Monday, December 14, 2009

Hip Hop's Double Consciousness by Regina Barnett

"I’m the dude playing a dude played by another dude" –Robert Downey, Jr., "Tropic Thunder"

I spent my Thanksgiving break trappin’. Yes folks, I had T.I.’s Trap Muzik (2003) on full blast marinating and negotiating ideas about gender politics and identity in rap music. And T.I. was my main subject. Clifford “T.I.” Harris is no newbie to the game, quickly closing in on a nearly ten year stint as one of THE emcees in Hip Hop Music. While many critics reflect on specific slivers of his identity, I’ve always wondered about the man as a whole. A former dope boy in the trap and a full time corporate hustler, Harris has performed in both ends of the black masculinity spectrum. And, in similar fashion to other men of color who attempt to negotiate or even establish a gray area of masculine existence, T.I. got lost in the hustle.

The 2007 shooting death of Harris’ best friend Philant “Big Phil” ‘Johnson triggered a violent emotional response within the rapper. The by product of that rage and grief was T.I. vs. T.I.P. (2007). Almost immediately following the release of T.I. vs. T.I.P. Harris was charged with illegal gun possession. On the album, Harris displays a nearly schizophrenic reaction to his place in society and lack of control over the internal rage slowly seeping out of his seams. He re-divides himself into two dueling personas, each trying to cope with the death of Johnson and their success.

French theorist Jacques Lacan’s fragmented body theory provides useful insight into understanding Harris’ triple personality (Harris, T.I., and T.I.P.). Lacan suggests that the psyche splits itself into a main and “alienating personality” after a “certain level of aggressive disintegration in the individual.” The agitation of Johnson’s death and Harris’ inability to relay his grief forces T.I.P. re-emerge. T.I.P. considers himself raw, real, and confrontational. Because of his inability to discuss his traumatic experience, Harris regresses back into a trap boy, a familiar and recognized coping mechanism for him to explore the suppressed anxiety he experiences.

Due to the lack of available discourse for Harris to vent, T.I.P. embodies the reaction to and consequences of that underlying anger and guilt. He sees himself as coping with Harris’ traumatic experiences through angry tirades at the beginning of the album. T.I.P. attempts to voice his concerns and feelings of displacement – “Man I ain’t up for this shit/I lost my partner and lost my life homes/ Man fuck this shit I’m done.” The urgency and angst in Harris’ delivery here suggests his dissatisfaction with his career and the expectations placed upon him. He is no longer suiting his own needs and interests but is being tugged by Atlantic records and, more specifically, the CEO of Warner Music Group (WMG) Lyor Cohen. WMG owns Atlantic Records.

In a heated exchange between Cohen and T.I.P., Cohen tries to intimidate him back to a subservient role – “listen kid don’t play with my muthafuckin’ money” – with little impact. Cohen’s threat attempts to speak to Harris on a presumed and understood level of hood discourse or trap speak where the primary language is money. T.I.P. quickly fires back with a threat of his own, telling Cohen to “get it like the Red Cross” and hangs up. The allusion to the Red Cross, a symbol of aid in the face of disaster, speaks on two levels.

The first level is a physical threat of violence and the second is a threat of leaving Atlantic altogether for lack of consent to T.I.P’s demands. He believes his abandonment of the label and this latest rap project would cause an economic disaster for Atlantic Records. The tracks that follow the opening skit on T.I. vs. T.I.P. suggest a return to the trap discourse heard in I’m Serious and Trap Muzik. This throwback to Harris’ trap days suggests not only T.I.P.’s familiarity and comfort within the trap setting but also the days that Johnson was still alive. It is especially prominent in many of the songs in Act I including “Da Dopeman,” “Raw,” and “Hurt.”

What is fascinating about this album is T.I.’s unconsciousness about T.I.P.’s actions. In the opening skit of the next segment of the album “Act II: T.I.,” Harris awkwardly wakes up and is unsure of his previous actions. He notices his car parked in a different location and a host of urgent voicemails accusing him of “losing his damn mind.” Dazed and in denial about the conflict with Cohen, T.I. pleads his innocence about the previous night’s events with friends Jason Geter and Douglas Peterson. T.I.’s understanding of not only the hierarchy of the record label but the need for the label to support his endeavors is shown throughout the exchanges between Harris and the record executives. He represents Harris’ understanding of his brand.

Mark Anthony Neal suggests that branding solely exists within the framework of extremities seen within the performance of one’s identity. “What branding doesn’t help illuminate is the extent that the candidate and the thug(s) are dependent upon each other to lay claim to that which their brand doesn’t – and, quite frankly, can’t – allow,” Neal notes. Within the manufactured space of Atlantic Records/Warner Music Group, T.I. can not let T.I.P. interfere with the delicate balance of power and creative authority. Furthermore, T.I. and Harris in this instance cannot be in one accord or agreement with T.I.P. because Harris has to keep his desires (both commercial and personal) within the constraints of his signature brand as two distinct and accepted identities. Any sense of harmony or peaceful coexistence (which, prior to the breakout success of Urban Legend, somewhat existed) would not only throw off our understanding of Harris as a rapper, but also problematize the implications surrounding the performance of his manhood .

Track fifteen (15) is a vicious confrontation between T.I. and T.I.P. Their medium is the mirror, symbolizing only the commonality of the physical body between both personalities. Lacan poses the mirror as a symbol of an innate understanding of self. One molds himself based upon the perception in the mirror. In the initial exchange, there is a noticeable and distinctive difference between the narratives of T.I. and T.I.P. T.I. presents himself as Harris’ logic, the accepted representative of Harris as the socially functioning member of American society.

T.I.P., through his rage, presents the suppressed and illegitimate portrayal of Harris – the criminally minded and explicit black man. He forces Harris to confront not only Johnson’s death, “do you think I meant for that shit to muthafuckin’ happen?!” but also why he feels T.I.P. is illegitimate to his commercial success, “Man T.I.P., you’d get us locked up every chance you get if I let you.” T.I.P. responds with an explosive reaction of expletives and defends his actions: “If you let me? You see what I’m saying man/how the fuck you gon’ let me do something?!” Not only is T.I.P. angry over being marginalized by social expectations, he is furious over T.I.’s belittling of his efforts. Through T.I.P.’s tirade T.I. weakly responds with “why you gotta take it like that?” accenting a thwarted attempt to distance himself from T.I.P. and questioning his own logic.

The line that most resonates in the skit is T.I.P.’s remark “Naw I don’t know everything/but I know bullshit when I see it” and his referral to T.I. as a “Hollywood nigga in a suit.” The act of performance here is negative and T.I.P. blasts T.I. for catering to that expectation. Not only is he referring to T.I. as bullshit, but also the mirage presented by him that success does not come without a sacrifice of self or self-actualization. T.I.P.’s categorization of T.I. as Hollywood demonstrates not only his belief of the plasticity of T.I.’s persona but also the lack of authentic lived experience that he professes for his audience.

T.I. is playing a role that is problematic for T.I.P. because he is being written out of existence and the rage that he represents is once again suppressed and illegitimate. Instead of inner city Atlanta, it is the manufactured space that T.I. functions within that becomes the trap. What is disturbing about the phenomenon exhibited on T.I. vs. T.I.P. is the fact that Harris still needs an alter ego(s) to stay in eyesight of the American public. Harris’ personification of the inner conflicts that haunt him reflect those of other young men of color facing the need to perform an overextended representation of blackness. In order to be acknowledged or able to work through a traumatic situation, Harris and other young black men create a persona that threatens or counters expectations of their anticipated response.

This alternative expression is needed to work around the embedded code of silent suffering forced upon men of color. While Harris does not directly state that his album is an accurate portrayal of reality, he does acknowledge the conflicts of interest between social expectation of his character and personal growth. Neal astutely suggests that black men do not exist within the restraints of polite (conservative) society.

While it is no surprise that rap music is a space designated for a nihilistic and often exaggerated representation of African American men, it is also the minimalized side view of society where black manhood – both imaginary and in actuality – exist. It often casts its shadow over not only the black community, but American society’s understanding and expectations of black masculinity. The fear of invisibility intertwined with feelings of desperation and anxiety result in not only the T.I.P.’s of the world, but a sorely misunderstood reality of the anxieties that black men continue to face in America.

Saturday, December 12, 2009


Ever since the Ft. Hood tragedy made the news, the Rabid Right has engaged in all manner of race-baiting and religious xenophobia to explain the catastrophic event. The most recent argument to come out of this camp is that the military and federal authorities failed to prevent the shootings because they were behaving in a “politically correct” manner. They argue that to resolve this problem our nation needs to condemn Islam at large and revert back to a version of racial/religious profiling.

A recent Op-Ed piece by Reuel Marc Gerecht in the Wall Street Journal refined the extremist expressions into a more subtle polemic. Making the case for “respectable racism,” Gerecht blames the spasm of violence by Major Nidal Hassan on American law enforcement officials, generally, and President Obama, specifically. Gerecht’s rationale is that the President – as the icon of political correctness – has been unwilling to identify Islam as the nation’s enemy and, in failing to do so, has allowed terrorism to strike where it should not have. In short, Gerecht’s larger argument is that federal investigators could have stopped Major Hassan’s rampage had they not been concerned with the feelings and reactions of Muslims.

To support his position, Gerecht claimed that the FBI “reflects American legal ethics,” thereby casting the Bureau as innocent and na├»ve when confronted with domestic “jihadists.” Given the multitude of well-researched works regarding the FBI’s coordinated attacks on American citizens under COINTELPRO, this assertion cannot withstand serious scrutiny as Clayborne Carson’s “Malcolm X: The FBI Files,” Brian Glick’s pithy “War At Home,” and Jeffrey Haas’ recently published “The Assassination of Fred Hampton” all dramatically demonstrate.

Even in the present period, the FBI has engaged in “racial mapping” of ethnic/religious communities and intimidated individuals into becoming informants. And lest we forget, FBI agents killed Imam Luqman Ameen Abdullah in Detroit – a community leader supposedly linked to “radical” Muslims like the former Black Panther H. Rap Brown – roughly a week before the shootings at Ft. Hood.

The rhetoric of the Rabid Right – that “political correctness” may be killing us – is all the more disingenuous because there are a number of viable alternative explanations for the shootings at Ft. Hood. Even if the investigation into Major Hassan's affairs proves that he was indeed a terrorist, it does not mean a priori that political correctness (read: racial sensitivity) was the culprit. Given what has already come to light about the case--like the fact that Hassan was promoted after receiving a poor performance evaluation--, the true culprit here is more likely internal corruption, incompetence, and bureaucratic in-fighting. Government whistle-blowers Coleen Rowley and Sibel Edmonds showed us that those three factors, at the very least, played a role in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

But the Right would have us sweep to the side all of these inconvenient truths. The arguments of Gerecht and his ilk suggest that scapegoating and racial/religious profiling are necessary to keep Americans safe. By turns, Muslims are guilty until proven innocent. Democracy and fairness be damned.

But, alas, proponents of this thinking should be careful what they wish for. Racial profiling does not work; it casts too broad a net to be effective and rewards racism and laziness. Like torture, it is a tactic that provides a sense of comfort and control to the perpetrator but provides little, if anything, in terms of collective safety. In addition, it comes at a tremendous cost of blindness. Not only does it distort the dominant culture's perception of the "othered" groups, but it also distorts their vision of themselves as "innocent" and rational thinkers.

Thus, I leave you with a story from the PBS series “The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow.” In one of the episodes, groups of Black folk described inter-personal interactions with whites during the years of legalized racial segregation. One man told the story of walking along a road, seeing something disturbing at a nearby house, then rushing to warn the occupants. As he approached the structure, a white woman appeared at the front door and began cursing and threatening him: “What do want here, nigger? What’s the meaning of you coming up to my house? You better get out of here!” In the face of such invective, he turned and headed back toward the road. As he strolled, he yelled over his shoulder, “I was just coming to tell you that your house is on fire.”

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Black Women on the Auction Block: A Black Feminist Response to “The Princess and the Frog”

~ Beauty Bragg

Listening to an NPR feature on the Disney film The Princess and the Frog on opening day, I was struck by the uniformity of black opinion celebrating the fact that now we, too, could participate in the commodification of our images. The overwhelming sentiment was “finally” we can buy a Disney princess that looks just like us. This was on top of my previous shock about the Carol’s Daughter hair and body product tie-ins featuring the princess. This reaction—our eagerness as producers and consumers—is too simplistic. I mean, it is a reaction that essentially says we know we’ve achieved when we can participate in our own commodification. Then again, perhaps we truly are, finally, real Americans—willing to buy and sell anything.

Instead of offering a critique of market values or at least attempting to resist them, what we are witnessing is the celebration of the beginning of a process of brand loyalty and personal identity formation through products consumed—the branding of our children. Now for people whose ancestors have been literally branded this ought to spark concern not celebration. This seems a sorry state of affairs for people descended from people who constituted one of the first mass-market commodities and have witnessed first-hand the damage wrought by submitting to the ethics of the market place. As if the lessons of slavery aren’t enough of a lesson in the nature of exploitive labor and the extraction of profits from the bodies of black people, recent developments in the popular entertainment sphere should warn us about being too eager to assume that our presence in the market place is always positive and beneficial.

Numerous critics have cited the ways in which various contemporary black artists have become complicit in the reproduction of problematic representations as well as the erasure of historical context and radical politics for current images. In a really useful chapter of his 1999 book Pan Africanism: Exploring the Contradictions, William B. Ackah, suggests that, as a result of the dominance of American cultural productions globally, “American” representations of blackness become the dominant representations of blackness and often subsume other more progressive discourses on black identity and politics. If this is true, then African Americans in particular have a responsibility to exercise special care with regard to the images of blackness we consume and endorse (and not only in relation to everyone’s favorite whipping boys, rappers). In fact, given the extensive history of negative and , largely, uncontested representations of African American women already cited in Ikard’s blog “Why Baby-Girl Won’t Be Going to see Disney’s ‘The Frog and the Princess,’” we should be especially vehement in our rejection of this new commodification of black women’s bodies. That it is repackaged as a New Orleans “romance” should in fact heighten our attention to history since this was a space in which the murky ethics of trading in humans as commodities was amplified in the practice of the system of concubinage in which black women could trade their bodies and sexuality for a few of the privileges of freedom. Certainly this twisted conflation of commercial value with social equality can provide a lesson for us today.