In recognition and celebration of the 30-year anniversary of the film The Color Purple the Hiphopscholar will be hosting Purple Points, a series of conversations about the film and its legacy. Purple Points addresses the impact and relevance of The Color Purple. The issues in the film are as significant as they were 30 years ago. Themes range from, self-love, religion, intimate partner violence, entrepreneurism, sexism, and much more. The Purple Points conversations are planned around specific topics and the interviewees’ areas of expertise. Purple Points is a series within the Scholars On video series. Scholars On is a form of collaborative online scholarship. Our goal is to have academic dialogue minus the stuffiness and sometimes limited reach of ideas. This is a space to engage the public and other scholars about approaches to analyzing media. In a seductive media environment, media literacy is critical. Our idea is to promote a space for more immediate engagement with media at a pace closer to how we experience it.
Borrowing Black Cultural Materials for Profit – A Conversation on Appropriation in Pop Culture or ‘Cultural Tourism’
The conversation of appropriation in popular culture or ‘cultural tourism’ is an important one. While it was once organized around the obvious material conditions of enslavement and the distorted borrowing of black cultural materials for profit, it now presents itself in ironically different yet similar ways.
In the HuffPost Live segment, Do Only ‘Haters’ Think Miley Is Racist?, I, along with my co-panelists Iris Estrada and Dr. Brittany Cooper, attempt to offer analysis that goes beyond the surface notion that contextualizing this practice is a criticism of a performers skill.
For more on this subject take a look at Vice’s Miley Cyrus Needs to Take an African American Studies Class.
Recently The Hiphopscholar had an opportunity to sit down with Dr. Ebony Utley, Associate Professor of Communications Studies at California State University Long Beach and discuss pop culture, research and her latest book, Rap and Religion: Understanding The Gangsta’s God. Dr. Utley’s new work examines what appears on first appearances to be contradictory-references to God in rap music. She deftly demonstrates through the pages of her book everything is not what it seems when it comes to rap and religion. Professor Utley is no stranger to difficult conversations as her research explores issues such as race, racism, gender, and relationships and marriage. In addition to her teaching Dr. Utley is a sought after public speaker and her writing has appeared in Black Women, Gender, and Families, Critical Studies in Media Communication, Huffington Post, Marriage and Family Review, Ms. Magazine, Truthdig, Religion Dispatches, and Women and Language.
HS: Dr. Utley would you share a little bit about your research interests and what led you to the subject of your book, Rap and Religion: Understanding the Gangsta’s God?
EU:I love black people and I have always been impressed with the black American experience and particularly interested in how African Americans use language to vie for power. As a scholar I have studied traditional political rhetoric, abolitionist rhetoric, civil rights discourse and black power discourse to figure out how African Americans have used language to advocate for more power in the public sphere. When I was considering something contemporary it lead me to my research on Hiphop. Hiphop is the place where young black people at the time were using language to tell other people about their experiences and to express their frustration and address stereotypes about black people. As a feminist you know that the personal is also political . . . so while examining personhood [the personal] one recognizes there are also stereotypes in interpersonal relationships. There are stereotypes about black women being unlovable and black men being sexual studs. I really wanted to spend some time doing romantic relationship work to examine these stereotypes. Because the research says there is love in Hiphop, there is love in African American relationships and African Americans do have unique definitions of marriage. It’s not that we can’t get married or don’t want to get married we just have a different historical relationship to marriage than the dominant population. I really wanted to shed some light on that as well but the unifying theme for me returns to the struggling for power, power over stereotypes and power over oneself and if you have been in a relationship you know that there are often power struggles within them as well and that is what draws me.
HS: Very insightful. I had another thought related to something that is not specifically about your latest book, but still relates. I wanted to acknowledge and appreciate your thoughtful response to the article “8 reasons why Black women should marry white men”. Your reply really addressed some of the layers in that kind of rhetoric and in some respects self-hate. Second, which may be connected to your current work is the theme of conversations around power and agency. In your book you write about agency and power. Do you see the gangsta persona in rap music as a source of agency and power, which to most people reads a lot different than how the rappers themselves may be applying it?
EU: Yes. I do think the gangsta personas are attempts at empowerment. They are also masks over vulnerability. I think any “gangsta” that has come from the hood that has seen people die around him or her before their time, has seen the effects of under-education, knows that there is no grocery store in walking distance from where they live, feels vulnerable, those kinds of experiences shape who you become. The experiences suggest that no one really cares, it suggest your government doesn’t care, that public policy doesn’t care, it suggests that investors don’t care and sometimes in unfortunate circumstances that even your family doesn’t care. The best way to cover that up, to feel like you are somebody, as Jesse Jackson would say, is to assume a gangsta persona. To get back at that establishment of institutionalized forces that are going to ignore you and sort of force the “gangsta” into those spaces. I think that God, outside of religious affiliation, serves this purpose because if God will ride or die for you who is going to take you? If only God can judge you, then you can do whatever you need to do. Having God on your side allows you to have that same cover over your vulnerability so you feel less vulnerable in the world and more powerful.
HS: That makes a lot of sense. Do you feel that since the publication of your book that you have been able to have more conversations about love and Hiphop? I ask because so often you only hear that Hiphop is sexist, misogynist, exploitative and there just does not seem to be any discussion of love. However as you argue, as do some others, that part of understanding love and Hiphop is about context, or a lens, understanding how people are negotiating their own identities in ways that aren’t necessarily mainstream. As I read your book and other pieces you’ve written you are saying there is love. Are you finding that your book is helping to open up space for dialogue on love?
EU: I would like to say absolutely but the real answer is meh. I haven’t had as many explicit conversations about love as I would like to, but my lens between God and love is that if you have a God in your life you then that God should help you love your strangers, family members, and yourself. If God isn’t doing those things for you then I don’t know how functional that God is. Outside of religion God should help you love yourself which is what I was saying before about vulnerability and this extends to your homies and your girls.
You do see a lot of that in rap music there is a lot of loyalty and commitment. Yet the next level is dicey, like the strangers, the people you don’t really know. I don’t know if we have really gotten there in Hip hop; people feel like its too risky. To risk your heart is a very bold and courageous thing to do whether its an interpersonal relationship or communal relationships I don’t think we have arrived there yet. I’m more than willing to have that conversation. Maybe with the conversation about love in Hiphop I haven’t done as good a job showing the link between what is going on between rap and love. However on the B- side I have had wonderful conversations about identity and identity building. Almost every time I talk about the book I’m definitely talking about identity and how its shaped and formed. Also the social construction of God and how that is shaped and formed, these are conversations I certainly wanted to have and we are absolutely having.
HS: Having read some of your work I certainly think it opens up the space to have these conversations. Books like this are important because of the intellectual stretching they require us to do.
EU: I wanted to shift the conversation a bit. To younger readers, high school age or even younger who may not know of Hiphop beyond blogs and music gossip sites what would you say your book offers them?
The book offers them history. I participate in the Hiphop Ed twitter chat and a recent theme was respect for elders. We were talking about Drake being the worst perpetrator of elder disrespect. Drake said in an interview that he was the first rapper to successfully incorporate singing and rapping, and I was like have you heard of a group called the Fugees? So I think for the 16 year old there are a lot of things that they just don’t know because they have not been exposed to it, or they have been listening to mainstream, or are looking to Drake whatever the case may be.
My book offers them a real walk-through about specific rappers that have talked about God over that past 25 years. I hope they read the book with YouTube so they could look these people up, Google them, go to All Music Guide and look at the videos for what would be an ‘old school’ rapper to them. It is funny to see 50 Cent as an old school rapper it was just 2003 when he came out, I hope the book helps to contextualize history. I think this is important because we tend to think of rap as a youthful genre but you have artists who are in their early 40s Like L [L.L.Cool J] Nas or Jay Z so its not an oxymoron to think of a historical perspective on rap music.
HS: These are all very good reasons to read the book in addition to the topic itself and we would encourage everyone to get a hold of a copy and begin having discussions about the book. Dr. Utley has some suggestions on her website about how to get access to the book.
Dr. Utley before we wrap things up, I’m interested in your thoughts as an educator and Hiphop researcher on recent things happening with some youth in Chicago, IL. A somewhat recent trend that some are calling “drill music” is leaving a harmful legacy. Young people no more than teens are caught up in beefs that result in fights and in some instances death, as was the unfortunate case of Joseph “ Lil Jo Jo” Coleman.
Essentially young people looking for a record deal and a life of fame and wealth are posting self-produced videos of their songs on YouTube hoping for thousands of viewers and the interest of a major label. Instead many are finding more problems than prosperity. From first impressions it seems this music has lost that sense of spiritual agency and power and is solely focused on material access. Do you have any thoughts on this?
EU: I have a special affinity for Chicago. It is a city that sort of grew me up and made me into the woman I am today. I am devastated by what is happening there. I have not seen the YouTube videos about the drill music but I have seen the documentary The Interrupters [a documentary about Chicago gang violence by director/producer Steve James] it suggests to me that Chicago is a place that has nothing to offer young people, clearly. I hate when people suggest it is an individual problem that is going on in Chicago, no it is a systemic problem and Chicago has had systemic political issues since the first Daley era. Emmanuel [Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel] has done nothing to eliminate it. He was on the news recently saying, “oh yes there is violence in Chicago but it doesn’t affect the majority of the residents” what that means is it does not affect White people so you aren’t going to do anything about it and when he is pushed on the subject he says they are going to bring in more federal officers. That is not an answer.
Having more police on the street is not keeping children in school and then when Chicago teachers go on strike the conservative response is, “well these teachers need to teach these children and should not strike”. When what these teachers are attempting to do is create a situation that provides better resources for them to be able to do what they need to do. If you have teens producing these drill music videos on YouTube that is because they feel they having nothing else to live for, that schools are not teaching them anything that college is not an option, they will not have a job and probably won’t live past fifteen. This is why you have twelve year olds acting as mini adults because they do not see a viable future for themselves. Unemployment rates are incredibly high in Chicago as the weather got warmer fast this summer the murder rates increased.
All of this started when they got rid of public housing and started dispersing people all across the city with no real plan. This is obviously problematic but nobody cares because the city was more focused on making room for investors in these prime real estate locations. So you spread these black people out in communities where they end up door to door with people who do not share the same affiliation, and no resources; it is a disaster waiting to happen. This is a problem that has been in the making for the past twenty-five, thirty years. Yet it comes out in the press as these young black kids, because it is always some black kids, who don’t have anything to live for because they are vile, amoral and their parents should have taken better care of them. This argument holds no sway with me. I think these situations can go either way, it can go in the direction of “I have nothing to live for dear God please help me” or “ I have nothing to live for, fuck it I’m already in hell”.
Chicago has been here before with previous gangs but now it is not just about drugs or money, at least then, albeit flawed, it was about something. This is much more sophisticated nihilism. I don’t know why some of the elders in Chicago don’t see this. Something needs to change and I don’t know that it will until the violence starts spreading out to other communities. Until the Mayor decides to do something I do not know that we will see any institutionalized changes.
Is it the music’s responsibility to help elevate the situation? Lupe Fiasco is doing something and Common will probably make more public statements about his city. Kanye. . . well when he is not rapping about oral sex he does talk about Chicago, but it’s not the rappers responsibility to shift these institutionalized problems with the schools, prisons, the economic and political systems. While the music could do more and I think it should, we all need to take these issues more seriously.
HC: Dr. Utley thank you for your time and work. As we close the interview do you have any final words for our readers?
EU: As Dead Prez has said it’s bigger than Hiphop. The reason I do research on Hiphop and write about it because it is an excellent opportunity to talk about what is good for us, and what ails us. For example with our conversation, it allows us to talk about violence and institutionalized racism in a city like Chicago.
For people who are quick to dismiss Hiphop as misogynistic, where else are we going to open up conversations about misogyny and music without Hiphop opening that door? People complain about Nikki Minaj but I see it as an opportunity to talk about the feminine masculine and why women feel like they need to appropriate masculine characteristics to be successful. Hiphop allows us the space to have important conversations.
Can you imagine going up to a sixteen year old and saying hi do you suffer from a crisis of masculinity? The music allows us to have these conversations. It also can encourage people to think about Hiphop differently. You don’t have to simply be a rapper you could be a Hiphop scholar, writing about the music and culture that you love. You could be an attorney, professor, a social worker or psychologist who uses Hiphop therapy. There are so many avenues to use the genre that you love to advocate for good.
HC: Dr Utley Thank you so much again for your time
This post was inspired by a battle I judged recently. Before I get to why it is an inspiration lets talk a little history. Since I started DJing many, many moons ago I have seen countless battles from behind the turntables, as a crowd participant, to now what is my most recent vantage point- a judge. From all of these places I have seen many rappers and a few emcees go down, some from self-inflicted wounds.
Aside from the view from the DJ booth, watching people go down from the judges table is always more painful, because you must evaluate the catastrophe. It is almost like seeing a car crash in person, verses watching one on YouTube. You see the instant before the crash, the blood, the carnage and a host of onlookers who are wide-eyed and open-mouthed. Thankfully (and hopefully) in a battle there are no physical casualties only bruised egos.
The most recent battle inspired this post because. . . well frankly, lyrically it was horrible. This doesn’t mean there were not a few who came with lyrics, and bad intentions for any emcee who would challenge them, those emcees were there. The inspiration comes from the overall lack of lyrical depth. Thus I bring to you the five tips on how to win a freestyle battle. Consider it, as KRS once said, a public service announcement for the prevention of sucka emcees.
5 Tips on How to Win a Freestyle Battle
- Turn off the radio. This is not just a dead prez song, its solid advice. The radio plays mindless music with catchy (not unlike syphilis) hooks. Typically heavy radio rotation means the lyrical content is very simple. As an emcee you want to stimulate your mind so your thought process in battle mode is razor sharp. Nothing dulls the sense more than repeatedly listening to the same people talk about the same thing (especially when it is not very complex to begin with). Believe it or not, subconsciously it may begin to influence your own lyrics.
- Read. Maybe this is so obvious it is overlooked. Reading more will help improve your writing. Writing more will help to stimulate your thinking. It is one big productive circle. Writing is a conversation with the mind as Nikki Giovanni said. What level of conversations are you having if you are not reading? This may account for why everyone says almost the same thing in battles. Most lyrical emcees read quite a bit from books, articles, and newspapers to current events. There are way to many benefits to reading not to do it. For example it can increase your vocabulary, range of subject matter and strengthen your metaphors just to name a few.
- Be Creative. How ‘free’ is your style when everything you say is about the oppression of the next person? Every sucka emcee uses the same concept in insults; homophobia, sexism and an over exaggerated sexuality. Of course this formula would be incomplete without using N-bombs. Push your self as a lyrical person and think outside the proverbial box. Ask yourself, what makes me different if I say the exact same thing as everyone else. Homophobia is a problem, sexism is a problem and the lack of vocabulary that seems to restrict what people say is also a problem. Creativity solves that. Think of different ways to out wit somebody. What wordplay could take out your opponent, what would get the crowd excited, how can you use your superior intellect over your opponent and move the crowd at the same time? A creative imagination is your greatest asset in a battle. To few use it.
- Know Some Hiphop History. Everything relevant in Hiphop did not happen after you were born. There is a reason people consider Rakim one of the best ever (if you don’t know who that is refer to my first sentence here), why O.C is a lyrical beast, or that what Jay-Z learned from Big Daddy Kane helped his skills, why Lauryn Hill is still respected lyrically. How can you be a top emcee without a sense of history, or understanding of the psychology of battling? Most people who are skilled at what they do know some history of their trade. As an emcee you should know your craft, it not only gives you a sense of history it also provides you with some insight on how you might counter an opponent, what tactics to use and when.
- Be Prepared for Anything. Nobody is your friend during a battle, especially not a fellow emcee. Her/his goal during the performance is to take out the competition and this means you. If you have a chipped tooth, its going to be talked about, if your coat has a hole in it, its going to be talked about, if you have a questionable photo on instagram, facebook, tumblr, twitter, whatever, it is going to be talked about. That guy/girl that you tried to talk to and got played, if another rapper knows, it is going to come up. Anything that makes you vulnerable is considered fair game.
How do I prepare for this? In sports they call it the two-minute drill. Teams practice all kinds of end game scenarios to prepare their offense and defense (mentally and physically) for how to act and react in the heat of the battle. Ideally if the team is prepared they can handle the competition and come out on top. As an emcee, you have to prepare for the unexpected so that in the “two-minute drill” of the battle you don’t lose your composure. Most of why people lose battles is in their lack of preparation. For example are you mentally prepared to drop a variety of rhymes on various subjects, do you know your audience, will there be kids there, are there rules on profanity, does the time limit change, can you rap over different beat speeds, will there be live music, what are the judges looking for, can you take a lyrical punch?
Hopefully, these 5 tips will help you win your next battle.
Random suggestions that did not make the list:
Buy a rhyming dictionary. Some of Hiphop’s best who can freestyle own one. Supernatural the one time record holder for longest freestyle (clocked at over 9 hours) said it is essential for the freestyle emcee. Anything that increases your ability to know more words is a good thing.
Get a copy of How to Rap. A book filled with rappers from all over the map talking about their creative process.
Practice. Like Allen Iverson said we talking about practice. Yes it is freestyle and you have to come of the top of the head, but you can practice getting comfortable with the mic, stage presence, connecting with your audience, what happens if the sound system does not work and what ever else could happen.
I can see clearly, yes despite some clever marketing attempt to suggest that Tropic Thunder is some how not a 21st century blackface farce. I’m not drinking the grape flavored flavor aid. Yes the grape flavored cyanide poison Jim Jones is infamous for. You do remember Jim Jones from history class right? No not the commercial rapper. I’m speaking of James ‘Jim’ Warren Jones who on November 18, 1978 convinced over 900 hundred people to commit mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana. Up until September 11, 2001 and outside of enslavement, this was considered the greatest single loss of U.S civilian life outside of natural disasters.
Jones was not always considered the evil person history knows him as now. Jones was well intentioned having the trust of the public and politicians alike. Over 50% of his ‘followers’ were African American, and working class. Jones message spoke to the common person and built on the fears and desires of his congregation bubbling just beneath the surface. However at the end of the day Jones and his idea of a utopia untainted by capitalism cost many lives.
You may be wondering what a film and a cult leader have in common…Well its simple really or complicatedly simple. You see Tropic Thunder with is well known actors and carefully constructed script, which includes an actual black actor who is critical of the person in blackface, seems to suggest the film is aware of its use of blackface and the attendant cultural baggage. So at least on the films terms the use of blackface can be considered irony or satirical maybe even both. If you do not understand it as such, well then perhaps you cannot take the joke. So in this context the film can escape criticism.
Well maybe not.
Richard Pryor, Some forms of rap music, and more recently Dave Chappelle through the Dave Chappelle Show have all used elements of Black expressive culture to offer social commentary, to offer analysis, and if the audiences were really paying attention perhaps offer a new way to see and understand different folks. Richard Pryor’s stand-up routines are full of wino’s and junkies, many might say Chappelle’s Tyrone Biggums is a remix version made relevant to a new generation, the fact that the legendary Paul Mooney wrote for both Pryor and Chappelle certainly lends credibility to this view. However with Pryor’s winos and junkies the characters were the hook. Pryor could reel you in with perfectly placed profanity, improv street corner philosophy and witty observations. Just when your mouth was wide open with laughter, he’d slip something in to chew on, something to think about. Chappelle’s humor or Aaron McGruder’s Boondocks for that matter has the same possibility. The use of satire is a tool of the critical thinker, Mark Twain made a living and reputation on such skill.
Yet despite the comedic genius of Pryor and Chappelle or the literary sophistication of Mark Twain…So many will only get the surface. In spite of the social commentary of Tyrone Biggums or other Chappelle show skits, people only see the crackhead, or choose to only see- the crackhead, which is much more dangerous.
Tropic Thunder on the surface is an attempt at satire, using blackface as a social critique, which since all media is open can be viewed as possible. Yet what people walk away with is that blackface is okay, it is after all a joke and surely we all don’t mind a good laugh. What is missing is the context that Pryor, Chappelle, and Twain situated their comedy in, the social space of difference. In this place the comedy is used to point out the irony of our ideas, to illustrate the space between who we see ourselves to be and who, in fact we really are.
Tropic Thunder is a 21st century blackface farce, flavored in progressive seeming politics but beneath the flavoring is the poisonous, stereotyping and mainstreaming of an old wound. The representation lacks the context and sophistication of others who have attempted to use satire, those whose works are far more progressive, yet equally misunderstood. So without context Tropic Thunder is the same old rumble. A new twist on the same old blackface. The same tried and tested marginal representation, and like I said I’m not drinking the flavor aid.