Cultural Critique FTW

14 Nov

I’m taking a class called Studies in Hip-Hop.  It’s the first time the course has been offered at my university, and I am pretty sure I am the only graduate student in the course, but I am constantly impressed with the insight and intelligence of the undergrads around me.  This is the first non-music course (and by that I mean, not taken as an MUS course designation in a School of Music; this particular class is taught under African-American Studies) that I have taken since my undergrad at Pittsburg State.  So, naturally, I’ve been carrying a bit of a bias against non-music students because my brushes with them in Gen Eds at PSU were…disappointing.

The kind of student who takes a college course on hip hop obviously has strong opinions about it, and the class is a very diverse group, both ethnically and educationally.  What I dig most about this class, though, is that generally speaking, everyone is well-read and intelligent when it comes to discussing and debating the topic at hand.  The professor is a literature expert, treating hip-hop as poetry.  Since I’m coming at hip-hop from the perspective of a music scholar, this attention to rap as literature is fascinating.

Some would argue that it’s not music.  I will stop short of saying you are wrong – but I fervently disagree.  Is it sound organized through time?  Yep.  Then it’s music.  Does it make you want to move your ass?  Then it’s music.  Is it a reflection of cultural mores, a snapshot of one individual’s perspective presented as art?  Then it’s definitely music, because music says something – even if there are no words.

(I will pause here to note that this may be a less-than-popular opinion among my fellow jazz scholars, many of whom take the Wynton Marsalis approach to all things hip-hop and declare that if it doesn’t align with several narrow criteria, it cannot be a true expression of the vernacular.  Well…sorry Wynton.  There’s no crying in musicology.)

Our midterm project in the course was to write an essay that investigated the cultural theories of one of the books we read.  I chose to write on Joan Morgan’s When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost.  This is a book by a self-proclaimed hip-hop feminist, one who sincerely grapples with the negative portrayal of women in hip hop and the racial identity it provides.  (If you don’t know what a chickenhead is, Google it.  Sorry mom, I didn’t name the book.)

I decided to post my essay, because Dr. B read a large section of it to the class and told them that it is good enough to be published.  He pulled me aside and told me this before reading it, and he was genuinely excited at the prospect of my writing.  It was a good feeling.  Rather than wait to try and go through the steps to get the essay published, possibly in a journal that no one can access outside of academia, I want to post it because everyone should be able to read it.

I reference another book in the essay – Confessions of a Video Vixen.  This is a book written by a woman who was famous in hip-hop and professional athlete circles for putting out.  That’s being polite.

I think you can get the point of the essay without having read either of the books.  So here it is, my first shot at cultural critique outside of musicology since I started my scholarly journey.


Joan Morgan’s Chickenheads

Joan Morgan’s book When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost is a study in paradoxes. It confronts intellectualism in a world of vernacular. It delves into the misogyny of a culture that eagerly consumes the hearts and souls of young women who want to belong. It deftly explores the treacherous social currents that women, particularly black women, must navigate in the era of in-your-face media, relentless hypersexuality, and impossible beauty standards. Morgan tackles a variety of issues all in relation to how they affect a feminist worldview.

Even amongst fellow African Americans, Morgan is met with skepticism and derision for sticking to her guns. She illustrates the manner in which hip hop culture exploits young women by offering them success and attention not for their individual worth, but for their willingness to take off their clothes and perform sex acts to satisfy the libidinous, virile rap star. With these actions done in the interest of “keeping it real,” this dichotomy disturbs her and causes her to question both herself and the idiosyncrasies of hip hop culture.

Morgan indicates at the beginning of her book that she was born to feminism – that it was a part of her life from the very beginning. Her mother, aunts, and the mothers of friends were all “black warrior women (35)” and their accomplishments and achievements were not considered extraordinary – simply routine. When Morgan reaches college, her feminist reality goes slightly askew, taking on a vanilla tinge. She comments that “feminism definitely felt like white women’s shit (36).” Black women, she observes, have bigger fish to fry in the discrimination department and don’t seem to be too interested in protecting their gender identities as much as their racial identities.

But Morgan’s main argument, articulated throughout the book, is made clear at this point – that black women, no matter how much misogyny they suffer at the hands of their brothers, cannot cross the color line. They cannot deviate from racial loyalties – even if these loyalties cause them harm. They must stay loyal to their race at all costs, even if this means giving up their identities as women. This is a dangerous and unfair position, yet it is where Morgan argues that black women are pressured to exist. This is the paradox and the thesis that drives Morgan’s book. She is seeking a means to gather all of these contradictory threads and spin them into something coherent, something that honors race as well as gender.

Morgan opines, “I needed a feminism that would allow us to continue loving ourselves and the brothers who hurt us without letting race loyalty buy us early tombstones (36).” Demanding that black men defend their women with the same passion and determination that they defend their race, she sets a high bar for her “brothers.”

Racism, Morgan tells us, is by its very nature a force that requires a unified front in opposition (36). A black woman expressing disgust at her treatment at the hands of her brothers can be viewed as nothing more than a tool of the white establishment to undermine the cause from within. And Morgan encounters this sentiment, even from reasonably intelligent, educated black men.

As is a common tactic of anti-feminists, the man she mentions even lobs the accusation of “lesbian” at Morgan. She humorously counters these sort of statements: “For a second I couldn’t tell what pissed me off more, the assumption that any woman who is willing to call a black man out on his shit must be eating pussy or his depiction of me as a brainwashed Sappho, waving the American flag in one hand and a castrated black male penis in the other (42-43).”

She correctly observes that weak-minded men often resort to these tropes to combat any threat to their gender hierarchy, and that these same men see feminism as an effort by the white hegemony to turn loyal black women against men by transforming them into self-hating lesbians.

Morgan uses the “f-word” to refer to feminism, implying that it is tantamount to profanity by its very existence. And of course she does this sarcastically, poking fun at the very people who would write her off as an indoctrinated lesbian for daring to value herself as much as she values black men. The hip hop culture, particularly in recent years, has been notoriously reluctant to value women as human beings, depicting them with the same regard one would have for a piece of jewelry or a bottle of Courvoisier. So Morgan’s struggle to reconcile her self-worth with her racial and cultural identity – the street cred of the hood – overlaps very well with these hip hop trends.

That culture of sex and partying has as its poster child “a twelve-year-old girl whose titties and ass grew faster than her self-esteem (49).” Early in the book, Morgan relates a story about being taunted for daring to be well-groomed and articulate. The girl confronting her seems to believe that Morgan is not “hood” enough and therefore deserves a beating. These are powerful stereotypes that can consume even the very people who should fight them. Morgan’s book is a powerful testament to why black men and women should care about how the culture depicts females. It is far too easy for young girls to become saturated with images about tying their individuality and their worth up in hypermasculine thug culture.

The “chickenheads” in the title are Morgan’s antithesis, the women against whom she finds herself competing for men and success. Morgan laments those late nights when she is “tearful and frightened that achieving all our mothers wanted us to – great educations, careers, financial, and emotional independence – has made us wholly undesirable to the men who are supposed to be our counterparts? Men whose fascination with chickenheads leave us convinced they have no interest in dating, let alone marrying, their equals (58)?”

This underscores the plight of the “video ho” – valued only for her physical attributes and ability to shake her ass. A woman with an education, self-respect, ambition beyond Prada shoes is useless to the marketers of the hip hop aesthetic. What started as a means of unique self-expression has blossomed into a diamond-encrusted industry of sex, sin and good times.

Towards the end of the book, Morgan confronts her relationship with the chickenheads. She states her biases and her jealousy of the apparent ease with which women of little substance seem to snare men into their fold, while those women of color who “do the right thing” and make themselves into educated, ambitious intellectuals are simply not desirable. Far from being a position of elitism, Morgan’s statements seem to have a fascination about them. She expresses a genuine curiosity for the phenomenology of the chickenhead, and the cultural messages that are distributed to young girls in their formative years. Why does society publicize, but not respect, the chickenhead? And why does it openly reject, but profess to admire, the intellectual woman who uses her brain instead of her breasts to construct a life worthy of living?

The corporate values of hip hop revolve around sex, money, and power, and the effective marketing of all of these things. The power of the corporate state has always hinged upon the ability to convince average people that they, too, can someday have the Benz, the bling, and the Cristal. Never mind that this is a fantasy achieved only by those with the luck to conform to a corporate prototype. Hip hop culture depicts black men as gangstas dripping with chains and women, and these women as mere toys to be played with by the men.

Morgan is attempting to find traction for her intellectual views and self-worth in this world – where black authenticity is derived from ridiculous stereotypes and the images conjured up by advertising executives. This is a world where a black woman’s only value is found in her measurements and willingness to writhe for waiting cameras. Some women, like Karrine Steffans, find themselves eagerly absorbing this value system and willingly playing the role of the video ho.

To drag another paradox into the mix, let’s contrast the tragedy of Karrine Steffans with Morgan’s pained but ultimately optimistic book. Steffans’ book reads like a narcissistic train-wreck, with pure egomania driving every page. However, if we contrast the value systems of the two women, we can almost excuse the drastic differences in behavior and concept of worth. Morgan is raised among strong black women. She sees them as the rule, not the exception, and carries their strength with her as she matures into a woman, always feeding her intellect and herself first.

Steffans is raised by a woman who demonstrates to her daughter how to become a parasite, relying on men for succor and doing whatever is necessary to hold the attention of someone with money and power. In turn, Steffans grows up to seek out only those people with these attributes, even becoming sexually aroused by the thought of the tremendous clout held by some of her “conquests.” So the dichotomy of the stories doesn’t come as a shock. If anything, Steffans’ book completely underscores everything that Morgan is attempting to say, from the opposite side of the fence. Steffans is more of a “tool of the white man,” a plaything of the corporate agenda, than Morgan could ever be.

Comparing the books of these two women, we have a primer on the worst case scenario, and also on a faint glimmer of hope. Morgan is fighting to save the souls of black women from falling into the hands of the chickenheads – she is the anti-Karrine Steffans. She is not afraid to admit that race matters, but also that gender matters just as much; that how a woman views herself and other women is just as important as driving a Mercedes or flashing diamond earrings.

Steffans’ book is a disturbing cautionary tale, the chronicle of how the pressures and messages of the hip hop economy do lasting damage to young black women, and how too many of them are sucked into a spiral of sex, money, and authority. The reasons for this are clearly articulated by Morgan: the war against racism is the responsibility of both genders. It cannot be won if one side is demeaning the other through garish displays of skin. Feminism, far from being “white women’s shit,” is central to the pursuit of racial quality. Encouraging the sort of behavior that made Karrine Steffans famous truly does nothing more than widen the gulf between “society” and the “Other.”

It is much easier to see an individual as subhuman if all they are is a dancing video ho – as long as this kind of imagery stands and is part of the corporate agenda, there will always be issues of racism. That is the lesson of Morgan’s book, and the inadvertent lesson of Steffans’ book – self-worth is not a crime or a radical act. It is an essential component of human existence. Until corporate agendas stop stripping it away, there will be more books like these to underscore the emptiness.

One Response to “Cultural Critique FTW”

  1. Jon December 5, 2011 at 3:37 am #

    Concise and brilliant. I cannot imagine trying to develop any sort of coherent “self” in that media barrage. Tragic, really; but that’s what capitalism demands: Commoditize, sell, rinse, repeat. The cycle isn’t stoppable, but the cultural momentum it has is rather terrifying.

    Thanks for sharing this.

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