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Amiri Baraka’s Blues People (1963)
“There was always a border beyond which the Negro could not go, whether musically or socially… And it was this boundary, this no man’s land, that provided the logic and beauty of his music.”
Having never been out of print since its publication in 1963, Blues People has rightfully withstood the test of time. I owe much to Baraka’s widely-read and admired text which has legitimized the study of black music as American history. Blues People traces the ways in which iterations of blues and jazz are distinctly Afro-American traditions and, furthermore, how the stages of black music are marked by the sociohistorical conditions and psychological environments. Generation hip-hop may take this central claim as a foregone conclusion—we are certainly aware that place, time and circumstances shape sound and expression—but Baraka’s text is one of the first to unwrap complex racial dynamics through musicological study. Blues People is groundbreaking in its scope, moving from the work songs of slavery, to the Negro church and its Africanist passion, to the popularization, mass transmission and co-optation of modern musical forms. Baraka reveals the inherent radicalness of African American expression through time, reminding ever-new generations of readers of their inherited black power.
In his preface to the 1999 reissue, Baraka states that he aimed to indicate a Negro body of music that had to “survive, expand, reorganize, continue and it express itself as the fragile property of a powerless and oppressed people” (ix). Baraka begins with slavery and the formation of the black American who was not considered human but property. This essential condition of non-humanity complemented the psychic shift the slave was forced to undergo, adopting the white man’s radically different Weltanschauung. For Baraka, this is the worst kind of slavery: the divorcing from a native land and the imposition of an alien philosophical system. Thus, Africans across the diaspora have “some of the most complex and complicated ideas about the world” (7). This unflinching statement captures the mood of the text—at times righteous, often mournful, and sometimes wickedly bitter, Blues People is mostly hopeful. Baraka argues that despite oppressive social climates and aggressive white cultural appropriation, African Americans have created new cultural forms, relying on innovation to remix new expressive possibilities unadulterated by white masses.
One of his most salient chapters, “Slave and Post-slave,” considers the emancipation of the slave and the decentralization of the Negro population. He explores how in this time of migration, Negroes were isolated or ghettoized from mainstream America. The nation practiced a new type of economic slavery with sharecropping and tenant farming and black people had to reckon with the “slave mentality”—the psychic adjustments made during slavery. However, no longer did the work song have to be about labor—black music began to evince a type of leisure and pleasure and an expanded since of place. Each man had his own blues and those blues are the foundation of black popular music today.
Baraka traces some of the grammatical and syntactical transfers from Africa to America in work songs and early blues, but he mostly relies on rhythmical and sonic exchanges. For instance, he shows a mastery of sound when focusing on the black tradition of “blueing the note” as it refers to the non-diatonic scale of African music. Noting the tendencies towards polyphony and contrapuntal form, Baraka shows how certain patters of stress, pitch, and improvisation have been passed on to Negroes of the New World, undergoing adaptation and reinterpretation for the modern Negro sensibility.
Deftly, Baraka maps a blues continuum, making clear the distinctions between country blues, classic blues, minstrelsy and vaudeville, ragtime, jazz, swing, bebop, progressive jazz, and soul music. He emphasizes that jazz is not a successor of blues but an original music that is concomitant with blues. In his historiography Baraka does not hold back when criticizing ragtime, swing, and progressive jazz as dilute and commodified imitations of black expression. He marks post-war America—the era of industrialism, black migration, and welfare capitalism—as a period when record companies recognized the Negro as consumer and a not-yet-exploited market. As music moved into the realm of performance and entertainment, a cultural lag, caused by social and cultural separation, developed. This cultural lag can be seen today as “underground” or subcultural forms are continually appropriated, commodified, and diluted. In reaction, new expressions form and like a pendulum, the process “swings” towards consumptive white audiences, again.
There is perhaps one singular failing, one blemish, within Blues People: the scathing skepticism and denunciation of the black middle class. Baraka sketches the mechanisms by which the separation of large groups of Negroes into the Northern Negro and the Southern Negro, exacerbated by the economic paucity of the Great Depression, created a social clime where the black middle class emerged as the moral compass of its community.  Marked as assimilationist, Baraka claims that the black middle class desired to erase their shameful history of slavery. Baraka insists that in the attempt to divorce themselves from to poor blacks or a slave past, the (rather monomythic) black middle class which emerged during the Negro Renaissance of the 20s participated in a self-conscious performance for white audiences. It seems there should be more nuance with regard to this group—certainly not every member of the “black middle class” subscribed to the same ideologies. And most certainly we cannot minimize the post-slave desire for citizenship from blacks experiencing the possibility of nationalism for the first time.

Despite this one small oversight, Blues People remains timeless because it expounds the rhythm of black cultural production which is always in flux, always in transition. “Negro music and Negro life in America were always the result of a reaction to, and an adaptation of, whatever American Negroes were given or could secure for themselves” (137). Preach Dr. Baraka, Preach.  We can extend this revelation beyond 1963 to contemporary black performances which, like their successors, dream hope and possibility from bleak social and psychic conditions. The staying power of Blues People lies in its emphasis on the innovation, beauty and power of black cultural expression despite the oppressive conditions in which it resides. Amiri Baraka will be remembered for his incredible contributions to the field: his activism within political coalitions; the creation of publishing opportunities for young avant-garde artists; the creation of spaces for specialized education; his public voicings and determination to bear witness through the decades. Thank you Brother Baraka, you will be missed.

Amiri Baraka’s Blues People (1963)

“There was always a border beyond which the Negro could not go, whether musically or socially… And it was this boundary, this no man’s land, that provided the logic and beauty of his music.”

Having never been out of print since its publication in 1963, Blues People has rightfully withstood the test of time. I owe much to Baraka’s widely-read and admired text which has legitimized the study of black music as American history. Blues People traces the ways in which iterations of blues and jazz are distinctly Afro-American traditions and, furthermore, how the stages of black music are marked by the sociohistorical conditions and psychological environments. Generation hip-hop may take this central claim as a foregone conclusion—we are certainly aware that place, time and circumstances shape sound and expression—but Baraka’s text is one of the first to unwrap complex racial dynamics through musicological study. Blues People is groundbreaking in its scope, moving from the work songs of slavery, to the Negro church and its Africanist passion, to the popularization, mass transmission and co-optation of modern musical forms. Baraka reveals the inherent radicalness of African American expression through time, reminding ever-new generations of readers of their inherited black power.

In his preface to the 1999 reissue, Baraka states that he aimed to indicate a Negro body of music that had to “survive, expand, reorganize, continue and it express itself as the fragile property of a powerless and oppressed people” (ix). Baraka begins with slavery and the formation of the black American who was not considered human but property. This essential condition of non-humanity complemented the psychic shift the slave was forced to undergo, adopting the white man’s radically different Weltanschauung. For Baraka, this is the worst kind of slavery: the divorcing from a native land and the imposition of an alien philosophical system. Thus, Africans across the diaspora have “some of the most complex and complicated ideas about the world” (7). This unflinching statement captures the mood of the text—at times righteous, often mournful, and sometimes wickedly bitter, Blues People is mostly hopeful. Baraka argues that despite oppressive social climates and aggressive white cultural appropriation, African Americans have created new cultural forms, relying on innovation to remix new expressive possibilities unadulterated by white masses.

One of his most salient chapters, “Slave and Post-slave,” considers the emancipation of the slave and the decentralization of the Negro population. He explores how in this time of migration, Negroes were isolated or ghettoized from mainstream America. The nation practiced a new type of economic slavery with sharecropping and tenant farming and black people had to reckon with the “slave mentality”—the psychic adjustments made during slavery. However, no longer did the work song have to be about labor—black music began to evince a type of leisure and pleasure and an expanded since of place. Each man had his own blues and those blues are the foundation of black popular music today.

Baraka traces some of the grammatical and syntactical transfers from Africa to America in work songs and early blues, but he mostly relies on rhythmical and sonic exchanges. For instance, he shows a mastery of sound when focusing on the black tradition of “blueing the note” as it refers to the non-diatonic scale of African music. Noting the tendencies towards polyphony and contrapuntal form, Baraka shows how certain patters of stress, pitch, and improvisation have been passed on to Negroes of the New World, undergoing adaptation and reinterpretation for the modern Negro sensibility.

Deftly, Baraka maps a blues continuum, making clear the distinctions between country blues, classic blues, minstrelsy and vaudeville, ragtime, jazz, swing, bebop, progressive jazz, and soul music. He emphasizes that jazz is not a successor of blues but an original music that is concomitant with blues. In his historiography Baraka does not hold back when criticizing ragtime, swing, and progressive jazz as dilute and commodified imitations of black expression. He marks post-war America—the era of industrialism, black migration, and welfare capitalism—as a period when record companies recognized the Negro as consumer and a not-yet-exploited market. As music moved into the realm of performance and entertainment, a cultural lag, caused by social and cultural separation, developed. This cultural lag can be seen today as “underground” or subcultural forms are continually appropriated, commodified, and diluted. In reaction, new expressions form and like a pendulum, the process “swings” towards consumptive white audiences, again.

There is perhaps one singular failing, one blemish, within Blues People: the scathing skepticism and denunciation of the black middle class. Baraka sketches the mechanisms by which the separation of large groups of Negroes into the Northern Negro and the Southern Negro, exacerbated by the economic paucity of the Great Depression, created a social clime where the black middle class emerged as the moral compass of its community.  Marked as assimilationist, Baraka claims that the black middle class desired to erase their shameful history of slavery. Baraka insists that in the attempt to divorce themselves from to poor blacks or a slave past, the (rather monomythic) black middle class which emerged during the Negro Renaissance of the 20s participated in a self-conscious performance for white audiences. It seems there should be more nuance with regard to this group—certainly not every member of the “black middle class” subscribed to the same ideologies. And most certainly we cannot minimize the post-slave desire for citizenship from blacks experiencing the possibility of nationalism for the first time.

Despite this one small oversight, Blues People remains timeless because it expounds the rhythm of black cultural production which is always in flux, always in transition. “Negro music and Negro life in America were always the result of a reaction to, and an adaptation of, whatever American Negroes were given or could secure for themselves” (137). Preach Dr. Baraka, Preach.  We can extend this revelation beyond 1963 to contemporary black performances which, like their successors, dream hope and possibility from bleak social and psychic conditions. The staying power of Blues People lies in its emphasis on the innovation, beauty and power of black cultural expression despite the oppressive conditions in which it resides. Amiri Baraka will be remembered for his incredible contributions to the field: his activism within political coalitions; the creation of publishing opportunities for young avant-garde artists; the creation of spaces for specialized education; his public voicings and determination to bear witness through the decades. Thank you Brother Baraka, you will be missed.

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afutureancient:

Here is the Sugar Sphinx #karawalker #karawalkerexperience #art #brooklyn #asubtlety #dominosugarfactory #wearehere

afutureancient:

Here is the Sugar Sphinx #karawalker #karawalkerexperience #art #brooklyn #asubtlety #dominosugarfactory #wearehere

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Black History Meets Black Music: 'Blues People' At 50

Audre Lorde, Zami: A New Spelling of my Name (A Biomythography)1982

Zami, along with other seminal works by Audre Lorde like Sister Outsider and The Black Unicorn are feminist classics that have been widely adopted in Women’s and Gender Studies curricula around the world. Declaring herself to be “Black feminist lesbian poet warrior mother,” Lorde was this and much more as she defied the dichotomizing and essentializing experience of black womanhood in post-war America.
Blending autobiography and mythology, Zami is a coming-of-age classic for awkward black girls. Growing up in New York City during the 40s and 50s, Lorde tells of slowly coming into her body and intelligence (here I think we can see early traces of “the erotic as power” as developed in Sister Outsider). I read the first half of Zami which narrates her early adolescence as a testament to language and its power. Legally blind and refusing to speak for years, Lorde’s purposeful silence can be read as an act of self-preservation, of survival on the part of a bright little black girl. This act of self-preservation is similar to Maya Angelou’s silence after sexual trauma at a young age (see I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings). Not only can trauma strip one of her most powerful instrument of expression, silence can form a protective barrier and ultimately heal wounds. What was unspoken was written as Lorde showed a natural proclivity to reading and writing. Under the fierce protection of her mother, Lorde was granted access to a privileged private education but had to battle the blatant racism of Catholic school nuns and schoolmates. How many other gifted young girls will not reach their potential because they do not have eyeglasses, or caring teachers (see @BlackGirl Dangerous’ post “The White Teachers I Wish i Never Had” on this)?
Lorde so eloquently states the common conundrum people of color experience daily, confessing that as a young woman, “I had no words for racism.” Although stories of racism cycle in the news fairly frequently, very rarely do we discuss how racism is not only the individual body committing a heinous act but a system of beliefs and policies that unfairly impact bodies of color. This is a complex idea and hard to understand, especially for youth who do not have the language for what is felt or perceived. Lorde’s biomythography highlights the need for transparent discourse around every day, mundane racisms and larger, systematic injustices that work concomitantly.
Audre Lorde’s personal story, poetry, and critical essays continue to be inspirational for young scholars who refuse to be limited. It is freeing to read how she moved with such seeming mobility, traveling to Mexico, living independently, and working from librarian to well-acknowledged author. There is not much material written about her experience with marriage and children and in her later years—this is yet another facet of Lorde’s complicated identity to consider as we continue to honor her work. Lorde also writes with vulnerability, exposing the darkest parts of her such as an abortion, a rape, and a failed polyamorous relationship in her early twenties. She would go on to publish The Cancer Journals in 1980, a collection of confessional poetry that explores her experience with breast cancer. Unabashed, bold, and wise, Lorde reminds us how to be “woman-identified-women” in a patriarchal climate.

Lastly, I’m interested in how we remember Audre Lorde. I feel as though some tend to forget that she was writing at the height of her fame during the Civil Rights Era—she not only fought against a narrow feminism but a narrow nationalism. Her parents were of Caribbean descent and she wrote fairly extensively of the Soviet Union. Her contemporaries are Ntozake Shange, Jayne Cortez, Sonia Sanchez, and June Jordan.  Together with Barbara Smith and Cherrie Moraga, she co-founded the formative Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press. We must not forget that Audre Lorde was radical. At one point in her career she left the Harlem Writer’s Guild because of its homophobia and additionally, was not associated with the Black Arts Movement. This independent spirit highlights the way in which Lorde actively lived her truth that self-definition is the individual’s right.

Audre Lorde, Zami: A New Spelling of my Name (A Biomythography)
1982

Zami, along with other seminal works by Audre Lorde like Sister Outsider and The Black Unicorn are feminist classics that have been widely adopted in Women’s and Gender Studies curricula around the world. Declaring herself to be “Black feminist lesbian poet warrior mother,” Lorde was this and much more as she defied the dichotomizing and essentializing experience of black womanhood in post-war America.

Blending autobiography and mythology, Zami is a coming-of-age classic for awkward black girls. Growing up in New York City during the 40s and 50s, Lorde tells of slowly coming into her body and intelligence (here I think we can see early traces of “the erotic as power” as developed in Sister Outsider). I read the first half of Zami which narrates her early adolescence as a testament to language and its power. Legally blind and refusing to speak for years, Lorde’s purposeful silence can be read as an act of self-preservation, of survival on the part of a bright little black girl. This act of self-preservation is similar to Maya Angelou’s silence after sexual trauma at a young age (see I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings). Not only can trauma strip one of her most powerful instrument of expression, silence can form a protective barrier and ultimately heal wounds. What was unspoken was written as Lorde showed a natural proclivity to reading and writing. Under the fierce protection of her mother, Lorde was granted access to a privileged private education but had to battle the blatant racism of Catholic school nuns and schoolmates. How many other gifted young girls will not reach their potential because they do not have eyeglasses, or caring teachers (see @BlackGirl Dangerous’ post “The White Teachers I Wish i Never Had” on this)?

Lorde so eloquently states the common conundrum people of color experience daily, confessing that as a young woman, “I had no words for racism.” Although stories of racism cycle in the news fairly frequently, very rarely do we discuss how racism is not only the individual body committing a heinous act but a system of beliefs and policies that unfairly impact bodies of color. This is a complex idea and hard to understand, especially for youth who do not have the language for what is felt or perceived. Lorde’s biomythography highlights the need for transparent discourse around every day, mundane racisms and larger, systematic injustices that work concomitantly.

Audre Lorde’s personal story, poetry, and critical essays continue to be inspirational for young scholars who refuse to be limited. It is freeing to read how she moved with such seeming mobility, traveling to Mexico, living independently, and working from librarian to well-acknowledged author. There is not much material written about her experience with marriage and children and in her later years—this is yet another facet of Lorde’s complicated identity to consider as we continue to honor her work. Lorde also writes with vulnerability, exposing the darkest parts of her such as an abortion, a rape, and a failed polyamorous relationship in her early twenties. She would go on to publish The Cancer Journals in 1980, a collection of confessional poetry that explores her experience with breast cancer. Unabashed, bold, and wise, Lorde reminds us how to be “woman-identified-women” in a patriarchal climate.

Lastly, I’m interested in how we remember Audre Lorde. I feel as though some tend to forget that she was writing at the height of her fame during the Civil Rights Era—she not only fought against a narrow feminism but a narrow nationalism. Her parents were of Caribbean descent and she wrote fairly extensively of the Soviet Union. Her contemporaries are Ntozake Shange, Jayne Cortez, Sonia Sanchez, and June Jordan.  Together with Barbara Smith and Cherrie Moraga, she co-founded the formative Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press. We must not forget that Audre Lorde was radical. At one point in her career she left the Harlem Writer’s Guild because of its homophobia and additionally, was not associated with the Black Arts Movement. This independent spirit highlights the way in which Lorde actively lived her truth that self-definition is the individual’s right.

afrodiaspores:

Stanley Rayfield, “Yemaja Angelou,” 2014

afrodiaspores:

Stanley Rayfield, “Yemaja Angelou,” 2014

(via dynastylnoire)

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Notes on Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952)

My mother was born in 1952 in Los Angeles, California. Her mother was a telephone company operator and her father was an independent printer who owned his own shop. They raised three children, two boys and the eldest girl in the heart of South Central, Los Angeles in a modest two bedroom home off Hoover St. During the decades of the Great Depression and World War II, millions of African Americans relocated from the South in search of housing, work and new lives. My grandparents were a part of this mass migration of black folks. In the years following the war, South Central—effectively cordoned off due to Jim Crow separatism, segregationist highway infrastructure, and redline housing policies—declined due to massive deindustrialism. South Central is now a forgotten, burned and blighted city known for violence, poverty, unemployment and underperformance. South Central is an abandoned city. Growing up in the 90s, I knew the city as the dangerous place where my grandmother and extended family lived and which I loved; the space where people looked like me and survived and sometimes, thrived. Only decades later do I comprehend the long history of white supremacy that has created the wasteland that is South Central today.

Ralph Ellison’s 1952 magnum opus Invisible Man provides a glimpse into the life of working class black people during Jim Crow, the era in which my grandparents thrived. Ellison describes with great insight, absurdity and melancholy the social conditions that continue to circumscribe black life and prevent full participation in American citizenship. Invisible Man is a testament to the reality that racism is an obstacle to individual freedom. Ellison captures human truths of the mid-twentieth century that makes clear a longer history of unequal distribution, racial discrimination and violence. Ellison’s narrative speaks volumes about the inherited plight of blackness in this country.

Returning to this novel after nearly a decade, I’m more aware of Ellison’s mastery of and playfulness with genre. Blending the blues, the Bildungsroman and magical realism, Invisible Man requires the reader to perform a rigorous type of intellectual labor in consuming the stark reality of an African American man transitioning from boyhood to manhood. This peculiar, odd, harrowing tale is but a stand in for the universalized black experience. The unnamed narrator of Invisible Man is extremely intelligent and introspective and while this everyman has book smarts, his street smarts must be honed for rough and fast-paced Harlem. In his naiveté, the protagonist is continually misled and exploited, never quite finding home in any community during his search for safety and self. The narrator moves from passivity to action through the course of the novel, seeming to be thrown by chance into racially-charged incident after incident. We see him grow from aspiring scholar, to disillusioned laborer, to passionate activist and community organizer, to finally, disillusioned revolutionary. Navigating the desire for individualism and the demand for social responsibility (nationalism), the narrator escapes from his oppressive environment, finding something akin to freedom in solitude.

Afrofuturism

In his 1953 National Book Award acceptance speech for Invisible Man, Ellison speaks of writing a fiction that confronts “inequalities and brutalities” yet is also forward-looking and hopeful in scope. Ellison affords the reader room for a hopeful self-fashioning. Its cliffhanger ending allows for a multitude of possibilities which Ellison never provides. Here, the future is not predicted but gestured towards. Ellison writes what I’ll call an “anti-denouement” by performing a resistance to closure and a refusal of prescribed endings. I’m wondering if we can consider Invisible Man to be a work of Afrofuturism. It seems that the space of the basement exists outside of linear time and allows the narrator to refashion an identity that works against accepted relations of race and technology. But to read complete optimism in these closing pages would be naïve: the narrator is still black and male and living in America when he sets to emerge from his hole.

The Black Aesthetic

During the Civil Rights Movement, many black thinkers criticized Invisible Man for its apolitical, anti-ideology stance. For instance, Addison Gayle Jr. labels the novel as participating in an “assimilationist aesthetic” in The Black Aesthetic (1971). Although Ellison published few works during his lifetime, he remained a public figure who refused the role of a civil rights activist unlike authors such as James Baldwin. Resisting marginalization as “a Negro writer,” Ellison underscored his connection to the Western cannon, citing authors such as Hemingway, Dostoevsky, and Faulkner as inspiration. I find it interesting that for as much as Ellison fought against being delimited and labeled as “a Negro writer,” Invisible Man takes much of its inspiration from the traditional slave narrative. Forced underground like Equiano in the barracoon or Harriet Jacobs in the garret aka “loophole of retreat,” Ellison participates in a uniquely black literary tradition in positioning the narrator underground. Like the closely confined spaces of containment in the slave narrative, the narrator’s “section of the basement that was shut off and forgotten during the nineteenth century” is a place of transformation. It is only in this place of isolation and interiority that the narrator is able to “think things out in peace” and relay his cautionary tale to the reader.

Other things I’m thinking about…

-visuality & the problem of seeing blackness: W. E. B. Du Bois’ concept of double consciousness lies at the heart of artistry for many African American innovators. This “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others “ is central to the narrator’s plight as an invisible man. In Invisible Man Ellison not only critiques Booker T. Washington’s brand of optimism and gradualism as ineffectual but also shows the danger in performing as caricatures of blackness for white audiences. Ellison’s narrator searches for a deeper recognition of his humanity, but is unable to remove the veil.

-The great migration, displacement, mobility, the South, origins, home

-modernism, alienation, anxiety, paranoia, pathology

-the blues novel, improvisation

Dagny Zenovia - Stop The Pipeline

Dagny Zenovia, graduate student at UT Austin, spreads an urgent message concerning the school-to-prison pipeline. Re-tumble and help #StopthePipeline

“She’s from another space and time”: Janelle Monáe and Post-Soul Temporality

I’ve created a short film, compiled from pre-existing interviews and performances, which interrogates the messages delivered vocally and visually through Janelle Monáe’s afrofuturistic performances. I’m interested in the way that Janelle Monáe jumps through through time, mixing sounds and styles of the past with dreams of the future that endorse equality and full humanity for those often marginalized. That’s why I find it imperative to begin with her conception of the android, “the new other,” and Monáe’s personas, Cindi Mayweather and Wendy Bangs. I hope to highlight Monáe’s black feminist grounding and her devotion to the working class. What I find remarkable about her multitemporal performances is that Monáe never escapes the present; she always cognizant of and performing against the everyday lived realities that, oftentimes, constrain marginalized bodies. As she says, her tuxedo uniform (and I would also argue her larger body of work) is an “homage to the working class.”

I hope that my video functions in a few ways. I hope to create a small archive of the diverse influences Monáe embodies and from whom she draws inspiration. I love that she’s done thorough research of her history as a black woman and, therefore, is highly aware of the power within and pressed upon her body. Because she is aware of a complex racial history, I read Monáe as participating in a post-soul tradition through Signifyin(g), ultimately remixing the messages of those before her in order to pronounce a new vision of blackness. The last montage of my video is purposefully atemporal in the hopes that it would create a space that allows for a body that renders all possibilities of blackness possible. In other words, I want to showcase how Monáe embodies the radical politics of Angela Davis, the funky empowerment of James Brown, and the elegant sensuality of Dorothy Dandridge simultaneously. 

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“Let Me Ride”: An Automotive Reading

 

I’m interested in the “Golden Age” of hip hop, specifically West Coast rap of the mid-80s to mid-90s, for many reasons. Growing up in Los Angeles during this period, hip hop style informs my earliest memories and has, most certainly, shaped my world view. In my scholarship, I examine how those who, for this exercise, I will refer to as soul babies*, those who were youth in the Golden Age, remember (and disremember) this political, violent, and controversial period in hip hop. What is their relationship to a new generation’s sounds and messages? In what ways are they gatekeepers of the genre? How have the aesthetics and articulation of blackness modified from the Golden Age to our contemporary moment?

In the following critical response, I close-read a classic music video from this Golden Age that would radically change the soundscape of hip hop: Dr. Dre’s “Let Me Ride.” I consider this work to be a continuation of, a pushing forward and not against, Adrienne Brown’s theorizing around the hip hop car and its relationship to the social. In her published conference paper, “Drive Slow: Rehearing Hip Hop Automotivity,” Adrienne Brown argues the hip hop car “galvanize[s] types of looking, seeing, and being related to collective forms of ownership” (267). Brown contends that Paul Gilroy doesn’t fully understand the complex relationship of black rappers and property. Widening the masculinist narrative Gilroy writes, Brown analyzes the lyrics (specifically the pronouns) employed by Missy “Misdemeanor” Eliot in “The Rain” and Rich Boy’s “Throw Some D’s” to argue that the hip hop car is not a privatization that belies collectivity but, instead, the hip hop car “refuses to behave as [private property]” (271). I absolutely agree that “the hip hop car often remains rooted in the social, deriving its value from its proximity to the commons of creativity and performance” (272). The car is not only a symbol of wealth but a vehicle that signifies creative freedom, mobility, and autonomy.

I take up Brown’s call to “drive slow,” to listen and to look closely at the music and messages crafted for a collective audience. The multitudinous cars of hip hop are not junkyards of dead ideologies, but sites that house rich and living histories. I question if we can only read an “ambivalent politics” in the vehicles, which litter hip hop’s rhymes and videos (273).  I’m interested in tracing how the hip hop car as signifier of autonomous selfhood or black collective has altered over time. I think that Brown’s analysis can be extended with nuance: do the meanings attached to the hip hop car change depending on geography (East Coast, West Coast, Dirty South, rural, urban)? I’d argue yes. My reading of Dr. Dre’s 1993 hit, “Let Me Ride” attempts to excavate the hip hop car as it relates to the specific site of post-riot Los Angeles. A nuanced reading of the soundscape, lyrical content, and performance of “Let Me Ride” articulates a black automotivity of the Golden Age that claims a militant politics and declares the street as collective property. The car which cruises these streets, however, holds tenuous ties to collective values and, in fact, can expose the body and incite violence.

 

Creepin’ vs. Cruisin’: Precarious Black Bodies  

 

“Let me Ride” begins with a chilling image of Dre with his “Glock cocked” because “niggas want these” D’s, or Dayton’s, the classic wheels gangsters are known to sport on their modified lowriders. From the outset, Dre paints a portrait of an anxious driver, one with the material means to assert his power, but who is also vulnerable to the violence inner city streets beget. Dre’s LA is a city in which men will “try to take mine,” where men kill for property. Ownership is a matter of life and death, and paradoxically, it is the moment when one owns that one is marked. Ownership is an act of exposure, a being seen that requires drivers to check the rearview.

It’s important to note that “Let Me Ride” was the third single on the landmark album The Chronic, recorded and released just months after the infamous 1992 Los Angeles Riots. We must remember that the “trip to the South Side” Dre is taking is a trip to South Central LA, a place where two decades later, entire plots of land still house burned and empty buildings. Brown briefly reflects upon the linkages between the riots and the hip hop car, finding “a continuity” in regards to their “approach to property” (268). Extending her analysis, I find that Dre uses a language of suspicion throughout his narrative. To “creep,” “crawl,” and “slide” is to maneuver around forces of surveillance. In this space, the primary threat is not from white police forces, but from the black community to which Dre belongs. He speaks of “bodies bein’ found on Greenleaf with they fucking / heads cut off.” Dre raps bluntly about the reality for many black men confined to urban areas. In his hometown (specifically the highly contentious area of Greenleaf Boulevard which divides Compton from Long Beach) death for young black males is a daily threat. In this post-riot landscape, blackness is precarious and home is not a safe space.

While home may not be safe, black men and women still manage to create spaces of pleasure that allow for a type of limited freedom. The hip hop cars of the Golden Age add sparkle to decaying and blighted cities. While the lyrical content of “Let Me Ride” depicts a black existence that is stifled and constantly threatened, the visual performance of blackness depicts scenes of pleasure and collectivity that stem from ownership. Hip hop cars of the Golden Age do not only “creep” down the street in drive-by shootings, they “cruise” in glory, pompously displaying craftsmanship and a type of street beauty. In the music video for “Let Me Ride,” Dre rolls his pretty ’64 Impala through the hood as crowds gather to admire the flawless paintjobs, dope hydraulics, and shining chrome of cars that signify self-expression and success. But this is a public selfhood that allows for shared pleasure. They dance and flaunt their stuff while admiring the pimped-out cars. Men and women fill the streets of LA, claiming the public space as their rightful territory (the ’92 riots show this act can quickly turn violent).

 

The Car as Reconfigured Spaceship

 

“Let Me Ride” samples the 1975 funk classic, “Mothership Connection (Starchild),” by Parliament. Parliament was and remains revolutionary for dreaming of black life sustained elsewhere, of a utopia-in-space accessed through the Mothership (a spaceship that will deliver black peoples from their earthly existences). Parliament’s funky, bass-slappin’-grooves and future-seeking lyrics have the ability to make bodies writhe and wiggle, to expand minds beyond the confining conditions that prohibit full black subjectivities. Parliament’s Afro-futuristic sound and performances provide imaginative spaces of mobility and escape.

Not only does Dre participate in the African American tradition of signifyin’ by sampling “Mothership Connection,” Parliament also samples black music before its time. “Swing low sweet chariot,” is the first line and title of a Negro Spiritual, a slave song that pleads to go “home” in the arms of “a band of angels.” Like Parliament who would later re-work these lyrics, the Negro Spiritual hints that enslaved black bodies are constricted and tired, but likewise have the capacity to dream of an elsewhere, a utopia for a “soul [that] feels heavenly bound / Coming for to carry me home.” Parliament adopts and reshapes this message for its soulful audience of attentive listeners searching for liberation and full citizenship. Parliament updates the vehicle of escape from chariot to spaceship, perhaps implying that death is no longer an option; instead, innovative and creative means of negotiation and escape must be utilized. Instead of disposing of the body in their search for elsewhere, Parliament changes the lyrics of the Negro Spiritual to a demand: “let me ride.”

I think we can read difference into the ways Parliament and Dr. Dre employ the phrase let me ride. In Dre’s world, the car offers the space for individual expression and creativity, but is not a vehicle of escape. The music video for “Let Me Ride” ends with the men driving their lowriders and women to a Parliament Funkadelic concert. Live footage from Parliament’s wild, psychedelic concert is spliced with scenes from Dre’s hood, and the resulting juxtaposition is startling. Escape is not an option in for brothers like Dre in Compton.  Indeed, the car is yet another form that allows for restricted pleasure and places the black body at risk.  In this sense, we can read let me ride as a plea for selfhood unthreatened by violence.  Dre questions, “why can’t you let me get my roll on?” or, why can’t you just let me be? Unlike Parliament’s funky spaceship, the hip hop car in Dre’s reality does not allow for transformation or escape.

*I borrow this from Mark Anthony’s Neal’s book Soul Babies. He uses the term to refer to post-soul artists born after the Civil Rights Era who respond ambivalently to that generation’s ideology. I see a similar progression in hip hop. In “Let Me Ride,” Dre uses the funky, political sound of the 70s in order to remix and refashion a new expression of blackness. So too do we see an artist like Kendrick Lamar, a post-Golden Age rapper, alluding to the sounds and messages of an earlier form of rap to articulate his contemporary subject position. We have yet to fully identify and name these shifts throughout hip hop’s legacy.

Citation

Brown, Adrienne. “Drive Slow: Rehearing Hip Hop Automotivity.” Journal of Popular Music Studies 24, no. 3 (September 2012): 265–275. doi:10.1111/j.1533-1598.2012.01333.x.

 

*59

"For Wilderson, afro-pessimism takes seriously the longue durée of social death in Atlantic history and thereby pursues an investigation of “the meaning of Blackness not – in the first instance – as a variously and unconsciously interpellated identity or as a conscious social actor [animated by legible political interests], but as a structural position of non-communicability in the face of all other positions"

ANTE-ANTI-BLACKNESS: AFTERTHOUGHTS [1]

Jared Sexton - African American Studies - University of California, Irvine

(via howtobeterrell)

Jamaal May, “I Do Have a Seam”

A poem I keep returning to as I explore the contrapuntal form

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odinsblog:

Remembering Civil Rights hero, Medgar Evers

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