Tag Archive | Kyra Gaunt

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.”


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.”


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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Music Meant to Make You Move: Considering the Aural Kinesthetic

“Dance!” by Flickr user Clearly Ambiguous, under Creative Commons License 2.0

In the two weeks prior to my drafting this piece, the world lost Adam “MCA” Yauch, Robin GibbDonna Summer, and Chuck Brown.  In their wake they leave a profound legacy of music, yes, but of dance music particularly. MCA declared your right to party while demonstrating that white MCs aren’t always gimmicks.  The BeeGees gave you a new strut courtesy of the bounce-funky soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever.  The goddess Donna Summer seduced your ears with her orgasmic whispers, then pumped up the pulsating synthetic beats that brought the discotech from its urban centers directly to you.  And go-go’s blaze, though not as far-reaching as disco’s, grew out of Chuck Brown’s musical sensibility, and burned deep in the hearts of Chocolate City natives.  For all of these artists, moving to the music isn’t merely a possibility or inclination, but a deeply irresistible impulse.  Altogether, these artists brought music that not only called out to people to dance, but if you didn’t dance you missed something essential:  the inextricable ties between music and movement.  One acts as a key that opens up a dimension to understanding the other.

Seeing people dance to a live go-go band taught me how to appreciate their music.  When I finally heard go-go for the first time at a club in 1995, it challenged my musical sensibilities, which were more attuned to smooth R&B and jazzy Hip Hop.  By then, go-go music seemed so fast, and coupled with the multiplicity of drums that I didn’t know how to get inside of the groove.  In the midst of the bubbling fervor I stood noticeably still as the young woman next to me ripped the shirt off her sweaty body and whipped it above her head (like a flag at carnival), never once missing a beat in her frantic jumping and pumping to the live drums while wearing only her bra and a pair of jeans.  The dancing bodies of the whole club fueled my understanding, and by extension appreciation, of what go-go does.  Without them, I would have missed out on something deeper.

I am drawing your attention both to music meant to make you dance and dancing that is necessarily done to music—i.e the arena of social dance.  Julie Malnig, in Ballroom, Boogie, Shimmy Sham, Shake:  A Social & Popular Dance Reader, defines “social dancing” by “a sense of community often derive[d] less from preexisting groups brought together by shared social and cultural interests than from a community created as a result of the dancing” (4, emphasis in original).  That might include social dances that correspond to particular songs, or called and standardized steps, like the twist or the electric slide.  My focus is more broadly on a visceral, embodied, kinesthetic response to dance music in a particular social space, which is not explicitly directed by the lyrics or a set of moves but by the feel of a song as a whole.  In the Hip Hop social dances I write about, rather than a finite set of moves there are infinite possibilities for improvisational play within a particular style (like b-boying or popping) that the music draws out of the dancer.  As David F. García states in his piece on mambo titled “Embodying Music/Disciplining Dance: The Mambo Body in Havana and New York City,” “the embodied experience of sound and movement [are] merged through the body” (172).

Break Dancing en Costa Rica, 2009 by Flickr User Néstor Baltodano, under Creative Commons License 2.0

I have come to name the frame for analyzing the simultaneity of social dance and music (and sound broadly) as aural-kinesthetics.  While these words capture sound and movement separately, together I am looking to engage more than just the sensory response of moving to what one hears.  The term develops out of works by music scholars like Kyra Gaunt (The Games Black Girls Play: Learning the Ropes From Double Dutch to Hip Hop), Kodwo Eshun (More Brilliant Than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction), and Kai Fikentscher (“You Better Work!”: Underground Dance Music in New York City), who shift our orientation to music and rhythm by drawing on our kinesthetic responses to it.  Aural kinesthetics recognize that social dance practices are kinesthetic forms within the all-encompassing aurality of an environment.  I use spatial terms to acknowledge sound’s omni-directionalality, coming at you from all sides and helping to actually produce the social dance place.  In other words, the aural kinesthetic is also a kind of spatial practice (along the lines of Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space).  For example, consider how a bomba dancer orchestrates the primary bomba drummer’s rhythms within the rhythmic arena created by the second and tertiary drummers; or how loud music in street dance performances fills the immediate surroundings and bleeds out into other areas, attesting to their capacity to claim public spaces (the volume has volume).  Music in particular plays a fundamental role in establishing the conceptual performance arena that ultimately makes the physical space functional for certain dance practices.

Despite the fact that social dances necessarily have a musical component, dance is typically overdetermined by the visual, which in Western cultures we are better equipped to address.  The sound and feel of dance experiences are often overridden by the spectacle of dancing, which the following clip demonstrates. In this clip showcasing the final battle from the 2007 Freestyle Sessions in Los Angeles, the spectacle of these amazing dancers distracts you from the actual social dynamics of their battle, of which music is central.


The exchange between dancers is truncated, spliced together for dramatic effect.  You focus on the center of the cypher, lost in the visual thrill of it all.  The song they were actually dancing to is replaced by another that, though danceable, prevents us from appreciating a particular song’s nuances as well as the crowd and emcee’s involvement in the event.  Overdubbing songs that you do not have clearance for is in compliance with copyright laws that force the video’s producers to instead play songs to which they have legal access, in sacrifice of aural-kinesthetic experiences the videos attempt to capture.  Yet even in cases of the below clip where we hear the original song, the recording cannot capture the quality of the force of the music that is loud enough to feel throughout your entire body, thereby promoting a shared sensorial experience in the room.  Whether one is recording with a camera or in writing, capturing the aural-kinesthetic can be tricky.

2009 Dutch B-Boy Championships Semi-Finals between Hustle Kids and Rugged Solutions

For me, the aural-kinesthetic is useful insofar as it opens up creative space for me in writing the simultaneity of sound and movement.  Scholars like Mary Fogarty (Dance to the Drummer’s Beat: Competing Tastes in International B-Boy/B-Girl Culture) have approached the topic by distinguishing between notions of musical taste and musical competency in clarifying the contours of b-boying’s dance-music relationship.  In my own writing, I’ve tended toward storytelling and descriptive analyses.  In contrast, considerations such as those of Roland Barthes’ “The Grain of the Voice” (in Image, Music, Text) propose to expand the language on (vocal) music in general by shifting the object of analysis to create new ways of writing music, which we can extend to writing social dance.

So what is a productive approach for writing the aural-kinesthetic?  I’m not prescribing a method, but I do want to consider the possibilities of shifting the focus of analysis in such a way that it allows for the simultaneity of music and movement.  For example, there may be value in examining a gesture repeatedly made to a particular part of a song to understand what that song is doing; or examining the physical layout of a room and how that space gets used through the song that fills it.  Perhaps coming at social dance indirectly and on multiple fronts makes for a richer depiction.

For now, let’s take advantage of this digital space and collectively consider our options.  Here’s a task I hope you might take up:  post a link to a song or a video clip that makes you move.  Describe some quality of your visceral response to the song and place your thoughts in the comments section below.  Include the multiple fronts that help you to articulate your experience.  While music and dance have the capacity to “speak” in ways that verbal language cannot always reach, my hope is that a range of possibilities might get us there. or at least much closer.

Dr. Imani Kai Johnson is a Ford Dissertation Fellow, who has just completed a three year postdoctoral fellowship at NYU’s Performance Studies Department.  She received her PhD in American Studies & Ethnicity at the University of Southern California in 2009, where she wrote a dissertation titled,”Dark Matter in B-Boying Cyphers: Race and Global Connection in Hip Hop,” which considers the cultural and performative dimensions of Hip Hop dance as a global phenomenon through cyphers (dance circles), and the invisible forces of the collaborative ritual.  Dr. Johnson is currently completing a manuscript based on her dissertation.

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