“Damn Straight, It’s Called Race!” – Rap and the Transcultural Logic of Race

Martin Lüthe,

Universität Gießen

“Is there a problem Officer?” – “Damn Straight, It’s Called Race!” (Mos Def, 1999)

On the brink of the year 2000 – with all its alleged apocalyptic, prophetic meaning ascribed to it – the hip hop movement, in an attempt to grasp its own significance as, arguably, the single most powerful pop-cultural phenomenon following the 1980s, produced an unprecedented number of albums that explicitly interrogated and questioned the role of hip hop as a transcultural, transnational socio-cultural force. Approximately 20 years had past since hip hop, and rap music as its “most successfully commercialized” [Bennett 178, 2004] element, had first become recognized as a new musical style that quickly established itself in mainstream American popular culture continuing the history of so-called crossover-success of African American music in the American, and by extension “Western” cultural marketplace. Late in 1999, rap’s self-reflexive interrogation arguably culminated in Mos Def’s release Black on Both Sides which radicalized the degree of said self-reflection by bundling it directly with questions of race and blackness as the album title indicates.

Accordingly, the aim of this contribution is to enhance an understanding of rap music’s own racial discourse and its transcultural dimensions. In rap music, race and transculturality permanently intersect on the side of production and consumption alike; however, as critics in full accordance with our intuition have continued to point out, the transition from rap music’s production to its consumption in the marketplace is frequently accompanied by another transition; a transition between “cultures,” an effect captured in the ubiquitous metaphor of “crossing-over.” Additionally, the international, transcultural nature of the pop-cultural marketplace spearheaded by American culture selling itself to a transcultural audience adds yet another level of meaning to the phenomenon at hand. Throughout this text I make frequent use of both terms, transcultural and transnational, and they describe two different, if interconnected, phenomenon, a fact that Peter Hitchcock in “Imaginary States: Studies in Cultural Transnationalism” captured in the term “culture/nation nexus” [2003, 4]. The ‘trans’ in both terms obviously depicts the beyond or the transcendence of original locales of specific occurrences. Transnationalism describes the beyond of the nation state or the national and is thus strongly grounded in the study of nation states and the post-colonial study of the ‘beyond’ of the nation. Culture, even though intrinsically linked to the historic emergence of the idea of the nation, the national, and the nation-state describes less a political category than a construed cultural entity that can be found both within or outside of the realm of the nation.

The object here is to closely examine the topos of race in rap music at the turn of the millennium, illustrated by a close-reading of Mos Def’s 1999-song “Mr. Nigga,” and to illustrate that it is the transcultural logic of race that steams rap music’s powerful commercial engine through the transnational marketplace of the 21st century. In order to make the song’s meaning(s) more accessible, I will briefly revisit the pop-cultural history of the Atlantic region and its implications for the study of race and rap. After all, rap music, as W.T. Lahmon illustrates, needs to be contextualized by its own genealogy and the history of the emergence of an Atlantic popular culture, a history convoluted with the construction and significance of race [1998, 214].

A Brief Pop-Cultural History of the Atlantic

Ever since Paul Gilroy’s famous intervention in the study of African diasporic cultures, it has become widely fashionable to perceive the Atlantic as a cultural region bound together by a common history of commerce and exchange, which transcends the realm of the material trading of goods. In his powerful critique of a “nationalistic focus” of English, American, and cultural studies, which he reads as essentially “antithetical to the rhizomorphic, fractal structure of the transcultural, international formation” he calls “the black Atlantic,” Gilroy provides two key reasons for a more profoundly transcultural perspective of the study of culture; he writes:

The first arises from the urgent obligation to reevaluate the significance of the modern nation state as a political, economic, and cultural unit. Neither political nor economic structures of domination are still simply co-extensive with national borders. […] The second reason relates to the tragic popularity of ideas about the integrity and purity of cultures. In particular, it concerns the relationship between nationality and ethnicity. [1993,7]

Along with the emergence of post-colonial and transnational studies, Gilroys intervention in the study of culture, and more generally a modern understanding of cultural units, has led scholars of various disciplines to reconsider the “area” of their research. More importantly with regard to my argument here, Gilroy himself already reads hip hop as a transcultural phenomenon in the black Atlantic, whose “success has been built on transnational structures of circulation and intercultural exchange established long ago” [ibid 87]. However, Gilroy’s account of black music, as insightful as it is regarding “the politics of authenticity” and the transcultural perspectives, shows two significant weaknesses interestingly related to Gilroy’s text’s own politics of authenticity:

Firstly, although Gilroy establishes the Fisk Jubilee Singers and their international deployment as the original example of the black Atlantic’s transcultural logic regarding black culture and does not fail to mention the difficult tension arising from the minstrel shows’ simultaneous popularity, he discards his own evidence of said tension in order to establish the Jubilee Singer’s as an example of early black mass cultural achievement. Secondly, although rap music functions as Gilroy’s primary example of the transcultural black Atlantic region, and convincingly so, he analyzes rap’s significance bypassing the lyrics and music as illegible source material (cf. Gilroy 1993, 72-110).

Consequently, I seek to explore these two shortcomings of Gilroy’s text to refine and update his approach concerning the transcultural significance of rap in the black Atlantic. The first weakness has been widely identified and scholars have begun – inspired by Gilroy’s study – to further complicate the underlying assumptions regarding blackness of Gilroy’s text by means of reevaluating the minstrel shows as mass cultural forms in the Atlantic. The second section of this paper thoroughly engages with the second weakness of Gilroy’s “rap Atlantic.”

Albeit the minstrel shows’ significance as a mass cultural form in 19th century America, which developed a strong potential as a means to mediate, negotiate, and construe racial feeling and thinking, academic writing on the minstrel shows only emerged in the 1970s. Robert C. Toll’s book-length study Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth Century America from 1977 first acknowledges the centrality of the phenomenon in American cultural, and specifically pop-cultural, history. Toll identifies “minstrelsy as a unique insight into thoughts, feelings, and needs of the common people who shaped the show in their own image” and thereby discloses “how the minstrel show served as a microcosm of American race relations for both blacks and whites [Wilmeth 1975, 431]. While Toll’s study constitutes the shows’ centrality as an American phenomenon, he does not argue in the parameters of an Atlantic region, nor does he clarify the tension inherent in the minstrelsy phenomenon – a tension Eric Lott already reflects in the title of his study of 19th century minstrelsy, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class.

Whereas Eric Lott promotes the tension in favor of a “stubborn dualism” between minstrelsy’s “racist uses” on the one and its “celebration of an authentic people’s culture […] with potentially liberating results” [1995, 17] on the other hand, W.T. Lhamon emphasizes the relationship between the emergence of a commercial Atlantic culture and the emergence of minstrelsy within it. Tracing minstrelsy to one of its original locales “of an independent Atlantic popular culture,” Catherine Market, New York City, in the late 18th and early 19th century, Lhamon asserts:

After all, appeal and exchange was what display in a market was about. And from the outset this dancing was supported, applauded, and desired by others. Fascinated whites and blacks congregated to pay for that style and copy it. These marks of difference they appreciated and wanted to absorb. […] This persisting template held for Catherine Market, as for its neighboring theatres […]. It survived transatlantic crossing and held sway both south and north of the Thames. It held for traveling minstrel shows in metropolitan and frontier venues. It survived, even showed the way for, silent and talking films. It was popular on TV in the fifties and even now organizes much of MTV. [2000, 3ff]

In a bold critical move, Lhamon reiterates Paul Gilroy’s black Atlantic, expanding and complicating it through his understanding of the minstrel shows’ centrality in Atlantic lore, both with regard to the birth of Atlantic culture and its persistence. Even in slight disagreement, both scholars – Gilroy and Lhamon – identify the intersection of race and the transcultural logic of the Atlantic as pivotal in the emergence and for an understanding of the black Atlantic realm.

Of course, in terms of musical and musico-social history, establishing the minstrel show as a meaningful paradigm for the analysis of contemporary popular culture, seems simplistic and reductionist with regard to both the alleged historic leap imposed and the wide variety of African American, African Caribbean, and African British musical forms and genres. However, the minstrel shows’ significance lies exactly in the fact that the black mask of burnt cork applied to a white face helps to unmask the primary fascination with ‘black’ cultural forms in a transcultural marketplace such as the Atlantic on the one hand, while it simultaneously complicates notions of authenticity that frequently emerge and re-emerge in discourses concerning black cultural forms. Evidently, the commercial appeal of rap music depends largely on selling blackness and black authenticity to a transcultural audience, even though this may not be the case with regard to all the diverse, less disseminated musical genres in the black Atlantic of the 20th and 21st centuries. Still, it is the simultaneous fear and fascination of consuming the Other that blackface minstrelsy made available in the popular cultures of the Atlantic that continues to be relevant, for example, in the case of rap music’s popularity. Mos Def and the featured Q-Tip explore the transcultural logic of race in the Atlantic realm adding a level of self-reflexivity to the debate, as they recognize rap music’s – and thereby their own – position in said Atlantic lore.

Rap and the Transcultural Logic of Race

Although the song “Mr. Nigga” was never released as a single from the album Black on Both Sides, it is certainly one of the most powerful recordings of rap history, especially in its acrimonious depiction of race, or rather blackness, as a transcultural signifier of difference. The song, as I seek to illustrate, references a variety of pivotal concepts intersecting with skin color in discourses of race, while it simultaneously enters intertextual relationships with a different set of cultural texts, most notably other musical texts that need to be illuminated to contextualize the song. Firstly, the song’s significance on the album is already found expressed in the choice of title: “Mr. Nigga” obviously catches the audience’s immediate attention, if only for the appropriation of the pejorative racial slur. The term’s re-appropriation in rap music discourse has generated wide public interest and a controversial debate in the context of the so-called “culture wars” in the early 1990s in the United States; the nexus “Mr. Nigga,” a combination of the pejorative racial slur and the rather formal address “Mr.,” immediately sets the tone of the song in that it opens up the field of tension that the lyrics of the song explicate.

Secondly, in addition to its wider, if ironic, alignment with rap’s discourse on race as expressed by the appropriation of the racial slur, the song title connects it with the actual first single release of the album, “Ms. Fat Booty,” which narrates an erotic episode in the life of the lyrical-I/rapper that ends because “commitment is something she [Sharice/Ms. Fat Booty] can’t manage [Smith & Dorrell, 1999]. Interestingly, although the song reinforces certain stereotypes of black femininity and black female sexuality commonly iterated in rap music, the song still establishes an ironic break with rap discourse convention in that the lyrical-I/rapper in the song lacks the male bravado all too common in rap’s depiction of African American masculinity. As is frequently the case in the traditional male blues lyrics, the lyrical-I in “Ms. Fat Booty” is overwhelmed by the beauty of his love interest and thereby driven into a position of absolute romantic powerlessness.

Thirdly, the song enters intertextual relationships in its deployment of sampling. Critics and scholars have thoroughly discussed the musico-technological practice of sampling in its significance within rap music and the post-modernist, post-Fordist context of its production. Beginning with Houston A. Baker Jr.’s observation of the hip hop sample as a possible expression of hip hop’s strategy and practice of “massive archiving” [1991, 200] via readings of the sample as essentially “universalist postmodern bricolage” [Sylvan 2000, 295] to Andrew Bartlett’s informed summary of the debate, which in its conclusion brings together different, seemingly contradictory interpretations of the sample, sampling has occupied an entire strand of debate within hip hop studies. Bartlett concludes that:

the massive archiving [that sampling is and enables] stands to signify and theorize communality. With sampling technology, this solidarity may be the aim, but issues of authenticity, ownership, and property seem part and parcel of high-tech aesthetic exercises. And as the disjuncture seen by some in hip hop sampling indicates to them the fragmentation of post-modernity, there is simultaneous inability to see the act’s vibrant connectedness in historical relation to African American aesthetics [1994, 652; original emphasis].

The sample, according to Bartlett, must be understood as a means to simultaneously express communality, the historicity of African American musical expression, and the fragmentation of post-modern urban life in the “Occident.” The song “Mr. Nigga” consists of two significant samples that provide the musical framework and backdrop of the song arguably effecting just stated simultaneity. The melody sample of the musical backdrop stems from Gil-Scott Heron’s 1980-recording “A Legend in His Own Mind,” which Mos Def uses without drastically modifying it; both songs are recorded with similar beats per minute and the exact same tonality of the instruments. Mos Def thereby construes a discursive proximity to Heron’s “A Legend in His Own Mind” – the title powerfully resonates a thematic strand of the narrative in Mos Def’s song – and to the artist Gil-Scott Heron himself, who is best known for his groundbreaking prototypical rap “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” [first recorded and released in 1970] and is generally perceived as one of rap music’s forefathers or prototypes.

The second sample in the song is taken from Jazz icon Ramsey Lewis’ song “Sun Goddess,” which he recorded and released in 1974 in collaboration with members from Earth, Wind & Fire as a personal venture into the style of funk music commonly associated with Earth, Wind & Fire. The title “Sun Goddess” already evokes the classic-Egyptian mythology of Earth, Wind & Fire’s musico-cultural project. Strikingly, Mos Def’s introductory singing on “Mr. Nigga” provides the most obvious reference to “Sun Goddess,” as the singer copies the melody and some of the words of the vocal track of “Sun Goddess.” Taken together, both samples powerfully reference the African American musical traditions of jazz, funk, and the African American message song that Gil-Scott Heron represents, thereby expressing the communality of the so-called black experience in American life on the one hand, while the musical samples create an uplifting, happy-go-lucky atmosphere contradicting the overall message of the song and the lyrical contents.

The very first lines of the song work to establish an immediate identification with the song and its message as it openly seeks a connection with the listening audience of the song, as the lines, “Say ho, everybody say yo/By the way yo/ I said, shake your soul like way back in the day yo” [Smith, Prosper & Davis, 1999]. This prelude to the rap verses of the song draws in the listener and openly places the song in the history of African American musical expression. Following the prelude, Mos Def raps the chorus of the song for the first time, in which the discourse of race emerges with force:

(And check it out now): Who is the cat eating out on the town,
and make the whole dining room turn their head round?
Mr. Nigga, Nigga, Nigga.
He got the speakers in the trunk with the bass on crunk.
Who be riding up in the high-rise elevator,
Other tenants who be praying he ain’t the new neighbor?
Mr. Nigga, Nigga, Nigga
They try to play him like a chump cause he got what they want [ibid].

The song’s chorus articulates the pivotal observation of the song, namely the persistence of a social power system based in the intimate connection between race and class. This central assumption of the song paraphrases scholarly examinations that identify race as a signifier of class to express the convoluted nature of these two categories of social identity and belonging, one of the crucial functions of racism(s) in different cultures. As Stuart Hall puts it,

[R]racism, of course, operates by constructing impassable symbolic boundaries between racially constituted categories, and its typically binary system of representation constantly marks and attempts to fix and naturalize the difference between belongingness and otherness. [1996, 445]

The chorus of the song addresses the issue of belonging and its spatial dimension beginning in the first line, in which “out on the town” suggests a cultural logic of racial and spatial segregation causing a heightened awareness – “and make the whole dining room turn their head round” – that finds it preliminary climax in the “high-rise elevator” and the other tenants’ uneasiness and fear of the song’s protagonist, the well-off African American male.

One of the many connotations of the “high-rise” in the song is related to its perceived specific “US-Americanness” and certain cities on the American map. The first verse accordingly narrates a piece in the puzzle of North American race relations epitomized in the trope of the conflict between young African American men and the police. Interestingly, one of the crucial lines in the first verse emulates the song’s call-and-response pattern, which frequently appears in the rhetorical “who-questions” of the song’s chorus and its predetermined answer, “Mr. Nigga,” when the lyrical-I confronts a police officer as a consequence of being pulled-over: “Is there a problem Officer? – Damn Straight, it’s called race” [Smith, Prosper & Davis, 1999]. This line of the song identifies the significance of race in the American context and reveals the degree to which racism has been – and still is – institutionalized in the United States. The song presents both personal and institutional racisms in the United States of which the institutionalized forms of racism connect the USA with other governments and governmental practices around the world and in the Atlantic region as the listener is soon to find out.

Following the second chorus, the song adds two meaningful dimensions to its outline of race: the first is based in the explication of the transcultural logic of race, which aligns specific racisms across the Atlantic with regard to discriminatory practices and the eyeballing of black male otherness; the second is based in the self-reference quality of the second verse, which openly focuses on the artist Mos Def and the role of rap music in connection with race. The first line of the verse accordingly announces “the abstract with the mighty Mos Def” [ibid] to follow, before the verse introduces the first of two episodes that inform my reading of the song as preoccupied with the transcultural logic of race; the first six lines read:

Like, late night I’m on a first class flight,
The only brother in sight, the flight attendant catch fright.
I sit down in my seat, 2C,
She approach officially, talking ‘bout, “Excuse me,”
Her lips curl up into a tight space,
Cause she don’t believe that I’m in the right place.
Showed her my boarding pass, and then she sort of gasped,
All embarrassed put an extra lime on my water glass.
An hour later here she comes by walking past:
“I hate to be a pest but my son would love your autograph.” [ibid]

While the song continues the overall theme of the song of the intersection of what Hall calls “belongingness and otherness,” i.e. the nexus of race, class, space, and place, the verse opens up further critical issues in conjunction with these themes. Most notably, the social mobility expressed in the first verse finds its equivalence in this second verse in the depiction of the physical mobility associated with traveling in general, and flying in specific. The fact that the destination of the flight is London, England, as we soon find out furthermore references the imperial and colonial history of race in the Atlantic region that was closely bound to London a precursor of (post-)modern global cities [cf. Rawley 2003, 18ff; 123ff].

In addition to the emerging transcultural theme of the second verse, the flight attendant and her awkward, racist behavior furthermore disclose the fundamental principle of transcultural racism. The flight attendant, much like the airplane itself, signifies the transcultural, transnational state of our culture; after all, she plays a pivotal role in the connection of different nations and cultures and thus stands for the “trans” in transcultural – the very process of crossing-over, the symbol of the in-between. Although the first couple of lines depict her in accordance with the behavioral patterns of the first verse in her skepticism and fright with regard to the African American male, the feelings of anxiety informed by her xenophobia make way for a different set of sentiment in the second part of the segment quoted above.

As she realizes her mistake and false presupposition, she acts awkwardly and her embarrassment leads her to compensate for her racist behavior with an “extra lime” in the rapper’s water glass – the verse mentions no apology on her side. Even more significantly, her recognition of the rapper as what he is causes her to approach him once more only to ask Mos Def for an autograph for her son in one of the pivotal moments of the song. Evidently, this peculiar situation provides a tongue-in-cheek observation regarding the consumers of rap music, most commonly white male adolescents. The iteration of the instance proves a powerful example of an act of “Signifyin(g)” in Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s famous terminology of an African American literary, narrative tradition [cf. Gates 1988, xxiv]. By literally quoting what the flight attendant says, Mos Def engages in the double-voiced discourse Gates identifies as typical of the African American literary tradition and, obviously; a double-voiced discourse obviously defined by transcultural intersections and crossing-over. In Gates’ model the process of translation and appropriations of white texts by African American voices, the transit itself, adds a level of complexity, meaning, and irony to the texts at hand. In addition to said ironic dimension of the episode, it more generally explores the ambiguity and tension of racist and racialized discourse in the United States and beyond, especially regarding black cultural production. Critics have found more than one way to capture this specific tension. Again, Hall writes, “racism constructs the black subject: noble savage and violent avenger. And in the doubling, fear and desire double for one another and play across the structures of otherness, complicating its politics” [1996, 445]. Fear and desire, love and theft [Lott 1995], define this epitomic transcultural momentum above the Atlantic Ocean.

Not surprisingly, the quote marks the punch line of the first anecdote in the second verse additionally conveyed by the musical break following the flight attendant’s request and a simultaneous, almost incomprehensible commentary in the background by the artist (“Wow, Mr. Nigga I love you, I have all your albums”). After the break, the second anecdote, a logical continuation of the first, further elaborates on race as a transcultural phenomenon; the four-line lyrical transition, two rhyming couplets, between the two episodes further emphasize what I have referred to as the transcultural logic of race:

They stay on nigga patrol on American roads,
And when you travel abroad they got world nigga law.
Some folks get on a plane go as they please,
But I go over seas and I get over-seized. [Smith, Prosper & Davis, 1999]

Mos Def acknowledges the transcultural dimension of race in his phrase “world nigga law.” A scheme and practice of law that leads to the almost homonymic conclusion of the transitory section in the brilliant, powerful line, “I go over seas and I get over-seized.” It is in the act of such over-seizing that the second anecdote evolves:

London Heathrow, me and my people,
They think that illegal is a synonym for negro.
Far away places, customs agents flagrant,
They think the dark faces smuggle weight in their cases:
Bags inspected, now we arrested,
Attention directed to contents of our intestines;
Urinalyis followed by X-rays,
Interrogated and detained till damn near the next day.
No evidence, no apology and no regard,
Even for the big American rap star.
For us especially, us most especially,
A Mr. Nigga VIP jail cell just for me:
“If I knew you were coming I’d have baked a cake;
Just got some shoe-polish, painted my face.” [ibid]

This second anecdote further amplifies the degree of racist practices and the personal involvement of the “rap star” in them, before it climaxes in a striking analysis of the intersections of the transcultural logic of race and the history of entertainment and popular culture that itself shaped Atlantic culture.

The amplification of the racist practice is related to the fact that the practices depicted at the airport security check even more so than the different practices described in the song up to this point immediately target the other’s body. The over-seizing materializes in practices that focus on the body emulating the long, troublesome history of pseudo-scientific analysis of the black body subsequently constructing, or inventing, it as deviant and primitive. The history of the pseudo-scientific is entangled with, as Robyn Wiegman reminds us, the history of lynching in that “the white lynch mob arises from both its function as a panoptic mode of surveillance and its materialization of violence in public displays of torture,” which generates a double-disciplining of “the black subject […] by the threat of always being seen and by the spectacular scene [itself]” [1995, 13, original emphasis]. It is striking how the analysis of bodily fluids and especially the deployment of x-rays function as a postmodern continuation and culmination of the panoptic mode of surveillance discussed in Wiegman’s insightful application of Foucaultian theory to the study of race in America.

On top of the racist practices x-raying the black male body, the conclusion of the anecdote alludes to the complex issue of an Atlantic popular culture deeply fascinated with and conflated with a history of race in the same region. Mos Def’s role as a popular figure in Atlantic culture guarantees a specific treatment based on his embedded-ness in black Atlantic culture. Racism not only effects the “big American rap star” just as much as everyone else, in Mos Def’s reading, he generally experiences a special degree of racism and racist practices, partly due to his class, as the title of the song explains, partly due to the convoluted histories of race and popular culture in the Atlantic. In his conclusion of the story, Mos Def imagines the security personnel singing the first line of the chorus of the vaudeville song “If I Knew You Were Comin’ I’d’ve Baked the Cake” recorded by white female singer Eileen Barton in 1950. Now an American standard classic, the song and the singer Eileen Barton signify the vaudeville tradition in Atlantic mass culture, which is closely linked to the music and form of blackface minstrelsy.

The line of the song, sung by Mos Def as imagined by the white security personnel unfolds two meanings: The first in relation to and as the high point of the ironic assessment of an alleged “V.I.P.” treatment for the American rap star, the second in relation with placing rap in the tradition of American and Atlantic mass cultural traditional forms. Mos Def even explicates the second layer of meaning he attaches to the song as he ties the last two lines together in the rhyming couplet, “If I knew you were coming, I’d have baked a cake/ Just got some shoe-polish, painted my face” [Smith, Prosper & Davis, 1999]. With the shoe-polish and face painting referencing the minstrel show tradition, the rapper conceives of his racist mistreating at London Heathrow at the end of the millennium as informed by and linked with the racial fear and fascination of the Atlantic world, which influenced and shaped the birth of an American and Atlantic popular culture.

The third verse of the song interrogates the specific and recent history of racial controversy as it evolved in the mass media, especially with regard to controversial relationships and court cases of American celebrities. While Mos Def expresses a highly problematic anti-Semitic sentiment in connection with Woody Allen, he does so in defense of the recently deceased Michael Jackson in opposition to the media ridiculing Jackson on the grounds of his changing appearance and his alleged desire to become white, itself a display of a culturally informed reading entangled with a history of white normativity in the Atlantic. By defending Michael Jackson and openly placing him in the African American and black Atlantic tradition, a tradition defined by white supremacy and racism, Mos Def again acknowledges the complexities of racial representation in Atlantic popular culture, if only because Michael Jackson epitomizes the continuation of the transit in the process of crossing-over, of becoming white, in trans-Atlantic culture. The verse begins with the lines:

You can laugh and criticize Michael Jackson if you wanna,
Woody Allen molested and married his step-daughter,
Same press kicking dirt on Michael’s name,
Show Woody and Soon-Yi at the playoff game, holding hands,
Sit back and just bug, think about that,
Would he get that type of dap, if his name was Woody Black? [ibid]

The evident and troubling anti-Semitic sentiment notwithstanding, Mos Def uses the bold comparison between the public and medial treatment of Michael Jackson’s and Woody Allen’s cases of alleged sexual molestation of minors as a culmination of the song. Mos Def’s deployment of the comparison is striking, as it further emphasizes a discursive and judicial dimension to racial discrimination on the one hand – if one accepts Mos Def’s perception of Jewish Americans as ‘white’ or not colored – and a specific sexual dimension to that very history of discrimination on the other hand. In the Atlantic imaginary, Michael Jackson not only epitomizes cross-racial desire, both with regard to the consumption of his musical performances and the development of his own physical appearance, he furthermore explicitly staged the powerful connection between the commercial success of black musical styles and the black sexual body, most famously captured in his signature move of placing one hand on his crotch while moaning/screaming lustfully. Strikingly, Mos Def acknowledges the significance of certain performers for the general perception of the state of black culture, thus echoing Tyler Stovall’s assertion that “one distinguishing characteristic of blackness in [and following] the age of modernism is the heightened importance of the performer as a representative of black culture in general” [2005, 224].

Michael Jackson, the iconic King of Pop, provides the most complex example of how the transcultural logic of race produces marketable African American performers especially regarding their bodies and sexuality. As indicated above, his unique style of dance sexualized the well-behaved vocal choreography of the early Motown acts of the 1960s, such as the Temptations, and more explicitly transported the sexual energy historically ascribed to the black male body in the United States and by extension the Occident [cf. Saint-Aubin 1994, 1057]. Evidently, Mos Def conceives the policing of Michael Jackson’s off-stage sexuality as a function of institutional racism in the United States and by extension the Atlantic world, as indicated by the rhetorical question concluding the quote above. If Woody Allen was (Woody) Black he would, according to Mos Def, not get the same kind of “dap” – a slang term for sympathy/respect – from the transnational mainstream media. The last verse of the song thereby channels the fear and fascination generated by performances of blackness onto the body, more specifically the sexual bodies, of African American performers as the comprehensible site of origin for the “Black Spectacle” (Stovall 2005, 221) in Atlantic culture(s). After all, the musical crossing-over of transnational and transcultural boundaries speaks to the original fear (from black to white) and fascination (from white to black) of sexual ‘trespassing’ immediately evoked by the metaphor of crossing-over. At this juncture, rap music occupies said nexus of sexualized racial fear and fascination in contemporary, transnational popular cultures of the Atlantic, as Mos Def powerfully highlights.

Conclusion

The aim of this contribution to the Forum of Inter-American Research was to illuminate the transcultural dimension of rap music’s racial discourse at the turn of the millennium exemplified by a close reading of Mos Def’s cut “Mr. Nigga,” which binds in its intertextual and self-referential style the significant features of rap’s discourse of race. Strikingly, the song unfolds his reading of racist practices in an airplane traveling above and against the so-called middle passage of the trans-Atlantic slave trade approximately two hundred years after the abolition and subsequent disintegration of the Atlantic slave trade triangle. The song’s various intertexts furthermore place it in the history of Atlantic popular culture, which powerfully contributed to the making of the meaning of race in the Atlantic sphere, as I have sought to demonstrate.

Even as the song predominantly illuminates the past and present connection between the emergence of race and the mass culture of the Atlantic, Mos Def uses the very last lines of the song to point to the persistence of the logic of race and racisms in contemporary culture. While acknowledging his personal success and the possibility to strive economically as an African American in the Atlantic realm, Mos Def maintains a rather pessimistic outlook on the future regarding the significance of race thereby recognizing the depth of the transcultural logic of race. He conclusively raps:

I’m a cop a nice home to provide in,
A safe environment for seeds to reside in,
A fresh whip for my whole family to ride in,
And if I’m still Mr. Nigga [sic], I won’t find it suprising! [ibid]

Footnotes

1. The history of hip-hop has been widely explored; for more extensive histories of rap and hip-hop, see for example: Rose, Tricia. Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. Hanover, NH & London: UP of New England, 1994; an trans-national perspective emerges in: Bennett, Andy. “Hip-Hop am Main, Rappin’ on the Tyne: Hip-Hop Culture as a Local Construct in Two European Cities” in: Forman, Murray & Mark Anthony Neal (eds.) That’s the Joint: The Hip-Hop Studies Reader, New York: Routledge, 2004: 177-200; an impressive sociological account of the history of hip-hop can be found in: Klein, Gabriele & Malte Friedrich. Is This Real? Die Kultur des HipHop. Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 2003 [in German].

2. For more elaborate discussions of the fields of transnational and transcultural studies and their relationship see for example: Hitchcock, Peter. Imaginary States: Studies in Cultural Transnationalism. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2003; for a discussion of the impact of the study of transnationalism in the social sciences, see: Waldinger, Roger and Fitzgerald, David. “Transnationalism in Question” in: The American Journal of Sociology 109 (2004): 1177-1195.

3. In 1998 Billboard renamed the R&B Charts (once again), significantly changing the title Hot R&B Singles to Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles & Tracks, thereby acknowledging hip-hop’s growing pop-cultural relevance.

4. Accordingly, Gilroy discusses The 2 Live Crew only with regard to the theoretical arguments brought forth by scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. in defence of the crew, which exemplifies the politics of Gilroy’s own text regarding rap music and hip-hop culture.

5. The sheer number of studies on black Atlantic musical genres and forms illustrates that the focus of this contribution does not allow for a more thorough genealogy and history of said forms. For more extensive discussions of specific African American music forms of the 20th century, see for example: Bayles, Martha. Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music. Chicago: The U of Chicago P, 1994; Boyd, Todd. The New H. N. I. C.: The Death of Civil Rights and the Reign of Hip Hop. New York: New York UP, 2003; Dorsey, Brian. Spirituality, Sensuality, Literality: Blues, Jazz, and Rap as Music and Poetry. Wien: Wilhelm Braumüller, 2000; Early, Gerald. One Nation Under a Groove: Motown and American Culture. Hopewell, N.J.: Ecco Press, 1995; George, Nelson. The Death of Rhythm & Blues. New York: Random House, 1988; Murray, Albert. Stomping the Blues. New York: McGaw-Hill, 1976; Shaw, Arnold. Black Popular Music in America. New York : Schirmer Books, 1986; Toop, David. The Rap Attack: African Jive to New York Hip-Hop. London: South End Press, 1984; Vincent, Rickey. Funk: The Music, The People, and The Rhythm of the One. New York: St. Martin Griffin, 1996; and finally: Ward, Brian. Just My Soul Responding: Rhythm and Blues, Black Consciousness, And Race Relations. Los Angeles: U of California P, 1998.

6. As I find the slur highly troubling and as I am aware of its entanglement in the history of racism, I (white, male European) seek to use the slur as little as possible, even though its strategic deployment by the artist significantly alludes to said troubling history (ML).

7. Thematically, Mos Def’s track “Mr. Nigga” references the tradition of political song Gil-Scott Heron represents and Mos Def’s song arguably carries that tradition into the 21st century.

8. It is crucial not to deny the degree of Anti-Semitic rhetoric in rap music history, which is partly due to rap music’s own roots in black power and especially Black Muslim thought. For further discussion, see: Quinn, Michael. “’Never Shoulda Been Let out the Penitentiary’: Gangsta Rap and the Struggle over Racial Identity.” Cultural Critique 34 (1996): 65-89.

Discography

Mos Def: “Mr. Nigga,” written and produced by Smith, Prosper & Davis; Black on Both Sides, Rawkus/Priority Records, 1999.

Gil-Scott Heron: “A Legend in His Own Mind” written and produced by Heron & Cecil; Real Eyes, Arista/BMG, 1980.

Ramsey Lewis: “Sun Goddess” written and produced by Macero, Lewis & White; Sun Goddess, Columbia, 1974.

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