The spirited defense of 2 Live Crew was no more about defending the Black community than the prosecution was about defending women…. Black women can hardly regard the right to be represented as bitches and whores as essential to their interests. Instead the defense of 2 Live Crew primarily functions to protect the cultural and political prerogative of male rappers to be as misogynistic and offensive as they want to be.
~Kimberle Crenshaw, Beyond Racism and Misogyny: Black Feminism and 2 Live Crew
One more thing before we move on from “Gatesgate.” Only a handful of bloggers in the Black blogosphere—notably Acts of Faith and Love and What ABout Our Daughters —have mentioned an interesting aspect: Professor Gates’ defense of the rap group 2 Live Crew during their obscenity trial.
This post, however, really is not about Henry Louis Gates and his defense of the rap act. It’s actually more about me.
Me and 2 Live Crew
Boston, post undergrad.
My little sister, an undergrad at the University of Miami, Coral Gables came up to stay with me one summer, bringing a suitcase full of bootleg 2 Live Crew cassettes. My friends and I couldn’t get enough of the wicked beats and ridiculously profane lyrics. Catchphrases from the songs would become inside jokes in my circle of highly educated, middle class Black male and female friends. For example, just uttering the phrase—usually randomly as a non sequitur—”Nibble on my d___ like a rat does cheese” could send us into a conniption fit of laughter for several moments.
The music from my high school and early college years was what is now considered “old school”: LL Cool J, Kool Moe D, Fat Boys, Run D MC, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Sugarhill Gang… 2 Live Crew was something new. Completely over the top, cartoonish, pure performance and artifice.
I cannot remember listening to a single 2 Live Crew song past the fall following my sister’s return to Florida. It is likely, in fact, that I would not have had any reason to think about the group again were it not for the high profile of their obscenity trial.
Interlude: The Signifying Monkey
Deep down in the jungle so they say
There’s a signifying motherf***** down the way.
There hadn’t been no disturbin’ the jungle for quite a bit,
For up jumped the monkey in the tree one day and laughed,
“I guess I’ll start some sh**.”
(And Dolemite’s version)
Signifying Luke Skyywalker and America’s Funniest Videos
Gates called on this tradition of language as a game in helping to defend the rap group 2 Live Crew against obscenity charges in Florida in 1990. He wrote… that 2 Live Crew’s “exuberant use of hyperbole (phantasmagoric sexual organs, for example) undermines — for anyone fluent in black cultural codes — a too literal-minded hearing of the lyrics. This is the street tradition called ‘signifying’ or ‘playing the dozens,’ which has generally been risque.” Gates further tied the group’s approach to the black mythic tradition, explaining … that in 2 Live Crew’s music “what you hear is great humor, great joy, and great boisterousness. It’s a joke. It’s a parody and parody is one of the most venerated forms of art.” (Source; Emphasis added)
Kimberle Crenshaw, in the piece cited at the beginning of this post, does a much better job of deconstructing the defense of 2 Live Crew than I ever could. She touches on an issue that is still difficult, it seems, for Rights positions of any kind to adequately encompass: intersectionality: “My sharp internal division—my dissatisfaction with the idea that the ‘real issue’ is race or that the ‘real issue’ is gender— is characteristic of my experience as a Black woman living at the intersection of racial and sexual subordination.”
My own “sharp internal division” goes beyond than this: How can I at the same time recognize something as “funny”—and even enjoy it—and fully understand that that humor may be dangerous and hurtful—even to myself?
I’ll use a pretty low-brow example. One of my children’s favorite television shows is “America’s Funniest Videos.”
Every single AFV program features at least one montage of “crotch clips.” These are videos sent in from Americans far and wide of their loved ones being hit in the crotch with baseball bats, being bitten in the crotch by angry geese, and falling crotch-first on all manner of metal rails and wood fencing. These clips are often accompanied by corny commentary by the show’s host and always some mad-cap music.
The funniest of these clips provokes a dual response: laughter and a kind of grimace—often accompanied by an intake of breath and an exclamation “Ooooo, that looked like that really hurt.”
I do not know if it has been given a clever name like “signifying monkey,” but our willingness (and even desire) to laugh at the apparent physical pain of others is an old human foible. What is behind it? Yes, there is a certain context behind it that makes the laughter seem less cruel. Presumably all the people involved ended up OK. OK enough to appear with their clip on the AFV program to compete for thousands of dollars in prize money. Perhaps there is a context that viewers are fully aware of in which this is merely slapstick, “parody.” Perhaps crotch shots and prat falls are part of a long tradition of physical humor that cannot be understood outside of the context of “highly exaggerated violence” that goes “beyond what is easily recognized as common sense” thus becoming “non-threatening and funny” (Source).
Hipster Black Pride
Okay. So “With my d*** in my hands as you fall to your knees/You know what to do, ’cause I won’t say please/Just nibble on my d*** like a rat does cheese” is not exactly on par with a toddler accidentally throwing her sippy cup at her daddy’s family jewels. And I can safely say that when my friends and I were dancing and laughing in my small Brighton apartment to my sister’s tapes, we were not invoking an elegant literary rhetorical argument for rap music as Black folk tradition. I am not going to say that if only we knew then what this kind of rap would become in the next 20 years we wouldn’t have thought it was so cute. I will not even point to our relative youth (mid 20s).
We just thought 2 Live Crew was fun and funny as hell.
I honestly think now, in hindsight, that we felt free to enjoy this music because we felt ourselves to be at a safe distance from the imagery in the lyrics. A “safe distance” geographically from Roxbury and Dorchester and Mattapan—and especially from Harlem, New York or Liberty City, Miami. We also were at a “safe distance” socially and economically from the other black and brown people we assumed the Crew’s lyrics were talking about and directed towards. Especially the women of my crew. When Luke was talking about the b**** with panties down in every town, dressed for stares, wearing weave for hair—he was certainly not talking about us.
We exhibited then a kind of “Black hipster expression.”
We could consume problematic Black cultural artifacts in an ironic, intellectual, distant manner. We could even reclaim it from Whites as legitimately “ours.” Perhaps people were portrayed in hurtful ways. But those people were not us. Maybe it was like looking at clips of people—other people—getting the stuff knocked out of them: Whew, that prolly hurt like hell. Ha-ha.
I think my friends and I were—and are—not alone. Any Black person who writes professionally about hip hop…anyone who teaches a college level course about it…anyone who dons their PhD credentials and testifies in court about it…anyone who blogs about it on a shiny silver Mac… Any one of these Black people is potentially demonstrating a hipster expressionism.
Like its mirror image, hipster racism, Black hipster expressionism is usually exploitative, is an exercise in privilege (though class, not race, privilege), and mostly serves to reinforce instead of tearing down harmful stereotypes. (I would also venture to say it is “inauthentic” but I am always hesitant to label anyone’s experience as real or not.)
If folks have trouble wrapping their heads around the intersection of race and gender, the 3-way intersection between race, gender, and class is akin to rocket science. Like Kimberle Crenshaw, I feel the tug of war of dual oppression having to do with my status as Black and as female. But increasingly I also feel the sometimes barely visible, frequently nagging tension resulting from my privileged socioeconomic status.
Having achieved many of the goals of our integrationalist foremothers and forefathers, what do we do with our status? Is there a way to comment on (and participate in) “Black cultures” that involves neither a hipster crassness nor a tsk-tsking paternalism? Is a kind of Black unity in which people like me see themselves in Those Other Black People possible on a large scale? Can such a unity be achieved even if Those Other Black People do not see themselves in me?
As a Black feminist, I felt the pull of each of these poles, but not the compelling attractions of’ either. My immediate response to the criminal charges against 2 Live Crew was ambivalence: I wanted to stand together with the brothers against a racist attack, but I wanted to stand against a frightening explosion of’ violent imagery directed at women like me.