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Echoing James Braxton Peterson (2014), scholar of Africana studies, I understand the hip-hop underground as a black literary concept (or “trope”) that engages in the use of language specific to African American culture as a way to deconstruct dominant white ways of social being. Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s (1988) notion of signification (i.e. signifyin[g]) and religious studies hip-hop head Monica Miller’s (2013) spin on the postmodern idea of “linguistic play” are useful to illustrate this notion further, providing a vocabulary that helps us better understand what the hip-hop underground accomplishes as a conceptual maneuver that uses language–namely, irony–as a way to resist white supremacy.

To demonstrate a performance of such transgressive play at work I turn to the cross-racial collaboration that is Run the Jewels—consisting of Brooklyn-bred white underground rapper El-P, and Atlanta-based black underground rapper Killer Mike, both of whom gained more mainstream prominence in the late 2000s by way of their engagement with the underground hip-hop scenes in their respective locales.

Across the span of their three-album catalog, the two veterans of the underground hip-hop scene work to signify on dominant white society’s self-representations through the “verbal mask” of the “crook,” disclosing through irony the pathological predilection toward violence underlying the masks of white respectability in which those holding positions of political dominance so often disguises themselves. By the same token, as I argue in conclusion to this piece, El-P and Killer Mike are holding a mirror to the ways in which we all participate in, and share responsibility for, the crimes of whiteness against humanity.

RTJ

The Art of Signifyin(g) and Linguistic Play

Also punned on as “signifyin(g),” signification is a rhetorical strategy that finds its inspiration in the folk tradition of the West African (Yoruba) trickster Esu-Elegbara and his derivative, New World equivalent the Signifying Monkey (Gates, 1988). The trickster is an enigmatic figure who stands between two worlds as the mediator of divine and human will, and factors prominently in African and African American folk wisdom as a kind of wise fool and prophet, sought out for insight on matters of ultimate importance in light of its ability to interpret the world of everyday experience through a facility with figurative language, including, but not limited to, such devices as metaphor, irony, parody, satire, and wit.

In The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism(1989), Gates defines it as a specifically “black” (read African American) style of discourse that plays on standard English through the filter of African American (read black) vernacular. As he calls it, signifyin(g) is a “trope of tropes” that makes use of figurative language to persuade, insult, praise, repeat, revise, encode, and ultimately self-preserve, particularly in the context of political oppression (Gates, 1988: 67).

Miller sees this “play of language” in hip-hop culture as a means by which to “[recast] everyday uses of words such as nigger, black, and queer” so as to reclaim them for the purposes of survival (43). As Miller has it, the “cultural marketplace” is a charged site of undoing and redoing that can allow for a reclamation of bodies such as that of the “nappy headed ho,” rendered “illegible” (or excluded, invisible, incapable of participation in the body politic/public sphere) by a “cultural superstructure” that operates according to fixed understandings of difference—in terms of class, race, gender, sexuality, and religion—that permit little to no room for its expression in both word and flesh. Through such rhetorical strategies as signifyin(g), the rap artist can perform multiple identities/identifications that cut across lines of difference, particularly that of race.

This is in part because of the fungibility of language, which works as a means by which to index one’s social location within dominant society’s social hierarchy and subvert the status quo through the use of signifiers by which “marginal individuals” self-identify, embodying what black cultural critic Mark Anthony Neal (2001) calls a “post-soul aesthetic”—a concept that arises out of postmodern theory and which concerns the construction of (black) self-identity/ies within the context of de-industrialization, globalization, “cybernization,” the general commodification of black expressive culture as well as the political, social and cultural experiences of black Americans following the civil rights era and Black Power movement (3).

Loaded signifiers such as “bitch,” “n***a,” and “ho” in this way allow for the performance of transgressive identities that upend a whitepolitics of respectability which interprets such self-identifications as evidence of black social pathology (Miller, 2013: 43-44). Miller suggests that these signifiers, contested and contestable though they may be, can be reclaimed and repurposed to disclose “more troubling societal un-wellnesses” that deem certain kinds of bodies—namely, white, heterosexual, male, Christian—more acceptable for inclusion in the (North American) public sphere than others (44).

In other words, as significations on the terms of identity/identification as defined by dominant white culture, such self-representations function to reveal not black, but white social pathology, particularly in terms of a white identity politics of exclusion. Such is the art of “signifyin(g)”—whereby practitioners articulate an ideological critique of dominant society’s representations through a vernacular “double speak,” saying one thing while meaning something else, embodying a tricksteresque guile that liberates them to discursively reclaim and guard their bodies from and against the norms of inclusion in a society that, through “white religion” (Driscoll 2015), that ritually sustains the supremacy of whiteness by granting particular kinds of (white) bodies privileged access to the socioeconomic benefits of self-possession and property-ownership at the expense of other bodies.

Moreover, to explore what this “linguistic play” looks like as an embodied act of protest against the “powers that be,” mediated by the language of “R.A.P. music,” I turn toward the deconstructive work that emcees Killer Mike and El-P–as cross-racial duo Run the Jewels–are accomplishing in their collective embodiment of the “communications revolution” (Peterson, 2014: 29) that is the hip-hop underground. A thorough examination of their oeuvre, beginning with a subtextual analysis of the video for “Nobody Speak”–a joint project with white, Bay Area-based DJ Shadow–should do well to illustrate what’s at “play” in their use of language as a weapon against white supremacy.

“Nobody Speak, Nobody Get Choked” – RTJ Putting Signification at Play (or Work)

By way of illustration, the video for “Nobody Speak” (2016) begins with a shot of what looks like a United Nations-style meeting space in which are gathered a group of mostly white men and women dressed in business attire—what we could interpret to be a convocation of good-will ambassadors, or political delegates, from different countries around the world—seated at a semi-circular wooden table. A bronze, or gold, statue of the earth stands resolutely in the background between national flags lined up like soldiers on each side of the glimmering globe. As the camera closes in on the scene, a twanging guitar riff intones the song before the beat drops and El-P begins the first verse, lip-synched by an older white man in a plain suit and red tie:

Picture this
I’m a bag of dicks
Put me to your lips
I am sick
I will punch a baby bear in his shit
Give me lip
I’ma send you to the yard, get a stick
Make a switch
I can end a conversation real quick

As he’s mouthing these indecent provocations, directed at a suited man sitting directly across from him in the sun-roofed room, the other members of this unidentifiable assembly look at each other in confusion and disgust, caught off guard by the speaker’s pornographic ad lib. His unwitting interlocutor responds in kind, mouthing Killer Mike’s verse:

I am crack
I ain’tlyin’, kick a lion in his crack
I’m the shit, I will fall off in your crib, take a shit
Pinch your momma on the booty
Kick your dog, fuck your bitch
Fat boy dressed up like he’s Santa
And took pictures with your kids

El-P and Killer Mike continue to trade verses, both fronting—true to the personae of the at once valiant and villainous anti-heroes they have created as part of their jewel-thieving rap alter-egos—like a pair of rhyming sociopaths, “[b]urning, pillaging and looting,” as Killer Mike raps, through their lyrical finesse (i.e. signifyin[g]) on the microphone.

As the song continues into the refrain, “Nobody speak, nobody get choked,” the assembly members launch into a fist-a-cuffs with each other, inciting a riotous encounter between all parties in attendance. Captured in slow motion we see flittering in the background, above all of the chaos, a white dove, flapping its wings in a desperate attempt to flee the scene, signifying a failed peace treaty, a forsaken peace offering.

The sequence ends with a disturbing, though comedic, scene of the dueling white protagonists on top of the round table—one standing over the other, ready to stab his defenseless opponent in the throat with the blunt edge of a pole from which is draped the American flag. He stops short of following through with his murderous intention, however, when he sees from the corner of his eye an elderly, light-skinned, presumably (at least by stereotypical appearance) Hispanic,cleaning woman looking on in contempt as if to say, “And you call us ‘rapists’ and ‘criminals.'” (Here I am alluding to what Donald Trump said of Mexicans during one of his campaign stops leading up to his election as United States president in November 2016.)

In this way, she indicts the man—standing there in bewilderment of his own, unconscious violence—for failing to uphold his role as a public figure, less concerned with the well-being of those whom he has been summoned to represent than with his power over them.

I turn toward a subtextual analysis of the video for the song, “Nobody Speak,” because it, alongside the comedically grotesque lyrical content, offers an incisive, through veiled, commentary on the state of political discourse in this country at the conclusion of the Obama presidency and the beginning stages of the reign of President Donald Trump, whose perversions of what it means to be a public figure are caricatured in both lyric and video—as in El-P’s bar when he claims he can “Flame your crew quicker than Trump fucks his youngest” (alluding to some questionable comments Trump made about his daughter Ivanka in a Rolling Stone feature on the man in September 2015).

In an interview with online music magazine Pitchfork Media in January 2017, on occasion of the release of the duo’s third studio album, RTJ 3, the pair discuss, as the subtitle of the article intimates, “the pursuit of hope, liberty and rap glory in the Trump era.” Known and appreciated for the “sulfurous rage aimed at crooked cops and kleptocrats”—subject matter addressed repeatedly in their individual and shared catalogue(s)—both rappers articulate a politics of hope through their engagement with the “linguistic play” of signifyin(g) as they don the role of comic book vigilantes whose disingenuous “don’t-give-a-fuck” attitude belies a sincere concern for the procurement of racial justice in a “pestilential time,” snapshotting “the bleakness and despair [of it without letting] it drag them down.”

In fact, Killer Mike (né Mike Render) found himself on the campaign trail with democratic socialist and presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont in 2016, advocating for the man whom he believes sincere in his commitment to civil rights, a commitment Render himself embodies through is advocacy for black voting rights.

Speaking to their dystopian worldview in an historical moment when dystopia seems on the verge of realization under a presidential cabinet that, through the anti-establishment ruse of “draining the swamp,” is operating with the stated intent to deregulate big business, criminalize immigrants (particularly Mexicans and Muslims), disband the Environmental Protection Agency, defund public funding for the Arts, disinvest in public education, and repeal Obama’s Affordable Care Act, the rappers, as noted in the Pitchfork feature, suggest that their music is meant to function as a kind of uplift, calling out political crookery and resisting the oppressor(s) at the same time that it celebrates the human capacity to embrace beauty, even in times of trouble.

This is perhaps no better evinced than in their live, June 15, 2016 performance of “Nobody Speak” on Jimmy Fallon when Killer Mike closes out the track with a shout out to “all the victims of violence from Chicago to Orlando” as El-P flashes a rainbow heart patch from the inside of his black jean jacket.

An obvious reference to the police killings of unarmed American blacks and a lack of police accountability in a corrupt American criminal justice system, as well as the terrific mass shooting at the gay night club Pulse on June 12, 2016, this dedication is emblematic of the underlying thrust of their low-down and dirty art of signifyin(g), which plays the dozens with powerful elites through the indecent identities El-P and Killer Mike perform collectively as Run the Jewels, an ironic variation on myth of Robin Hood and Little John, calling out corruption as it manifests in the “fuckboy” mentality of “FUBAR [Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition] rulers getting rich” without pretending to be innocent themselves—as evidenced in their banger “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry” when El-P and Killer Mike trade the following verses:

El-P: “C’est la vie, girl, when in Rome / I gave the face, please pay with dome / My business card says you’re in luck / I do two things, I rap and fuck”

KM: “I fuckin’ rap / I tote the strap / I smoke the kush / I beat the puss / I read the books, did the math / Don’t need a preacher preachin’ on my behalf”

By signifyin(g) on the “FUBAR” status of those who claim power at the level of the State—“Fuck the law, they can eat my dick, that’s word to Pimp”—through their self-professed arrogance as subversive “fuckboys” in their own right, Run the Jewels pinpoint the underlying hypocrisy of a social system predicated on a deceitful politics of respectability that betrays a deep-seeded sociopathology, or “white religion” (Driscoll, 2015): a structurally engrained habit of ritually instrumentalizing the human person, particularly the black body, for the sake of profit in a way that further distinguishes the haves (whites) from the have-nots (non-whites).

By way of such signifyin(g), El-P and Killer Mike reclaim their bodies through a professed hedonism that works to take the power back, putting an end to political “fuckboys” by in a sense becoming “fuckboys” themselves, as when Killer Mike raps: “That fuckboy life about to be repealed, that fuckboy shit about to be repelled /  Fuckboy jihad, kill infidels / Allah Akbar, BOOM, from Mike and El.” In this regard, Run the Jewels embody this thing called the hip-hop underground—a sensibility subversive of the status quo that is articulated through the vernacular of rap music, “rooted/routed,” as Peterson (2014) intimates, in an ongoing tradition of African American cultural responses to the legacy of slavery in America—that is, a “communications revolution” (29).

The Racial Politics of Jewels-Running Thievery 

I turn toward Run the Jewels in demonstrating the hip-hop underground at work because I think the racial makeup of the duo is significant for what the hip-hop underground, and white engagement of it, accomplishes as a method/ology for disidentifying with a politics that ensures white racial supremacy at the level of the State.

In the case of Run the Jewels, we have two MCs—”one black, one white, we shoot to kill”—practicing the hip-hop underground via the shared lexicon of rap music, a variation on African American Vernacular English, crossing a racial divide through a process of identification that reveals the malleability of racial identity as it is embodied in the act of signifyin(g). Inasmuch as this is true, which I believe it is, then the two thieves have something to teach us about negotiating the boundaries of race in the performance of the hip-hop underground as both theory, or “concept scheme” (Jackendoff, 2009Peterson, 2014), and cultural move (Gray, 2005; Peterson, 2014), or practice.

Both MCs act on each other in enunciating their identities through the linguistic play of rap music and, in so doing, act on the category of race, defying the normative social scripts associated with hip-hop’s standard racial hierarchy—an inversion of dominant society’s racial representations—whereby people of color occupy the highest rungs of the social ladder, particularly in terms of cultural capital (Harrison, 2009: 111).

Not only is the duo engaging the hip-hop underground as a method of cross-racial identification, but also as a means of redefining the terms of inclusion within both hip-hop and dominant cultures by the very fact of their identification, mediated as it is by a cultural practice rooted/routed in black self-formation. By dint of the duo’s racial makeup, it upends those racial ideologies, or (hip-hop) essentialisms, that hold to a stringent racial identity politics which cannot hold room for white folks in hip-hop. Rather, through their camaraderie, Run the Jewels give witness to the possibilities for cross-racial collaboration inherent in hip-hop, as an at once global and local, i.e. “glocal” (Alim et al. 2009), practice that unsettles what we take to be normative both within hip-hop culture and in dominant society as well.

In this way, they embody the kind of “strategic anti-essentialism” (Lipsitz, 1994) of which sociologist Nitasha Tamar Sharma (2010) speaks in her study of South Asian American underground hip-hop artists. Riffing on literary theorist Giyatri Spivak’s notion of “strategic essentialism” by which “individuals and groups may choose to emphasize their common history and interest […] to build unity around common needs and desires,” ethnic studies scholar George Lipsitz (1994) articulates the concept of “strategic anti-essentialism” as a practice of playing on the “fluidity of identities” in order to express “an aspect of one’s identity that one can not [sic] express directly” (62).

In the context of Sharma’s (2010) study, she observes the ways in which desi rappers, including queer-identified female desis, draw upon black cultural formation through the most relevant expression of it at this time, hip-hop, in order to construct an “alternative desiness” rooted in “interminority solidarity” and a “global race consciousness” which functions to reconceptualize race as a “shared ideology and consciousness of how power operates through racism” (Sharma, 2010: 3-5).  Sharma (2010) identifies this as “racialized hip hop” inasmuch as it “addresses inequalities and injustices against minorities” (12).

Taken together, El-P and Killer Mike engage the hip-hop underground through a “strategic anti-essentialism” that enacts “discursive transcoding” (Kellner and Ryan, 1988; Lipsitz 1994): “an indirect expression of alienations too threatening to express directly” behind the masks of “thieves” in order to proffer “a critique of mainstream middle-class Anglo-Saxon America” (55) as well as the powerful elites concerned with maintaining the supremacy of whiteness through the exclusionary practices of “white religion” (Driscoll, 2015).

Such masking, as Peterson (2014) notes in his reading of the Fugees’ “The Mask,” off of their 1996 hit The Score, “assists” the artists in the “daily navigation of public spaces” (29). As with the narrators on The Fugees’ track, the members of Run the Jewels “camouflage their identities” so as to “interact with the people whom they do not trust” (Peterson, 2014: 29).

As noted above, they accomplish this through language, articulated through the “verbal-vernacular” of African American English (AAE/AAVE), or Ebonics, that Peterson links to the fluid movement of black bodies through the Underground Railroad, the subway system, as well as those underground spaces imagined by the likes of Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright in their respective literary works, thus “[deterritorializing] mainstream conceptions of space” (29).

For his part, meanwhile, El-P deploys “discursive transcoding” to “[air] feelings of marginality and contestation” (Lipsitz, 1994: 55)—themes resonant in his solo catalogue—through his conscious white engagement of black cultural production, enacting a kind of racial self-reflexivity by way of the “discursive transcoding” that the linguistic play of rap music facilitates. Through such engagement, El-P makes a “cultural move” (Peterson, 2014; Gray, 2005), performing a transgressive white identity that gives more than mere lip service to the culture which created rap music, even as his whiteness fails to abdicate him of responsibility–of taking ownership over “being wrong” (see “A Report to Shareholders,” below)–for the crimes committed in the name of whiteness against his closest of brethren: Killer Mike.

Indeed, his first collaboration with Killer Mike on the critically-acclaimed album R.A.P. Music (2012)—the acronym standing for Rebellious African People (which, in addition to the RTJ trilogy, he produced)—addresses social issues such as urban deindustrialization, police profiteering, mass incarceration, unsanctioned government surveillance, and the socioeconomic devastation wrought by the drug war and Reagan’s policy of trickle-down economics (i.e. “Reaganomics”) that disproportionately affect communities of color.

Run the Jewels take up these issues on their own shared terms with the aid of fellow “racialized” rappers (Sharma 2010), including Rage Against the Machine frontman Zach de La Rocha, whose appearance on RTJ2’s “Close Your Eyes (And Count  to Fuck)” and RTJ3’s “A Report to the Shareholders/Killer Your Masters” amplifies the cross-racial fertilization that can and does take place in hip-hop culture. Accordingly, the duo explode the boundaries of race at the same time that they deploy blackness, by way of the hip-hop underground, as an ideological disposition toward the world.

Such a stance functions as a critique of whiteness as a “god-idol” (Driscoll 2015), worshiped through practices of the colonial “powers that be” which rely on a police force, militarized in the 20th Century by the Clinton Crime Bill of 1994, to coerce communities of color into a kind of unwilling submission to the profiteering whims of the corporatized State, operating the levers of the prison industrial complex that devours black bodies in particular. Killer Mike raps thus on “A Christmas Fucking Miracle” (RTJ 2012):

The powers that be even offered up reprieves
Told us they ain’t take us out if we bow to our knees
But they can give that to the kings and the queens
And the worshipers of idols and followers of things
Cause I would rather be in the jungle with the savages

To this, KM adds: “It’s kill or be killed, and I’m working with the averages / My professor emeritus / Say we been cursed being brought to the AmeriKKKas.”

El-P raps in the same vein on the RTJ 2 (2014) cut “Early”—a sobering reflection on racialized violence in a divided America where unarmed African American bodies, such as that of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, are rendered disposable by dint of the criminality associated with them in the white racial imagination:

I made it in the dark like Civil War surgery / Woke up in the same air you huff, early / By twelve o’clock the whole Earth felt dirty / Street Lamps stare when you walk watch the Birdie / They’ll watch you walk to the store they’re recording / But didn’t record cop when he shot, no warning / Heard it go pop, might have been two blocks / Heard a kid plus pops watched cop make girl bleed / Go to home, go to sleep, up again early

In a further reflection on state-sanctioned, racialized violence, El-P and Killer Mike enlist the aid of Zach de la Rocha to offer a scathing commentary on the nature of police brutality as vivified in the music video for “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck),” which features two individuals—a white police officer and a young black male—engaged in a wrestling match which takes them from the street of an unidentified project block into an apartment bedroom, signaling a kind of homoerotic undercurrent that runs through the dramatic sequence.

The implication here is that white violence functions as a form of warped sexual intimacy whereby desire and disgust conflate at the site of the black male body—that which is deemed abject, criminal, “super-predatorial,” in the white racial imaginary. The video’s imagery suggests that black bodies are fucked by law enforcement, rendering the black male a castrated servant to the State.

By the same token, the video ends with the two individuals at a relative stand-still, each person sitting on opposite sides of a queen-sized bed, huffing and puffing in an exhausted daze of a seemingly post-coital refractory period, implying that indeed both individuals—white as well as black—are fucked by the State, oppressed by conditions that leave them both in bondage to a system that transmogrifies them into cogs of a well-oiled, corporately-geared money machine.

Together, El-P and Killer Mike engage in the hip-hop underground as a means of racializing “R.A.P.” music and of signifyin(g) on the themes of bondage and freedom that resonate within the hip-hop underground as a “conceptual structure” (Jackendoff, 2009; Peterson, 2014).

In this vein, during National Public Radio’s February 2017 Tiny Desk Concert, the two rappers remind their audience members that they were born free with a performance of “A Report to Shareholders” off of the third installment of their RTJ trilogy, released in December 2016. The song is an ode to a brotherhood that revolves around their shared suspicion of the world as it is, particularly in terms of political corruption and the racialized struggle for power.

El-P:

And I’m scared that I talk too much about what I think’s going on
I got a way with this, they might drag me away for this
Put me in a cage for this, I might pay for this
I just say what I want like I’m made for this
But I’m just afraid some days I might be wrong
Maybe that’s why me and Mike get along
Hey, not from the same part of town, but we both hear the same sound coming
Woo!
And it sounds like war
Woo!
And it breaks our hearts
When I started this band, didn’t have no plans, didn’t see no arc
Just run with the craft, have a couple laughs
Make a buck and dash, yeah
Get a little dap like “Yeah I’m the fucking man!”, yeah
Maybe give a little back like, “Here, I do what I can”
It’s all jokes and smoke ‘till the truth start schemin’
Can’t contain the disdain for y’all demons
You talk clean and bomb hospitals
So I speak with the foulest mouth possible
And I drink like a Vulcan losing all faith in the logical
I will not be confused for docile
I’m free, motherfuckers, I’m hostile

KM:

Choose the lesser of the evil people, and the devil still gon’ win
It could all be over tomorrow, kill our masters and start again
But we know we all afraid, so we just simply cry and march again
At the Dem Conven my heart broke apart when I seen them march mommas in
As I rap this verse right now, got tears flowing down my chocolate chin
Told the truth and I’ve been punished for it, must be a masochist ‘cause I done it again

“Ooh, Mike said ‘uterus’”
They acting like Mike said, “You a bitch”
To every writer who wrote it, misquoted it,
Mike says, “You a bitch, you a bitch, you a bitch”
Add a “nigga” for the black writer that started that sewer shit
I maneuver through manure like a slumdog millionaire
El-P told me, “Fuck them devils, Mike, we gon’ be millionaires”
I respond with a heavy, “Yeah”
Big bruh says, “Fuck that, toughen up
Stay ready, write raw raps, shit rugged rough”
The devil don’t sleep, us either
El spits fire, I spit ether
We the gladiators that oppose all Caesars
Coming soon on a new world tour
Probably play the score for the World War
At the apocalypse, play the encore
Turn around, see El, and I smile
Hell coming, and we got about a mile
Until it’s over I remain hostile

Though they are not, as El-P indicates, from the same part of town (i.e. though they come from different cultural-racial backgrounds), the duo find common ground in the “same sound coming” (i.e. hip-hop), which for them stretches across an “arc” of three albums—RTJ, RTJ 2, and RTJ 3—that is “all jokes and smoke ’til the truth start schemin'” to “oppose all Caesars.”

“One Black, One White, We Shoot to Kill”: On the “Brotherhood” of Cross-Racial Exchange in the Underground and its Challenge to the Whiteness of the White Body

In the volume, Everything But the Burden: What White People Take from Black Culture (2003), contributor Carl Hancock Rux offers a critical response to Norman Mailer’s 1959 essay, “The White Negro,” in which the white social critic essentialized blackness as a site of expressive sexuality and anti-authoritarian cool that defies white rigidity, yet which can be taken up by the white hipsters in their turn toward black primitivism as a survival strategy in a totalitarian era of existential angst (30). Rux notes that what constituted hipness in the mid-twentieth century, constellated as it was around a caricatured blackness in the white American imaginary, is now articulated through a hip-hop stylized blackness associated with rebellion and located in the urban ghetto.

His key insight, applicable here, is that white performances of blackness as emblematized in the super-stardom of “new white negroes” such as Eminem says more about whiteness than it does about blackness, particularly in terms of how whites deploy race to perform disposable racial identities. (Indeed, that does say something about the “black magic” of “white religion”!) Through such minstrelsy, race difference is decontextualized, depoliticized and, in some ways, deracialized (i.e. rendered blind of itself) in a commercial landscape where blackness can be taken up by non-blacks without the burden that race signifies in the experiences of blacks themselves (Jones, 1963).

In a word, Rux writes that the “new White Negro—like Eminem—has not arrived at black culture…He has arrived at white culture with an authentic performance of whiteness, influenced by a historical concept of blackness” (37). What Rux is arguing here is that white hip-hop practitioners represent dominant white culture’s representation of comical, surreal, primitive blackness that, despite having been “socialized as black,” or culturally conditioned by blackness, only works to replace black culture with a re-imagined whiteness that decontextualizes the whole concept of race at the same time that it reinforces it as a category of identity (28). In this way, white rappers can borrow from and identify with black culture without taking responsibility for the actuality of race as a lived experience of difference for those marked as non-white—hence, they take on “everything but the burden [of being black].”

Rux’s wisdom in this regard offers a sobering check on unexamined white identifications with black culture and indeed throws into a crisis of meaning white engagement of the hip-hop underground—as well it should. However, when done self-reflexively, as noted above, appropriation can work as an act of cultural contribution. Similar to what Gayle Wald (1997) says of Janis Joplin’s appropriation of black blues women’s sexuality in her self-fashioning as the impolite, transgressively female alter-ego “Pearl,” there are white performers (or, in the case of El-P, rappers) who reflect “an ambivalent dissidentification with whiteness” through, as noted above, “discursive transcoding,” which Wald, echoing Lipsitz (1994: 53), defines as “the process by which white artists ‘disguise’ their own subjectivities in order to ‘articulate desires and subject positions’ that they cannot express in their own voices” (158).

El-P in many ways embodies this process insofar as he engages with/in black culture, via his immersion in hip-hop, as a “source of cultural self-fashioning” because it has “nurtured and sustained ‘moral and cultural alternatives to dominant values'” and served as an “important source of education and inspiration to alienated and aggrieved individuals cut off from other sources of oppositional practice'” (Lipsitz, 1994: 54). Moreover,  not only does El-P act upon black american culture, but African American culture acts upon him, sharpening the racialized lens through which he views the world, as in his verse on “Early.”

Whereas Ward casts Joplin’s appropriation of black blues female sexuality as a romanticization of black culture that echoes Mailer’s celebration of black sexual potency, I am hesitant to reduce El-P’s loyalty to the “black art” of hip-hop as a mere act of what cultural critic Eric Lott (2013) would call “celebration and exploitation” or “love and theft” that at once crosses and reinforces racial boundaries through its instrumentalization of blackness, or black (male) identity, for the purposes of white (male) identity formation.

Here, Michael Eric Dyson’s (1998) concept of a “post-appropriationist paradigm of cultural and racial exchange” is useful for parsing out the importance of cross-racial collaborations such as we find in the case of Run the Jewels, whose members demonstrate the possibility for “the revisioning of whiteness through the prism of black cultural practices, especially as white subjectivities are reconceived and recast in the hues of transgressive blackness” (Dyson in Chennault, 1998: 321).

As Dyson makes clear, in terms of white appropriations of blackness (or black culture/cultural idioms), it is instructive to consider “[w]hat uses [whites] have made of blackness”: “How has blackness allowed them to alter dominant modes of whiteness? How have their knowledge and cultural practices pitted ontological contents of racial identity against strictly biological or phenotypic ones?” (Dyson in Chennault, 1997: 321).

El-P’s involvement with Killer Mike provides us with one such instance where our essentialist (biological/phenotypic) notions of racial identity are deconstructed and reconstructed in favor of a more porous notion of identity that opens up space to talk about white engagement of the hip-hop underground not only as an epistemological stance, but a strategy for repositioning oneself ontologically—that is, in terms of how one chooses “to be” in/for/against the world.

Run the Jewels is emblematic of the fertility inherent in hip-hop’s cross-racial associations as it points us to the kind of “brotherhood” that is possible when black cultural practices such as that of the hip-hop underground work to create a kind of “differentiated whiteness” (Dyson in Chennault, 1998: 320) or “differentiated white identity” for white practitioners such as El-P. It is in this vein that, proceeding Jeff Weiss’ interview with Run the Jewels, the Atlanta-born rapper could say to the Pitchfork contributor about El-P: “Making [RTJ3] with my friend in there, I learned what an ally was. I learned what a brother was. This has meant more to me than even I knew.” I’d imagine that if this is true, then El-P learned what it means to be an ally, as “A Report to Shareholders” implies, in conversation with his partner in crime.

In this way, a “post-appropriationist paradigm of cultural and racial exchange” provides a theoretical platform, as Dyson (Chennault, 1997) seems to suggest, for interrogating the ways in which whiteness and blackness, or, more specifically, white identity and black identity, co-constitute one another. Such a paradigm not only “accents” the symmetries of white-black collaboration within a specific cultural practice, but also the imbalance of power relations and potential trouble-spots in such association (Dyson in Chennault, 1997).

On this note, their “brotherhood” does not call for an unquestioning celebration of multiculturalism intrinsic in hip-hop culture(s). Rather, it calls for white diligence in terms of recognizing that any white identification with black culture is always already ambivalent, especially given the fact of white privilege and the ways it permits whites the luxury of picking up a non-white cultural practice without assuming the burden that comes with being ethnically or racially identified with said culture.

In the case of Run the Jewels, it is true that El-P’s association with black cultural creativity does not happen in a vacuum of decontextualized, sentimental, and imagined cross-racial association. It happens in friendship with Killer Mike, which is not to instrumentalize the Atlanta rapper, nor his blackness, but to suggest the the real work of allyship takes shape within the context of  community across the proverbial “color line” (Du Bois, 1994).

Their “brotherhood” prompts us, particularly whites who identify with the blackness of African American culture, to reflect upon the ways in which such cross-racial association can function to signify upon white identity so that whites might see their own whiteness “reflected b(l)ack upon” (Dyson, 1993) upon themselves in a constructively self-scrutinizing light–one which might prompt white practitioners of black American culture to recognize that the “white devils” to whom both rappers direct their disdain is indeed a reflection of the white devil that is within the social body writ large. Thus, in the end, it is not simply a “them” who is being signified upon, but an “us.”

References

Chennault, Ronald. “Giving Whiteness a Black Eye: An Interview with Michael Eric Dyson.” In ed. Joe L. Kincheloe, et al. White Reign: Deploying Whiteness in America. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1998.

Driscoll, Christopher. White Lies: Race and Uncertainty in the Twilight of American Religion. New York: Routledge, 2015.

Du Bois. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Dover Publications, 1994.

Dyson, Michael Eric. Reflecting Black: African-American Cultural Criticism. Minnesota: University of MN Press, 1993.

Gates, Jr., Henry Louis. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Jones, Leroi. Blues People: Negro Music in White America. New York: QUILL, 1963.

Lipsitz, George. Dangerous Crossroads: Popular Music, Postmodernism and the Poetics of Place. New York: Verson, 1994.

Lott, Eric. Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Miller, Monica. Religion and Hip Hop. New York: Routledge, 2013.

Peterson, James Braxton. The Hip-Hop Underground and African American Culture: Beneath the Surface. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Rux, Carl Hancock. “Eminem: The New White Negro.” In ed. Greg Tate, Everything But the Burden: What White People Are Taking From Black Culture. New York: Harlem Moon / Broadway Books. 15-38.

Sharma, Nitasha Tamar. Hip Hop Desis: South Asian Americans, Blackness, and a Global Race Consciousness. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.

Wald, Gayle. “One of the Boys? Whiteness, Gender, and Popular Music Studies.” In ed.      Mike Hill, Whiteness: A Critical Reader. New York: NYU Press, 1997. 151-167.

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Asian American Theological Forum

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Intro

In his chapter on “The Sources and Norms of Black Theology” in A Black Theology of Liberation (1990), James Cone cites Black culture as one starting place for doing theology insofar as it gives expression to Black self-reflection on the joys and pains of Black experience and Black history.1 Taking seriously the liberationist claim that “God’s revelation comes to us in and through the cultural situation of the oppressed,”2 Black theology recognizes through Black culture God’s presence in America and God’s participation in Black liberation3—understood as the political right to self-determine. Similarly, the Asian concept of han takes as its focal point the experience of the oppressed, decentering emphasis in Western theologies on the sins of the oppressor and focusing instead on all those aspects of human existence which constitute han according to minjung (read “the people’s”) theology: “frustrated hope”, “the collapsed feeling of pain”…

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Being a white rapper since the early 90s has been a really mixed bag of confusing race politics; I think it gives me a different perspective. Hip-hop is a black art, white supremacy reigns, so what can I do to undermine it even though I have benefited from it? I do end up having a lot of discussions about race, and in today’s hip-hop environment there just isn’t a deep enough in depth discussion about race – or any type of politics at all really. Early Sole quotes like, ‘The white man’s the fucking devil,’ I’m sure helped weed out some fucked up white people in the beginning of my career, but people still say and think some stupid shit. I’ve gotten into a lot of intense discussions both online and at shows with people, sometimes it goes badly and I alienate them but I’d like to think I’ve helped civilize more of my white brethren then [sic] I’ve alienated. My supporters are not typical white rap fans though, for the most part they get it. In my field I can never stop thinking about race. As a white rapper I gotta own my shit; my bloody heritage. – Sole, interview with It’s Going Down: Daily News of Revolt Across the US, Canada and Mexico, August 15, 2015

I got that white privilege / Wanna use it for what it’s worth / Bring it to the face of corrupt ass cops / And wannabe cops who kill whoever they want / And when they get caught all they get is a couple days off / If Zimmerman’s  saying he carried out God’s plan / Then God’s a white racist / God is outdated / The preachers serve the state / So don’t talk to me about hate / It’s all tough love / I know what side I’m on – Sole and DJ Pain 1, “Don’t Riot”

In the volume, Everything But the Burden: What White People Take from Black Culture (2003), contributor Carl Hancock Rux offers a critical response to Norman Mailer’s 1959 essay, “The White Negro.” In the essay, Mailer, the 20th century white social critic, essentializes blackness as an expression of strong sexuality and anti-authoritarian cool that defies white rigidity, yet which can be taken up by the white hipster as a survival strategy in a totalitarian era of existential angst.[1] Rux notes that what constituted hipness in the mid-twentieth century, constellated as it was around a caricatured blackness in the white American imaginary, is now articulated through a hip-hop stylized blackness associated with rebellion and located in the urban ghetto.

His key insight is that white performances of blackness as emblematized in the super-stardom of “new white negroes” such as Eminem says more about whiteness than it does about blackness, particularly in terms of how whites deploy race to perform disposable racial identities. (Indeed, that does say something about the supremacy of whiteness!) In this way, race difference is decontextualized, depoliticized and, in some ways, deracialized (i.e. rendered blind of itself) in a commercial landscape where blackness can be taken up by non-blacks without the burden that race signifies in the experiences of blacks themselves (à la Jones 1963).

In a word, Rux writes that the “new White Negro—like Eminem—has not arrived at black culture…He has arrived at white culture with an authentic performance of whiteness, influenced by a historical concept of blackness.”[2] What Rux is arguing here is that Eminem represents dominant white culture’s representation of comical, surreal, primitive blackness that, despite Eminem’s having been socialized as black, only works to replace black culture with a re-imagined whiteness[3] that decontextualizes the whole concept of race at the same time that it reinforces it as a category of identity. In this way, white rappers like Eminem can borrow from and identify with black culture without taking responsibility for the actuality of race as a lived experience of difference for those marked as non-white.

Rux’s insights proffer a sobering check on unexamined white identifications with black culture and indeed throws into a crisis of meaning the act of appropriation—as well it should. Taking Rux seriously, this essay examines one white rapper’s performance of musical blackness in order to map the salience of whiteness in his identification with hip-hop as a “black art.” However, it does so in a way that is more optimistic than Rux in its outlook on the issue of white cultural appropriation. A contextual line of approach to hip-hop that recognizes its ties to black self-fashioning as well as its circulation in crossracial contexts allows us to consider the possibility that appropriation can function as more than an act of cultural theft.

When done self-reflexively, appropriation can work as an act of cultural contribution (Neal 2005). Similar to what Gayle Wald says of Janis Joplin’s appropriation of black blues women’s sexuality in her self-fashioning as the impolite, transgressively female alter-ego “Pearl,” there are white performers (or, in the case of Sole, rappers) who reflect “an ambivalent dissidentification with whiteness” through what George Lipsitz calls “discursive transcoding”: “or the process by which white artists ‘disguise’ their own subjectivities in order to ‘articulate desires and subject positions’ that they cannot express in their own voices.”[4]

White MC Sole in many ways embodies this process insofar as he looks to black culture, via his immersion in hip-hop, as a “source of cultural self-fashioning” because it has “nurtured and sustained ‘moral and cultural alternatives to dominant values’ and served as an ‘important source of education and inspiration to alienated and aggrieved individuals cut off from other sources of oppositional practice.’”[5]

This is particularly evident in Sole’s later work with The Skyrider Band and DJ Pain 1 as well as in his Nuclear Winter mixtapes.

Released as free downloads on September 11, 2009 and January 12, 2013, respectively, Nuclear Winter Vol. 1 and Nuclear Winter Vol. 2: Death Panel signify a more deliberate gesture toward art as agit-prop in Sole’s musical output. Taking tips from Debord, whom Sole cites as a major influence on his own intellectual formation, the rapper engages in an act of détournement (French for “rerouting” or “hijacking”) as part of a radical anti-capitalist critique and deconstruction of the Debordian “society of the spectacle.”

As part of Sole’s efforts to dismantle the spectacle, the artist deploys a technique known as détournement, developed by a mid-twentieth century, Paris-based collective of radical artists and theorists that Debord founded called the Letterist International (LI), out of which emerged the Situationist International (IL).[6] Also a radical collective of artist, theorists, and philosophers rooted in Marxism, Dadaism, and surrealism, the SI believed in the spontaneity of the moment and saw in it the opportunity for creating “situations”—that is, artistic practices for political purposes. Hence the term, “situationist.” As part of this practice, situationists exercised détournement by which they turned “expressions of the capitalist system and its media culture against itself.”[7]  This involved emptying the expressions, seen as political slogans, of meaning and reinscribng them in a way that deconstructed the capitalist discourse embedded in such expressions.

Playing on the consumerism that infects much of the hip-hop culture industry today, reflective of society as spectacle, Sole conceived of the Nuclear Winter project as a situationist prank by which he took the beats produced for big-name icons in the world of mainstream hip hop, in particular, and pop culture, in general, and rapped over them with scathing indictments of U.S. capitalism, militarism, and statism. It signifies a methodological mash-up of social theory and cultural criticism inspired by the work of Noam Chomsky, Emma Goldman, Guy Debord, McKenzie Wark, Malcom X, and Slavoj Zizek served over “commercial rap” bangers that get the head nodding as much as they get it thinking by way of Sole’s insertion of deftly layered lyricism.

One example of this is “White Rage.” Co-written with journalist and white rapper Pedestrian, the song signifies on the trope of “black rage”—a term that gained popular usage in black nationalist parlance of the late 1960s and which refers to the anger some American blacks feel in the face of the dehumanizing forces of systemic racism and white supremacy. In this, Sole deconstructs the discourses of white supremacy as they manifest in white discontent with a black presidency; white anger at the influx of migrants from parts farther south of the U.S.-Mexico border; and white anxiety about black criminality. Described as “a response to the Tea Party, race baiting,[8] and the insanity that has infected white America” in what Sole identifies as a “post-Obama era,” this détournement of Virginia-bred rap duo Clipse’s radio hit “Popular Demand” renders the populist frenzy of the Tea Party movement absurd while implicating it in a larger structure of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.[9]

The song closes with a sermon entitled “Arizona Goddamn” that Pedestrian, in his rap alter-ego as Evangelist J.B. Best, delivers with the fiery zeal of a Southern preacher. A variation on the late Nina Simone’s  “Mississippi Goddam,” the piece is an angry response to the absurdity of anti-immigration and anti-migrant fervor in the U.S. as evidenced by legislation (Arizona SB 1070) in 2010 for increased surveillance of the U.S.-Mexico border. This is cast against the backdrop of the attempted assassination of Arizona Representative Dem. Gabrielle Giffords who did not support the law’s passage under Republican Governor Jan Brewer.[10]  A subtextual analysis of the song’s lyrical content in conjunction with a reading of its performance as music video[11] further illuminates the ways in which critical whiteness is operating in Sole’s work, particularly this lyrical jab at the “new patriotism” (Lipsitz 2006) of the American political landscape.

Directed by John Wagner, the video is set just outside of the Colorado State Capitol building, looming on the horizon as the piece begins. The camera then pans in on what appears to be a protest in which a small handful of people are waving placards that don: 1) neoconservative political slogans making conspiratorial claims about the government: “Pelosi Traitor Soros Oil Spill”[12] and “9-11 was an inside job / They outsourced”; 2) raced, if not racist, statements about national borders and territorial ownership: “This land is my land!”; and 3) an implicitly anti-black defense of whiteness in a variation on the trope of Reaganomics: the word “Obamanomics” is scrawled above a drawing of what looks like the mythical Eye of Horus[13] beneath which are the words, “White Slavery.” Other signs read: “Adam and Eve were white”; “It’s not global warming…”; “California is not part of my country” (with a drawing of the state filled in with the colors of a rainbow); and “Free Trade Not Free Loading Immigrants”—all signifying the possessive investment in whiteness as manifested in the neoconservative agendas of white supremacist biblical literalism, anti-environmentalism, anti-gay homophobia, and anti-immigration xenophobia as well as neoliberal free market capitalist ideology, respectively. Amidst this small swarm of protestors, Sole, donned in the formal attire of a corporate businessman or government official-gone-underground hip-hop-insurgent, raps the verses to “White Rage” as the video sequences between shots of him performing solo on the steps of the Denver Capitol Building and before the small gathering of protestors beneath a statue of a gun-toting pioneer—a symbol of American frontierism and the colonization of Native American soil.

With a situationist’s concern for the fierce urgency of the moment, Sole released the self-produced video “immediately after it was finished and as quickly as possible.”[14]  The song itself, meant as a an “experiment of rap journalism,”[15] begins with questions directed at white discontents: “I know you hate him, don’t you? You’re paid to hate him, aren’t you?” Underlying the question is a subtle jab at the right-wing conspiracy theorists and naysaying politicos who deride President Obama as part of a conservative backlash of an agenda aimed at rooting out of the Oval Office anyone left of center (or who is threatening to white normativity for that matter). In this way, Sole engages “White Rage” as a signifier of “whites in crisis” who “find greater cultural correspondence with right-wing racial codes and articulations of racial anxieties.”[16] Believing that a “conspiracy of antiwhite minorities and multiculturalists is repressing their free expression of a white identity,” Whites who subscribe to such codes resort to a paranoid racial politics that “fans the flames of white anger against non-Whites and ups the ante of racial hostility.”[17]

Fully aware of these “whites in crisis,” Sole segues into the song’s hook as he raps:

White rage
Won’t be white saved
By white collar criminals
In white capes
Running old school border paranoia campaigns
In Willie Horton’s name

White man you need someone to blame

Welfare nightmares
In vicious votes they wake

White man you need someone to blame

Here Sole once again takes aim at the figurative “white man”—a metonym of white racial domination secured through the workings of government subsidized big business (i.e. the mechanisms of corporate welfare as manifest in the Wall Street bailouts), symbolized by Sole’s reference to “white collar criminals” who, by dint of their part in constructing a system of free market capitalism that exploits racial minorities, are likened to Ku Klux Klansmen draped in “white capes.” Sole then implicates this system in the failures of welfare reform (read: “welfare nightmare”), which government officials have instigated through poor funding while shifting the burden of responsibility (read: “White man you need someone to blame”) on those most disenfranchised by welfare budget cuts: poor African-Americans and Latinos/as.[18] At the same time, it addresses the welfare nightmare that is the Wall Street bailout, which served only to solidify the problem of economic inequality in this country.

In order to drive the point home, Sole invokes the name of William R. “Willie” Horton, an African-American convicted of felony and sentenced to life in prison without parole. [19] As part of a Massachusetts weekend furlough program, he was released from prison and did not return, subsequently committing assault, armed robbery and rape.[20] In the 1988 presidential campaign, Republicans tossed his name around as a means to bolster opposition against then Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis who supported the furlough program as a method of criminal rehabilitation.[21] Sole signifies on this mudslinging, or “race baiting”—which results in racial profiling and an unfounded conflation of Willie Horton’s blackness with criminality—by suggesting that much of the paranoia fueling the formation of the American police state is predicated on racist assumptions about who can and cannot have access to American citizenship. Such paranoia is part and parcel of a discourse of whiteness that reads the world through the lens of white innocence.

Sole meanwhile turns “white rage” against itself by stating that it won’t be “white saved.” That is, those from whom the malcontent of white America are seeking solutions are in fact part of the problem. Sole makes this clear as the song goes on:

Your boys Reagan and Clinton deaded the unions
Jobs bounced south, while Mexico fed on
Cut-rate red state corn, come on,
That’s trickle-down,
Prolific earth deserted, they went North
To do the shit work you now slur ’em for

Here, in true hip-hop fashion, Sole implicates past U.S. Presidents Ronald Wilson Reagan (1981-1989) and Bill Clinton (1992-2000) in the present economic woes that those afflicted by “White Rage” are decrying. Both of their presidencies engaged in domestic and foreign policy practices that greatly contributed, in the long-run, to an increasingly desperate system of economic collapse and post-industrial urban decay. Reagan’s system of “trickle-down” or “supply-side” economics—also euphemized as “Reaganomics”—entailed a decrease in taxes on the wealthy and subsequent cuts in social programs for the poor and working class in light of wealthy tax breaks. [22] This lead to the further impoverishment of lower-class urban communities already disenfranchised as a result of an outsourced manufacturing industry, co-opted by transnational corporations.

Clinton’s presidency meanwhile ushered in the finalization of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which facilitated the boom of corporate agribusiness and commissioned the outsourcing of industry to parts south of the U.S.-Mexico border. This has resulted in the exploitation of cheap labor in Mexico as well as the destabilization of local infrastructures, especially local agriculture, as U.S. agribusinesses, with the unregulated freedom afforded by NAFTA, are exporting corn to Mexico and there selling it at a price with which local farmers cannot compete. Without a livable wage, workers and their families have been effectively forced to migrate North without documentation, only to be subjected to a system of wage slavery, hyper-bureaucracy, hyper-surveillance, racist social stigma, and anti-immigrant bias that provides them scant access to social mobility and little to no access to ownership over the means of production.

As Sole notes, this is all part and parcel of “trickle-down,” which leads him into his next verse: “This bullshit about big government / Like it’s what the problem is / Who’s gonna pay your kid to go shoot at Arabs then?” Using their language against itself, the rapper “calls out” those who complain about “big government” for being the very ones responsible for “big government” in the first place. In asking the question, “Who’s gonna pay your kid to go shoot at Arabs then?,” Sole is implicating opponents of big government, namely Tea Party populists, in a system of big government that is predicated on a style of “Americanness” (read whiteness or white Americanness) that sees support for U.S. military interventionism as a matter of patriotic duty to the state. Yet by way of public support for the capitalist war machine from neoconservative populist groups such as the Tea Partiers, the American government has funneled billions of tax dollars into police efforts in the Middle East that are incited by xenophobic assumptions about the non-American (read: “non-white”) other as generated in a racist American imaginary—one which Tea Party populists help shape. As a result of such spending, however, the government has increased the burden of taxation that opponents of big government—who are at the same time proponents of the unhumanly expensive “War on Terror”—are protesting. Sole in this way does well to call our attention to the irony and contradiction in such protests against big government.

To this Sole adds:

If that sounds elitist, my bad, I’m defeatist
Them wars in the East is
Unwinnable, ceaseless
Only Lockheed Martin
Knows what their meaning is

Recognizing the dire consequences of intervening in a political situation for which the American public as well as its so-called representatives in government have no context, Sole sees the futility of war, particularly as it has been launched in the Middle East where an already unstable infrastructure—in no small part due to U.S.-backed economic sanctions as well as the CIA’s sponsorship of corrupt politicos—has become further destabilized. Weapons manufacturers such as Lockheed Martin meanwhile have a stake in the war as they generate capital for the military industrial complex of which they are a key part. And so the “War on Terror,” which is nothing more than a political slogan betraying an anti-Arab propaganda, rages on, “unwinnable, ceaseless.”

The above verse then segues into an indictment of corporate lobbyists as part of Sole’s larger critique of free-market capitalism. Specifically, he signals out the Koch brothers—Charles G. and David H.—who are sons of Fred C., founder of the second-largest privately owned conglomerate of oil, gas, and chemical in the U.S., of which they own 84%.[23] Described as the “poster boys of the 1 percent” constituting America’s wealthy elite, the Koch Brothers have come under scrutiny in the public eye, particularly amongst political progressives, for their funding of conservative and libertarian thinktanks which have in turn generated propaganda that has warped public opinion concerning the environment, education, campaign finance, immigration, and labor rights.[24] Punning on the pronunciation of their name, Sole raps:

It ain’t a Tea Party for you, it’s too exclusive
You do the heavy lifting, ‘cuz you used to it
Them union bustin’ coke brothers
And Forbes motherfuckers fund it
–Crude isn’t it?

Once again, the rapper calls for a critical re-evaluation of “white rage” and challenges those pushing the Tea Party platform to see that the intentions of corporate lobbyists such as the Koch (a.k.a. “coke”) brothers are most certainly not in their best interest. At the top of Forbes business magazine’s list of 400 wealthiest Americans (read: “Forbes motherfuckers”) the Koch brothers signify access to unbridled economic security enjoyed by the country’s wealthy elite from which those constituting the Tea Party, in its largely middle and working class make-up, are excluded. Charging business elites for the breakdown of a strong manufacturing sector in American cities, Sole calls them “crude” as a subtle reference to and play on words pertaining to the trade in “crude oil” with which the Koch brothers are involved. He meanwhile puns on the pronunciation of the Koch brothers’ last name, calling them the “coke brothers” as way to link the kind of “hustling” in which they are involved to the drug-running that has turned into a kind of subaltern economy[25] for members of America’s urban communities most disenfranchised by the outsourcing of industry and big business union busting.

These communities, populated in large part by racial minorities, have meanwhile become centers of criminal activity with the formation of “juvenocracies” (Dyson 1993) emerging on the heels of deindustrialization in America’s urban pockets, fueling stereotypes about black criminality (what we could call the Willie Horton Effect) and feeding into the “white rage” (read white paranoia/white anger) Sole is reproving when he spits:

You don’t visit the city
Your immigrant grandparents
Settled in
Like you scared to step
Where white flight fled
–so telling, isn’t it?

Sole thereby clues us in on the racially-fueled dynamics inherent in the large-scale migration of European-Americans from urban areas in which they were originally situated to more racially unmixed locations in the suburbs.[26] As Sole suggests, it is a fear-induced phenomenon that is symptomatic of a greater ill—not the “juvenization of poverty” (Neal 2012) or black criminality, which are symptoms themselves, but rather white criminality as it operates in a morally defunct capitalist system, a “society of the spectacle,” predicated on free market individualism and sustained by the exploitation of cheap, alienated labor abroad as well as the evacuation of labor altogether at home.

With these ills in mind, Sole continues:

I feel for you, homey, I really do
I watch my father go through it
And it’s killing my industry too
Like when I got out of high school
I made 50k, answering phones

Now robots or someone in lock-up
Process my flight home
That’s how capital flows
How the game goes
While you make devil of dishwashers
And let Goldman Sachs alone

In a show of empathy with the disaffected whites who constitute a dwindling middle class America, Sole acknowledges the fact that they, too, have been disenfranchised in their own right given the reality of outsourcing, etc., noted above. A former member of the tech industry himself as well as the son of a “blue-collar” father who owned his own welding company in Portland, ME, Sole has some personal connection to experiences of the shift in American’s economic terrain. By the same token, however, he recognizes that scapegoating migrant workers in particular (i.e. making  “[a] devil of dishwashers”)  and people of color in general (à la the Willie Horton Effect) is not a viable solution to the problems of unemployment in an age where the automation of human labor (read “Now robots or someone in lock-up / Process my flight home”) and an ensuing sense of social isolation have become a “spectacular” reality.

Sole ultimately shifts the burden of responsibility for economic disenfranchisement onto big business, signified in the second stanza above by the multinational investment banking firm Goldman Sachs—an alleged “white collar criminal” blamed partially responsible for the 2007-2012 global debt crisis and the virtual collapse of the real estate mortgage market. Despite the fact that Congress and the Justice Department brought Goldman Sachs under investigation and the U.S. Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) filed a lawsuit against the company for misleading customers into buying mortgage-related security products that the company itself bet against, Goldman Sachs received a massive multi-billion dollar bailout from the Federal Reserve.[27] In light of this, Sole reminds his “white ragers” to consider the source of their despair, recalling the refrain that opened up the track:

White rage
Won’t be white saved
By white collar criminals
In white capes
Running old school border paranoia campaigns
In Willie Horton’s name
White man you need someone to blame

Welfare nightmares
In vicious votes they wake

White man you need someone to blame

Returning to Sole’s primary concern about the issue of race baiting, “White Rage” is an incendiary response to the conservative backlash not only against Obama, who became scapegoat for the toppling government infrastructure he inherited from the Bush administration, but also against blackness, as a signifier of difference, itself. In this way, blackness comes to be associated with the non-white other who threatens the discourses of racial innocence, economic security, privilege, and the hegemony of whiteness that infuse the paranoid white imaginary—a “border paranoia campaign” which emerges out of white supremacist ideology that functions to secure hierarchies of difference along lines of class, ethnicity, gender, race, and sexuality.

On this note, Sole concludes his performance of antiracist white radical critique with a sermon by fellow white rapper Pedestrian, a.k.a. Evangelist J.B. Best, which functions to leave the work of historical redress Sole embodies unresolved. Indeed, the video for “White Rage” leaves us in the dark as the camera fades to black and a low voice in the cadence of a black preacher rises slowly to a feverish pitch. In this, J.B. Best takes Sole’s performance of musical blackness to a new height in a way that spins the white rage Sole is reproaching into a palpable black rage in the vein of Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam.” He rearticulates her anthemic civil rights protest song—written in response to the murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evans and the death of four black children (Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robinson, and Denise McNair) after a bombing of Birmingham, Alabama’s 16th Street Baptist church—in the context of the anti-immigrant fervor in the United States, realized horrifically in the attempted assassination of Democratic Arizona Representative Gabrielle “Gabby” Giffords on January 8, 2011.

A polemic that pulls together the various themes resonant in Sole’s performance, the piece is worthy to be read in its near-entirety for the sake of communicating its unsettling evocation and invocation of black rage:

California has got me so upset / Texas has made me lose my rest / But everybody knows about Arizona / Goddamn Arizona / Arizona Goddamn / On the eighth day of January / In the late morning shadow of a Safeway / A strange grudge wakened on grey wings / Outspread over an adobe suburb / Where white flight had fled / And made a cold calculus of prey / In black seeds of lead and bodies left / In entry wounds so intimate they’re almost exit / And finally, yes, finally, / In blind death / For the first slaves over / Laid a curse on America […] / That when its malignant real estate market / To dead dust returned / Its last weeds and worms / Would be English first.

The rapper-cum-street corner prophet then lists a series of names signifying the “white criminals” Sole addresses in “White Rage” and concludes by indicting them for crimes against (black) humanity:

Lame memory serves subpoenas / To your marbled tombs / May that word / Your name / Not rest / In its after-life / As slur / Arizona Goddamn / No Amen

Both Sole and Pedestrian engage in what cultural critic Huey Copeland would call a “language of redress” through a rap-inflected sermon infused with a rhetoric of “reparative speech which seek[s] justice for the subjects of racial oppression.”[28] By way of this rap rhetoric, the emcees open up space for imagining the possibilities of black redemption, if not revenge, in a turn toward poetic justice that extricates blackness from criminality and condemns  racist whiteness (which brought the “first slaves over”) to death in the rubble of the decay (read “malignant real estate market”)in which racist whiteness has culminated. Evangelist J.B. Best, in the vein of a fiery prophet, damns those responsible for racial abjection and the horrors of slavery as it lives on in “white rage” to an after-life of unrest, of coming face-to-face with the themselves as the collective, criminal embodiment of racism—analogized in the stanza above as a racist “slur” against (black) humanity.

That the video should end in the dark is not surprising when “read” in tandem with the words of “Arizona Goddamn”—an evocation of the memory of slavery that haunts American history like a ghost (or the “curse of the first slaves over”) lurking in the kind of pitch-black darkness that encompasses the music video’s spoken-word coda. It is out of this darkness of the past that the work of redress emerges. It is a task that remains “terminally unfinished,” as Copeland notes, “requiring constant repetition and renewal in order to keep the past alive and the present under scrutiny.”[29] Hence the “No Amen” that closes J.B. Best’s sermon, leaving its listeners hanging in an air of uncertainty about what is to come in an American racial climate still fraught by the storm of “white rage.”

It is through “White Rage” that Sole manages to turn the “hysteria of white America” against itself. He does so in a manner of Debordian critique aimed at the spectacle of white supremacy, funneling his own (white) rage against whiteness through an act of détournement. In so doing, Sole engages in a politics of anti-racist whiteness that serves to bring whiteness into visibility, strip it of its innocence, and ultimately dismantle the discourse of supremacy and privilege fixed within it.

Hip hop is indispensible to his project and Sole’s positionality as an emcee schooled in the rap game places him squarely in a tradition of black musical performance and cultural criticism rooted in a politics and history of subaltern subversion. Sole thus finds entryway into the realm of what black critical theorist Richard Iton calls the “black fantastic,” which refers to “minor-key sensibilities generated from the experiences of the underground, the vagabond, and those constituencies marked as deviant.”[30] Generated within an arena beyond the reach of the modern state, the black fantastic is an episteme that conjoins the spheres of formal politics and popular culture as a means of self-fashioning on the part of “blacks and other nonwhites” typically excluded from the realm of electoral politics.[31] In other words, it is a style of politics rooted in black cultural production which demands, as Iton says of popular culture in general, “nuance, dadaesque ambiguity, and contrapuntality [or the tension of opposition] as it resists fixedness in its moves between the grounded and the fantastic.”[32] In this, the “fantastic” is meant to signify the “‘mythic, or magical, or unbelievable’”[33] as it pertains to the black imaginary and the “underdeveloped possibilities” of emancipation situated therein.[34]

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In his adroit and conscientious appropriation of musical blackness through his “skills on the mic” as a white rapper deeply informed by the “black epistemology” of hip hop culture, Sole enters into the black fantastic as a “white radical” who’s “never on sabbatical” (see “Don’t Riot“).  As “White Rage” attests, Sole claims solidarity with those typically ousted from participation in “civil society” through a rearticulation of whiteness as oppositional.  Indeed his is a cultural politics of whiteness refracted through a “black fantastic” hermeneutic of critical engagement with modern state aimed at unsettling its spectacular, white supremacist structure of “white rage” and privilege.

As per the critical pedagogy that E. Patrick Johnson maps out in Appropriating Blackness: Performance and the Politics of Authencity (2003), Sole engages in a “dialogic performance” of blackness through the black-based medium of hip-hop by locating the “(black) Other within—that Other that is always in the process of becoming” without fetishizing, essentializing, trivializing, or conflating his own and/or the “Other’s” racial subjectivity.[35] With “White Rage” as a case-in-point, Sole negotiates this terrain with prophetic, critically white candor that, through rap music, links white supremacy to the interplay of discursive structures and material conditions that reinforce it. In this way he contributes to hip hop as both an art form and a cultural movement rife with potential for crossracial dialogue and the framing of a new racial politics rooted in radical critique. And it is this very feat, informed by a conscious grappling with the racial politics of a “black art” on which he was reared, that makes Sole one of “da baddest poets.”

In positing this, I draw on Dyson’s “post-appropriationist paradigm of cultural and racial exchange” (Chennault 1998), recalling Dyson’s injunction that we must “account for transgressive whiteness”[36] and, in this vein, nuance what we mean by “abolishing” whiteness (“Do we want to abolish whiteness, or do we want to destroy the negative meaning associated with white identities?”[37]).  Sole invites us to take into consideration the various ways in which whites define themselves not necessarily over and against blackness, but alongside it.[38] Underlying this consideration is a critical move toward a politics of interracial identification that has implications for the anti-racist work of critical whiteness at the same time that it opens the boundaries of appropriation by asking: How do whites and blacks co-constitute one another?[39]

With that question in mind, I echo Dyson in arguing that we must get beyond biological determinism, i.e. essentialism, in speaking of race so as to open up discursive space for the various identities/identifications within both blackness and whiteness as social and ideological constructions that are in constant interplay within one another.[40] By the same token, just as it is important to celebrate anti-racist articulations of whiteness, it is equally as essential, if not more important, to avoid centering neo-abolitionist or anti-racist white discourses at the expense of pushing non-white positionalities once again to the margins and thus reinscribing the very discursive mechanisms of white supremacy that critical whiteness seeks to dismantle.[41] Moreover, we must be wary of, as one colleague has advised me, not to “recapitulate the asymmetries structured [by] and structuring white supremacy” by “relying on the backs of blacks in order to bring [white people] to wholeness or whatever you want to call it.” Thus Dyson’s clarion call to whiteness studies scholars to “look b(l)ack” (Chennault 1998) must be taken up with great care–a tension I am not quite sure how to negotiate except by acknowledging it.

Tapping into hip hop’s possibilities as a medium of ideology critique is a key step for whites to “look b(l)ack.” In this, it is important to recognize white hip hop activists, reared on the blackness of hip hop as an oppositional politics, who offer models of antiracist whiteness by their engagement in issues that “matter to [contemporary] youth across the board,” namely: “living wage jobs, military-industrial complex, education, environment and incarceration.”[42] Sole and the work he is doing at the level of hip hop performance and activism ultimately reveals a member of the hip hop community who has taken up Chicago underground graffiti artist Upski’s call for “white hip-hop kids” to give back—i.e. “look b(l)ack”—to the cultural politics that shaped them.[43]

Bibliography

[1] See “Eminem: The New White Negro,” in Everything But the Burden: What White People Take from Black Culture (New York: Harlem Moon, 2003), 30.

[2] Ibid., 37.

[3] Ibid., 28.

[4] Gayle Wald, “One of the Boys? Whiteness, Gender, and Popular Music Studies,” in Whiteness: A Critical Reader, ed. Mike Hill (New York: New York University Press, 1997), 158. Cf. George Lipsitz, Dangerous Crossroads (New York: Verso, 1994), 53.

[5] Ibid. Cf. Lipsitz, Dangerous Crossroads, 54.

[6] “Situationist International,” in Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, (Wikimedia Foundation Inc., updated May 3, 2014) [encyclopedia online], accessed May 14, 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Situationist.

[7] Douglas Holt, Cultural Strategy Using Innovative Ideologies to Build Breakthrough Brands (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 252.

[8] Defined as the “unfair use of statements about race to try to influence the actions or attitudes of a particular group of people.” “Race-baiting,” in Merriam-Webster Online, (An Encyclopaedia Britannica Company) [dictionary online], accessed May 14, 2014, http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/race_baiting.

[9] See Sole and Evangelist J.B. Best, “White Rage (Popular Demand remix),” youtube, uploaded January 26, 2011, accessed August 27, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kRHpWLgI4WM

[10] “Gabrielle Giffords,” in Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, (Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., updated May 8, 2014) [encyclopedia online], accessed May 14, 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gabrielle_giffords#Immigration_and_border_security.

[11] Watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kRHpWLgI4WM

[12] This alludes to a conspiracy theory linking President Obama’s 2010 six-month moratorium on deep-water drilling to the lease of rigs and ships to countries such as Brazil, where the oil company Petrobras is situated. According to conspiracy, one of the Obama campaign’s major financial backers, business magnate and philanthropist George Soros, also a well known supporter of progressive-liberal causes, has, or had, $811 million invested in the oil company. Conspiracy theorists claim that the moratorium is part of some back-handed deal between the Obama administration and Soros. As an example, see Tait Trussle, “Soro’s Oil Spill Payoff,” Frontpage Mag, June 22, 2010, accessed May 14, 2014, http://www.frontpagemag.com/2010/tait-trussell/soros-oil-spill-payoff/

[13] Recognized as the “Great Seal of the United States” used to authenticate government documents, and also found on the reverse of the one-dollar bill, the ancient Egyptian symbol of protection, royal power and good health was appropriated by the founding fathers as a stamp of approval for, and blessing of prosperity on, the formation of the United States as though divinely mandated. It has since become known as the “Eye of Providence” and is linked by way of conspiracy theory to the “Illuminati”—a sectarian group with supposed historical ties to the Bavarian Illumaniti, an Enlightenment-Era secret society aimed at opposing superstition, prejudice against women, and abuses of state power. In the contemporary context, it has, however, come to refer to something more insidious in intent: a secret organization aimed at masterminding a New World Order by planting covert agents in government and big business. See, “Eye of Horus,” in Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, (Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., updated May 2, 2014) [encyclopedia online], accessed May 14, 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eye_of_horus; “The Great Seal of the United States,” in Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia (Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., updated May 14, 2014), [encyclopedia online], accessed May 14, 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Seal_of_the_United_States; “Illuminati,” in Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia (Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., updated May 13, 2014) [encyclopedia online], accessed May 15, 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Illuminati.

[14] Thorin Klosowski, “Sole Drops a New Video for ‘White Rage,’” Backbeat: Music, Culture, Nightlife, January 27, 2011, accessed May 14, 2014, http://blogs.westword.com/backbeat/2011/01/sole_drops_a_new_video_for_whi.php

[15] Ibid.

[16] See Joe L. Kincheloe and Shirley R. Steinberg, “Addressing the Crisis of Whiteness: Reconfiguring White Identity in a Pedagogy of Whiteness,” in White Reign: Deploying Whiteness in America, ed. Joe L. Kincheloe et al. (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1998), 10.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Cultural theorist Richard Iton gives an extensive, intersectional treatment of the failures and fissures of welfare reform that began with Bill Clinton’s election to presidency in 1992. See “Women and Children First,” In Search of the Black Fantastic: Politics and Popular Culture in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 140-48.

[19] “Willie Horton,” in Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia (Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., updated April 1, 2014), [encyclopedia online], accessed may 14, 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Willie_Horton.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] WalterCrunkite, “Rap vs. Ronald Regan,” rapgenius, January 16, 2012, accessed May 2013, http://rapgenius.com/posts/775-Rap-vs-ronald-reagan

[23]“Political Activities of the Koch Brothers,” in Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, (Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., updated April 27, 2014), [encyclopedia online], accessed May 15, 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Political_activities_of_the_Koch_brothers

[24] Ibid.

[25] President Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy practices ushered into American cities an illicit economy of drug trafficking that became a means of survival for the materially poor in urban communities. In what was known as the Iran-Contra affair National Security Council staff member Oliver North served as the point-person for the covert sale of weapons to Iran as ransom for the release of U.S. captives in Lebanon. The second part of North’s plan involved the diversion of proceeds from weapons sales to support Nicaraguan rebel groups, or Contras, who sought to overthrow the Sandanista National Liberation Front, a group of democratic socialists named after the Augusto Cesar Sandino, who led Nicaraguan resistance against the U.S. occupation of the country in the 1930s. According to official and journalistic investigations made since the 1980s, North and other senior officials were involved in a private Contra network of drug smuggling that included Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega—all to assist the Contras in their violent revolutionary activities. This was bolstered by the distribution and sale of cocaine in a drug-running operation that spanned the coastal United States and crossed borders between it and Latin America. See WalterCrunkite, “Rap vs. Ronald Regan,” op. cit.

[26] “White Flight,” in Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, (Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., updated May 8, 2014), [encyclopedia online], accessed May 15, 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_flight

[27] “Goldman Sachs,” in Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia (Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., updated May 15, 2014), accessed May 15, 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goldman_sachs#Controversies

[28] Huey Copeland, Bound to Appear: Art, Slavery, and the Site of Blackness in Multicultural America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 26.

[29] Ibid., 35.

[30] Iton, op. cit., 16.

[31] See ibid., 17.

[32] Ibid., 11.

[33] Iton, quoting Toni Morrison, in ibid., 11.

[34] Riffing on Iton, ibid., 16.

[35] See E. Patrick Johnson, Appropriating Blackness: Performance and the Politics of Authenticity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 243, 249.

[36] Chennault, in White Reign, op. cit., 319.

[37] Ibid., 317.

[38] Ibid., 320.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid., 321-322.

[41] Ibid., 323.

[42] Bakari Kitwana, Why White Kids Love Hip-Hop: Wankstas, Wiggers, Wannabes, and the New Reality of Race in America (New York: Basic Books, 2005), 173.

[43] See ibid., 175. Cf. William “Upski” Wimsatt, Bomb the Suburbs: Graffiti, Race, Freight-Hopping and the Search for Hip-Hop’s Moral Center (New York: Soft Skull Press, 1994, 2000).

514QhW+WJqL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_Enlisting the support of Detroit lyricist Danny Brown and LA-based female vocalist Jhene Aiko, L.A. rapper and Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE) figurehead Ab-Soul offers an anti-capitalist critique in “Terrorist Threats” that plays on new meanings of the African diaspora through a practice of what diaspora theorist Brent Hayes Edwards would call a “vagabond internationalism.” Such a practice balks at American hegemony and imagines a revolutionary coup of the capitalist state through diasporic identification with anti-colonial struggles abroad. Coined by Edwards, “vagabond internationalism” refers to a shifting black community that subsists outside of the labor force, or political economy, and which reframes our understanding of the ‘surplus population’ (made up of “vagabonds”) not as passive recipient’s of the labor force’s alms, but as a testament to “the powerful history of proletarian self-activity.”[1]

Through the lyrics and video performance of “Terrorist Threats,” Ab-Soul and company engage in a diasporic practice of “articulation”–that is, the connection across gaps of cultural difference through shared experience–by which he invokes the name and image of the Rastafarian emperor of Ethiopia Haile Selassie I to introduce the theme of personal agency, predicated on a rejection of the machinery of Western imperialism that runs through the track. Exhibiting a kind of “vagabond internationalism” in its own right, the song is premised on a “radical doubt” about the black male subject’s place in a capitalist system.

Furthermore, the video proffers what black British cultural critic Paul Gilroy calls a “politics of transfiguration”–“the basic desire to conjure up and enact the new modes of friendship, happiness, and solidarity that are consequent on overcoming of the racial oppression on which modernity and its antinomy of rational, western progress as excessive barbarity relied”[2]–in its photographic piecing together of documentary fragments evidencing urban blight, international terrorism, the puppetry of politicos, and the revolutionary zeal of Pan-Africanism.

Ab-soul’s “bad nationalism”[3] ultimately balks at white supremacy through a subversive subtext that challenges the racism inherent in the American political system. In a manner of diasporic exchange, he stakes a claim in his African heritage without aligning himself explicitly with any nation, creed, or dogma. In this way Ab-Soul’s video and lyrics, as indicated by the ironic title of the song, are a threat to the status quo. They are Ab-Soul’s way of playing off of the highly inflated and propagandistic rhetoric of the “War on Terror” in a manner that allows him to launch a figurative counter-terrorism. By way of black expressive culture, in the form of rap music, he rails against the evils of racial violence and, through the power of the written word, negotiates what Houston Baker calls the “economics of slavery.”[4]

In a word, “he ain’t gonna be nobody’s chattel.”

Ab-Soul’s music video for “Terrorist Threats” begins with a refrain sung by L.A. singer-songwriter Jhene Aiko, who offers a variation on an intro to the 1999 Jay-Z hit, “Jigga What, Jigga Who.” As commentators at rapgenius.com testify, Ab-Soul first establishes himself as one in lineage with the New York-bred rap mogul, self-proclaimed hustler, and an emperor of the hip-hop movement, Jay-Z, crooning the song’s hook while paying homage to the political heritage of the aforementioned emperor of Ethiopia who ruled between 1930 and 1974.

Considered by members of the Rastafari movement to be the second messiah who would usher in an age of peace, righteousness and prosperity, Haile Salassie was famous for his involvement in Ethiopia’s liberation from Italy during the Italo-Ethiopia crisis, his charter membership to the United Nations, his attempts at land reform, his support for the decolonization of Africa, and his involvement in the Organization of African Unity. With Haile Salassie as his figurative muse, Ab-Soul imagines the possibility of unifying America’s gangs in a plot to take over the military—a subtle jab at militarism in general and the military industrial complex in particular, which exploits the underprivileged and minority populations, and instrumentalizes human bodies to fight so-called wars for freedom.

Haile Selassie I

Haile Selassie I

In this way Ab-Soul summons the emperor’s memory to frame his critique of American society while hinting at political aspirations for Pan-African nationhood with the words, “Wish I could see out Haile Selassie’s eye.” It is through the lens of this proclaimed messiah that he begins his first verse, portraying images of a socio-economically depressed urbanscape. A kind of heterology,[5] the video collects images of the so-called “waste” or “excess” of capitalism with its unsettling documentary evidence of post-industrial urban decay and homelessness. In it, we see a Western cityscape worn down by an outsourced manufacturing industry and the subsequent street politics of drug-trade and gang violence—the result of political disenfranchisement and a racist infrastructure in “Babylon” where thugs (read: street-hustling drug runners and politicians alike), as Ab-Soul says in clever word play, just “babble on.”

A potential victim to involvement in such warfare, Ab-Soul plays on the stereotypes of black culture that he’s internalized as a result of “Mama’s” (read: America’s) claim that violence is in his blood. “But she don’t know what the fuck I been through,” he says, as he pinpoints in a spirit of anti-capitalist critique, the ways in which the African-American male negotiates the economics of slavery: “To creep through the back door, the typical black boy in the good old U-S-A / Before I pushed rhymes like weight, I used to wanna play for the NBA.” Signifying on the black male’s limited access to social mobility, Ab-Soul stakes his claim resolutely, like the black drifters of McKay’s Banjo, in the institution of music at America’s back door. In this vein, Ab-Soul later raps with revolutionary intent, “Pee on your PhD or your AA.”

Likening America to the disdained Babylon of the Rastafari, Ab-Soul claims his agency in this wasteland of failed welfare reform where the destitute sell water to make a buck. He does this through the power of Nommo (a West-African concept) which he uses to rise above a socioeconomic condition likened to chattel slavery—a common trope, as Gilroy makes clear, in rap’s anti-capitalist critique.

This leads to an iteration of the hook followed by Ab-Soul’s second verse, which is an inventory of his arsenal of marijuana strains, sacramental elements of the Rastafarian Movement that sees smoking weed as a spiritual practice, and the rapper’s weapons of choice in the “War on Terror.” Punning on the figurations of gunnery used to label the pot he smokes, Ab-Soul frames his revolutionary aspirations to “link up every gang” and reclaim the American government (read: “put out the White House lights today / We mobbin’ like the black KKK). His references to such strains meanwhile sacramentalize an open letter to President Barak Obama in which he simultaneously commends the President, as black male, for securing such a position of political power, while at the same time calling Mr. Obama’s bluff: “I know you just a puppet.”

The video meanwhile replays disturbing footage of the toppling World Trade Centers to the recitation of: “I see an image of Hitler in the picture / When the Twin Towers dropped.” A conspiratorial gesture, the line intimates a subtle critique of the ways in which the 9/11 attacks were used as propaganda to dupe America into supporting military conquests abroad as Ab-Soul raps: “Peep the concept / You’ve got progress, you’ve got congress / We protest in hopes they confess / Just proceed on your conquest.” In this, Ab-Soul calls the United States to account for the ways in which it wrought such destruction upon itself, if not at the same time suggesting that 9/11 could very well be an inside job.

Thus enters Detroit rapper Danny Brown who rails against the situation of homelessness and poverty in the United States. No stranger to post-industrial decay, he rationalizes, if not justifies, domestic drug-trafficking in light of a seemingly desperate socioeconomic situation at home where society’s most disenfranchised are not being provided for: “Cause I ain’t got shit but an EBT card from a fiend / That owe me and it’s in her daughter’s name / How the fuck is they pose to eat? / How the fuck am I pose to eat?”

Brown, following Ab-Soul’s lead, paints a lyrical picture of a depraved Babylon—seemingly hopeless—where a 400 year-old peculiar institutional legacy continues to manifest in a system of wage slavery (read: “global austerity economy”) with little to no governmental accountability to “the wretched of the earth.” Brown thus raps: “Got a nigga in the streets, no health care / Tryna slang weed just to put shoes on his feet / So fuck you, you don’t give a fuck about me / Can’t get a job if they drug test me / Got a nigga stressed depressed / Got a feeling in his chest / And the world’s stripped of happiness.”

The video meanwhile foregrounds the underlying message of revolt with images of an inverted American flag, the Washington Capital building, President Obama speaking in public, President Reagan (so often and righteously demonized in hip-hop performance), police brutality, and footage of the American military. The phrases “wake up” and “control system” flash across the screen at various points following the song’s midway point as kind of Orwellian injunction to become aware of the ways in which the media disciplines its viewers to view reality. Also interpolated throughout is the visage of Haile Salassie to whom the three rappers, as the “Powerful Trinity” his name represents, stand in salute with the chorus: “Wish I could see out Haile Selassie’ eye / Maybe my sovereignty would still be mine.”

Lastly, most striking is the repeated image of Ab-Soul burning one dollar bills, his ultimate claim on his own freedom, and a staunch inversion of the economics of slavery and commercial deportation that ushered in the capitalist era of modernity on the black backs of slaves.

In their joint proclamation, “I just wanna be free,” Ab-Soul and company both “[mock and deform] pretensions of a civilization that ‘had uprooted, enchained, transported, and transformed’ peoples of African descent ‘to labor under its laws, and yet lacked the spirit to tolerate them within its walls.’”[6]  Music, then, is the “only place where the black boys [and girl] stand—there is no other ‘plot,’ no other ground or foundation, whether nation or narrative, engine or economy, that contains them.”[7]

They seek only their own personal sovereignty without gavel, without fighting anyone else’s battle (particularly that of the U.S. military which would have those least-serviced by their country in service to their country), and without being reduced to commodity in a capitalist system that they successfully  evade, like the vagabonds of Claude McKay’s Banjo, through expressive culture. And Ab-Soul does this, to use Hayes Edwards words in reference to McKay’s text “without grounding [his vision] in any alternative universalism (an internationalism of the ‘human’ or an internationalism of the ‘proletariat,’ for instance). This is an internationalism of the defective: the unregistered, the undocumented, the untracked [and I would add homeless]—a [nationalism], as it were, of all the ‘Doubtful.’”[8] claude-mckey

Ab-Soul’s vagabond aesthetic of racial solidarity is a practice of diaspora that calls on the memory of an Ethiopian revolutionary to create a black American, or “Aframerican,” imaginary which translates across difference as a desire for personal sovereignty against the threat of racist dehumanization. He and his cohorts cannot position themselves in such a provocative stance without the aid of rap music which, to echo James Weldon Johnson’s take on ragtime, “possesses the vital spark, the power to appeal universally, without which any artistic production, no matter how approved its form may be, is dead.”[9]

Ab-Soul’s rapping is a diasporic practice, his way of reading the past of black internationalism to find “relations of ‘difference-within-unity’”[10]  that speak to present circumstances in a spirit of social critique. In saying this, I wish to stress, with Hayes Edwards, that discourses of black internationalism are not limited by class or reserved to black, elitist intelligentsia. This is evidenced by the force of black expressive culture’s hold on the public imagination, particularly today in our hip-hop infused global environment.

In many ways the contemporary rap artist, at least ones of Ab-Soul and company’s caliber, answer Johnson’s injunction to the “colored poet of the United States” to develop, without essentializing,

[a] form that is freer and larger than dialect, but which will still hold the racial flavor; a form expressing the imagery, the idioms, the peculiar turns of thought, and the distinctive humor and pathos, too, of the Negro, but which will also be capable of voicing the deepest and highest emotions and aspirations, and allow the widest range of subjects and the widest scope of treatment.[11]

It is my contention that Ab-Soul proffers us a glimpse of how this might look, feel, sound with his rap-inflected vernacular of cultural criticism and hip-hop ideology, or politics, of form that ultimately “sucks up the national spirit”of American democracy “from the soil and creates something artistic and original” by way of a transnational linkage with the revolutionary, black nationalist spirit of Haile Sallasie I.[12]

In The Wretched of the Earth the Martinique-born Algerian psychiatrist and member of the Algerian Liberation Front (ALF) Frantz Fanon stresses the importance of rooting the anti-colonial struggle for independence in the experience of society’s most underrepresented, giving particular emphasis to the inclusion of the lumpenproletariat in the rebellion.[13] By the same token, he warns that the revolution cannot be reduced to the unchecked spontaneity of revolutionary urges for the brutal reestablishment of nationhood, which has the adverse and ironic effect of turning into chauvinism—an “ultra-nationalism,” as Fanon calls it, that leads to territorialism, inter-tribal warfare, and a more deeply entrenched racism.[14]

He therefore upholds the role of the cultural worker, or what 20th century Marxist social philosopher  Antonio Gramsci dubbed the “organic intellectual,” to help provide a framework for social change that functions to enlighten the consciousness of the masses while staying true to deeply democratic principle of cooperation and socialist principle of redistribution.[15] The nationalist agenda therefore stays from transforming into a dictatorship, the native intellectual stays from turning into a mouthpiece for the colonial bourgeoisie, and the concept of nationhood stays from morphing into a new kind of colonial regime.

A humanist intellectual in his own right, Ab-Soul, and the Afrodiasporic wielders of Nommo (i.e. “the power of the word”) like him, speak from the perspective of the lumpen—the world’s so-called vagabonds and social outcasts who have been severed from ownership over the  means of production by a capitalist system geared specifically for the maintenance of a social order demarcated along lines of class, gender, and race—those identified as racially other (than white) constituting the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic world order.

To use Harlem Renaissance-era black intellectual Alain Locke’s words in reference to the “negro,” Ab-Soul is one of “America’s Troubadour’s”—a “songster of the western world”[16]—with the “utopian aspirations” of one deeply invested in both a “politics of fulfillment” and “transfiguration” inasmuch as he addresses social and political promises that have gone unfilled while implicating the black American struggle in the memory of Ethiopia’s anti-colonial revolution.

Using Ab-Soul’s “Terrorist Threats” as a case in point, hip-hop embodies a deep potential for intercultural exchange—an exercise of “black internationalism” that represents Robin Cohen’s notion of a “deterritorialized diaspora”: a concept of human dispersal, or movement, without a fixed adherence to the idea of exile from and return to an originary homeland, and which stresses how communities of identification develop across transnational boundaries. For his own purposes, Ab-Soul is engaging in a practice of “deterritorialized diaspora” in the context of the black Atlantic–a term used to refer to the formation of black communities on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean rooted/routed in transnational cultural ties as expressed, for example, in art and music.

c6e3a31400953999c030862e0f9b7a3aAs the foregoing discussion posits, hip-hop opens up space for the cultivation of critical consciousness imbued with a cosmopolitan sensibility that is rooted (or “routed”) in an aesthetics and politics of Afrodiasporic solidarity—a shared sense of belonging that signifies on the African diaspora as a kind of unity within difference (and vice versa) through music.

In the context of black America, diaspora signals an experience of dislocation associated with post-industrial urban decay deeply resonant with the anti-colonial struggles of black and, more generally, marginal peoples abroad. As American civil rights leaders Kwame Ture (né Stokely Carmichael) and Charles Hamilton argue, Black Power “means that black people see themselves as part of a new force, sometimes called the ‘Third World’; that we see our struggle as closely related to liberation struggles around the world. We must hook up with these struggles.”[17]

This entails understanding how colonialism operates in a supposedly “free world” such as America. Ab-Soul and a lineage of hip-hop’s rap practitioners with whom he stands convey such an understanding by way of the internationalist stance they embody, establishing cross-Atlantic ties with other diasporic populations.

[1] Brent Hayes Edwards, The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 14-15.

[2] Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), 38.

[3] A term I take from Hayes Edwards that he uses to describe the political stance of the protagonist Ray in Claude McKay’s Banjo:  “‘the vagabond lover of life’” who “‘finds individuals and things to love in many places and not in any one nation’” (quoted in Hayes Edwards, 239). In this way, Hayes Edwards argues, “McKay insists on locating internationalism against the grain of nationalism without grounding it in any alternative universalism (an internationalism of the ‘human’ or an internationalism of the ‘proletariat,’ for instance). This is an internationalism of the defective: the unregistered, the undocumented, the untracked—an ab-nationalism, as it were, of all the ‘Doubtful’” (ibid.).

[4] According to black literary theorist Houston Baker, the trope “signifies the social system of the Old [American] South that determined what, how, and for whom goods were produced to satisfy human wants. As a function of the European slave trade, the economy of the Old South was an exploitative mode of production embodied in the plantation system and spirited by a myth of aristocratic patriarchalism. […] While the ‘economics of slavery’ promoted the dehumanizing plunder of African labor, it also produced a corollary southern mythology of the ruling class. The primary features of this mythology were ‘patriarchy’ and ‘economic paternalism.’” See Blues, Ideology and Afro American Literature: A Vernacular Theory (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1984), 26-27.

[5] The term designates a fascination with “waste” that black culture represents to the civilizing machine which looks down upon it as primitive (see Hayes Edwards, op. cit., 224).

[6] Quoted in Hayes Edwards, ibid., 240.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 239.

[9] James Weldon Johnson, “Preface,” The Book of American Negro Poetry (Book Jungle, 2008), 11.

[10] See Hayes Edwards, op. cit., 11.

[11] Johnson, op. cit., 32.

[12] To borrow Johnson’s terminology, ibid., 15.

[13] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1963), 129-31.

[14] Ibid., 156-58.

[15] Ibid., 180.

[16] Referenced in Paul Gilroy, “Troubadors, Warriors, and Diplomats,” in Darker than Blue: On the Moral Economies of Black Atlantic Culture (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2011), 120.

[17] Kwame Ture and Charles Hamilton, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation (New York: Vintage, 1992), xix.

Sometimes it’s like I can see the future stretched out in front of me—just plain as day. The future, Mama. Hanging over there at the edge of my days. Just waiting for me—a big, looming blank space—full of nothing. Just waiting for me. But it don’t have to be. – Walter, A Raisin in the Sun, I.ii

Yes—just look at what the New World hath wrought!…Just look! There he is! Monsieur le petit bourgeois noir—himself! There he is—Symbol of a Rising Class! Entrepreneur! Titan of the system! Did you dream of yachts on Lake Michigan, Brother? Did you see yourself on that Great Day sitting down at the Conference Table, surrounded by all the might bald-headed men in America? All halted, waiting, breathless, waiting for your pronouncements on industry? Waiting for you—Chairman of the Board! I look at you and I see the final triumph of the stupidity of the world! – Beneatha, A Raisin in the Sun, III

Erykah_Badu_-_New_Amerykah

On the album New Amerykah Part One (4th World War), neo-soul singer Erykah Badu offers a black female counter-narrative to what black radical feminist bell hooks calls the “imperialism of patriarchy,” re-imagining America as a site of universal humanity where, “as sure as All and All is one, we All shall grow before it’s done.”[1]  In this, Badu works to unveil the dystopian dimensions of the American Dream, breaking the chains of her own imprisonment to its seductive allure of bourgeois comfort through a hip-hop inflected feminist critique of the legacy and structure of male dominance on which the promise of the American project is premised.

At the outset of the album Badu satirizes American capitalist utopianism, implicating it an economics of slavery by which one’s entire being is exchanged for the falsely perceived security of money and sex. In “American Amerykahn Promise,” a male voice—presumably that of the corpse-like, gun-toting Uncle Sam pictured in the album sleeve—speaks for this illusion of economic and social stability. Backed up by female singers as if a game-show host, this troubling icon of American hegemony offers a deceptively warm welcome to his audience, advertising America as a beautiful place of true love and fulfilled desire.  In the background a choir repeats the refrain, “promise promise amerykahn promise,” and, is if brainwashed, sing:

Promise I’ll love you ‘til the day I die / Promise I’ll love you good and give you the sky / Promise I’ll never love another guy / Promise I’ll give you things that you can’t buy / I’ll give you my nose / I’ll give you my toes / I’ll give you my eyes / I’ll give you my ears / I’ll give you my hands / I’ll give you my lips / I’ll give you my tongue / I’ll give you my thighs / Damn near anything you want

In a manner of irony, the song signifies on modern conceptions of the New World, believed by the architects of modernity to be a land of figurative “milk and honey”—a land fashioned on the black backs of slaves who were forced to give “nose, toes, eyes, ears, hands, lips, tongue, thighs” for the purposes of realizing the American Dream.

Badu meanwhile critiques the process of socialization whereby subjects are conditioned to hand over their history in exchange for what the figure of Uncle Sam in the song calls “a modern mystery”—a dream of Utopia as it exists “across space and before time,” where there is “more action, more excitement, more everything” as long one “stays on the grind.” This is particularly the case for the female subject in America as intimated in the song when Uncle Sam admonishes a “young lady”—curious about the status of her “42 Laws” (read: human rights)—for “causing quite a disturbance over here.” He proclaims in the fashion of an Orwellian Big Brother, “I want everyone to see this. I think we’re gonna have to make an example of her. Rid me of her sight. But before you get rid of her, give me a brain tissue sample of her. We’re gonna have to use it. We might need that later.”

Through satire, “American Amerykahn Promise” references the way “American women have been socialized, even hooks_aint i a womanbrainwashed, to accept a version of American history that was created to uphold and maintain racial imperialism in the form of white supremacy and sexual imperialism in the form of patriarchy.”[2] As hooks writes, the success of such indoctrination depends upon the conscious and unconscious perpetuation of the very evils that oppress black women.[3] Badu implies this much toward the song’s end when we hear a woman’s voice giving the directive, “Ok, when he say a key word, everybody, everybody just shout.” Critiquing the way power is organized and consolidated through a process of double- or groupthink, Badu laments the loss of individual rights to a warped vision of democracy that has implanted in our psyches “a seed of the racial imperialism,” to quote hooks, which keeps the black female subject in bondage.[4]

This critique runs through the rest of the album, which functions as a collective “wake-up call” to those seduced like the characters of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun by an American Dream, the real dimensions of which are “white supremacy, black ‘inferiority,’ […] fascism and war.”[5] Understood this way, the American Dream is really a guise for an oppressive system of white male patriarchy that judges an individual’s worth—whether male or female—according to his or her productive capacity, and establishes a hierarchy of being according to normative codes of gender, class, race, and sexuality that place black women at the very bottom.

Badu’s rallying cry against patriarchal and racial imperialism is made explicitly clear in tracks such as “Soldier.” An anti-war, anti-fascist and Black Power protest song in its own right, “Soldier” finds Badu calling for an increase in critical consciousness through education, non-violence, and a deeper rootedness in individual and collective Black history:

BACK BLACK!!! / What am I talkin’ about / Everybody know what the songs about / They be trying to hide the history / But they know who we are / Do you want to see? / Everybody rise to the next degree / Raise your hands high if you agree / Just say YES SIR-REE….

Channeling the spirit of Harriet Tubman—with a “shot gun on ya’ back”—Badu stakes her claim in the cause of black radicalism as a female leader, thereby assuming a revolutionary role typically reserved to black men in the struggle for liberation.[6]

In so doing, Badu puts herself on equal footing with the likes of black male leaders such as Nation of Islam head Louis Farrakhan, invoked in the beautifully contemplative self-tribute, “Me,” when she sings, “I salute you Farrakhan…cause you are me…” Signifying on the Nation of Islam’s newspaper The Final Call, Badu reminds us that we “got the wake up call / when [we] saw the buildings fall.” Referring to the 9-11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centers, Badu implicates the Black Nationalist call for economic justice in the struggle against American racial imperialism that the razed buildings, monuments of American neo-colonialism, represent. She further protests American racial imperialism by alluding to the dispossession of a large percentage of New Orleans’ black community—“baptized,” as Badu sings, “when the levy broke”—in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Badu therefore sings to prevent black history’s erasure by the “powers that be.” Calling on black activists—“my folks”—not to stop “‘till you change they mind,” Badu takes her place in a lineage of black matriarchs such as Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Mary Church Terrell, Sojourner Truth, and Angela Davis who exercised a dogged strength in the causes of women’s suffrage, anti-lynching, abolition, and black power respectively. Most important to Badu, however, is the role of her own blood mother Kolleen Gibson Wright, “a girl from South Dallas, Texas,” who married William, gave birth to “Erkyah, then Chorea (sp?) under Erykah, and then […] finally delivered Evan Wood.” According to Badu, “[Kolleen] look like a model with those eyes. She was witty and beautiful.”

People were drawn to her smile. “Lovely, young and fresh,” sings Badu, “I could not think of a better soul that I’d rather be like or admire. Kolleen is tighter, smarter, quicker than the average bear. Even though, even though it was hard. You would never ever know it.” A testimony to the power of black womanhood, this sung homage to her mother, a coda to “Me,” portrays a message similar to that of Hansberry’s Raisin…, signifying the “strength and self-sacrificing nature of the single black mother working to ensure the survival of her family.”[7]

Through Badu’s description of Kolleen, we glimpse a portrait of an assertive, self-possessed and independent black woman whose role as mother functioned to embody a kind of black liberation specific to the female experience.

Indeed, in the liner notes she dedicates the project to her grandmothers, Thelma Louis Gipson and Mattie Viola Wilson, and “to their struggle as young women and their knowing as old women.” Badu adds, “Because of you I sing!!!” Punning on the words “matriarch” and “artist,” she writes, “We love you! Matriarts! Soldiers! Women! Creators! Life givers! Friends! Teachers! I owe you. I am you. I love you.”

This is coupled with shout-outs to fellow music-makers—male and female—in whom she finds peers, as well as a note of thanksgiving to God whose gender she queers, “I give thanks to the Most High Freaq. [a fusion of  “Freak” and “Frequency”]. The Original G [read: “Gangsta”]. The Author of The Story. The Time Keeper. The Mother/Father-rhythm duo. The All Knowing One of ONENESS of ONE.”

It is under this banner of divine unity in multiplicity that Badu implicates herself in a collective struggle that is the work of a uniquely black female subject in particular and a universal human subject in general. As such, Badu can tell her brothers and sisters in “My People” to “hold on / thru the thunder and lightning” for a love that conquers all division is “on the way.”

And who are these people? They are the Brendas of Badu’s testament to the reality of post-industrial urban blight in “The Cell,” who “done died with no name” as result of drug addiction—symptomatic of the greater social ill of racial imperialism. Diagnosing the problem as a social sickness, Badu sings, “we’re not well / we’re not well / we can tell,” before asking:

Will they ever find the vaccine? / Shitty-damn-damn-baby-bang / Rich man got the double barrel, / Po man got his back to the door…/ Code white, stand for trouble…/ Shots from the po-po

Echoing the likes of Tupac, Nas, Black Star, and Cornel West, Badu addresses the issue of black nihilism in America, which functions as a fatalistic response to white supremacist oppression along the lines of class, gender, race and sexuality. In this case, society is a figurative slave chamber, a holding cell to keep black bodies in check through a system of heightened surveillance, police brutality, and the prison industry itself. Moreover, it is market-driven, promising happiness through the attainment of material wealth—“shiny new things / (diamond gold chains diamond gold rings)” as the song goes— that is ultimately inaccessible to those, namely racial minorities, on the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder.

Furthermore, Badu indicts American society in the exploitation of black female bodies.  In this vein, Brenda’s “light-skinned body” signifies a history of miscegenation that often happened through rape to which black women were subjected at the hands of white slave masters. Such exploitation manifests today as prostitution, pornography, and sex trafficking.

Possibly a child of rape, the fictional Brenda finds herself reduced to the status of commodity, a dehumanized object splayed nude across a “center-fold spread.” A synecdoche for the exploited black female laborer, she is Badu’s frame of reference for protesting a broken social system that capitalizes on the black body as a source of national revenue. As the album art for the song suggests, the black body, symbolized by a blood-red thumbprint, is worth nothing more than the price assigned to it by a bar code.

Badu also problematizes the dual issue of materialism and black nihilism in “Twinkle.” Against the threat of fatalism, she sings:

They don’t know their language / They don’t know their god / They take what their (sic) given / Even when it feels Odd / They say their grandfathers and grandmothers work hard for nothing / And we still in this ghetto / So / They end up in prisons / They end up in blood

Echoing hooks’ contention that “wherever there exists a master/slave relationship, an oppressed/oppressor relationship, violence, mutiny, and hatred will permeate all elements of life,”[8] Badu adds:

They keep us uneducated sick & depressed / They end up in blood / Doctor I’m addicted now I’m under arrest / They end up in blood / We makin’ mo money than a mutha fugga / They end up in blood / With NO choices theres (sic) NO hope for us / They end up in blood

Situating the problem of black criminality in the context of urban decay, Badu hints at the white supremacist practice of class- and race-based exclusion that limits black access to education and other means of social mobility such as meaningful work. In this way, she further posits the intersection of classicism and racism while reminding her audience that people without options will make a virtue of violence, mutiny, and hatred if necessity demands it.

In so doing, Badu performs the part of critical realist. As Amiri Baraka says of Hansberry in his critical reevaluation of Raisin, Badu “analyzes and assesses reality and shapes her statement[s] as an aesthetically powerful and politically advanced work of art. Her statement[s] cannot be separated from the characters [such as Brenda] she creates to embody, in their totality, the life she observes.”[9] This is made more explicit in “That Hump” wherein Badu takes on the persona of a dope fiend who feeds a drug addiction as a means of escape from the struggles of the everyday and to numb the pain of its brutalities on her black body.

In light of this harsh underside of the American Dream as it manifests in the life of the archetypal Brenda, Badu professes to keep vigilant in “Master Teacher.” Lamenting the dearth of black leadership in society, she asks:

What if there was no niggas only master teachers? / I stay woke / Even if your baby don’t have no money to support you / I stay woke / Even when the preacher tell you some Lies and cheating on ya mama / I stay woke / Even though you go through struggle and stride (sic) to keep ahead in your life / I stay woke

Badu affirms her own search for “something new,” embodying the demeanor of an assertive and independent woman looking to find a “beautiful world,” as she sings, “searching inside me searching inside you.”

It is in this search that Badu comes to find within herself the “master teacher” for whom she is seeking. As such she appropriates the traditional American Dream and fashions a “New Amerykah” into being by reclaiming her own autonomy as black female subject who insists on staying “woke.” In this, she refuses to deny the reality of racial imperialism, holding herself accountable to revealing the underside of American history as one of genocide, slavery, apartheid, and colonial conquest. Reminding her listeners not to believe everything we think (see “The Healer”), Badu invokes the spirit of her African heritage as it lives through hip-hop, a movement “bigger than the government.”[10]

In the liner notes to Part Two of her New Amerykah album series, Return of the Ankh, Badu welcomes her listeners into the “mind of Amerykah.” Shorthand for “I am Erykah” as well as a pun on the word, “America,” the term signifies her struggle to reconcile with the American Dream-cum-Nightmare, as Malcom X would have it, and be wary of its many false promises of security and success.

A self-described “bundle of light energy,” according to her notes, Badu considers herself “a spiritual being first, man or woman second, Black or White 3rd, Jew or Gentile 4th, and pretty or ugly 5th.” It is from this queer positionality, simultaneously located between and on both sides of various binaries (of gender, phenotype, race, religion and appearance), that Badu the artist sings herself into a new existence as a figure of enlightenment, master teacher and soldier alike—engaged in the long, hard struggle to “stay woke” through the healing power of “fire, dance, sex, music, hip hop.”[11]

[1] See the lyrics for “Me,” Erykah Badu, New Amerykah Part One (4th World War), Universal Motown, 2008.

[2] bell hooks, Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism (Boston: South End Press, 1981), 120.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Riffing on hooks, ibid., 121.

[5] Amiri Baraka, “A Critical Reevaluation: A Raisin in the Sun’s Enduring Passion,” in Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 17

[6] See op. cit. 95.

[7] See hooks, ibid., 179.

[8] hooks, ibid., 117.

[9] Baraka, op. cit., 10.

[10] See lyrics to “The Healer,” New Amerykah (4th World War)

[11] Ibid.

kendrick-lamar-crown1

The narrative which emerges from Lamar’s GKMC is implicated in the African-American freedom struggle insofar as it reflects a key principle of Afro-American revolutionary thought: “the self-realization of individuality within community.”[1] A hip-hop “secular spiritual” in its own right, GKMC muses on so-called secular themes—gang violence and sexuality—to present an image of life as it is in the experience of one black soul’s longing for the truth of his own personhood. In an interview with MTV, Lamar admits:

I wouldn’t say I’m the most religious person, neither were both of my parents. I always do quote-unquote religious songs or whatever you want to call them from the standpoint where I’m trying to find answers. That’s the space I speak from and a lot of people can relate because they feel the same way. [I’m] not a person that’s putting it in your head — “believe this, believe this, believe this.” I’m going through something, I’m a sinner and I’m trying to figure myself out. It never sounds preachy. It sounds like a person who’s really confused by what the world has put upon him.[2]

GKMC thus gives witness to the work Lamar does to sort out this confusion, which is part and parcel of a deeply spiritual struggle to achieve self-realization as an African-American man. Indeed, as African-American cultural critic Michael Eric Dyson says of Michael Jackson, the rapper’s “own moral perspective is informed by an understanding of human nature that acknowledges that all human beings embody the potential for wrongdoing.”[3]

As such, GKMC represents an expression of soul, and a definitive move toward the will to love over and against the alluring will to power. Using his stance as artist to enter into and deconstruct his demons from within, Lamar finds the resources to make meaning in a context that challenges him to confront “existential anxiety, political oppression, economic exploitation, and social deportation.”[4]

Describing the album himself, Lamar says in one interview:

It’s really just a self-portrait. I feel I need to make this album in order to move on with my life, and I had negative vibes and demons haunting me. It’s that real. I had to come from somewhere, I had to come from a place — it could have been negative, it could have been positive but for the majority of it, it was negative place. I needed to vent and put this message out in order for me to grow as a person. I’m glad I did, because it was a venting process, you know, to tell these stories I never told.[5]

In coming to grips with the demons of his past and offering the lessons learned to the community from which he hails, Lamar accomplishes two crucial tasks central to Afro-American revolutionary theory and practice. He “confronts candidly the tragic character of human history (and the hope for ultimate historical triumph) [and takes] more seriously the existential anxiety, political oppression, economic exploitation, and social degradation of actual human beings” (as in members of the Compton community) and “elevates the notion of struggle (against the odds!)—personal and collective struggle regulated by the norms of individuality and democracy—to the highest priority.”[6]

For Lamar this is a mission that calls on faith in the human family. Standing on the shoulders of Martin Luther King, Jr., Lamar recognizes (in songs such as “Sing About Me”) that “shattering blows on the Negro family have made it fragile, deprived and often psychopathic [read ‘m.A.A.d.’]” and sees that “nothing is so much needed as a secure family life for a people seeking to rise out of poverty and backwardness.”[7] This is especially true in light of poverty’s connection to juvenile delinquency in a postindustrial age such as Lamar’s.

Playing the role of the Gramscian organic intellectual, Lamar uses the album, as a form of hip-hop discourse, to relate popular culture and religion to structural social change.[8] In the context of GKMC religion serves as signifier for personal transformation (the redemption of sin) which in turn leads to societal transformation through the cultural work of  “storying” (i.e. rapping).  It is through his role as rap artist that Lamar can “look at the weak and cry,” “pray one day you’ll be strong,” and fight “for your rights, even when you’re wrong.” It is his way of affirming individuality in the creation of a new human community.

Speaking to the role of cultural worker in his concept of the New Politics of Difference, West notes that the cultural critic calls for “‘new forms of intellectual consciousness’ that will advance the struggle for individuality and democracy”:

To put it bluntly, the new cultural politics of difference consists of creative responses to the precise circumstances of our present moment—especially those of the marginalized. First World agents who shun degraded self-representations, articulating instead their sense of the flow of history in light of the contemporary terrors, anxieties, and fears of highly commercialized North Atlantic capitalist cultures (with their escalating xenophobias against people of color, Jews, women, gays, lesbians and the elderly).[9]

Lamar is one such agent who signifies on the dominant (read white) society’s fears of the postindustrial ghettos, such as Compton, it has helped create. Consider this verse of “Compton”:

Now we can all celebrate, we can all harvest the rap artist of NWA
America target a rap market, it’s controversy and hate
Harsh realities we in, made our music translate
To the coke dealers, the hood rich and the broke niggas that play
With them gorillas that know killers that know where you stay
Roll that kush, crack that case, 10 bottles of Rose
This was brought to you by Dre
Now every muthafucka in here say
Look who responsible for taking Compton international

Lamar here celebrates his city as the birthplace that harvested the likes of legendary rap group N.W.A. At the same time he recognizes how it has been commodified by a rap market and, through the media, made the subject of controversy and hate. Regardless, the “harsh realities we in” speak directly to the real life experiences of urban dwellers which dominant society at once ignores and fetishizes.

Lamar’s work as hip-hop cultural worker meanwhile extends beyond his efforts on the album as evidenced by his leadership of the “HiiiPoWeR Movement.” The purpose of the HiiiPoWeR movement is to encourage social awareness among young people living in a self-destructive society through the cultivation of the mind. The three “i’s” in the movement’s name stand for heart, honor and respect—the basic tenets of the movement’s quasi-religious credo, inspired by the example of freedom fighters such as Martin Luther King, Malcom X, Marcus Garvey, Fred Hampton, Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, and rapper Tupac Shakur. It is Lamar’s way of professing King’s unenforceable law of love “written on the heart.”[10]

With Lamar’s album as its twelve-track anthem, the HiiiPoWeR Movement is a cultural thrust toward “realness” understood as freedom in love. For King, as for Lamar, such freedom expresses itself in “the capacity to deliberate or to weigh alternatives” (reflected in the lyrics of “m.A.A.d. City”); a decision to cut off other alternatives (reflected in “I’m Tired of Running”); and responsibility (reflected in the recording of the father’s reproach at the end of “Real”: “Real is responsibility!”). Ultimately a constructive engagement with existential freedom, the creation of GKMC and the HiiiPoWeR Movement reflects an important step in the African-American freedom struggle: “to work passionately for group identity.”[11]

This kind of cultural work is tied up in the challenge of self-determination against what W.E.B. Du Bois would call the temptations to self-doubt, despair and hatred in a society that has systematically rendered the African-American invisible. Lamar is no stranger to these temptations, as evidenced by the track, “I’m Dying of Thirst.” Furthermore, he is no stranger to Du Boisian “double consciousness” as indicated by the meaning of the acronym, “m.A.A.d.”: “my angry adolescence divided.” The album details his reconciliation of the seemingly irreconcilable “two-ness” within himself—a  psychic parlay between innocence and guilt; self-love and self-loathing; good and bad; self-empowered, black subject and exploited, black object—that he transcends through positive self-assertion as a “good kid” in the context of a “beloved community” (read Compton).

In this, we find Lamar composing a sonic self-portrait that reveals the psychic turmoil of one whose “religious sensibilities are expressed in his wrestling with religiously informed, morally shaped, and culturally conditioned themes” which include:

an [examination] of the nature of good and evil; an [exploration] of the potentialities for transformation of the self, human nature, and society; a probing of the true nature of manhood in American culture; a [confrontation with] the material lures and sexual seductions of everyday life in post-modern American culture; a [proclamation] of the place of peace and love in transforming the world; and a surveying of the politics of American racial identity and awareness.[12]

Just as W.E.B. Du Bois did in The Souls of Black Folk, Lamar asserts himself as one seeking to live life above the “Veil,” to live into the authenticity of his own personhood, as in the opening bars of “Real”:

I do what I wanna do
I say what I wanna say
When I feel, and I…
Look in the mirror and know I’m there
With my hands in the air
I’m proud to say yea
I’m real, I’m real, I’m really really real.

Du Bois_SoulsA figurative Alexander Crummell[13] of whom Du Bois speaks in Souls, Lamar is one who has passed through the “Lonesome Valley of Death”[14] (read Compton / m.A.A.d. city) and lived to tell a moral tale about successfully negotiating the tension between despair and hope through self-love. An exemplar of a Du Boisian soul who has successfully “walked within” and  transcended “the Veil,” Lamar, like Crummell, has “bent to all the gibes and prejudices, to all hatred and discrimination, with that rare courtesy which is the armor of pure souls.”[15] Moreover, he is the archetypal Du Boisian “Teacher,” embodying the ideals of the “Black World” in its “strife for another and a juster world, the vague dream of righteousness, the mystery of knowing.”[16]

And, lastly, like the classic bluesman, that tragi-comic spokesman of the “secular spiritual,” Lamar embodies paradox. He is at once sinner and saint. The space he creates for himself within the album’s narrative contours lets him affirm his own self-worth in the midst of navigating the pressures of day-to-day existence in a postindustrial world.

“Look inside of my soul and you can find gold and maybe get rich,” Lamar raps in “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” suggesting that he has come to a place of self-knowledge through a process not unlike that of the alchemist turning base metal into gold. Yet he doesn’t keep that alchemical gold for himself. Rather, he shares it as wisdom with the world so that others may become rich in soul and self-worth. Lamar admits that his own identity-formation has been a painful process, riddled with mistakes that he wears like scars. Yet these scars, like the “secular spiritual” songs he sings, are constant reminders of what he has learned in order to become who he proclaims himself to be: a self-realized “good kid” in a (self-)critically examined “m.A.A.d. city.”

[1] Cornel West, Prophesy Deliverance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity (Philadelphia: Westminster, Press, 1982) 16.

[2] See rapgenius.com, http://rapgenius.com/Kendrick-lamar-compton-lyrics (accessed December 2012)

[3] Michael Eric Dyson, Reflecting Black: African-American Cultural Criticism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 53.

[4] Riffing on Terrance Wiley’s conception of black blight in America, Class Lecture, Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, CA, Fall 2013.

[5] See rapgenius.com, http://rapgenius.com/albums/Kendrick-lamar/Good-kid-m-a-a-d-city (accessed December 2012)

[6] West, Prophesy!…, op. cit., 19.

[7] See Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go From Here?Chaos or Community (Boston: Beacon Press, 2010), 114.

[8] See Cornel West, “Black Theology and Marxist Thought,” in Black Theology: A Documentary History, 1966-1979, edited by Gayraud S. Wilmore and James H. Cone: 552-567.

[9] Cornel West, “The New Cultural Politics of Difference,” in Keeping Faith: Philosophy and Race in America (New York: Routledge, 1993), 4.

[10] See King, op. cit., 106.

[11] Ibid., 131.

[12] Dyson, op. cit.

[13] The Episcopal priest and leading figure of the Pan-African Movement.

[14] See W.E.B. Du Bois, “Of Alexander Crummell, The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Dover, 1994), 139.

[15] Ibid.

[16] “Of the Wings of Atalanta, ibid., 50.

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Lamar’s self-proclaimed “film in three acts” is a “secular spiritual” which takes place on the streets of Compton, a neighborhood in South Central L.A. that is emblematic of the postindustrial urban space from which hip-hop, as a cultural movement and form of critical discourse, emerged. GKMC is a consummate new-school appropriation of an old-school hip-hop form: the narrative. A veritable hip-hop bildungsroman, it tells in twelve tracks the tale of a young man, who navigates the rugged territory of an urbanscape riddled with violence. Throughout Lamar engages in conversation with his own psyche to strategically remap the American landscape[1] and thereby offer insight into an experience specific to life in a postindustrial city.

Lamar’s is a confessional narrative that begins with the musty recording of male voices offering a prayer of supplication: “Lord God, I come to you a sinner and I humbly repent for my sins. I believe that Jesus is Lord. […] I receive Jesus to take control of my life and that I may live for him from this day forth. Thank you Lord Jesus for saving me with your precious blood. In Jesus name, Amen.” It is with this invocation of God’s mercy that Lamar tells “a true mothafuckin’ story” full of sexual intrigue (e.g., “Sherane, a.k.a. Master Splinter’s Daughter” and “Poetic Justice”); hedonist fantasy (e.g., “Backseat Freestyle”); criminal activity (“The Art of Peer Pressure” and “Money Trees”); teenage antics (“Swimming Pool [Drank]”); social commentary on the nature of L.A. gang violence (“Good Kid” and “m.A.A.d. City”); hood representin(g) (“Compton”); hip-hop bravado (“Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe”) and existential self-reflection (“Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” and “Real”).

Songs that bear close attention within the scope of this blog series and in light of what they bring to bear on the stated topic are “Good Kid,” “m.A.A.d. City,” and “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst.” They are culled from the second half of the album, which, as the full, artist-verified annotations of the LP reveal at rapgenius.com—indispensable to the interpretive work I do below, playing off of insights offered through the website to which I am indebted in deciphering some of Lamar’s more coded language and in establishing the LP’s narrative context—deals explicitly with the “secular spiritual” theme of self-realization and the difficulties of negotiating life in a violent culture.

The Good Kid in a Mad City

In “Good Kid” Lamar speaks to the sense of being trapped, bound in by gang violence on one side and police brutality on the other. The hood is a pressure cooker and suicide, the safety valve: “I got animosity building / It’s probably big as a building / Me jumping off the roof is me just playing it safe.” Alluding to the colors of the L.A. gangs, the Bloods and the Crips, as well as to police car strobe lights, he asks in the first verse: “But what am I supposed to do / When the topic is red or blue?” Lamar then recalls an instance of being jumped by some gang members:

Just a couple that look for trouble
And live in the street with rank
No better picture to paint than me walking from bible study
And called his homies because he had said he noticed my face
From a function that tooken place
They was wondering if I bang
Step on my neck and get blood on your Nike checks

Despite being trapped inside a figurative prison and against the temptation to kill himself or run away, he turns to hip-hop as a source of empowerment, claiming that one day these “homies” will “respect.”

If Lamar was jumped for being innocent in the previous account (verse one), then he is jumped for being guilty in the second (verse two) in which he describes an instance of being profiled by the police.  While recognizing the importance of police in light of the gang violence on the streets, he engages them in their contradictions:

I can never pick out the difference and grade a cop on the bill / Every time you clock in the morning, I feel you just want to kill / All my innocence while ignoring my purpose to persevere as a better person / I know you heard this and probably in fear / But what am I supposed to do with the blinking of red and blue / Flash from the top of your roof and your dog has to say woof / And you ask, “Lift up your shirt” cause you wonder if a tattoo / Of affiliation can make it a pleasure to put me through / Gang files, but that don’t matter because the matter is racial profile

Blinded by fear, the police cannot see past their own prejudice. As a result of their racism, Lamar’s body is objectified, automatically assumed to be branded with a mark of gang affiliation. In light of this, Lamar can’t “pick out the difference” between good or bad cop. And unlike the gang members who jumped him in the first verse, these officers will only ever see him as a “black thug” and “never respect the good kid, m.A.A.d. city.”

Rapping from the margins of a society tripped out on paranoid hallucinations that stem from an experience of being systematically dispossessed, Lamar concludes his rap by admitting “it’s entirely stressful upon my brain.” Quietly hoping for change, he confesses to the temptation of numbing the existential hurt with “grown-up candy for pain”: the oft-overused antidepressant Xanax and psilocybin “magic” (mu)shrooms. He then closes on a note of triumph: “The streets sure to release the worst side of my best / Don’t mind, cause now you ever in debt to good kid, m.A.A.d. city.”

This segues into a song of dramatic self-assertion, “m.A.A.d. City,” that recalls memories of witnessing brutal violence as a means of protesting gang lifestyle. The song is prefaced by the intro: “If Pirus and Crips all got along / They’d probably gun me down by the end of this song / Seem like the whole city go against me.”

He thus indicates to his listeners that the message he’s soon to deliver renders, or will render, him a common enemy of the Crips and the Bloods. In this way, he plays the role of scapegoat and an ironic sort of peacemaker. “Compton’s human sacrifice,” he reconciles differences by dint of his heroic willingness to refuse participation in gang life.

With the Schoolboy Q-intoned onomatopoeia of gunshot blasts, “YAWK! YAWK! YAWK!,” Lamar sets the tenor for a “trip down memory lane” with the help of guest rapper MC Eiht, who appropriates gang-speak in order to claim ownership of the city: “Man down / Where you from, nigga? / Fuck who you know, where you from, my nigga? / This m.a.a.d. city I run my nigga.”

From there Lamar narrates a story about riding down Rosecrans Avenue—one of the major through-streets of Compton and a signifier of gang territory, as well as the “memory lane” to which he refers in the first bar of the verse. Using his memory as his figurative vehicle for navigation, he takes his listener through a dystopian wasteland where pictures of a traumatic past pass by like scenery outside of car windows. He thus recalls witnessing “a light-skinned nigga with his brains blown out” at the tender age of nine. He also speaks to the death of his cousin in 1994 as the result of a broken truce between the Bloods and the Crips. Lamar admits that with “Pakistan on every porch,” the inhabitants of Compton adapt to crime by becoming criminals themselves: “Pickin’ up the fuckin’ pump / Pickin’ off you suckers, suck a dick or die a sucker punch.”

Lamar thus lives in a “dog-eat-dog” world caught up in a vicious cycle of violence and drug-trafficking. There is no peace, as Lamar says, “just pieces” (read guns) and disposable “bodies on top of bodies” about which those with political power could care less. Lamenting the government’s failure to provide assistance to disenfranchised urban communities such as Compton, Lamar raps: “They say the governor collect, all our taxes except / When we in traffic and tragic happens, that shit ain’t no threat / You movin’ backwards if you suggest that you sleep with a Tec / Go buy a chopper and have a doctor on speed dial, I guess / m.a.a.d. City.”

In saying that “You movin’ backwards” if you sleep with a Tec (read gun), Lamar is essentially offering the moral adage:  “He who lives by the sword (read gun), dies by the sword.”

MC Eiht intones the second verse, readying the listener for “some lessons about the street” that are specific to growing up in Compton: “It ain’t nothin’ but a Compton thang.” This leads to an account in which Lamar raps about being fired from a job as a result of succumbing to pressure from his peers to stage a robbery. He did so in a drug-induced haze wrought by smoking a blunt laced with cocaine that had him “foaming at the mouth.” MC Eiht further contextualizes the account with signifiers of hood-life and metonyms of hyper-masculine manhood—“IV’s” (i.e. handguns), “bird” (i.e. crack cocaine), “whip” (i.e. car) and “a strap in the hand” (i.e. handgun)—that call attention to the dangers of living life in Compton, and the ease with which one can slip into a criminal lifestyle: “The hood took me under so I follow the rules.”

In the final verse, Lamar challenges his audience with the question, “If I killed a nigga at the age of 16, would you believe me?” Implying that he is no innocent bystander to the violence he has heretofore described, Lamar poses the question as a means of absolving the sins of his past—of “mashing all my skeletons”—so that others may learn from his mistakes and thereby fulfill “dreams of being a lawyer or doctor / Instead of a boy with a chopper [i.e. gun] that hold the cul de sac [i.e. neighborhood or, more symbolically, a “dead-end” life] hostage.” By telling his story and thus confessing his sins, Lamar is making an agency claim and an expression of freedom to be a somebody where he was once a nobody.

As though the biblical prophet Jonah once swallowed by a whale before delivering his prophetic message to Nineveh, Lamar delivers his own message of sin and redemption live and direct from the “belly of the rough Compton, U.S.A.”  A self-proclaimed “Angel on Angel Dust,” Lamar is one who has gained a hard-earned wisdom through his experience; he is one who has learned what it means to live righteously by dint of his own flirtations with unrighteous behavior, and life as it’s lived on the streets of a “m.a.a.d. city.”

Lamar further explores the complexity of life on the streets in a two-part composition, “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst.” In the first verse of “Sing About Me,” Lamar takes on the persona of a Piru Blood gang member mourning the loss of his brother to a gunfight. Addressing Lamar as though a friend, he thanks the rapper for cradling his brother during his dying moments. In this way, Lamar enters empathically into the thug’s psyche as a means to reveal that even “hood rats” have heart. Not only that, but they are acutely aware of their own predicament. A child of his environment, the gang member admits:

I’m behind on what’s really important
My mind is really distorted
I find nothing but trouble in my life
I’m fortunate you believe in a dream
This orphanage we call a ghetto is quite a routine

[…]
Everybody’s a victim in my eyes
When I ride it’s a murderous rhythm
And outside became pitch black
A demon glued to my back whispering, “Get em”
I got ‘em, and I ain’t give a fuck

A self-proclaimed “dumb nigga” who will never prosper, this thug diagnoses himself as a “problem child,” asserts his loyalty to his Piru crew in the absence of an actual family, and then asks Lamar to tell his story should he die before the album “drop.” By way of empathy, Lamar explores the psychology of ghetto fatalism (what Cornel West in Race Matters [1994] would call “black nihilism”), internalized racism, and gang violence to suggest that these social diseases are symptomatic of a deeper ill: the break-up of the community and the family in light of racialized oppression. Hence: “This orphanage we call a ghetto is quite routine.” In this kind of shiftless environment, membership in a gang provides access to group-identity in the absence of family. Even without family, however, love finds a way, as in the last bar of verse one in which the gangbanger confesses to Lamar: “I love you cause you love my brother like you did.”

In verse two Lamar adopts the persona of a female prostitute, who is upset with Lamar for rapping about her sister in “Keisha’s Song,” off of his first album, Section .80. Inspired  by Tupac Shakur’s “Brenda’s Got a Baby” off of 2Pacalypse Now, “Keisha’s Song” tells a story of a young prostitute who was raped and slain. The female subject of “Sing About Me” reproaches Lamar on the charge that he unfairly judged her slain sister on the Section .80 track. She then goes on to describe the lifestyle of a prostitute through her own eyes. In the same manner of self-awareness as that of the male gangbanger in the first verse, she tells Lamar:

This is the life of another girl damaged by the system
These foster homes, I run away and never do miss ‘em
See, my hormones just run away and if I can get ‘em back
To where they used to be then I’ll probably be in the denim
Of a family gene that show women how to be woman, or better yet a leader
You need her to learn something, then you probably need to beat her
That’s how I was taught

Three niggas in one room, first time I was tossed
And I’m exhausted

Having grown up an orphan who lost her virginity to three gangbangers, she longs for the chance to relive a childhood in a family situation free from the domestic abuse on which she was reared. Again, Lamar plays on the trope of family, suggesting that the “system”—i.e. the government or, perhaps, the welfare system—has been set up only to tear families apart. It signifies a social structure rendered ineffective in the lives of society’s most disenfranchised, in no small part due to their status as racial minorities, who have to hustle just to get by. The verse closes with her threat that Lamar better not make a song about her because there is no story to tell. She feels physically great and if Lamar wants to help her, then he should “sell her pussy.” Locked into a system of economic exchange based on the exploitation of her body and her sexuality, she fatalistically resigns herself to her lot as a sexual escort: “I’m on the grind for this cake.”

Lamar comes back into his own voice in the third verse to offer a “lesson before dying”[2] in which he speculates on his life’s purpose: to tell the aforementioned stories and others like them. Hip-hop is his reason for being alive and his most available resource for engaging with the reality of death and life on the streets. There is no time to sleep when there are lessons to learn and teach. Addressing the two subjects of the previous verses, he raps:

And you’re right, your brother was a brother to me
And your sister’s situation was the one that put me
In a direction to speak of something that’s realer than the TV screen
By any means, wasn’t trying to offend or come between
Her personal life, I was like “it need to be told
Cursing the life of 20 generations after her” so
Exactly what would have happened if I hadn’t continued rappin’
Or steady being distracted by money drugs and four
Fives, I count lives all on these songs
Look at the weak and cry, pray one day you’ll be strong
Fighting for your rights, even when you’re wrong
And hope that at least one of you sing about me when I’m gone
Now am I worth it?
Did I put enough work in?

These are existential questions par excellence, and they inform the underlying motivation for Lamar’s album: to make something worthy of his life through the cultural work of hip-hop. His work as a rap artist is a way not only to immortalize himself, but to affirm himself as a gifted storyteller who has something important to offer the world. Moreover, his “mighty powerful” tongue allows him to “fight for your rights, even when you’re wrong.” It also enables him to reorder reality and deconstruct the Debordian “spectacle” and thereby “speak of something that’s realer than the TV screen.” Indeed, it is his way of confronting reality, of no longer running from it by resorting to illicit activity.

On that note, “Sing About Me” transitions into “I’m Dying of Thirst,” which plays on the trope of spiritual dehydration that runs like a stream through the entire album. Implying that his community of peers is attempting to satisfy its desire for wealth and security in all the wrong ways, he asks:

What are we doing?
Who are we fooling?
Hell is hot, fire is proven
To burn for eternity, return of the student
That never learned how to live right just by how to shoot it
[…]
It’s no discussion, hereditary
All of my cousins
Dying of thirst
Dying of thirst
Dying of thirst

Lamar here equates the culture of violence to a figurative hell while also reminding his listeners that those who play with fire are sure to be burned. He also signifies on the hell of religious imagination to which all those who have not reconciled for their sins are banished for eternity. Those living a life of violence are thus doomed to a hell of their own making. Lamar then admits that violence is in his blood: “It’s no discussion, hereditary / All of my cousins / Dying of thirst.” A product of his environment like his cousins, he is just as liable as they are to a doomed fate.

The track ends with the voice of an older woman (played by Maya Angelou), who is taken to be one of Lamar’s neighbors. She rebukes him and his friends for carrying a handgun: “I know that’s not what I think that is! Why are you so angry?! You young men are dying of thirst! Do you know what that means? That means, you need water, holy water! You need to be baptized with the spirit of the Lord!” She then leads them in the same confessional prayer that opens the entire album, bringing GKMC to near close in the manner of a spiritual.

With this act of contrition, Lamar effectively achieves his transformation into realness, a sense of spiritual wholeness initiated by the figurative baptism he undergoes at the end of “I’m Tired of Running.” It is this re-birth that completes the narrative arc of the “short film” and leads him into “Real”—a testimony to the fact that love saves. Not love of money, power, respect, or the block—“none of that shit make me real”—but love of Self. That is the only kind of love which will satiate the hunger and quench the thirst that had him running aimlessly toward a doomed fate. It is a disarming love, one that can help the world take off the masks “we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.”[3] It is as though Lamar is positing to the human community the same message Baldwin proffers to his nephew in The Fire Next Time: “Well, you were born, here you came […]: to be loved. To be loved, baby, hard, at once, and forever, to strengthen you against the loveless world.”[4]

The song ends in a similar vein as Baldwin’s familial address with a recording of two separate voicemails—one from his father, one from his mother—that bring the narrative to a triumphant end. His father, offering his consolation to Lamar in light of his friend’s death by a bullet wound, exclaims: “Any nigga can kill a man, that don’t make you a real nigga. Real is responsibility. Real is taking care of your motherfucking family.” As for his mother’s sage wisdom: “If I don’t hear from you by tomorrow, I hope you come back and learn from your mistakes. Come back a man… Tell your story to these black and brown kids in Compton… When you do make it, give back with your words of encouragement. And that’s the best way to give back to your city. And I love you, Kendrick.” Lamar thus foregrounds the themes of faith and family that not only tie the album’s songs together, but function as the “fraying tethers holding Lamar back from the chasm of gang violence that threatens to consume him.”[5] In the end, the album gives witness to Lamar’s love for his family[6] and serves as an achievement of what his mother encouraged him to do: give back.

The album closes with a tribute to his hood in, “Compton,” which begins with the triumphal bar: “Now everybody serenade the new faith of Kendrick Lamar.” A self-proclaimed philosopher-king, Lamar has transitioned from rags to royalty in attaining the riches of freedom understood as self-respect, self-realization, and self-consciousness. Lamar does so through the art of “secular spiritual” storytelling, so central to black expressive culture and a means by which he rapper/minister/street prophet engages the African-American struggle for existential and social freedom.

[1] Here, I am riffing on Kevin Young in his discussion of the spirituals in The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness (Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 2012), 81.

[2] A reference I make intentionally to a novel of similar import as Lamar’s LP: Ernest J. Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying (New York: Vintage, 1993).

[3] James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (New York: Dell, 1963), 128.

[4] Ibid., 17.

[5] Jayson Greene, review of good kid, m.A.A.d. City: A Short Film by Kendrick Lamar, by Kendrick Lamar, Pitchfork Media, October 23, 2012,  http://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/17253-good-kid-maad-city/ (accessed December 2012).

[6] Made more apparent by the album art, full of old family photos.