I Like the Way You Rhyme, Boy: Hip Hop Sensibility and Racial Trauma in Django Unchained
Welcome to week two 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 week one of the forum, click here. And now, put your hands together for Regina Bradley!–JSA
I’m most haunted by a scene in the film Django Unchained (2012) where a slave and former mandingo fighter is torn to bits by dogs offscreen. After seeing the dogs begin to maim the slave, the scene rapidly cuts away to former slave and bounty hunter Django’s expression (played by Jamie Foxx) while the man hollers in pain amidst the growl of dogs in the background. The scene’s grisliness was not situated within Quentin Tarantino’s signature visual violence, but in its sound. Sound better relayed the violence imposed upon the man’s body, signifying the unavailability of literal or visual discourse to speak to the racial trauma black bodies continuously face.
Tarantino’s use of sound in this scene and the rest of the film capitalizes on an intriguing alternative to investigating racial trauma narratives in our current popular imagination. I know folks are tired of hearing about Django Unchained, but hear me out. Er, hear Quentin Tarantino out. No, I’m not talking about interviews or dribble about how he was a slave in his last life or two but rather the way he manipulates music to present a soudscape where revenge fantasies are okay. Unlike past sonic renderings of slavery like the O’Jays’ track “Ship Ahoy,” Django retraces the slave narrative in a contemporary social-cultural moment. Tarantino’s redrawing represents how postracialism provides a scapegoat for (a)historical representations of racial trauma and violence. I am most interested in the ways that the Django Unchained soundscape provides Tarantino a way to dabble in what historian and blogger Jelani Cobb calls “racial ventriloquism” by allowing him to present a sonically revisionist representation of the intersections of slave discourse, black manhood, and trauma.
If it is true that Jamie Foxx asserted that “hip hop goes hand in hand with Quentin Tarantino” then Django reflects a type of hip hop sensibility that is situated between hip hop’s commodification as the most visible form of contemporary black culture and as the most accessible form of blackness and black expression. If I had to pinpoint it, I’d suggest Tarantino’s inclusion of two rappers, Tupac Shakur and Rick Ross, within Django is no doubt a nod toward a gangsta rap sensibility that Tarantino appropriates for his slave narrative/western. Shakur’s song “Unchained” plays in the film’s trailers; Ross’s “100 Black Coffins” plays in the movie and its rolling credits. Sampling from Tupac Shakur’s music as a member of the group Outlawz reflects the vengeful, if not nihilistic, undertones of gangsta rap that run parallel to the spaghetti western aesthetic that Django is primarily framed within. Not only is Django a badass and outlaw in the sense that he is a freed slave bounty hunter roaming the South in search of his woman, but Tupac’s song contextualizes him as a gangsta badass outlaw bounty hunter who exists in the fringes of normative society. He is not the norm, but rather the exceptionally violent Negro that we as an audience root for. We want him to be violent. Violence is not only a fantasy but a privilege we want to give Django because of the violence inflicted upon him as a former slave.
“Unchained,” a mashup of James Brown’s “The Payback” and Tupac Shakur’s posthumous release “Untouchable,” sonically corresponds to these desires, using funk and the underlying association of violence in gangsta rap to provide a backdrop to cheer for Django’s violent revenge. The song utilizes sound bytes of Django and his bounty hunter partner/emancipator King Schultz (played by Christopher Waltz) interwoven with samples of “The Payback” in order to provide the context of why Django becomes unchained and displaced from the traditional impositions of violence seen in slave narratives.
A reflection of hip hop in terms of production – sampling and blending to create a unique new sound – “Unchained” also provides its listeners with a bridge between a (revisionist) slave narrative and contemporary racial violence. As the song opens, a prominent electric guitar strums to remind the listener of its western generic context but gives way to an emphatic crescendo of the horns that introduce “The Payback.” The loudness of the horns signifies the arrival of something great–Django’s arrival. The horns demand the listener’s attention. James Brown sings “sold me out, for chump change. . .told me that they, had it all arranged” sets up Django’s literal and sonic “emancipation,” correlating “sold me out” to being sold as a slave. A sound byte of King Schultz shooting Django’s overseer immediately follows Brown’s verse, bridging Brown’s verse of “time to get ready for the big payback” with Django’s freedom in the film. Django’s change in stature is sonically affirmed by an adamant and hype Shakur, rhetorically asking in loop “Am I wrong ‘cause I wanna get it on til I die?!” Shakur’s voice over the infamous horns of “Payback” and Brown’s signature scream relay the urgency of Django’s mission and past traumas, emphasizing not only black men’s capability but willingness to be violent when threatened.
Another reading of this loop suggests the inherent need for black men to be violent, an essentialized (mis)conceptualization of contemporary black men within a gangsta rap aesthetic that parallels Tarantino’s (re)vengeful intentions for Django Freeman. The call and response between Shakur and the sound byte of Foxx repeating “I love the way you die boy” loosely correlates and subverts the racial trauma that often provides the foundation for slavery discourse. Foxx’s sample comes from a scene in the film where Django has just shot and killed his former overseer. The line is an inversion of when Django previously begged for mercy for his wife Broomhilda and the overseer sneered “I like the way you beg, boy.” The triumphant rendering of Brown’s horns and the loop of Shakur, when heard in conjunction with Foxx’s sound byte, signify that Django has, indeed, got the big payback. The sound bytes of Django’s voice provides a challenge to the literal slave’s voice while the music provides a backdrop for what a slave’s revenge may sound like, subverting the racial trauma inflicted on slaves.
James Brown and Tupac Shakur reflect pivotal moments of black masculinity from soul and early renderings of commodified rap, but Rick Ross reflects a more contemporary moment of black masculinity and violence within hip hop as a multicultural space. It is significant that Django includes this moment of hip hop because it similarly frames the haziness of racial politics that contextualizes the film. Ross’s “100 Black Coffins” showcases a gruff Rick Ross spitting bars about violent repercussions and avenging himself and slave women:
The track reflects a sonic representation of the American South as a site of racial trauma as seen in the American popular imagination. There is a minute and, if unaware of the film’s homage, a quickly fleeting understanding of the black coffin as representative of the original Django’s coffin that he carried around with him as a reminder of his traumatic experience and need for revenge. The sonic feel of this track is overtly masculine, consisting of Ross’s signature grunt, a lone whistle, a wailing male chorus, and hard-hitting percussion. Ross’s demands for black coffins, black pastors, and black bibles against a sonic backdrop of wails and an unsettling bell toll inflict a similarly violent Southern cultural soundscape.
Furthermore, the understanding of blackness as pathological due to the trauma blacks experience, frames Ross’s narrative as parallel to Django’s (if he were a rapper). I’m particularly struck by “100 Black Coffins” for two reasons: Rick Ross’s beat (he never picks a lame one) and Ross’ call and response with himself. Furthermore, the urgency and depth that Ross presents in his background ad libs is a haunting reflection of black (slave) men’s inability to avenge and protect their families and themselves. Ross’ solo call and response signifies a coping mechanism for the solitary existence many slaves faced when disconnected from loved ones. Ross seamlessly interchanges ahistorical images and hip hop memes against a sonic backdrop that reflects the use of sound as a usefully ahistorical space where a ‘mash-up’ of blacks’ past and present can collide. Ross talking about slinging drugs from the block extends to blacks being sold on a slave block without a question of how the two correlate. This is undoubtedly problematic but, within the context of Django as a revenge fantasy film, is acceptable because it is part of the performance of a pseudo-slave narrative.
Idealistically, critically engaging Django as a sonic discourse could provide bridges to similarly violent – yet very real – representations of sonic violence in the popular imagination like Trayvon Martin’s 911 tapes and the recent murder of Jordan Davis. It is also important to point out the existence of nonmusical cues of silence and screaming presented by Kerry Washington’s character, Broomhilda, and what they suggest about the treatment of (slave) women’s narratives and agency in a sonic space, an issue that the two hip hop tracks do not broach. Overall, however, Django pushes the envelope sonically and visually in reference to sonic borders of blackness and the usefulness of the sound of racial trauma to contextualizing black masculinity, provoking a complicated question: in what ways does music blur contemporary and historical black discourses, creating a hazy representation of not only what blackness does, but what black pathology sounds like?
R.N. Bradley is a PhD candidate in African American Literature at Florida State University and a regular writer for Sounding Out!
Death Wish Mixtape: Sounding Trayvon Martin’s Death
“Many men wish death up on me/ blood in my eye dog and I can’t see/ I’m trying to be what I’m destined to be/ and niggas tryna take my life away” –50 Cent, “Many Men (Death Wish)”
After hearing about the murder of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed teenager who was shot to death by George Zimmerman in a gated community in Sanford, Florida on February 26, 2012, I grappled with the urge to grab my godsons, nephews, cousins, brothers, and husband and never let go. I grappled with the Du Boisian question of the color-line, redressing it to consider “what does it feel like to be not only a problem but a target?” With these thoughts in my mind, I especially grappled with listening to the audio records of the 911 calls documenting the death of Trayvon Martin, just released late Friday March 16thby the Sanford police department.
I have mixed reasoning as to why I listened to the tapes. Part of me was just being nosy, but there was a deeper, far reaching curiosity stemming from my southern roots. As a Georgia girl, I was raised by Georgia men. My grandfather vividly recounted horrific stories of lynchings and beatings that happened “at the hands of persons unknown.” My mindset, like that of many, shifted to thinking about Trayvon’s death as a lynching. These tapes gave sonic urgency to a historically silent crime. In a word, Trayvon’s desperate screams gave voice to the countless men and women before him who died at the hands of white vigilantism.
As I listened to the distraught callers—and Trayvon’s final screams and pleas for his life—my mind became a mosh pit of emotions. Pissed, my mental playlist shuffled to 50 Cent’s “Many Men (Death Wish).”
I imagine Trayvon walking as the haunting piano and strings at the start of “Many Men” accompany his steps. He anxiously questions Zimmerman– “Why are you following me?” – in a similarly anxious way as 50 Cent can be heard asking “what’s taking homie so long, son?” and the shot rings out. As Trayvon screams and falls, the hard hitting boom fills the silent void. His lifeless body lays face down in the dirt, a lone piano softly signifying vulnerability as 50 Cent’s chorus starts: “many men wish death upon me/blood in my eye dog and I can’t see/I’m trying to be what I’m destined to be/and niggas tryna take my life away.” Situating Trayvon Martin’s final moments in a song by 50 Cent is discomforting, yet speaks to the reality and imaginative scripts of black masculinity as violent. The physical gunshot to Martin’s chest echoes the allegorical shots heard in the “Many Men” track and those in songs like Notorious B.I.G.’s “Who Shot Ya,” as another example, simultaneously blur and re-enforce black death as fantasy and normative. The 911 calls documenting Trayvon Martin’s death heard in concert with 50 Cent’s song sonically reify (gun) violence as a dominant discourse of black male identity. Indeed, Trayvon, I know who shot ya and gave you a death wish. I cannot, however, understand why.
The sonic surveillance of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman’s run-in—documented by the numerous accounts of neighbors who heard something but did not go outside—presents a juxtaposition of expected black male identity with the vulnerability of a horrified child forced into a criminalized space of black masculinity. In Zimmerman’s 911 call–listen via the Huffington Post here–he nonchalantly and at time heavily sighs about Martin’s blackness and its associated threat – “he’s black,” “he looks suspicious,” “he’s up to no good.” The passivity of Zimmerman’s voice reflects his bridging of (young) black masculinity as threatening. The panicked callers’ voices, however, represent reprieve and reinstate Trayvon’s humanity. The Trayvon Martin 911 recordings, then, are a mixtape of his final moments, sampling the voices of the various callers to construct Trayvon’s fatal narrative. Ultimately, the callers give voice to the vulnerabilities that Trayvon was deemed unable to evoke or possess by default as a black male.
I use the word “mixtape” here to argue that the frequencies of trauma in which the (white) listener situates Trayvon Martin’s death must be heard within a larger understanding of sound as a commodified and racialized space. Ultimately, the recordings of Trayvon’s death are a sonic reflection of a long history of white America’s treatment of black bodies as capital. In negotiating the black (male) body as a commodity – which is historically and culturally significant – sounding the black male body as a commodity contextualizes this moment of expected black masculine performance for nonblack listeners. It needs to be noted how pathological black masculinity is profitable and mutually invested in by black men and white consumers alike. Briefly referring back to 50 Cent, he performs and is validated by the violence his narrative possesses. He knowingly invests in the exaggeration of his experience – he really was shot – and builds his image upon that paranoia. In In the Break, Fred Moten discusses the sonic commodification of blackness as “not what the commodity says but that the commodity says or, more properly, that commodity in its ability to say, must be made to say” (9). Situating black rappers’ narratives and, extensively, black men’s narratives as a commodity speaks to how the ambiguity of such narratives relegate blackness to a position of profitable, essentialized discourse. Moten suggests sounding blackness as a commodity is an effort to address these ambiguities, linking the privilege of speaking and constructing black (masculine) narrative, not content, as culturally and capitalistically recognizable and significant.
Trayvon’s political agency is invested in the violence placed upon his body by public scrutiny as a black man before there is any vulnerability as a child. Thrust instead into the position of ‘suspicious’ black man in a predominately white middle-class gated community, Trayvon the child bears the public scripts of expected black masculine performance, which are both visual and sonic. These expectations of popular culture and public opinion distort Trayvon’s sonic imprint, rendering him unable to vocalize and physically relay his desperate need for help.
As Mark Anthony Neal points out in a his March 19th New Black Man post “Hearing Trayvon Die” linking hearing Trayvon Martin’s death to a scene of a grieving Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright) from the 2008 film Cadillac Records, in which Waters’s pain is heard but not seen: “part of the reason that Jeffrey Wright’s howling had to be experienced off screen is that we have little understanding of Black males, as vulnerable, in pain, under duress, in terror and confronting death.” The impact of the lack Neal describes emphasizes the necessity for a sonic imposition of such vulnerabilities. In this case, the agency of this need is heightened by the audience being forced to listen to Trayvon’s frantic screams for help on tapes, thus humanizing him before racializing his body.
Yet it is Trayvon’s alleged screams – which I undoubtedly believe ARE his screams– that also sonically invoke his humanity. On the recording, heart-wrenching screams for help are silenced by the forceful pop of a gunshot, the silence signifying multi-layered historical and cultural indicator of Trayvon’s worth as a black boy in American society. Trayvon’s screams vocalize the agonizing silent demise of the murdered black boys before him. . .Oscar Grant. . .Amadou Diallo. . .Emmett Till. His screams are an echo of Frederick Douglass’s Aunt Hester’s screams, recorded in his 1845 Narrative, acknowledgement of the cruelty and continued viability of longstanding—even foundational—racial prejudice and violence that exists within the contemporary ‘postracial’ American agenda.
Moreover, Trayvon’s scream also concisely signifiy the ongoing “upheaval” and chaotic existence of black men that Moten suggests “pressures the assumption of the equivalence of personhood and subjectivity” (1). Trayvon’s screams amplify a tragic dimension of what I theorize as “sonic cool pose,” where black masculinity is only cool if accompanied – instrumentally, lyrically, and otherwise – with violence. In this regard, the sonic signifiers that mark death—like the gunshots and screams that introduce 50 Cent’s “Many Men,” for example—are Trayvon’s. Both built upon the traumatic condition frequently faced by men and boys of color, Trayvon and 50 Cent’s lived experiences can be heard as sonically interchangeable despite obvious differences in class position. Through sound and the American popular imagination, black manhood is virulently fluid. There is a universal, stereotypical understanding that black masculinity resorts to identical markers of lived experience. This awareness is especially heightened and dominant in sound, where 50 Cent’s shooting on the corner parallels Trayvon’s shooting in a gated townhome community.
The release of the 911 audio of Trayvon Martin’s death is a powerful intervention in maneuvering black masculinity and violence in American (popular) culture. There is a delicate and simultaneous reading of the recordings as a sonic realization of black masculine violence and a fetishizing of a violated black male body. The sounds they contain amplify a continued American investment and interest in the black pathological narrative while doubly intervening as an alternative reading of such negotiations of black manhood. Whether sounded across a courtyard in a gated suburban neighborhood in Sanford, Florida, or on the streets of South Jamaica, Queens—or in the isolation booth in a recording studio—these frantic and desperate screams are sonic imprints of his social-cultural relevance. They may bleed into one another, but they won’t fade away.
R.N. Bradley is a PhD candidate in African American Literature at Florida State University. She writes about African American literature, race and pop culture, Hip Hop, and her own awesomeness. She earned her BA in English from the Unsinkable Albany State University (GA) and a MA in African American and African Diaspora Studies from Indiana University Bloomington. Her dissertation project looks at negotiations of white hegemonic masculinity and race consciousness in 21st century African American literature and popular culture. You can read her work atAllHipHop, Newsone, TheLoop21, or her monthly column “The Race to Post” over atPopMatters. Scholar by day, unapologetic Down South Georgia Girl 24/7/365. Catch up with her awesomeness via twitter:@redclayscholar and her blog Red Clay Scholar (http://redclayscholar.blogspot.com).