Is hip hop the castle or the rainbow? - Darlene Vinicky[i]
Goddess Clap Back: Hip Hop Feminism in Art is a group exhibition highlighting Hip Hop Feminism as an emerging motif of contemporary artists working with performance, photography, video, collage, sculpture and sound.
Hip Hop Feminism, as coined by Joan Morgan (When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost, 1999) is a Feminism for those "Brave enough to fuck with the grays." Hip Hop Feminists move beyond a simple critique of misogyny in Rap and embrace the vitality of race, gender, class, urbanism and youth culture as a critical matrix we can use to make sense of the world and change power relations.[ii] Claiming a kaleidoscopic worldwide following across affiliations of race, age, nationality and class, Hip Hop is a vital source of popular pedagogy linking political, economic and social justice to cultural crossover.
Hip Hop Feminists deconstruct, magnify and challenge the animalistic and hypersexual "loose" image of the black woman developed during the past two centuries that still exists as a trope in Hip Hop and is an image which contributes to the exploitation, abuse, and objectification of the black female body.[iii] Hip Hop feminists challenge the gangsta-pimp-ho trinity[iv] of commercial rap in which Rick Ross thinks date rape is just another rhyme. They challenge a media in which The Onion still feels the need to call 9-year-old academy-award nominated Quvenzhané Wallis the C-word for laughs during the Oscars and front it's not a race thing. As Dr. Safiya U. Noble wrote in Bitch Magazine, if you google "black girls" all roads still lead to demeaning, pornographic terms and depictions.[v]
The selected works in the exhibition highlight the way in which Hip Hop's mainstream appeal stems from a historical situation in America dating back to auction blocks and minstrel stages in which "the visual production of blacks as shiny commodities," caused African diasporic subjects to inhabit a representational space at once hypervisible and unseen.[vi] It is a bold manifestation of the necessity of Transnational Feminist discourse identifying Hip Hop as a powerful stain of the ultra global extralinguistic conditions bell hooks' characterizes as a sociocultural climate in which consumers are primed to let "Prejudices and xenophobia go and happily 'eat the other.'"[vii]
Goddess Clap Back interrogates the sex fetish of cooked commercial rap as a product of the West's puritanical roots and the way in which Hip Hop Culture and its proto-genres is the outgrowth of African Diasporic cosmologies that uphold a notion of cosmic oneness which defies Western dualities such as nature/culture, mind/body, spiritual/secular, male/female, intellect/intuition and dark/light. It identifies Hip Hop Culture as the apex of insurrectionary knowledge concerning the legacy of racism in the United States so much that this history is largely an oral one which pushed its way through music while other outlets for its expression were blocked.[viii] Goddess Clap Back explores the way in which visual artists have contested, revised, appropriated and celebrated this radical black musical tradition.
Why the Goddess? Why Now? Why a white artist-curator with her own suspicious history of something like racial mimicry? And more important - does linking Hip Hop to a distant Afrimerican cosmological frame erase the origins of the genre as a multiracial American folk practice, particularly its Nuyorican and Caribbean influences and very much alive and well OG pedagogues that serve as distinguished faculty at NYU and Cornell University or teach in public schools and community centers? A myriad of problematics emerged as I began to curate this exhibition and write about it. I wanted to avoid throwing a bunch of black artists in a white box and invoking Hip Hop as another ghettocentric frame. When I see a cultural miracle in the glint of a 22k grill I just might be on some wh*te b*atch shit!? Although Hank Willis Thomas's 2006 photo Black Power (from the Branded Series) seems to suggest similar, albeit complex associations.
Goddess Clap Back comes out of an interdisciplinary inquiry into the spirituality of Hip Hop cross-pollinated with my embodied knowledge as a yoga instructor. Yoga and Hip Hop are two of our most prominent contemporary expressions of Earth and Sky awareness, both deal in consciousness and earth-based wisdom. Fred Moten's "Your ass is in what you sing"[ix] recalls the fundamental importance of the lower triangle of the chakras - root, sex and solar plexus - a tripartite of energetic centers that roots us to the earth so that we can be a transmitter for spiritual vibrations of the upper folds (music of the spheres, cosmic elders, Gods and Goddesses). Without embodied anatomy - the flat feet and mobile hips we find in yoga and African-based dance styles pull energy up from the earth - the opening of the third eyes is useless and frenzied.
In his extensive anthropological studies of Africa, particularly what in the West we call "possession dance," Robert Farris Thompson alludes to blackness as a transcendental state of being. My interest in identifying the spectacularized female iconographies of Hip Hop as contemporary archetypal images of the Goddess belies my California Consciousness and the widespread interest in the Divine Feminine characterizing my crew of (suburban) California. As Jay Z says, "[Hip Hop] brought the suburbs to the hood."[x] Brain surgeon Leonard Shlain, also from California, contends that archetypal images of the Goddess appeal to the non-verbal right brain, which is responsible for the comprehension of the language of cries, gestures, touching and body stance we see in Hip Hop. Shlain's theory is that the shift from matriarchal to patriarchal authority within Western society corresponded to the introduction of written language and the subsequent cultural shift from right brain to left-brain dominated thinking and comprehension. His point is that modern advancements in technology particularly the mass mediated nature of global internet culture are leading toward a shift in gendered power relationships cross-culturally.[xi]
I think particularly when we dissect the misogyny carrying the sail of commercial rap, there's a thin line between reverence and fear harkening back to matriarchal periods when women's swelling bellies and breasts were so worshipped and revered for their procreative powers some men literally castrated themselves in an effort to bleed and be closer to the Goddess (not yet understanding the role they played in the creation of life). Male fear and sense of inferiority fed the shift into Patriarchal religion and the domination of "the dark continent" - women, people of color, gays, whole nations and Mother Nature. As Jaqueline Rose contends, "Dictators demand not only obedience, but also love. Freedom may not be sexy, but fear is wholly determined by sex."[xii]
Lauren Kelley, whose animated video work deals directly with representation and the black female body, pointed out during the course of my research how reverence for the Black female body - in the real, not the spectacular - must be a governing principle of any Hip Hop Feminist project. Which means being careful not to engage the consumption of blackness as a false claim to radicalism or the spiritual, or confuse white alienation and heterosexual anxieties with black cool.[xiii] When bell hooks calls rap a "perfect paradigm of colonialism" and Jayna Brown articulates how black expressive forms have been historically "miscoded as signatures for a timed and timeless past and...used as the source by which the modern (white) body could re-member itself,"[xiv] I want to talk about Hip Hop as a landmark moment of miscegenation in American popular culture. I want to talk about Hip Hop as a contemporary mulatto text with infinitely complex, two-toned, reciprocal and multiple meanings scripting the ruptures of post-modern self/other identifications.
Hip Hop - in its myriad forms and respective anti-forms - is sacred medicine upending institutionalized racism's spectacles of violence and pleasure perpetrated under a rubric of paternalism and property. Hip Hop is ancestor worship of an incipient warrior culture within an eroding white patriarchal capitalist milieu that disrespects women out of fear and awe. Enter Sean Paul Gallegos's Weapons of Mass Consumption(2012). A Bronx born artist of Native American heritage refashions designer brand name kicks as sacred objects. Or Irvin Climaco Morazan's dawning of his massive Ghettoblaster headdress. Documenting a performance practice based loosely on Shamanism, Morazan's video recounts a recent work where the artist as Ghettoblaster conducted the engines of an all-female biker gang in a parking lot of San Antonio, TX. If you question how *bling* and shamanism coincide, take a trip to South America were as Morazan recalls you're very likely to find the village shaman living in a hut filled with an assortment of glittering, tinsel-like weather eroded commercial rubbish. Not to mention that archetypal images of the Goddess - Black Warrior Goddess Kali and the West African Goddess Oshun (she who rules love and the arts, especially dance) in particular - are often depicted adorned by gold chains. In the work of both Gallegos and Morazan, we see the Hip Hop aesthetic incorporated into a modern day earth based wisdom vernacular.
Rashaad Newsome is perhaps one of the most important artists of the moment. His early work with queer ball culture and recent fusion of Hip Hop and heraldry continue to probe and expand the horizons of black expressive rhetoric. Commenting on the multitudinous forms of black corporeal expression from the gender non-conformant Mom-dominated "houses" of ball culture to the queer elegance of the Hip Hop nation, Newsome's work denies the primacy of the heterosexual/patriarchal family model constantly invoked as an index for the overall health of the nation. Newsome's focus on the aesthetic of Hip Hop is expressive of the utilitarian nature of African Art: dance that initiates adulthood, a mask that channels spirit, clothing that conveys status, a drum that talks.[xv]
BoomBoxBoy, aka Prince Harvey, is amongst artists like Rashaad Newsome who are asserting a queer presence in their critical embrace of popular media. Harvey's ongoing street performance BoomBoxBoy is equal parts Radio Raheem and Rappin' Rockin Barbie (Mattel© circa 1992). Prince Harvey strips down to his underwear and dawns the BoomBoxBoy chains as a type of drag, meanwhile using the platform to talk about what it means to be a black male, as well as get people clapping and vocalizing. His approach is one that curtails Hip Hop's associations with misogyny and unrestricted male hetero privilege with Aquarian age swagger.
In featured artist Noelle Lorraine Williams's photograph from her series Hijack | The Birth of Mala (2012) I read Missy Elliot refashioned as a contemporary Goddess Archetype of sorts. In a powerful visual that simultaneously challenges and reappropriates the embodied female MC, in Williams's words this series is about "desire, fear, sisterhood, change and protecting the heart and womb." Likewise Oasa DuVerney's recent 4-channel video The MYLFworks Projects (2013), features the artist as a fictional character known as the MYLF: a domestic caretaker straddling the roles of mother and sex worker.
Damali Abrams, also working in video, has covered topics in her work ranging from the prison industrial complex to Love. You may know her for her d.i.y. rap flow Baby It Couldn't Have Been You That I Fearedaddressing the deranged barrage of media depicting black males as worthless losers - too fatherless, too broke or too incarcerated to partner the hordes of successful black women. In her recent video Abrams follows up her media mish mash Baby It Couldn't Have Been You That I Feared with What Would We Do Baby Without Us, a spoken word piece incorporating rap songs that talk about love performed in alternating verses as a duet with Jesse Gammage.
Taking aim at the complexity of love relationships, abrasive media depictions and definitive socio-economic inequalities still facing black women, MYLF Works, Baby and Hijack revamp a promising modus operandi in Hip Hop, namely, the creation of a space in which Black women speak freely about sex, race and class. With criticism of some of the rougher (more sexual, more materialistic and more crass) female lyricists still the aim of a host of conservative gatekeepers, feminists and pushers of respectability politics alike, Hip Hop Feminism very much follows in the duplicitous shadow realms of the Blues women. As outlined by Angela Davis, "Denial of sexual agency was in an important respect the denial of freedom for working class black women... women's blues provided a cultural space for a community-building among working-class black women... it was a space in which the coercions of bourgeois notions of sexual purity and 'true womanhood' were absent."[xvi]
By this same token when we talk about the historical minstrel - burlesque trajectory of the black/white dancing body sex and class become the unspoken binding agents. In her work Mae West, Marilyn, Madonna and Me (2009) artist and new age minister Lainie Love Dalby dawns oodles of bling and raps in a white room eating marshmallows with two well oiled black muscle men poised at her side, feeding her and lifting her body. Dalby's saccharine hyperbole is delivered without the usual dose of cultural amnesia. Her video bespeaks the way in which performers like May West and Madonna bravely broke taboos around race and sex in a nation were historically (good) white women weren't allowed to move their hips, but were still raped accordingly.
Friends and colleagues of the artist known as Narcissister, Lainie and I both participated as a "Sister" in Narcisster's 2010 production at The Kitchen. Trained as a professional dancer at the Alvin Ailey school, Narcissister's performance work explores black female subjectivity in a manner referencing the loaded historical trajectory of American burlesque, and as of late, is making a case for radical self-love as a political act. In her recent solo show "Narcissister is You," Narcissister effectively diffused the ubiquitous identity markers anchoring her work by projecting a three channel video installation in which men and women of all ages, sizes and pigments dawn the Narcissister mask and do their thang.
Also tapping into the self-love referendum is the much celebrated artist Kalup Linzy, in which at least one of whom's videos Narcissister has appeared. An artist who's previous work adopts the music-video meme and consistent marriage of food and sex we associate with Hip Hop; a pairing which traces throughBessie Smith Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl to Lil Wayne Lollipop (the latter being the name of a super gay vignette Linzy produced in 2006), Kalup Linzy's latest work is a power ballad for the romantically challenged. Of feature length, Romantic Loner, shot in the headlands of Northern California, is a deep, soul-searching gesture fusing the formal strictures of art making with the effusive qualities of religious repent, self-help and music as spiritual communion with God.
As viewers in a marketplace were the gangsta ethos and the naked female object saturates most of Hip Hop's texts[xvii] can we use Hip Hop to do more than productively revel in the crises of late modernity? Theorist Kismet Nuñez has called out Nicki Minaj as Esu, the African God of interpretation and the connector of the people to their African past. Citing her chameleon like maneuverability and two-faced depiction of black feminist (and queer) possibility, Nuñez writes Minaj as "diasporic black, as radical, and as speculative." Connecting back to Farris Thompson's trajectory (possession dance - embodying spirit - the sign becomes real) I think in a feminist reading of Minaj in which she embodies Esu the trickster - guardian and inspirer of interpretation and transformation, "ultimate master of potentiality" with "the force to make all things happen and multiply" lies a potent source of shifts in consciousness.[xviii]
Michelle Marie Charles in her 2012 video Explicit and Deleted takes an alternate tack. Playing alternating scenes as male and female rappers, Charles caricatures the pink haired monolith as a "FUCKING FREE BROAD!" that's alone at the top, cocaine-speed and certified Queen, make that KING, as if asking why Nickey? Why only one (female MC)? Bracketed by a cast of multiracial cohorts, Charles wades through years of misogynist hip hop rhymes as she caresses an assortment of lumps, bumps and bottles with handmade idealic MTV-scapes as a backdrop.
A holistic, transcendental, interdisciplinary and supafresh approach to the art of African-diasporic expressive form is nothing new. Sanford Biggers, for one, made a concerted effort to connect the Hip Hop ethos to the spiritual in his seminal works Mandala of the B-Bodhisattva and mythical dreamcoatGhettobird. Another clear precedent to much of the work in Goddess Clap Back is the New Orleans based outsider artist-preacher Sister Gertrude Morgan whose "Holiness and Sanctity Movement," was an African American faith that taught music, song and dance as a formal communion with God in the 60s and 70s.
So Clap back, yo.
And If ya still thank Hip Hop Feminists ain't got fierce bars like no doubt
let the drum tease your bum and eat my muthafuckin heart out
[i] Darlene Vinicky, "(Progressive) Hip-Hop Cartography," Wish to Live: The Hip Hop Feminism Pedagogy Reader Ruth Nicole Brown + Chamara Jewel Kwakye, eds. 2012
[ii] Michael Jeffries, "The Name and Game of Hip Hop Feminism," Home Girls Make Some Noise!: Hip-hop Feminism Anthology, 2007
[iii] Alesha Dominek Washington, "Not the Average Girl from the Videos," Home Girls ibid
[iv] Dr. Tricia Rose in "What is the Current Direction of Hip-Hop?" Published Dec 31, 2012 on YOUTUBE by 1HoodMedia, "Our World with Black Enterprise" hosted by Dr. Marc Lamont Hill
[v] Safiya U. Noble, "Missed Connections: What Search Engines Say About Women" Bitch Magazine, Spring 2002
[vi] Krista Thompson, "A Sidelong Glance: The Practice of African Diasporic Art History in the United States," CAA Journal, 2011
[vii] bell hooks, Outlaw Culture, 1994
[viii] Russel A. Potter, Spectacular Vernaculars: Hip Hop and the Politics of Postmodernism,1995
[ix] Fred Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition, 2003
[x] Jay Z quoted by Todd Boyd, "Intergenerational Culture Wars: Civil Rights v. Hip Hop" Todd Boyd and Yusuf Nuruddin, That's The Joint!: The Hip Hop Studies Reader, Murray Foreman and Mark Anthony Neal, Eds. 2012
[xi] Leonard Shlain, The Alphabet and the Goddess: The Conflict between Word and Image 1998
[xii] Jaqueline Rose, "Why War?" in Why War, 1993
[xiii] Greg Tate, Flyboy in the Buttermilk, 1992
[xiv] Jayna Brown, Babylon Girls: Black Women Performers and the Shaping of the Modern, 2008
[xv] Eisa Nefertari Ulen, "They're Not Talking About Me" in Home Girls Make Some Noise: Hip Hop Feminism Anthology Gwendolyn D. Pough, Elaine Richardson, Aisha Durham, Rachel Raimist, eds., 2007
[xvi] Angela Y. Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism 1998
[xvii] Murray Forman, The 'Hood Comes First: Race, Space, and Place in Rap and Hip Hop 2002
[xviii] Robert Farris Thompson, Flash of the Spirit, 1983