Hip-Hop, Queerness, and the Faculty Parking Lot (or Get Used to It)
Until recently, every time I drove into the faculty parking lot, security guards would come rushing out, as if inform to me that I had to park somewhere else. When they noticed the adjunct faculty sticker on my car window, they would shrink away without saying anything.
Now, I know this is a small thing. However, it became increasingly annoying as I became aware that my body was the signal for the need for such policing. Every single time I came to work, I had to think about the dearth of black faculty on campus. I began to notice how many twenty-something or twenty-something-looking white faculty we have. I also began to think about the fact that the combination of young + black signals non-faculty might also mean that the combination of young + black signals non-intellectual. In other words, I started wondering what the presence of young white faculty (as symbols of intellectual presence) means for young white students and what the absence of young black faculty means for young black students. I wanted to make my presence known and I wanted to make the idea of a young black intellectual something to take for granted. I decided to work on this project by heightening the contradiction of my body in that space, the faculty parking lot.
For a few weeks now, as I have driven into the faculty parking lot each afternoon, I have turned up the bass on my radio. Invariably, I have been playing some sort of hip-hop. For the first couple of days, the security guards jumped to their windows, only to see me smiling and waving at them from behind my faculty sticker. They tended to smile and wave back. Now they barely look; they know it's just that crazy young black faculty member whose car rolls in bumping every Tuesday and Thursday at about noon.
I continue to surprise my other faculty members, however. Just last week, a guy was peering into my window as if I couldn't see him. He looked at my face; he looked at my windshield. He turned back to my face; he turned back to my windshield. He was perplexed. I was immensely happy. What's that old saying? We're here. We're queer. Get used to it. A small victory.
But I've been thinking about what, exactly, makes me so happy with this small act. It's not just that I've made people become aware that I really am a teacher and I really am black and I really am just like those other Blacks. What makes me happy is also something about the choice of music. I'm not playing any old black music, I'm playing hip-hop. I'm not just turning up the volume, I'm turning up the bass. I've been thinking about the way I've been using the music not just as a symbol of my blackness and youth, but also as a symbol of my power.
One of the things I have always liked about hip-hop is its hardness. My playing a music that can be thought of as hard (and big) becomes a way to counteract whatever seems soft (or small) about me or my position--my size, my color, my gender, my pre-Ph.D. status, or my adjunct status.
This is the long way around the bush. (What would be the short way, I wonder?) I've said all this to say that recently I've been thinking about myself and my enjoyment and use of hip-hop in the context of Deep Dickollective.
Deep Dickollective (aka Deep Dic aka D/DC) is a hip-hop group that self-defines as "bourgiebohopostpomoafrohomo". Members have mc names like "25percenter", "pointfivefag", "lightskindid", and "g-minus". (g-minus is not pictured.) I am a big fan and not just because I get a shout out on the album, "not that de/EP".
I like that they are black and queer and out and claiming the right to speak to and through black popular forms. I like that they are speaking to and through black forms specific to our generation. I also like that they claim a black creative lineage. Witness the work being done by the following two quotes on their webpage [http://www.deep-dickollective.com/]:
"If the Last Poets were lesbians, that would be us."
This is the way pointfivefag describes D/DC's style. Let's take a moment to imagine Gil Scott Heron as a lesbian.
Now try Umar Bin Hassan.
I'm finding it a bit difficult. But when I think about D/DC, I can almost see it. I like where this description takes my mind. More impressive to me, though, is the recontextualization of an idea expressed in more mainstream hip-hop on their webpage:
"In a circle of faggots your name is mentioned" - Common
When I heard those words on Common's album Like Water for Chocolate, they were hurtful. I remember getting home from the record store, listening to the cd before going out to dinner. Keith and I were standing in front of the stereo by the door with our coats on. At one point, the music went low and the words, "In a circle of faggots your name is mentioned" came through clearly. At that moment, Keith cut off the stereo and cut out the lights and we walked out the door. We didn't really talk about it and I haven't really listened to the album since.
The problem is one of participating in the enjoyment of an artwork that also violates you. I started but refused to say that it is a problem of participating in the enjoyment of an artform that violates you. While many would argue that hip-hop is, in its nature, misogynist and homophobic, I would argue that misogyny and homophobia are not at the essence of hip-hop. I would argue that these things are present in hip hop to the extent that they are present in society. I don’t say this to excuse hip hop artists who are misogynist or homophobic at all. I say this because understanding that hip hop is not at root misogynist or homophobic means that we can imagine our way out of these ruts.
The beautiful thing about the work that D/DC is doing is that having a quote like this on their webpage is a way of saying "We're in this discourse," you know? "We're listening." (But I guess I also like this quote because, well, because I get a shout out on the album. Hey, I thought when I read that quote, That's true. In a circle of faggots, my name is mentioned. I could finally hear these words and smile. Get the last laugh.)
I like the way they turn actual phrases from hip hop, like the one from Common, or formal elements, like the traditional hip-hop simile, on its head. What do I mean by “the traditional hip hop simile”? I mean the kind of simile which makes use of what I call double figuration. Not only does this kind of simile discuss one term as ‘like’ another term, it also turns on the fact that one of those terms is a double entendre. I’m thinking of the following simile from A-Thing-in-Itself, an mc from The Modern Hip-Hop Quartet: “I was liver than Christ was on Easter.” Here, “live” means both “not dead” and “talented”. The context of Christ’s rebirth gives added weight to our understanding of A-Thing-in-Itself’s talent.
Peep the way 25percenter makes use of this same element of hip-hop in the phrase: “Deadly like my silence.” Here the context is not 25percenter's silence. We don't necessarily know what his silence is like. Plus, he is an mc. Most of what we know of him is his voice. The context is the language from the slogan Silence=Death. By using this double figuration and referencing this slogan in this one phrase, 25percenter and D/DC show themselves to be engaging fully with the discourses of Queer and Hip-Hop cultures. By doing so, they are not only making those cultures speak to one another, they are making a space for us to think of a Queer Hip-Hop culture.
At the start of this writing, I was writing towards something about D/DC and hardness. I ended up somewhere else, but I feel the need to say something about this hardness before ending. Part of why D/DC works for me as real hip-hop is this hardness. There is a force in the tracks and in the mc's voices that drives everything home. This hardness is not just about the rhythmic sensibilities, it also affects the meaning of the rhymes.
I like this force. It's part of what I like about hip-hop. I argue that this hardness is what is at the root of hip-hop, not misogyny or homophobia. But this realization leaves me wondering something about the political possibilities of softness.
Is it a problem that the hardness of hip-hop can so easily slide into misogyny and homophobia because those things come out as hard and hip-hop is seen as a place for hardness? Can a hip-hop artist be soft? How viable a medium is hip-hop for multiple black queer male positionalities if it must be hard? And what of me in the faculty parking lot? Do I need hardness in order to be powerful? Can I be a powerful, soft presence?
Think on these things and get back to me.
Mendi Lewis Obadike