This week in my ENGL 125 course on Music and Literature we are looking at Hip Hop. I thought I would make a short song (beat, lyrics, and video) to supplement the readings and songs for the week. While it has been some 11 years since I last recorded myself rapping standard verses, I thought I would give it a go. The track is a short history lesson about some of the roots of Hip-Hop music and culture and it focuses on the four essential elements: graffiti, breaking, DJing, and emceeing. Hip Hop is an improvisational art form that draws from the long history of disenfranchised people repurposing the tools of the master to create new forms of art. I also tried my hand at creating a lyric video with clips and made the most use of the classic Hip Hop documentary Style Wars (1983), which looks at Hip Hop culture during its early days in the 1970s until the early 1980s.
I hope you enjoy it and please do feel free to share the video!
Despite these challenging times during COVID-19, I hope everyone is having a lovely day and finding moments of joy. This is the first full beat I made using the pattern sequencer (and then performing it live) on the SP-404SX. It’s hardly perfect, but it was fun to put together. The intro features my 2-year old daughter (Ella) and the vocals are from my wife (Meg). The end clip is from Ikiru (“To Live”), which is a 1952 Japanese film by the legendary director, Akira Kurosawa. Peace.
I’m currently teaching the Autobiographyof Malcolm X in a few formats, including the original text, the Spike Lee Joint, and a graphic biography rendition. It’s great to see his notions of “Black is Beautiful” (à la Steve Biko) and “By any means necessary” reach millions vis-à-vis Beyoncé’s charged Super Bowl performance. The performance, which featured dancers dressed as Black Panthers getting into the “Formation” of an X (an icon of identity, resistance, and the human right for self-identification), was a fervid Black Power anthem and a call to arms. The video for the song, “Formation,” is itself a resonant intervention into the popular imagination concerning the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and it unapologetically celebrates roots and history while disavowing white supremacy’s desire to control Black cultural narratives. It’s remarkable to see the intersection of aesthetics and politics taking place in popular music, as a nascent canon of new Black radical thinkers, activists, writers, and musicians provide the soundtrack for the current zeitgeist. Hopefully, people are listening. I leave you with a few words from X’s influential “The Ballot or the Bullet”:
“Now in speaking like this, it doesn’t mean that we’re anti-white, but it does mean we’re anti-exploitation, we’re anti-degradation, we’re anti-oppression. And if the white man doesn’t want us to be anti-him, let him stop oppressing and exploiting and degrading us. Whether we are Christians or Muslims or nationalists or agnostics or atheists, we must first learn to forget our differences. If we have differences, let us differ in the closet; when we come out in front, let us not have anything to argue about until we get finished arguing with the man.”
Check out the video for “Formation” below:
P.s. I’ve kept this post brief, largely because there are women of colour far more equipped to discuss why this video is so important. Here’s a list of “Six Beyoncé Pieces By Women of Color That You Should Read Right Now”: http://ww2.kqed.org/pop/2016/02/08/six-beyonce-pieces-by-women-of-color-that-you-should-read-right-now/
So I leave the word space open, like space is supposed to be, when I say space music.
Dedications takes various phonogrooves (from jazz, hip-hop, and spoken word, to unusual recontextualized samples) and mélanges them together to create polyvalent dedications to a host of musicians and poets. One of those dedications is to the iconic jazz figure—from Saturn—Sun Ra. Below is a quick video photo mix I made in honour of Sun Ra’s alternative views and musical space. Such alternative listening spaces become for an artist like Sun Ra, an effort to relocate himself and escape the limits of earth.
To watch pop music videos is to enter a world of contradiction. Fako Fitts, who interviewed various women on the set of hip-hop music videos, argues that “women are subjected to harsh physical scrutiny because their bodies are among the many commodities used to create the music video as an extended advertisement for the music products (songs, albums) sold by the record labels” (219). It is important to remember that ideologies of sex and misogyny, from a cultural perspective, do not appear in a cultural vacuum. bell hooks views the misogyny and sexist attitudes portrayed in gangster rap as “a reflection of the prevailing values in our society, values sustained by White supremacist capitalist patriarchy” (Outlaw Culture 135). Historically black women have had very little agency over their bodies, exemplified in the systemic raping of black women by their slave masters, to having their bodies displayed as sexually perverse (think Saartjie Baartman, aka, the “Hotentot” Venus), to pop markets where the black female body is often subsumed or appropriated in acts of minstrelsy by white pop stars.
In Outlaw Culture bell hooks examines sex and misogyny from a cultural perspective and provides examples to show that such ideologies do not appear in a cultural vacuum. hooks examines the blatant cultural appropriation and the fetishization of race that appears in Madonna’s Sex book, her videos, as well as her film Truth or Dare. Such misogyny and “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” are hardly a bygone product of 90s music videos, because as I write this post there have been thousands of responses in defense or chastisement of the highly sexualized performance by pop star Miley Cyrus at the 2013 VMAs, as well as for the overt and provocatively sexual images in her video, “Wrecking Ball.” While many of these critiques or defenses have noted the sexist and patriarchal nature of the music industry, few focused on the fetishization of race in Cyrus’s work, particularly her appropriation of twerking—a sexually provocative dance move created by black women—and her reduction of black women (who appear as sexualized props in the background of that performance), as “lewd, lascivious, and uncontrollably sexualized” (“Solidarity is for Miley Cyrus”). As an unidentified author of a piece on the blog Jezebel states, “the subsequent ignoring of the racial implications of what she did is just the latest incident in the long line of things that shows me as a black woman, that white feminism does not want me, or care to have me” (“Solidarity”).
That preamble brings us to Lily Allen’s first song/video in four years, “Hard Out Here.” The song is a not so nuanced parody of a Three-6 Mafia track (flipping “pimp” with “bitch”); Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” video; Miley Cyrus; and, well, essentially most commercial rap videos from the early 2000s and on. Allen flips Mafia’s “Hard Out Here for a Pimp” and makes it about the truncated opportunities and pressures women face to be sexy, pure, homemakers, or an uncanny combination of all three. At the centre of Allen’s fervent parody are the patriarchal forces who will do anything to sell records and control women’s bodies, as the white gatekeeper in the video asks, “How does somebody let themselves get like this?,” in reference to the (reasonable) weight Allen gained from her two pregnancies. While Lily Allen has always been one of the few mega-pop stars I admire, the video is also problematic. Allen is the only one who doesn’t have to take her clothes off, and there is certainly an element of holier-than-thou in her performance. In the video, Allen is the lone woman—the outlaw—who rejects the objectification of women’s bodies, presenting herself as the exception, problematic since she is one of the few white women in the video. Do the black women in the video not get to resist? If the song is about reclaiming ownership of one’s body, why is Allen the only one in the video who gets to do so? Regardless of these disturbing possibilities, I’m glad that Lily Allen is back in the pop-conversation, and while I still don’t have a solid opinion of the video yet, at the least, Allen continues some important conversations about women’s bodies and race appropriation in music videos. Check out the video for yourself:
Fitts, Mako. “Drop it Like It’s Hot: Culture Industry Laborers and Their Perspectives on Rap Music Video Production.” Meridians 8.1. (2008): 211-235. Project Muse. Web.
hooks, bell. Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations. New York: Routledge, 1994.