A Brief Introduction: Believe it or Not, This is an Essay/Paper/Remix
The purposes of this essay/paper/remix are to provide an analysis of selected images in and through hip-hop, engage in public scholarship, and to start to deconstruct notions of what comprises “scholarly writing”.I’m looking at some of the most prevalent/popular/controversial/sensationalized cultural aspects of how hip-hop portrays itself/is portrayed—authenticity, masculinity, and sexuality—and how they can be perceived. I’m using images and text-as-image to create a narrative that establishes an argument for these aspects of hip-hop and how they’re viewed as complex, multi-faceted, and constantly changing.
There are a lot of visual cues within this essay/paper/remix. Some of them require no prior cultural capital, others are inside jokes. I’ll give you one of them here: Isaiah Carey is a television newsreporter, known for this now infamous outtakein which he very quickly switches from mainstream American English to African American
As Jay-Z put it in his song, “I Just Wanna Love U”, It’s… about… to go… down.
Defining Hip-Hop and Recognizing “The Real”
Hip-Hop as a cultural movement began in the 1960s and 1970s as a synthesis of Black music, dance and visual artistry, and the signifying, poetic, and story-telling traditions from the Caribbean and urban metropolitan cities in the United States. Alim (2007) goes further back to African oral traditions and the telling and re-telling of cultural narratives as he defines hip-hop’s roots. Hip-hopper KRS-One, known colloquially as “The Teacher” and a hip-hop god, enumerates nine specific aspects that comprise the culture. They include:
·Breakin’ – Dancing styles that are rooted in street performance and began primarily being performed to rap music
·Emceein’ – The rhythmic and poetic speech that has its roots in signifying, the African oral history tradition, and the politically conscious poetry of the Civil Rights Movement
·GraffitiArt – Storytelling using stylized visual art and writing that is primarily influenced by Black, urban cultural narratives and experiences
·Deejayin’ – Producing music, whether through the use of studio equipment, turntables, or on radio as an on-air personality
·Beatboxin’ – Creating music using only one’s body literally as an instrument. It has its origins in poverty amongst hip-hoppers unable to afford music production equipment, and in the jazz, blues, and doo-wop traditions in African American music.
·Street Knowledge – The recognition and application of commonsense knowledge and wisdom possessed by urban youth that originates outside of the traditional classroom.
·Street Language – Ebonics or African American Vernacular English, which is the language of power
·Street Fashion – The sartorial expression of urban youths that often sets popular trends, but has its roots in identifying with the hip-hop sub/counter-culture
·Street Entrepreneurialism – The spirit of actual sales or the metaphor for salesmanship ability and the ability to sell or barter ideas and ideology
This holistic representation of hip-hop runs counter to its mainstream conceptions, which typically reference only rapping and rappers themselves. In addition, the rappers and songs denoted in this deficient view of “hip-hop” often include only those that are popular or commercially ubiquitous. Following the prevalent, hegemonic view of urban Black culture in general, these songs and popular rappers are not representative of the wealth of subjects and artists that help comprise hip-hop. They are too often devoid of the political, socially conscious, or simply insightful narratives that are an abundant portion of the culture, and do not have materialism, misogyny, or violence as their primary content (Akom, 2009; Alim, 2007; Hill, 2009). At the same time, it is important to understand and accept that hip-hop is multi-faceted, and that those negative aspects—along with its chauvinism and homophobia—are vital aspects to identify, explore, and critically analyze to have an honest, and again, holistic view of the culture (Neal, 2006; Smith, 2008).
This emphasis on a well-rounded, critical, and inclusive view of hip-hop reflects one of its most important aspects: determining what’s “the real”. Authenticity, as a part of urban, young, Black culture—and therefore, hip-hop—is its predominant meme (Hill, 2010; Stovall, 2006). “The real” often functions within a hip-hop framework as the concept of “Truth” works in philosophical debate; both defy definition, but there are times when enough conditions are met in a situation that most involved will agree that they are witnessing “the real”—or at least an acceptable version of it. This intentionally opaque definition of “the real” allows the intellectual space for it to be defined in many ways, yet maintains its pursuit as a worthy and obtainable goal. “Real” then (without “the”), within this framework, is something or someone that represents or is a practitioner of “the real”. For students in Marc Lamont Hill’s Hip-Hop Literature class for example, “real” was often defined by an oligarchy of heads, but their designations (or sometimes, coronations) were regularly challenged by their peers. And they oftentimes found that even in their own rigid construction that the line between whom and what is real was blurred (Hill, 2010). What they did do, however, was provide a construct for defining what “real” was in their classroom. They also expressed an important and consistent sentiment among heads: their sense of being obligated to teach those who were not “real” or could not recognize “the real”, how to be or do so (Hill, 2010). This notion of authenticity extended far beyond simply deciding which songs or texts were “real hip-hop”, into defining what existentially comprises “the real”. This is a vital facet of hip-hop culture and of conceptions of Black urban culture in general (Baldwin, 1963; Hill, 2010; Alim, 2007).
It’s June, 1980, in Oak City, North Carolina. I’m at my paternal great-grandmother’s house, right down the street from my grandmother’s crib. My cousins and I, all of them a little older than me, are running around her (what seemed to us) enormous house; we jump down the stairs, off of couches, off of beds. Not only is there an enormous tumult from our gymnastics, but with each landing onto Great Gramma’s floor, we yell out. “Wooooom!” “Boom!” “Pam-yooowwww!” Salome Savage hasn’t had much schooling, so she wasn’t familiar with terms like “hyperactivity“ or “onomatopoeia”, but she knew what they were in practice: “Y’all boys stop tearin’ up in here! And why y’all keepin’ all dat noise?!? STOP all dem doggone lummatisms!” That stopped us in our tracks. Lummatisms?? I think it was my first-cousin Kenny who was the brave one: “Gramma Salome, what’s a lummatism?”. She replied, “All them noises y’all keepin’, jus’ a ‘boom-boom’ and ‘wooolooolooloom!’” That’s all we had to hear before bursting into peals of laughter. Our great-grandmother chuckled along with us, but I’m not sure that she immediately saw what we thought was so funny. She found out later though. In imitating us, she had given us not only a new vocabulary word (lummatisms), but she had also given us a great new one to use. We (kinda) followed her desires for us to keep quiet for the rest of that night, but the next day, whenever we wanted to add emphasis to something impactful, physically or verbally, we punctuated it with “wooolooolooloom!” Little did we know, much less Great-gramma Salome, that “wooolooolooloom” and other lummatisms would become the soundtrack for our lives.
Fast forward eight years. I’m blasting Long Live The Kane, Big Daddy Kane’s first solo album upstairs in my room. It must have been my fifty-leventh or umpteenth time playing it when Salome’s grandson got fed up. He came upstairs and said, “Reece, turn that noise down! All that boomp- de-boomp music you got echoin’ all
Today, my relationship with/to hip-hop is different. Unlike Breton, who came to find that he
actually preferred the mystery and the lure of Nadja more than her actual presence and her ideologies, I have become a part of hip-hop itself. Beyond being enticed by and immersed in her
culture, I have engaged in her development too. And as hip-hop and I have matured and developed, we've found our way not only into mainstream culture, but into the “ivory tower” as well. As demonstrated above and noted in the bibliography, there is a growing [posse, clan, crew, clique] [/Tan Lin] of hip-hop scholars in academia. Of them, I am a hip-hop apologist, having long-practiced my craft through defending my love for the culture, its idiosyncratic nature, and the apparent volume at which it must be listened. My
scholarship has also pushed me to really consider how people view hip-hop: the images it produces, the lummatisms it makes, and the people it represents. From
Somebody Better Run…?
Menacing? Calm? Menacingly calm? Kill everybody? Are you handing me a gun that you’ve already used? Is it my turn? Why do you have a jheri curl? The words “Kill at Will” and Ice Cube’s shoulder’s slant down and to the right. Dangerous Black gangsterism and thuggery. Empowered Black Nationalism and 2nd Amendment-style protection. The two versions of the words “Ice Cube” tell two different stories. Calculated. The picture is in black and white and Black and White. What does O’Shea Jackson think about Ice Cube’s picture on the cover of this album? All of these questions, statements, and interpretations are viable. What makes them “real” is how we’re situated behind a series of cultural lenses. As a critical theorist, this cultural aspect—Barthes’ studium—is my focus. I’m most curious about how the dynamics of privilege and power within cultural factors color those cultural lenses. How does one’s race affect their interpretations? Their socioeconomic status? Do women tend to read the photo differently from men? What if the women are Black? At the same time, the punctum Barthes wrote of that “pricks”/”punctures” me in this photograph is the look on Ice Cube’s face. While the ratchet draws my eyes—especially because he appears to be handing it directly to me—I’m looking at his face to find out what I should do with it. Cube’s expression is on some Mona Lisa shit! Is the god trying to get me to assassinate him? I’ve settled on believing that Cube’s face is letting me know that I’m in on the plot for Brothas to Kill at Will, and I’ll know who to blast when the time comes. Metaphorically speaking, of course. I think…
Somebody Better Dance…?
Standing in stark contrast to the Ice Cube picture for me is this one of the Jabbawockeez, a b-boying (breakdancin’) crew from San Diego. Because I carry the cultural
The album cover art for Kanye West’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” is the gift that keeps on giving. Yeezy takes Toni Morrison’s “master narrative” conception of
Fuck Bitches, Get Money: The Misogynist and Homophobic Side of Hip-Hop (and American) Culture Gets Clowned
Christopher “Notorioius B.I.G.” Wallace was the architect of the hip-hop group Junior M.A.F.I.A. (which launched Lil’ Kim’s solo career), whose biggest hit “Get Money” used the iterative chorus, “Fuck bitches, get money. Fuck niggas, get money”. The song became a club banger, with the purposeful double entendre representing a disturbing, yet ubiquitous sentiment within hip-hop culture: have sex with—or disregard—women, and make money. To be sure, men were not spared in this chorus either (with “niggas” used as the common proxy term for “Black men”), but within the chauvinist and misogynistic semantic environment that permeates hip-hop culture, the latter part of that chorus is minimally offensive compared to the former. It follows then, that the textual images hip-hop produces often radiate with this same notion, and many hip-hop scholars (and scholars of hip-hop) have spoken to it (see Johnson, 2003; Neal, 2006; Rose, 1994; Smith, 1998, etc.).
I’m taking a bit of a different look at this misguided and often purely performative hypermasculinity. Again, from a critical theorist’s standpoint, I don’t divorce the connection between America’s (and humankind’s) sordid history of misogyny and that of the young men in hip-hop culture. Though I see it as usually subversive and counterculture (like Cube and Kanye above), hip-hop is still an American culture, and for better and for worse, it dutifully carries on many of those American culture premises. I’m not saying hip-hop cats are justified by any stretch (as a matter of fact, I’m about to call them out in a way they really hate!), I’m just saying, let’s find the root(s) of the problem and then go about finding solutions. America hated women long before 1988 when Ice Cube said, “To a kid lookin’ up to me / Life aint nothin’ but bitches and money”.
What’s happened though, is that through this weird mix of confused conceptions of masculinity, rampant misogyny, homophobia, and their justifiably angry responses to America’s Black misandry, many Black men in hip-hop have become caricatures of “men”; oddly-drawn pictures that take disproportionately large, traditional, chauvinistic views of manhood, womanhood, and gender roles, and perch them on a tiny body of “fag-hating” homoeroticism and performative machismo. None of these factors alone [chauvinism, homophobia, emotionally stunted masculinity] are bizarre or rare in American culture, but smashed together within hip-hop’s prevalent framework of Black masculinity, it often creates images mired in a theatre of the absurd. Responses to this different type of cacophony have recently begun to take a new form, epitomized in this magazine cover.
This picture is a great segue from the Kanye West image, as it moves from the artist being the jokester to the camera-wielder being the one delivering the punchline. While the artists are engaging in this performative hypermasculinity, the words next to them initiate a different story as I read the picture from from left to right. Emphasized are “50” and “Boy”. And even though the artist on the left, 50 Cent, is often referred simply as “50”, Soulja Boy is never referred to simply as “Boy”. I see the symmetry between the font sizes, but in juxtaposition to what is happening next to those words, they become part of the camer-wielder’s “wink” to the viewer. 50 Cent’s right hand is obscured, but it may actually be pulling Soulja Boy’s pants down, while Souja Boy’s hands work to keep them up. The arm around the shoulders, which could be a positive gesture of male affection takes on an entirely different meaning with the position of Soulja Boy’s arms—the punctum in this image. He looks entirely uncomfortable, and his posture makes it appear as such. As a teacher, if Souja Boy had shown me this image, I would immediately go to his parent/guardian and warn them about child grooming behaviors and the actions of the man in the picture with him. Within a hip-hop cultural context though, it all turns into ridicule of these übermasculine Black men through homoerotic implications.
The lampooning in this photo then, in which Soulja Boy repays the favor to Bow Wow, becomes obvious. Rather than write, however, I will let Aaron McGruder’s work provide the commentary and the last word(s):
WWMTED (What Would Mo the Educator Do?)
Mo the Educator is my [critical theorist, critical pedagogue, social commentator, third-generation feminist] persona who currently writes for alumniroundup.com, an online magazine. So given the above readings of hip-hop culture (and the WWJD meme), the question posed in the section title naturally follows. What do we do with conceptions
These two images of Detroit hip-hopper Elzhi are examples of how self-conceived Realness is used to create/highlight new narratives within the culture. The punctum in the picture on the left is the hand on his chin. With the lighting, the only things really visible are his hand and his chin. This image eliminates all of the other lummatisms and boomp-de-boomp, so the viewer is led to focus on the hand on the chin, a universally accepted sign for “thinker”. [Insert your mental image of “The Thinker” here] And if you have a little classical cultural capital (or access to the Internet), you know that the original title of the sculpture “The Thinker” was actually “The Poet”. Elzhi and the photographer capture him here as both. Comparatively, the image on the right has some nuances—Elzhi is toying with us now—that make it a really different message. First, the hand on the chin is at the center of the image again, but this time, Elzhi’s gaze is directed downward at the viewer, not contemplating something off in the distance like the other one. He’s engaging in some hip-hop now by saying, “I think (I’m) better than you!”, in the tradition of MCs battling for lyrical supremacy. His “I’m a nerd” glasses stand in contrast to the shine on his wrist, which we picture him “accidentally” exposing by putting his hand to his chin, the same way a person with a new ring starts talking with his or her hands in order to attract attention to it. Connected by that “thinker” sign between them, the now Cartesian-conceived Elzhi is saying, “I think, therefore I shine. I get paid for my ability to do this better than you!” It combines the machismo and the bravado of hip-hop masculinity with an intellectualism belied by mainstream conceptions of the two being antagonistic.
For MCs like Jean Grae (both pictures above), carving out a place for empowered women/womanhood/feminism in hip-hop is a rough, never-ending task. The image on the left has her looking away from the viewer like Elzhi was, contemplating something in the distance. Unlike his “Thinker” gaze though, Grae’s screwface and rolled eyes seem like her response to the constant pressures from men in hip-hop who say, “Yeah Jean, you nice on the mic and all, but uhh… lemme see ya titties.” The multi-layered, ironic message on her t-shirt which reads, “Standard Beauty” across her chest (since when have American Black women been considered “standard beauties”?), is a wink to those of us who empathize (or sympathize) with her desire to be sexy and empowered and to do so without showing her titties—unless she really wants to—and to maintain her integrity and to represent for Jean Grae and for women in hip-hop and for Black women in America and internationally (she’s from South Africa) and to do all that while still battling with these dudes to be one of the baddest MCs out there like hip-hop demands. Screwface? No doubt. What I’ve also done, by the placement of the pictures, is I’ve turned that angry gaze/mean mug/ ice grill toward the other image of her sitting on the fire escape. Gone are the semi-“Standard Beauty” markers, traded for army fatigues and a black winter coat. Her posture is a traditionally masculine one (an ice grill toward traditional/chauvinist ideas about what it means to be a “lady”), sitting with her legs open. The fur on the collar of her coat is like the mane of a male lion, which outlines her own cornrowed hair (more so-called “masculine” shit). Still, the punctum is the positioning of her hands. Placed right in front of her crotch and forming the shape of a vagina, Jean is showing the viewer the feminine equivalent of “holding my dick” (like the way above picture of Soulja Boy). She creates a centered, womanly area in the image; an oasis of feminine in a vast masculine desert. The look on her face tells that as her story in hip-hop: a talented woman trying to be/define/grow her woman-self in an overwhelmingly misogynist culture. Both of these images essentialize Jean Grae, but her defiance within each is an entire rap song about the transient space she occupies between them.
Jean and Elzhi’s peer, the hip-hopper Invincible, provides us with more images of feminine/feminism in hip-hop in this promotional poster for her first album “Sledgehammer”. With a very clear nod to Rosie the Riveter, “Invincible the Hammerer” has set about “smashing the walls of hate”. Her gaze “off the screen” is somewhere between the contemplative gaze of Elzhi and the anger of Jean Grae; her trademark cocked hat a hip-hop version of Rosie the Riveter’s bandana. This empowered feminism in this image is just as strong in its message as it is Jean Grae’s images, but it’s the opposite of subtle. And again, within that critical theory framework, it’s important to know that Invincible is a Palestinian-born (her words: http://rapgenius.com/Invincible-people-not-places-lyrics#note-60462) Jewish, lesbian woman, who like Elzhi was raised in the Detroit area. This (re)frames the way she plays with traditional, hegemonic notions of gender in the image: the androgyny of her appearance, the Detroitness/“masculinity” of blue-collar work, and her baseball-esque stance and tool of choice a reference to “The Hebrew Hammer”, former Detroit Tigers star and Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg. The cultural capital she invokes provides added depth to what is already a complex and “talkative” image, not to mention the sound that the impact of a hammer makes when it smashes into a wall: wooolooolooloom! [/lummatisms]. The punctum in the image for me is the border itself. The shape of it makes the poster take on a stamp-like quality, an apt metaphor for the unique stamp on hip-hop that Invincible is in the process of placing.
The Dilemma of “Stop Trying to Understand!”: How Understanding can Increase by Reducing Comprehension
It’s 2011 and my class on Writing Through the Image is watching some of Tan Lin’s visual poetry. I recounted my experience with a friend of mine, telling her, “I had no idea what the hell we were watching. I just didn’t get it. I mean, I thought I was getting it, but then I’d lose it.” She replied, “That’s your problem. Stop trying to understand and just watch it.” Epiphany-ensued. I started thinking about one of hip-hop’s craziest MCs: Kool Keith (AKA Dr. Octagon, AKA Dr. Dooom, AKA Black Elvis, AKA Poppa Large, AKA Exotron Geiger Counter One Plus Megatron… you get the picture, right? And none of those are made up. He’s rapped as those… people(?)… at least once in his career). Kool Keith’s lyrics run the gamut from poignant to irrelevant, raunchy to chivalrous, lucid to just plain fucked up. At some point in the early 1990s between Poppa Large and Mr.Gerbik (another incarnation of his), I stopped trying to understand him and just listened and watched. The irony is that I gained understanding. To begin to bring this thing full circle, the cacophony—the lummatisms of not only the music and the lyrics and the images “Keith” produce(d)(s) pushed me to realize that how we read (or can’t read or not-read [/Tan Lin]) texts itself produces all types of different understandings, based upon our own process of unraveling what is being communicated.
One of my favorite Kool Keith songs is the (then) eponymous “Poppa Large”, the first verse of which appears on the left in Figure 1. There may not be enough weed and Xanax available to understand what Keith is saying in his lyrics; but what we can do, is turn his voice into another instrument—make it become a series of lummatisms, rhythmically complementary to the dope beat that underscores this song. And then turn that into a textual picture. This, to me, is a visual representation of what people who don’t/can’t/wont’ follow the lyrics in a hip-hop song do when they hear it. I will resist the urge to try to interpret or understand that picture, and force myself to be satisfied with the ability to simply picture what someone else may “see”. I can, however, make note of its analogy to the cultural cognitive dissonance that someone without the capital to understand the layered communication that occurs in hip-hop texts encounters.
I get in shape
And do my physical fitness
so your brains’ll miss this
eat ‘em up,
pick ‘em up,
beat ‘em up
pick ‘em up picky
I’m coming out like beers
that’s a fact,
writing exact behind your back
I’m here to fail and to pass
from the more, the hype tip
rock and roll
rhythm and Blues
I get in shape
And do my physical fitness
so your brains’ll miss this
eat 'em up,
pick 'em up,
beat 'em up
pick 'em up picky
I'm coming out like beers
that's a fact,
writing exact behind your back
I'm here to fail and to pass
from the more, the hype tip
rock and roll
rhythm and Blues
Figure 1 - Lyrics for Verse 1: Poppa Large
This model works even within and among those of us with hip-hop cultural capital. As an example, I’m using Lil Wayne’s “6’ 7’” song and video. It’s what I call a “complete” hip-hop song, because not only is it a serious club banger with a sick beat, it rocks on the radio, has enough old school elements to satisfy the hedz, and the lyrics have the perfect mix of poignancy and braggadocio. You can’t go wrong playing 6 ‘ 7’ anytime, anywhere. [6’7’ video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c7tOAGY59uQ]
For Mo the Educator, this song could be used by a high school teacher to demonstrate everything from alliteration to metaphor, simile, double entendre, poetry, grammar, sentence construction… it really is a rich teaching text. But for the six year-old, the infectious refrain from Harry Belafonte’s “Banana Boat Song” (Ban-ba-nana! Ban-ba-nana! Ban-ba-nana! Ban-ba-nana!) may have them parading through the house chanting in Belafonte’s sped up voice, with no regard for the beat or the words Lil Wayne and Cory Gunz are saying. A woman may defiantly say that when Wayne refers to “bitches”, he’s not referring to her, because she ain’t no bitch! The person dancing to the song in the club may not hear words at all, just the driving bassline. The man disgusted by images of Blackness that don’t conform to respectability politics may only see a Black man with a
The bottom line is, our cultural filters make determining what hip-hop (or anything that produces texts, for that matter) is ultimately communicating an exceptionally complex, possibly impenetrable task. The lessons and understandings in reading it with a critical mind come from creating an empathy for how others inside and outside of the culture interpret its images as well.
All Samples Cleared: A Bibliography (of sorts)
Akom, A. A. (2009). Critical hip hop pedagogy as a form of liberatory praxis. Equity & Excellence In Education, 42(1), pp 52–66
Alim, H. A. (2007). Critical hip-hop language pedagogies: Combat, consciousness, and the cultural politics of communication. Journal of Language, Identity, and Education, 6(2), pp 161–176
Baldwin, J. “A talk to teachers” New York City Teachers’ In-service Training. New York. 16 Oct. 1963.
Barthes, R. (1980). Camera lucida: Reflections on photography. New York: Hill and Wang:
Breton, A. (1960). Nadja. New York: Grove Press, Inc.
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