On Ethos (or, White Woman Writing Kanye West)

I recently published an essay in The American Reader, “Yeezy Rising,” which related mainstream media’s persistent mockery of Kanye West to historical discourses around lynching, a public media spectacle which celebrated the dehumanization and murder of outspoken, upwardly mobile black men. The piece was generally well-received, especially, I noticed, by other white academics. Despite my promotion of the piece and my social media connections with scholars of color, however, I also noted that writers and thinkers of color generally didn’t seem interested in my article. I found myself wondering if I had mishandled my subject or if it was somehow offensive or distasteful to a more sensitive and discerning crowd.
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One comment at the end of the piece offered some insight. Continue reading
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How do I learn to write lesson plans so that they’re useful to my students? (50 Cent and Hiphop Masculinity)

50-cent vitamin water

After I wrote my post on 9th Wonder’s lecture at Michigan, in which I argued that 9th modeled producing skills for the audience, I started thinking about what skills I could model for my students. I was already aware that I try to model respectful, specific language when talking about touchy subjects like race or sexuality. But what I really want to model is skills – and my skill, the reason I teach a writing class, is that I’m a writer. But it’s frustratingly hard to model writing practice in the classroom. Usually I’m either lecturing or reactive, giving tips or offering feedback. It’s rare that I actually write something my students see. I have one short close reading that I hand out, but that’s it.

Yet lesson planning is a kind of writing I do before class every day. By arranging a set of texts and a set of questions in 120-minute chunks, I’m using my writing skills of argument, research, evidence, and structure to arrange materials for students so that the texts tell a story and build an argument. When students make connections between texts in class, the secret is that I did a lot of the work for them already – I arranged the texts for that class.

This semester, my advanced class English 225 had an A/V hookup, so toward the end of the semester I began experimenting with putting my lesson plans up on our class blog, instead of keeping them private on my precious looseleaf. And I like to think that by making my lesson plan public, I’m modeling the early work of argument: following the hunches that put texts in dialogue with one another, explaining their links, formulating questions. Making space for argument to begin. Anyway, I did this twice this semester. The first time was about falling masks in Afrodiasporic literature + music, and the second is about 50 Cent and hiphop masculinity, below.

The text that follows is what I posted on our class blog and showed on the overhead projector during class. I had students get into small groups. After each video or audio clip, I asked students to discuss some of the questions I raised in their groups, and then we talked over the same issues as a class.

Marc Lamont Hill writes that (perhaps falsely) outed rapper “Big Daddy Kane was hip-hop’s playboy extraordinaire. With his good looks, braggadocious lyrics, a flashy persona, and even a pimp-like name, Kane’s very identity signified a carefully crafted and extravagantly performed masculinity” (Hill X).

A decade and a half later, another rapper who “extravagantly perform[s] masculinity” is 50 Cent. In his lyrics and videos, 50 Cent’s performance of masculinity makes specific claims about what it means to be a man. This masculinity is in relationship to oneself, to material goods, to women, and to other men.

Examining a selection of 50 Cent’s music and videos, we can ask what values his image projects. What does it mean in this universe to be a man? What does it mean to be a woman? What is the nature of heterosexual courtship and relationships? Which characteristics are valued and which are scorned?

Listen: “Many Men”

Many men, many, many, many, many men
Wish death ‘pon me
Lord I don’t cry no more
Don’t look to the sky no more

Have mercy on me
Have mercy on my soul

Somewhere my heart turned cold
Have mercy on many men
Many, many, many, many men
Wish death upon me

Watch: “Candy Shop” ; “Window Shopper”

Byron Hurt’s mini documentary “Barack and Curtis” explores the impact of 50 Cent’s masculinity on the American conception of black masculinity, and then compares that image with the image of then-new President Barack Obama. According to Hurt, how does the appearance of Obama challenge the vision of masculinity presented by 50 Cent?

9th Wonder Knows How to Talk to College Kids

9th Wonder at U of M

Two Thursdays ago I had the pleasure of attending a lecture by producer 9th Wonder here at the University of Michigan. While I knew him as the producer behind rap group Little Brother and a co-teacher of the “Sampling Soul” course with Mark Anthony Neal at Duke, the filled auditorium I arrived to attested to his fame as a producer who’d also worked with many of the biggest names in hiphop and R&B.

Two elements of 9th’s talk struck me immediately. Tunes were already playing when we arrived, with what turned out to be 9th Wonder’s Serato projected from his laptop to the screen behind the podium. So the first thing I noticed was how this talk not only incorporated music into its very fabric but also modeled producing as a function of technology and passion both. The other striking element here, evident from the moment 9th began his talk with a discourse on his own sports fan-dom–complete with the confessions that he had to take a spin around the Big House and that he bought a “Buck the Fuckeyes” t-shirt–was his calculated and charismatic approach toward college students. The man knew his audience.

These two pedagogical techniques–modeling and pathos, we might call them–continued through a wonderful talk in which 9th Wonder used the story of his own exposure to music as the narrative backbone for the history of hiphop itself. He compared Motown to Young Money with the qualification that Motown wasn’t “so top heavy,” with Wayne, Nicki and Drake “up here” and everyone else, let’s be honest, down below. He solicitated responses and laughs from the audience, and his remarks were tailored to our contemporary experience of pop culture, with the occasional admonition. In speaking about “Yo! MTV Raps,” the first hiphop-based show on TV, he explained, “If you missed it, that was it.” With the internet, you just go Google the thing. But he seemed nostalgic for those analog days: that scarcity of product “made hiphop live forever, it made music have a longer shelf life. It made us talk to each other. It made us make friends.”

His talk was peppered with music: “This was the first rap song I ever heard.”

Discovering sampling was like “a wormhole.”

The Native Tongues era was “the most progressive moment in hiphop ever,” and Q-tip’s great innovation was to say, “I’m not gonna sample James Brown, I’m gonna sample jazz.”

“This is what I ran into,” 9th explained. “This is what hiphop is.” On the screen behind him, we could see him search through his music collection, pulling out songs with labels like “Workshop Samples” and “Michigan lecture.” He told the story of a kid in the Bronx called Clive Davis throwing a party in 1973 and inventing hiphop by honing in on “the best part of the record, which is also known as the break.” On the screen above us, 9th clicked “Loop,” updating Kool Herc’s technique for the digital age. “And he would chase the break. That’s a loop. Cats would come out and dance–he called it break dancing.”

There was a note of tragedy, sometimes, in the lecture. Sometimes facetious, like when 9th played “Fallin in Love” by Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds and confessed, “That’s probably the one that just hursts the most,” or Debarge’s “Stay with Me”- “They just took the whole shit, man.”

But other times he seemed upset by the implicit purpose of his task, to rehabilitate hiphop’s image from our side of the screen. “Hiphop is bigger than just your radio and TV screen,” 9th said. “There was a time when we had our poets,” like Rakim, but those days have lapsed. “As Black folk,” he lamented, “we tend to give things away.”

In the Q&A session I asked what he teaches when he has a whole semester and as he ran through a syllabus that included “two weeks on just Wu-Tang Clan,” a new framing appeared: “1968-1997, from the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., to the assassination of B.I.G.” That struck me as the greatest tragedy of all–not the corporatization or the musical generations forgotten to time but the easy framing of a movement by the deaths of two great poets, orators, lyricists.

When 9th played a song his head bobbed and the heads of the audience members moved along with him. A student sitting beside me got a flashback glimpse of eager young me with my hand raised, dying to be called on. At the end of his talk, 9th Wonder bolted to attend the rapper buddy back in NC. “He doesn’t know I’m coming,” he called, as he ran up the stairs. “Don’t tweet that.”

Thou Shalt Back That Azz Up

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.

When It All Falls Down: Hiphop’s Postcolonial Echo

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.

In her live performance of “The Mysteries of Iniquity,” Lauryn Hill sings,

Oh when it all, it all falls down

I’m telling you all, it all falls down. (MTV Unplugged, 2002)

Two years later, an interpolation of the same chorus appeared in Kanye West’s “All Falls Down,” featuring Syleena Johnson belting a gilded warning.

(The studio version video with Stacey Dash: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8kyWDhB_QeI&ob=av3e )

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.

(John Legend takes the torch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=Y1Z9r4KHgxY )

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.