The album cover for 2 Live Crew's rap LP, As Nasty As They Wanna Be, shows four black women on the beach. Their backs to the camera, their profiles obscured by loose hair, the women's most noticeable features are their asses, revealed by thong bathing-bottoms. Under the triangles of the women's legs the members of 2 Live Crew sprout fully formed. They beam at the viewer from the hillside below, their black shirts offsetting multiple gold chains. The composition strikes one as though the women's asses are their faces, as if, in a curious perspectival reverse they are holding up the back row in a class picture shot from behind, with 2 Live Crew sitting up front.
While nothing new in terms of salacious album covers, this cover and its album sparked an unusual level of debate when released in 1989. Featuring tracks like "The Fuck Shop" and "Big Black Dick Almighty," As Nasty As They Wanna Be was designed to shock, and it succeeded. In 1990, a Florida federal district judge ruled to ban the record on grounds of obscenity. The Crew was Miami-based, and Judge Jose Gonzalez's ruling seemed to be making a statement (by making an example of the group) regarding what cultural values Gonzalez wanted his state to be known for. Shortly after the ruling, three band members were arrested while performing at a Florida strip club. They were later acquitted.
The songs on As Nasty As They Wanna Be sound pretty tame now, and the incident is mostly forgotten outside of black media studies, which regard it as a prime example of prejudice in play within recent juridical history. The controversy is notable for what it can tell us about its context-that at one time the U.S. government felt women needed this kind of protection against the aggressive sexual attentions of four young black rappers. The ruling took place alongside a slew of statements by politicians in the early 90s, voicing their objection to an explicit new strain of hip-hop which was spreading rapidly. In fact, 2 Live Crew was somewhat dissociated from this trend, which found its apotheosis in mid-90s gangsta rap. The gangsta subgenre developed from 80's hardcore acts like N.W.A., and depicted a male-dominated gang culture to which sex was, if not an afterthought, more of an "in and out" affair than something to obsess over. Quantity of partners had eclipsed qualitative prowess in bed. The first half of the 90s would see a rapid expansion in gangsta's visibility, aided by former N.W.A. member Dr. Dre's release of The Chronic on his newly formed label Death Row Records.
Nevertheless, gangsta rap drove home what critics of hip hop suspected, that women had been marginalized within mainstream hip-hop to sexual accomplices to a male-driven culture. Gangsta's cavalier treatment of black women was embodied by the cover for Snoop Dogg's 1993 album Doggystyle, which depicted a pink panty'd rear protruding from a doghouse, with Snoop Dogg sitting astride it. These were the years in which Dan Quayle called Tupac's now revered first album 2pacalypse Now "a disgrace," the years of Tipper Gore's anti-hip hop campaign. As rap emerged as a mainstream player, it reveled in riling up its detractors. The activist feminist author bell hooks, who had a keen eye for hypocrisy, was one of the first critics to dig deeper into the moral outrage surrounding gangsta rap, which entirely overlooked the important musical work being done amidst the sexism, posturing and "ghettoizing" of hip-hop. Hooks drew a direct line between the rise of gangsta ho's and pimps and the misogynist, exploitive circumstances of greater American life. How convenient, she noted in Z Magazine, was this anti-rap agenda, which happened to give politicians the platform to take a moral stand against the threat of young black men.
Our current modus operandi (if such conformity exists) is the opposite of the 1990s' outrage. Legislators and tastemakers alike exhibit a conscientious reticence to question hip-hop and women's role in it. The Republican senator Marco Rubio is lauded as "in touch" for his love of hip-hop. And in a shallow and somewhat blaxpoitative misread, misogyny is now accepted as endemic to the form. While rappers claim to accurately describe poor, urban zones and the prostitutes who populate them, and record labels blame the public's heightened appetite for sexually explicit content, it remains true that no other music genre in recent history has seen such an extreme regression in the depiction of any one demographic. One is left to wonder what could possibly have spurred this, and finds no one instigator, only a cast of enablers operating in tandem with the performers themselves. In her 2008 book The Hip Hop Wars, black cultural studies scholar Tricia Rose observed that "black women generally (despite the incredible emphasis in rap on golddiggers, bitches, ho's, chicken-heads, etc.) continue to be profoundly supportive of black men." Meanwhile, as music industry veteran and Industry Ears think tank president Lisa Fager Bediako testified in a 2007 congressional hearing, label executives continued to plead the case for their talents' right to degrading lyrics, while discouraging mention of other topical issues, among them the war in Iraq, critique of former President Bush and the Free Mumia campaign.
White people in general feel a lack of authority to speak for hip-hop at all, and the reasons for this reticence are mostly what one would think. But in addition to white guilt, thinking too hard about hip-hop feels like a bit of a faux pas. The culture itself is predicated on street authenticity, and places a high value on improvised performance exemplified by freestyle battles and dance competitions. Hip-hop does not easily lend itself to the sort of academic analyses which saturate other popular arts-notably film. Attempting to construct such an analysis from outside the culture feels particularly naïve and misguided.
But the view from outside is primary to hip-hop's narrative and critical to understanding its history. It has always been about not acquiescing to pop conventions but rather confronting and flouting these conventions. The genre embodies the persona of the disenfranchised "other" and brings this position front and center, highlighting the systematic inequalities African Americans deal with everyday. For a culture which emerged from the deeply disenfranchised Bronx of the 1970s, steeped from its inception in political consciousness, hip-hop's embrace of misogyny in the twenty year span from As Nasty As They Wanna Be to the present can feel less like a contradiction than a calculated about-face.
Within the Western dynamic of self-versus-other, the other's value was historically perceived in negative terms. The other was made so by his or her relation à propos what was culturally agreed to be powerful, important, and privileged. In practice here in the U.S., the very position of relation to rather than residing within cultural norms has tended to yield this country's most rigorous critical analyses and richest cultural production, as disenfranchised persons exist in a state of constant hyperawareness not shared by the privileged. They are in a prime position to listen critically and to respond. American black women, doubly disenfranchised by gender and race, would seem the ideal candidates to assume the mantle of this alternate cultural production. However, for the past two decades black women have been both highly visible in hip-hop and oddly quiet in the face of its defamatory lyrics and caricatured depictions. One example, useful in its explicitness, is the music video model. These models' presence in current music videos, usually set in strip clubs or in some sort of contemporary poolside harem, is constructed in marked opposition to what the women ostensibly highlight-the culture of black dance and participation in the songs being performed. As Imani Perry noted in Prophets of the Hood (2004), "black American dance is discursive in that sexuality is usually combined with humor, and that the body is used to converse with other moving bodies. Yet the women who appear in these videos usually dance in a two-dimensional fashion... Despite the gyrations of the video models, their uninterested, wet-lipped languor stands in sharp contrast to (for example) the highly sexualized booty dancing of the Deep South." The multiracial women who listen to and participate in hip-hop are not flat or dull. How did women, particularly black and Latina women, become such flat, dully sexual characters within its imagery? Many critics answer that non-white women are simply easy targets for lowest common denominator pop cultural production (which, cynically, skirts Caucasian women as not amply curved to be sexually convincing, as well as better connected in voicing their objections). But to reduce women's role to that of easy targets for corporate patriarchy, forcibly inserted into a male-dominated genre, overlooks their contributions to the culture and deprives male performers of their creative agency by insinuating they are pawns of record label marketing.
In this exhibition, Michelle Marie Charles caricatures some of rap's least nuanced reads of women. Charles's four-minute-long video Explicit and Deleted uses performers in drag to recast the gender dynamic. Further complicating the rap video trope, her video ho' interrupts the artist's lilting hook to critique what s/he's doing and how s/he got there. Charles's piece taps into a rekindling of grotesque and unsanctioned imagery in experimental and commercial video alike. Her work can be positioned in relation to that of artist Ryan Trecartin and to Jamaican dance hall videos, both of which are rich in compelling performers but (relatively) poor in capital to float production costs. Employing ironic, buoyantly subversive visual cues (blackface, cross-dressing, hypersexual costuming and post-production vocal pitch manipulation) this style owes as much to carnivalesque African and Caribbean tradition as to music videos. But it follows the MTV format of narrative occurring in tandem with a soundtrack, with performers periodically breaking the narrative arc to face the audience. The artist Kalup Linzy uses this facing strategy as a means of direct connection with his viewer. His use of drag is as confessional and intimate as the long-suffering characters he depicts. Via the piece's synthed beat, the pacing of the artist's Chewing Gum (like much of Linzy's work) draws from the familiar cadence of the post-coital rehashings one has with close friends. Hip-hop provides the backbeat for his characters to analyze their experience. Chewing Gum's morning-after stories pick up where mainstream narratives peter out: after the show, after the after-party, after you've taken it to the room...
Rather than subvert notions of gender by a simple flipping, performance artist Narcissister piles on references to male and female, along with exotic dance, pornography, street culture, fashion photography and stagecraft. Her portraits approach male/female characteristics as costume devices from which to cherry-pick. Narcissister, staring blankly from a Barbie-like mask whose plastic tan nearly perfectly matches the artist's own brown skin tone is, while mute, nevertheless fully engaged, sexually powerful and creepy. The persona's creator was formally trained as a modern dancer, and the physicality of her bodily presence erupts from behind assorted masks and faux skins. Narcissister is photographed in various levels of exposure beneath masks and costumes. Her face, though, is always obscured. This device denies the viewer the voyeur's satisfaction that porn expertly provides.
In some ways, pop music has been inching its way towards porn's complete exposure since the turn of the 19th into 20th century, gaining a little ground each decade. Somewhat contrarily, hip-hop's disregard for both pop and "polite" conventions made it an ideal carrier to bring pop's particular American dream to fruition. In the two decades since hooks defended hip-hop's menacing gangsta thread, this thread has been largely displaced by a highly produced, baroque sensibility embodied by artists like Lil Wayne, Gucci Mane and Rick Ross. And this turn brings us, finally, to the culpability of the performers themselves, and the degree to which we as listeners assign it. These artists' hyperbolically derogatory lyrics and overblown videos feed our collective desire for the frank, sometimes comedic display of the explicit, a market previously cornered by pornography. There's something undeniably mesmerizing in the seal-like bodies of video girls as they emerge from the shallow end of the pool in Rick Ross's "Pop That," just as there's something seductive about the compounded hardened/goofy male personas providing their counterpoint. The winking self-awareness in these artists' excessive gestures imparts a pre-apocalyptic "one last party" vibe, while highlighting (by counterpoint) the widening income disparity and limited choices that are the reality for many young black men living in poverty. Perhaps this is why it's so easy to dismiss their complicity in fortifying misogynist stereotypes. Given the state of things, why bother being a "voice for change"? Importantly, the hooks are also infectious.
The same time span that saw the rise of ironic self-awareness in mainstream rap has borne witness to an expansion of alternative identities. Imani Perry's deep South booty dancing has been reimagined as sissy bounce in New Orleans, a hip-hop that is overtly queer, transgendered and female privileging. Concurrently, as Nicki Minaj makes a path for performers like Azealia Banks in New York (even as the two rappers feud publicly), women rappers have made swift strides both in visibility and as agents of their own identities beyond the so-called Madonna/whore dichotomy that continues to dominate mainstream pop. In this exhibition, Rashaad Newsome incorporates hybrid hip-hop beats into the soundtrack for his video Rain Has Fallen. Against a rapped soundtrack, celebrated Vogue dancer Dawn Ebony whips her hair with an intensity usually reserved for one's loins. Her movement is neither the nihilist, vision-obscuring head banging of grunge, nor the coy weave toss of rap videos. It is instead as if the viewer has been made an eyewitness to a private, danced meditation. The Vogue dancer Aaliah Junius Booker appears full-body in Dance of the Succubus, also exhibited here. Newsome's previous Shade series folded the gestural bravado of Vogue into an orchestra of hip-hop dismissal. In this video Booker combines Vogue's ornately stylized gestures with moves taken from contemporary hip-hop and modern dance.
If the jagged dry heat of Bronx summers cleared the streets for hip-hop, the culture was incubated in New Orleans' steamy Quarters. The New Orleans-based Sister Gertrude Morgan provides a useful touchstone for the notion of otherness, and for the themes of this exhibition-hip hop, art, and female identity. She is primarily remembered as a self-taught painter of sprawling devotional scenes, but in the 1970s Morgan was also a widely recognized musician in her home city. The measured, insistent beat of her half-sung, half-shouted spirituals (aided by her tambourine) have a contemporary resonance with the staccato, evangelist-like intonations of the contemporary Virginia-born rapper Angel Haze. But while Haze's lyrics and stage persona court controversy outright, with the artist assuming contrary positions as a critical stance, the status of otherness was put upon Morgan. Her paintings and records have received significant attention as outsider or "visionary" practice, terms which do the work a disservice. The notion of visionary though bears some thought as it pertains to minority producers and consumers of culture. To have such "otherworldly" visions necessarily precludes one's agency as a critically engaged spectator in the present, a role bell hooks understands as profoundly powerful. Hooks called for active looking, a practice she advocated for black women watching generic popular films in her 1992 essay "The Oppositional Gaze": "Given the context of class exploitation, and racist and sexist domination, it has only been through resistance, struggle, reading and looking 'against the grain,' that black women have been able to value our process of looking enough to publicly name it." Thus hooks bestows upon viewership an active participatory status.
Hooks was responding to the experience of cinema-going. But this active engagement can be extended to the female-particularly the black female-reception of hip-hop. An active, critical engagement with any artistic practice demands that one not simply internalize but rather name the motifs and conclusions drawn therein, many of which, in the case of hip-hop, intentionally objectify, reduce and victimize women and gay men. Listening to hip-hop, for black women, is in part an exercise in registering and dismissing, or perhaps enjoying a frisson of objectification one would not acquiesce to in daily life. There is power in this sort of listening, just as there is in appreciating the women in the music videos, whose agencies are consistently compromised, but whose silent bodies are an impressive and luxurious complement to the beats they dance to. You can't fight sex.
Along with the disadvantages of outsider status comes a unique position from which to engage the issues hip-hop presents. For deeply engaged practitioners like Prince Harvey, who performs live in this exhibition as BoomBoxBoy, an outsider's vantage point is a valuable asset. The artist's work in his BoomBoxBoy alter-ego builds upon the role of the observant listener, as in his earlier audio piece Girls, Girls, Girls (Safety First), recorded in Baltimore. Wearing his persona's costume of black hot shorts, gold chain and oversized boom box, Prince Harvey is hassled by passing girls on the street. The artist puts himself in the position of women whose suggestive attire has made them targets for verbal and physical abuse and rape and the accusation that they were "asking for it." In the audio recording, the girls chastise him, implying that he is drawing dangerous attention to himself, then follow and continue to taunt him. "Chill, chill," you can hear him repeat. Broadcasting the entirety of this 40-minute tussle, the artist inverts his passive position into one of agency by refolding his listening role into an expression of his own artistic voice.
A phenomenon of political spectrums is that opposite positions on their peripheries tend to find much on which they agree, as if the axis bends back on itself at a certain point. Commercial hip-hop has in some ways inadvertently aligned itself with the values of reactionary ultraconservatives, for whom black men like Trayvon Martin are a threat in their very presence, and black women unworthy of consideration beyond the bedroom. The most authentic, confrontational, innovative reaction to the current state of things, and one most in keeping with hip-hop's roots, might thus be to disregard the current conventions of the genre itself: to write lyrics about Iraq, about being gay, or staying in at night, or to address or empathize with what it means to be a black woman. Hip-hop's recent self-reflexive turn predicts such self-separation and self-detachment as the logical next step.
"Fuck it" irony is incredibly appealing because it's incredibly safe, a non-stance in the face of hopelessness. But apocalyptic nihilism is a lifestyle for the young, and hip-hop's more resilient players inevitably have to get back to the project of improving the world at hand. Some of the most innovative young performers have already beaten them to it. In the meantime, the artists exhibited here mine the genre in the fullness of its contradictions, and reveal an eloquent, sincere, forward-thinking and authentic voice.
Cat Kron lives and works in New York. She is a contributor to Kingsboro Press, Art in America, and Dis Magazine, as well as additional independent publications. Her work focuses on late 20th century expanded media. In 2012, she co-organized the performance/installation event I Feel Like That All the Time at Know More Games Projects.
Mentor Brian Boucher is online editor at Art in America magazine. He has been with the publication for eight years, previously as assistant editor, associate editor, and news editor; before coming to A.i.A., he worked for several years in museum education. Boucher has published dozens of reviews and several feature articles in the print magazine as well as numerous exhibition previews and news items at artinamericamagazine.com. His latest feature article, in the March 2013 issue, is "The Last Testament of Ken Price." He has also written articles and reviews for magazines including New York magazine, Flash Art and ArtReview. He lives in New York.