This So-Called Post-Post-Racial Life

August 4, 2009

“Til your tongue turns doo-doo brown”: 2 Live Crew and Black Hipster Expression

Filed under: "Black Hipster Expressionism" — Tags: , , , , — pprscribe @ 6:15 pm

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

"Monkey Belly Tattoo." TeddyBare,

"Monkey Belly Tattoo." TeddyBare,

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**.”

~Kermit E. Cambell,
The Signifying Monkey Revisited:
Vernacular Discourse and African American Personal Narratives

(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.

~Kimberle Crenshaw



  1. Wow. I’m probably going to have to read this again and think some.

    Comment by more cowbell — August 5, 2009 @ 1:06 am

  2. I think black academics, perhaps all academics, spend too much time projecting their intellect onto others to the point where they refuse to call a spade a spade. I’ve slid into that mode analyzing literature. You see it happen in art, people pushing all this scholarship into evaluating and abstract painting only to discover someone dipped a cat’s boot clad paws in paint and got the animal to run around on a canvas. If you think hard you assume other people think hard too.

    I know your piece is not really about this, but the only way to know if 2 Live Crew engaged in parody would be to ask them what they meant and what they thought, felt when writing the piece and if possible, observe how they treat the women in their own lives, and then consider the source. Hitler probably made some jokes about Jews but given that it was Hitler making the joke, how funny could it be? The same goes with racists making jokes about black people and misogynists making jokes about women. What’s the real intent? If we knew the intent …

    However, once 2 Live Crew was taken to court over the lyrics and got their talking points straight, the hope of anybody telling the truth about intent and thought processes was slim.

    Gates was reaching hard, I think, seeing more than there was to see, maybe even collecting some cash for his opinion. I had to reach hard looking at Lil Wayne’s misogynistic lyrics at At some point it’s like the ACLU defending the Klan’s right to march. You hate the language but must defend the right of others to share their opinions, freedom of speech. It’s painful.

    You make a good point about perceptions of a thing as a young person removed from its danger. And it may be tied to Chris Rocks joke about women dancing to rap that dishonors women. The women defend it saying “it’s not about me.” Some women hear the words “slut, whore, bitch, cunt” and think it applies to specific women not considering the speaker may man all women. They don’t understand the man meant all women until he has them alone in a locked room.

    Comment by nordette aka verite — August 6, 2009 @ 4:34 pm

  3. Hi PPR: I’m going through my Google Reader today and I’m so glad I didn’t skip over this excellent post. You pose many good questions here and I enjoyed reading how you teased them out. I, too, have my own experience with this kind of moral dilemma – for my HBCU classmates and me it was Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic” and we played it all day long (still have a special place in my heart for that album). I couldn’t agree more with the idea that we create a kind of intellectual distance from these hurtful, potentially damaging words in order to laugh or enjoy the music (and not listen to the insulting lyrics). And I love your use of the term “black hipster expressionism” – it’s an interesting way to get at that time-honored problem at the heart of black American life: double-consciousness. It is a constant struggle! We are never fully comfortable in these boxes – race, class, gender, sexuality, religion, etc. But I think by calling attention to the issues, thinking them through, raising questions, you are doing exactly what our foremothers and forefathers wanted. Thanks for letting us join in!

    Comment by Claudia — August 10, 2009 @ 10:08 am

  4. Well it was I who wrote about Skippy’s defense of black male degradation. In fact it’s his entire premise and what those good white liberals excuse away in promoting Skippy as the “premier AA scholar” to begin with. It was white validation, not black declaration that got him tagged that and rewarded for his abandonment of his blackness. Or let’s just say his celebration of his whiteness. Until he was deferred to in the manner by which he’s accustomed. Never once has he had any concern about the welfare of black girls and women and how the race for the bottom drags many through the mud. Like Dyson’s defense of calling other blacks Ni**er. I (used to) seriously wonder what is wrong with black people. The mistake is for people to get sidetracked into thinking groups like 2 Live Crew were using artistic expression. It was hate speech. Specifically targeting black women and there was one final attempt by some common sense having whites via the courts and C. Delores Tucker standing by her lonesome trying to stave off the tidal wave of depravity that followed. Of course some people are still trying to defend Lil Wayne’s profanity-laced ode to f**king every woman while his 10 year old daughter twirled behind him in see-through leggings but by now I have to wash my hands of the black collective.

    Comment by actsoffaithblog — August 12, 2009 @ 8:34 pm

  5. That should read “until he was NOT deferred to”

    Comment by actsoffaithblog — August 12, 2009 @ 8:35 pm

  6. Faith, as you can tell by my post, this is a huge area of ambivalence for me. I appreciated your original writing on this subject. As a fellow academic, I understand all too well how validation as a professional and a scholar often comes at the cost of balancing your racial identity and standing “in the community.” It is not an easy place to be. But as I said in a previous post, I still do respect Gates’ scholarly contributions (well, I think my exact words were to the effect that I have an “intellectual crush” on him :)) even as I think he was far, far off the mark with his 2 Live Crew defense—especially in hindsight.

    I did not say this in my post, but I did try while working on it to find any statements Dr. Gates has made more recently, looking back on that case—especially now that he and we all can see what much commercial rap has come to. But I could find nothing. (Doesn’t mean it is not there, but I just could not find anything through Google, etc.)

    Claudia, I think your feelings bout Dre’s work points out exactly the kind of ambivalence I am talking about. I definitely have more to say on the subject and would love for you, Faith and others to “join in” in a more formal way. I have been meaning to email you, Nordette and MC about a follow-up post/discussion.

    Nordette, as always thanks for your viewpoint. I think that as a writer, your contribution to this topic is especially needed. Again, I want to be in touch about exploring this topic further.

    MC, hopefully you have thought about it further! LOL I think you’d have another unique viewpoint to contribute to this discussion.

    Thank you all for commenting. This post was a hard one for me to write—and ended up being longer than I usually am comfortable with on a blog, so I am glad that some folks read and reacted to it!

    Comment by pprscribe — August 13, 2009 @ 7:09 am

  7. “Perform your obligatory duty, because action is indeed better than inaction.” Bhagavad Gita

    This is pretty much my entire take on life. And I think if we started adopting these principles as black people, we would see some change in our communities. We see what inaction has done. I don’t even mean going out and volunteering in the traditional sense, but simply being indifferent to the reality of what is going on is, to me, almost as damaging as partaking.

    I was just telling Mr. Slim, when talking about the health care debate and organic vs. non-organic foods, that Americans don’t like to hear the truth. They take offense easily when people, even other Americans, point out flaws and behavior that is deemed unacceptable. The truth may not be pretty. It may even offend some, but it doesn’t make it less truthful.

    I just watched a video (and posted it on my blog) of a black woman grinding on her newborn baby. I don’t do that to poke fun or say, “Look I am so much better than her.” I gain nothing from that. I don’t need her validation, nor would I want it, so pointing out her actions to aggrandize myself serves me none. In fact it made me ill, and I wanted to hit her. I post these things because I hope that one image, one video will call people to action.

    When I first started blogging, I thought speaking out was “it.” “It”, I see now, is not enough.

    We are at defcon 1. We’ve watched and condemned and talked and postulated and all these things, and things are not changing. This is why I posted the video from “Network.” I want black folks to wake up and say “I’m not going to take this anymore.”

    We have to show these people that we care, even if nobody else cares and caring means that we may not do what is “politically correct”, but we will do what is required.

    Comment by Seattle Slim — August 18, 2009 @ 12:27 am

  8. […] the misogyny and the extra helpings of the n-word and the homophobia and the violence. (I have posted about this issue in the past, and hope to do another post—along with some of the commenters […]

    Pingback by This So-Called Post-Post-Racial Life — August 28, 2009 @ 7:26 am

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