Mark Anthony Neal

Pass the Mic

As scholar Tricia Rose examined in her book Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America (1994), most women rappers didn't get in the game because they saw themselves as feminist warriors – indeed, quite a few of those women consciously distanced themselves from even the perception that they might be feminist. Besides a basic desire for self expression, most female rappers where driven by the same thing that drives male rappers – they wanted to show that they could rock mic. But too often for the earliest generation of female rappers, the men and boys in ciphers weren't overly willing to pass the mic, so it's not surprising that the first commercially successful female rappers only got play by recording responses to their male peers. Twenty years after the release of Roxanne Shante's "Roxanne's Revenge" and Salt & Pepa's "Showstopper," for the most part women rappers and scholars are still struggling to be included in the cipher of hip hop culture. Taking a page from Jean Grae's Bootleg of the Bootleg EP, Gwendolyn Pough's new book Check It While I Wreck It: Black Womanhood, Hip-Hop Culture, and the Public Sphere (Northeastern University Press) is a bold attempt to grab the mic.

Though Tricia Rose's Black Noise is generally recognized as the first scholarly study of hip hop, the idea of the hip hop intellectual has largely been informed by black male scholars Michael Eric Dyson and Todd Boyd. Long before the publication of his book Holler If You Hear Me: In Search of Tupac Shakur, Dyson had established himself as the mainstream's favorite hip hop critic via books like Reflecting Black: African-American Cultural Criticism (1993) and From God to Gangsta Rap (1995). Boyd's expertise has been at mapping hip hop's influence on film and sports (he's a regular contributor to ESPN), particularly in books like Am I Black Enough For You? (1997) and the recent Young, Black, Rich, and Famous: The Rise of the NBA, The Hip Hop Invasion and the Transformation of American Culture.

Very often black women scholars and journalists were relegated to the margins of public discussions about hip hop (for example, it was only through an 11th hour intervention that Rose was included on a panel for Russell Simmons's first hip hop summit in 2001) unless of course the subject was about the culture's portrayal of women. As Pough notes "Much of the work currently being done by Black feminists and feminists on rap focuses on the sexism and misogyny of Black men rappers...the work of women rappers is being ignored." It is this tendency to ignore the narratives of women in hip hop that Pough challenges throughout Check It While I Wreck It. Pough cites a passage in Nelson George's Hip-Hop America, where he claims that hip hop has produced "no Bessie Smith, no Billie Holiday, no Aretha Franklin," arguing that if no "female artists had ever made a record, hip-hop's development would have been no different" as part of the inspiration for her book: "Those words have troubled me for some time, and I see this project as a way to correct these kinds of misguided statements. Hip-hop may be a uniquely testosterone-filled space, but to say that women have not contributed significantly to its development is false."

Pough links the ignoring and silencing of black women's voices in hip hop to larger societal issues. According to Pough, "Black women's speech and expressive culture have been limited in the public sphere due in part to circumstances...such as maintaining community, promoting Black manhood at the expense of Black womanhood, and constantly vindicating Black womanhood against misrepresentation." Pough adds that black women's voices have also been "limited because the places in which they have been allowed to thrive have been devalued." Pough's comments here challenge the conventional thinking that when black women get together in the beauty parlor or in the kitchen that it is simply a "bitch session" about trifling men and a chance to gossip.

But Pough, an avowed black feminist, also chides the feminist movement for its failure to take seriously the voices of black women in hip-hop. "Black feminism needs to be accountable to young Black women, saving their lives and widening their worldview and the choices they feel they can make" writes Pough, adding that "In order to accomplish this – in order to reach young Black women – feminism needs to come down from its ivory tower. Young black women, like it or not, are getting their life lessons from rap music." Pough's comments echo those made by Pearl Cleage a decade ago when she criticized her fellow black feminists for not being more vocal about Dr. Dre's attack on talk-show host Dee Barnes in early 1991. As Cleage wrote in her book Deals with the Devil and Other Reasons to Riot (1994), "because the noise of the world in which Dee Barnes lives and works – the world in which our teenage children go to school and fall in love and decide to have sex – is so insistently loud and irritating to our thirty-or forty-plus ears, we tune it out completely and hope it will just go away."

What makes Check It While I Wreck It such an important entry into hip hop scholarship is that Pough makes clear the ways that hip hop has not only been responsible for how the mainstream thinks about blackness, but very often the ways in which the mainstream is introduced to contemporary black femininity. According to Pough, "If Hip-Hop culture and rap music made the ghetto a recognizable entity on the U.S. landscape, the Hip-Hop cinema represented by the Boyz 'N the Hood/ghetto exploitation cinema of the 1990s made the ghetto girl a recognizable element of that landscape." Though Pough is clearly critical of these films, with their focus on the "baby mama," "hoochie" and "chickenhead" who are out to undermine black men, she notes that they "grant us a deeper understanding of the negative rap lyrics that men rappers spout about black women.."

Underlying many of the stereotypical images of women in hip hop is the idea that women pursue sexual relations with young black men, simply out of material desire – the relative financial rewards that come with being the "baby-mama" and "chickenheads." But is in the context of this line of thinking that Pough finds value in the lyrics of women like Lil' Kim and Foxy Brown. Pough writes, "The sexually explicit lyrics of these women rappers offer black women a chance to face old demons and not let the stereotypes inform or control their lives. After years of Black women being read as supersexual – or asexual, in the case of the mammy stereotype – the lyrics of these women rappers offer black women a chance to be proud of – and indeed flaunt – their sexuality.

The recent National Hip-Hop Political Convention was a bold step into the future of Hip-Hop. Gwendolyn Pough's Check It While I Wreck It: Black Womanhood, Hip-Hop Culture, and the Public Sphere proves that hip hop scholarship is marching to the same beat.

A Pillar of Soul

From the vantage point of 50 years into the future, it is perhaps incomprehensible for folk to truly understand the revolution that was Ray Charles Robinson. In a black world defined by talented-tenths and black-belt denizens, Ray Charles cut through the divide -- his third eye intact -- intuitively understanding that the Saturday night sinner was all too often the Sunday morning saved. Indeed the very foundations of Soul -- and every form of American music that has sprung from it -- were laid the moment Charles opened his mouth to sing the first note of "I Got a Woman" (1954). What Charles did was not unprecedented -- a fellow named Georgia Tom worked the reverse route, bringing those melodies that he so lovingly played behind Ma Rainey to church with him, in the process becoming Thomas A. Dorsey, the father of Gospel music. And the cats who were up in the juke-joint the night before would coyly smile, all the while praising the "lawd." But when Uncle Ray flowed the opposite way, using those same melodies and rhythms to "church" the secular world, no doubt more than a few upstanding Negroes thought it was blasphemy.

That first breakthrough, "I Got a Woman," was in fact based on "Let's Talk About Jesus," a 1951 hit for the Bells of Joy, so imagine the surprise when folks turned on their radio to find out their "Sweet Jesus" was now sweet Sally. A year later Charles took it a step further with "Hallelujah, I Love Her So" (1955). Both recordings were major hits among black audiences and very quickly made Charles the best known Rhythm and Blues artists of his era (there really wasn't even the language to call this Soul music yet). For Charles the idea of "church" had nothing to do with organized religion, per se, but everything to do with tapping into the well of black spirituality. Charles understood that black spirituality had real-world connotations, even as it was being informed by other-worldly desires. When Charles finally broke through to white audiences in 1959 with "What I'd Say" he had proved that mainstream America was ready to be "churched" and folk like Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, Johnnie Taylor, Lou Rawls and so many others who came up "church" took notice. American music has not been the same since -- a fact that was acknowledged when Charles was included among the inaugural inductees of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

And just as so many others would come to benefit from the foundation he laid -- most notably Ms. Aretha -- Charles switched up mid-stride, changing record labels (from Atlantic to ABC-Paramount) and venturing into undiscovered Country (literally) and ultimately conquering the terrain, then known as C&W (Country and Western music). And of course some would say that Brother Ray had sold out, but you have to sit down and hear those songs. First it was Hoagy Carmichael's "Georgia on My Mind" (1960) -- a song that sentimentally aches for the "Old South" just as Civil Rights marchers were trying to rip the South a new one, and damn if it's not like listening to the Soul of black folk. Twenty years later, the state of Georgia named Charles' version the official state song. Two years later Charles is singing songs like "I Can't Stop Loving You" (his first song to top the pop and R&B charts) and "You Don't Know Me" (both from an album called Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music), making it apparent that Brother Ray wasn't selling out, but selling Soul -- humanizing a nation that had for so long dehumanized black folk. By the time Charles records his version of the Southern favorite "You Are My Sunshine" (for volume two of Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music) it is clear that this is a black musical artist who had crossed-over in a way that was unprecedented.

But Charles remained rooted to the music that birthed him throughout his career. It's a sound heard clearly on tracks like "Let's Go Get Stoned" (one of the first writing credits for Ashford and Simpson), "In the Heat of the Night" (from the movie soundtrack produced by his old running partner Quincy Jones) or the funky "Booty Butt" (1970). A perfect example is his surprise appearance on stage with Aretha Franklin during her career-defining recording Live at the Filmore West. Midway through their rendition of "Spirit in the Dark" Franklin turns to Charles and offers her seat at the piano -- "Why don't you sit right here and take this from me"-- and as Charles does his thing on the electric piano, Ms. Aretha chimes "It's funky up in here" as the crowd pushes towards frenzy. It is one of those singular moments in the history of black music -- like when Coltrane and Duke went to the studio to record "In a Sentimental Mood" (1963) or when Marley and Stevie stood on stage together at Madison Square Garden in 1979 or when James Brown and Fela Kuti broke down Diasporic Funk when JB was in Nigeria in 1973 or every-time Albertina Walker, Inez Andrews and Shirley Caesar walked on-stage as the Caravans. When you realize that Franklin and Charles had a bunch of Haight-Ashbury hippies doing the soul clap, indeed it was a metaphor for the Soul that saved a nation.

And it was in singing about this nation -- "America the Beautiful" -- that Charles perhaps made his most important artistic and political statement. Charles' version of "America the Beautiful," like Marvin's "Star Spangled Banner," was never about simply celebrating the opportunities afforded to the progeny of the formerly enslaved, but about taking ownership of the ideals of American Democracy -- "Heroes proved in liberating strife" as Charles sings in that first verse -- and consistently striving to be the moral conscience of this nation (please take a bow, Rep. Barbara Lee). Ray Charles' "America the Beautiful" represents a symbolic moment for African Americans -- a moment when African Americans took control of this nation's spirit, much the same way Charles himself took ownership of our most beautiful patriotic anthem.

Be Like June

"And I Got to Thinking about the moral meaning of memory ... [A]nd what it means to forget, what it means to fail to find and preserve the connections with the dead whose lives you, or I, want or need to honor with our own."
-- June Jordan


It was a meandering Saturday afternoon -- babygirl just finally down for her all-too-short afternoon nap -- when I downloaded my latest batch of e-mail. Weekend e-mail is usually meaningless, no notes from editors, good words from respected colleagues, or queries from ambitious grad students -- the stuff that always gets me excited -- just the usual banter from the various listservs that rarely hold my attention. It was on one of those listservs that the news of June Jordan's death was forwarded to me.

Diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992, Jordan was given a 40 percent prognosis of surviving more than five years. She lived for more than a decade after her diagnosis, becoming an advocate -- on the real she had been an advocate for the voiceless, the nameless, the faceless, and the despised for more than 30 years -- for other women afflicted with the disease. The author of 28 books of poetry, fiction, and social criticism, Jordan was one of the most prolific intellectuals of her generation.

But I am sure there are many, of all races, who perused newspaper accounts of her death, with no knowledge of who this woman was ... is. In a society that believes that inane dictums embraced by American youth like "Be Like Mike" or "I Am Tiger Woods" are evidence of a color-blind, classless, genderless, and discrimination-free America, June Jordan worked as an activist tirelessly in the very trenches that Nike, Gatorade, McDonalds, Viacom and two national political parties claim in the name of commercial products even more inane than pop slogans for the miraculously athletic black men that we know on a first name basis. We are unlikely to hear any slogans in mainstream media ... Ever ... that proclaim we should "be like June."

To many in the mainstream, the very idea of a black intellectual is obscure, so it's not surprising that Jordan's death has received only nominal (usually 400 words) attention in the mainstream press. There is, of course, an all-too-long history of the invisibility of black death. The Anita Hill v. Clarence Thomas hearings overshadowed the death of Redd Foxx in 1991. The most genius of American Modernist -- Miles Davis -- was only given his due in jazz circles, though he was the very defintion of American style for more than four decades. One "witty" commentator even went as far to suggest that the Houghton family was out-of-line for their grandiose funeral arrangements for their daughter, pop singer Aaliyah (he was upset that traffic was backed up). Alluding to the lack of coverage of Miles Davis's death, bassist Foley, joked on his 1993 track "Better Not Die (N Amerika Being Black)" that the media would have paid more attention if it was "Sonny or muthafuckin' Cher" and of course Sonny Bono's funeral (he was by then in the US Congress) was covered live on CNN.

In another example, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recently ran a story about the disappearance of Alexis Patterson, who was apparently kidnapped a month before Elizabeth Smart's disappearance in Salt Lake City, but there has been little if any mainstream media coverage of Patterson's kidnapping. NBC, ABC and others have devoted more than 30 minutes of coverage to the Utah kidnapping. The intensity of the coverage of Smart immediately struck me as an effort to divert attention away from Bush Jr.'s attempt to transform the American Government via the creation of a Dept. of Homeland Defense -- black folks were of course diverted by the arrest of an accused child sex offender and R&B singer, who appears in a widely-circulated bootlegged copy of child pornography that has probably been seen by more people than those who have read at least one June Jordan book -- but I digress.

If June Jordan has been invisible to the mainstream in her death, it was not simply because she was black, but because she was a black woman, who chose to be an activist and a intellectual, in a society that seemingly has little value for black women who aren't taking off their clothes, while celebrating their "bootilicious" reality on a Viacom-owned video channel or an HBO "sex" series. How ironic is it that there is little graphic sex on the channel's Sex in the City which has no significant black female characters, yet black women are graphically featured on shows like Real Sex, the "hooker trilogy" of Hookers on the Point, Pimps Up, Hoes Down, Hookers at the Point: Five Years Later, and G-String Divas. Not surprisingly, HBO, which specializes in "groundbreaking" documentaries, passed on NO! , Aishah Shahidah Simmons' brilliantly brave and important documentary about black-on-black sexual violence (some of those folks who have trafficked in child pornography via the R. Kelly video, need to spend a few hours with Simmons's film), on the basis that it didn't have mainstream appeal.

June Jordan was committed to exposing herself -- her passions, convictions, and fears in her words, which she willfully gave to the world with the libretto "I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky," and books such as "Civil Wars, Selected Essays 1963-1980" (1996), and most recently her memoir, "Soldier: A Poet's Childhood" (1999). In her essay "Besting a Worse Case Scenario" (from "Affirmative Action," 1998), Jordan wrote defiantly about her illness: "I want my story to help to raise red flags, public temperatures, holy hell, public consciousness, blood pressure, and morale -- activist/research/victim/morale so that this soft-spoken emergency becomes the number-one-of-the-tip-of-the-tongue issue all kinds of people join to eradicate, this afternoon/tonight/Monday morning." For a decade, Jordan used her own trauma to raise question as to why nearly 50,000 woman succumb to Breast Cancer per year.

Jordan was an avowed feminist, but like Joy James's notion of black feminist "Shadow Boxers," Jordan eschewed the "feminism as simply identity politics" that so-called feminists have been able to soft-pedal in the New York Times or on the best-sellers list. Jordan instead sought "analyses of the world-wide absurdity of endangered female existence" (from the introduction to the forthcoming collection "Some of Us Did Not Die"). She openly challenges women, asking "when will we revolt against our marginalized, pseudo-maverick status and assert our majority, our indispensable-to-the-species' power -- and I do mean power: our verifiable ability to change things inside our own lives and in the lives of other folks, as well."

At the time of her death, an advanced copy of "Some of Us Did Not Die: New and Selected Essay of June Jordan" (scheduled for release in September of this year) sat in my bag, unread for close to a month. It was gonna be part of my "summer reading." Jordan of course couldn't afford simple pleasures like planning her summer reading. In a poignant moment in "Besting a Worse Case Scenario" Jordan wrote:

I do everything I possibly can every day,
I postpone nothing
I no longer procrastinate.
I give whatever I undertake all that I've got
I pay closer attention to incredible,
surrounding reasons for celebration and faith
I watch for good news.
I become hourly more aware
Of the privileges conveyed by human life ...

It has been a privilege for all those who have read Jordan's work or have known and worked with her, to have shared some part of her humanity. Jordan was of course right, when she suggested that "some of us did not die." The essay was written weeks after the 9-11 attacks, as Jordan struggled with the implications of the attacks and American response to them. Ultimately, she asserted (borrowing from Auschwitz survivor Elly Gross) that "We're Still Here / I Guess It Was Our Destiny To Live / So Let's get on with it!" For those of us still in the world, it would do us well to "Be Like June Jordan."

Mark Anthony Neal is a columnist and music critic at PopMatters, where this article originally appeared.
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