Before I can attend to my complicated and important feelings about the future birth of little Kimye, Jr., I must first offer a long-overdue defense of the deep and indefensible love I feel for the pop culture coupling that is Kim and Kanye. If you are like some people (my boyfriend), what needs defending is that I would profess to love two celebrities–any people, really, who are personally unknown to me. If you are like some other people (most people; certain friends) the question is: why love Kimye at all, when there are Knowleses and -Z’s about?
First, my beau’s pained question: wherefore the love for a celebrity? In her introductory article, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Brangelina,” the excellent star studies scholar Anne Helen Petersen explains star formation (hint: when we’re talking about stars, we’re really talking about ourselves). She writes:
Celebrity is a particularly modern phenomenon, symptomatic of a culture that attempts to “know” a person through mediated forms (the magazine, the newspaper, the newscast). Stardom is a particularly potent form of celebrity. … [a] star is formed when audiences combine information about the star’s onscreen performances (the type of person she plays on screen; Reese Witherspoon, for example, is “America’s Sweetheart”) with information about the star’s off-screen life (her romances, her children, and other gossip). Put differently, a Star = Textual Information + Extra-textual Information. Each star’s “image” is the result of this alchemy.
…[Certain] actors become superstars because their images—what they seem to represent, on- and off-screen—embody something vital to contemporary American identity. It’s no accident that Tom Cruise’s brand of white, working class-turned-suave masculinity resonated in the 1980s, or that Julia Roberts’s postfeminist approach to sex and relationships gained traction in the early 1990s. As Richard Dyer suggests, “stars matter because they act out aspects of life that matter to us; and performers get to be stars when what they act out matters to enough people” (Dyer, 17, 1984).
Petersen’s formulations above present challenges for Kimye because neither is a traditional screen actor. As an artist and a reality TV star, both Kanye and Kim traffic in representations of their real lives, not representations of fictional lives. (In Kanye’s case, despite the fact that rap is so often fictional, we can see this potential conflation for listeners in the strong presence of the first person “I” in all Yeezy’s raps.) But perhaps this makes their “alchemy” all the more potent. Even though I know both rap and reality TV are fiction, I am allowed to operate under an even more profound delusion of “knowing” these two characters because of their extreme availability. So the questions become, what do Kim and Kanye mean to me, and what does their union mean to me? Why are they so resonant? Why do I want to celebrate their mitzvot with parties of my own? And be their friends?
(Ok, I’ll admit: Kim I don’t want to be friends with so much as I feel a kind of kinship with her: watching her show reminds me of my sister, both because my sister used to watch it and also because Keeping Up With the Kardashians is really a celebration of a goofy, nosy, PG-13 version of sisterhood.
Of course, I do want Kanye to be my friend. Not a romantic friend with benefits, but that friend you flirt with sometimes because he’s your boy and he really has your back, and who at senior prom you dance one dance to, to “Step in the Name of Love” by Kels and you know there are real feelings there but you’re just not right for each other romantically and that’s okay because the bond is strong.
But enuf of that.)
From the perspective of star studies, then, Kanye and Kim’s relationship is meaningful to Americans like me because it symbolizes or represents something that is important to us in today’s moment: “what they act out matters to enough people.” Petersen goes on to explain what happens when stars collide in a romantic relationship:
When the couple has nothing to do with making us feel better about our relationships with fictional characters [i.e., two stars of a romantic movie dating each other for real], then it’s all about how we feel about two images and their fit. As for their actual interactions, the way they challenge each other, or the fact that love doesn’t always make sense to people outside of the relationship, none of that matters. Again, it’s not about a relationship between two people, but a relationship between two images — and the way we feel about the resultant image, the “relationship” image as it were. Just like a star image is the sum of its signifying parts — the way the star appears at premieres, in actual films, in sweats at the supermarket, in advertisements, in interviews — so too is the relationship the sum of the couple’s appearances (or lack thereof) in public, the way they speak of each other in interviews, the way they produce (or don’t produce) children.
So the puzzle pieces here are Kanye and Kim’s “two images and their fit,” working together in a way that is somehow appealing to me. So what are these stars representing for the public? In many pieces, Petersen breaks down how she reads a given star’s image. So, aping her methodology, I’ll give it the ol’ grad school try:
Kanye reads: south side Chicagoan, from the streets but not of the streets (even if his mom is a prof, but whatever), aspirational, talented, kind of like an outsider dork black kid who is so successful he becomes black royalty, best friends with the coolest kid in school (Jay); passionate, out-of-control emotions, an artist but also a buffoon, tempestuous, occasional drunkard loves his mom, loves himself. mama’s boy. Likes curvy women.
Kim reads: Armenian Valley girl, rich parents on the margins of LA celebrity, a comfortable – even commodifiable – sexuality, real white women have curves, making bank by exploiting her own privacy and emotional life, fame whore, family gal, boob jokes with the sisters. Likes black guys.
For both of these two, it occurs to me that for folks who don’t consume their media and just hear about them, Kanye largely reads “jackass” (a la President Obama, who broke my heart that day, but I understand) and Kim reads “nouveau riche ethnic white trash.” As an avowed consumer and even teacher of Kanye’s music, and an occasional watcher of KUWTK and always admirer of Kim’s curvaceous form, I am inclined to see the good in them.
But, in any case, these two images combine really cleanly. Both are aspirational, folks who even on top seem jealous to get higher; both are hard workers; Kanye was a mama’s boy and Kim has family aplenty (and they’re for sale); both urbanites; both have shown their vulnerabilities in public; have been friends for years; both have an established interest in the looks/body type of the other one. So what might I admire or connect to in this relationship? Well, I think it’s the fantasy, first of all, of that special friendship turning into something more after all those years of failed relationships with other people. It also seems to be a fantasy about making choices–good choices and bad ones, artistic choices and capitalist ones–and not having our mistakes ruin our chance at love. And it’s also a fantasy about fame, because all these two wanted was to be famous, and now they are, and their conjunction makes each more famous than they could have been alone. And it’s a fantasy about genuine love, because these two may want each other for the fame, but definitely not for the money.
Now, let’s consider the second question: why love Kimye when there are Carters around?
Jay and Bey’s images are quite different than Kim and Kanye’s. The Carters manage their privacy. They got married secretly, then waited a long time to have a kid. Jay’s raps, like Bey’s tumblr, are personal, yet the real person is still hidden beneath a sheeny veil of artistry and marketing. They are black Americana: hiphop and R&B’s greatest contemporary successes.
The Carters read untouchable, effortless success. They work hard but they don’t have to try hard to work hard. As far as their alchemical stardom is concerned, their fame is based on 99% talent and 1% (all Bey’s) crazy gorgeous face-beauty. Compare this to Kim and Ye, whose hustles get down and dirty. Kim’s reality show success is leveraged from a sextape and her dad having defended OJ Simpson. Kanye is more infamous than famous, his awesome music dwarfed by his awesomely bad self-control.
So, depending on your fantasies and dreams–if you dream of pop stardom, if you dream of untouchability–Jay and Bey may be the star couple for you. But my life has been too messy and my fiction is too personal for me to hope for all that.
Now, grant me a detour. (Or skip the next section and meet me at the bottom.)
Buddhist cosmology holds that all sentient beings live and die and are reborn within a cycle of Samsara: imperfect existence. Of the cycle’s six realms, three are unfortunate–demons, hungry ghosts, and animals–and three are fortunate–humans, demigods, and gods. Rebirth in the fortunate groups is a result of good karma, and in the unfortunate groups is a result of bad (read more). Even though being a god or demigod is exceedingly pleasant, however, only humans can achieve nirvana – because it takes that most human mixture of pain and joy to fully practice the dharma, the good, noble way–gods and demigods are too distracted by their bounty to fully understand the nature of existence and behave accordingly.
Bear with me here.
Certain interpretations of Buddhism hold that “cosmology is equivalent to psychology.” That is, the so-called realm a being is in is psychological, not metaphysical. If you are miserable and desperate, you are a hungry ghost; if you are happy and at leisure, you are a god. Etc. Under this interpretation it is possible to say that human beings exist across all six realms of being. (For example, think of someone you know who is an animal.)
Mythologically, it is said that the Asuras [demigods] and the gods share a celestial tree. While the gods enjoy the fruits of this celestial tree, the Asuras are custodians of the roots of the tree. The Asuras are envious of the gods and constantly attempt to take the fruits of the tree from the gods. As a result of this, they fight with the gods, and are defeated by the gods and suffer greatly as a consequence. Because of this constant jealousy, envy and conflict, existence amongst the Asuras is unhappy and unfortunate.
The demigods guard the roots of the celestial tree and are jealous of the gods, who enjoy the fruits. The demigods are still demigods, jet they are plagued by jealousy, unhappy with their lot. The gods, on the other hand, are straight chillin’. They will always win.
I invoke these myths because they help me understand how I view what Rembert Browne calls the “Knowles-Thronedashians” and why Kanye and Kim are so much more appealing to me than Jay-Z and Beyonce. Gods and demigods, they’re all too distracted by their leisure to know much of the nature of things. But Kim and Kanye know–and show–their pain. Even jealousy is a real emotion I can understand. It makes them more human, or at least appear so. And the irony for us humans is that the most beneficial state in which to be born is to be born a human, because humans, with their pain and suffering as well as their joy and love, live in the only realm from which one can achieve nirvana, release from the cycle of death and rebirth.
Just listen, for a minute.
We gonna take it to the moon, take it to the stars,
How many people you know could take it this far?
So many stars [scars].
Bout to take this whole thing to Mars.
I know Kanye knows longing by the painful desire he exhibits on this track for his autotuned vocals to keep up with the wide warm vibrating velvet of Beyonce’s voice. He wants to sing like a man might want to run like Bolt or dance like Baryshikov or sing like Beyonce but only the gods can do that, and longing is attachment and pain.
Kanye is a man, is a human being. I adore him for his failures as much as for his success. I want him to find love.
So, what do we talk about when we talk about Kimye? We congratulate folks getting the body they’ve dreamed about in a sexual partner (more on this in part II). We dream that we get the one who got away. We hope a man who’s lost his family finds another. We celebrate the power of love despite the messiness of our lives and the mistakes we’ve made. We pray love works. We’re pinning our hopes on Kimye.
[Note: This is the 20-page writing sample I submitted with my PhD application this fall. On that document, I invited readers to view it here, in its native online format, so I can fill it with the hyperlinks and video clips it deserves. Feel free to leave comments below – I hope to expand it in the future, and I’ll be glad to hear what you think. -TB]
[Later note, added in 2021: This piece extensively comments on the n-word. The word is spelled out when it is quoted, and asterisks when it is in my own voice.]
1. Intro: Writing #HipHop
Hiphop is practice and forms. It’s those fine arts: graffiti, breakdance, DJing, rap, dropping science—that is, philosophy. Hiphop is also community style: swagger, dress, language, belief.
American rap music is four-beat poetry composed in vernacular English and delivered over looped and remixed jazz, funk, and soul. These layered fruits of the DJ and the emcee constitute a music, a literature, and a discourse.
#HIPHOP is a hashtag. Like so much in hiphop, #hiphop is a creative deployment of a (Twitter) technology not designed for but coopted by youth voices of color. #Hiphop is an orthographic unity movement, a search function that describes a community. #Hiphop is new media organizing, because it organizes information. #HIPHOP is why I spell it hiphop.
Hiphop is a teacher. Hiphop songs and style unfurl alternative lessons for inquisitive eyes and ears, articulating counter-hegemonic norms and ways of being. Hiphop’s pedagogies are sung, spoken, remixed, reused, danced, acted, and scribbled on walls; its lessons are interdisciplinary, practical, organic, grassroots. Hiphop drops science, but also history, statistics, emotional skills. The cipher is a classroom: participatory, demonstrative, collaborative. The cipher thrives on argument, persuasion, and style.
Hiphop is created, extended, and disseminated—that is, written—across American media every day. As the subject for a college writing course, hiphop exploits students’ extracurricular interests by tapping into their pop culture universe. But relevance is just the hook. Writing hiphop demands close reading, listening, and watching; management of multiple registers; and mastery of form, style, and proof. Hiphop pedagogy is a teaching practice that uses hiphop texts to engage and educate, but hiphop has its own lessons to share. Hiphop’s pedagogies are critical, democratic, and liberatory for all people: dropouts and valedictorians, students and teachers. On his debut album The College Dropout, Kanye West remixes education to articulate critical lessons with relevance for all students.
2. Something So Cold
Yes, I teach a Kanye class. At the University of Michigan I teach a freshman writing course called “College Writing on The College Dropout,” which uses West’s 2004 debut album and an interdisciplinary set of thematically related texts as the basis for college-level writing and inquiry. On the second day of class, names shared and practiced, we review the rhetorical triangle. Then we listen to the album’s first song, entitled “We Don’t Care.”
In our discussion, the rhetorical triangle quickly proves prescient. West speaks of “we” and “you,” “us” and “they.” He begins, “If this is your first time hearing this, you are about to experience something so cold.” If we don’t know the stories he tells, he wants us to listen—and bring a coat. “The second verse is for my dogs working nine to five who still hustle.” But if we already know the story Kanye tells, well, this track’s for us, too. Weeks later, some students will question this track’s rhetorical stance in their first paper, a close reading. They’ll discover that West has two audiences: “us,” lower income African-Americans adopting a variety of extra-legal measures to “get by,” and “you,” the folks in charge of the failing schools and the overcrowded buses. My students find that West uses the first-person plural to express solidarity with his urban community of hustlers, and the first person possessive—“my dawgs,” “my niggas,” “my people”—to express affection for them, just as he uses “you” to address a nebulous oppressor.
Later in the semester, my students read the first chapter of Tricia Rose’s seminal rap study Black Noise. Many of them white and Asian-American, students notice Rose’s treatment of white listeners; she insists rap is a fundamentally “black idiom that prioritizes black culture” (4). Yet Rose acknowledges that “black culture in the United States has always had elements that have been at least bifocal—speaking to both a black audience and a larger predominantly white context. Rap music shares this history of interaction” (5). In this moment, Rose lays ground on which to examine rap as speaking not only to the African-American community but to other Americans as well. She recognizes rap’s attention as bifurcated between “a black audience and a…white context.” This dual focus could be used to explain West’s explicit concern both for sympathetic black listeners as well as uninformed suburbanites, out of touch with the inner city yet somehow still here, now, listening.
Once this duality is introduced, however, Rose moves quickly to dismiss white participation in hiphop. She writes:
Like generations of white teenagers before them, white teenage rap fans are listening in on black culture, fascinated by its differences, drawn in by mainstream socia constructions of black culture as a forbidden narrative, as a symbol of rebellion…. Young white listeners’ genuine pleasure and commitment to black music are necessarily affected by dominant racial discourses regarding African Americans, the politics of racial segregation, and cultural difference in the United States. Given the racially discriminatory context within which cultural syncretism takes place, some rappers have equated white participation with a process of dilution and subsequent theft of black culture. Although the terms dilution and theft do not capture the complexity of cultural incorporation and syncretism, this interpretation has more than a grain of truth in it. (5)
Rose makes clear she doesn’t believe rap is for “white teenage rap fans.” She describes them as “listening in,” “fascinated” by the “forbidden,” eavesdropping on a conversation that is not theirs. Lost is the notion from only a paragraph before that a “bifocal” rapper could take advantage of a diverse audience, codeswitching between adressing a peer group and a body of outsiders whose directly addressed “you” is more than a rhetorical straw man. Instead, Rose appeals to “cultural difference” to undercut the possibility of “young white listeners’ genuine pleasure and commitment.” Citing “some rappers,” Rose invokes white “dilution and theft” without taking responsibility for this accusation, only mentioning that it contains “a grain of truth.” Despite her fleeting awareness that rap also speaks to those white folks just “listening in,” Rose’s priority in her introduction is to celebrate and augment rap’s blackness at the expense of hiphop culture’s openness to diversity.
In their efforts to understand themselves as rap fans, my students find an unlikely ally in black liberation theologian James Cone. Many of my students are alienated at first by Cone’s pro-black rhetoric and his assault on the logic of white supremacy. In his The Spirituals and the Blues: A Theological Interpretation, Cone writes that “black music must be lived before it can be understood” (3). At first this stress on experience seems alienating, as though Cone means to suggest that only African-Americans can appreciate black music. Cone writes that “an authentic interpretation of black music [demands] having shared and participated in the experience that created it” (3). He calls for our emotions and sympathies, and even or our participation, if we are to interpret his community’s music. To understand the power of the slave spirituals, Cone writes, “‘academic tools are not enough”:
The interpreter must feel the Spirit; that is, one must feel one’s way into the power of black music, responding both to its rhythm and to the faith in experience it affirms. This song invites the believer to move close to the very sources of black existence, and to experience the black community’s power and the will to survive. (4)
For Cone, good analysis is affective, and true understanding depends not on “academic[s]” but on empathy. He considers the spiritual refrain, “Every time I feel the spirit/ Moving in my heart I will pray” (4). For Cone, there is no understanding of those lines for the interepreter who cannot “feel the spirit moving” for herself.
Kanye West’s debut album opens with an invitation to empathy that resonates closely with the problems posed by Cone. West raps, “If this is your first time hearing this, you are about to experience something so cold” (“We Don’t Care”). In West’s estimation, powerful storytelling can close the gap between ignorance and understanding. The affect, like the rhyme, is imperfect, but it’ll do: “hearing this” constitutes “experience,” and West’s story is “so cold,” he expects the audience to shiver. Kanye’s opening track paints a portrait of economic blight and institutional racism, and, like Cone’s spiritual, invites outsiders “close to the very sources of [contemporary] black existence, and to experience the black community’s…will to survive.” That is why Kanye has children sing of “drug dealing just to get by” (“We Don’t Care”). He invites us to experience the irony and absurdity of these children’s daily choices. Reading Cone together and listening to Kanye’s tracks in class, my students and I are able to use the vividness of West’s stories as affective entry points. If we can empathize, we may begin to understand.
3. Interlude: Whitey on the Web
Last January, I sat down at my computer one morning to discover that writer dream hampton had begun tweeting about Zora Neale Hurston and all of Black Twitter was abuzz. Around 11:45, hampton tweeted a string of three comments that compared Hurston’s “radical…privileging of ‘black talk’” [this tweet now deleted] to the increasing canonization of hiphop texts in writing.
One of my conflicts with writing Decoded was contributing to this growing idea that hip hop can be canonized in books, that books abt it + (hampton)
may come to be more important that [sic] rap itself. It’s a continuing of privileging culture w/written texts over those whose impt texts are oral (hampton)
Zora occupied language. She occupied the front porchers [sic] of storytellers. She was a listener. She privileged our oral traditions. (hampton)
I responded to these organic, intellectual tweets with fear and exhilaration. Exhilaration to watch organic scholarship and discourse be created in real time in a digital medium—but fear, too, at my own position as a white scholar instructing largely nonblack student populations to write and read hiphop. Writing about hampton’s tweets on my blog, Hiphopocracy (from which this article is adapted), I expressed anxiety that I was one of Rose’s purveyors of “dilution and theft”:
…am I just making excuses for a white academic’s co-opt of hiphop? Am I just forging space for whiteys like me to be able to participate via writing in a discourse which on a purely oral level is mostly closed to me? And what does it mean for us linguistic outsiders that Zora Neale Hurston wrote black dialect in the first place? Isn’t her foray into the written an invitation for us other writers to write back? Or isn’t it? (Brown)
Whining aside, hampton’s and my anxieties are valid—mine that I am an interloper, and hers that hiphop’s living arts are not just being “canonized” but entombed. I don’t share hampton’s fear that “books abt it” will or could ever “be more important [than] rap itself,” but she is right that Jay-Z’s self-exegesis Decoded (which hampton co-wrote) makes space for distant writers like me to reply here, on the page, in writing. So too with Hurston’s language. While Hurston “privileged [African-American] oral traditions,” she also wrote them down. In the context of hampton’s tweets, Hurston’s acts of transcription acquire a Pyrrhic quality: by translating oral speech for the page, Hurston’s talent propelled her black female voice into the American canon, even as this affirmed the western valuation of writing over speech.
My white students arrive for class the first day expecting a teacher of color who can authenticate their love for rap, only to find a white woman balancing on the same rickety racial pontoon as they. I have legitimacy only affirm my students’ “genuine pleasure and commitment.” Hiphop spits America’s open secrets, and dialoguing with rap in the classroom gives students of all races an opportunity and a language in which to discribe the racialized universe that all of our America. I hope that by closing the cognitive gap between the hiphop music we listen to and the voices and experiences that created it, we learn to practice empathy.
4. Hiphop’s (Critical) Pedagogies
In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, educator Paolo Freire writes of abandoning a “banking system” of education, where the teacher deposits her knowledge into her students, in favor of a decolonized classroom where students learn to ask questions of their own. Writing from 1960s Brazil, Freire’s suggestions are designed to awaken dehumanized peasants in the context of a deeply unequal society, a process he promises will open the minds of the powerful as well. As Freire writes, “oppression is domesticating” (51). If such a power divide exists in contemporary America, my classroom falls on the powerful side. Of course, this awareness begs for diversity and for community service. But it also raises the immediate question of who in our classroom will question our privilege. While my students populations are often diverse across ethnic, religious, and class lines, I would suggest that no student who makes it to the University of Michigan is truly marginal or abides by strongly counterhegemonic norms. Though one could be marginalized at the university, the elite university is itself at the center of power. Rose argues that “rap music… prioritizes black voices from the margins of urban America” (2), and so one way for us to welcome marginalized voices into our classroom is to do that very thing Rose bemoans and “[listen] in” on rap. My students bring a lot of cultural baggage into the classroom. But by patiently listening to thoughtful rap songs (a subset, that is, of all rap songs), close reading them on their own terms and allowing our presuppositions to be challenged, we “become jointly responsible for a process in which all grow” (Freire 80).
Freire prescribes teaching with “themes” culled from students’ own lives (96). And despite my students’ successes, the critical questions asked of American educational norms on The College Dropout resonate deeply. Questions like: Why am I in college? Is education as important as networking? Why can’t I just pursue my passion? To engage students critically, my classroom uses “hiphop pedagogy”—that is, the utilization of hiphop culture in the classroom, often toward activist, critical, or motivational ends. But rap isn’t just an empty chair to dialogue with—its music and lyrics speak back. A study of West’s album The College Dropout reveals a critical pedagogy of its own. As the album’s producer and chief lyricist, Kanye West moves past cricicism into creation. He uses the Afrodiasporic cultural practices of sampling, repetition, and remix to propose an organic black education based in the study and privileging of African-American cultural texts.
On the surface, West’s album presents two contrasting visions of education. The first is the mainstream college setting West rejects throughout the album: “My freshman year I was going through hell, a problem/still I built up the nerve to drop my ass up outta college” (“Get Em High”). The second is the education in the streets, what West in a later album terms the “ghetto university”: “Sittin in the hood like community colleges/This dope money here is lil’ Tre’s scholarship” (“We Don’t Care”). This dualistic portrait of education largely corresponds to sociologist Elijah Anderson’s description of the “decent” and “street” families who populate his study of urban Philadelphia, Code of the Street. In Anderson’s work, attitudes toward education are a central axis on which a person’s value orientation of decent or street can be plotted: decent folk value education, while street folk reject it. In my course, we use Anderson’s study to contextualize many of the practices and norms West describes. On an album titled The College Dropout, West’s central thematic concern is to negotiate these opposing attitudes about school.
West resolves the constricting school-vs-street dyad by creatively advocating for a third way, one which rejects both the conformity of college and the defeatism of street life. In his lyrics, Kanye expresses an urge to abandon college for his own version of success. In “Get Em High,” quoted above, he continues on: “My teacher said I’m a loser, I told her why don’t you kill me/I give a fuck if you fail me, I’m gonna follow/my heart…to the plaques or the stacks.” Volleying an alliterative line of F (you)’s toward his teacher, West suggests that rejecting the authority of the school is only the first in a series of aggressive moves toward self-realization. Like many rappers, West reserves the second person for enemies and haters. On other tracks “you” is an unnamed white oppressor class, and above we see it leveraged against his teaacher. But in “School Spirit,” West expands his attack to all those who uncritically accept hegemonic norms. “Told ‘em I finished school, and I started my own business./ They say ‘Oh you graduated?’ No, I decided I was finished./ Chasin’ y’all dreams and what you got planned/Now I spit it so hot, you got tanned.” Here West reveals that the oppressor is not a people but an ideal: the homogenizing forces of “y’all dreams and what you got planned.” He fights back with his fiery lyrics, but the site of his ultimate education is not articulated in language. It’s West’s music which details his education and in turn educates us.
Rose argues that hiphop’s practice of sampling is a digital manifestation of longstanding black cultural practices that privilege the curation and remix of available sounds into a new creation that is continuous with the old. She writes, “Rap production resonates with black cultural priorities in the age of digital reproduction” (75). Positioning the birth of hiphop as an artistic recovery in the face of social and political traumas on the 1970s and ’80s urban landscape, Rose sees rap’s attention to “flow, layering and ruptures in line” (Jafa qtd 38) as Afrodiasporic prioritization of repetition and polyrhythmy reasserted in the face of postindustrial collapse. Black culture’s continuity, adaptibility, and polyvocal capabilities, along with a new generation’s awareness of and sensitivity to social rupture, are “inscribed in hiphop style” (21). Hiphop aesthetics are an artistic response to social devastation. But hiphop also affirms the continuity of Black cultural life. To Rose, “sampling in rap is a process of cultural literacy and intertextual reference” (89). Sampling “is about paying homage…It is also a means of archival research, a process of musical and cultural archaeology” (79). Recycling older musics in contemporary contexts “affirms black musical history and locates these ‘past’ sounds in the ‘present’” (89). In Rose’s attention to literacy, research, and history we see the basis for a pedagogy based on teaching and learning black culture through sampling.
Rose quotes Hank Shocklee of Public Enemy who “offer[s his] lack of training as an explanation for the innovative nature of [his] approach” (81). Shocklee says, “In dealing with rap, you have to be innocent and ignorant of music” (qtd in Rose 81-82). And yet, Shocklee suggests, black producers “have a better sense of music, a better concept of music, of where it’s going, of what it can do” (qtd in Rose 81). Refusing to take the producer at his word, Rose rejects Shocklee’s appeals to his own ignorance. Instead, Rose argues, Shocklee
…is really referring to the differences between formal Western and black musical priorities as they are worked out, often contentiously, in the creative realm…Shocklee’s innocence is his lack of Western formal training….He, too, employs “knowledge” and musical strategies, not innocent (value-free) ones, but strategies commonly found in black musical traditions that often involve different cultural priorities. When he claims that to understand or deal with rap music you must be innocent, he suggests that a commitment to formal Western musical priorities must be abandoned…(82)
If we extend Rose’s recategorization of Shocklee’s “innocence” as a rejection of “Western musical priorities,” we discover a similar false ignorance in the music of The College Dropout. By narrating his experience as a “college dropout” over a remixed soundtrack of Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, and Luther Vandross, Kanye articulates a new cultural canon in the place of the western canon he abandoned when he left school.
On “School Spirit,” Kanye’s lyrics criticize mainstream education even as his music curates a new canon. The opening chords of Aretha Franklin’s original “Spirit in the Dark” have barely sounded when West calls out, “School Spirit, motherfuckers!” over the sped-up sample. I hear West’s triumphalism as delight at the success of his signifying, brazen as it is played against the work of a revered master like Aretha. In Franklin’s original, she sings of “getting the spirit in the dark.” She asks, “Tell me sister, how do you feel? …Do you feel like dancin’? Then get up and let’s start dancin’.” The song encourages its listeners to move to the Spirit within them, to pay no heed to what outsiders may think. Franklin instructs us to “put your hands on your hips, and cover your eyes….with the spirit in the dark.”
While Franklin preaches personal freedom, West’s lyrics portray college students as zombies in a conformist dance of Greek life. “Alpha, step. Omega, step,” he raps. “Kappa, step. Sigma, step.” In a move that calls on Rose’s frameworks of rupture and continuity, West doctors Franklin’s vocals so that she sings under him of “People moving/in the dark.” It’s clear that for West, the “dark” is college and these blind, grasping figures are college students. The end of Franklin’s “Spirit in the Dark” dissolves into a choral frenzy over speeding piano and banging tambourine, and West manages to parody her original even as he honors it. Ending “School Spirit” with mock Black Fraternity rituals, West parodies Franklin’s composition: “I feel a woo comin’ on, cuz, I feel a woo comin on, cuz. Woo! There it was.” West’s version relocates Franklin’s religious frenzy into a fraternity setting, revealing the “spirit” in “school spirit” to be misplaced and absurd. By juxtaposing his own criticism against Franklin’s religiosity, West’s music expresses the complex revelation that spirit is personal, not institutional.
In “Jesus Walks,” Kanye again draws on church and secular influences to triangulate an an inner-city theodicy. The basis of the“Jesus Walks’” beat is a looped sample of Arc Choir singing “Walk With Me”; the choir provides “Jesus Walks” with its familiar theology: “Jesus walk with me, with me, with me,” and grants the track its pleading, earnest tone. The song’s other lyrical sample is a very short vocal clip of Curtis Mayfield crying out, “Niggas!” With one word, West directs us in his music—and, if we are reading closely, his album credits—to Mayfield’s “(Don’t Worry) If there’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go, ” from which the single shouted slur is lifted. Rose is helpful here when she characterizes sampling choices as a “paying homage” and a “(re)locating these ‘past’ sounds in the ‘present.’” West is relocating Mayfield’s “niggas” to present day Chicago, “the valley of the Chi where death is” (“Jesus Walks”). “Niggas” is like a hyperlink that guides us back to Mayfield’s song, where we discover that “Jesus Walks” contains broad thematic parallels to “(Don’t Worry).” While Mayfield also bemoans urban violence and ignorance, he is less optimistic than West regarding the possibility of salvation. By using sampling to point listeners to Mayfield and to gospel music, West affirms the continuity of African American experience and roots his production of knowledge in the wisdom of an honored predecessor and the faith of a religious community.
By remixing Black cultural sounds, icons, and tropes, West situates himself within the canon of his community and his choice. In his sampling, West proves himself a master signifier, highlighting irony and absurdity with single words while repackaging his musical heroes for a new generation of listeners. By creating content he moves from a student of black culture to a teacher. West schools us via an alternative model of education based in the study and citation of African-American cultural texts.
6. The N-Word
The comedian Louis C.K., in his relentless interrogation of white privilege, does a bit on language that offends him.
The thing that offends me the most is every time I hear the n-word. Not “nigger,” by the way, I mean [he makes broad air quotes] “the n-word.” Literally. Whenever a white lady on CNN with nice hair says “the n-word.” That’s just white people getting away with saying “nigger.” That’s all that is….When you say “the n-word,” you put the word “nigger” in the listener’s head. That’s what saying a word is….You’re making me say it, in my head! Why don’t you fucking say it, and take responsibility for the shitty words you want to say. (C.K.)
In C.K.’s estimation, “n-word” is an irresponsible euphemism, a transparent stand-in that falsely absolves the speaker of dealing with grave and explosive language. His reference to an imaginary anchor on cable news network CNN highlights not just the ubiquity of this euphemism but also the prominence, in outline, of the slur which has been visibly removed from our view.
The answer to C.K.’s rhetorical question, “why don’t you fucking say it?” is important, because the refusal to pronounce n***er aloud has become a cultural phenomenon of its own, most notably after 2012 Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry was discovered to have owned a hunting lodge called “Niggerhead.” Media reports, featuring seasoned news anchors in panic as they discussed Perry’s racist ranch, “N-word-head” (e.g., see Stewart), seemed like comedy sketches C.K. wrote to make his point. “The n-word” is a three-syllable, two-word hyphenate that stands in for one word with two syllables whose power is affirmed when it is ignored. Like “f-word,” “n-word” is juvenile and betrays its sayer’s fear of transgression. “N-word” marks a site where white anxiety over one’s own racism manifests as self-censorship.
Writing in GRANTLAND, Alex Pappademas describes pop singer Katy Perry covering the Kanye West and Jay-Z collaboration track “Niggas in Paris” by dubbing the title phrase “Ninjas in Paris.” Describing Perry’s “tee-hee transgression,” Pappademas is inclined to applaud
a girl refusing to let this song’s imaginary world of swinging-dick privilege be off-limits to her. But that’s all that’s happening here; [Perry] puts the word on like a piece of borrowed jewelry and parades in front of the mirror. Her flimsy white-girl voice doesn’t reveal anything about the song’s construction or its sentiments that Kanye and Jay’s voices were covering up… (Pappademas)
Watching the video proves Pappademas right: despite Perry’s Yankees cap and the deep lunges from which she belts Jay and Ye’s lines, Perry’s usual charisma and stage presence are absent. Her shout-out to her ninjas belies a larger unwillingness to take the song seriously, to rap it with her head up, to allow the transgressiveness of her own act fill up her chest and shoulders so that instead of suggesting (as Pappademas thinks her cover does) that her failed celebrity marriage “was as bad as being married to the legacy of centuries of racism,” Perry’s cover would have embraced genuine empathy for what it means to be noveau-riche and still discriminated against in the cultural capitol of the western world.
And then it happened. [Jay-Z began his song] “Jigga My N—-.” … I did a quick scan of the room…Good lord, there were a lot of white people in here.… Once the chorus kicked in, this crowd had about six seconds to decide which direction they were going with the lyrics:
Jay: What’s my motherfuckin name?
Jay: And who I’m rolling with, huh?
It is at this point that Jay-Z almost complicates the situation by gesturing to the crowd that he wants to hear us say “it.” As a former sociology major, what happens in that room when the next lyric is “my n—-” is what I dream about… Some would never say it because they were raised not to and wouldn’t dream of changing simply because it’s a lyric, some will go from screaming the previous lyrics to mumbling “n—-” really softly, others will substitute it for another word like “jigga” or “friend” or “associate,” and others will scream it at the top of their lungs because, quite frankly, it’s a free country. (Browne)
First off, let’s note the orthographic confusion that remains after “n-word” has been abandoned. Browne (or his editor) chooses hyphens to partially obscure the offending word, “n—–,” though “motherfuckin” is spelled in full. Elsewhere in the same publication, Pappademas writes of Katy Perry’s encounters with a heavily-asterisked “N**** in Paris.” On the album materials for Watch the Throne, the song title appears as “Ni**s in Paris.” The g’s are not silent—there are no g’s at all (too gangsta?); instead, asterisks are pronounced as g’s, in which case “Niggas in Paris” may actually be a misspelling of the correct song title.
This confusion in spelling is sonically paralleled by the Jay-Z fans in Austin: asterisks or dashes, “jigga” or “friend”? Or just silence? While my students are not welcome to casually swear or slur in class, our classroom is a censoring-free space. Like the rap fans Browne describes, my students develop a variety of strategies for coping with this newfound freedom. When they want to quote an obscenity-laced line aloud, some students will side-step or make a little beep noise or substitute “guys” or “mmhmm” or “F.” In his You Know My Steez, sociolinguist H. Samy Alim examines hiphop language usage in high school students. He notices with alarm the “ways in which educators attempt to silence BL [Black Language] in White public space by inculcating speakers of heterogeneous language varieties into…White ways of speaking” (xxiii). In small ways, respecting rap as literature in the classroom asks a “white public space” to respect otherized ways of speaking, and (more importantly) to reckon seriously with what those others have to say. Drawing again on Rose, we could read Jay-Z’s procative placements of “nigga” as bifocal: a single word doubling as a shout-out to African Americans (or whomever else is down) and also a pointed challenge to outsiders. American media’s wilful silence, powerful men and women almost literally putting their fingers in their ears to chant “n-n-n-n-n-n-n-word,” is an evasion that sends confusing mixed messages to young people who want to talk about race in a relevant way. I’ll never force a student to swear. But I hope that confronting sharp language instead of ignoring it at least invites students to consider what a centuries-old racial slur is doing at the center of an ongoing national linguistic debate.
Facing Kanye’s real language in class is preparation for writing about it at home; “n***a” is sometimes central to the meaning of a song. One early writing assignment asks students to compare two versions of Kanye’s track “All Falls Down.” Students always do a remarkable job cataloguing miniscule differences between the two versions, and the themes of “materialism and insecurity” appear frequently, but it’s the deeper message of the song which proves elusive: that after centuries of white supremacy, black consumerism is a failed attempt at self-recovery.
It seems we livin’ the American dream,
But the people highest up got the lowest self esteem
The prettiest people do the ugliest things
For the road to riches and diamond rings.
We shine because they hate us, floss ’cause they degrade us–
We tryna buy back our forty acres–
And for that paper, look how low we a’stoop:
Even if you in a Benz, you still a nigga, in a [coupe/coop]. (West “All Falls Down”)
My shrewd student readers notice this excerpt’s painful final pun, as West suggests that not even a Mercedes can rescue his fellow African-American men from an echoing history of judgment and containment. But the closest readers begin to notice that the pun on “coop/coupe” actually creates a pun on “n***a.” The Mercedes-Benz “coupe” implies the slur’s contemporary intra-black usage, that is, what black men like West can call one another: “my n***a.” But the “n***a in a coop” harkens to the originary usage of this word, that word which absurdly denoted property and was even more absurdly reappropriated by those possessions who were not.
In his “On the Question of Nigga Authenticity,” critical theorist R.A.T. Judy links the linguistic shift from “n***er” to “n***a” with African-Americans’ shifting place within the American economy: from forced labor to forced unemployment. In Judy’s estimation, “n***er” was the potential for labor, bought and sold via the bodies of slaves: “The value of the nigger is not in the physical body itself but in the energy, the potential force, that the body contains…That force is the thing that the planter owns. It is the property of the planter that is the nigger. The nigger is that thing” (Judy 109). Judy’s definition locates the n***er in the coop, as property held for its industrial force. But as the agrarian and then the industrial economy collapsed, so too did the value of the n***er; what replaced him was the n***a. Glossing rapper Ice-T, Judy situates the n***a in the present, in “the age of hypercommodification, in which experience has not become commodified, it is commodity”—these days, experience isn’t what you’re doing, but what you’re consuming—“and nigga designates the scene, par excellence, of commodification, where one is among commodities. Nigga is a commodity affect” (111). Whereas n***er is a possession, “the thing that the planter owns,” n***a is the feeling of being for sale, of being “among commodities,” displayed among the other saleable goods. In the context of West’s “All Falls Down,” Judy locates the n***a in the Mercedez-Benze coupe. According to Judy, the authentic n***a is the n***a selling, not buying, n***a affect: the one who understands so well “the nature of experience in a global economy” that he can abstract his affect from his experience and sell it to other consumers. “That’s why I’m not bitter,” raps Ice-T: “cause everybody is a nigga to a nigga” (qtd in Judy 112).
Unlike Judy and Ice-T, however, West seems to believe in the communicability of affect through storytelling. In “All Falls Down,” he struggles against his own commodification:
Man I promise, I’m so self-conscious
That’s why you always see me with at least one of my watches.
Rollies and Pashas done drove me crazy
I can’t even pronounce nothing, pass that Versazy!
Then I spent fo’ hundred bucks on this
Just to be like, “Nigga, you ain’t up on this!”
And I can’t even go to the grocery store
Without some One’s that’s clean, and a shirt with a team
It seems we livin’ the American dream…. (West “All Falls Down”)
West’s music fights against the hiphop precendent set by gangsta rap. In Judy and Ice-T’s world, being “self-conscious” is valuable in that becoming concious of oneself allows one to package that self and sell it: “Nigga, you ain’t up on this!” But West’s lyrics push beyond simple affect into complex feeling: being a commodity “done drove me crazy” and is infringing upon his real life—he “can’t even go to the grocery store.” The n***a affect is not what West wants to sell. That package, with its watches and Nike Ones, proves illusory; it “all falls down.” And pursuing that image isn’t worth it, only “seems…the American dream”: “Even … in a Benz, you still a nigga.” Despite Judy’s qualified celebration of the n***a affect as a genius act of self-commodification, West rejects that project with a sharp, simple pun. West rejects inhabiting the image of the “nigga in the coupe” because of “nigg[er] in the coop” he conjures. The men in the coupe and the coop are both trapped by definitions they did not devise, chained to a centuries-old capitalist enterprise which constrains and commodifies young black men.
Judy’s study is limited to African-Americans, but it needn’t be. He writes, “A nigga is what emerges from the demise of human capital, what gets articulated when the field nigger loses value as labor” (Judy 104). While African laborers were forced to America, Chinese, Mexican, and southern and eastern European bodies were also only welcomed for their value as labor. In the wake of deindustrialization, Ice-T names the last option for workers: the killing fields. “The killing fields, then,” Judy writes, “are the place of non-work for complete consumption of needless workers” (104). We might expand Ice-T’s killing fields—the violent inner city, where young black men murder each other—to various modern killing factories: the prison system, the war machine, the obesity industry. Near the heart of her novel Love Medicine, Louise Erdrich writes of a Native American man who keeps escaping from prison: “Gerry’s problem, you see, was he believed in justice, not laws. He felt he had paid for his crime, which was done in a drunk heat and to settle the question with a cowboy of whether a Chippewa was also a nigger” (197). In Erdrich’s fictional study of indigenous Americans, “nigger” marks the site where justice and laws diverge and racism divides the powerful from the imprisoned. In Gerry’s case, that “he had paid for his crime” is irrelevant; his imprisonment proves the cowboy’s insult. A “Chippewa is a nigger” as long as the laws grant his body to the prison.
All killing fields create capital through the destruction of bodies and therefore depend on language to prep bodies of color through slur and dehumanization: we should not be surprised at white Americans’ creative use of n***er to describe a spectrum of African, Asian, and Arab bodies when American industrial practices of war and prison enact that disdain on foreign and American nonwhite bodies every day. Nor should we be shocked at nonblacks’ reactive appropriation of n***a to describe themselves and one another. In fact, according Judy, n***a is a transcendant act: recognizing ourselves dehumanized but still human “liberates significance from experience” (105): we are more than the killing fields. In a post-work America, n***er and n***a are the linguistic indicators of a continued effort to normalize dehumanizing and destroying nonwhite bodies for capital gain. When West samples the word “Niggas” from Curtis Mayfield, (itseslf a relocation of a kind of pernicious slave word), West affirms that racism’s ability to commodify and constrain young black men has persisted from Mayfield’s time into our own.
9. Outro: Generation Hustle
In his essay “The African Writer and the English Language,” which my students and I read near the end of our semester, Chinua Achebe writes of the surprising linguistic gifts of colonialism in Africa. The colonization of Africa, he writes, gave Africans “a language with which to talk to one another. If it failed to give them a song, it at least gave them a tongue, for sighing.” At the end of his speech, Achebe quotes James Baldwin, who brings the conversation to the U.S.A.
My quarrel with the English language has been that the language reflected none of my experience. But now I began to see the matter another way…. Perhaps the language was not my own because I had never attempted to use it, had only learned to imitate it. If this were so, then it might be made to bear the burden of my experience if I could find the stamina to challenge it, and me, to such a test. (Baldwin qtd in Achebe 102)
For many of my students, this is their first introduction to a postcolonial worldview, one in which English itself is to be questioned. And English has surely given hiphop what Achebe calls “a tongue for sighing”—and for swearing, spitting, and storytelling. In hiphop, English can “bear the burden” of the African-American experience with the support of sounds, rhythm, and community. And in challenging English, to use Baldwin’s words, hiphop has challenged not just American language but also culture aand consciousness to open itself up to the experience of the post-industrial inner city. For the open-hearted, hearing can be believing.
In the first verse on The College Dropout, Kanye raps,
Sittin in the hood like community colleges
This dope money here is Lil’ Tre’s scholarship.
Cuz ain’t no tuition for having no ambition,
And ain’t no loans for sitting your ass at home. (“We Don’t Care”)
Our classroom jury is still out on Lil Tre’s designs: does he really need money for school, or is Kanye using the language of a financed education—scholarship, tuition, loans—for ironic effect, as Lil Tre tries to make something of himself in the hood? For my students, among whom loans are no metaphor, Kanye’s figurative equivalence between the drug hustle and the college hustle cuts both ways. By comparing college with the hood, Kanye highlights the ubiquity of financial struggle in any modern young person’s life. And by using Ivory Tower language to describe the block, West invites privileged listeners to empathize with another group of Americans striving, he insists, just as hard as y’all college kids.
In their book Decoded, Jay-Z and dream hampton declare that “hustling is the ultimate metaphor for human struggles” (18). Hustling may be universal, but it feels especially relevant to my generation (Smith). We hustle to get into college, to get good grades, to maintain social position, to get a job, pay rent, secure health insurance. As Jay would say, “If I’m not a hustler what you call that?” (10). If Jay-Z is right, the universality of the hustle may be a major entrance point for all contemporary young people into the empathetic universe of hiphop. “Seventy percent of… students at the University of Michigan receive some form of financial aid” (“Frequently Asked Questions”) and, as Kanye says, “ain’t no loans for sittin yo’ ass at home” (“We Don’t Care”). Absurdity, commodification, self-consiousness, the fear that “it all falls down”—these anxieties are permanent features of postmodern existence, available to every American with a credit card and TV. Privilege is relative, hustling is essential, and hiphop has heard it all before. And it has lessons to teach us, if we’ll listen.
Achebe, Chinua. “The African Writer and the English Language.” Morning Yet on Creation Day: Essays. Anchor Press (1975): New York. Print.
Alim, H. Samy. You Know My Steez: An Ethnographic and Sociolinguistic Study of Styleshifting in a Black American Speech Community. Ed. Ronald R. Butters. Annual Supplement to American Speech, no. 89. Duke University Press for the American Dialect Society (2004): United States. Print.
Anderson, Elijah. Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City. W. W. Norton & Company (2000): New York. Print.
Cone, James H. The Spirituals and the Blues: An Interpretation. Orbis Books (2009): Maryknoll, New York. Print.
Erdrich, Louise. Love Medicine. Harper Perennial (2009): New York. Print.
Freire, Paolo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Trans. Myra Bergman Ramos. The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc (2000): New York. Print.
hampton, dream (@dreamhampton). “may come to be more important that rap itself. It’s a continuing of privileging culture w/written texts over those whose impt texts are oral”. 7 January 2012, 8:21 AM. Tweet.
— “One of my conflicts with writing Decoded was contributing to this growing idea that hip hop can be canonized in books, that books abt it +”. 7 January 2012, 8:19 AM. Tweet.
— “Zora occupied language. She occupied the front porchers of storytellers. She was a listener. She privileged our oral traditions.” 7 January 2012, 8:22 AM. Tweet.
Jay-Z. Decoded. Spiegel & Grau (2010): New York. Print.
Mayfield, Curtis. “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go.” Curtis [Original Recording Reissued, Original Recording Remastered]. Rhino, 2000. Audio CD.
On Sunday, fiscal conservatives the world over freaked out when France elected its Socialist candidate for president, Francois Hollande, and ousted the incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy. While I am interested in the shifts this upset will cause in world affairs, I am more interested in the following campaign advertisement for Hollande, discovered by Pitchfork and brought to my attention by a friend.
If you were wondering what I thought “Obama could never do,” it’s release a campaign video like this one. I mean, Obama invited Jay-Z to his 50th birthday bash and Fox News headlined its coverage, “Obama’s Hip-Hop BBQ Didn’t Create Jobs.” But because Hollande, a white man, does not have to worry about his electorate remembering that he is a Black man, he can explicitly reach out to French voters of color by featuring them in a campaign ad backed by the Jay-Z and Kanye West track “Niggas in Paris.” Umcensored.
Slate calls the ad “unlikely”; Pitchfork calls it “confusing” and “strange.” Neither seem to analyze it beyond the pun “That shit Creil,” where Creil is the name if a city shown a few times in the ad that is pronounced like Kanye’s “cray.” But this ad is amazing to me for so many reasons that neither publication seems willing to explore.
Fox News’ Obama birthday banner image
First, the title of the song. Hollande’s commercial literally depicts “Niggas in Paris,” even as it totally recontextualizes the subjects of the song. In the original, Ye and Jay are high-rolling American Black men partying in an idealized Paris. Jay raps, “If you escaped what I escaped, you’d be in Paris getting fucked up, too.” But in Hollande’s ad, these niggas in Paris aren’t high-rollers and they’re in their own country. In fact, the video is explicitly concerned with portraying people of color as French citizens, with constructing the French voting citizenry as a racially and culturally diverse body. Much of the ad consists of a multiracial cohort of people holding out their voter cards and smiling wildly. One of the first shots is of a woman in hijab, a symbol of Muslim religious practice that has become controversial in much of right-leaning Europe. (In fact, full face veils are actually illegal in France.) There are also a lot of shots of Hollande speaking enthusiastically to folks who do or don’t look like him. Indeed, Hollande’s advertisement suggests that the people it depicts are more than “niggas in Paris,” that is, outsiders to be labelled in a place that does not belong to them: instead, they are French citizens with the power to shape their country’s future through voting.
A comment on Slate claims this ad was created by supporters, not by Hollande’s campaign itself. I don’t know. I wish Melissa Harris-Perry was here to talk about the construction of citizenship. But it’s all good. This video still rocks my political socks. What do you guys think?
So, I finally got my hands on a copy of Jay-Z and Kanye’s collaborative album Watch the Throne (2011), I’ve been listening to it all weekend, and I gotta write about it. If Kanye’s previous album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was like spending the night with your best friend you’ve had a crush on since you were a little kid, Watch the Throne is like partying with your best friend you’ve been jealous of and competitive with since y’all were kids, then going to a party full of people richer than you, getting smashed, and walking home through the city streets with your arms around each other singing camp songs into the dark, expensive night.
Since his last solo album, Kanye’s vision of luxury has deepened–not just aurally and lyrically, but visually, too–and branded. While it’s no secret that Watch the Throne is about luxury, I’ll let you listen to the lyrics on your own time. Today’s post is about visuals: in the music video for “Otis,” Jay and ‘Ye dismantle a Maybach– you know, Maybachs on backs on backs–and Ricardo Tisci of Givenchy art directed the CD, the tour, and a few videos, “Otis” included. The CD materials for WTT aren’t as beautiful as MBDTF’s, but it’s not Tisci’s fault. MBDTF has a fold-out packaging in rich red with gold lettering that seems designed with its holiday-season release in mind. After the banning of its miscegenation-themed cover art, an original oil painting by George Condo, buyers ultimately had the choice of one of five other original Condo paintings as their peekaboo cover image. Inside the packaging, the CD booklet folded out into a square poster of the Condo painting on one side. On the inside, in bright gold lettering, all of the album’s credits and permissions. For a guy who made name through innovative samples, a task that’s too often wrought with legal troubles and debt for artists, these gold letters screamed that Kanye had every singer, rapper, producer and sample on his album that he wanted, and he paid for it all, straight-up.
MBDTF Ltd. Edition Vinyl
By the time WTT rolls around, Kanye’s provedhis piece. Gold letters behind him, he’s onto gold covers now, that is, the gold-plated cover art for the album designed by Ricardo Tisci, the head designer for luxury house Givenchy. On the pack page of WTT’s album booklet, Tisci is credited as “Creative Director.” And while folks kept hounding Kanye for touring in a leather skirt and a t-shirt with a picture of himself as a tiger on it, it only takes a quick flip through the WTT CD booklet to realize that that’s a Givenchy shirt designed for this album by Ricardo Tisci. So who’s laughing now?
Also in the booklet is the screen-printed American flag that adorns the wall above the dessicated Maybach in “Otis” — a fibrous, pop-art looking thing that reminds us from the booklet’s inside cover that what’s happening here is uniquely amazing because it’s uniquely American: rags-to-beyond-riches, hiphop style. (As Jay-Z writes in Decoded, hiphop tells the story of “something bloody and dramatic and scandalous that happened right here in America” (18).) Unlike in the MBDTF literature, WTT’s booklet is all business: certainly no lyrics, some custom Givenchy art, and two tight pages of permissions in a basic sans-serif typeface with Gothic lettering for the song titles. But it’s still all there. Contains samples from. Contains samples from. Additional creative input by. Used with permission. Used with permission. Appears courtesy of. Used with Permission. All rights reserved.
As Stringer Bell said to Avon Barksdale, “We making so much goddamn straight money, man, the government come after us, man, ain’t shit they can say” (The Wire s3e6, 2004).
So, my point is, Kanye’s last two albums point to an interesting new development in sampling ethics, which have grown and heaved over the last decades as the legal profession has run them raw. We’ve seen the Lil Wayne response, which is to rap over whatever he wants, then release it for free as a mixtape; the Tyler the Creator response, who doesn’t even sample–he wants other folks to sample him. And then, fittingly, the Kanye response: big, brash, and willing to shell out for what he wants. This is luxury sampling ethics, samples bought and paid for, further elucidation of Mychal Denzel Smith’s claim that “For Jay-Z [and, I’d add, Kanye], wealth is revolutionary”–and this is the part where I string together a bunch of WTT song titles, so brace your dork-o-meters–’cause it’s a New Day, they’ve Gotta Have It, these tracks were Made in America, and Who Gon Stop Me? Not Otis (nor the keepers of his estate).
(While the rest of the relevant Twittersphere writes about Trayvon Martin’s death, I am going to keep writing about white people saying the N-word. Not because I am not following Martin’s story, or because I’m not heartbroken by it, but because I have nothing to add to the coverage and momentum that are already changing the trajectory of this case.)
And now, back to navel-gazing.
This morning a friend sent me this article from Grantland about Katy Perry covering “Niggas in Paris.” Of course, unlike what I just did there, Alex Pappademas titled the song “N***** in Paris” and focused on Katy Perry’s “tee-hee trangression” of sing-rapping about “ninjas in Paris.” Clever! According to Pappademas, Perry’s cover constitutes
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; she 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…
Despite Perry’s Yankees cap, despite the deep knee lunges from which she belt-sings Jay and Ye’s lines, despite my congratulatory impulses, I have to agree with Pappademas here: Perry’s shout-out to her ninjas belies a larger unwillingness to take this song seriously, to rap it with her head up, to allow the transgressiveness of her own act to fill up her chest and shoulders so that instead of suggesting (as Pappademas thinks her cover does) that “Being married to Russell Brand was as bad as being married to the legacy of centuries of racism,” Perry’s cover could have embraced genuine empathy for what it means to be a nigga in Paris.
But more important than Pappademas’s story is one he links to, “An Awkward Moment at That Jay-Z Concert,” in which author Rembert Browne reflects on the various audience responses when Jay-Z (accidentally?) invited his largely white SXSW crowd to sing along at a touchy moment. Mostly because I agree with him, I’ll quote Browne at length:
The more recent and obvious example of this is last year’s debatable song of the year, interestingly not titled “Ball So Hard,” but instead “N—– in Paris.” As soon as this Jay-Z/Kanye instant hit was released, the way the lyrics of this song were handled by the public could be documented in a very lengthy dissertation. From people referring to it as “Ninjas in Paris” to radio stations simply calling it “Paris” to the fact that the entire song is a buildup to the line “Got my N—– in Paris, and they going gorillas” makes this, again, another case where one of our popular culture’s least-discussed yet most-uttered and thought-about words gives people a very interesting decision to make.
My personal beliefs on the matter are irrelevant, but if you insist, I guess I’ll say that the action by some of our more famous, influential black celebrities to aid in the okayification (or “deconstruction,” if you must) of the word by launching it to the forefront of the pop culture sphere is something I believe to be a good thing. What’s problematic, however, is the process of pretending like the word doesn’t exist. Trust me, it’s real. The decision to say it or not say it is very much up to the person, and I respect that, but it’s real and if you are one who has no issue with it being a part of your own vernacular from time to time, you really haven’t a right to censor anyone else.
That, there: that the word(s) nigga(er) are “one of our popular culture’s least-discussed yet most-uttered and thought about word.” Yes. Yes! This is the thought I kept thinking when the most recent iteration of racist gibberish against Obama made its rounds–that our refusal to say this word preserves its most enshrined space at the blotchy center of our national amnesia. “Least-discussed yet most-uttered and thought about word”–you know, like white news anchors all across the television-scape faulting Rick Perry for his “N-word-head” ranch. Maybe my willingness to pronounce and inscribe the actual true syllables of nigger or nigga out loud and on the Internet with my identity attached is a willingness to take responsibility for the fact that what I’m doing here is controversial–unlike Katy Perry, who as Pappademus terms it is “somebody get a transgressive thrill out of (basically) saying a forbidden word in public without actually putting her adorkability on the line.” Thank you, Rembert Browne: “What’s problematic…is pretending like the word doesn’t exist. Trust me, it’s real.” I guess that’s what I’m hoping for when I allow this word into our classroom space: a reckoning with the persistence of racist language. How can we fight racism when we pretend it’s gone?
Then again, Katy Perry is a rock star and I’m just a self-involved adjunct lecturer blogging from Michigan.
I have this one student, a freshman, who keeps wanting to talk about what the hell white people are doing in hiphop–as fans, as rappers, as witnesses. Near the beginning of the semester he told me, “I just got into hiphop music last year, and I really like it, but I didn’t know what I was doing because I am just. so. white. Like a small town white guy from Michigan. But then I signed up for this class, thinking it would be kind of weird, but then YOU walked in” (paraphrase). That is, me, TB, white person. White girl, plagued by the same problem of authenticity that he is. So who’s gonna legitimize anyone in this room?
And this student keeps returning to that same question, which I originally answered by saying that the answers I’d heard and read were unsatisfactory, but which after multiple negative definitions still is in need of a positive. See, the question is, Why do white kids love hiphop? And, no disrespect to Bakari Kitwana, but this question has not been answered, it has only been mitigated. White fans and rappers have been derided as imitators, co-opters and thieves; our purchasing power has been termed a necessary evil, a sort of redistribution of wealth from our parents to rappers’ pockets; the statistics have been denounced as misrepresenting actual listens, since The Source is read thirteen times for every purchase, or whatever it is.
But my student asks me again: Why do white kids love hiphop?
And for once, as a white kid, it’s my experience that’s valuable here. Here is the question that I am actually entitled to answer, the instant when my participation in hiphop as a white kid is an experience of value. I love hiphop because the bass drum hits my chest as hard as it hits yours. I love hiphop because I love literature and rap is. I love hiphop because it rode the airwaves into my bedroom radio as a kid, because it featured prominently on the soundtrack to Chicago I grew up with. I love hiphop because I am also angry and proud and filled with curse words and swagger and bitterness and hope. I love hiphop because it’s funny. I love hiphop because it’s true. I love hiphop because it’s critical and because I am trying to be better at being critical every day. I love hiphop because I believe what it articulates about the government, the police, the new world order, the legacy of white supremacy, the persistence of misogyny, the ineffability of spirituality in a materialistic society, the end-all-be-all of a hometown, the importance of community, the subjectivity of the individual. The power of language and a beat.