Tag Archive | Common

Love and Hip Hop: (Re)Gendering The Debate Over Hip Hop Studies

Sound and Pedagogy 3

Today’s post from Cornell professor Travis Gosa (Africana Studies) marks the return of our “Sound and Pedagogy” Forum for a spring semester refresher course.  It’s a hard time of the school year–fatigue can creep up in exponential relation to the sudden increase in sunshine.  We at SO! want to put some spring back into your classroom with Gosa’s discussion of the relationship between hip hop and the university classroom–to sample De La Soul,  stakes is high–followed up next week with Emmanuelle Sonntag and Bronwen Low‘s (McGill) exploration of hip hop pedagogies in the urban classroom in their joint post on “The Student as Broadcaster and DJ of Her Listening,” and rounded out with a hands-on self-assessment of how sound media can be a productive classroom tool in teaching black political history by Carter Mathes (Rutgers).  Grab a new notebook, sharpen some pencils, and enjoy some (funky) fresh perspectives this spring.  And now, I pass the mic to Dr. Travis Gosa–Editor-in-Chief Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman

The three-year appointment of DJ Afrika Bambaataa at Cornell University has caused me to think about the sexual politics of sound created by the artist-centered hip hop studies movement. College students have been reading hip hop textbooks since the early 1990s, and Arizona University students can now earn a minor in hip hop studies. However, the recent professorial appointments of artists like Bambaataa, Bun-B of UGK (Rice University), M1 of dead prez (Haverford College), Wyclef Jean (Brown University), and 9th Wonder (Harvard University) is shaping how hip hop is heard.

The embodied collision of instrumentation, lyricism, and experience in the artist-centered classroom can create spaces for empowerment and emancipatory learning. There is also a risk, however, that the artist-professors trend will reproduce the same sexist logic about hip hop and women that recirculates in mass-mediated rap music.

Since Common’s 1994 song “I Used to Love H.E.R,” the bodies of women of color have served as the sonic battlefield for wars over the authentic boundaries of hip hop culture. On the track, Common falls out of love with H.E.R (“hip hop”) when White corporations and West-Coast emcees gangbang his once virgin, “untampered” girl, and turn her into a promiscuous, weed-smoking “gangsta bitch.”

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Compared to Lil’ Wayne’s lyrics about “beating the pussy up like Emmett Till,” or Rick Ross’ molly-infused date rap anthem, Common’s nostalgic back-in-the-day rhymes are tame. The love affair is sonically wrapped in the thick intertexuality of George Benson’s mellow jazz guitar of “The Changing World,” timeless emcee clichés like “yes yes ya’ll,” and classic quotables like Easy-E’s “Easily I approach…” (minus the punchline about having sex with your momma).

Rap legends Scarface and Nas use the H.E.R. trope to frame the appropriation of hip hop by colleges. On the DJ Khaled assisted track “Hip Hop,” they describe hip hop as a “middle-aged cougar,” and threaten to murder the “bitch” for being a gold digging “whore.”

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According to Scarface, he has fallen out of love with Ms. Hip Hop because she is sleeping around with everyone, including college professors:

Now you all in the lectures

Being studied by the college’s professors

Now I regret the day I met ya, Bitch

I’ll be the first one to say it

She ain’t the one you want to play with

I fucked Hip Hop

When the imaginary borders of hip hop are expanded or violated by academia, Scarface defends hip hop by slut shaming Black women. The hegemonic masculine frame perpetuates the virgin/whore dichotomy of womanhood, justifies violence against women, and evaluates women (“hip hop”) according to their ability to fulfill the needs of men.  DJ Khaled’s production reinforces the message by sampling Mott The Hoople’s “She Does It.” The 1975 British glam rock song is a little ditty about cocaine and/or rough sex with groupies.

Too often, loving hip hop involves remaining uncritical about sexualized violence and the silencing of women in the culture. “Sentimental attachment” to music, as Barry Shank described at the 2013 IASPM conference, is not the same as “interrogative listening,” the recognition that musical pleasure can involve dominance and oppression. Interrogative listening begins by acknowledging that being a member of a musical community comes with responsibility.

Hip hop studies professors face the monumental task of reeducating students in the art of interrogative listening.  As scholar Tricia Rose noted in her keynote address at the opening of the Cornell Hip Hop Collection in 2008, the commercial rap industry has trained young people to nod to the beat while passively accepting misogyny and oppression. Rose writes in her book The Hip Hop Wars that pointing to real life “tricks” and “hoes” is often a strategy used to absolve male hip hop artists of their culpability in profiting from rape culture.

I have been impressed by the ability of pre-rap, 1970s hip hop artists to demonstrate a love for the culture without reproducing the woman-hating narrative found in rap music. The South Bronx DJs (i.e., BreakBeat Lou), graffiti artists (i.e., Carlos “Mare 139” Rodriguez), photographers (i.e., Joe Conzo, Jr.), and break-dancers (i.e., Richard “Crazy Legs” Colon  and Jorge “Popmaster Fabel” Pabon) who make guest appearances in my courses explicitly disassociate themselves from the logic of commercial rap industry. Not surprisingly, it has been most intriguing to listen to the sexual politics created by the Afro-futuristic DJ Bambaataa.

Bambaataa is known for transforming the notorious Black Spades gang into the fledgling 1970s South Bronx hip hop scene. His Universal Zulu Nation has forcibly removed drug dealers from neighborhoods, rallied around political prisoners, and just last month, warned WorldStarHipHop.com to stop pandering violent and sexual images to youth.

Image by Pete Best, Courtesy of Cornell News

Image by Pete Best, Courtesy of Cornell News

Less obvious is Bambaataa’s political work through sound performance. His signature soulsonic soundspace mocks the boundaries of music genre and the specificities of race, social class, and place, in favor of the universal. For example, when asked to explain early hip hop to my undergraduate class last fall, he sat back and played Ray Steven’s 1969 hit “Gitarzan” and The Music Man’s “Ya Got Trouble.” Hilarity and cognitive dissonance ensued, as the country-rock and Broadway tunes shattered the commonsense of hip hop as “rap music,” “black,” “youth,” or “urban.”

His universalism is not meant to obscure the contributions of women with a generic masculine narrative. Bambaataa has spent the first year of his appointment mapping out the centrality of women’s role in creating hip hop culture. Like Kyra Gaunt in Games Black Girls Play: Learning The Ropes from Double-Dutch to Hip Hop, Bambaataa traced rap and dance to double-dutch, hand-clipping, and rhythm games played by Black girls. To demonstrate how women pioneered rapping, he played Shirley Ellis’ The Name Game and The Clapping Song. During his first official sound lecture, a DJ set at an Ithaca nightclub, the music of Aretha Franklin and Miriam Makeba were interwoven into the more recognizable hip hop staples like James Brown.

Observing Bambaataa’s musical performances at Cornell gives me hope that sound and listening can be used to disrupt dominant modes of gender politics in the hip hop classroom. However, the ability of Black male artists to articulate the contributions of women is in no way a replacement for creating spaces which are actually inhabited by those who are not Black, male, or heterosexual.  There is nothing universal about male bodies, thoughts, or voices.  Unfortunately, this new trend of artists in the classroom is being constructed almost exclusively around Black/Brown, heterosexual men.

To date, no “b-girls,” “femcees,” or “flygirls” have been appointed to high profile positions in the academy. I struggle with this at my home institution, as Cornell’s “Born in the Bronx” archival project risks perpetuating the myth of a woman-less birth. This gender-limited vision of hip hop’s roots has been compounded by the silencing of legendary battle emcee Roxanne Shanté, whose relationship with Cornell ended after a witch-hunt surrounding her academic credentials back in 2009. MC Sha-Rock, an early female emcee, will end the four-year estrogen drought when she participates in Cornell’s 2013 Unbound From the Underground hip hop celebration on April 4-7, 2013.

Charlie Ahearn/Cornell Hip Hop Collection

MC Sha-Rock in 1982’s Wild Style, Charlie Ahearn/Cornell Hip Hop Collection

Our efforts to connect academic hip hop studies to its cultural practitioners must honor women and empower female agency. The critical praxis has already been constructed by Black feminist scholars, such as Tricia Rose, Joan Morgan, Patricia Hill-Collins, Gwen Pough, Kyra Gaunt, Ruth Nichole Brown, and countless others.  Hip hop feminism or “Crunk feminism” dictates that academic spaces support emancipatory gender politics, which starts with teaching and celebrating a truthful history focused on the agency of women of color. It does not involve participating in Black male violence under the guise of loving hip hop.

Every university that claims to teach or “preserve” hip hop should appoint female/feminist/queer artists. No doubt, fierce emcees like Yo-Yo, MC Lyte, Missy Elliott, and Lauryn Hill should be on the short list at many colleges. Still, we have to be wary of gender tokenism; the end-game should not be finding a honorary female artist to provide “a woman’s point of view.” Rather, the goal should be to create opportunities for women to narrate history, redefine the spaces occupied by hip hop, and to rearticulate the logic of critical listening.

Regendering hip hop studies will require a paradigm shift and a new soundtrack about love.  Perhaps we can begin the work by replacing the H.E.R. tracks with Akua Naru’s “The World is Listening.” It is a dope, feminist homage to women’s journey through hip hop history, without all the slut shaming.

Featured Image by Flickr User  LizSpikol

Travis L. Gosa is an Assistant Professor at Cornell University’s Africana Studies & Research Center. He teaches courses on hip hop culture, African American families, and education. He is an advisory board member of Cornell’s Hip Hop Collection, the largest archive on early hip hop culture in the United States. He can be reached at tlg72@cornell.edu and on Twitter @basedprof.

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“Ill Communication: Hip Hop Studies & Sound Studies @ Show And Prove”— J. Stoever-Ackerman

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They Do Not All Sound Alike: Sampling Kathleen Cleaver, Assata Shakur, and Angela Davis

Assata Shakur, Image with quote courtesy of Flickr user Jacob Anikulapo

Assata Shakur, Image with quote courtesy of Flickr user Jacob Anikulapo

SO IASPM7Welcome to week four of  our February Forum on “Sonic Borders,”  a collaboration with the IASPM-US blog in connection with this year’s IASPM-US conference on Liminality and Borderlands, held in Austin, Texas from February 28 to March 3, 2013.  The “Sonic Borders” forum is a Virtual Roundtable cross-blog entity that will feature six Sounding Out! writers posting on Mondays through February 25, and four writers from IASPM-US, posting on Wednesdays starting February 6th and ending February 27th.  For an encore of weeks one through three of the forum, click here. And now, Tara Betts drops some science, Sounding Out! style–JSA

When underground hip-hop artist P. Blackk released Blackk Friday (2011), several reviewers insisted that he sampled political activist Angela Davis. Oddly enough, one of the reviews from The Meara Blogfeatured the video for “Brainz,” the song in question–and the video clearly showed that the sampled track was in fact not Davis but activist and lawyer Kathleen Cleaver. Why the automatic assumption that any black woman sampled from the 1960s is Davis? Why the collapsing and erasure of so many distinct and powerful voices?

Davis, Cleaver, and Assata Shakur are arguably the three most iconic women of the Black Power Movement, but they largely go unrecognized in mainstream history. Erasure by omission represents how many historical sources are resistant to identifying their specific contributions to grassroots organizing, intellectual life, and politics, while the male leadership of the Black Power Movement is often mentioned by name.  So, the inclusion of Davis, Cleaver, and Shakur in songs by hip hop artists P. Blackk, John Forté, and Common simultaneously amplifies the distinctiveness of their voices while signaling conscious choices by younger male artists to align themselves with the political thinking espoused by these radical women in politically-rooted, layered tracks–even as these samples inadvertently reveal the mainstream public’s tendency to treat black female activists as interchangeable.  Both in their moment and in its sampled echoes, these women resist being grouped into an amorphous group of misconstrued black people, and these tracks highlight that.

Kathleen Cleaver, 1960s

Kathleen Cleaver, 1960s

In “Brainz,” P. Blackk samples a 1968 speech by Cleaver. In the track, the basic bassline reverbs beneath the emcee’s repeated hook.  He  begins the song with the “huh” sound that many emcees use to amplify enthusiasm, start rhyming, and alert whomever is listening that the words are about to arrive.  Blackk repeats certain phrases and utilizes internal rhyme as he makes observations about the choices people should make to care for themselves, their children, and their communities.  The most original slant rhyme emerges in the second of two verses, replicated here:

It’s funny how we love chains and whips

when we were bound by em.

and we hate rock’n’roll and it was found by us.

You can’t hate what’s beautiful.  I’m black and I’m proud,

but that ain’t got nothing to do with my pants sagging down.

Society is pimping you.

I’m just a man who’s a little more sensible.

I used to be invisible, now I’m invincible.

Not the stereotypical,

and I’m doing my thing in a game with no principles.

Knowledge and power, all I need, yeah, that’ll do.

The difference between me and my peers is gratitude.

Younguns is dumb too and too cool,

but it’s uncool living in a city that’s gun-ruled.

Here, P. Blackk most closely echoes how Cleaver expresses a sense of embracing and affirming black beauty while still acknowledging flawed educational systems, materialism, the origin of rock music, intergenerational disconnects, and gun violence.  As a member of the Black Panther Party, wife of Eldridge Cleaver, attorney and professor, Cleaver has been a spokesperson for African American struggles.  When the chorus simply repeats “real n-gga wit a brain,” P. Blackk is claiming the term that is still an affront to middle class people reaching for the civility of assimilation.  He is insisting that some people are afraid of their intelligence and growing awareness as marginalized people and what actions that might entail.  This fear of a nascent threat was at the root of resistance towards the slogan “Black is Beautiful” in the 1960s.

The Cleaver sample comes at the end of “Brainz,” and in the music video appears in its entirety on a projection screen and against P. Blackk himself, decked in a white shirt and bow tie, as he “lectures” students in a darkened classroom. As different black historical figures, including the likes of Marcus Garvey, Rosa Parks, Angela Davis, Ralph Abernathy, George Jackson, and James Baldwin, are projected on the screen behind Blackk, the instrumental audibly drops much lower so the only voice heard is Cleaver’s.

[Cue to 3:05 for Kathleen Cleaver]

The footage from which her sample is taken has background sound such as others talking and a chant with cadences that were often heard at black political protests; these can be faintly heard along with the audible buzz of varied speaking voices in the crowd that surrounding Cleaver.  She was not onstage nor the main focal point of the larger event, but P. Blackk’s re-framing places her at its center.   When one considers the position of Davis and Cleaver as esteemed and radical activists and professors, it’s not surprising that P. Blackk video positions him as an educator, like these women, to further reinforce the point of Cleaver’s words.

Image of Assata Shakur on Community Mural of Revolutionary Heroes, Image by Flickr User Gary Stevens

Image of Assata Shakur on Community Mural of Revolutionary Heroes, Image by Flickr User Gary Stevens

In “A Song for Assata,” from Like Water for Chocolate (2000), Common retells some of the events detailed in Assata: An Autobiography, but his sample reinforces why her activism was so important to Common and others like him.  Her looped voice concludes his song, incredulously repeating the question, “You askin’ me about freedom?” In the sample Shakur explains how she knows more about what freedom is not, which is similar to a comment that Shakur made in Gloria Rolando’s documentary Eye of the Rainbow: Assata Shakur and Oya.  Shakur then defines how freedom allows one to be one’s self, and the definition is faded down and the last of the soaring music rises slightly.  When this fade occurs, we have a few examples of what Shakur imagines what freedom could potentially be, but it also leaves a sonic pause where listeners might contemplate how they define freedom for themselves.

The choice to fade out a sample says so much about not just the message that it (and Common) hopes to convey, but also reveals narratives that have been enforced consistently through institutions and time.  I read the fade out as sonically emphasizing “the struggle,” rather than the intellectual present of an activist speaking; it limits her to the role of an representing the past.   In dream hampton’s documentary Black August, Malcolm X Grassroots Movement organizer Meron Haile Selassie elucidates how women like Shakur are idolized:

Historically, the black liberation movement and actually all movements, let’s be honest, have fallen short of trying to incorporate the role of women, what women need, and how we incorporate anti-sexist theory and anti-sexist work in our general liberation movement. And when the woman that we put on the poster every single year, Assata Shakur, is someone that these artists revere and talk about yet but they’re somehow unable to see an Assata Shakur in the woman they’re dating that’s a painful realization.

In other words, even in black history and social movements, some women are canonized and celebrated and others are disregarded, which is not a far cry from the well-worn debate of using the word “b-tch” or “ho” and insisting that this namecalling does not address all women. Such overlooking and fading out is a subtler silencing of women.

angela_davis_blogspot

Angela Davis speaking in Oakland, 1969

John Forte’s “Drift On” works against the narrative of the fade-out in “A Song for Assata.” In “Drift On,” from his album The Water Suite (2012),  Forte lyrically articulates the feeling of being distant from someone; however, it is the brief sample of a few seconds from Angela Davis that reinforces the possibility of redemption during and after confinement. Forté begins singing the hook over a guitar-like loop that functions almost like a chord, and his soft singing of the chorus contrasts with his solemn rhyming lines and the firm solemnity of Davis’ brief sample midway through the song.  A little more than a minute before “Drift On” ends, Davis speaks:

many people recognize that they can refashion themselves. They can rehabilitate themselves. They can live a life of the mind.

Davis stresses the words “they,” “refashion” and the third, final “can” spoken in this sample. Her tendency to stretch and soften particular nouns and verbs in speaking is a consistent pattern in Davis’ public speech, achieved by rhetorical devices such as metanoia– the immediate restatement of a phrase–and amplification.  When Davis speaks in this manner, she makes listeners pay attention to the “they” whom she refers to as intellectually capable, but it also stresses  “possibility” and redemption of the self.

It is important to note that the artists sampling these iconic Black women are men.  Although women such as Me’shell Ndegeocello, and Terri Lyne Carrington and Diane Reeves have sampled Angela Davis on successful records, these records were not necessarily considered hip hop, which has consistently relied on men’s voices to create a radical impression in music, like Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” Public Enemy long relied on voices like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., but happens to (and with) women’s voices?  Including these voices in hip hop shows that women do exist as thinkers, activists, and speakers, even if the exposure is being exercised by artists who are men.

However, each song extends the narrative of each woman in a different manner than they constructed for themselves. P. Blackk stops admonishing, advising, and insisting on pragmatic Afrocentrism so he can to listen to Cleaver explain why black beauty was finally being embraced in the 1960s.  Cleaver, in her 1968 speech, eschews white standards of beauty to embrace herself, which P. Blackk uses to connect self-hatred in the past and self-destructive behavior in the present.  Common ends “A Song for Assata” with Shakur so she can share some of her thoughts on freedom after the song relates major events from her life based on details and paraphrased lines from poems in Assata: An Autobiography.   Forté uses the sample of Angela Davis to further a narrative that reveals how the prison industrial complex diminishes perceptions of the humanity and the intellectual capacity of prisoners in “Drift On.”

These three hip hop songs align with a continuum of specific radical women during a time when there are few women getting consistent recognition in the genre of hip hop music, so it marks a curious point of departure where women can be part of conversations in a musical genre where they are not frequently prominent as vocalists. This sampling practice also places men and women in conversation–activists, artists, and listeners–in a manner that reflects strength, certainty, and a sense of coming together with specific political ideas in a manner that, importantly, does not erase intellectual, or sonic, difference.

Tara Betts is the author of the poetry collection Arc and Hue, a Ph.D. candidate at Binghamton University, and a Cave Canem fellow. Tara’s poetry also appeared in Essence, Bum Rush the Page, Saul Williams’ CHORUS: A Literary Mixtape, VILLANELLES, both Spoken Word Revolution anthologiesand A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry. Her research interests include African American literature, poetry, creative writing pedagogy, and most recently sound studies.  In the 1990s, she co-founded and co-hosted WLUW 88.7FM’s “The Hip Hop Project” at Loyola University while writing for underground hip hop magazines, Black Radio Exclusive, The Source, and XXL. She is co-editor of Bop, Strut, and Dance, an anthology of Bop poems with Afaa M. Weaver.

#TigerBlood: Charlie Sheen and Affective Listening

What is going on with Charlie Sheen? Banking almost 1.5 million dollars per episode of Two and a Half Men, there seems to be very little reason for Sheen to say things like: “I am on a drug. It’s called Charlie Sheen. It’s not available. If you try it once, you will die. Your face will melt off and your children will weep over your exploded body,” to 20/20. If extreme quotations like that were not enough, you can connect to the Charlie Sheen Twitter feed for round the clock updates on his inanities. Considering this statement, the key question is not who is listening but instead, who does Charlie think his listeners are? Are these tweets a candid rehearsal of Sheen’s innermost thoughts, or considering Andreas Duus Pape’s recent post, is there a strategic construction of audience within Sheen’s Twitter-mediated performances?

To this question, I shall argue that there definitely is a strategy. Sheen knows that he is being watched, and he knows exactly which of his quotes have the potential to go viral. As Radar Online has noted, Sheen has hired a TweetMaster to manage his Twitter account. The TweetMaster adds hashtags (# symbols which link tweets through keywords) to Sheen’s most potent memes. #TigerBlood, #Winning, #earnyourself and #teamsheen, all brand a series of tweets to Sheen in this cross-platform #twitterwar. If Sheen was as slaphappy as some of his quotes evince, he would not have hired a TweetMaster to manage his tweets nor would it be important to aggregate these points via hashtag in Tweetspace. Charlie Sheen’s recent actions exploit a strategy of spectacle in this notable propaganda campaign.

Building on my previous post regarding the politics of the interior, Sheen’s media blitz works to amplify his voice within the interior space of Twitter. In keeping with the politics of interiority and even a so-called ideology of immanence, Sheen’s quotes can be read as exemplifying the production of positive affect. When Sheen tweets: “fastball. the trolls are foaming from their toothless holes. rumor mill abundant with evil gossip. mainstream heretics smirking,” (3/7/11) he draws on the extreme and fantastic to paint what is ultimately a comical picture. Contrasting the fantastic troll to a space-less rumor mill and also making reference to a nebulous mainstream, Sheen leaves attentive followers confused and bemused. Some might chuckle, connecting the troll/hole reference to a musical skit from an episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Because Sheen relies on such extreme and fantastic images while striking a somewhat fanatical tone, he makes people laugh. Sheen’s humor here can be understood as the production of positive affect in a diffuse and decentralized audience. Sheen’s craft has become so slick that it even made headlines in the news this week.

Sheen’s ability to produce positive affect through talk-radio and Twitter quotes yields a positive strategic position. Because Sheen commands the production of a widespread and diffuse affect, he improves on his own “brand.” Further, as a successful producer of affect Sheen transforms himself into a commodity bar-none. Though he may no longer benefit from his meaty Two and a Half Men revenue stream, he becomes available for countless high paying, low-stress cameos seeking to cash in on Sheen the commodity. Sheen exploits what is common in all audiences, the production of sadness and joy, in doing so he transforms and rebrands himself as celebrity commodity. Ultimately, Sheen’s recent statements are highly strategic, because of them he stands to gain work. Cleverly, he imagines an audience of the common, one that will perceive him as either comic or tragic, joyful or sad. Either way, he wins.

This victory comes at a cost, as audiences laugh at and about Sheen, stereotypes of drug abuse and mental illness stand to replicate along with Sheen’s haphazard quotations. Within this sea of affect, monstrous cultural trends will surely endure. Such is the nature of tigerblood, it is contagious.

AT

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When I Think of Home*

*title comes from a line in the song “Home” from the film The Wiz

This month I want to share with Sounding Out’s readers part of an essay that is very dear to me: an essay on home and African American urban identity in hip hop. In my longer essay I look closely at several hip hop songs and discuss the representations of urban space present in them. It is very dear to me because it is my first venture into what would eventually become my dissertation topic (dissertation in the works). As I am revising the essay for publication, I am eager to hear from our readers what they think about this excerpt and suggestions for expansion.

***

Home: it is a small word, but it opens up such a big world full of meanings. When people ask me, “where’s home for you?” I cannot help but feel confused. What home do they mean? Do they mean my home town in Puerto Rico, where my parents live? Do they mean Kansas City, where I live now, where I move around and do my grocery shopping? Or do they mean New York City, which started out as home? For me, home can be a household, a town, a family, a community; this would explain the confusion on my face when they ask me that question.

One example of the different meanings that home can have is seen in Dave Chappelle’s Block Party. The film takes the viewer to Bedford-Stuyvesant, a neighborhood in Brooklyn NY, where the comedian congregates friends, neighbors, and fans for a day of hip-hop music, food, and comedic skits. Interestingly enough, Dave Chappelle is not from Brooklyn, but from Washington DC—unlike Mos Def and Talib Kweli, both born and raised in Brooklyn, who pepper their performances with shout-outs to the borough. Dave and director Michel Gondry (according to the DVD extra for the film, titled “September in Brooklyn: The Making of Block Party“) chose Bed-Stuy for the block party because of the borough’s legacy as the birthplace of hip-hop. Their hip-hop coordinates are slightly off, since hip-hop’s roots are found in the South Bronx—even though many of hip-hop’s stars have come from Brooklyn.

However, a young man from Ohio’s Central State University’s marching band sheds some light on the question of location: “It’s wonderful, it’s great, being out here in New York for my first time. I feel kind of like I’m at home. Seeing all these people out here with locks, it’s comfortable. It’s nice though.” The young man from Ohio has never set foot in New York City before, but he claims to feel a sense of comfort from being surrounded by people who look like him. This can be read as just another iteration of the perceived sense of freedom and openness associated with urban locations, but it could also be read as a comment on the racial/ethnic composition of the city and his sense of comfort because of this. Dave Chappelle mentions earlier in the film, “5000 black people chillin’ in the rain, 19 white people peppered in the crowd…hard to find a Mexican.” New York–and Brooklyn in particular–represent a kind of home for the band member because of the historic presence of blacks in the city and its hip-hop legacy. However, the urban African American experience, at least as it is seen in the documentary, seems to equate an experience that African Americans across the country can relate to.

Of course, there is no such thing as a single contemporary African American experience; there are as varied experiences as there are towns, as there are shades of brown. However, both the marginality and community that African Americans in urban locations have historically felt resonates with many across the United States, no matter if they live in the South or the Midwest or the Northeast. Urban places have proven to be a key source of inspiration for African American musical artists, like Stevie Wonder (“Living for the City”) and Marvin Gaye (“Inner City Blues [Make Me Wanna Holler]”). But it has gained more visibility in hip-hop music, from songs like “Heart of the City” by Jay-Z to “L.A.” by Murs. Different representations of urban space abound in black cultural production, but the one that stands out for me is that of the city as home.

Even though some hip-hop artists depict the city as a center of crime and danger, there are others who talk about it as home and describe it as a locus for community, for cultural memory, and for emotional nourishment. The hip-hop artists I look at in my longer piece (Kanye West, Common, Lauryn Hill, and Mos Def) do not locate this home in a household but rather in urban locales. The representation of cities as locations for home is a way to reclaim urban space, and this act of claiming is crucial for the development of a contemporary African American urban identity. In this excerpt, I present Mos Def as an example of that reclaiming.

Mos Def’s “Habitat” was issued on his album Black on Both Sides (1999). Mos, like Common and Kanye West, uses the city as inspiration for many of his songs. (Examples of this are Common’s “Southside” and West’s aptly titled “Homecoming.”) In fact, on Black on Both Sides he not only has “Habitat” but also “Brooklyn,” in which he pays homage to his borough and to the day-to-day occurrences on the street. “Brooklyn” starts out with a few lines taken from the song “Under the Bridge” by The Red Hot Chili Peppers, but in reference to his neighborhood. The sentiments conveyed in those first few lines resonate with the theme of “Habitat”: “Sometimes I feel like I don’t have a partner, sometimes I feel like my only friend, is the city I live in, it’s beautiful Brooklyn.” This emphasizes a cross-genre trend of calling out one’s hometown (city).

“Habitat” starts with the chorus stating, “We’ve all got to have a place where we come from, this place that we come from is called home.” (I should point out that before the chorus comes in, we can hear Mos Def singing the line, “When I think of home, I think of a place,” which comes from the song “Home,” cited earlier in this post. The musical was an adaption of L.Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz with an all-black cast. The film version of The Wiz was set in New York City.) Over the chorus we can hear Mos Def defining the word “home,” very much like you would find in a dictionary, although with a twist:

Home: a place where someone lives; a residence; the physical structure within which one lives, such as a house; a dwelling place with the social unit that occupies it; a household; an environment offering security and happiness; a valued place; a native habitat; a place where something is discovered, founded, developed, or promoted; a source; a headquarters; a home-base; of or relating to a team’s place of origin; on or into the point at which something is directed to the center of the heart.

After the definition, the speaker talks about their childhood in the city: sometimes nice, sometimes dangerous, sometimes sad. In juxtaposition to this is the fact that one of the motifs of the song is the motif of travel. Images of travel and mention of different cities pepper the bridge of the song; the protagonist seems to connect its neighborhood with other cities. The speaker talks from another location, he/she is not right now at home. However, the speaker repeats throughout the song, as if to insist, “it ain’t where you from, it’s where you at.”

By starting the song with a definition, the speaker seeks to identify what home is for him/her. Habitat, which connotes dwelling instead of a homespace, is put in juxtaposition with home. The song sets place against space, and the speaker correctly tries to take home outside of its stable, fixed location. Even though the subject begins by privileging place in the definition, he/she points out the emotional ties that people may have with the house—ultimately these ties are what make a house a home, like the saying goes. By displacing those ties form the household to urban space, the speaker is moving from place to space. The definition resonates with the OED entry for “home”: The Oxford English Dictionary (online) states that home is a physical residence, a place where someone lives, as well as the region from which one comes. However it also asserts that home is a “place of one’s…nurturing, with the conditions, circumstances, and feelings which naturally and properly attach to it, and are associated with it…a place, region, or state to which one properly belongs, in which one’s affections centre, or where one finds refuge, rest or satisfaction.” Here, the home embodies community, nurturing, and the cultural memory of the street.

Another reason why the subject of the song privileges place in this definition is because the rest of his song presents the listener the mean streets of the home: “I came up in the streets ‘round some real wild brothers…Got more than one enemy and more than one gun.” The violence and crime we see in the first section of the song constructs the city as a dangerous place. Later on the speaker claims them when he says, “Regardless where home is, son, home is mine.” The fact that the protagonist of the song knows his/her way around this dangerous place points to his/her dominance of this urban space, a dominance that holds cultural significance for the African American urban community.

Even though the environment the subject presents here is not a healthy or secure one, there is a sense of attachment to it because of having grown up there. In the next verse the protagonist goes over childhood memories: “When I think of home, my remembrance of my beginning, Laundromat helping ma fold the bed linen, chillin’ in front of my building with my brother.” The personal development on the streets is juxtaposed with the development within the actual household, but neither one nor the other is given predominance. The circumstances the speaker has faced and the racial politics witnessed at work in this neighborhood (“funeral homes packed with only dark bodies”) have influenced his/her outlook on life. Murray Forman, in The Hood Comes First: Race, Space, and Place in Rap and Hip-Hop argues, “members of the hip-hop culture articulate notions of subjective and collective identities, urban experience, racial consciousness, and spatially structured patterns of power” (xviii). Home is not only an empty location that one inhabits; rather, where one lives is the intersection of so many other spaces and identities, but from this location the speaker has learned how to navigate the urban space.

The protagonist of “Habitat” does not romanticize the pain and struggle taking place on the streets of Bushwick, like other hip-hop artists do. Regarding the ghetto Michael Eric Dyson argues in an interview with Meta Du Ewa Jones, “A lot of people in the ghetto are trying to get the hell up out of there. They don’t want to romanticize it. So it’s not the ghetto that’s being romanticized—its physical geography—so much as the intellectual attachment and intimacy that it breeds, a bond established with those who are fellow sufferers and fellow strugglers who long for an exit from its horrible limits” (Callaloo 29.3, 2006; 794). The speaker shows the social relationships that intersect on the city streets, and the connections that arise from those interactions. Those connections become significant, for when the protagonist travels around the world, they keep him/her grounded as seen in the last verses of the song: “we’ve traveled this big earth as we roam….it ain’t where you from, it’s were you at, it’s where you hang your hat.” No matter where the speaker may be located, home can be retrieved for comfort and solace (embodied in the phrase “it’s where you hang your hat.”)

, via Wikimedia Commons”]Mos Def is positing here the home and the city streets as an urban “[site] of significance.”(Forman xix). Through his experiences on the streets in Brooklyn he has constructed a new site of knowledge of oneself and one’s community for those who live in that area. He has taken the ghetto, commonly conceived as a site of extreme poverty and crime, and elevated in the song to a much more noble location: home. At the same time he has complicated the idea of home; to what point can a person hold a neighborhood in high esteem when you are not sleeping “cause the nights ain’t peace, it’s more war”? However this attempt to redefine the streets of Brooklyn as home is part of a larger attempt within hip-hop to create identity within urban space.

Part of why I am writing on representations of urban space in hip-hop (particularly representations of urban space as home) is because I believe that our listening practices are part of how we construct our identities. That’s one venue that I’d like to explore further in my paper: listening practices. I also want to talk more about how class comes to play in these representations. From what I can gather Mos Def comes from a working-class family, but Common and Kanye West do not. In fact, Common and Kanye West both had one parent with a PhD and that worked in education.

It’s not “just” music, folks.

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