[Note: This is the 20-page writing sample I submitted with my PhD application this fall. On that document, I invited readers to view it here, in its native online format, so I can fill it with the hyperlinks and video clips it deserves. Feel free to leave comments below – I hope to expand it in the future, and I’ll be glad to hear what you think. -TB]
[Later note, added in 2021: This piece extensively comments on the n-word. The word is spelled out when it is quoted, and asterisks when it is in my own voice.]
1. Intro: Writing #HipHop
Hiphop is practice and forms. It’s those fine arts: graffiti, breakdance, DJing, rap, dropping science—that is, philosophy. Hiphop is also community style: swagger, dress, language, belief.
American rap music is four-beat poetry composed in vernacular English and delivered over looped and remixed jazz, funk, and soul. These layered fruits of the DJ and the emcee constitute a music, a literature, and a discourse.
#HIPHOP is a hashtag. Like so much in hiphop, #hiphop is a creative deployment of a (Twitter) technology not designed for but coopted by youth voices of color. #Hiphop is an orthographic unity movement, a search function that describes a community. #Hiphop is new media organizing, because it organizes information. #HIPHOP is why I spell it hiphop.
Hiphop is a teacher. Hiphop songs and style unfurl alternative lessons for inquisitive eyes and ears, articulating counter-hegemonic norms and ways of being. Hiphop’s pedagogies are sung, spoken, remixed, reused, danced, acted, and scribbled on walls; its lessons are interdisciplinary, practical, organic, grassroots. Hiphop drops science, but also history, statistics, emotional skills. The cipher is a classroom: participatory, demonstrative, collaborative. The cipher thrives on argument, persuasion, and style.
Hiphop is created, extended, and disseminated—that is, written—across American media every day. As the subject for a college writing course, hiphop exploits students’ extracurricular interests by tapping into their pop culture universe. But relevance is just the hook. Writing hiphop demands close reading, listening, and watching; management of multiple registers; and mastery of form, style, and proof. Hiphop pedagogy is a teaching practice that uses hiphop texts to engage and educate, but hiphop has its own lessons to share. Hiphop’s pedagogies are critical, democratic, and liberatory for all people: dropouts and valedictorians, students and teachers. On his debut album The College Dropout, Kanye West remixes education to articulate critical lessons with relevance for all students.
2. Something So Cold
Yes, I teach a Kanye class. At the University of Michigan I teach a freshman writing course called “College Writing on The College Dropout,” which uses West’s 2004 debut album and an interdisciplinary set of thematically related texts as the basis for college-level writing and inquiry. On the second day of class, names shared and practiced, we review the rhetorical triangle. Then we listen to the album’s first song, entitled “We Don’t Care.”
In our discussion, the rhetorical triangle quickly proves prescient. West speaks of “we” and “you,” “us” and “they.” He begins, “If this is your first time hearing this, you are about to experience something so cold.” If we don’t know the stories he tells, he wants us to listen—and bring a coat. “The second verse is for my dogs working nine to five who still hustle.” But if we already know the story Kanye tells, well, this track’s for us, too. Weeks later, some students will question this track’s rhetorical stance in their first paper, a close reading. They’ll discover that West has two audiences: “us,” lower income African-Americans adopting a variety of extra-legal measures to “get by,” and “you,” the folks in charge of the failing schools and the overcrowded buses. My students find that West uses the first-person plural to express solidarity with his urban community of hustlers, and the first person possessive—“my dawgs,” “my niggas,” “my people”—to express affection for them, just as he uses “you” to address a nebulous oppressor.
Later in the semester, my students read the first chapter of Tricia Rose’s seminal rap study Black Noise. Many of them white and Asian-American, students notice Rose’s treatment of white listeners; she insists rap is a fundamentally “black idiom that prioritizes black culture” (4). Yet Rose acknowledges that “black culture in the United States has always had elements that have been at least bifocal—speaking to both a black audience and a larger predominantly white context. Rap music shares this history of interaction” (5). In this moment, Rose lays ground on which to examine rap as speaking not only to the African-American community but to other Americans as well. She recognizes rap’s attention as bifurcated between “a black audience and a…white context.” This dual focus could be used to explain West’s explicit concern both for sympathetic black listeners as well as uninformed suburbanites, out of touch with the inner city yet somehow still here, now, listening.
Once this duality is introduced, however, Rose moves quickly to dismiss white participation in hiphop. She writes:
Like generations of white teenagers before them, white teenage rap fans are listening in on black culture, fascinated by its differences, drawn in by mainstream socia constructions of black culture as a forbidden narrative, as a symbol of rebellion…. Young white listeners’ genuine pleasure and commitment to black music are necessarily affected by dominant racial discourses regarding African Americans, the politics of racial segregation, and cultural difference in the United States. Given the racially discriminatory context within which cultural syncretism takes place, some rappers have equated white participation with a process of dilution and subsequent theft of black culture. Although the terms dilution and theft do not capture the complexity of cultural incorporation and syncretism, this interpretation has more than a grain of truth in it. (5)
Rose makes clear she doesn’t believe rap is for “white teenage rap fans.” She describes them as “listening in,” “fascinated” by the “forbidden,” eavesdropping on a conversation that is not theirs. Lost is the notion from only a paragraph before that a “bifocal” rapper could take advantage of a diverse audience, codeswitching between adressing a peer group and a body of outsiders whose directly addressed “you” is more than a rhetorical straw man. Instead, Rose appeals to “cultural difference” to undercut the possibility of “young white listeners’ genuine pleasure and commitment.” Citing “some rappers,” Rose invokes white “dilution and theft” without taking responsibility for this accusation, only mentioning that it contains “a grain of truth.” Despite her fleeting awareness that rap also speaks to those white folks just “listening in,” Rose’s priority in her introduction is to celebrate and augment rap’s blackness at the expense of hiphop culture’s openness to diversity.
In their efforts to understand themselves as rap fans, my students find an unlikely ally in black liberation theologian James Cone. Many of my students are alienated at first by Cone’s pro-black rhetoric and his assault on the logic of white supremacy. In his The Spirituals and the Blues: A Theological Interpretation, Cone writes that “black music must be lived before it can be understood” (3). At first this stress on experience seems alienating, as though Cone means to suggest that only African-Americans can appreciate black music. Cone writes that “an authentic interpretation of black music [demands] having shared and participated in the experience that created it” (3). He calls for our emotions and sympathies, and even or our participation, if we are to interpret his community’s music. To understand the power of the slave spirituals, Cone writes, “‘academic tools are not enough”:
The interpreter must feel the Spirit; that is, one must feel one’s way into the power of black music, responding both to its rhythm and to the faith in experience it affirms. This song invites the believer to move close to the very sources of black existence, and to experience the black community’s power and the will to survive. (4)
For Cone, good analysis is affective, and true understanding depends not on “academic[s]” but on empathy. He considers the spiritual refrain, “Every time I feel the spirit/ Moving in my heart I will pray” (4). For Cone, there is no understanding of those lines for the interepreter who cannot “feel the spirit moving” for herself.
Kanye West’s debut album opens with an invitation to empathy that resonates closely with the problems posed by Cone. West raps, “If this is your first time hearing this, you are about to experience something so cold” (“We Don’t Care”). In West’s estimation, powerful storytelling can close the gap between ignorance and understanding. The affect, like the rhyme, is imperfect, but it’ll do: “hearing this” constitutes “experience,” and West’s story is “so cold,” he expects the audience to shiver. Kanye’s opening track paints a portrait of economic blight and institutional racism, and, like Cone’s spiritual, invites outsiders “close to the very sources of [contemporary] black existence, and to experience the black community’s…will to survive.” That is why Kanye has children sing of “drug dealing just to get by” (“We Don’t Care”). He invites us to experience the irony and absurdity of these children’s daily choices. Reading Cone together and listening to Kanye’s tracks in class, my students and I are able to use the vividness of West’s stories as affective entry points. If we can empathize, we may begin to understand.
3. Interlude: Whitey on the Web
Last January, I sat down at my computer one morning to discover that writer dream hampton had begun tweeting about Zora Neale Hurston and all of Black Twitter was abuzz. Around 11:45, hampton tweeted a string of three comments that compared Hurston’s “radical…privileging of ‘black talk’” [this tweet now deleted] to the increasing canonization of hiphop texts in writing.
One of my conflicts with writing Decoded was contributing to this growing idea that hip hop can be canonized in books, that books abt it + (hampton)
may come to be more important that [sic] rap itself. It’s a continuing of privileging culture w/written texts over those whose impt texts are oral (hampton)
Zora occupied language. She occupied the front porchers [sic] of storytellers. She was a listener. She privileged our oral traditions. (hampton)
I responded to these organic, intellectual tweets with fear and exhilaration. Exhilaration to watch organic scholarship and discourse be created in real time in a digital medium—but fear, too, at my own position as a white scholar instructing largely nonblack student populations to write and read hiphop. Writing about hampton’s tweets on my blog, Hiphopocracy (from which this article is adapted), I expressed anxiety that I was one of Rose’s purveyors of “dilution and theft”:
…am I just making excuses for a white academic’s co-opt of hiphop? Am I just forging space for whiteys like me to be able to participate via writing in a discourse which on a purely oral level is mostly closed to me? And what does it mean for us linguistic outsiders that Zora Neale Hurston wrote black dialect in the first place? Isn’t her foray into the written an invitation for us other writers to write back? Or isn’t it? (Brown)
Whining aside, hampton’s and my anxieties are valid—mine that I am an interloper, and hers that hiphop’s living arts are not just being “canonized” but entombed. I don’t share hampton’s fear that “books abt it” will or could ever “be more important [than] rap itself,” but she is right that Jay-Z’s self-exegesis Decoded (which hampton co-wrote) makes space for distant writers like me to reply here, on the page, in writing. So too with Hurston’s language. While Hurston “privileged [African-American] oral traditions,” she also wrote them down. In the context of hampton’s tweets, Hurston’s acts of transcription acquire a Pyrrhic quality: by translating oral speech for the page, Hurston’s talent propelled her black female voice into the American canon, even as this affirmed the western valuation of writing over speech.
My white students arrive for class the first day expecting a teacher of color who can authenticate their love for rap, only to find a white woman balancing on the same rickety racial pontoon as they. I have legitimacy only affirm my students’ “genuine pleasure and commitment.” Hiphop spits America’s open secrets, and dialoguing with rap in the classroom gives students of all races an opportunity and a language in which to discribe the racialized universe that all of our America. I hope that by closing the cognitive gap between the hiphop music we listen to and the voices and experiences that created it, we learn to practice empathy.
4. Hiphop’s (Critical) Pedagogies
In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, educator Paolo Freire writes of abandoning a “banking system” of education, where the teacher deposits her knowledge into her students, in favor of a decolonized classroom where students learn to ask questions of their own. Writing from 1960s Brazil, Freire’s suggestions are designed to awaken dehumanized peasants in the context of a deeply unequal society, a process he promises will open the minds of the powerful as well. As Freire writes, “oppression is domesticating” (51). If such a power divide exists in contemporary America, my classroom falls on the powerful side. Of course, this awareness begs for diversity and for community service. But it also raises the immediate question of who in our classroom will question our privilege. While my students populations are often diverse across ethnic, religious, and class lines, I would suggest that no student who makes it to the University of Michigan is truly marginal or abides by strongly counterhegemonic norms. Though one could be marginalized at the university, the elite university is itself at the center of power. Rose argues that “rap music… prioritizes black voices from the margins of urban America” (2), and so one way for us to welcome marginalized voices into our classroom is to do that very thing Rose bemoans and “[listen] in” on rap. My students bring a lot of cultural baggage into the classroom. But by patiently listening to thoughtful rap songs (a subset, that is, of all rap songs), close reading them on their own terms and allowing our presuppositions to be challenged, we “become jointly responsible for a process in which all grow” (Freire 80).
Freire prescribes teaching with “themes” culled from students’ own lives (96). And despite my students’ successes, the critical questions asked of American educational norms on The College Dropout resonate deeply. Questions like: Why am I in college? Is education as important as networking? Why can’t I just pursue my passion? To engage students critically, my classroom uses “hiphop pedagogy”—that is, the utilization of hiphop culture in the classroom, often toward activist, critical, or motivational ends. But rap isn’t just an empty chair to dialogue with—its music and lyrics speak back. A study of West’s album The College Dropout reveals a critical pedagogy of its own. As the album’s producer and chief lyricist, Kanye West moves past cricicism into creation. He uses the Afrodiasporic cultural practices of sampling, repetition, and remix to propose an organic black education based in the study and privileging of African-American cultural texts.
On the surface, West’s album presents two contrasting visions of education. The first is the mainstream college setting West rejects 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” (“Get Em High”). The second is the education in the streets, what West in a later album terms the “ghetto university”: “Sittin in the hood like community colleges/This dope money here is lil’ Tre’s scholarship” (“We Don’t Care”). This dualistic portrait of education largely corresponds to sociologist Elijah Anderson’s description of the “decent” and “street” families who populate his study of urban Philadelphia, Code of the Street. In Anderson’s 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 reject it. In my course, we use Anderson’s study to contextualize many of the practices and norms West describes. On an album titled The College Dropout, West’s central thematic concern is to negotiate these opposing attitudes about school.
West resolves the constricting school-vs-street dyad by creatively advocating for a third way, one which rejects both the conformity of college and the defeatism of street life. In his lyrics, Kanye expresses an urge to abandon 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.” Volleying an alliterative line of F (you)’s toward his teacher, West suggests that rejecting the authority of the school is only the first in a series of aggressive moves toward self-realization. Like many rappers, West reserves the second person for enemies and haters. On other tracks “you” is an unnamed white oppressor class, and above we see it leveraged against his teaacher. But in “School Spirit,” West expands his attack to all those who uncritically accept hegemonic norms. “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.” Here West reveals that the oppressor is not a people but an ideal: the homogenizing forces of “y’all dreams and what you got planned.” He fights back with his fiery lyrics, but the site of his ultimate education is not articulated in language. It’s West’s music which details his education and in turn educates us.
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 social and political traumas on the 1970s and ’80s urban landscape, Rose sees rap’s attention to “flow, layering and ruptures in line” (Jafa qtd 38) as Afrodiasporic prioritization of repetition and polyrhythmy reasserted in the face of postindustrial collapse. Black culture’s continuity, adaptibility, and polyvocal capabilities, along with a new generation’s awareness of and sensitivity to social rupture, are “inscribed in hiphop style” (21). Hiphop aesthetics are an artistic response to social devastation. But hiphop also affirms the continuity of Black cultural life. 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 teaching and 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” (qtd in Rose 81-82). And yet, Shocklee suggests, black producers “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). Refusing to take the producer at his word, Rose rejects Shocklee’s appeals to his own ignorance. Instead, Rose 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 recategorization of Shocklee’s “innocence” as a rejection of “Western musical priorities,” we discover a similar false ignorance in the music of The College Dropout. 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 western canon he abandoned when he left school.
On “School Spirit,” Kanye’s lyrics criticize mainstream education even as his music curates a new canon. The opening chords of Aretha Franklin’s original “Spirit in the Dark” have barely sounded when West calls out, “School Spirit, motherfuckers!” over the sped-up sample. I hear West’s triumphalism as delight at the success of his signifying, brazen as it is played against the work of a revered master like Aretha. 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 may think. Franklin instructs us to “put your hands on your hips, and cover your eyes….with the spirit in the dark.”
While Franklin preaches personal freedom, West’s lyrics portray college students as zombies in a conformist dance of Greek life. “Alpha, step. Omega, step,” he raps. “Kappa, step. Sigma, step.” In a move that calls on Rose’s frameworks 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” is college and these blind, grasping figures are college students. The end of Franklin’s “Spirit in the Dark” dissolves into a choral frenzy over speeding piano and banging tambourine, and West manages to parody her original even as he honors it. Ending “School Spirit” with mock Black Fraternity rituals, West parodies Franklin’s composition: “I feel a woo comin’ on, cuz, I feel a woo comin on, cuz. Woo! There it was.” West’s version relocates Franklin’s religious frenzy into a fraternity setting, revealing the “spirit” in “school spirit” to be misplaced and absurd. By juxtaposing his own criticism against Franklin’s religiosity, West’s music expresses the complex revelation that spirit is personal, not institutional.
In “Jesus Walks,” Kanye again draws on church and secular influences to triangulate an an inner-city theodicy. The basis of the“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,” and grants the track its pleading, earnest tone. The song’s other lyrical sample is a very short vocal clip of Curtis Mayfield crying out, “Niggas!” With one word, West directs us in his music—and, if we are reading closely, his album credits—to Mayfield’s “(Don’t Worry) If there’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go, ” from which the single shouted slur is lifted. Rose is helpful here when she characterizes sampling choices as a “paying homage” and a “(re)locating these ‘past’ sounds in the ‘present.’” West is relocating Mayfield’s “niggas” to present day Chicago, “the valley of the Chi where death is” (“Jesus Walks”). “Niggas” is like a hyperlink that guides us back to Mayfield’s song, where we discover that “Jesus Walks” contains broad thematic parallels to “(Don’t Worry).” While Mayfield also bemoans urban violence and ignorance, he is less optimistic than West regarding the possibility of salvation. By using sampling to point listeners to Mayfield and to gospel music, West affirms the continuity of African American experience and roots his production of knowledge in the wisdom of an honored predecessor and the faith of a religious community.
By remixing Black cultural sounds, icons, and tropes, West situates himself within the canon of his community and his choice. In his sampling, West proves himself a master signifier, highlighting irony and absurdity with single words while repackaging his musical heroes for a new generation of listeners. By creating content he moves from a student of black culture to a teacher. West schools us via an alternative model of education based in the study and citation of African-American cultural texts.
6. The N-Word
The comedian Louis C.K., in his relentless interrogation of white privilege, does a bit on language that offends him.
The thing that offends me the most is every time I hear the n-word. Not “nigger,” by the way, I mean [he makes broad air quotes] “the n-word.” Literally. Whenever a white lady on CNN with nice hair says “the n-word.” That’s just white people getting away with saying “nigger.” That’s all that is….When you say “the n-word,” you put the word “nigger” in the listener’s head. That’s what saying a word is….You’re making me say it, in my head! Why don’t you fucking say it, and take responsibility for the shitty words you want to say. (C.K.)
In C.K.’s estimation, “n-word” is an irresponsible euphemism, a transparent stand-in that falsely absolves the speaker of dealing with grave and explosive language. His reference to an imaginary anchor on cable news network CNN highlights not just the ubiquity of this euphemism but also the prominence, in outline, of the slur which has been visibly removed from our view.
The answer to C.K.’s rhetorical question, “why don’t you fucking say it?” is important, because the refusal to pronounce n***er aloud has become a cultural phenomenon of its own, most notably after 2012 Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry was discovered to have owned a hunting lodge called “Niggerhead.” Media reports, featuring seasoned news anchors in panic as they discussed Perry’s racist ranch, “N-word-head” (e.g., see Stewart), seemed like comedy sketches C.K. wrote to make his point. “The n-word” is a three-syllable, two-word hyphenate that stands in for one word with two syllables whose power is affirmed when it is ignored. Like “f-word,” “n-word” is juvenile and betrays its sayer’s fear of transgression. “N-word” marks a site where white anxiety over one’s own racism manifests as self-censorship.
Writing in GRANTLAND, Alex Pappademas describes pop singer Katy Perry covering the Kanye West and Jay-Z collaboration track “Niggas in Paris” by dubbing the title phrase “Ninjas in Paris.” Describing Perry’s “tee-hee transgression,” Pappademas is inclined to applaud
a girl refusing to let this song’s imaginary world of swinging-dick privilege be off-limits to her. But that’s all that’s happening here; [Perry] puts the word on like a piece of borrowed jewelry and parades in front of the mirror. Her flimsy white-girl voice doesn’t reveal anything about the song’s construction or its sentiments that Kanye and Jay’s voices were covering up… (Pappademas)
Watching the video proves Pappademas right: despite Perry’s Yankees cap and the deep lunges from which she belts Jay and Ye’s lines, Perry’s usual charisma and stage presence are absent. Her shout-out to her ninjas belies a larger unwillingness to take the song seriously, to rap it with her head up, to allow the transgressiveness of her own act fill up her chest and shoulders so that instead of suggesting (as Pappademas thinks her cover does) that her failed celebrity marriage “was as bad as being married to the legacy of centuries of racism,” Perry’s cover would have embraced genuine empathy for what it means to be noveau-riche and still discriminated against in the cultural capitol of the western world.
On the same tip, Rembert Browne describes a Jay-Z concert in Austin.
And then it happened. [Jay-Z began his song] “Jigga My N—-.” … I did a quick scan of the room…Good lord, there were a lot of white people in here.… Once the chorus kicked in, this crowd had about six seconds to decide which direction they were going with the lyrics:
Jay: What’s my motherfuckin name?
Jay: And who I’m rolling with, huh?
It is at this point that Jay-Z almost complicates the situation by gesturing to the crowd that he wants to hear us say “it.” As a former sociology major, what happens in that room when the next lyric is “my n—-” is what I dream about… Some would never say it because they were raised not to and wouldn’t dream of changing simply because it’s a lyric, some will go from screaming the previous lyrics to mumbling “n—-” really softly, others will substitute it for another word like “jigga” or “friend” or “associate,” and others will scream it at the top of their lungs because, quite frankly, it’s a free country. (Browne)
First off, let’s note the orthographic confusion that remains after “n-word” has been abandoned. Browne (or his editor) chooses hyphens to partially obscure the offending word, “n—–,” though “motherfuckin” is spelled in full. Elsewhere in the same publication, Pappademas writes of Katy Perry’s encounters with a heavily-asterisked “N**** in Paris.” On the album materials for Watch the Throne, the song title appears as “Ni**s in Paris.” The g’s are not silent—there are no g’s at all (too gangsta?); instead, asterisks are pronounced as g’s, in which case “Niggas in Paris” may actually be a misspelling of the correct song title.
This confusion in spelling is sonically paralleled by the Jay-Z fans in Austin: asterisks or dashes, “jigga” or “friend”? Or just silence? While my students are not welcome to casually swear or slur in class, our classroom is a censoring-free space. Like the rap fans Browne describes, my students develop a variety of strategies for coping with this newfound freedom. When they want to quote an obscenity-laced line aloud, some students will side-step or make a little beep noise or substitute “guys” or “mmhmm” or “F.” In his You Know My Steez, sociolinguist H. Samy Alim examines hiphop language usage in high school students. He notices with alarm the “ways in which educators attempt to silence BL [Black Language] in White public space by inculcating speakers of heterogeneous language varieties into…White ways of speaking” (xxiii). In small ways, respecting rap as literature in the classroom asks a “white public space” to respect otherized ways of speaking, and (more importantly) to reckon seriously with what those others have to say. Drawing again on Rose, we could read Jay-Z’s procative placements of “nigga” as bifocal: a single word doubling as a shout-out to African Americans (or whomever else is down) and also a pointed challenge to outsiders. American media’s wilful silence, powerful men and women almost literally putting their fingers in their ears to chant “n-n-n-n-n-n-n-word,” is an evasion that sends confusing mixed messages to young people who want to talk about race in a relevant way. I’ll never force a student to swear. But I hope that confronting sharp language instead of ignoring it at least invites students to consider what a centuries-old racial slur is doing at the center of an ongoing national linguistic debate.
Facing Kanye’s real language in class is preparation for writing about it at home; “n***a” is sometimes central to the meaning of a song. One early writing assignment asks students to compare two versions of Kanye’s track “All Falls Down.” Students always do a remarkable job cataloguing miniscule differences between the two versions, and the themes of “materialism and insecurity” appear frequently, but it’s the deeper message of the song which proves elusive: that after centuries of white supremacy, black consumerism 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]. (West “All Falls Down”)
My shrewd student readers notice this excerpt’s painful final pun, as West suggests that not even a Mercedes can rescue his fellow African-American men from an echoing history of judgment and containment. But the closest readers begin to notice that the pun on “coop/coupe” actually creates a pun on “n***a.” The Mercedes-Benz “coupe” implies the slur’s contemporary intra-black usage, that is, what black men like West can call one another: “my n***a.” But the “n***a in a coop” harkens to the originary usage of this word, that word which absurdly denoted property and was even more absurdly reappropriated by those possessions who were not.
In his “On the Question of Nigga Authenticity,” critical theorist R.A.T. Judy links the linguistic shift from “n***er” to “n***a” with African-Americans’ shifting place within the American economy: from forced labor to forced unemployment. In Judy’s estimation, “n***er” was the potential for labor, bought and sold via the bodies of slaves: “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” (Judy 109). Judy’s definition locates the n***er in the coop, as property held for its industrial force. But as the agrarian and then the industrial economy collapsed, so too did the value of the n***er; what replaced him was the n***a. Glossing rapper Ice-T, Judy situates the n***a in the present, in “the age of hypercommodification, in which experience has not become commodified, it is commodity”—these days, experience isn’t what you’re doing, but what you’re consuming—“and nigga designates the scene, par excellence, of commodification, where one is among commodities. Nigga is a commodity affect” (111). Whereas n***er is a possession, “the thing that the planter owns,” n***a is the feeling of being for sale, of being “among commodities,” displayed among the other saleable goods. In the context of West’s “All Falls Down,” Judy locates the n***a in the Mercedez-Benze coupe. According to Judy, the authentic n***a is the n***a selling, not buying, n***a affect: the one who understands so well “the nature of experience in a global economy” that he can abstract his affect from his experience and sell it to other consumers. “That’s why I’m not bitter,” raps Ice-T: “cause everybody is a nigga to a nigga” (qtd in Judy 112).
Unlike Judy and Ice-T, however, West seems to believe in the communicability of affect through storytelling. In “All Falls Down,” he struggles against his own commodification:
Man I promise, I’m so self-conscious
That’s why you always see me with at least one of my watches.
Rollies and Pashas done drove me crazy
I can’t even pronounce nothing, pass that Versazy!
Then I spent fo’ hundred bucks on this
Just to be like, “Nigga, you ain’t up on this!”
And I can’t even go to the grocery store
Without some One’s that’s clean, and a shirt with a team
It seems we livin’ the American dream…. (West “All Falls Down”)
West’s music fights against the hiphop precendent set by gangsta rap. In Judy and Ice-T’s world, being “self-conscious” is valuable in that becoming concious of oneself allows one to package that self and sell it: “Nigga, you ain’t up on this!” But West’s lyrics push beyond simple affect into complex feeling: being a commodity “done drove me crazy” and is infringing upon his real life—he “can’t even go to the grocery store.” The n***a affect is not what West wants to sell. That package, with its watches and Nike Ones, proves illusory; it “all falls down.” And pursuing that image isn’t worth it, only “seems…the American dream”: “Even … in a Benz, you still a nigga.” Despite Judy’s qualified celebration of the n***a affect as a genius act of self-commodification, West rejects that project with a sharp, simple pun. West rejects inhabiting the image of the “nigga in the coupe” because of “nigg[er] in the coop” he conjures. The men in the coupe and the coop are both trapped by definitions they did not devise, chained to a centuries-old capitalist enterprise which constrains and commodifies young black men.
Judy’s study is limited to African-Americans, but it needn’t be. He writes, “A nigga is what emerges from the demise of human capital, what gets articulated when the field nigger loses value as labor” (Judy 104). While African laborers were forced to America, Chinese, Mexican, and southern and eastern European bodies were also only welcomed for their value as labor. In the wake of deindustrialization, Ice-T names the last option for workers: the killing fields. “The killing fields, then,” Judy writes, “are the place of non-work for complete consumption of needless workers” (104). We might expand Ice-T’s killing fields—the violent inner city, where young black men murder each other—to various modern killing factories: the prison system, the war machine, the obesity industry. Near the heart of her novel Love Medicine, Louise Erdrich writes of a Native American man who keeps escaping from prison: “Gerry’s problem, you see, was he believed in justice, not laws. He felt he had paid for his crime, which was done in a drunk heat and to settle the question with a cowboy of whether a Chippewa was also a nigger” (197). In Erdrich’s fictional study of indigenous Americans, “nigger” marks the site where justice and laws diverge and racism divides the powerful from the imprisoned. In Gerry’s case, that “he had paid for his crime” is irrelevant; his imprisonment proves the cowboy’s insult. A “Chippewa is a nigger” as long as the laws grant his body to the prison.
All killing fields create capital through the destruction of bodies and therefore depend on language to prep bodies of color through slur and dehumanization: we should not be surprised at white Americans’ creative use of n***er to describe a spectrum of African, Asian, and Arab bodies when American industrial practices of war and prison enact that disdain on foreign and American nonwhite bodies every day. Nor should we be shocked at nonblacks’ reactive appropriation of n***a to describe themselves and one another. In fact, according Judy, n***a is a transcendant act: recognizing ourselves dehumanized but still human “liberates significance from experience” (105): we are more than the killing fields. In a post-work America, n***er and n***a are the linguistic indicators of a continued effort to normalize dehumanizing and destroying nonwhite bodies for capital gain. When West samples the word “Niggas” from Curtis Mayfield, (itseslf a relocation of a kind of pernicious slave word), West affirms that racism’s ability to commodify and constrain young black men has persisted from Mayfield’s time into our own.
9. Outro: Generation Hustle
In his essay “The African Writer and the English Language,” which my students and I read near the end of our semester, Chinua Achebe writes of the surprising linguistic gifts of colonialism in Africa. The colonization of Africa, he writes, gave Africans “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.” At the end of his speech, Achebe quotes James Baldwin, who brings the conversation 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. (Baldwin qtd in Achebe 102)
For many of my students, this is their first introduction to a postcolonial worldview, one in which English itself is to be questioned. And English has surely given hiphop what Achebe calls “a tongue for sighing”—and for swearing, spitting, and storytelling. In hiphop, English can “bear the burden” of the African-American experience with the support of sounds, rhythm, and community. And in challenging English, to use Baldwin’s words, hiphop has challenged not just American language but also culture aand consciousness to open itself up to the experience of the post-industrial inner city. For the open-hearted, hearing can be believing.
In the first verse on The College Dropout, Kanye raps,
Sittin in the hood like community colleges
This dope money here is Lil’ Tre’s scholarship.
Cuz ain’t no tuition for having no ambition,
And ain’t no loans for sitting your ass at home. (“We Don’t Care”)
Our classroom jury is still out on Lil Tre’s designs: does he really need money for school, or is Kanye using the language of a financed education—scholarship, tuition, loans—for ironic effect, as Lil Tre tries to make something of himself in the hood? For my students, among whom loans are no metaphor, Kanye’s figurative equivalence between the drug hustle and the college hustle cuts both ways. By comparing college with the hood, Kanye highlights the ubiquity of financial struggle in any modern young person’s life. And by using Ivory Tower language to describe the block, West invites privileged listeners to empathize with another group of Americans striving, he insists, just as hard as y’all college kids.
In their book Decoded, Jay-Z and dream hampton declare that “hustling is the ultimate metaphor for human struggles” (18). Hustling may be universal, but it feels especially relevant to my generation (Smith). We hustle to get into college, to get good grades, to maintain social position, to get a job, pay rent, secure health insurance. As Jay would say, “If I’m not a hustler what you call that?” (10). If Jay-Z is right, the universality of the hustle may be a major entrance point for all contemporary young people into the empathetic universe of hiphop. “Seventy percent of… students at the University of Michigan receive some form of financial aid” (“Frequently Asked Questions”) and, as Kanye says, “ain’t no loans for sittin yo’ ass at home” (“We Don’t Care”). Absurdity, commodification, self-consiousness, the fear that “it all falls down”—these anxieties are permanent features of postmodern existence, available to every American with a credit card and TV. Privilege is relative, hustling is essential, and hiphop has heard it all before. And it has lessons to teach us, if we’ll listen.
Achebe, Chinua. “The African Writer and the English Language.” Morning Yet on Creation Day: Essays. Anchor Press (1975): New York. Print.
Alim, H. Samy. You Know My Steez: An Ethnographic and Sociolinguistic Study of Styleshifting in a Black American Speech Community. Ed. Ronald R. Butters. Annual Supplement to American Speech, no. 89. Duke University Press for the American Dialect Society (2004): United States. Print.
Anderson, Elijah. Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City. W. W. Norton & Company (2000): New York. Print.
Brown, Tessa. (8 January 2012). “You white bitches, cont’d.” Hiphopocracy. Blog Post. https://hiphopocracy.wordpress.com/2012/01/08/you-white-bitches-contd/
Browne, Rembert. (13 March 2012). “SXSW Recap: An Awkward Moment at that Jay-Z Concert.” Grantland. Web article. http://www.grantland.com/blog/hollywood-prospectus/post/_/id/45677/sxsw-monday-recap-an-awkward-moment-at-that-jay-z-concert
C.K., Louis, director. (2000). Chewed Up. United States: Image Entertainment. DVD.
Cone, James H. The Spirituals and the Blues: An Interpretation. Orbis Books (2009): Maryknoll, New York. Print.
Erdrich, Louise. Love Medicine. Harper Perennial (2009): New York. Print.
Freire, Paolo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Trans. Myra Bergman Ramos. The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc (2000): New York. Print.
hampton, dream (@dreamhampton). “may come to be more important that rap itself. It’s a continuing of privileging culture w/written texts over those whose impt texts are oral”. 7 January 2012, 8:21 AM. Tweet.
— “One of my conflicts with writing Decoded was contributing to this growing idea that hip hop can be canonized in books, that books abt it +”. 7 January 2012, 8:19 AM. Tweet.
— “Zora occupied language. She occupied the front porchers of storytellers. She was a listener. She privileged our oral traditions.” 7 January 2012, 8:22 AM. Tweet.
Jay-Z. Decoded. Spiegel & Grau (2010): New York. Print.
Mayfield, Curtis. “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go.” Curtis [Original Recording Reissued, Original Recording Remastered]. Rhino, 2000. Audio CD.
Pappademas, Alex. (20 March 2012). “Ninja: A Short History of a Less Troublesome Word.” Grantland. Web article. http://www.grantland.com/blog/hollywood-prospectus/post/_/id/46020/ninja-a-short-history-of-a-less-troublesome-word
Rose, Tricia. Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. Middletown (1994): Wesleyan University Press. Print.
Smith, Mychal Denzel. (25 September 2011). “How Jay-Z Inspired a Generation of Hustlers.” Good. Web article. http://www.good.is/posts/how-jay-z-inspired-a-generation-of-hustlers/
Stewart, Jon. (3 October 2011). “The Amazing Racism.” The Daily Show. Web video clip. http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/mon-october-3-2011/the-amazing-racism .
“Frequently Asked Questions.” University of Michigan Office of Financial Aid. Retrieved 2 November 2012. http://www.finaid.umich.edu/TopNav/AboutUMFinancialAid/FrequentlyAskedQuestions.aspx)
Watch the Throne (Jay-Z and Kanye West). Audio CD Album Booklet. Watch the Throne. Def Jam, 2011. Print.
West, Kanye. “All Falls Down.” The College Dropout. Roc-A-Fella Records, 2004. Audio CD.
—“Get Em High.” The College Dropout. Roc-A-Fella Records, 2004. Audio CD.
—“Jesus Walks” The College Dropout. Roc-A-Fella Records, 2004. Audio CD.
—“School Spirit.” The College Dropout. Roc-A-Fella Records, 2004. Audio CD.
—“We Don’t Care.” The College Dropout. Roc-A-Fella Records, 2004. Audio CD.