Theory Teacher's Blog

bell hooks and the Question of Beyonce’s Feminism; or Ways to Be Awesome

Yesterday, the ubiquitous “Book of Faces” (FB) and other social media were all atwitter over something the well-known author and theorist bell hooks said at a three-day event about race, gender, and body-image hosted by The New School in New York — everyone’s favorite pop star diva Beyoncé a terrorist?… A terrorist?!?!… Bloggers from wannabe-hipster gossip sites such as Gawker to fashion magazines such as Elle to feminist sites such as Jezebel immediately jumped on the bandwagon, probably hoping that the provocative headline would gain for them that ever-so-ethereal cyber audience.

Before I had a chance to actually read the blog-o-story, when I first saw the headline, I wrongly assumed that bell hooks was giving Beyoncé a compliment, as I immediately thought of Beyoncé’s video: “Run the World (Girls)“:

One might think of other videos of hot feminist badaaasssery such as Beyoncé’s “Superpower” and M.I.A.’s “Bad Girls” which all present images of women kicking ass and taking names, Pam-Grier style. So, this is what I thought bell hooks was talking about, and I was all, like, “hellz yeah!!!”

But then I started to read the articles, and apparently that’s not at all what bell hooks meant (oops, my bad!) Rather, she was raising questions about Beyoncé’s style of feminism and her tactical deployment of a hyper-sexualized body as potentially damaging to the self-image of young girls (specifically in reference to Time Magazine’s featuring her in a bathing suit on the cover of their issue about the world’s 100 most influential people.)  In other words, what I think bell hooks was referring to is the very real “terror” that young girls feel when confronted with bullying  from their peers regarding the way they look. I did not finish reading any of the blog posts because they were all so shallow and mean-spirited, and they all reminded me of the SNL skit about the government Beygency that hunts down a poor schmuck for committing the party foul of admitting he didn’t love everything about Beyoncé:

Can I admit that I don’t love everything about her either? But I do think she’s pretty awesome. And I also think bell hooks is awesome. So, given that I think both women are awesome, instead of reading the blog-o-crap any further, I skipped ahead to the video of the actual conversation (the “actual” always being so often remarkably different from what bloggers and journalists say to get a rise out of their audiences), and my wife and I had a very enjoyable evening listening to four awesome women — bell hooks, Janet Mock, Shola Lynch, and Marci Blackman — discuss among themselves and with a very engaged and intelligent audience a variety of complex and personal perspectives about gender, sexuality, race, violence, body image, and “what a body can do” (as the philosopher Judith Butler famously put it, in contrast to the essentializing pigeon-holing approach of traditional philosophy that asked “what a body is.”) You can all watch it too by clicking [here] or below:

The conversation among themselves and with the audience was full of humor and mutual respect as well as serious critical thinking, concern for the well-being of others, and deep personal involvement as they worked toward imagininng an alternative to the sort of media imagery that objectifies black women’s bodies and presents impossible standards of beauty. They discussed the movie 12 Years a Slave, SNL comedy, and — most of importantly — the work of the panelists, such as the movie Free Angela and All the Political Prisoners by Shola Lynch, the memoir Redefining Realness by Janet Mock, and the novel Po’ Man’s Child by Marci Blackman as well as their personal experiences as politically active, queer, transgender, and black women. I was so impressed that I began to imagine my teaching an entire course syllabus around this one panel event. One woman in the audience was in tears sharing her own experience as well as her gratitude to the panel for the support and safe space fostered by the event. Noticeably, in contrast to the blog-o-sphere and social media, not a single person in the audience during the 50 minutes of Q&A seemed the least bit concerned by bell hooks’s comment about Beyoncé. So, considering how her image and her style of feminism was discussed and debated in complex, thoughtful ways among the four panelists and the audience, it is interesting how the safe, supportive space of the panel discussion was transformed into bitchy nonsense by social media.

But beyond the confines of that singular event and its commodification by the blog-o-sphere, the question of Beyoncé’s feminism interests me, in part because as a teacher I find her extremely useful in the classroom for drawing students into debates about feminism, challenging their stereotypes about feminists as man-hating ugly women, and pushing students to think about why they enjoy what they enjoy. For example, because this semester I was teaching the famous Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, I played for my class Adichie’s lecture “We Should All Be Feminists” as well as Beyoncé’s song “Flawless” that samples a full minute from that lecture (practically one fourth of the song):

The conversation among my students last month was similar to the one brought up by bell hooks, Janet Mock, and one of the members of the audience: how do we negotiate the positive work we see Beyoncé doing for feminism and women’s empowerment and the negative commodification of her body and debilitatingly impossible standard of beauty it presents to young girls? The “Flawless” music video, it seems to me — rather than being naive or unaware of this dialectic of opposing ideas — very deliberately and self-consciously puts this dialectic in play for us to work out. The song and the video puts the question back on us, for us to imagine ways to be authentically awesome.

But what do you all think? Thoughts?


May 10, 2014 Posted by | feminism, media, music, race | 3 Comments

Symptomatic Minaj and the Politics of Fun

A couple of months ago, when I was moving to New York from Minnesota, and doing a lot of cross-country driving, I noticed that two of the most often played pop hits on the radio were Nicki Minaj’s “Starships” and Fun’s “We Are Young.” And I’m not embarrassed to admit that I quite like both songs. At some point during the many hours on the road, I began to ask myself what about these songs were so appealing. What made them so popular? And I began to entertain the notion that they seem to express the way young people today have reacted to the long economic recession. However, after I got to New York and started building my new life. I sort of forgot about the many random speculations I had on my long trip and didn’t think any more about it, until a month later, when a bunch of journalists, e.g., see [here], started asking questions about Nicki Minaj’s politics after a recent performance in which she rapped “I’m a Republican voting for Mitt Romney, you lazy bitches is fucking up the economy.” Personally, I didn’t think that lyric was an indication of a political position one way or the other. Few people would assume from her performance of “Roman Holiday” that Minaj believes herself to be possessed by the devil or is a member of the secret Illuminati order, so why take one line from another song and attempt to construct a partisan position out of it? Nevertheless, the relationship of pop music to political ideologies and economic issues is a question that interests me. The kind of reading of the songs that I am doing here is what cultural and literary theorists, from Louis Althusser to Stuart Hall, call a “symptomatic reading,” and I want to contrast “symptomatic reading” with something the journalists seem to me to be doing and what I will call, for lack of a better phrase, “ideological reading.”

The songs by Fun and Minaj are both about partying and having fun; as is typical of pop songs, the chorus and the verses seem to contain opposite messages. For instance, listening casually to the song “We Are Young,” the chorus that goes “Tonight, we are young, so let’s set the night on fire, we can burn brighter, than the sun” would seem to be a celebration of youthful desire. The driving, anthemic music contributes to this feeling.

However, reading the lyrics of Fun’s “We Are Young” verses tells the opposite story. The song is told from the point of view of a young man who has, apparently, physically abused his girlfriend in the past, probably while intoxicated, and now they are both again so drunk at the bar that they need someone to take them home. Not only does the story the lyrics tell haunt the chorus, but also the anthemic style of the music is beautifully haunting as the music’s notes drop at key moments to create a depressing, dark counterpoint to the hopeful message of youthful desire.

Nicki Minaj’s song is similar in the way its form contains contradictory ideas. The music is club music, with a strong beat for aggressive dancing, and the chorus seems to promote the party at which, we might imagine, the song would be played: “I’m on the floor, I love to dance, so give me more… Starships were meant to fly, Hands up and touch the sky, Can’t stop ’cause we’re so high, Let’s do this one more time.” Brilliantly, these lines seem to tell the music, and therefore also the bodies of the listeners, what to do; put your hands up and dance (and also drink) one more time.

However, like in the song by Fun, a closer reading of Minaj’s lyrics reveals its dark, cynical irony. The character that the song is about is someone who will “blow all my money and don’t give two shits” and “ain’t paying my month’s rent.” Not only does the song make fun of itself, but it is also a perfect synthesis of form and content in which the lyrics and the music seem to be having a conversation. The music, lyrics, and video all express longing for escape, as they fuse drinking, sex, vacations at primitive beaches, and starships. The idea of the starship as a utopian escape from a frustrating reality has a long history, from Parliament’s “Mothership Connection” to Kanye West’s “Spaceship.”  My favorite moment is when Nicki Minaj sarcastically quotes the famous children’s song “Twinkle twinkle little star” after the character says you can “fuck who you want” — a juxtaposition of vulgarity and innocence that indicates just how much the song’s character is lost in space, pursuing her childish dreams of fun.

So, what are the politics of their songs? An ideological reading would have a hard time locating any political view, since both songs express the desires, frustrations, and contradictory feelings that people have. Nicki Minaj presents us with a Barbie-doll image but seems to mock it at the same time. How do we begin to analyze the politics of having fun, poking fun, and dropping puns?

In contrast to an ideological reading, a symptomatic reading will put the song in its socio-economic context, observe how the symbolic content of the song expresses the psychologically repressed problems, and observe what about those problems are absent from the song. In other words, both Fun and Minaj’s songs seem wonderful expressions of the frustrations and desires of young people in the midst of an economic recession. Fun’s song focuses on an abusive drunk, but neglects to explain what provokes a man to be abusive and to assert his identity in such a way. Moreover, why do we feel we can relate to this troubled character? Minaj’s song focuses on a party girl who is — as so many Americans discovered in 2008 when the economy crashed — in chronic debt. One effect of this recession is that the “youth unemployment rate” (ages 16 to 24) is very high, and it seems to me that the sort of schizophrenic nature of Fun and Minaj’s songs is an indirect response to these troubled times. In my view, Minaj’s lively wordplay is somewhat more attuned to the broader economic problems than Fun’s more anthemic style, even though it lacks the emotional content that Fun’s song has. Both songs, I believe, are wonderfully symptomatic of the contradictory feelings we have about the current economic recession much in the way that a runny nose and sore throat are symptomatic of the virus that causes them. However, in saying that, I don’t want to suggest that the songs are merely symptoms and therefore naive and stupid, because I actually think the lyrics are quite sophisticated and self-aware enough to draw attention to the problematic of the contradictory feelings we have in our twenty-first century consumer-driven society that demands of us that we all believe we are special despite our lacking the means to be truly special. However, their “diagnosis” of these symptoms (if I may continue the medical metaphor of my mode of reading these songs) merely notes the contradictions at play in the way we live our lives, but not the deeper viral problems that are the root of them. In the end, there is no escape from our pathetic lives except for the fantasy of the escape narrated in the song that is already structurally a part of our lives.

So, what are Nicki Minaj and Fun’s politics? Heck if I know, but this question is an entirely different question than the question of the political problematic of their songs.

September 9, 2012 Posted by | music | 3 Comments

Hip Hop and Arizona’s SB1070 — Tear Down That Wall

This post is coming a couple months late, but oh well. In April this year, Chuck D — arguably the intellectual and political leader of hip hop at the close of the Reagan era — released a new single protesting Arizona’s bill SB1070. This bill is still very controversial. As the New York Times reported [here], the bill appears to legalize and encourage the racial profiling of Hispanics in order to seek out and deport all illegal immigrants, and Chuck D’s song “Tear Down That Wall” not only attacks the bill but also goes after the entire system of exploitation that the recently constructed wall between the U.S. and Mexico represents, including sweatshop labor. You can read the lyrics and Chuck D’s public statement to this effect [here].

Chuck D’s new song might remind us of an earlier historical moment: his group Public Enemy’s role in successfully reversing the Arizona government’s opposition to the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in 1991. Back then, Public Enemy’s song “By the Time I Get to Arizona,” together with their refusal to perform inside Arizona, supported a broad-based protest movement. And did so successfully. And so, in my view, Chuck D’s efforts in 1991 and his work now speaks to the power of art and music to achieve positive political action.

But Chuck D is not the only artist to protest Arizona’s bill this year. For instance, so have younger artists such as Kanye West and Talib Kweli, as Chicago Now reported here. And perhaps more important than the world-famous artists heralding from hip hop capitals such as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, there are also local Arizona hip hop artists who all unified against this bill. It is important to pay attention to the local as well as the national level. As one of my fellow bloggers Amy noted last year [here] and [here], important new voices in hip hop have emerged from cities such as Minneapolis and Toronto, so the old East-Coast-West-Coast hegemony has been superceded. Phoenix hip hop and Arizona beats have grown, and they have also produced a terrific song in response to SB1070.

What impresses me is how fast and how furious hip hop’s response to the bill was. Indeed, the artistic reaction was almost instantaneous, and I think this speaks to hip hop’s emergence as one of the dominant and most relevant art forms today, though we should also strongly acknowledge the decades of work on this issue by poets, novelists, painters, etc. What all this reveals is one of cultural theory’s basic arguments — how interconnected art and social organization are. Art emerges out of socio-economic relations.

But one important question for us as cultural and literary theorists might be which of the many artistic statements will be most remembered. In other words, which song will make it into the “canon” of classic hip hop? As my fellow blogger Amy might rightly ask, will it be the big-name Chuck D (just as before when Public Enemy’s protest against Arizona in 1991 became the signature song of a much larger movement) or will it be the local Pheonix artists? And given that the big name artists are clearly supporting the local — just as national organizations have supported local political resistance to Arizaon’s bill — this raises important theoretical questions about the relationship between the national culture and the local.

June 26, 2010 Posted by | music, race | 1 Comment

Most Important Albums of the 1990s

Yesterday, out of curiosity, I asked my students what they thought the most important albums of the 1990s were. And I guess I asked for two reasons. First, because I went to college between 1990 and 1994, so I’m curious what their generation thinks of my generation. Second, because my own appreciation of 1990s music has actually changed as I’ve grown. For instance, now I might include The Writing’s On the Wall (1999) by Destiny’s Child, not only because its hit single “Say My Name” (below) is totally brilliant, but also because the album was important for the fusion of hip hop and R&B. But back when the album actually came out, I was less open-minded and would have been scornful of such mainstream pop.

The question, of course, as I’ve discussed before [here], is what criteria we use for defining “most important.” Is it some ineffable aesthetic quality? Its originality, innovation, or guts? Its influence on the music industry or the broader culture? Its enduring popularity? For instance, as I mentioned in my blog before, Madonna’s hit “Like a Virgin” had a huge effect in 1984, but I rarely hear it on the radio anymore compared to Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” which came out the same year and which is still very popular (and which I totally love, though I wouldn’t have admitted to liking it so much back when it came out.)

In my view, Nirvana’s 1991 album Nevermind would be the number one most important album of the 1990s, because it single-handedly ended the reign of hair-metal and brought indie-rock into the mainstream. Also, every song on the album, not just the two hit singles, rocks, and it remains popular with younger generations today. But at the time, I was much more into another album that came out the same year, Pavement’s Slanted and Enchanted, which I would argue should be included. And other members of my generation might fondly remember R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People (1992) and Beck’s Odelay (1996). I would also argue that Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders (1993) should be at the top of the list for its brilliant poetics, jazz riffs, and serious themes. Perhaps because of those qualities, I think it did more to bring hip hop to a white, college-educated music consumer than any other hip hop album (kind of like what Bob Marley did for reggae.)

One of my students suggested Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill (1995), and though I never would have thought of that, I have to agree. I had just started a teaching position at a summer program for Japanese and Korean exchange students, and they all loved it. And globally, Ace of Bass’s Happy Nation (1993) was huge, as was the Spice Girls’s Spice (1996). There are some other groups such as Radiohead, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Wu Tang Clan, Dr. Dre, and Snoop Dog whose albums (one might argue) should be added, but I have to confess that I never personally got into their stuff. (I was more into the obscure indie-pop of Beat Happening and Sebadoh when I was in college, and am now more into the ethically and intellectually astute hip hop of Mos Def.)

Interestingly, the album that I listen to the most right now is The Score by the Fugees (1996), but I only started listening to it a couple years ago. “Ready or Not” (below) is one of the best songs ever, and quite a few women have told me how meaningful Lauryn Hill’s brilliant presence on — and departure from — that album was for them.

Someone asked me about the next decade, 2000 — 2010. I have in the past asked students about what they consider is their generation’s contribution to the development of popular culture. I know what my generation is — indie and hip hop. (See Jeff Chang’s excellent book on the hip hop generation. I don’t know if there’s a similarly excellent book on the indie scene. If someone knows, please tell me!!!) My students have speculated about the effect of the internet, iPods, and the FCC’s deregulation of radio in 1996 on the production and consumption of music. For sure, the telecommunications act of 1996 assassinated radio, and perhaps that is why few of my students feel they can strongly claim a distinct musical contribution, but indie rock was mostly distributed by an underground hand-to-hand passing around of bootleg cassette tapes, not the radio. And I have to wonder why it’s even possible that some of my students would claim The Beatles as their favorite band. I don’t mean to argue that the Beatles weren’t great, because I find that argument silly and pretentious, but come on!!! How could your favorite band be the same age as your grandparents? Move on!!!

October 3, 2009 Posted by | music | 7 Comments

Jessye Norman, The Roots, and Langston Hughes’s Ask Your Mama

Jessye Norman

Jessye Norman

After we read a couple of Langston Hughes’s poems in class last week, one of my students told me about this project to musically perform Hughes’s book Ask Your Mama, and it looked pretty cool, so I thought I’d post it up on my blog and say a few words. Hughes always meant this poem to be performed with music and even provided musical directions, but he died before it could happen. This year, opera singer Jessye Norman teamed up with composer Laura Karpman to do it. Among many others, they invited members from the hip hop group The Roots, whose artistry is well-known for pushing hip hop to higher aesthetic, musical, and intellectual levels. This website here that my student e-mailed me includes some of the recordings along with several interviews — one with Roots’s drummer Questlove — that you can listen to. And here’s a promotional video:


Questlove of The Roots

As Questlove points out, this project reminds us of something that hip hop has always foregrounded — the fact that literature, music, pop culture, political activism, and community are not so distinct as we often imagine them. Especially in the literature classroom, students seem to expect literature to be a purely textual and serious thing, no matter how much I try to insert music, pop culture, politics, and community, and — most importantly — laughter into the curriculum (as I did [here] in my blog on the hip hop canon last fall, as well is in my many blogs on pop music [here] and on performative poetry [here].)

Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes

But of course, the literary text’s intimate relationship with its performance and its cultural context is something I struggle with too. It’s not that easy to bring all this together in the sterile setting of the classroom. Moreover, text has the advantage of seeming solid, permanent, and immutable, in contrast to the fleeting nature of individual performances and timely articulations in specific political contexts.  The internet definitely helps return the text to its performative dimension or at least makes that performative dimension more accessible. I say “helps,” because I know we could have a long conversation about whether the internet successfully does return it home to its performative originality or whether the internet form somehow changes the performative text.

September 2, 2009 Posted by | music, poetry, race | 1 Comment

The Magentic Fields Teach/Kill Saussure

One of my colleagues today told me about this song, “The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure,” by The Magnetic Fields, one of the greats to come out of the college-indie-pop scene of the 1990s, and a perfect example of postmodern aesthetics. Next time I teach structuralism and Saussure, I’ll have to remember to play this song.



Meanwhile, I just discovered that my old professor, Michael Berube, whose essays I sometimes teach in my intro-theory course, returned to the blog-o-sphere after a year vacation from it. His blog is one of the inspirations for my own, and apparently he’s been back on for some time, and I didn’t even realize it.

April 3, 2009 Posted by | music | Leave a comment

1980s MTV, the meaning of style, and feminism

In my theory class we have just begun the unit on the relationship between representation and agency, and in my other class we just finished reading John Updike’s novel Roger’s Version, a novel that adapts the plot of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter to the postmodern condition of the 1980s. (See my blog post a couple weeks ago here for more about postmodern Scarlet Letters.) In it, one of the main characters — a teenage single mother named Verna — is a huge fan of Cyndi Lauper at the beginning of the novel, but by the novel’s end has switched her allegience to Madonna. Updike’s novel is set in the autumn of 1984 and spring of 1985 — the year Ronald Reagan was reelected on a platform of traditional family values and an end to government-run social programs… and also the year that Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” and Madonna’s  “Like a Virgin” dominated the MTV and pop music charts. Music historians often consider both of these songs as together occupying the same moment of sexual liberation for women in popular culture, though arguably that moment of liberation began long before in the 1960s. At the very end of the novel by Updike, Verna decides she prefers Madonna over Lauper at the same time she decides to leave her child with her uncle Roger and find her own pathway to material success, like Madonna in “Material Girl,” which was released in January, 1985.

I’d like to compare and contrast these two music videos, because in contrast to Updike’s characterization of them in his novel, I think they have very divergent visions for sexual liberation. One seems to me to be an example of post-punk feminism and the other a co-optation of post-punk feminism. However, the fact that both appear in Updike’s novel as co-equals and that MTV and radio might very likely play them back-to-back illustrates how complicated the concepts “representation”  “ideology” “hegemony” and “feminism” actually are.

First, Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” which was first released at the end of the year 1983.

What is most blatant in this video is Lauper’s emphasis on her multicultural group of friends. In a sense, her song is similar to the mildly feminist lyrics in The Spice Girls 1996 hit “Wanna Be” that go, “If you want to be my lover, you have to get with my friends.” In my opinion, these lyrics are good advice for anyone, no matter what gender identity they claim to have. And likewise, in her video, Cyndi Lauper represents the ways personal agency comes from a positive community of friends. In addition, her post-punk  style of dress deconstructs traditional gender roles by mixing a ridiculously out-of-date prom dress with goofy sunglasses. For literary critics, this postmodern stylistic device of mixing and mashing is called pastiche, and theorist Dick Hebdige has famously analyzed the “meaning of style” in his book on punk rock, Subculture, to show how — through such pastiche — young people culturally subverted and resisted mainstream ideas about how they should behave.

Less than a year after Cyndi Lauper’s hit, in November of 1984, Madonna released “Like a Virgin,” which in my view co-opts a lot of the liberatory potential of Lauper’s hit in a way that rearticulates women’s identities as objects of sexual desire. For a YouTube clip of her MTV Awards performance in 1984 click here, and for the original music video, click here.

Many have argued that Madonna was one of the early pop stars to create an enduring and mainstream image of women enjoying sex. Indeed, during the MTV awards, she rolls on the floor, apparently with sexual abandon and pleasure. However, in my view, both her MTV performance and her original video are not feminist in the way that Lauper’s is. When compared to “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” noticeably isolates the woman from any community. Her entire feeling of self worth is derived from being the object of male desire — a rather creepy sensibility that is totally contrary to every brand of feminism I’ve ever encountered.  In addition, Madonna’s postpunk style of dress also performs a postmodern pastiche that scandalously blends Catholic and sexual iconography, but in contrast to Lauper’s deconstruction of what it means to be sexy, Madonna’s transgressive style of dress agressively asserts and intensifies her sex appeal.

Ultimately, it would be an oversimplication to call one of these songs progressively feminist and the other reactionary. Clearly, both artists consciously and deliberately represented sexuality in a way that had political implications for how men and women relate to each other — encouraging both men and women to be open about sexuality rather than repressed. And therefore one could argue that both songs had an effect on women’s agency. Both offer transgressive and subversive representations of women, but both also emphasize pleasure-seeking over any substantial community building. Therefore, some feminists would react negatively to both videos, but in my view, it would be a mistake for feminists to eschew the importance of fun and pleasure in our daily lives, and so at the end of the day, I think both Lauper and Madonna’s representations have something to offer to the on-going, open-ended project of feminism. And that is why Updike’s character Roger is simultaneously disturbed, threatened, and sexually aroused by them.

In conclusion, I’d like to end this post with a more recent clip of what seems to me to be a strongly feminist song by singer Christina Aguilara and rapper Lil’ Kim — their 2003 hit, “Can’t Hold Us Down.”

March 25, 2009 Posted by | feminism, music | 6 Comments

“Nigger” / “Nigga”: Tribe vs. Mos Def

What does hip hop have to teach us about deconstruction? Quite a lot, in my opinion.

Way back in 1993 (when I was a junior in college, gasp), Tribe Called Quest released their Midnight Maurader album, considered by some to be one of the top hip hop albums of all time. On it, the controversial hit “Sucka Nigga” [lyrics] observed that black youth had taken the racial slur “nigger” and transformed it into a “term of endearment… nigga.” (Is this at all similar to how Hester Prynne transforms the meaning of the scarlet “A” on her chest from adultery to able in The Scarlet Letter?) Tribe’s song provocatively raises many questions about the use and meaning of words, and as the song explains, the black community in the United States was (and still is) deeply conflicted over the use of the word “nigga” by black musicians and comedians.

Then, six years later in 1999, Mos Def released his highly acclaimed album, Black on Both Sides, which included an explicit and direct response to Tribe entitled “Mr. Nigga” [lyrics]. Mos Def’s song suggests that the original, racist meaning continues to subject black people to unfair prejudice. And furthermore, one might go so far as to say that the clownish antics of some hip hop artists and their lyrics may even be perpetuating it, despite whatever intentions or claims to the contrary they may assert.

So, against Tribe’s playful deconstruction of the word “nigga” that attempted to “flip the script” on American racism, Mos Def presents a hard cautionary tale about how the meaning of the word continues to insist in the cultural practices of people not just in America but also around world. In a sense, Tribe seems to exemplify Derrida’s concept of “play,” and against Derrida, Mos Def seems to exemplify Lacan by reminding us of how the symbolic order continues to structure how we imagine ourselves in the world and how we experience the contradictions of reality (a contradictory experience that Lacan calls the Real, with a capital “R”.) Both songs, in my view, are doing deconstruction — contextualizing the cultural production and transformation of meaning and deconstructing the many binary oppositions invoked by the word “nigga.”

So, to put these songs in their historical context, back in the early 1990s, many people and organizations were concerned with “hate speech” — speech acts that give rise to violence and/or prejudicial action against minorities. The political debate concerned itself with two political rights, free speech and universal, personal integrity (since hate speech sometimes led to horrible acts of violence, called “hate crimes,” not to mention systemic discrimination.) Theorist Judith Butler eventually published Excitable Speech about this issue in 1997. Rather than engage directly in these legal debates, hip hop artists waged an artistic, performative battle against American racism.

In a sense, what we have now are two words. One word is the derogatory “nigger,” originally articulated by the “white man,” whose mouth, in Tribe’s splendidly poetic imagery, reminds us of the dome of a capital building — the very political structure that legitimated racism for so many years. The other word is “nigga” whose meaning is not so much positive as it is a historical reminder of the “adversity” that black Americans overcame as a community. In other words, as everyone knows, white people can not use this word (and any white person who does deserves to get his or her ass kicked) because they did not experience that adversity, but black people can because it reflects a commonly shared, historical identity.

Mos Def, however, reveals how the author of a text does not control its meaning (just as Roland Barthes showed in his famous essay, “Death of an Author“) because of how the signifier circulates in different social contexts. In fact, just as Michel Foucault argued in “What is an Author?” so too does Mos Def seem to argue in “Mr. Nigga” — that authors and hip hop artists are products of legal and socio-economic systems. Hip hop has been appropriated by white suburban youth who (as Lacan suggests in his argument about how we construct our identity in relation to spectral others) enjoy the thrill of transgression by imitating gangsta rap culture and by pretentiously disavowing their own white privilege. And in a way, hip hop artists never had full control over their medium, having to respond to a marketplace dominated by white consumer culture and powerful corporations.

What artists, comedians, novelists, and hip hop artists have realized is that it’s not enough to simply demystify racism, because our culture and our language continues to reflect racist biases long after we as a nation realized that racism is a false ideology. And so, their project to deconstruct the language of American culture (which includes its racist language) is a project begun centuries ago, in the memoir of Olaudah Equiano and the poetry of Phillis Wheatley, well before commedian Richard Pryor first made it a central issue in his stand-up routine back in the 1970s.

March 19, 2009 Posted by | music, race | 3 Comments

Cyber Hip Hop in Diaspora… multicultural, multinational, glocal, transnational, post-national…

With some pride, I want to announce the new issue of Ogina: Oromo Arts in Disapora, the new “webzine” (on-line magazine) that I help to edit. This issue has been praised by Oromo websites and blogs here, here, here, and here. Naturally, it is very exciting for me to be a part of this adventure and to be a part of what I have previously in this blog called the “Oromo Renaissance.” As I mentioned there, most Americans don’t know who the Oromo are, even though they are the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, and this sudden flourishing of cultural activity has only recently become possible because of a more tolerant Ethiopian government and a newly globalized Oromo culture. The new issue of Ogina focuses on hip hop and spoken word poetry, and it features several artists, an interview with two of them, and an essay about how the internet changes the nature of culture and politics by creating a transnational public sphere.

What that essay by Qeerransoo Biyyaa argues is that Oromo hip hop is a glocal phenomenon because it brings together a global art form and a local political movement. However, Qeerransoo Biyyaa raises important questions about the internet as a tool for cultural and political communication. On the one hand it allows displaced Oromo refugees a means to share their cultural identity all over the world, but on the other hand, less than 1% of Oromo living in Ethiopia have access to a computer.

Making such observations, Qeerransoo Biyyaa raises some important theoretical questions about the very nature of culture itself as well as the nature of what the philosopher  Jürgen Habermas calls the “public sphere.” Such questions are clearly important to many Oromo in the United States and Canada who are refugees living in exile, and since my blog is a “theory teacher blog,” I want to draw attention to how he is using theory to make very practical observations about his culture and about the possibilty of political agency for his people.

But here I will raise yet another question. What is the best concept for describing the kind of cultural activity we are seeing here?

Before you continue reading this blog post, please take a moment to think about how many times you’ve heard the words “multicultural” or “multiculturalism.” Probably a lot, and since the early 1990s, it has become popular for Americans to say that we live in a multicultural society. Instead of the proverbial “melting pot” metaphor in which everyone is supposed to assimilate to a single national culture, we now celebrate the “salad bowl” of different cultures all mixed together. To celebrate our cultural diversity is to participate in the ideology of multiculturalism.

But is multiculturalism really the best concept? Certainly, in my view, it’s better than monoculturalism (a.k.a. national chauvenism) which argues for a homogenous culture and celebrates that one culture as somehow superior to all others. But multiculturalism’s celebration of diversity (as I have mentioned in my previous blog post on intercultural competency) can sometimes seem a little shallow. We’re all different, hooray? Is that it? Certainly there’s more to multiculturalism than that, and indeed there is. Theorists of multiculturalism are very serious about not only the importance of cultural recognition but also the problems of cultural recognition when it is understood as an end in itself. In other words, for many, the true end — or goal — of multiculturalism ought to be social justice, not the naive celebration of difference.

However, as many scholars and journalists have pointed out, all the while that people in the United States were celebrating their multicultural nation in the mid-1990s, large multinational corporations such as Nike and Wal-Mart were moving their factories overseas where they could find a cheaper and more powerless workforce to exploit. For the Oromo living in Ethiopia, such global trade was both good and bad. It was good because it opened up large markets for their biggest commercial product — coffee. But it was bad because the multinational corporations controlled the market and left the Oromo people politically powerless, economically dependent, and socially traumatized. In fact, an award winning movie Black Gold analyzed this problem and proposed fair trade coffee organizations such as Equal Exchange as a possible solution.

At the same time that we notice the rise of multinational corporations in a more globalized economy, we also notice another phenomenon. Not only are there more immigrants, but — because of new technologies such as the telephone, television, and the internet — immigrants are remaining more and more emotionally, culturally, and even politically attached to their homeland. Hence, just as multinational corporations are not based in any single nation-state but operate in many nations around the globe, so are diasporic communities such as the Oromo also multinational — living and operating as a single culture in many different nations. The concept “multicultural” doesn’t really capture this phenomenon, so today we use the word “transnational” to better explain the movement of commodities, capital, culture, and people across national borders. And what about communities such as the Oromo and Native Americans who have never felt fully at home within their own homeland and who have never been fully enfranchised by the national government to which they are subject? Aren’t they essentially transnational communities, even if they never emigrate?

However, though we may throw around terms such as transnationalglobal, and glocal, the nation-state has not disappeared (as the recent effort to strengthen the border between the United States and Mexico indicates.) The nation-state is still the primary political structure available to people through which to adjudicate legal disputes and deliberate on policy. But in terms of both cultural identity and business practices, it has become more confusing and complicated. Some people such as John Carlos Rowe argue that the word transnational is too weak. It doesn’t draw enough attention to the conflicting senses of identity and the challenges of governing multinational corporations and transnational communities. Since the old model assumed that the nation-state governs people and their business inside a nation, how do we govern people and businesses that seems to exist in more than one nation or between nations? Rowe favors the word “post-national” because, he argues, the very strangeness of that made-up word actually calls attention to itself as a fundamentally paradoxical situation.

So, which of these words — multicultural, transnational, glocal, multinational, transnational, global, or post-national — provides us with the best conceptual lens through which to see our world today?

December 17, 2008 Posted by | global, music, Oromia | 5 Comments

most important hip hop albums in history?

Recently, I was speaking with the librarian at my university about the necessity of including hip hop in our school’s collection of music. She agreed, but that opens up the obvious question — which hip hop? Obviously, we can’t afford to buy everything. And we wouldn’t want to anyway, because we would only want to buy the “good” stuff. 

Here below is a tentative list that I started brainstorming. I know we won’t get all of them, so this is just a “thinking out loud” kind of list. And sometimes I’ve only named the artist, because I couldn’t make up my mind which particular album. I welcome suggestions and input, but please explain and justify your choices.

Parliament — Mothership Connection
Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five — The Message
Gil Scott-Heron — The Revolution Will Not Be Televised
Public Enemy
Tribe Called Quest
Queen Latifah
Salt-N-Pepa — Very Necesssary
New Jack City (soundtrack)
Afrika Bambaataa
Ice T
De La Soul
Mos Def — Black on Both Sides
Black Star — Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are Black Star
Kanye West
Missy Elliott
The Fugees — The Score
Tupac Shakur
Boogie Down Productions
NWA — Straight Outta Compton
Ice Cube — Amerikka’s Most Wanted
Cyprus Hill — Cypress Hill

The question for the literary theorist, of course, is a rather classic question. What makes any literary work canonical? Why does one thing get included in the anthology of great works while another thing doesn’t? What are the criteria for inclusion and exclusion? For me, socially conscious hip hop is the kind of stuff I prefer to include, and the commercial “sex, drugs, ‘n’ glamour” hip hop is the kind of stuff I prefer to exclude. That’s a political decision, not an aesthetic one, but it gets tricky because sometimes the distinction is not so clear. Then, there are the albums that get quoted by other albums. So, if you listen to a lot of hip hop you will hear echos of particular rifs from earlier albums by Gil Scott-Heron, Public Enemy, and Tribe Called Quest. Through musical quotations, samples, and allusions, the industry itself has already decided on certain “classics” — albums that have become benchmarks for all future work. This is what the modernist poet T. S. Eliot means when he talks about “tradition and the individual talent” and relates a little bit to what the theorist Stanley Fish means when he talks about an “interpretive community.”

Or, perhaps the hip hop artist Mos Def put it an even better way — “we are hip hop.” In other words, the people who create and listen to hip hop are the people who are always already determining not only its future, but also its past.

So, when we choose something for a class or for a library collection, what is the (his)story of hip hop that we want to tell?

August 24, 2008 Posted by | music | 10 Comments