Black Noise is a work of literary criticism by Tricia Rose.
White Noise is a novel by Don DeLillo.
Black Noise was published in 1994, White Noise in 1985. Both books are about the effects of industrialization and a consumerist capitalism on Americans. Black Noise is about inner-city youths of color; White Noise is about a family of white suburbanites. Both are about noise– “a rapid and urgent cadence” (DeLillo 157); “rap’s volume, looped drum beats, and bass frequencies” (Rose 63)– and chaos. They are about human responses to trauma.
White Noise is a novel about a family living in a town over which descends a toxic cloud, a “toxic airborne event.” The novel is about the persistence of the quotidian in the face of real airborne danger. It is about absurdity and marriage, aging and death. DeLillo’s protagonist says, “All plots tend to move deathward. This is the nature of plots” (26).
Black Noise is about the absurdity of life, not death. It is about hiphop’s creative resistance:
“Let us imagine these hip hop principles as a blueprint for social resistance and affirmation: create sustaining narratives, accumulate them, layer, embellish, and transform them. However, be also prepared for rupture, find pleasure in it, in fact, plan on social rupture. When these ruptures occur, use them in creative ways that will prepare you for a future in which survival will demand a sudden shift in ground tactics” (39).
While White Noise is about trash…
“I went home and started throwing things away. I threw away fishing lures, dead tennis balls, torn luggage. I ransacked the attic for old furniture, discarded lampshades, warped screens, bent curtain rods. I threw away picture frames, shoe trees, umbrella stands, wall brackets, turntables. I threw away shelf paper, faded stationery, manuscripts of articles I’d written, galley proofs of the same aarticles, the journals in which the articles were printed. The more things I threw away, the more I found. The house was a sepia maze of old and tired things. There was an immensity of things, an overburdening weight, a connection, a mortality. I stalked the rooms, flinging things into cardboard boxes. Plastic electric fans, burnt-outtoasters, Star Trek needlepoints. It took well over an hour to get everything down to the sidewalk. No one helped me. I didn’t want help or company or human understanding. I just wanted to get the stuff out of the house.”
…Black Noise is about recycling:
“The postindustrial city, which provided the context for creative development among hip hop’s earliest innovators, shaped their cultural terrain, access to space, materials, and education. While graffiti artists’ work was significantly aided by advances in spray paint technology, they used the urban transit system as their canvas. Rappers and DJs disseminated their work by copying it on tape-dubbing equitment and playing it on powerful, portable ‘ghetto blasters.’ At a time when budget cuts in school music programs drastically reduced access to traditional forms of instrumentation and composition, inner-city youths increasingly relied on recorded sound. Breakdancers used their bodies to mimic ‘transformers’ and other futuristic robots in symbolic street battles….Hip hop artists used the tools of obsolete industrial technology to traverse contemporary crossroads of lack and desire in urban Afrodiasporic communities” (34-35).
Taken together, these two books chart two perspectives on the white flight from the postwar urban center, the fear and confusion of all involved, their recourse to things, their desire to create and be meaningful, the market forces that constrain them, the noise that fills their ears, the sound of being American.
[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.
(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?
(Two of Esu’s physical characteristics are his extraordinarily dark color and his tiny size.)
Legba’s sexuality is a sign of liminality, but also of the penetration of thresholds, the exchange between discursive universes.
The ironic reversal of a received racist image of the black as simianlike, the Signifying Monkey, he who dwells at the margins of discourse, ever punning, ever troping, ever embodying the ambiguities of language, is our trope for repetition and revision, indeed our trope of chiasmus, repeating and reversing simultaneously as he does in one deft discursive act….not engaged in the game of information-giving….dependent on the play of differences….turn[ing] upon the free play of language itself….Signifyin(g) epitomizes all of the rhetorical play in the black vernacular….[The Signifying Monkey] is the principle of self-consciousness in the black vernacular, the meta-figure itself.
-Henry Louis Gates, Jr., The Signifying Monkey (pp. 17; 27; 52-53)
My picture should be in the dictionary next to the definition of definition,
Because repetition is the father of learning.
– Lil Wayne, “Shoot Me Down”
When I started writing this blog I had an idea that to build up some content I would do a sort of “Power 20” of Tha Carter III and write a post every day for sixteen days about each of this album’s tracks. Talk about 16 bars! Even though I never got around to it, I still believe this album warrants that kind of attention. You might infer from my epigraphs above that I think Tha Carter III (2008) is a masterful and ebullient example of what Henry Louis Gates Jr. calls “Signifyin(g)– that is, the rhetorical “play of differences” that characterizes so much of African American literary troping and ultimately discourse.
Lil Wayne’s 2008 album Signifies not just in its constant practice of “repetition and revision”; rather, its embrace of “the free play of language” positions Weezy as the master of a Signifyin(g) discourse in so many aspects. This album engages intertextuality, for example in the response to Beyonce’s “Irreplaceable” that Wayne offers on “Comfortable”; in Wayne’s explicit discussion of the craft of rapping on tracks like “Dr. Carter” and “Let the Beat Build”; and in Wayne’s coded (and often sexually explicit) ruminations on the nature of language, writing, and the universe, on tracks like “A Milly” and “Pussy Monster.”
But this post is about the masterful “Mrs. Officer,” which intertextually invokes and then queers the tradition of liberatory rap, grounding Weezy’s brand of punning and linguistic play to spectacular effect.
“Mrs. Officer”‘s beat is infectious–the song opens with a bouncing, bouyant bass drum and a popping snare; then the flirty instrumentals open with Bobby Valentino’s voice calling the song along: “Woo oo oo, yeah yeah yeah…” The song’s upbeat tone makes it sound like just another poppy dance track for the club. Valentino sings on: “When I’m in that thang, gonna make that body sang: Wee oo wee oo wee, wee oo wee oo wee, wee oo wee oo wee” and Wayne pops in: “Like a cop car.”
With this first simile, comparing a woman’s coital moans (probably the eponymous Mrs. Officer’s) to the sound of a police siren, it’s clear this song is going to be insubordinate, disrespectful, and hilarious. What follows is a series of nested punch lines that build in their Signifyin(g) power, their invocation of rap’s politically resistant traditions, and in (to use Tricia Rose’s term) their “ideological insubordination” (101).
Wayne’s first lines, describing getting pulled over by the police, is immediately reminiscent of the great tradition of raps songs on racial profiling by traffic cops (songs like LL’s “Illegal Search,” Mos Def’s “Mr. Nigger,” and Jay-Z’s “99 Problems.”) But before the punning has even begun, Weezy is already playing on this narrative trope–we might even say queering it:
Doing a buck in the latest drop
I got stopped by a lady cop
She got me thinking I can date a cop
Cause her uniform pants are so tight
She read me my rights
She put me in the car, she cut off [her, all the] lights
She said I had the right to remain silent
Now I got her [hollerin, howlin], soundin like a siren
Wee Ooh Wee Ooh Wee….like a cop car.
Where LL Cool J, Mos Def, and Jay-Z’s songs all portray the same situation, where a police officer abuses his authority to detain the rapper, in Weezy’s scenario this abusive authority is performed by a sexy “lady cop.” Abusive police force is mocked and coopted in a few lines when embodied by Mrs. Officer: “She said I had the right to remain silent/Now I got her howlin, soundin like a siren.” The lyrical play here is dense: in Wayne’s queered fantasy space, Mrs. Officer does give him his Miranda rights, but “the right to remain silent” sounds here like an act of S&M. And given Weezy’s retained male privilege, he still has the power to get “her howlin, soundin like a siren” with his sexual prowess, even when he’s unable to speak. But this dangerous siren’s song, whose powers powers wooed Weezy out of his ride and into hers, sounds like, well, a siren: “Wee oo wee oo wee, wee oo wee oo wee, wee oo wee oo wee. Like a cop car.” While other rap tracks sample the sounds of police sirens, Wayne eschews the literal signifier of police surveillance and opts instead to Signify on it. Instead of a sample, Bobby Valentino croons the cries of a female police officer crying out, her moans loud and persistent as a police siren’s.
In this queered space, the police officer’s power does not unequivocally trump the citizen’s; instead, Weezy’s masculine power mitigates the feminized power of the state. The fact that he laughs after almost every line is a pretty good signal that he is in on the joke. Wayne describes these revised power relations:
And I know she the law, and she know I’m the boss
And she know I’m high, a-bove the law
And she know I’m raw, she know I’m from the street
And all she want me to do is fuck the police
Oh, the punch line! She wants him to “fuck the police”! How far away we are, and still how close, to the terse days of when Ice Cube yelled, “Fuck the police! …Young nigga got it bad cause I’m brown” (NWA, Fuck the Police). Weezy’s got it bad, all right, where in 1988 “Fuck tha Police” prompted outcry and even provoked an unprecedented denouncement from the then-head of the FBI, in 2008 Lil’ Wayne is “above the law” and being begged to “fuck the police.” Snap!
And after we got done
I said lady what’s ya number she said 911
Ha! Emergency only
Head Doctor perform surgery on me
Yeah… and now I’m healed
I make her wear nothing but handcuffs and heels
And I beat it like a cop
Rodney King baby yeah I beat it like a cop
Ha Haaa… beat it like a cop
Rodney King baby said beat it like a cop
But I ain’t tryna be violent
But I’ll do the time but her love is timeless
Mrs. Officer, I know you wish ya name was Mrs. Carter huh?
In subsequent lines, Wayne continues to riff on police brutality,broadening his indictment of those in power to include a whole range of emergency services. In Wayne’s scenario, Mrs. Officer gives her phone number as 911, which is all right because she’s also the “head doctor.” Get it? Of course, this plea for medical attention is a play on the real consequences of police brutality whose emblem Weezy hasn’t even yet named. In this fantasy, the handcuffs aren’t Weezy’s wrists but Mrs. Officer’s. Weezy is the one in power: “I make her wear nothing but handcuffs and heels. “
It is at this moment, I believe, that this scenario is exposed for what it really is: a fantasy. With the traditional power structure over turned and Mrs. Officer in the cuffs, Wayne’s character “beat[s] it like a cop”–that is, masturbates. Yes, in this “one discursive act” — that is, “Beat it like a cop,” which wayne repeats four times–he functionally deconstructs his own song, repeating and revising this culminating pun. Is he saying “beat it like a cop” or “beat ‘er like a cop”? The difference in pronoun is crucial. If the latter, we can assume he is beating up Mrs. Officer–whether by literally attacking her, or enacting the kind of violent sex play that handcuffs might entail, or just roughly having sex with her. (The Ying Yang Twins come to mind.) However, Wayne says he “ain’t tryna be violent,” and I’ll take him at his word. In fact, I believe at this moment, the discursive, narrative and sexual climax of the song, Wayne’s repetition and revision functions to revise the meaning of the whole song and to explode/expose the scenario as what it is: a fantasy. Mrs. Officer may “wish [her] name was Mrs. Carter,” but in fact it’s Weezy here doing the wishing, imagining a scenario in which Rodney King–attacked by a small mob of policemen after they pulled him over, you recall, while driving home–gets not beat up but beat off. In its efforts at revision and critique, the invocation of Rodney King is the singular “deft discursive act” on which this song’s meaning hinges.
(My conclusions here are heavily influenced by Busta Rhymes’s guest lines on the later track “La, La,” which suggest to me that for really sophisticated lyricists, apparently misogynistic lyrics might actually be coded references to masturbation and fantasy:
They movin on a nigga as I walk through the valley, ready? (Ok!)
And zoom in with the cameras like I’m dickin’ down Halle Berry (uh-huh)
My money help me do things that you nigga’s can’t believe
Like purchase persons, places all them things that you can’t conceive (ah-huh)
Like interactin with women the caliber of Janet
I-I sit and master my vision and massacre the planet (Woah!)
I hope you nigga’s know just what it is
While I’m countin my paper nigga’s know I’m handlin my biz (OK!)
Sure, Busta claims he’s got women “the caliber of Janet.” But this whole verse is full of images of fantasy and mirage: “cameras,” “can’t believe,” “can’t conceive.” But it seems pretty clear to the other men on the track, responding to each of Busta’s coding lines what our speaker is doing when he “sit[s to] master my vision and massacre the planet.” His peers’ cries of “Woah!” indicate that they heard what he was alluding to with “master my vision” and “massacre the planet.” Just to make sure they got it, Busta asks them, then reiterates with, we might imagine, an obscene hand gesture. “I hope you niggas know what it is…I’m handlin’ my biz.” “Ok!” they yell. We get it! )
This guide focuses on formatting the body of your writing using MLA style, and covers issues like punctuation and formatting. Works Cited is covered briefly at the end.
1. Titles of longer works are italicized or underlined, while shorter works’ titles are put in quotation marks.
Ex. “All Falls Down” is my favorite track on The College Dropout.
Ex. That’s The Joint: A Hip-Hop Studies Reader includes traditional articles like Oliver Wang’s article “Rapping and Repping Asian: Race, Authenticity, and the Asian-American MC,” as well as interviews like Christina Veran’s “Native Tongues: A Roundtable on Hip-Hop’s Global Indigenous Movement.”
2. Punctuation goes inside quotation marks, except in the case of an exclamation or question mark.
Ex. I really like the song “All Falls Down.”
Do you like “All Falls Down”?
I love “All Falls Down”!
3. However, if the exclamation or question mark is part of the quotation, it says inside the quotation marks.
Ex. She asked me, “Do you like ‘All Falls Down’?”
4. On a related note, quoted material inside another quotation is denoted by single quotation marks instead of double. Italics stay italicized
Ex. In her paper, Susie Michigan wrote, “West’s themes on The College Dropout are inconsistent; ‘All Falls Down’ is a more meaningful track than ‘Get Em High.’”
5. To cite a source, use a parentheses with a the author’s last name and the page number, placed after the quotation or direct paraphrase. If you have not stated the author’s name, use her last name in the parenthesis. The parenthetical goes after the quotation marks but before end punctuation. Use line numbers for plays, but not for song lyrics.
Ex. Rose writes that graffiti, breakdancing, and rap all evidence “flow, layering and ruptures in line” (38). Though her concepts are rooted in the work of Arthur Jafa, Rose extends his concepts by viewing them not just as stylistic constructions but socially significant (Rose 39).
6. To cite a quotation quoted in another’s work, mark it as such in the parenthetical with “qtd.”
Ex. Rose quotes Queen Latifah’s assertive “Ladies First”: “The ladies will kick it, the rhyme it is wicked/Those who don’t know how to be pros get evicted” (Queen Latifah qtd. in Rose 164).
7. Use corrective brackets sparingly, especially to clarify missing information (such as substituting a name for a pronoun). Preserve the integrity of a quoted line by setting up quotations so as to avoid brackets. It’s okay if quotes don’t have perfect grammar. They’re rap.
Ex. DON’T: In “We Don’t Care,” Kanye raps that he “as a shorty [he] looked up to the dope man, [who was the] only adult man [he] knew who wasn’t broke man” (West, “We Don’t Care”).
Instead, set your quotation up to avoid these brackets:
Ex. In “We Don’t Care,” Kanye describes admiring the local drug dealer as a child: “As a shorty I looked up to the dope man, only adult man I knew that wasn’t broke man” (West, “We Don’t Care).
8. Quotations of more than 4 lines should be excerpted from the text and indented ½ inch from the margin. Include them without quotations and place the citation outside the end punctuation. Continue the rest of the paragraph without indentation.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., 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). [sans bullet,obvi]
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)
As an example of Signifyin(g), the story of“The In Your Face Test of No Certain Skills” resonates easily with high school students.
[Note: Works Cited in MLA style should be alphabetized and single spaced, with the all but the first line indented. Please see the Purdue Online Writing Lab for more details and information about constructing your MLA style Works Cited page.]
Gates, Jr., Henry Louis. The Signifying Monkey: a theory of African-American literary criticism. Oxford University Press (1989): New York.
Rose, Tricia. Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. Middletown (1994): Wesleyan University Press.
Veran, Christina. “Native Tongues: A Roundtable on Hip-Hop’s Global Indigenous Movement.” That’s the Joint! The Hip-Hop Studies Reader. Ed. Forman and Neal. 2nd ed. Routledge (2012): New York.
Wang, Oliver. “Rapping and Repping Asian: Race, Authenticity, and the Asian-American MC.” That’s the Joint! The Hip-Hop Studies Reader. Ed. Forman and Neal. 2nd ed. Routledge (2012): New York.
West, Kanye. “All Falls Down.” The College Dropout. Roc-A-Fella Records, 2004. CD.
–. “We Don’t Care.” The College Dropout. Roc-A-Fella Records, 2004. CD.
-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.
I keep hearing about Susan Cain’s new book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. For a while I thought this book was called “The Rise of the New Groupthink,” but that’s just the sexy underside of her argument and thus the title her New York Times editor chose for her conveniently timed op-ed from last month.
In an interview, Ms. “Descartes” Cain claims that “in order to know what you really think about something or someone, you need solitude to do it, almost by definition.” As you might have inferred from my hostile tone, I find this preposterous. As a writer, and therefore a person who spends a lot of time typing alone (like right now), I’m intrigued as to why I find Ms. Cain’s claims preposterous. While I definitely have not read and do not plan on reading her book, between the op-ed and some interviews I suspect that my issue is this: while I understand Ms. Cain’s enthusiasm for solitude–indeed, my fiction-writing zone demands total, solitudinous silence–I disagree with her takedown of collaboration as creatively and intellectually unproductive. And I think her invocation of Orwell’s 1984 is ridiculous. Also Eurocentric. But let’s explore.
In my courses we do a lot of small group work. This abundance is a hangover from a summer I spent teaching English in China during college, when the point of every lesson plan was to keep our students jabbering for as long as possible. I was told that a language learner needs to say a new vocabulary word 7 times before she internalizes it. While my current students speak fluent English, they are not fluent in their critical reading, thinking or speaking skills. Class is an opportunity to redirect them to the text, to ask them to use specific language instead of vague pronouns and generalizations, to encourage them to refer to a text’s author instead of claiming, “It says.”
Often during small group work there is a lull: one group after another stops talking, though of course there is always more to talk about. In these silent moments I do my best to stay totally disengaged from my students. I stare into space, or page through my book for key quotes to return to if conversation falters when we come back together as a class. Slowly but surely, someone in one of the groups thinks of something else to say. The students realize they have to keep thinking, that I am not about to interrupt them with my own take on the text. And so more of them pipe in. Soon everyone is talking again, exploring the content of a chapter or analyzing the lyrics of a song.
Against the overlapping sounds of groups ebbing in and out of conversation, I find myself thinking of priming, a psychological concept I learned about as a senior in high school. I remember priming as a cognitive effect by which hearing a certain word–before a memory exam, for example–will increase the likelihood that a subject remembers that particular word later. I also remember reading of an experiment wherein subjects, asked to define an ambiguous word like “Mercury,” tended to vary their answers according to whether they’d been primed with evocations of planets or thermometers.
In high school Psychology class I remember feeling that priming was a kind of cheating, a sort of hypnotic trick wherein subjects did not know they were learning the right answers in advance. But now as a teacher, when I watch conversations sweep through a silent classroom like a brushfire, and I hear similar concepts and page numbers flicker between groups like flames, I do not feel that my students are cheating. Instead, I feel glad that their proximity to one another allows as many of them as possible to experience the spark of recognition at pinpointing an important idea or a telling quote.
Today, the small group work in question was to close read the third chapter title in Tricia Rose’s Black Noise, “Soul Sonic Forces: Technology, Orality and Black Cultural Practice in Rap Music.” As my students revisited this chapter, which they’d read in advance, words and phrases hung in the air: repetition, sampling, Western music, African diaspora, 808s. As conversation lulled, I scanned the chapter myself, looking for concepts my students might have missed. My eyes fell on a quote from Christopher Small describing repetition in African music (which Rose sees regenerated in hiphop):
A call-and-response sequence may go on for several hours, with apparently monotonous repetition of the same short phrase sung by a leader and answered by the chorus, but in fact subtle variations are going on all the time, not only in the melodic lines themselves but also in their relation to the complex cross-rhythms in the accompanying drumming or hand clapping…The repetitions of African music have a function in time which is the reverse of (Western classical) music–to dissolve the past and the future into one eternal present, in which the passing of time is no longer noticed. (qtd in Rose 66-67)
As I read, my students’ voices rose up again around me: first one, then two, until the whole class was talking–that is, dialoguing, arguing, learning, teaching, grappling with evidence. So I listened, glad to be the sole introvert among talkers.
It only took a few weeks after a student coined the word “hiphopocracy” for me to realize that I wanted to write a book of essays collected under this name. This one word evoked connotations of community, democracy, and hypocrisy that all seemed so central to the way I was beginning to read and teach hiphop texts and culture. It took a tip from a tech-savvy friend to re-envision this project as a blog, and then I had to find my sea legs – that is, my voice.
It’s interesting to me how central the question of my own whiteness is to this blog. Back when I imagined this as a book of long-form essays, I’d envisioned the emphasis as being on a critical reading of rap texts coupled with reflections on education and the possibilities for a hiphop pedagogy. But transitions in conceptualizing my own work have parallels in how I’ve learned to understand my role as a teacher. When I first designed College Writing on The College Dropout, I imagined that this rap-centric course material would fill my classroom with students of color. In fact, out of more than 100 students so far, I’ve had two African American students, both women, a significant minority of Asian and Asian-American students (both East and South Asian), and a huge majority of White students, mostly from Michigan. With this demographic makeup I’ve come to reenvision my teaching from an earlier (more self-aggrandizing) model that saw me appealing to African-American students “on their own terms” (whatever that means) to a more realistic vision that has me modeling to White and Asian-American students how to talk about race, gender, popular culture and urban space in a way that is intellectually critical and, most importantly, respectful.
As you might imagine, one book that was really instrumental to my self-concept as a teacher was Mark Naison’s memoir White Boy, which I discovered in David Leonard”s reflection on the subject on Mark Anthony Neal’s blog, Left of Black. In his memoir, Naison, a white professor of African-American studies at Fordham University, charts his journey from a Jewish kid growing up in Brooklyn through his time as a history student at Columbia and his activism in Harlem to his present position at Fordham. Naison writes like an historian, focused on events rather than ideas, and so as I read I felt myself wishing he would say more about the content of his academic work and how he felt it related to the spaces in which he was teaching and learning it. Instead, much of the value of this book for me was reading the history, via Naison’s life, of radical leftist movements through the sixties and seventies and the way racial politics shifted during that period.
This term, for the first time I am also teaching a different class, an Advanced Argumentation course structured around Dr. Neal and Murray Foreman’s reader That’s the Joint! To keep us rooted in the primary sources, we spend Friday’s class each week listening to and close reading a rap song. To get us started off right, we began this schedule last Friday with Jay-Z’s “99 Problems.” As I set up the speakers, one of my (white) students asked, “Do you usually listen to this song?”
“Sure,” I answered. “Don’t you?”
I think one of my most important roles in the classroom is to show my students that rap can be enjoyed as more than a minstrel show. This is directly related to my recent critique of Cecil Brown and Tricia Rose’s views of white listeners, casual disbelief of valid motives that is not uncommon to these two thinkers. Because I have to ask: how are white listeners supposed to take hiphop seriously if they can’t take themselves seriously as fans, true fans? Teaching hiphop has taught me to take myself more seriously as a fan because I have to model respect and appreciation to my students.
In White Boy, Dr. Naison talks a lot about his relationship with a Black woman and how that experience both personally and socially connected him with Black people and heightened his awareness of race’s role in American society. My own formative experience with the Black community was in my high school choir in Chicago. I’d often enter the choir room to see students grouped around the piano, singing gospel songs they all knew and I didn’t. Like Naison on the basketball court, choir was the place where I was the racial outsider, where my academic success meant nothing and I had to bust my butt to keep up. It was the space where I learned to sing “Precious Lord” and “Elijah Rock” and where I came to understand that in other parts of the city, my Black classmates participated in a rich community life that it would have been just as easy for me not to see.
In a recent guest post on Left of Black, Mark Naison writes about the role of love in good teaching. Next week in my Argumentation class, we’re talking about a chapter called “No Time for Fake Niggas: Hip Hop Culture and the Authenticity Debates,” which probably means it’s time for the class talk on whether we can use the word “nigger” and, if we’re lucky, larger questions about authenticity in hiphop scholarship. Naison writes, “It is precisely the importance of building trust which is absent from the dominant discourse about education today. ” Responding to my occasional discipline issues, my mom recently suggested I pull back from my class, separate myself from them. “I can’t,” I said. “Community and relationships are so important to what I’m trying to do.” When it comes to questions of authenticity and good intention, we need not only to trust and love our students, but also ourselves.
When I was a sophomore in college, I applied for and received a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship, which consisted of a sizable cash stipend and summer research funding aimed to help me pursue my expressed goal of becoming a professor. Being an MMUF fellow at Princeton also involved monthly meetings with other undergraduate and graduate fellows, casual talks with professors of color, and a fancy annual banquet in which some professor or other reiterated every year how miserable the PhD process is, and enjoined upon us to keep on keepin’ on.
The goals of MMUF are as follows; it was my job as an aspiring sophomore to convince my school’s committee that I met them:
The fundamental objectives of MMUF are to reduce, over time, the serious underrepresentation on faculties of individuals from minority groups, as well as to address the consequences of these racial disparities for the educational system itself and for the larger society that it serves. These goals can be achieved both by increasing the number of students from underrepresented minority groups who pursue PhDs and by supporting the pursuit of PhDs by students who may not come from underrepresented minority groups but have demonstrated a commitment to the goals of MMUF. (mmuf.org)
That’s me, at the end: “students who may not come from underrepresented minority groups but have demonstrated a commitment to” these goals. The irony of it all was that MMUF, which had previously been a fellowship for minority students, was forced by anti-affirmative action legislation (I believe under the Bush II administration) to broaden its selection criteria from racial to ideological.
Six years later, I’m an MFA holder teaching hiphop studies to college freshmen (but still a white woman with an ambiguously ethnic name). Last semester, after one of my sections was in a classroom after a white man teaching a course on jazz and before another white man teaching a course on African cities, I turned my attention to novelist Cecil Brown’s Dude, Where’s My Black Studies Department? The Disappeareance of Black Americans from Our Universities (2007). The book opens to the author wandering across the greens of his alma mater, UC Berkeley, and wondering, like “one of the characters in the film Dude, Where’s My Car?” (ix), Dude, where are all the black students?
I was interested in this book not only because of my own experience as a white woman teaching Black subject matter to largely white and Asian students, but (more importantly) because Mr. Brown taught a course at Stanford called “From Homer to Hiphop,” and a peruse of this book’s Table of Contents online revealed that the author professed to have rediscovered Black Studies in the streets, among the hiphop heads. I was keen to read his arguments about the rifts between written and oral cultures of information.
I empathized with Mr. Brown’s statistics on the erosion of affirmative action policies in the last few decades–my courses are as much a commitment to diversity as an expression of my own interests. And many of his arguments were provocative, like his suggestion that while “special programs are established to help [Asian and Asian-American students] with their writing and speaking skills” (94),the same effort is not made to bring other students of color up to speed.
But what ultimately disappointed me about this book was Mr. Brown’s blanket dismissal of genuine white interest in hiphop music, an exasperation I see again and again in black writers’ work on hiphop. Brown suggests “rap music helps white youth deal with their fear of girls” (99), and that “White attraction to Black pimps are…symptoms of an unconscious desire to escape the structured life of the mechanical world” (102). But he’s never open to the possibility that white listeners empathize with rap’s critique of a racist and hypocritical society. I was reminded of Tricia Rose’s seminal Black Noise, where the author sneakily suggests her bias:
Jazz, rock’n’roll, soul, and R&B each have large devoted white audience members, many of whom share traits with Norman Mailer’s “white negroes,” young white listeners trying to perfect a model of correct white hipness, coolness, and style by adopting the latest black style and image. 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)
Look how Ms. Rose deftly undercuts the possibility of “young white listeners’ genuine pleasure and commitment” and then invokes the terms “dilution and theft” without taking responsibility for them.
Some of the only welcoming language I’ve seen is in the introduction to (Asian-American) Jeff Chang’s wonderful Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, where he declares of the hiphop generation: “Whom does it include? Anyone who is down” (2). Even the provocateur Nas, after calling out to all his “kike niggers, spic niggers, Guinea niggers, chink niggers,” reminds his posturing audience, “They like to strangle niggers, blaming niggers, shooting niggers, hanging niggers, still you wanna be a nigger too?” (“Be A Nigger Too,” Untitled).
In Cecil Brown’s 1969 novel, The Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger, the titular protagonist sits with the only Black woman he’s found in Copenhagen and lays his hand to her pregnant form:
He felt the small lump running smoothly under his fingers as she brought his hand smoothly over her brown hot belly.
“That’s a baby,” she said.
“Really,” he said. He was scared stiff.
“A white baby, ” she said.
“Does it make you feel a little bit disgusted?”
“Yeah, I think so.” (124)
* from Cecil Brown, The Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger, 105.