Critical intimacies: hip hop as queer feminist pedagogy | Jessica N. Pabón & Shanté Paradigm Smalls
Sitting in La MaMa's Ellen Stewart Theatre, we listened carefully, watched closely, responded vocally, and were ultimately mesmerized by the participants at the “Women of the 5th Element”1 performing at the first American Human Beatboxing Festival organized by beatrhymer Kid Lucky in May 2011. In those two hours, multiple cisgendered female beatboxers owned the space and commanded our affections with their stage presence and artistry; it was clear that there was something special happening. The utopian feeling collectively produced in a space that explicitly “flipped the scene” putting “ladies first,” marked and embodied the desire for hip hop spaces where bodies that do not fit the prototype—the cisgendered Black and/or Latino male rapper—take center stage. The bass-heavy beats and smooth melodies of the beatboxers lifted the audience slightly above the present moment and into what Josh Kun (2005, 2) calls an audiotopia: a space in which “music functions like a possible utopia for the listener, [where] music is not only experienced as sound that goes into our ears and vibrates through our bones,” but becomes a “space that we can enter into, move around in, inhabit, be safe in, [and] learn from.” Indeed, a year later, as we presented “: Performing Subjectivity through Beatboxing” at the the desire to hear our queer feminist analyses of what happened in that performance space was palpable. The conference audience was enthusiastically receptive to our queer feminist interventions, plying us with questions, suggestions, and desires for more methods of extending and expanding hip hop analysis. After that ecstatic moment, we wondered what we could generate as a “community” if we invited an emerging class of hip hop scholars to contribute to a special issue. What could we create if hip hop's feminist and queer happenings, theories, individuals, and communities were given the theoretical mic?
As a natural extension from our individual scholarship (Jessica's work on women and graffiti subculture, and Shanté's work on queer aesthetics and hip hop performance), “All Hail the Queenz: A Queer Feminist Recalibration of Hip Hop Scholarship” underscores hip hop culture's multiplicity by offering a collection of works by scholars using, or influenced by, a queer feminist performance studies approach to hip hop cultural performance and production. For us, “feminist,” “queer,” and “hip hop” are critical sites and methods of inquiry aimed at exposing and deconstructing intersectional structures of oppression: “feminist” denotes a way of being, doing, and thinking that is specifically about working toward social justice and political equality2 and away from heterosexist and patriarchal oppression; “queer” functions as a material and intellectual imperative that calls attention to the nonnormative subjectivities performed in and through hip hop—campy, raunchy, and illegible identity formations challenge readers to re-think and re-engage the performative effects of bodies that transgress against state-and socially mandated racial and sexual norms; and “hip hop”—represented here through B-girling, Waacking/Punking, graffiti writing, and emceeing/singing—is a cultural practice rooted in late 1960s/early 1970s Black and Latino communities in NYC, a rhizomatic deployment of aesthetic work and play, which flourishes within approved labor economies and alternative, underground, illegal economies transnationally.
The response to our call for papers was overwhelmingly positive, and while we could not fit each worthy essay into this particular issue we are heartened by the amount of scholarly attention this area is currently receiving. While our issue contains thoughtful, powerful, and field-shifting essays, our hope is that what we present here encourages and provokes other hip hop scholars, students, practitioners, and enthusiasts. There is still much work to be done—both critical and performative—on topics ranging from subject (digital culture, festivals) and identity (dis/ability, trans*) to genre (deejaying, graffiti, fashion) and geography (non-US-centric hip hop forms, artists, communities).
At the same time that this issue was in production, a special issue of Palimpsest: A Journal on Women, Gender, and the Black International entitled “The Queerness of Hip Hop/The Hip Hop of Queerness,” edited by C. Riley Snorton (2013), was published. We were both presenters at the symposium Snorton and Scott Poulson-Bryant organized at Harvard University in September 2012 from which that special issue emerged, and are deeply committed to the stated project of exploring the relationships between hip hop studies and queer studies. The publication of two special issues on the concomitant relationship of hip hop and queerness within months of each other demonstrates not simply the state of “the field,” but also how the field(s') laborers—academics, scholars, artists, and activists—centralize their intellectual and material practices through the push for the mash-up between supposedly antagonistic and antipathic modes of study and being: hip hop and queer, hip hop and feminism. Importantly, while feminists have been some of hip hop's most notorious critics (hooks 1994, 1996; Rose 1994, 2008; Morgan 1999; Rivera 2003; Perry 2004; Pough 2004; Collins 2005, 2006; Neal 2006, 2013; Ikard 2007), Women & Performance and Palimpsest are both scholarly journals working at the intersection of race, gender, and sex (among other sites)—that these intellectual spaces have become “homes” for scholarship exploring queer, feminist, and hip hop practices and pedagogies is noteworthy.3 It seems clear that something special is happening.
The increase in knowledge production attuned to these desires has the potential to radically alter how scholars teach hip hop, how students learn about hip hop, how practitioners embody and think about their expressive practices, and how society at large values hip hop as not just an aesthetic practice, but a social and political one.4 It was, and is, our hope that this “something special” would, and will, continue to manifest through the production and consumption of “All Hail the Queenz.” Mainstream hip hop is overwhelmingly occupied by an archetypical cisgendered Black and/or Latino male rapper from the US. Mainstream feminism and queerness, like hip hop, also have their “proper” bodies, mostly white cisgendered and middle/upper class. We wanted to re-center feminist and queer critiques and female and queer performance in order to re-calibrate hip hop's center. Likewise, we wanted to bring hip hop culture to the center of feminist and queer critique. The essays in this special issue (individually and cumulatively), challenge us to seize the momentum building around hip hop scholarship in a way that does not neglect to consider the nuanced negotiations women, girls, and queer people develop as hip hop artists, critics, and consumers. The authors disrupt the disciplinary boundaries enclosing “feminism,” “hip hop,” and “queer”—each with their own implicit and problematic normative center—as discrete sites of inquiry and analytical methodology. We understand feminist, hip hop, and queer cultures as, in Stuart Hall's words, “[c]ultures, conceived not as separate ‘ways of life’, but as ‘ways of struggle’, [which] constantly intersect,” and, with Hall, we contend that “the pertinent cultural struggles arise at the points of intersection.”5Contemporary feminist, hip hop, and queer cultures are forms of living and struggle that came to be in a similar post-Civil Rights moment and their expressions have been immensely influenced by popular discourse on sex, morality, obscenity, and propriety. These interdisciplinary authors write about hip hop subjects and subjectivities as complex, porous, and generative spaces that employ the contradictions and conflicts that often arise around feminist and queer discourse in popular culture. Instead of understanding hip hop as incompatible with feminism and queerness and vice versa, this issue signals and responds to the generational shift that has taken place among scholars who have been influenced by all three. In other words, we are not asking “what if” hip hop was the “proper” subject of feminist and queer critique (or vice versa)—we are claiming the critical intimacy between hip hop, feminist, and queer that exists for many feminists of color (queer or not) who are hip hop heads (knowledgeable fans).
Academics were not the first to conceive of this model, but we benefit from the work artists, public thinkers, and other cultural workers have done. Joan Morgan's foundational Third Wave black feminist book When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: A Hip-Hop Feminist Breaks it Down (1999) was the first, in popular or scholarly press, to address the conundrum of young women of color who were both ardent fans of hip hop and dedicated to feminist politics and living. In fact, she coined the term “hip hop feminist” to denote a post-Civil Rights generation of black women who are invested in exploring their sexuality, subjectivity, and finding language that can help them “explore […] things that were in the gray […] that gray is very much represented in hip-hop.”6Hip hop, too, especially its music, has been revitalized and reformed by queer artists making music (DeepDickollective, Phat Family, Le1f, Angel Haze, Invincible, Big Freedia) and films (Pick Up the Mic, 2005) which articulate the possibilities of when “queer” meets “hip hop.” The essays offered here harness the power of the “grays,” of popular culture's queerness—the oddities, excesses, and multiplicities—to analyze how its queerness has been “straightened out” in mainstream discourse, providing alternative hip hop feminist epistemologies, pedagogies, and methodologies.
Our issue begins with a collaboration between artist and scholar in the form of an interview. Graffiti scholar Jessica N. Pabón and second-generation graffiti artist AbbyTCS (aka Abby Andrews) discuss her experiences as a graffiti writer, the cover image—Queens, from her Homegirls series (2013)—and queerness in hip hop. For Queens, Abby's influences ranged from 1980s rap legend Slick Rick to queer music icon Grace Jones to drag queens who were personal friends and family members. Her seemingly oddball assortment of aesthetic influences reworks the idea of the black queen and for Abby, “bend[s] gender” and destabilizes, ironizes and redeploys words like “bitch,” which according to Abby can “sometimes… [give] women the strength to overcome adversity.” Tracing strength as one characteristic of gender performance cultivated by Blues women in the 1920s, Imani K. Johnson's “From Blues Women to B-Girls: Performing Marginalized Femininities” challenges the notion that hip hop aesthetics related to strength (from resolve to battle rhetoric to physicality) are inherently masculine aesthetics. Referring specifically to the female-bodied performances of self-identified B-girls in breaking culture, Johnson offers a phrase for an alternative feminine gender performance: “badass femininity.” With a markedly different approach to thinking through female-bodied gender performance in hip hop, or rather femme-ininity, in “A King Named Nicki: Strategic Queerness and the Black FemmeCee” Savannah Shange examines the impulse to fully know black queer subjectivity in relationship to Minaj's refusal to be legible (to both queer and mainstream audiences). Shange analyzes the twin impulses to reject “homonorms as uniformly negative” and “conflate strategy with impersonation,” and argues that Minaj's “strategic queerness” is an ambiguous and sincere queer performance of self.
Danielle Heard argues a different strategy of disidentification in relation to gender performance in hip hop by taking on hegemonic black masculinity and the idealization of the black male body, through the figure of Cee Lo Green and his freedom project in her essay, “From Dirty South to Potty Mouth: Cee Lo Green's Black Camp Freedom Project, Or, the Profaning of an Utterly Profane Form.” Heard contends that Cee Lo deploys queer camp aesthetics to challenge the hegemony of “patriarchal, heterosexist, and ableist scripts” of the black male body in black music videos. This, Heard posits, is a strategic attempt to disidentify with both hip hop and R&B idealized masculinity in favor of Cee Lo's own sexy, fat body. In “Techniques of Black Male Re/Dress: Corporeal Drag and Kinesthetic Politics in the Rebirth of Waacking/Punkin’,” Naomi Bragin traces the circulation of 1970s queer-of-color dance styles into the contemporary mainstream. Bragin deftly explores corporeal drag, a playful queer strategy with which performers engage to experience movement anew through a sensate process. Bragin clarifies that the “black queer kinesthetics of Waacking/Punkin’ [dance] style” is an efficacious modality for performing corporeal drag. Bragin pushes the elastic bounds of hip hop performance as she thinks through the political effects of genre and gender crossing and trespass. Next, we return to Nicki Minaj in Uri McMillan's examination of what he terms nicki-aesthetics. In his essay “Nicki-Aesthetics: The Camp Performance of Nicki Minaj,” McMillan posits nicki-aesthetics as a manner in which Minaj, as its central figure, makes way for the alignment of black and camp, rather than them functioning as antinomies. This also generates a productive frisson between hip hop and camp. In this way, McMillan demonstrates how nicki-aesthetics intervenes in both the racialized and gendered rigidity of camp and the racial and gender rigidity of hip hop authenticity.
The issue closes with an ethnographic account, which specifically highlights the potential in hip hop as pedagogy. Ultimately, the labor we are engaged in here as hip hop scholars comes down to the two questions: what can hip hop teach us, and what can we teach through a queer feminist perspective on hip hop? Jillian Hernandez specifically responds to these questions in “Carnal Teachings: Raunch Aesthetics as Queer Feminist Pedagogies in the Hip Hop of Yo Majesty and Shunda K” by narrating moments from her work with queer youth of color in Miami. Hernandez demonstrates how considering the raunch aesthetics in hip hop performances can be an effective tool for raising the consciousness of “subjects who are marginalized by gender, sexuality, race, and class,” for “subjects whose futures are far from secure.” Hernandez shows us how to put hip hop to work in the service of disenfranchised communities who consume and contribute to the culture, by moving beyond “potential” and proving its material efficacy in the lives of the queer youth in her classroom.
As scholars and artists invested in hip hop culture and performance, we must continue to shape our interdisciplinary field in dialogue with queer and feminist perspectives, always attuned to the necessity of pressuring essentialized ideologies, recalibrating our genealogies, and generating materialist pedagogies. Though there are myriad justified considerations around material prosperity and the legacies of theft in the entertainment industry related to hip hop artists and their work, we call for a plethora of hip hop genealogies equally attendant to gender and sexuality as they are of class, nation, and ethnicity, which demonstrate the richness and variety of those who make, teach, and live hip hop. Our utopic, audiotopic vision frames the hip hop audience member and artist as critical consumer and producer – those who are invested in what hip hop does can make space in places heretofore foreclosed. We are not there yet, but for now we acknowledge the power of the statement: “Queer girls doing hip hop is a re-vo-lu-tion-ary acccctttt!”7 Let the revolution flourish.
Jessica would like to recognize the generous research support provided by New York University Abu Dhabi, and express her deep adoration for her co-editor, colleague, and friend Shanté Paradigm Smalls.
Shanté thanks her departments at Davidson College and the University of New Mexico for their research support. Big and enthusiastic shout-outs to her partner in crime, fun, and scholarship, Jessica N. Pabón.
We'd both like to thank Kid Lucky, the performers and audience at the “Women of the 5th Element” event, Gelsey Bell, Summer Kim Lee, the peer reviewers, the special issue authors, and the editorial board of Women & Performance.
In loving memory of José Esteban Muñoz (1967–2013), our teacher, mentor, and friend.
1. Our panel, “Women of the 5th Element: Performing Subjectivity through Beatboxing,” was moderated by Kid Lucky (organizer of the festival). Smalls presented “‘Make the Music with your Mouth’: Sonic Subjectivity and Post-Modern Identity Formations in Beatboxing,” Gelsey Bell presented “Beatboxing from the Box: Vocality, Femininity, and Embodied Musicality,” and Pabón presented “Spitting like a ‘Woman’: Gender Performance in the Art of Beatboxing.” All three papers are under revision for publication elsewhere.
2. The editors disagreed about the efficacy and usage of “equality” but agreed to disagree and include the term in our introduction. For more on the trouble with equality, see http://www.againsteqaulity.com.
3. We'd be remiss to exclude a mention of the 2008 special issue “Representin’: Women, Hip-Hop, and Popular Music,” edited by Janell Hobson and Dianne Bartlow published in Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism.
4. Especially now with a minor in hip hop studies offered at the University of Arizona, the Nasir Jones Hip-Hop Fellowship at Harvard University for scholars and artists, and at least two academic journals dedicated to the study of hip hop.
5. Hall (1998, 451).
6. Ofori-Atta (2011).
7. Deepdickollective, “Mariposa Prelube,” BourgieBohoPostPomoAfroHomo, Sugartruck Recordings (2001).
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About the Authors
Jessica Pabón, firstname.lastname@example.org New York University, Abu Dhabi
Shante Paradigm Smalls, email@example.com Department of American Studies, University of New Mexico