the queerness of what she calls the “Black Ratchet Imagination.” But we might also see J’s scenes writing raps, one of which appears in the series’s first episode, as a complex literacy event* that not only queers J’s gender identity (a theme brought up in other parts of the episode) but also queers, or questions, her middle-class status, her participation in the information economy, and professional rappers’ processes when writing ridiculous, shallow, expletive-laced lyrics. Continue reading →
[for the first meeting of CCR 611, history of composition, we were asked to write the first three pages of our future first book in the field– pure whimsy, of course, since we’re all first and second years. Here’s what I came up with.]
Rap is a referendum on America’s failed schools. In a moment too reminiscent of our own, urban youths stood outside the walls of schools with no budget for art class and made a whole culture out of the detritus of the society which had discarded them. From spoken language the rapper spat verse; the DJ scratched the break beat into vinyl; writers painted reclaimed language on subway cars; postmodern dancers fashioned studios out of cardboard; all of these children, artists and intellectuals, dropping the sweet science of hiphop. Continue reading →
In my first post on this subject, I considered two important questions: why care about celebrities at all, and why care about Kimye when there are Mr. and Mrs. Sean Carter? For the first question I used the work of star studies scholar Anne Helen Petersen to suggest, as she does, that “when we’re talking about stars, we’re really talking about ourselves.” Celebrities resonate with us, and divining why a certain star becomes a superstar is a project in self-understanding and cultural scrutiny.
My second question held Kim and Kanye up to Beyonce and Jay, their natural foils. I suggested that loving the former more than the latter, as I do, is a function of their lives’ messiness and mistakes. In reflecting my own life’s messiness and mistakes, Kimye’s love is fragile and human in my eyes. I am invested in it because I too have made mistakes and been judged harshly, and if their love can last then perhaps so will mine.
When Kim and Kanye began dating in earnest, I was very, very excited. They were on the cover of the Chicago Sun Times and I still have that paper next to my writing desk. Remember when people threw royal wedding-watch pajama parties for Will and Kate? I didn’t. I don’t care about Will and Kate. But when Kim and Kanye hooked up I would tell anyone who would listen that when they got married I would throw a party about it. Think: Grown N’Sexy KIMYE Wedding Bash! I would wear stilletos and a metallic dress in their honor and we would listen to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy on repeat until it got late enough to switch to R. Kelley and Notorious B.I.G.
But before the engagement announcement arrived, Kim got knocked up. And I have to tell you, I was disappointed. I wanted to throw my engagement party. I wanted them to do it in the order you’re supposed to do it. Bey and Jay did it! Hell, they got married in secret! What happened to “first comes love, then comes marriage”?
And in noticing my reaction to Kim’s pregnancy, I realized that even though I loved this couple because their lives were messy, I still wanted their relationship to be neat.
Ye’s banned MBDTF artwork with painting by G. Condo
In America, Kim and Kanye’s coupling represents a deviant sexuality on almost all possible fronts. In almost all the ways a heterosexual couple can fit into America’s historical portrait of deviant sexuality, Kim and Kanye fit the bill:
1.Kim’s curves are objectified (the sense is,k by her, for money). Also, she made a sex tape, which reads pornography. Her body + the sex tape both read prostitute.
2. Kanye is a black male rapper, which reads criminal/violent/drug dealer (not–as we might hope–“poet/artist”).
3. Kanye is a black man attracted to a white woman, which reads “Birth of a Nation” lascivious, hypersexed, dangerous black man out for your white daughters.
4. Kim is a white woman attracted to a black man (and, in the past, other black men) which means she’s addicted to sex, dirty, somehow animalistic, somehow less white and more Armenian, i.e., Arab. (SNL: “And to all our boyfriends, Happy Kwanzaa!”
5. Kim allegedly married basketballer Kris Humphries for financial gain in the form of royalties from her television show and televised wedding special on E!, which reads that she sells her intimacy for money, which reads prostitute. See derogatory phrase: “fame whore.”
6. Kim is an adulteress with a capital scarlet A: she started dating Kanye and is now impregenated by him while still legally married to Humphries.
I don’t have the energy to defend that all the above are extant American prejudices or taboos. Watch “Barack and Curtis” or “Birth of a Nation” or read some of the suggested’s before. What I’m interested in here is how all of these taboos become coopted into a heteronormative, pro-marriage and pro-family narrative when we as a culture become invested in these two sullied individuals’ relationship. Even this morning there was an article in the New York Times about some prominent conservatives’ shift towards a pro-marriage (any marriage, gay marriage) agenda. And in rapper Macklemore’s video for “Same Love,” a celebrated pro-gay marriage song, we see a similar move, the normalization of gay people through marriage: “same love,” not “I respect your different love.”
Kimye on the Chicago Sun-Times front page, April 6 2012
Interestingly,when Kim and her ex Kris Humphries first called their marriage quits, the media (see SNL, below) demonized Kim as a woman who would sell her intimacy for the price of a televised wedding special on E! But now that Kim is pregnant, the narrative has switched to a demonization of Kris for refusing to give Kim a divorce because of his “desperate need for revenge” and “power.” Whether this new narrative arises from the power of Kim’s publicity or America’s genuine affection for Kimye, I don’t know. But the fact remains that as a culture we seem to want Kim and Kanye to stay together and get married–a triumph of our conservative, pro-family values, and a testament to those values’ ability to somehow cleanse what we view as sexual sins like prostitution, miscegenation, adultery.
In her book Terrorist Assemblages, Jasbir Puar suggests that the recent welcome Americans have showed to homosexual couples in mainstream culture has been accompanied by the shaming of a new set of bodies, namely Arab bodies who have been branded as “terrorists” (Puar mentions The L Word and Six Feet Under, 132, to which we could add Modern Family and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy). Writing in 2007, Puar argues that our nation still uses sexualized humiliation and violence to mark criminalized sexuality. In the Jim Crow south, to be a black man whistling at a white woman or even just a black man was a sexuality that marked its owner’s body as available for state-sanctioned violence and murder. These days, Kanye can rap about “30 white bitches” and we all laugh. But Puar suggests this is the illusion of progress. While we pat Kanye on the back, out of sight, at Abu Graib, new bodies are available for state-sanctioned violence.
I’ve started already to extend Puar’s arguments on queer bodies to extend the kind of non-normative sexuality we see in the coupling of Kim and Kanye: a sexuality that invokes sex work, laciviousness, interracial coupling. Puar argues that queer sexualities are absorbed into the national project as a way to manage threats to the social order. She writes, “homonormativity is both disciplined by the nation and its heteronormative underpinnings and also effectively surveils and disciplines those sexually perverse bodies that fall outside its purview. Thus the nation not only allows for queer bodies, but also actually disciplines and normalizes them” (49). That is, a normalized homosexuality is still heteronormative–that is, pro-heterosexual practices and behaviors. But by accepting homosexual behavior of a certain kind, the nation is able to regulate and control those behaviors. Meanwhile, what is unaccepted and unregulated has shifted to a new target: in Puar’s argument, terrorist bodies, who are not welcome in our polity and instead still subject to violence, not cooptation.
I want to suggest that interracial relationships and even in some senses sex work are being “surveiled and disciplined,” and therefore normalized, in the persons of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, through our insistence on their marriage. Let’s take a look at Kim Kardashian’s appearance on The View in September, when she and Kanye had been dating for 6 months (my Sun-Times, above, is from April of last year). Feel free, first off, to note that Barbara Walter’s first question for Kim is what part of her body she doesn’t like. Way to build a girl up, Barb. But it’s this later moment that’s more interesting to me:
Around 2:12 – –catch that? Barbara asks, “What about marriage? Do you want his child? Where are we?” Everyone laughs at Barbara’s candor, Joy says “No rush,” but Barb pushes on, claiming, “You gotta ask!” Why, Barbara Walters, why have you gotta ask? Kim demurs: “Well technically I’m still married.” Barbara is undeterred. THese are the terms of her acceptance of Kim as our Armenian-American darling. “You’re divorced, undivorced, whatever,” Barb pushes on. “Are you really thinking in terms of a permanent relationship?…Have you talked about children?”
At this point, Whoopi Goldberg, bless her heart, flops over in her chair and says, “Jesus.”
Kim starts explaining how she does want kids, and she wanted them before but “didn’t take the time” to pick the right person.
Whoopi interjects, a voice of reason.”You move too fast, you move too fast.”
“Exactly,” says Kim.
Now, imagining that Kim Kardashian is a real person with real feelings who really moves too fast, Barbara and Whoopi sort of represent our two impulses with Kim. We want her to slow down and get to know herself and be patient with her decisions, but we also want her decision to be marriage, ideally to Kanye. It’s healing: it feels good as a nation to celebrate the interracial coupling of an amateur sextress and a guy who insulted two national darlings, George W. Bush and Taylor Swift, on national TV.
If Puar was here, she might ask what violence our celebration of Kimye is obscuring? Who don’t we love when we love Kimye?
…and this one I’m struggling to answer. The families destroyed by drone strikes or the prison-industrial complex? The children killed not in mass suburban shootings but by daily inner-city gun violence? What don’t we see when we bathe in the starlight of Kimye? I am thinking of the New Jim Crow, of the families whose lovers and fathers and mothers are in prison, of the fathers taken away for state-sanctioned violence not for whistling at a white woman but for having small amounts of drugs on them when they were racially profiled and frisked by police, of these men who if they are released into certain states will never be able to vote, no matter the race of the president on the ballot. In loving Kimye, whom do we forget?
Black Noise is a work of literary criticism by Tricia Rose.
White Noise is a novel by Don DeLillo.
Black Noise was published in 1994, White Noise in 1985. Both books are about the effects of industrialization and a consumerist capitalism on Americans. Black Noise is about inner-city youths of color; White Noise is about a family of white suburbanites. Both are about noise– “a rapid and urgent cadence” (DeLillo 157); “rap’s volume, looped drum beats, and bass frequencies” (Rose 63)– and chaos. They are about human responses to trauma.
White Noise is a novel about a family living in a town over which descends a toxic cloud, a “toxic airborne event.” The novel is about the persistence of the quotidian in the face of real airborne danger. It is about absurdity and marriage, aging and death. DeLillo’s protagonist says, “All plots tend to move deathward. This is the nature of plots” (26).
Black Noise is about the absurdity of life, not death. It is about hiphop’s creative resistance:
“Let us imagine these hip hop principles as a blueprint for social resistance and affirmation: create sustaining narratives, accumulate them, layer, embellish, and transform them. However, be also prepared for rupture, find pleasure in it, in fact, plan on social rupture. When these ruptures occur, use them in creative ways that will prepare you for a future in which survival will demand a sudden shift in ground tactics” (39).
While White Noise is about trash…
“I went home and started throwing things away. I threw away fishing lures, dead tennis balls, torn luggage. I ransacked the attic for old furniture, discarded lampshades, warped screens, bent curtain rods. I threw away picture frames, shoe trees, umbrella stands, wall brackets, turntables. I threw away shelf paper, faded stationery, manuscripts of articles I’d written, galley proofs of the same aarticles, the journals in which the articles were printed. The more things I threw away, the more I found. The house was a sepia maze of old and tired things. There was an immensity of things, an overburdening weight, a connection, a mortality. I stalked the rooms, flinging things into cardboard boxes. Plastic electric fans, burnt-outtoasters, Star Trek needlepoints. It took well over an hour to get everything down to the sidewalk. No one helped me. I didn’t want help or company or human understanding. I just wanted to get the stuff out of the house.”
…Black Noise is about recycling:
“The postindustrial city, which provided the context for creative development among hip hop’s earliest innovators, shaped their cultural terrain, access to space, materials, and education. While graffiti artists’ work was significantly aided by advances in spray paint technology, they used the urban transit system as their canvas. Rappers and DJs disseminated their work by copying it on tape-dubbing equitment and playing it on powerful, portable ‘ghetto blasters.’ At a time when budget cuts in school music programs drastically reduced access to traditional forms of instrumentation and composition, inner-city youths increasingly relied on recorded sound. Breakdancers used their bodies to mimic ‘transformers’ and other futuristic robots in symbolic street battles….Hip hop artists used the tools of obsolete industrial technology to traverse contemporary crossroads of lack and desire in urban Afrodiasporic communities” (34-35).
Taken together, these two books chart two perspectives on the white flight from the postwar urban center, the fear and confusion of all involved, their recourse to things, their desire to create and be meaningful, the market forces that constrain them, the noise that fills their ears, the sound of being American.
-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.
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.
“Why, when what we did worked so well for two hundred years, is everything breaking down?”
— a 70- or 80-year old Hmong man displaced to California, quoted in Fadiman, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down
A year ago, I had never heard of the Hmong people, a nomadic Asian hill tribe continually settled and displaced across China, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand until, after the Vietnam War ravaged their homelands, many came to settle in the United States.
I first encountered the Hmong in Jason Aaron’s SCALPED, a deliciously violent and seamy comic book series about the overlapping criminal and political exploits of the Lakota people on the fictional Nebraska Prairie Rose Indian Reservation. In SCALPED the Hmong are antagonists, a group of tattooed gangsters from Minneapolis who finance Chief Red Crow’s casino and then demand accountability for their investment.
The next time the Hmong crossed my pop-culture consumption screen was a few months ago when my boyfriend and I finally got around to watching the Clint Eastwood vehicle Gran Torino. Aside from the Hmong lead’s lovely explanation to Clint that it’s pronounced “Mong,” not “H-mong,” and the prominent characteristics of family and gift-giving versus criminality and gang-inclinations we see in the extemporaneous Hmong characters, the film was a more accurate showcase of Western cultural values, since to be the hero of the movie Clint has to (SPOILER ALERT!!) sacrifice himself (see Jesus, Harry Potter). In this case, the povertorific Hmong are living in scary urban Detroit where we see a lot of cars, underemployed teenagers, and threateningly sexual black people.
Or, as Bill Hader put it last Saturday, “Get a Chrysler. And get off my damn lawn.”
After those two unseemly representations it was a blessing I finally found my way to The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Anne Fadiman’s wonderful exploration of the cultural impasse between an epileptic Hmong child’s family and her doctors in Merced, California. People, this book is SO GOOD. It is empathetic, historically aware, culturally and linguistically sensitive, expertly told, beautifully written, mythological. Fadiman treats the Hmongs’ history as though it is as nuanced and important as our own, and Western medicine as based on the assumptions, mythologies and legends that all worldviews are. She writes in her Preface:
After I heard about the Lees’ daughter Lia, whose case had occasioned some of the worst strife the Merced hospital had ever seen, and after I got to know her family and her doctors, and after I realized how much I liked both sides and how hard it was to lay the blame at anyone’s door (though God knows I tried), I stopped parsing the situation in such linear terms, which mean that without intending to, I had started to think a little less like an American and a little more like a Hmong. (x)
What a sentence! Interestingly, my only criticism in reading this book came in right after my epigraph, above. In the same paragraph in which Fadiman quotes this gentleman wondering how, after hundreds (or perhaps thousands) of years of civil disobedience, migration and survival in Southeast Asia, so many Hmong have become impoverished and dependent Americans, Fadiman’s irascible optimism finally distressed me. “Much has broken down , but not everything,” she writes. “I can think of no other group of immigrants whose culture, in its most essential aspects, has been so little eroded by assimilation” (207-208).
What a deflection–and in the face of this book’s most powerful incrimination of the American war empire, which enlisted Lao Hmong to fights its superfluous war in Vietnam, then granted Hmong asylum into an American community that knew nothing of their contributions abroad and instead often associated them with the enemy. The old man’s question “Why…is everything breaking down?” teased at the fault lines of our notion of a free society. By Fadiman’s account, the Hmong people she interviewed didn’t want welfare payments but arable land to replace the 10-gallon tubs-cum-planters full of herbs in the parking lots behind their homes.
The Occupy Wall Street movement has raised similar questions. Protesters’ efforts to flood streets and camp in parks en masse have drawn attention to the loss of genuine public space in our polity. The great irony of Zuccotti Park was that in this newly monitored era, only a private park like Zuccotti wouldn’t close to the public overnight.
Further, while SCALPED is written by a White American, its attitude of subversive resistance to America’s public transcript–regarding Indians, criminality and the FBI–finds linguistic potency in its frequent use of the words “n***er” and “n***a” toward and between Native Americans. I am coming to suspect that understanding these words, their meanings, usages and differences, is fundamental to apprehending the contours of hiphop.
In his “On the Question of Nigga Authenticity,” critical theorist R. A. T. Judy attempts an ontological question: what does it mean to be n***a authentically? Judy’s essay attempts to upend the easy genealogy posited by others between the contemporary hardcore rapper, the gangster, that n***a, with the antebellum “bad nigger” and the postbellum badman by suggesting that the hardcore rapper is not an extension of these characters’ oppositional relationship to authority and paradoxically self-policing role within the community. Judy sees the question of n***a authenticity as an ontological question, not a moral-political one.
Defining “nigger” (in nearly Beloved-esque prose), Judy writes: “The value of the nigger is not in the physical body itself but in the energy, the potential force, that the body contains…That force is the thing that the planter owns. It is the property of the planter that is the nigger. The nigger is that thing” (109).
On the relationship of the a/moral badman to the police: “…for Spencer…the heroic badman is a figure of legitimate moral resistance to white oppression. ….As W.E.B. Du Bois remarked…the systematic use of the law by white authorities to disenfranchise blacks after the resumption of home rule in the South caused blacks to make avoidance of the law a virtue…In this understanding, the black community becomes the police in order to not give the police any reason or cause to violate it. ….In other words, the function of the police, as officers of the courts, is to turn the negro back into a nigger” (107-110).
Occupy All Streets?
On n***a authenticity: “This is the age of hypercommodification, in which experience has not become commodified, it is commodification, and nigga designates the scene, par excellence, of commodification, where one is among commodities. Nigga is a commodity affect….The nigga is constituted in the exchange of experience for affect….[T]he hard-core gangster rapper traffics in affect and not values. In this sense, hard-core rap is the residual of the nonproductive work of translating experience into affect….[N]igga defines authenticity as adaptation to the force of commodification” (111-112).
That is (and it took me many reads to figure this one out), according to Judy, the nigga is not the reincarnation of the badman or the bad nigger but of the “simple nigger” (his term) who, like his antebellum ancestor enmeshed in the struggle between thingness and humanness, has recast himself for the modern terms of the debate as the site of the conflict between commodity and humanness. According to Judy, “Nigga is a commodity affect”–that is, n***a is the feeling of being a commodity, n***a is the feeling of being an interchangeable, saleable good, a feeling that is made to be exported, precisely in that it is the feeling of commodification. It is intrinsically exportable. Though I wish Judy would go further to account for the apparent reclaiming of this term by commodified peoples.
In the context of Judy’s argument, what does the n***er/n***a dichotomy mean from and for nonblack peoples of color? In SCALPED, “n***er” is used by white characters to describe Indians and “n***a” is used by people of color to describe themselves. Judy writes, “Black folk, who have always been defined in relation to work, went the way of work” (104). In the context of the cooping up of the real Hmong-American people in Fadiman’s study, perhaps nonblacks’ appropriation of n***a hints at the ontological dilemma faced by all people of color (whose bodies in America have also always been associated with work) in a contemporary post-work America, in the same way that whites’ creative employment of “n***er” to describe a whole host of ethnic people confirms America’s presumed equivalence between non-white bodies and labor commodity.
And verily, when I was a freshman at Lincoln Park High School, there came a time when I could not turn a corner without hearing someone singing “Back that Azz Up.” Yeah, those were heady times, as I had just finished eighth grade at a private Jewish school where my classmates and I sang “Bling, Bling” without knowing what the helleth we were talking about. And oh, how I remember loving that voice at the end of “Back that Azz Up”: “After you back it up then stop, then drop, drop, drop drop it like it’s hot, drop drop it like it’s hot.” And yeah, I knew not that this was the tween Lil’ Wayne.
And so it was, when I went to my homecoming dance, that all of the young people were juking in a mass unlike any my innocent Jewish eyes had ever seen: to the windows, as well as to the wall. Also on the floor. And so it was that in the future, before dances, the student council president had to make an announcement during homeroom that “Wall juking, floor juking and aerial juking will be have you dismissed from the dance.” Yeah, seriously. But lo, the great class of ’04 was not stopped from naming Juvenile’s “Slow Motion” the unofficial song of our prom.
And lo, in the year 2012, a Canadian bar-mitzvah boy came to pass as a rapper, and his name was Drake. And when, with great hubris, he dared to cover Juvenile’s opus, he put a thick dime in his music video for “Practice,” and her name was Kyra Chaos.
And so it was, that in 2012 when yours truly became a media studies nut, she found herself going back to watch the Juvenile video from 1999, which she had not watched when she was fourteen. And she saw, despite the imperative tense of the title, that the video for “Back that Azz Up” showed a large concert, and joyous people of color, and the deep greens of the Bayou, and some girls from around the way. And in “Practice” she saw the prodigious behind of Kyra Chaos, and her cut off sweatshirt, and her homegirl hat, and thought, “In the universe of this video, this girl is making a movie for the guy she loves. Yeah, she has been practicing. And it’s cool he take her word that ‘those other guys were practice.'” And yeah, isn’t it interesting how between the nineties and the twenty-teens the portrait of intimacy has shifted from the huge public concert venue to the privacy of a digital video connection. But lo, that was dorky. And so it was that the wannabe media theorist was still just a white girl watching the others juke, talking to her friends to distract herself from how fun that all looked.
The BBC Comedy series Look Around You, initially aired in Britain in 2002, begins with a 20-minute pilot episode about Calcium. In the show, which is designed to mock earlier generations of British educational videos, “the white element,” Calcium–which here in its powdered form highly suggests cocaine–is subjected to a series of inane experiments. The viewer is instructed to write results down “in your copybook.”
The second episode of the series, “Maths,” opens with a shot of a young black teenage boy looking anxiously around a streetcorner. Soon we see that he is serving as lookout for a white friend, spraypainting a wall. “Look around you,” narrator Nigel Lambert instructs. “Look around you. Look around you. Have you worked out what we’re looking for?” Lambert instructs, over a shot of the white teen spraying a white wall with a red C. “Correct,” he concludes. The boys flee, leaving behind a wall covered in a large, difficult equation involving infinity, square roots, and pi. “The answer is: Maths.” After announcing that the largest number is forty-five billion–“although mathmeticians suspect there may be even larger numbers”–the narrator then proceeds to explain that MATHS stands for “Mathmatic Anti Telharsic Harfatum Septomin.”
While I am no expert in British humor, I cannot help read this show as the white establishment’s confession (at least via Britain, the motherland) that its educational practices are stupid, arbitrary, and meant to leave you nothing but confused. (In one experiment on cocaine–I mean calcium–Lambert instructs the viewer to stir a solution with a glass stirring rod–or a pencil. I am reminded of the stringent lab conditions in my own high school chemistry classes.) In the wake of Kanye West’s insipid #FuckMath tweets and the riots in London being blamed on the rioters’ “perverted social ethos,” I cannot help but see deeper meaning in a show that satirizes education and begins an early episode–the first after the pilot –with a shot of a black teen looking anxiously for the police while his white friend writes graffiti, ironically, about math(s).
And if you don’t believe a single shot of a black man can give meaning to a whole film, you haven’t seen Night of the Living Dead.
When I teach the concept of Signifyin(g) to my freshman writing students, I use an excerpt from Henry Louis Gates’ The Signifying Monkey which resonates easily with the experiences of my class. Gates 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).
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)
Until now, the term “hiphop pedagogy” has referred to a matrix of ideas about teaching that combine activism, critical pedagogy, using hiphop in classrooms (often to engage marginalized student populations) and an attention to the ways in which rappers already function as teachers and knowledge purveyors in their communities (e.g., Priya Parmar’s Knowledge Reigns Supreme: The Critical Pedagogy of KRS-ONE, 2009).
While using hiphop in the classroom is critical–indeed, I am doing it myself–we need to be paying attention to what rappers themselves have been saying in their art about why school failed them. This is what I mean by an exegetical approach–we need to look to the texts for the answers, which are already out there. Why did the best lyricists of our generation hate school? Why did the college graduates in Public Enemy find violence to be their most potent metaphor (Chang)? KRS-ONE explained of his own self-education, “I was held back twice in the 8th grade due to truancy…I dropped out of the ninth grade and psent the next two years studying in the Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza…I leave home in pursuit of philosophy and emceeing. [By] 16 I had exhausted the library” (Parmar 58).
Though I teach extremely successful students, the questions Kanye West asks in his 2003 debut The College Dropout still resonate with them: Why am I in school? Why should I stay here when my teacher says I’m a “retard” (“We Don’t Care”)? Why do I need to go to college to get a job when people just hire their nieces and nephews? Why is the valedictorian of my high school working at the Cheescake Factory?
It took me a little while to build up to this place, but I hope that exploring rap music for insights, criticisms and suggestions on school, schooling, teaching, teachas and learning in rap will become a central pursuit of this blog–and I hope to hear from other folks who are out there lookin…(g).
Last semester, after my students were done working on a small-group activity involving theologian James Cone’s book The Spirituals and the Blues, one of my students announced that Cone was guilty of reverse racism. From the section on “The Blues and Sex,” here was the passage which offended him:
People who have not been oppressed physically cannot know the power inherent in bodily expressions of love. That is why white Western culture makes a sharp distinction between the spirit and the body, the divine and the human, the sacred and the secular. White oppressors do not know how to come to terms with the essential spiritual function of the human body. But for black people the body is sacred, and they know how to use it in the expression of love.
Now, this book is and will continue to be a hard book to treat in an introductory class, not least because of Cone’s fondness for the steadfast binary (here, at least) between “white oppressors” and “black people.” But that body/spirit split so central to Western Christian thinking is worth meditating on.
I first came upon it in feminist criticisms of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, which criticized this binary as not only an underappreciation of the fullness of the human condition, but–in the way that the spirit was continually valorized over the body–a construction that led to an overemphasis on sins and salvations of the spirit. Judith Plaskow wrote in her Sex, Sin and Salvation:
First of all, Niebuhr’s concern with the negative side of creatureliness may be part of what leads him to underestimate the sin of sensuality. The fact that Niebuhr ignores the positive features of human naturalness may prevent him from fully apprehending sensuality’s temptations. Not seeing human beings as continually, positively involved in the world’s vitalities, he is less likely to view loss of self in some aspect of these vitalities as a clear and ever present danger. (1980, 69)
How great of a word is creatureliness???
But this distance from the realities of the human body have repercussions outside the realm of the theologians, in spaces spiritual and political. In his book The Fire Next Time (1962), James Baldwin explained the conundrum simply and powerfully (as he explains all things in that little book).
Behind what we think of as the Russian menace lies what we do not wish to face, and what white Americans do not face when they regard a Negro: reality–the fact that life is tragic. Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death–ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life….But white Americans do not believe in death, and this is why the darkness of my skin so intimidates them. And this is also why the presence of the Negro in this country can bring about its destruction. It is the responsibility of free men to trust and to celebrate what is constant–birth, struggle and death are constant, and so is love, though we may not always think so–and to apprehend the nature of change, to be able and willing to change. (Cone’s emphases)
Mexican poet Octavio Paz makes related comments in his essay “Dia de los Muertos,” from his 1961 collection Laberinto de la Soledad, in which he contextualizes death’s disappearance as a paradox of modernity.
Modern death (Paz writes) does not have any significance that transcends it or that refers to other values. It is rarely anything more than the inevitable conclusion of a natural process. In a world of facts, death is merely one more fact. But since it is such a disagreeable fact, contrary to all our concepts and to the very meaning of our lives, the philosophy of progress (“Progress toward what, and from what?” Scheler asked) pretends to make it disappear, like a magician palming a coin. Everything in the modern world functions as if death did not exist. Nobody takes it into account, it is suppressed everywhere: in political pronouncements, commercial advertising, public morality and popular customs; in the promise of cut-rate heath and happiness offered to all of us by hospitals, drugstores and playing fields. But death enters into everything we undertake, and it is no longer a transition but a great gaping mouth that nothing can satisfy. The century of health, hygiene and contraceptives, miracle drugs and synthetic foods, is also the century of the concentration camp and the police state, Hiroshima and the murder story.
In his recent article for the Washington Post, “Why do we ignore civilians killed in American wars?” John Tierman detailed the many ways that official tallies undercount the damage done by the Iraq War–but his argument is more about the attitudes that underlie such a callous inattention. Suggesting that America’s wars of the last 50 years have produced around six million casualties (no Holo), he refers to a theory called the “just world” theory, “which argues that humans naturally assume that the world should be orderly and rational” and explains that the “The public dismissed the civilians [of Vietnam, Korea and Iraq] because their high mortality rates, displacement and demolished cities were discordant with our understandings of the missions and the U.S. role in the world” (Tierman).
Sounds to me like Mr. Tiernan found–but didn’t name– another reason Americans ignore death: chauvinism.
In the third verse of “We Don’t Care,” the first track from his debut album The College Dropout, Kanye West raps,
You know the kids gon’ act a fool
When you stop the programs for after school
And they DCFS them some of them dyslexic
They favorite 50 Cent song 12 Questions
We scream, rock, blows, weed park
See now we smart
We ain’t retards the way teachers thought
Hold up hold fast we make mo cash
Now tell my momma I belong in the slow class
It’s bad enough we on welfare
You trying to put me on the school bus with the space for the wheelchair
I’m trying to get the car with the chromy wheels here
You tryin to cut our lights like we don’t live here
Look at what’s handed us, fathers abandon us
When we get them hammers gwanan’ call the ambulance
Sometimes I feel no one in this world understands us
But we don’t care what people say
Last Friday was the third semester in which I’ve treated this song to a close reading with my sections of freshmen writers, and I learn more about it each time. In six sections total, we’ve discovered that this verse treats the politics of abandonment in its critique of civic institutions that have failed Kanye’s “we”–young, inner city African-Americans. There’s a lot going on in this song as a whole–the first verse looks at models of masculinity in the hood while the second details versions of hope and hustle–but what interests me here is how Kanye’s comments dovetail with another interdisciplinary field of critical inquiry: disability studies. Can you say intersectionality?
First there was feminism, then there was postcolonial studies, then there was critical race theory, then there was queer theory, and now there’s disability studies (in no particular order, so what?)–theoretical frameworks that use the socially out-standing experience of a given group of people to poke holes in what mainstream society considers normal, not to mention the obsession with said normalcy in the first place. Cue: disability studies, which I never would have heard of if I hadn’t graded for a disability cultures class as a grad student here at Michigan. This course was about the cultural products in which artists with disabilities explored their lives–quadripilegic dancers, stand-up comedians with cerebal palsy, Deaf actors, that sort of thing. The course was about using these artists’ own words, movements, and efforts to describe themselves to break through our medical or charity-focused lenses, our obsessions with fixing or curing or even just helping the disabled, toward the realization that these folks can think for themselves, can speak for themselves, and–with a few adjustments on our part–can act for themselves.
It was only in passing that our instructor Petra Kuppers mentioned that another aspect of disability studies is bringing attention to the institutional violences that create disability like war and poverty. Which brings us back to Kanye’s “We Don’t Care.” In the third verse, above, Kanye articulates a portrait of disability in the inner city that suggests students with learning disabilities, dismissed by teachers, seek alternative successes as stick-up kids; that welfare and crappy schoolbuses are depressing for a kid taught to measure successes in “chromy wheels”; and that the ambulance only comes around when folks get too drunk. (As a student finally explained last term, hammers = handles. Of liquor.) West restates arguments so many liberals are familiar with: “You know the kid gon’ act a fool/ when you stop the programs for after school”–but he broadens the picture, when he connects dots between foster care, domestic abuse and social services (“DCFS”), learning disabilities (“some of them dyslexic”), glitzy gangsta rap models of success (“50 Cent”), drug dealing (“we scream rock, blow, weed park”), pride (“see now we smart”), motivation, teacher favoritism and the insult of tracking programs (“we ain’t retards the way teacher thought”), stick-up kids (“hold up”), hope and resilience (“hold fast”), materialism (“we make mo’ cash”), and fear of failure (“now tell my momma I belong in the slow class”).
In his 2005 tome Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, Jeff Chang traces the roots of hip hop to the fires of the Bronx and Jamaica. And when the boroughs burned, he suggested, “the third world was only a subway ride away” (x). Near the end of the semester in my freshman writing course, we read Chinua Achebe’s wonderful essay, “The African Writer and the English Language” (1968). He writes,
Let us give the devil his due: colonialism in Africa disrupted many things, but it did create big political units where there were small, scattered ones before….[Colonialism] did bring together many peoples that had hitherto gone their several ways. And it gave them a language with which to talk to one another. If it failed to give them a song, it at least gave them a tongue, for sighing. There are not many countries in Africa today where you could abolish the language of the erstwhile colonial powers and still retain the facility for mutual communication. Therefore those African writers who have chosen to write in English or French are not unpatriotic smart alecks with an eye on the main chance—outside their own countries. They are by-products of the same process that made the new nation-states of Africa.
…. Those of us who have inherited the English language may not be in a position to appreciate the value of the inheritance. Or we may go on resenting it because it came as part of a package deal which included many other items of doubtful value and the positive atrocity of racial arrogance and prejudice, which may yet set the world on fire. But let us not in rejecting the evil throw out the good with it.
Like me, many of my students read Achebe’s masterpiece Things Fall Apart in high school. And like me, they remembered vaguely and distastefully the story of a sexist African tribal chief who loses everything. This novel is dragged into our literature curriculum to bring a voice from the margins to the center–but without sensitive treatment, it ends up reifying our notions of non-Western literature as less. Better to remind students explicitly that the rupture of colonialism happened, and is still happening. At the end of his speech, Achebe quotes James Baldwin, who (from our vantage point) brings the conversation home to the U.S.A.
My quarrel with the English language has been that the language reflected none of my experience. But now I began to see the matter another way…. Perhaps the language was not my own because I had never attempted to use it, had only learned to imitate it. If this were so, then it might be made to bear the burden of my experience if I could find the stamina to challenge it, and me, to such a test.
What does it mean, I ask my students, for a writer to ask English to “bear the burden of my experience”? I think hiphop holds one answer.
Every year, the first assignment I ask my freshmen students to complete is a comparison of two versions of Kanye’s song–the studio version with Syleena, and a live version with John Legend on piano and chorus vocals–with an eye towards the meaning of these songs.
My students always do a remarkable job cataloguing the most miniscule differences between these two versions, from Kanye’s ad-libs to Legend’s minstrely piano playing. Instead, it’s the elusive meaning of this track that often passes students by, the notion that after centuries of white supremacy, black materialism is a failed attempt at self-recovery.
It seems we livin’ the American dream,
But the people highest up got the lowest self esteem
The prettiest people do the ugliest things
For the road to riches and diamond rings.
We shine because they hate us, floss ’cause they degrade us–
We tryna buy back our forty acres–
And for that paper, look how low we a’stoop:
Even if you in a Benz, you still a nigga, in a coupe/coop.
My favorite part about Kanye’s self-implicating treatise on insecurity is that in the liner notes to The College Dropout, he spells out his puns: “She so precious, with the peer pressure/Couldn’t afford a car so she named her daughter Alexus/a Lexus.” Precious, indeed.