Tuesday, April 24, 2007

darling nikki

I'm not an historian, but rather a burgeoning literary critic. Perhaps some might regard me a little less than qualified to present the little history lesson below. Yet, if Skip Gates could serve as an "expert witness" for Luther Campbell et. al. in a (successful) attempt to locate
As Nasty as They Wanna Be within a larger black vernacular context--whatever that is--I think I can sketch out a brief history and connect some dots to show why Russell Simmons' proposed ban(d-Aid) of certain words from Hip Hop songs is short-sighted, poorly thought out, and simply (the weak or the strong/who got it going on...) dead wrong--and that's despite his addendum.

In a statement released by the Hip Hop Summit Action Network yesterday, Simmons and Dr. Benjamin Chavis suggested that pertinent media industries "bleep-out" the words "bitch," "ho," and "nigger"--not nigga--presumably (and perhaps primarily) from Hip Hop songs and related art forms. It was noted that this is a markedly different stance from the one Simmons and Chavis took in the immediate aftermath of the Don Imus incident. In an interview promoting his new book, Simmons would later reiterate that he continues to be a champion of freedom of expression, and clarify that the idea of the voluntary ban was intended for the "airwaves."(See story here.) Not that that's not what radio stations already do... With my previous musings in mind, I'd like to offer another reason why
not to ban words. I hope to (yet again) prove why not saying something doesn't necessarily change thought patterns or behavior.

Sometimes history works nicely. And this is such a case. In 1989, rap group 2 Live Crew released their third album,
As Nasty as They Wanna Be. It would prove to be the group's most successful and controversial, making Luther Campbell (aka Luke Skyywalker) and the likes of Tipper Gore strange bedfellows, putting such couplings on the tip of every tongue from South Central to suburbia. Though stamped with a parental advisory sticker, ANATWB was legally classified as obscene, and subsequently banned in the state of Florida. Two years later, with the help of Professor Gates' above mentioned testimony, that ruling was overturned. Fueled by the courtroom controversy, along with major airplay of the hit, "Me So Horny,"--which sampled an Asian woman's voice from the movie, Full Metal Jacket-- ANATWB sold two million copies.

The same year of that record's release, a then unknown Chicagoan by the name of Robert Kelly formed his first R&B group and recorded a song. Two years later, linked with Public Announcement, Kelly released his debut album,
Born into the 90s. Though the album spawned several hits and was a relative success, Kelly left Public Announcement; he released his debut solo album in 1993.

Why do I link these two? My main point is to exhibit the close proximity between the beginning of Kelly's career and the public outcry over misogyny in Hip Hop. Though he is arguably the most successful male
R&B singer of the 90s, it must be considered that at this historical moment, Hip Hop and R&B started (or were already) dating. By 1995, with the release of Method Man and Mary J. Blige's remake of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell's "You're All I Need" the two musical genres were officially shacking up. Secondly, I highlight these contemporaneous instances to say the following: if the ban--albeit brief-- of ANATWB was a punch in the jaw, by the time R. Kelly released 12 Play in 1993, he must have still been tasting a bit of blood and salt in his mouth. I contend that part of the fall out of 2 Live Crew's briefly banned misogynistic output was the implicit requirement that rappers and the R&B crooners inspired and influenced by rap occasionally come up with different, more creative(?) ways of objectifying and demeaning women. And no one does that better than R. Kelly.

Here's an excerpt from Kelly's 1995 hit, "You Remind Me of Something":
You remind me of something
I just can't think of what it is
You remind me of my jeep, I wanna ride it
Something like my sound, I wanna pump it
Girl you look just like my cars, I wanna wax it
And something like my bank account
I wanna spend it, baby...
And from 2003's "Ignition," where he samples his own voice from the above song:
You remind me of something
I just can't think of what it is
Girl, please let me stick my key in your ignition,
So I can get this thing started and get rollin', babe
See, I'll be doin' about 80 on your freeway
Girl, I won't stop until I drive you crazy
Now, here's an excerpt from Kelly's verse on 2007's "Make it Rain Remix":
I be drilling these chicks like Major Payne
When I make it rain, they be like "yo... do it again"
From the club to the coupe, inside my gates
Up in my bedroom screaming each other's name
They was perty perty, and I was flirty flirty
Lil' dro, lil' bub now they gettin' dirty dirty
Don't ax me what my name is,
stupid bitch I'm famous*
You gon' make me aim this, leave your ass brainless
I'm tryin' to stay R&B but these streets is a part of me
So don't get it twisted
You see I order one bottle, then I fuck with one model
Then I order more bottles, now I got more models
I'm from that city where them niggas don't play man
I take a chick to my room like caveman
So ask your girlfriend my name, I bet she go
"Skeet Skeet Skeet Skeet, Weatherman 'bout to make it rain!"**
*my emphasis
**Skeet is slang for ejaculation, generally outside of a woman's vagina.

Should I be happily relieved that R. Kelly and the rest could possibly no longer publicly refer to women as bitches and hoes, but rather continue to liken me to automobiles and any other creative analogies they can think of while in the studio? Mr. Simmons, I feel as if your suggestion requires that I pick my poison. Actually, that's quite inaccurate. The suggestion proffered by Simmons and Dr. Chavis simply compels the offending artists to choose another poison. For banning words, voluntarily or otherwise, does not fix or even assuage the problem. It simply kicks a bit of dirt where a land mine once detonated. If I may return to my literary roots, it's like Jem chopping off the heads of Mrs. Dubose's camellias. And what did she tell him? "Next time, you'll know how to do it right, won't you? You'll pull it up by the roots, won't you?"

Mr. Simmons and Dr. Chavis, I truly believe that you and your Hip Hop Summit cronies can put your heads together, and come up with a much more effective solution. If I may borrow an R. Kelly simile, the mind is sort of like a car engine. Gentlemen, please start yours.


language alone protects us from the scariness of things with no names. language alone is meditation. ~toni morrison

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

and god created woman

I did not intend to write about the Imus situation. I figured the deluge of dramatic and intense commentary would provide sufficient public response to Imus' comments and the aftermath. And in a sense, response has been sufficient--in volume. After two days of watching Oprah however, I thought I'd add a drop or so into the cesspool. Nothing major; just a comment or two.

Folks have been hustled by Don Imus. Let me explain. To take this situation as an opportunity to discuss (misogyny in) hip hop implicitly accepts Imus' argument that he learned the terms he employed to disparagingly describe members of the Rutgers University women's basketball team from rap music. I'm not particularly convinced by Imus' assertion. I believe he had access to that sort of language well before any young rapper penned his first 16 bars. Imus' comments regarding journalist Gwen Eiffel are a well documented and apposite example of this. More importantly, to take up a position on either side of the pervasive influence of hip hop debate that has formed in the midst of this event skirts a major part of the issue, and we won't hear from or about Imus again until he signs a deal with satellite radio.

That is not to say that misogyny isn't rampant in hip hop, that similar language isn't deployed in the music, or that the violent objectification of women in both lyrics and videos does not warrant a serious and public discussion. It is not surprising that the same environment that allows space for Don Imus has inspired the (d)evolution of hip hop into a genre that has become increasingly misogynistic and damaging to black women, while simultaneously becoming more and more hypermasculine. (What other reason has there not been a viable woman's voice in hip hop for nearly a decade?) Though I'd suggest separate discussions regarding both issues, I am not proffering the idea that Imus' words and hip hop are isolated entities; all of this is connected, mere (though quite damaging) cogs of a very oppressive and invisible whole. Yet, in the midst of this debate, hip hop and Imus have been yolked quite strangely, like odd "if/then" statements, or cause and effect.

The "We can't talk about Imus until we talk about our own issues," and, "This isn't about rap music, it's about Imus," rhetoric doesn't work itself out very well. It allows for more distracted debate that treads the same road. So preoccupied are we that Imus quietly settles into a Michael Richards'-like semi-retirement. Most significantly, the Rutgers women who had very briefly compelled us to associate a human voice with black female bodies (recall: they are athletes), are yet again silenced in the middle of discussion that was apparently both about and inspired by them. Unfortunately, the prior statement isn't at all ironic.


language alone protects us from the scariness of things with no names. language alone is meditation. ~toni morrison

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

flashback. like it was a monday back in '05

this just in:

while media cats et. al. were discussing hip hop's dirty mouth, don imus signed a deal with satellite radio.

(jus' playin'.)

if that does happen, mark me down as both race woman and prophet.

language alone protects us from the scariness of things with no names. language alone is meditation. ~toni morrison

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

family name

In the fourth chapter of William Faulkner's canonical short story, "The Bear," a sixteen year old Ike McCaslin questions why a slave (Eunice) would drown herself-- because blacks, if Ike's opinion of them reflects Faulkner's in this instance, (always) endure. Suicide does not, in Ike's mind, fit nicely into the characteristics he has assigned to blacks. Uncovering the reason for this self-imposed drowning necessarily requires the reconstruction of the McCaslin family tree, which, we come to know, demands tracing both the white and black branches. As our 21st Century minds might expect, those branches inevitably and tangly coalesce. Eventually Ike twigs (pun intended) that Eunice drowned herself because she discovered the McCaslin incestuous secret. In other words, Eunice had a sexual relationship with the white patriarch, Old Carothers McCaslin; this relationship produced a daughter, Tomasina. In a move that Gayl Jones would echo thirty years later, Old Carothers then has a sexual relationship with Tomasina, which produces a son, Terrel. Upon discovering this, Eunice kills herself six months before Terrel's birth; Tomasina dies in childbirth. (Because, if you lightly track the theme of incest in 20th century American literature like I do, somebody--usually the baby--has to die.) Horrified, instead of committing suicide, Ike repudiates his claim to the "cursed" McCaslin land, becomes a carpenter, and (not wanting to continue the line) intentionally does not have children of his own.

I was reminded of Faulkner--and the sexual transgressions that often influence his fictional family trees-- as I read an article in the New York Times about black woman reuniting with her white "DNA" cousin. As the story goes Vy Higginsen, a black woman from Harlem long interested in her "roots," took an ethno-ancestry test two years ago. She assumed that she would have black and some Indian blood. However, results showed that though she had no former Cherokee chief in her ancestral past, more than a quarter of her blood was European.

Insert Marion West, a white Missourian in his mid-70s. He also took a test in 2005, and submitted his results to an online database that tracks those with the surname West. That database showed that West and Higginsen (whose uncle, James West had also submitted his results to the database) were distant, "DNA" cousins.

I will quiet my desires to discuss the semantics (of this article, at least) around ethno-ancestry-- though i admit that when it comes to DNA, we are talking about blood in the literal-- in exchange for another brief plea for the restoration of American Negro (or just plain ole black) as a more accurate way for present day African Americans (as in US-born, not African immigrants) to identify themselves racially.

It is revealed in the article that Marion West's paternal grandfather fought for the Confederacy, and that his ancestors may have owned slaves. Thinking about that distinct possibility in conjunction with another recent genealogical study which revealed that Al Sharpton's ancestors were once owned by Strom Thurmond's famil,y inspires me to reiterate how imperative it is that blacks regard and (re)assert themselves as integral and primary participants in the project of America, that slavery was no ancillary by-product of the democracy imagined by our white Founding Fathers, but rather an intrinsic aspect of our very distinct American culture. By continually reconnecting ourselves to another place (that most of us haven't visited, that isn't even a monolithic country, but a place with three times the people the United States has) first with the pre-hyphen moniker, African, we implicitly agree that American means white, and that we have been almost mere footnotes in its history.

The middle- and upper-class qualifications notwithstanding, I'm intrigued by the possibilities of DNA testing and the process of ethno-ancestry. Perhaps, in an ironic twist, it will be the blood that solidifies our interracial ties to each other, and further validates the reality that blacks have not merely been just visiting the United States on a work visa for the past 500 years. Perhaps we begin that reassertion by naming ourselves-- again.

"Oh what a tangled web we weave."**

**Yes, please assume that Sir Walter Scott quotation was intentionally used to conjure up Mark Twain.


language alone protects us from the scariness of things with no names. language alone is meditation. ~toni morrison