“So, you ask, when does the Hip-Hop Generation begin? After DJ Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaata. Whom does it include? Anyone who is down. When does it end? When the next generation tells us it’s over….It’s but one version, this dub history–a gift from those who have illuminated and inspired…”
– Jeff Chang, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop
I have been listening to Drake’s latest studio album, Nothing Was the Same, a LOT. I’ll be honest, right now NWTS is constituting a large majority of my weekly and even daily music consumption. After the first few listens, I started noticing the album’s samples of classic Golden Era hiphop songs and I began formulating my little hiphop-hypothesis (aka
hip-hop-eth-is) that Drake was tipping his hat towards the hiphop greats while simultaneously composing himself into their company, into the hiphop canon.
In fact, he doesn’t really do this. Or rather, he is largely saluting the Wu-Tang Clan. All three samples of rap songs from the mid-90s are from Wu-Tang’s first two albums, and two of the three are actually samples of the same song, Wu-Tang’s 1997 “It’s Yourz,” which appears in Drake’s “Wu-Tang Forever” and then again in the immediately following “Own It” as tracks 4 and 5. Turns out my hypothesis was based on a faulty aural ID of the sample–probably from both songs–as the sample of T la Rock and Jazzy J’s “It’s Yours” (1984) that turns up on Nas’s 1994 “The World Is Yours.” (Put simply, I thought Drake’s producers were sampling Nas, not Wu-Tang. Guess I wasn’t looking at the track listing.)
Here is where my research falters. I didn’t research deeply into these songs’ producers to see where they were or whether they worked together or what they were thinking. I use “Drake” as a synechdoche for all of the people who collectively create the music called Drake’s. But neither Wikipedia nor WhoSampled had any indication that Wu-Tang’s use of the shouted phrase “it’s yours!” which constitutes the chorus on “It’s Yourz,” released in 1997 in New York City, referenced or had any legal relationship to the shouted “it’s yours!” on Nas’s track from three years prior, which came out on his debut Illmatic in 1994, also in New York. I find this strange.
On NWST I also recognized the sample of Wu-Tang’s C.R.E.A.M. in “Pound Cake/Paris Morton Music 2,” and that makes 3 samples of Wu-Tang, among the album’s other assorted samples of pop, soul, and hiphop tracks. Not the broad Golden Era homage I had in mind.
And yet, it’s still noteworthy that Drake et al is sampling rap from the ’90s, including Nas or not. As Tricia Rose writes in Black Noise, “sampling in rap is a process of cultural literacy and intertextual reference” (89). Of course sampling “is about paying homage” (79), but it also “locates these ‘past’ sounds in the ‘present’” (89), allowing an artist like Drake to position himself in music history and highlight how earlier music circulates in the lives and musics of contemporary artists. In this way rap artists arrange for themselves their own portraits of musical history, the history of themselves. Drake arrays himself alongside contemporaries and predecessors, a group that has included Whitney Houston, Aaliyah, Kendrick Lamar, Lil Wayne, Nicki Minaj, Wu-Tang Clan, Curtis Mayfield, 2-Chainz, and Timbaland.
Rappers sampling rappers is noteworthy because early rap couldn’t sample rap–there wasn’t any yet. Bambaata sampled Kraftwerk; “The Message” boasts a funk bass line under a disco beat. Sampling has always been one method by which hiphop artists intertextually situate themselves within living traditions of American, African-American, and world musics.
Three-and-a-half decades on, contemporary rappers have a rich repository of hiphop musics, including rap and R&B, to sample from, besides earlier and other contemporary forms. So Drake’s opener on NWTS, “Tuscan Leather,” can sample Whitney Houston alongside Curtis Mayfield–nodding both to the music that was on the radio when Drake and in fact I were kids, as well as the music our parents’ generation heard. Mayfield joins other soul and funk greats like James Brown and Otis Redding, along with so many other artists from the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, in forming the backbone of hiphop beats.
In more recent rap, hiphop’s traditional sample base has expanded to include more contemporary references. Mayfield is sampled heavily on Kanye West’s debut The College Dropout, released in 2004, an album which also references Lauryn HIll, and that was already 10 years ago. Now, in 2014, we’re into the generation where J. Cole samples a track from West’s debut, West’s “The New Workout Plan,” on Cole’s “Work Out” from 2011. My 18-year-old students from a few years ago knew who Aaliyah from Drake’s 2010 “Unforgettable,” which samples Aaliyah off of her 1994 R. Kelly-produced Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number, whose title track is sampled in Outkast’s “May-December,” off of their 2004 Speakerboxxx/The Love Below–or maybe my students never noticed the sample but recognized Aaliyah’s name from Kendrick’s line on Drake’s “Buried Alive Interlude” that, “Only that nigga was missing was Aaliyah,” or Drake’s quick eulogy–“Since I saw Aaliyah’s precious life go too soon”–on “We’ll Be Fine,” both off Drake’s 2011 Take Care.
The point is, time flies. 2004 was 10 years ago and 1994 was 20. In 1994, I was 8. So was Drake. Aaliyah was 16 (ergo the statutory-rape-ness of her relationship with producer R. Kelly). Kendrick Lamar was 7. Nas’s Illmatic, Biggie’s Ready to Die, Outkast’s Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, and Common’s Resurrection all came out that year–that’s why Nas and Outkast had twentieth reunion tours this year: nostalgia. Nostalgia sells. These cycles put us in rap’s third or fourth generation, if such distinctions aren’t the fictions Jeff Chang warns us they are. Christopher Wallace would’ve been 42 this year and Aaliyah would be 36. Nas is 41 and Andre 3000 is 39, even if he plays a 24-year old Jimi Hendrix in the new biopic All Is By My Side. History is more like a circle than a line, or a rhythm that you hear in the corner of your mind, still echoing from the tape deck long shut off in the dash of the quiet, waiting car. “[T]he thing (the ritual, the dance, the beat) is there for you to pick up when you come back to get it,” that is, when it “‘cuts’ back to the start” (Snead qtd. in Rose 69). Hiphop history lives in the cut.
Wikipedia: “Nothing Was The Same,” “Tuscan Leather,” “Wu-Tang Forever [Drake album],” “Own It,” “Connect,” “Poundcake/Paris Morton Music 2,” “Wu-Tang Forever [Wu-Tang Clan album],” and more.
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.
[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 →
So Yeezus gives us a new Kanye: minimalist, “black new wave,” hyper-fragmented, stripped down. Well, I’ve been listening and I’ve been reading reviews, and here’s my final answer:
The MUSIC is tight: surprising, eclectic, unfulfilling, jagged, intelligent. I am thinking of “Bound 2,” the album’s closing track and my favorite song, the one I keep replaying. Yes, the samples are titillating but shift before your heartbeat finds the record’s groove. The album curates a huge swath of American music, from Nina Simone to breezy 70s disco to early, obscure rap to a rising Caribbean influence. West has perfected DJ Kool Herc’s originary hiphopvention of cueing up the best moment on a record–but unlike Herc, West doesn’t loop it: he gives us just a taste, then pulls away. It’s up to us to loop. Loop Yeezus.
The reason I don’t keep playing the whole album, though, is that the LYRICS are banal. Continue reading →
Kanye on the Crown Fountain at Chicago’s Millennium Park
He also wants to be seen, hyped, talked about, gathered around, re-tweeted/tumbled/blogged/televised, experienced. And the man knows how to give us what we want, namely: primary source material. In the era of the chattering classes, when everyone with a BA and a smartphone thinks she’s Roland Barthes reincarnate, 10 minutes of Halftime Beyonce–shit, 10 seconds of “Bow down, bitches”–produces a Talmud’s worth of critical writing.
And into this media environment swaggers Kanye, who knows how to debut a motherfucking album. One tweet:
NEW SONG AND VISUAL FROM MY NEW ALBUM BEING PROJECTED TONIGHT ACROSS THE GLOBE ON 66 BUILDINGS, LOCATIONS @ http://t.co/7BZwfPawwZ
And then, last Friday, his new video and song debuted in 66 locations across the world–not the country, mind you, but the world–and then on Saturday he was on Saturday Night Live to rearticulate his vision for network TV where your ten-year-old kids could see him, even if on Friday they were already in bed, or, worse, in the suburbs.
As Meaghan Garvey wrote on her tumblr Sensitive Thug (and hers was the best post on the new release, and from it I shall quote heavily),
Chief Keef isn’t white America’s worst nightmare. Because while he scares the living shit out of them in person, he fits neatly into the trope that many racist white Americans need young black men to fit into: violent, uneducated, aimless. They expect this kind of character, and in turn know how to strip him of his humanity, dismiss him, and avoid him.
Kanye West is white America’s worst nightmare. Because as much as one may attempt to dismiss him—by calling him an asshole or classless or deranged or various other adjectives that fill the comment sections of literally every article about him—you still have to turn on your regularly scheduled late night comedy program and stare him in the face. You can’t avoid Kanye. He’s made very sure of that.
And, as Garvey chronicles, commentators high and lo spent the weekend trying to dismiss Mr. West. Garvey sorts their dismissals into three categories: “He’s A Hypocrite, This Isn’t New, and He Wants Attention.” She does a really, really great job of showing how all protestations are leaden with BS – indeed, leave this post now and go leave her post. (And yeah, she beat me to it, and she did a really, really good job.) I’ll summarize her main thesis a bit: Kanye’s been aware of his participation in consumerist culture from the very beginning, all the way back to “All Falls Down” when he rapped, “But I ain’t even gon’ act holier than thou/ Cuz fuck it, I went to Jacob with 25 thou/ before I had a house and I’d do it again/ Cuz I wanna be on 106 & Park pushin a Benz” (qtd Garvey).
Now, I’m a little late on the uptake here, so instead of continuing to repeat what others have said I’m gonna direct you to various points in the conversation-thus-far, and then add some thoughts where I can.
In the Chicago Sun-Times, film critic Richard Roeper left me missing Ebert all over again when he wrote, “[S]top bitching….nobody embraces capitalism, consumerism and crass commercialism more than Kim and Kanye.”
MTV News actually did a nice job rooting Yeezy’s politicism in his earlier work. And over at Vice, Ernest Baker suggests the song is more trenchant if you’re actually black.
Over at The Week, Keith Wagstoff responded to the political content of “New Slaves,” especially its indictment of government and private sector complicity in a failed drug war. Wagstoff also directed readers to similar pieces in the ThinkProgress, Salon, and the New Jersey Star Ledger, and highlighted Michael Moore’s amazed tweet at Kanye’s political forthrightness on primetime TV.
Wow. Kanye! Did that just air on TV? Amazing. "We da new slave." #SNL (CCA = Correction Corporation of America – the private prison system)
At the Ledger, Tris McCall did a nice job contextualizing Kanye’s politicization among some of his earlier tracks as well as within contemporary rap reactions to the prison-industrial complex.
And Alyssa Rosenberg’s piece at ThinkProgress was most notable for its failed critique of Kanye’s turn toward misogyny at the end of “New Slaves.” After blasting the DEA+CCA, Kanye threatens to come to “Your Hamptons house/I’ll fuck your Hamptons spouse/Come on her Hamptons blouse/And in her Hamptons mouth.” A more trenchant gloss of those lines might have eschewed mere moralizing and instead noticed that in the face of a faceless war on poor people of color by the most powerful Americans, West’s only recourse is to sexist rhetoric. Indeed, given his reference to himself for dating a white woman as “King Kong” in “Black Skinhead,” West’s lyrics are aware that by resorting to threats toward an implicitly white woman he plays into the very sexual-racial stereotypes white America already wants to hold against him.
What I want to add to this discussion is a focus on this video being projected on walls all over the world, and especially on its appearance on the Crown Fountain at Milennium Park, the flashy civic space in downtown Chicago where white-collar workers can go in the summer after work to see Andrew Bird for free, but which doesn’t have a basketball court.
Because it’s almost like this video was made for that park.
I opened this piece by mentioning that the diversity of media experiences this debut created was an innovation made for the moment. What makes Kanye’s “guerrilla marketing technique” so incredible to my eyes is not that the video was played all over the world–it has been well noted by playa-haters and fanboys alike that after the first thing aired in Tokyo or whatever, everyone could stay home and watch someone else’s iPhone footage from their own boring bedroom.
What’s really amazing here, in this era of critical excess, is that these separate viewings unmediated by a centralized TV camera cockpit created hundreds of individual pieces of primary source material for us aspiring scholar writer types to gush over. We can hear kids react to their first sight/sound of “New Slaves” in New York, Chicago, Toronto, in French, English, Japanese, Portugese, and so on, and we can close read all that shit. That’s cultural innovation that’s not arbitrary but directly responsive to the environment in which it functions.
On the Prada Store in Manhattan, as the video opens up with colorful 1950’s-esque graphics with the words SPECIAL $3.99 printed on a green rectancular background, NOT FOR SALE on a yellow circle, $1.75 NEW handwritten over red, NEW SLAVES like a dog tag, NEW MART $21.86 on a lime-green square, a barcode, and we hear a female spectator ask, quite reasonably, “Is that an advertising spot?”
On the side of Wrigley Field, the image projected over Chicago Cubs graphics, the video’s high-resolution imagery seemed designed for this kind of imperfect medium, especially in a white, wealthy neighborhood like Lakeview. As Kanye’s starkly black face faded into the background, the image asked, can you see me? can you hear me? Or aren’t my white teeth and my chain all you see anyway? “See its that rich nigga racism…all you blacks want all the same things.”
And oh, oooohhhhh, on the Crown Fountain at Millennium Park. I remember when this park opened, thinking how dope this fountain was. On either end of a granite reflecting pool in which children play barefoot in the summer are two towers made of glass bricks through which huge videos of Chicagoans play. The videos are one-minute close-ups of Chicagoans of all ages and races, old men and women, kids, teenagers, young people, blacks, whites, Latinos, Asians, looking straight at the camera. At the end of the minute, they purse their lips, and a stream of water comes out of the column where their mouth is and flows into the reflecting pool.
Now imagine that, last Saturday night, in the warm May evening, you stood around the pool under a clear sky and watched this glass tower: a figure of an elderly Asian man appears, then a white teenage boy, then a Latina kindergartner, smiling gently at the camera, blinking slowly, pursing their lips as in a kiss at you, and water pours into the fountain. How delightful.
Then a black man’s face appeared. Oh shit, it’s Kanye West. Kanye does not blow a kiss at you. Kanye starts rapping, and his message is angry. In the context of the Crown Fountain, his language acquires new meaning. It says, “Fuck your pat multiculturalism.” Yesterday the unelected Board of Education, all appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, voted to shut down 49 Chicago Public Schools, all in predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods. “Fuck your race-blind rhetoric.” Now the mayor wants to build a taxpayer-funded arena for the DePaul basketball team and continue opening privately-controlled charter schools. “Fuck your school-to-prison pipeline.”
I know that we the new slaves
I see the blood on the leaves
I see the blood on the leaves
I see the blood on the leaves…
Get your piece today.
And then, at the close of the song, Kanye stops speaking his own words, which already called on the legacy of black protest music with the quotes from Billie Holliday and Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit,” and begins lip-synching to vocals which to me sound like, “We can’t get too high, we can’t get too high, again, Oh no, so low, so low…” These words are a clear retort to folks like Richard Roeper who tell Kanye to “stop bitching.” West alludes to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which opens by asking, “Can we get much higher?” Here he seems to answer, “No.”
Meaghan Garvey decodes Kanye’s attachment to black suffering:
Questioning why a rich black man has a right to express anger at the plight of less rich black people is essentially asking, “Well, you’re gonna be okay, so what’s the problem?” Kanye’s wealth and participation in consumerist culture …cheapens his message to certain critics. This is because they are approaching the hyper-consumerist culture Kanye references when he says “What you want a Bentley, fur coat and diamond chain?/ All you blacks want all the same things” as a force that is very bad, certainly; but not as a force that has enslaved them, personally, into a permanent underclass and then gone on to laugh at them for accepting the ideals and signifiers of this culture.
Kanye has transcended the class that is bearing the brunt of the issues at hand in “New Slaves”, and thus is expected to gratefully shut the fuck up and let it slide (“throw him some Maybach keys/ Fuck it, c’est la vie”). He now belongs to the same social class that has essentially trapped his people…. Kanye is not a “new slave” in the same sense as the victims of the prison industrial complex, but he is still trapped in a world that expects him to not only be complicit with the struggle of his people, but to be appreciative that he is not one of them. And on top of all that, while he gets to exist in the world of the 1%, having the money and signifiers of success still aren’t enough to make his (white) 1% peers actually even respect him.
As always, Kanye is begging us to really hear him. In tapes of his Friday night debuts you can hear kids already singing along with him: “I know that we the new slaves/I know that we the new slaves.” Besides the one official video and the official SNL video, there are dozens of tapes on YouTube of the same music video played against the backdrop of real cities where real people are suffering real injustice. “Niggas is going through real shit, man, they out of work/ That’s why another goddamn dance track gotta hurt.” His video played on Wrigley Field, on a Prada store, on the safely-philanthropy-funded Crown Fountain. But Big Money’s complicity in Kanye’s debut isn’t ironic, it’s the whole point. As he rapped a decade ago on “All Falls Down,” “We all self conscious, I’m just the first to admit it.” We’re all guilty, we all know what’s going on, we’re all participating in the systems that enslave us. At least Ye has the guts to stand up there and say it. Not For Sale. Of course he’s for sale. But aren’t you? Aren’t we all?
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?
Before I can attend to my complicated and important feelings about the future birth of little Kimye, Jr., I must first offer a long-overdue defense of the deep and indefensible love I feel for the pop culture coupling that is Kim and Kanye. If you are like some people (my boyfriend), what needs defending is that I would profess to love two celebrities–any people, really, who are personally unknown to me. If you are like some other people (most people; certain friends) the question is: why love Kimye at all, when there are Knowleses and -Z’s about?
First, my beau’s pained question: wherefore the love for a celebrity? In her introductory article, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Brangelina,” the excellent star studies scholar Anne Helen Petersen explains star formation (hint: when we’re talking about stars, we’re really talking about ourselves). She writes:
Celebrity is a particularly modern phenomenon, symptomatic of a culture that attempts to “know” a person through mediated forms (the magazine, the newspaper, the newscast). Stardom is a particularly potent form of celebrity. … [a] star is formed when audiences combine information about the star’s onscreen performances (the type of person she plays on screen; Reese Witherspoon, for example, is “America’s Sweetheart”) with information about the star’s off-screen life (her romances, her children, and other gossip). Put differently, a Star = Textual Information + Extra-textual Information. Each star’s “image” is the result of this alchemy.
…[Certain] actors become superstars because their images—what they seem to represent, on- and off-screen—embody something vital to contemporary American identity. It’s no accident that Tom Cruise’s brand of white, working class-turned-suave masculinity resonated in the 1980s, or that Julia Roberts’s postfeminist approach to sex and relationships gained traction in the early 1990s. As Richard Dyer suggests, “stars matter because they act out aspects of life that matter to us; and performers get to be stars when what they act out matters to enough people” (Dyer, 17, 1984).
Petersen’s formulations above present challenges for Kimye because neither is a traditional screen actor. As an artist and a reality TV star, both Kanye and Kim traffic in representations of their real lives, not representations of fictional lives. (In Kanye’s case, despite the fact that rap is so often fictional, we can see this potential conflation for listeners in the strong presence of the first person “I” in all Yeezy’s raps.) But perhaps this makes their “alchemy” all the more potent. Even though I know both rap and reality TV are fiction, I am allowed to operate under an even more profound delusion of “knowing” these two characters because of their extreme availability. So the questions become, what do Kim and Kanye mean to me, and what does their union mean to me? Why are they so resonant? Why do I want to celebrate their mitzvot with parties of my own? And be their friends?
(Ok, I’ll admit: Kim I don’t want to be friends with so much as I feel a kind of kinship with her: watching her show reminds me of my sister, both because my sister used to watch it and also because Keeping Up With the Kardashians is really a celebration of a goofy, nosy, PG-13 version of sisterhood.
Of course, I do want Kanye to be my friend. Not a romantic friend with benefits, but that friend you flirt with sometimes because he’s your boy and he really has your back, and who at senior prom you dance one dance to, to “Step in the Name of Love” by Kels and you know there are real feelings there but you’re just not right for each other romantically and that’s okay because the bond is strong.
But enuf of that.)
From the perspective of star studies, then, Kanye and Kim’s relationship is meaningful to Americans like me because it symbolizes or represents something that is important to us in today’s moment: “what they act out matters to enough people.” Petersen goes on to explain what happens when stars collide in a romantic relationship:
When the couple has nothing to do with making us feel better about our relationships with fictional characters [i.e., two stars of a romantic movie dating each other for real], then it’s all about how we feel about two images and their fit. As for their actual interactions, the way they challenge each other, or the fact that love doesn’t always make sense to people outside of the relationship, none of that matters. Again, it’s not about a relationship between two people, but a relationship between two images — and the way we feel about the resultant image, the “relationship” image as it were. Just like a star image is the sum of its signifying parts — the way the star appears at premieres, in actual films, in sweats at the supermarket, in advertisements, in interviews — so too is the relationship the sum of the couple’s appearances (or lack thereof) in public, the way they speak of each other in interviews, the way they produce (or don’t produce) children.
So the puzzle pieces here are Kanye and Kim’s “two images and their fit,” working together in a way that is somehow appealing to me. So what are these stars representing for the public? In many pieces, Petersen breaks down how she reads a given star’s image. So, aping her methodology, I’ll give it the ol’ grad school try:
Kanye reads: south side Chicagoan, from the streets but not of the streets (even if his mom is a prof, but whatever), aspirational, talented, kind of like an outsider dork black kid who is so successful he becomes black royalty, best friends with the coolest kid in school (Jay); passionate, out-of-control emotions, an artist but also a buffoon, tempestuous, occasional drunkard loves his mom, loves himself. mama’s boy. Likes curvy women.
Kim reads: Armenian Valley girl, rich parents on the margins of LA celebrity, a comfortable – even commodifiable – sexuality, real white women have curves, making bank by exploiting her own privacy and emotional life, fame whore, family gal, boob jokes with the sisters. Likes black guys.
For both of these two, it occurs to me that for folks who don’t consume their media and just hear about them, Kanye largely reads “jackass” (a la President Obama, who broke my heart that day, but I understand) and Kim reads “nouveau riche ethnic white trash.” As an avowed consumer and even teacher of Kanye’s music, and an occasional watcher of KUWTK and always admirer of Kim’s curvaceous form, I am inclined to see the good in them.
But, in any case, these two images combine really cleanly. Both are aspirational, folks who even on top seem jealous to get higher; both are hard workers; Kanye was a mama’s boy and Kim has family aplenty (and they’re for sale); both urbanites; both have shown their vulnerabilities in public; have been friends for years; both have an established interest in the looks/body type of the other one. So what might I admire or connect to in this relationship? Well, I think it’s the fantasy, first of all, of that special friendship turning into something more after all those years of failed relationships with other people. It also seems to be a fantasy about making choices–good choices and bad ones, artistic choices and capitalist ones–and not having our mistakes ruin our chance at love. And it’s also a fantasy about fame, because all these two wanted was to be famous, and now they are, and their conjunction makes each more famous than they could have been alone. And it’s a fantasy about genuine love, because these two may want each other for the fame, but definitely not for the money.
Now, let’s consider the second question: why love Kimye when there are Carters around?
Jay and Bey’s images are quite different than Kim and Kanye’s. The Carters manage their privacy. They got married secretly, then waited a long time to have a kid. Jay’s raps, like Bey’s tumblr, are personal, yet the real person is still hidden beneath a sheeny veil of artistry and marketing. They are black Americana: hiphop and R&B’s greatest contemporary successes.
The Carters read untouchable, effortless success. They work hard but they don’t have to try hard to work hard. As far as their alchemical stardom is concerned, their fame is based on 99% talent and 1% (all Bey’s) crazy gorgeous face-beauty. Compare this to Kim and Ye, whose hustles get down and dirty. Kim’s reality show success is leveraged from a sextape and her dad having defended OJ Simpson. Kanye is more infamous than famous, his awesome music dwarfed by his awesomely bad self-control.
So, depending on your fantasies and dreams–if you dream of pop stardom, if you dream of untouchability–Jay and Bey may be the star couple for you. But my life has been too messy and my fiction is too personal for me to hope for all that.
Now, grant me a detour. (Or skip the next section and meet me at the bottom.)
Buddhist cosmology holds that all sentient beings live and die and are reborn within a cycle of Samsara: imperfect existence. Of the cycle’s six realms, three are unfortunate–demons, hungry ghosts, and animals–and three are fortunate–humans, demigods, and gods. Rebirth in the fortunate groups is a result of good karma, and in the unfortunate groups is a result of bad (read more). Even though being a god or demigod is exceedingly pleasant, however, only humans can achieve nirvana – because it takes that most human mixture of pain and joy to fully practice the dharma, the good, noble way–gods and demigods are too distracted by their bounty to fully understand the nature of existence and behave accordingly.
Bear with me here.
Certain interpretations of Buddhism hold that “cosmology is equivalent to psychology.” That is, the so-called realm a being is in is psychological, not metaphysical. If you are miserable and desperate, you are a hungry ghost; if you are happy and at leisure, you are a god. Etc. Under this interpretation it is possible to say that human beings exist across all six realms of being. (For example, think of someone you know who is an animal.)
Mythologically, it is said that the Asuras [demigods] and the gods share a celestial tree. While the gods enjoy the fruits of this celestial tree, the Asuras are custodians of the roots of the tree. The Asuras are envious of the gods and constantly attempt to take the fruits of the tree from the gods. As a result of this, they fight with the gods, and are defeated by the gods and suffer greatly as a consequence. Because of this constant jealousy, envy and conflict, existence amongst the Asuras is unhappy and unfortunate.
The demigods guard the roots of the celestial tree and are jealous of the gods, who enjoy the fruits. The demigods are still demigods, jet they are plagued by jealousy, unhappy with their lot. The gods, on the other hand, are straight chillin’. They will always win.
I invoke these myths because they help me understand how I view what Rembert Browne calls the “Knowles-Thronedashians” and why Kanye and Kim are so much more appealing to me than Jay-Z and Beyonce. Gods and demigods, they’re all too distracted by their leisure to know much of the nature of things. But Kim and Kanye know–and show–their pain. Even jealousy is a real emotion I can understand. It makes them more human, or at least appear so. And the irony for us humans is that the most beneficial state in which to be born is to be born a human, because humans, with their pain and suffering as well as their joy and love, live in the only realm from which one can achieve nirvana, release from the cycle of death and rebirth.
Just listen, for a minute.
We gonna take it to the moon, take it to the stars,
How many people you know could take it this far?
So many stars [scars].
Bout to take this whole thing to Mars.
I know Kanye knows longing by the painful desire he exhibits on this track for his autotuned vocals to keep up with the wide warm vibrating velvet of Beyonce’s voice. He wants to sing like a man might want to run like Bolt or dance like Baryshikov or sing like Beyonce but only the gods can do that, and longing is attachment and pain.
Kanye is a man, is a human being. I adore him for his failures as much as for his success. I want him to find love.
So, what do we talk about when we talk about Kimye? We congratulate folks getting the body they’ve dreamed about in a sexual partner (more on this in part II). We dream that we get the one who got away. We hope a man who’s lost his family finds another. We celebrate the power of love despite the messiness of our lives and the mistakes we’ve made. We pray love works. We’re pinning our hopes on Kimye.
[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.
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.
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.
It only took one semester for my students to point out you oughtn’t teach a writing class on rap without at least some time teaching the writing of raps! So, near the end of every semester, we crank a beat, brainstorm rhyming words, and see if we can fill our 16 bars. And then perform! One of my freshman students dropped such hot and complimentary fire that I couldn’t resist reproducing it here…
Oh when I fall, I all fall down
It’s usually because I tripped on my frown
Don’t clown around with Tessa Brown
She knows the difference between nouns and pronouns
(Ed’s note…this has been in drafts too long, but i’ll update it later (maybe) with images, some missing assignments I haven’t included yet, links and sound. Enjoy. It’s been a busy Oct-Nov)
Hey y’all. So my students are through one paper cycle and on to the second. The first cycle focused on close reading – we looked at a lot of songs in class, their paper assignment was to close read “We Don’t Care” or “All Falls Down,” and for homework we were reading 2 books that did close reading of their own: Elijah Anderson’s Code of the Street and James Cone’s The Spirituals and the Blues.
Now we are into our second paper cycle, where we’re working on making more complex arguments by putting two texts in dialogue with each other. Their second paper assignment (which you will see below) asks them to put a claim from one of the books (Cone or Anderson) in dialogue with a claim from The College Dropout. For homework we are reading Tricia Rose’s book Black Noise, and taking lessons from her about how to make arguments using multiple sources. So, if you have Black Noise you can follow along!
LESSON PLAN 6.1: Black Noise, “Two Words,” and Finding Claims
1. Exploring the introduction and ch.1 of Black Noise.
Close read the title of the book. What is “black noise”? What meanings does that phrase have to Rose?
Rose is very present in the introduction. Why might she identify herself so clearly? What is gained/lost by her presence in the text?
Close read to understand the title of ch. 1″ “Voices from the Margins: Rap Music and Black Cultural Production.” What does “cultural production” mean? (2 interpretations of word “culture”)
2. Remember the 2 parts to an argument? Claim/statement of opinion + defense with reasons and evidence. On pp. 1-3 Rose makes a lot of claims.
In pairs isolate 3 claims Rose makes in her first few pages. Work to understand them and then think, what evidence will she need to show us to defend that claim?
Go over some examples in class–understand Rose’s argument – note that reading her text critically will involve looking for/at her evidence. Suggest students keep their eyes peeled on how Rose manages different types of sources
3. Listen, looking for claims, to “Two Words”
In pairs, focus on one verse – via this poetic language, what claims are Mos Def, Kanye making?
4. Hand out Paper 2 Assignment:
Pre-write assignment due Mon 10/22 (bring to class):
To prepare for your second paper, please write 2 preparatory paragraphs. In the first, isolate a claim and synthesize the argument for that claim as elaborated by EITHER Elijah Anderson in Code of the Street OR James Cone in The Spirituals and the Blues. In another paragraph, bring in a claim made anywhere on The College Dropout by Kanye West or one of his guest artists and begin to suggest how this claim challenges, confirms or adjusts the claim described in the first paragraph.
Paper 2 Assignment:
For your second paper, in 6 pages, please compare a claim made by Anderson or Cone with a claim made by West or one of his guest artists. Your paper should propose an argument about the relationship between these two claims, by using one to challenge, extend, or adjust the other.
This assignment asks a few things of you: identify and discuss a claim made by either Anderson OR Cone in the course of his work. Discuss and assess the ways in which the author presents and defends his claim, noting the strategies he uses to make his argument. Examine evidence from The College Dropout to critique or qualify the author’s claims. How do comments made by Kanye West or one of his guest artists challenge, confirm, or complicate the claims presented by the writer you considered? Or, conversely, how do claims made by Anderson or Cone challenge, confirm, or complicate claims made by West or one of his guests?
Successful thesis statements will make an argument about the relationship between two texts, not about the nature of an issue in the world. Successful papers will shed new light on both the book you choose and the song in question, by drawing innovative connections between the two. Please do not use outside evidence besides those detailed above—focus on the texts and what they can tell us about each other!
LESSON PLAN 6.2: Using structure in arguments about multiple texts
UPDATE: Ok, I just saved this as a draft for 5 weeks. But I am going to valiantly pick up right here and soldier on. Where were we…Week 6? Using structure, you say? DO IT.
1. Rose Ch. 2 “All Aboard the Night Train”: Flow, Layering and Rupture in Postindustrial New York – what is Rose’s argument about in this chapter
pp. 23-25 on black music at crossroads in American history- examine each paragraph to see how Rose handles introducing another scholarly source. What was Willis’s claim? Rose’s critique? How does she incorporate what she wants to use from his argument into hers? (scavenger research)
pp. 38-39 on flow, layering and rupture – what’s Rose’s argument about hiphop style? how is it related to the postindustrial urban context?
2. For today, students had to write a 2-paragraph Paper 2 prewrite (above)
make sure your partner’s two claims are clearly articulated, with evidence, whether implicit or explicit
Make sure the book claim is analytical, not factual
How well did your partner give context/trace argument behind that claim?
Raise 3 questions about the relationship between 2 sources – which text is the argument about? – discuss a few
Reminder: be aware of complexity – no 100% correspondence
WEEK 7.1. NO CLASS – whew!
WEEK 7.2 – sample workshop
For this class, we got into our workshop groups so the groups could interpersonally gel for a class-long workshop-style activity on structure. I handed out a sample pre-write that used Rose instead of Anderson or Cone:
I explained that this is a way for us to think more about ch. 2 of Rose and practice complex structure. Then I asked students to read the prewrite closely and critique it like they did their partner in the previous class: looking for how well the claims are articulated, raising 3 questions, looking back at Rose to see if her concepts are fully engaged. Then we listened to “Family Business,” the lyrics to which are not included in their coursepack: the idea is to force them (on a rare occasion) to actually listen to how sounds are used and manipulated in the song. I asked them to take notes as to where they noticed flow, layering or rupture in the song, and then we filled up the board (I made them write) with what they noticed. #Crowdsourcing !! Then I returned them to their groups and asked them to write a thesis for Hypothetical Tessa, to push her argument, to decide which text is the subject of the hypothetical essay and which is a tool being used to make that argument, and finally to write out a structure for this paper. At the end of class, we came together and compared what arguments we made (trying, always trying, to make them more specific) and compared structures. Womp, womp!
WEEK 8.1. – WORKSHOP! SCORE!
Things to look out for as you workshop:
Introduction: is it clear what the 2 texts are, and how they’re related?
Is evidence closely analyzed?
Structure: is information given as needed? Are concepts clear? Are discussions of a single text split up in awkward ways?
MAKE SUGGESTIONS. Push the argument to be more specific, to be its best
Play with at least 1 big change – what would make this essay more readable, organized, specific? It is okay to ask WHAT IF.
WEEK 8.2 I CANCELLED THIS CLASS TO GO TO A CONFERENCE. SWEET!
1. Rose ch. 3 – “Soul Sonic Forces: Technology, Orality and Black Cultural Practice in Rap Music”
Close read the title of this chapter to remind us of its argument- how do (and what are) “technology, orality and black cultural practice” in the context of Rose’s argument?
#Crowdsourcing : Split into small groups and find at least 3 places where Rose answers the question, “Why might a rap artist choose to use sampling in their music?” EG WHY SAMPLE –> write that shiz on the board
2. Listen “Spirit in the Dark” by Aretha Franklin – what is it about? how does the music sound? what is the mood or attitude of the song? what values does Franklin preach? what does she mean by “spirit”?
3. Listen “School Spirit” by Kanye West – what is it about? how does the music sound? attitude/mood? values? “spirit”?
Why might Kanye sample Aretha– how do the songs intersect?
4. Could we make an argument using Rose’s concepts (on the board- WHY SAMPLE?) that makes a claim about the effects/uses of this Aretha Franklin sample in “School Spirit”? Small groups:
brainstorm possible arguments
everyone write 1-2 sentences on how you will use rose to make an argument about Kanye’s sample of Franklin
how would you structure this essay? outline it as a group
Come back together as a class, think bout structure a lil’ more. Ask: how long would this paper be? (Cuz one day your teacher is gonna say, “Write ten pages about anything we’ve covered this semester.” Word.)
WEEK 9.2 – Sorry, this was a kind of disjointed session
1. MLA – In which I quickly read through my own MLA style guide
2. Signifying – in which we look at an assigned excerpt of Henry Louis Gates’ The Signifying Monkey (and in which conversation I mentioned that “That’s what she said” is a kind of signifying, because it takes your inane statement – “Just put them [the groceries] in the back [of the car]” and sexualizes it through an implicit repetition and reversal to highlight physicality)
3. Listen – “School Spirit Skit” #1 and #2 – How is this signifying? on What?
3. Rose ch. 4, “Prophets of Rage: Rap Music and the Politics of Black Cultural Expression”
small groups: who are the parties involved in the political encounters in this chapter? –> board
read public/hidden transcripts together (100)
What are the hidden transcripts in the “School Spirit” skits? What public transcripts are they criticizing? Using what methods as Rose describes?
1. Rose ch 5 – “Bad Sistas: Black Women Rappers and Sexual Politics in Rap Music”
How does Rose use the concept of dialogue (147-148) in her chapter’s argument? Who are black women rappers in dialogue with?
Thinking about hidden/public transcripts in the context of this chapter–> partners look at excerpts of either Salt N’Pepa’s “Traamp” or MC Lyte’s “Paper Thin” and ask what hidden transcripts are these women rappers articulating? What public transcripts are they criticizing?
2. Paper 3 assignment: Cultural Study
3. Listen: Kanye’s “New Workout Plan”
What does Rose’s chapter tell us about male sexual narratives that we could look for in West
Note he’s signifying on a workout video
Listen: is West sexist or critiquing sexism? Or both?
Can we interrogate his attitudes about gender, power, relationships?
In the wake of Mitt Romney’s electoral loss to President Obama on Tuesday, conservative pundits, politicians and power players have been asking themselves and each other what went wrong. According to Dylan Byers’s recent feature on POLITICO, the right is playing a mega round of blame game, with a few possible scapegoats. Moderates put the far-right at fault for alienating voters with extreme rhetoric; the far right blame moderates and Romney himself for failing to persuasively represent conservative values.
Far-right conservatives like Bill O’Reilly suggest that conservatives don’t need to change their message but refine their voice in a way that awakens the electorate to its wrongheaded approach to government. On Tuesday, as Obama’s win became clear, O’Reilly presented this view on FOX news: “The voters, many of them, feel that the economic system is stacked against them and they want stuff….You are going to see a tremendous Hispanic vote for President Obama. Overwhelming black vote for President Obama. And women will probably break President Obama’s way. People feel that they are entitled to things and which candidate, between the two, is going to give them things?” (qtd in Byers).
Efforts to characterize President Obama as the “food-stamp president” have been decried as an extension of the Southern Strategy, that is, a coded effort to stoke white racist fears about the black electorate by subtly demonizing black Americans as takers, not doers. However, O’Reilly’s comments on election night suggest that he’s fully internalized his party’s strategery: he believes that Latinos, African-Americans, and women are all takers: “they want stuff,” and President Obama is the candidate who “is going to give them things.”
If, like me, you are a person who listens to and thinks about rap music a lot, you may be able to anticipate the argument I want to make right now: that rap espouses a do-it-yourself, take nothing from no one, nose-to-the-grindstone attitude about work–that is, a conservative attitude about work–and in its discussions of hustling and getting by reveals that people of color keep ending up on the socioeconomic bottom not because they’re lazy but because of institutional and structural prejudices that keep them out of jobs, out of neighborhoods with better schools, in jail for longer for the same crime, and so on.
To be honest, I’m way too busy to write the post right now this argument deserves. But here are some texts I’m thinking about:
Jay-Z’s book Decoded, which says that “hustling is the ultimate metaphor for the basic human struggles : the struggle to survive and resist, the struggle to win and to make sense of it all” (18).
“Get By” by Talib Kweli
“We Don’t Care” by Kanye West – “Cause ain’t no tuition for having no ambition/ and ain’t no loans for sittin yo’ ass at home/So we forced to sell crack, rap, and get a job/ You gotta do somethin, man, yo ass is grown!”
“Git Up, Git Out, Git Something” by Outkast ft. Goodie Mob
So many rap songs belong in this argument–I started thinking about last week, after my advanced class listened to Outkast’s “Git Up,” which features four 24-line verses each by a different rapper and each with a very different picture of what it means to “git something.” As we worked through this song in class, it became clear that while the chorus embodies a distant voice (something like O’Reilly’s) telling these young black men to “git up, git out and git something/How will you make it if you never even try,” each verse is a defense from men trying to do just that, and the challenges and struggles they face. Cee-Lo argues at this voice trying to box him in: “I try to be the man I’m ‘posed to be/But negativity is all you seem to ever see.” In the universe Cee-Lo depicts, no options are open to him, yet he’s characterized as negative. He concisely depicts the lure of the drug trade in a universe with few options:
Cuz every job I get is cruel and demeanin’
Sick of takin’ trash out and toilet bowl cleanin’
But I’m also sick and tired of strugglin’
I never ever thought I’d have to resort to drug smugglin’ (Outkast)
For Cee-Lo, “drug smugglin'” is a resort; the first choice was a series of “cruel and demeanin'” menial jobs that still left him “strugglin. ”
It’s ironic that while thugged out rap images have allowed pundits to criminalize young men of color, the lyrics behind these pictures actually promote hard work that shifts into the underground economy when legal options become unavailable. In that same POLITICO piece, Mike Huckabee had this to say: “The real conservative policy is attractive to minorities. Our problem isn’t the product, it’s the box we put it in. Our message should not be ‘tailored’ to a specific demographic group, but presented to empower the individual American, whatever the color, gender or ethnicity.” In fact, conservatives’ message of hard work still holds sway over most Americans–I know I believe in money paid for hard work put in. The problem is the right’s refusal to recognize that there are factors that actually prohibit their political norms from taking place: hard work isn’t paying off like your system says it’s supposed to. If this is interesting to you, (it might be if you’re still with me) definitely check out Goulka’s piece, above. He writes, “As a retired African-American general in the Marine Corps said to me after I told him my story, ‘No one has to explain institutional racism to a black man.’” But some folks still haven’t heard the message.
P.S. SPOTIFY POSTSCRIPT
started using spotify, like it a lot, have some things to say about it:
– how do I know what music I like if I don’t own any music? puts this new pressure on my brain to be aware of all the musics I might want to listen to, instead of knowing that I’m limited to (and pre-curated by) whatever I already own.
– am I ever going to buy an MP3 again? probably not. but i might buy more records.
– interesting how the ad experience is so clearly designed to irritate. Unlike tv and radio ads, which are like, “Hey! No interruption here! Just a short narrative to persuade you to buy something!” spotify ads are all “HEY DON’T I SUCK? DOESN’T THIS AD TOTALLY SUCK RIGHT NOW? YOU KNOW, IF YOU LAID DOWN SOME GODDAMNED DOLLARS YOU WOULDN’T HAVE TO LISTEN TO THIS ANNOYING SHIT RIGHT NOW, YOU PIRATING CHEAPSKATE! JUST SAYIN!” You know?
1. Spend some time with the Table of Contents. What does it teach us about the subject matter of this book? About the questions Cone will ask?
What is Cone like as a speaker? What are his aims in this text? Anyone look at the year (1972)? Context?
Explain that even though this book is hard, it gives us a theological vocabulary with which to discuss “I’ll Fly Away,” “Spaceship,” “Jesus Walks” and “Never Let Me Down”
2. Groups of 3-4: After we all read pp. 5-6 together, split into 5 groups and each group is responsible for fully understanding and explaining to the class one of the 5 claims Cone makes about black music:
Black music is unity music. … Black music is functional … Black music is a living reality. … Black music is also social and political. … Black music is theological. (Cone 5-6)
Speaking of which, what’s the difference between theology and religion? What does it mean to claim the spirituals are “theological” as opposed to merely religious?
3. Listen: “I’ll Fly Away” + Spaceship”
What does “I’ll Fly Away” add to “Spaceship”? In other words, what might we miss in the latter if the former was excluded?
Do we see any concepts from Cone resonating in “Spaceship”?
1. Collect their first final papers! Then congratulate them, then… reflective writing!!
List the different steps you took to write this paper, as though it was a lab report, from receiving the assignment through turning it in today.
Which step was the hardest and which was the easiest? Why?
Assess your process – not the product but the process. Did you set goals? Did your steps work? Would you change them?
2. Discuss Cone ch. 4 “God and Black Suffering” and ch. 5 “The Meaning of Heaven in the Black Spirituals”
What is the relationship between faith and suffering in the spirituals? What attitude to the spirituals take?
What are the multiple meanings of Heaven Cone sees in the spirituals?
What kinds of questions does Cone ask of the lyrics he analyzes?
3. “Jesus Walks”
“God show me the way cuz the devil tryna break me down.
I wanna talk to God but I’m afraid cuz we ain’t spoke in so long.
Jesus walks with me…
Can we apply Cone’s questions to Kanye? What is the image of God he gives us in his lyrics, or of Jesus? What about the devil?
A music video makes choices about how to represent a song: is it literal; does it draw our attention to certain storylines, sounds, or themes; how is the artist positioned in the video, if at all; etc.
Compare 2 versions of “Jesus Walks” video, asking above questions of each.
LESSON PLAN 5.2 (meet in computer lab)
1. Cone- “The Blues”
What’s the relationship between the spirituals and the blues?
p. 100 Cone says the two genres share the same “ethos” – what does that mean?
What does Cone mean by absurdity? “But absurdity int he blues is factual, not conceptual. The blues, while not denying that the world was strange, described its strangeness in more concrete and vivid terms” (101). What, in the view of the blues, is so absurd? “The blues…recognize that there is something wrong with this world, something absurd about the way that white people treat black people….The blues caught the absurdity of black existence in America and vividly and artistically expressed it in word and suitable music.” (112)
2. Introduce a PARADIGM SHIFT: From doing primary source work to secondary source work
Remind me what primary vs. secondary sources are?
In the first part of class, we wrote about primary sources and read texts that wrote about primary sources. (Anderson had his transcripts, Cone has his lyrics.) But now we are going to write about primary sources and secondary sources together, just like Tricia Rose will in the next book we read.
Strategies for using secondary sources: VERBS!! Verbal weapons with which we wage our wars!! acknowledge – add- admit – agree – argue – assert – believe – claim – comment – compare – confirm – conclude – contend – declare – deny – dispute – emphasize – endorse – grant – illustrate – imply – maintain – note – opine – point out – reason – refute – reject – report – respond – suggest – think – write
3. (For today, everyone had to analyze a music video of their choice and post it on the class blog.) Teams of 2: pick a post neither of you wrote, read it, watch the video. Then summarize the author’s take on the video and challenge or expand their analysis using 3-5 of these verbs.
I had all these grand plans about how I was going to write up my 3.1 lesson plan to make it really really gorgeous so that I could use it in my writing sample, but instead I got distracted and am now 3 lesson plans behind. Why did I make all this extra work for myself?? Oh well, as the White Rabbit might say, “No time to say hello, goodbye!’ I’m late, I’m late I’m late.” Ergo…
LESSON PLAN 3.1
2. Code of the Street ch. 2 – “Campaigning for Respect”
what is the “campaign for respect” in question? what is involved in that process?
what evidence does Anderson use to illustrate this campaign?
a look at the way he introduces terminology on p. 79:
3. There is a lot of learning in this chapter. What do Anderson’s subjects learn?
4. REFLECTION–> what is reflection? Did you do any reflective writing in high school?
Reminder: reflection helps us become self-aware, by drawing our attention to ourselves, our own strengths and struggles, to facilitate transfer (i.e., remembering what we learned) when we write future papers all by our lonesome
Creative writing: look at the kid on p. 74 who says: /// imagine Anderson asked him, “How did you learn that?” Answer from the kid’s perspective
Give purpose of that exercise: to create empathy for this kid who learns other material than us; but also to create empathy for the act of imagination. Lots of questions about does Kanye really know this or that. This exercise reminds us of the possibilities of artistic empathy, which we also share.
5. MORE Reflection: Reflect on how you learned to write. Think back to this first paper you’re working on right now
How did you begin this paper? What were the first steps you took, perhaps before you even began typing a draft?
Where did those skills come from? When did you learn how to begin a paper?
What have been the easiest and hardest elements of working on this essay so far?
Reminder: save and date these, I won’t collect them but you’ll refer back to them later
6. WORKSHOP: overview of how workshops run
6. Thesis mini-workshop: exchange your thesis-in progress with a partner, formulate three questions for your partner’s thesis that push it to become more explicit. Could begin with HOW WHY WHERE or WHAT.
LESSON PLAN 3.2
1. Logistics: PSA – sneeze & cough into your shoulder, not your hand, and wash those puppies. Yes I really told them this.
2. Code of the Street – ch. 2 “Drugs, Violence and Street Crime”
Read the chapter’s opening (pp. 107-108) – why does Anderson open this chapter with W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Philadelphia Negro?
Spend a moment understanding “deindustrialization”: AP US History flashback, what was industrialization? Correlation with the Great Migration–> African Americans to urban centers–relate back to drug trade as it “picks up the slack” (108)
evidence: Why does Anderson spend 8 pages describing a stickup? How does it illustrate elements of the street code?
3. Code-switching – groups of 3: identify a verbal or written code-switch that you perform in your own life- make a list of rules for performing in each code + knowing when to switch.
4. Does Kanye code-switch?
LESSON PLAN 4.1: Workshop 1
Workshop instructions: they read each other’s papers in advance and wrote a 1-page letter for each of the 3 papers they read. So the workshop instructions just remind them that while the author is quiet, the readers have a conversation that begins after their letters end and is collaborative. Focus on identifying what specifically the paper is about besides just “the lyrics” and making sure the argument is about that specific thing. Discuss thesis, evidence, paragraphs, intro and conclusion. Okay to describe and not only critique.
If they finished early, I made them re-write a new introduction that began from the first sentence talking about the song their paper is about. So it’s a funnel but a tiny funnel.
This weekend I am going to do some summative reflection on all this reflecting-in-action I’ve done so far. Peace y’all.
This is one of my busiest lesson plans of the semester, so let’s roll!
1. Logistics: blogs? books? use names
2. Argument reading: what is argument? types of arguments? this class has an organic approach to argument with our texts as our textbooks; introduce the rhetorical triangle
3. Thoughts on The College Dropout? themes? value of the interludes? did you look at lyrics–why or why not? themes resonate with you? what arguments did Kanye make?
4. High school flashback: what did you look for in a close reading/literary analysis? Put literary techniques on the board. Introduce idea of author’s intention as the basis for close reading. Doing work – making an argument
5. Listen to “We Don’t Care.” Groups of 3 each close read a verse apiece; afterwards, share what they found. Speculate on the how: the little choices that create a big effect. (If there’s time, as a class, consider the rhetorical stance of the chorus.)
1. Since this is just the second class, there’s always new students, people having trouble with buying books or access to the blog, etc. It always bums me out that some students tend to miss this class session, which is really important. But what can you do?
This is also a time for me to remind folks to say their names when they contribute something to class discussion, and to use their classmates’ names if they refer to them during conversation. So that later, when Kenny is like, “Yeah, I agree with what he just said,” I go, “Who?” and Kenny squints across the room and says, “Uh, what’s your name again?” and Stan is like, “Stan,” and Kenny says, “What Stan said before, about…”
2. I gave the class a short reading for today which introduces argument as essentially the statement of an opinion followed by reasons for holding said opinion. So I just want to make sure they read that and understood it, and draw their attention to the fact that this term “argument” is just a new word for a structure they already knew: a thesis with supporting evidence or justification or whatever their high school English teacher called it.
Then I tell them that in this class we’re not going to use a rhetoric textbook because I find them pretty boring, but instead we’ll use our authors as our master rhetoricians–Kanye West, Elijah Anderson, James Cone, Tricia Rose, Chinua Achebe, George Orwell–and try to ape some of their techniques for our own writing. I also draw the rhetorical triangle on the board and tell them these three elements of argument are actually really prominent in Kanye’s songs: logos or argument; ethos or the qualifications of the speaker; and pathos or appeals to the audience. We don’t need to master the Latin terms but should keep our eyes peeled for how Kanye manages these three elements of his “rhetorical stance.”
3. Here’s where I say, “When I was in high school we called it a close reading when we’d look at a poem or a piece of prose and analyze it for literary elements. What did you call it?” And I hear, “Close reading, analysis, commentary,” etc. Then I ask what terms we’d look for, and I put them up on the board. You know the list: meter, rhyme, allusion, metaphor & simile, motifs, diction, structure, characters, setting, plot, alliteration, etc. There are usually way more than this up on the board when we’re done, and they function to plug students back into that high school English brainspace and also remind them that they know a lot of stuff.
A few of these terms I sort into another column to the right of those above: tone, message, emphasis, argument, themes, irony. I step aside so that everyone can see the list and I say, “When I was in high school, doing a great close reading was like a checklist: the more of these terms you identified, the better your essay was.” This got a lot of nods on Thursday. “But in college,” I continue, “it’s not enough to notice these things: we have to make an argument about them. See how I divided these terms into two categories? On the left we have all the small choices an author makes: word choice, alliteration, a metaphor, repeated symbols that create a motif. And on the left are the larger effects that these choices create: irony, themes, an argument. The small choices do work to create larger effects. So part of our job as college writers is to start to make arguments about the work an author’s choices do.”
Here I pause for questions. Some blank stares are ok, because these concepts are gonna come back to haunt us. I go on: “I also want to introduce the notion of an author’s intention: the idea that an artist makes choices that matter. This is really foundational to close reading, because the moment we deny an author or a hiphop artist her intention, close reading stops. We say, ‘It doesn’t matter that he says “we” instead of “they,” and so we stop digging into that language. So I want us to grant not only our authors but our rappers the faith that they chose their words and each word matters. Okay?” Mostly self-explanatory, but I’ll add that I think this disclaimer is especially imp0rtant in a hiphop classroom when so many extracurricular forces tell us everyday that rap is garbage and it’s not art. So even if students know each word matters in a poem, I like to remind them that this is still true for a rap song.
5. Split into groups of 3. I assign each group a verse of “We Don’t Care”–each verse will have 2 groups working on it, ideally across the room from each other. I tell them we’re going to listen and then each group will close read their verse, looking for these terms up on the board and starting to surmise about work. What word choice creates emphasis? How do certain characters elucidate a theme? Then we listen and they break into groups. I like to wander around, keeping folks on task. A lot of students do a great job getting the argument of the song, but have more trouble digging into actual words. So I ask them, what about that alliteration? What does that do? What about that repeated word? Is that significant? And encourage them to actually make marks on their papers. Underline. Circle. (Yesterday I used the phrase “break the seal” to some surprised laughter.)
When we’re done, we go through the verses as a class. I like that each verse had more than one group working on it. Students tend to think they exhausted a verse, but another group will invariably have found things they didn’t. So this reinforces the value and the potential depth of close reading, as does the fact that in ten or fifteen minutes they’ve only dealt with one verse, and there are two more plus a chorus. This is also an opportunity to push this “work” idea more. You found alliteration or a character? What does that do? Or you found a message? In which words or phrases do we see that effect created?
And if there’s time, which there wasn’t on Thursday, we can look at the rhetorical stance of the chorus as a class:
Drug dealin’ just to get by, stackin money till it get sky high (kids sing, kids sing)
We wasn’t ‘sposed to make it past 25, joke’s on you we still alive
Throw your hands up in the sky and say, “We don’t care what people say.”
Who’s “we”? Who’s “you”? Do they really not “care what people say”?
Finally, homework, which is a pre-write assignment for the first paper: write 2 typed, double-spaced pages on the title of either “We Don’t Care” or “All Falls Down”: say everything you can possibly say about those three words, what they mean, why they’re used. (In the past, I had students write a “close reading” of a whole song, but I hope that focusing them on the title will push attention to language and word choice. We’ll see on Tuesday!)
I also enjoy long walks on the beach, travel, and Oxford commas. But who doesn’t?
I’ve been sending a lot of e-mails lately with the words “prospective PhD student” in the subject line. Yes, friends, it’s true: it’s time for me to go back to school (again) and properly claim the unearned suffix in @tessalaprofessa. Luckily I’ve had a year + in the classroom to test my interests on crops of unsuspecting students and get inspired by their ideas. It turns out that trying to clarify my thoughts for PhD applications is also helping me tighten how I hope to teach this fall.
So what do I hope to study? Well, hiphop, obviously. But having never been a literature major, I also want to ground my knowledge of hiphop in a study of African-American literature and letters. Poetics, critical race theory, postcolonial theory, a solid hold on modernism–rife with buzzwords I bandy around but am overdue to master. And I want to study writing pedagogy. That’s where finding programs I like has proved hard. But the thing I’ve learned the most about hiphop music over the last two years is that these songs constitute writing–and every time I’ve wanted to push the contours of how we conceive of writing in my class, hiphop has been long ahead, waiting for me to catch up.
When I originally chose to teach freshman comp about hiphop, it was because I was a graduate student looking to do something fun. My own required freshman writing class had been deadly boring and I figured if eighteen students were going to have to write four papers each and (more importantly) I would have to read all seventy two, they’d better be about something fun. It was only after the class began I realized what a teaching boon it was to ask students to engage with their own contemporary media landscape. A year later, when the department began rolling out its reflective writing program, I realized that rap is often reflective. And when I began teaching Argumentative Writing, it dawned on me that rap makes sophisticated and well-supported arguments. You know, like I ask my students to do. Heck, Kanye often uses a three-part verse structure. Bet you never thought of him as an Aristotelian thinker!
Yesterday I signed on to Facebook to see this definition of privilege from Duke scholar Mark Anthony Neal making the rounds:
The very essence of “privilege” is when you enter into a space and are fundamentally unaware that not only have you changed the conversation, but have made the conversation about you.
“Uh oh,” I thought. Extra yikes-points since I recently changed the subheading of this blog from “journal” to “diary,” to better account for its personal subject matter. But then I wondered how crucial that “unaware” part is to the deployment (and the destructiveness) of privilege. Ever since I’ve entered hiphop’s discursive space, I’ve been aware that my status as a white woman somehow changes the terms of the conversation. And despite my parents’ fears that my desired area of expertise is unmarketable, I remain convinced that it would be easier for me to exploit the position of a white hiphop scholar than to be ignored because of it.
Michelle Pfeiffer…and a bunch of kids in the background
When I started writing this blog I was explicitly interested in how I fit into the hiphop narrative–why a white girl would be interested in these topics to begin with. And there are still questions there worth investigating–the effects of an urban public education on my goals and attitudes, for example, or how hiphop makes anger, bravado, and political radicalism sexy in ways that don’t seem available to white women.
But as my hiphop interests shift more firmly toward teaching, learning, and argument, I must say I’m relieved. The first time I ever had my own classroom was on a summer ESL teaching gig in China. I remember laying in bed at night, stressing out over the next day’s lessons, when I realized how rare it was that I worried about anything except myself. Indeed, my natural inclinations are privileged. When I was a graduate student, teaching interrupted a lifestyle centered around a big writing table in a nice apartment that cost most of my monthly stipend (read: free money). But each day I teach demands that I get off my ass, break the bubble of my solitude, and actually give of myself.
Of course, teaching hiphop in a classroom full of mostly white students invokes other questions of privilege. I’ve had multiple classrooms with not a single African-American student, and not seeing often means forgetting. But when I do have students of color, it’s not their job to draw attention to the demographics of our classroom: its mine. I try to create a classroom space that recognizes privilege, absence, and irony–and also humor, compassion and inspiration. Both are challenges. But you catch more flies with honey than vinegar, and I’ve learned you catch more prejudicial assumptions with encouragement than beration. Anyway, as Kanye would say, #ITSAPROCESS. Peace out, friends.
Maybe I am such a big Yeezy fan ’cause our b-days are so close together (hint, hint). In any case, I wish Kanye happiness, more music, and a visit to my English 125 class. And LOVE! I am following this courtship like it’s the freakin’ Royal Wedding.
On Sunday, fiscal conservatives the world over freaked out when France elected its Socialist candidate for president, Francois Hollande, and ousted the incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy. While I am interested in the shifts this upset will cause in world affairs, I am more interested in the following campaign advertisement for Hollande, discovered by Pitchfork and brought to my attention by a friend.
If you were wondering what I thought “Obama could never do,” it’s release a campaign video like this one. I mean, Obama invited Jay-Z to his 50th birthday bash and Fox News headlined its coverage, “Obama’s Hip-Hop BBQ Didn’t Create Jobs.” But because Hollande, a white man, does not have to worry about his electorate remembering that he is a Black man, he can explicitly reach out to French voters of color by featuring them in a campaign ad backed by the Jay-Z and Kanye West track “Niggas in Paris.” Umcensored.
Slate calls the ad “unlikely”; Pitchfork calls it “confusing” and “strange.” Neither seem to analyze it beyond the pun “That shit Creil,” where Creil is the name if a city shown a few times in the ad that is pronounced like Kanye’s “cray.” But this ad is amazing to me for so many reasons that neither publication seems willing to explore.
Fox News’ Obama birthday banner image
First, the title of the song. Hollande’s commercial literally depicts “Niggas in Paris,” even as it totally recontextualizes the subjects of the song. In the original, Ye and Jay are high-rolling American Black men partying in an idealized Paris. Jay raps, “If you escaped what I escaped, you’d be in Paris getting fucked up, too.” But in Hollande’s ad, these niggas in Paris aren’t high-rollers and they’re in their own country. In fact, the video is explicitly concerned with portraying people of color as French citizens, with constructing the French voting citizenry as a racially and culturally diverse body. Much of the ad consists of a multiracial cohort of people holding out their voter cards and smiling wildly. One of the first shots is of a woman in hijab, a symbol of Muslim religious practice that has become controversial in much of right-leaning Europe. (In fact, full face veils are actually illegal in France.) There are also a lot of shots of Hollande speaking enthusiastically to folks who do or don’t look like him. Indeed, Hollande’s advertisement suggests that the people it depicts are more than “niggas in Paris,” that is, outsiders to be labelled in a place that does not belong to them: instead, they are French citizens with the power to shape their country’s future through voting.
A comment on Slate claims this ad was created by supporters, not by Hollande’s campaign itself. I don’t know. I wish Melissa Harris-Perry was here to talk about the construction of citizenship. But it’s all good. This video still rocks my political socks. What do you guys think?
So, I finally got my hands on a copy of Jay-Z and Kanye’s collaborative album Watch the Throne (2011), I’ve been listening to it all weekend, and I gotta write about it. If Kanye’s previous album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was like spending the night with your best friend you’ve had a crush on since you were a little kid, Watch the Throne is like partying with your best friend you’ve been jealous of and competitive with since y’all were kids, then going to a party full of people richer than you, getting smashed, and walking home through the city streets with your arms around each other singing camp songs into the dark, expensive night.
Since his last solo album, Kanye’s vision of luxury has deepened–not just aurally and lyrically, but visually, too–and branded. While it’s no secret that Watch the Throne is about luxury, I’ll let you listen to the lyrics on your own time. Today’s post is about visuals: in the music video for “Otis,” Jay and ‘Ye dismantle a Maybach– you know, Maybachs on backs on backs–and Ricardo Tisci of Givenchy art directed the CD, the tour, and a few videos, “Otis” included. The CD materials for WTT aren’t as beautiful as MBDTF’s, but it’s not Tisci’s fault. MBDTF has a fold-out packaging in rich red with gold lettering that seems designed with its holiday-season release in mind. After the banning of its miscegenation-themed cover art, an original oil painting by George Condo, buyers ultimately had the choice of one of five other original Condo paintings as their peekaboo cover image. Inside the packaging, the CD booklet folded out into a square poster of the Condo painting on one side. On the inside, in bright gold lettering, all of the album’s credits and permissions. For a guy who made name through innovative samples, a task that’s too often wrought with legal troubles and debt for artists, these gold letters screamed that Kanye had every singer, rapper, producer and sample on his album that he wanted, and he paid for it all, straight-up.
MBDTF Ltd. Edition Vinyl
By the time WTT rolls around, Kanye’s provedhis piece. Gold letters behind him, he’s onto gold covers now, that is, the gold-plated cover art for the album designed by Ricardo Tisci, the head designer for luxury house Givenchy. On the pack page of WTT’s album booklet, Tisci is credited as “Creative Director.” And while folks kept hounding Kanye for touring in a leather skirt and a t-shirt with a picture of himself as a tiger on it, it only takes a quick flip through the WTT CD booklet to realize that that’s a Givenchy shirt designed for this album by Ricardo Tisci. So who’s laughing now?
Also in the booklet is the screen-printed American flag that adorns the wall above the dessicated Maybach in “Otis” — a fibrous, pop-art looking thing that reminds us from the booklet’s inside cover that what’s happening here is uniquely amazing because it’s uniquely American: rags-to-beyond-riches, hiphop style. (As Jay-Z writes in Decoded, hiphop tells the story of “something bloody and dramatic and scandalous that happened right here in America” (18).) Unlike in the MBDTF literature, WTT’s booklet is all business: certainly no lyrics, some custom Givenchy art, and two tight pages of permissions in a basic sans-serif typeface with Gothic lettering for the song titles. But it’s still all there. Contains samples from. Contains samples from. Additional creative input by. Used with permission. Used with permission. Appears courtesy of. Used with Permission. All rights reserved.
As Stringer Bell said to Avon Barksdale, “We making so much goddamn straight money, man, the government come after us, man, ain’t shit they can say” (The Wire s3e6, 2004).
So, my point is, Kanye’s last two albums point to an interesting new development in sampling ethics, which have grown and heaved over the last decades as the legal profession has run them raw. We’ve seen the Lil Wayne response, which is to rap over whatever he wants, then release it for free as a mixtape; the Tyler the Creator response, who doesn’t even sample–he wants other folks to sample him. And then, fittingly, the Kanye response: big, brash, and willing to shell out for what he wants. This is luxury sampling ethics, samples bought and paid for, further elucidation of Mychal Denzel Smith’s claim that “For Jay-Z [and, I’d add, Kanye], wealth is revolutionary”–and this is the part where I string together a bunch of WTT song titles, so brace your dork-o-meters–’cause it’s a New Day, they’ve Gotta Have It, these tracks were Made in America, and Who Gon Stop Me? Not Otis (nor the keepers of his estate).
I had another dream about Kanye West and Kim Kardashian. They were sipping champagne in the back room of a restaurant, alone. Well, except I was there. But I’m not me.
Dr. W. stares at me. She is an older white lady with taupe-colored hair and horn-rimmed glasses. I don’t think she cares for gossip.
Well, actually I was Patti Stanger–
I’m don’t follow, says Dr. W.
The Millionaire Matchmaker, I explain. It’s a TV show. She sets millionaires up on dates.
In the dream?
No, she’s a real person. She’s a third-generation matchmaker. She’s good. Behind the skinny jeans and the Brazilian blowout she’s an old-world bubbe. There are rules. In the dream, we recited them together. Kim, Kanye and Patti-me. No Sex Before Monogomy. I was their chaperone.
How did you feel?
In the dream? I felt important. Like I was helping them. They need a mother. They need a Yenta. Patti has a two drink maximum. Sippy sippy? She’ll make sure they behave themselves. Kanye was wearing a salmon-roe colored tuxedo and Kim was wearing those beaded shoes he designed. She flew all the way to Paris for his bad fashion show.
Yes, but that’s not the point. They could love each other. I want them to be happy.
I believe in their feelings. I believe they have feelings. His are on his roe-colored sleeve and hers are stored away in a Louis Vuitton suitcase but they have them. Their love could be redemptive.
Dr. W.’s office is on the sixteenth floor of the only highrise in town. Through her windows I can see the houses north of us peter out into a wide strip of green. At least it’s a nice nowhere.
What’s right there?
I don’t know, I say. Nice view. You don’t follow celebrities, do you?
Why do you want to know?
Well, because despite our happy illusion that you’re not a real person with real habits and real desires the fact is that you are one, and it just occurs to me now and then that perhaps one of your habits may or may not be to flip through the glossies in the check-out aisle in the grocery store. I am wondering how you’re judging me. I am wondering if you also care. If you could fathom caring.
I look out the window again. A forest is lovely but I’d trade it for Central Park or Topanga Canyon. No one wears heels here and all the women have short hair. Dr. W. has short hair. I can’t help it if I care about them.
What’s right there? Dr. W. asks. I’ve been quiet.
A song. You want me to sing it?
I look at my hands piled in my lap, my boring trousers, the carpeted floor:
The prettiest people do the ugliest things,
For the road to riches and diamond rings.
In the night I hear them talk Coldest story ever told Somewhere far away from home he lost his soul– To a woman so heartless.
Was that song in the dream?
It’s two songs.
Dr. W. stares at me.
Why you standin there with your face screwed up?
Don’t leave while ya hot, that’s how Mase screwed up.
Those are real lines, I say. This is important. You know how sometimes in a dream you know that something is supposed to be something but it actually isn’t that thing? Well this wasn’t like that in my dream. I knew the lines right. They were correct.
Mimesis, says Dr. W.
We are sitting around the table drinking champagne when Kim says, Let’s have a toast to the douchebags.
Then Kanye raises his glass. He says, Let’s have a toast to the assholes.
Then it’s my turn. Every one of them that I know, I say, and we all laugh, and I wink, because I am the matchmaker. That’s when I wake up.
At the end of last semester, some of my students expressed chagrin that a writing class about rap never asked or taught them to write raps. So at the beginning of this semester I slotted a day for “Writing Raps?”–question mark and all, because that ish makes me nervous–and today I finally had to face the music. Literally.
We started off by talking about what Jay-Z describes in his book Decoded as the two kinds of beats in rap–the constant, foundational musical beat, and the variable meter of the rhymes–that is, a rapper’s flow. I explained that rap songs generally have four beats per line. Older raps usually have around 8 syllables per line, while newer lyrics have closer to 16–double time!
We talked about end rhyme, internal rhyme, and figurative language, then brainstormed some potential subject matter: why I’m great, why you suck, school, my hometown, money and material goods, fantasy, what I did today, random anecdotes, personal struggles.
Then we read the first verse of “We Don’t Care” aloud to, you know, get in the groove. We decided the beat we’d work on was the track from “All Falls Down.” The hook is on there, which is a nice thematic jumping-off point, too. And then–we were off. I suggested folks try to build units of 2, 4, or 8 lines, with the ultimate goal being (of course) 16 bars! To show solidarity, I promised I’d write and perform some verses with them, too.
At the end of class, about 6 people performed. So great! My favorite rhyme was from a girl spitting about her chemistry exam: she rhymed “Boyle’s theory” with “Can you hear me?” Ever the storyteller, I delivered 16 bars about my leaky travel mug.
note: not my actual mug.
Man I promise, I’m so damn tired
Woke up this morning ‘fraid I got fired!
Like my contract expired, air from my tires
Gone to the moon, asleep in my room.
Woke up, got up, make some coffee
It’s my new best friend, named Mr. Coffee
Not that hazelnut toffee, it’s the realest shit
Pour it in my travel mug and seal that bitch
Then I’m ready to go, till I see it drippin
Damn Mr. Coffee, I’m like, You been trippin?
Like my day been clipped, like my coffee mug is shit!
How’m I gonna drink this when the top don’t fit?
Right, that’s right, the top ain’t tight.
The seal’s too loose so the juice take flight.
Now I gotta go to class with these stains on my pants.
Should I go home and change them? I can’t take the chance.
-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.
As you might have guessed from the very premise of this blog, being an egghead and aggressively reloading the “Life & Style” tab of the Huffington Post are not incompatible states of existence. In this post, I address–but by no means answer–a series of celebrity-related concerns that have been bothering me for absolutely no defensible reason.
1. NeNe Leakes, how is it that you were so awesome on GLEE when you are so middling in your real life? Did you participate in scripting the best, funniest version of your own self? Also, don’t you know we would still love you with your real nose and your real teeth?
2. Brad, don’t you realize Angelina is a scary demon succubus? >>TEAM JEN<<
3. When Kim and Kanye start dating, will it be possible for them to be supervised by Patti Stanger, the Millionaire Matchmaker, so that they don’t screw it up with sex before monogamy? Because their happy everlasting union is, like, extreeeemely important to me.
4. Was Kanye really on peyote during that whole twitterbang about DONDA? Also, can I get a job? Also, is this real?
5. Also, Kanye and everyone else, is Scorcese’s Hugo really that good? Like, better than The Artist? Which my friend in London calls L’Artist?
6. Why is America so goddang New World provincial?
7. Regarding Michelle Obama’s appearance on iCarly, is it reasonable for me to believe that the young brainwashed Disney channel watchers of the red states know that their parents’ vitriol against the First Lady is unfounded and that actually, yeah, they wish they were outside playing instead of watching iCarly?Also, can I get a hug and a funny happy face, too?
8. Katy and Russel! Noooooo! You were the sexy “sober together” couple we all aspired towards!
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).
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.