Katie Cercone for PLAYspace Volume 1
Katie Cercone released a wonderful prose piece in PLAYspace volume 1. But she also submitted this article that we really wanted you to see titled:
Eat This Mlack Busic
My working creative thesis, what I loosely call, ‘the spirituality of hip hop,’ comes from a complicated and at times contradictory constellation of terms. Through an interdisciplinary inquiry I have developed what I affectionately term a derelict cosmogony of the spiritualism of hip hop via the embodied freedom encompassed in its interdynamic gestures of power, symbolism, triple metaphor, dance and song as metalanguage.
Through the phantasmagoric ‘veil’ of my own distorted magnitude I’ll posit hip hop as an expressive, holistic and activating collective form of liberatory spiritualism. Numerous cultural theorists have illustrated how we live in a culture of avoidance and escape. Collective experience has purportedly been reduced to simultaneous private experiences distributed across the field of a highly dispersed media culture in which passive consumers enjoy leisure time like sleep. But the genius of music, like sensuality, is that it traverses the body. Hip hop as an immersive microclimate hemorrhages psycho-pedagogy. We can conceive of hip hop in all its incantations as a dynamic form of esotericism or neo-Jungian ‘cultural dreaming’ in which the authors, coauthors and fans of the genre use powerful symbols and lingering sounds that engage body, mind and group soul.
Historically avant-garde practice has entailed an interculturalism of appropriation that always relies on white hegemony as its veritable backbone. Any foray into the territory of race – the fashionable mantle of the hip hop industry (industry as opposed to hip hop community) - must address the issue of sexual fetish. Appropriation as ‘border crossing’ speaks to issues of the ownership of cultural property. The aestheticized “objectified” other as intimate source of pleasure/desire/fear is a reoccurring trope art historically which has served to denigrate oppressed groups, particularly racial minorities, gays and women.
As scholar bell hooks notes, ‘young white consumers utilize black vernacular popular culture to disrupt bourgeois values.’ Calling out Madonna, widely known for her appropriation of gay and black subcultures, hooks asserts the queen of the sexual revolution cashes in by ‘mirroring the role of plantation overseer in a slave based economy.’ She further states that this moment is indicative of sociocultural climate in which ‘white people and the rest of us are being asked by the marketplace to let our prejudices and xenophobia (fear of difference) go, and happily ‘eat the other.’ My work interrogates hooks’ explosive ‘moment’ as the abysmal residue of capitalist commodity fetishism, an illusive, psychosexual chimera.
As expressed by cultural theorist Norman Kelley, black music exists in a neo-colonial relationship with the $12 billion music industry. In classic neo-colonial style, black inner cities act as ‘raw cites of cultural production’ whereby conditions (low per capita income, high birth rate, economic dependence on external markets, labor as major export) resemble a third world country and produce a ‘product’ – hip hop – that is sold back to the ‘motherland’ (in this case suburbs teeming with bored white youth bloated by privilege). As Mos Def echoes, ‘Old white men is runnin’ this rap shit.’ Despite the fanfare of industry moguls like Jay Z and Lil Wayne, there are in fact no blacks, none, in top executive positions at the companies that parent successful black owned companies.
It’s also disconcerting to note how the money earning potential of hip hop is largely reliant on an industry produced image of black ghetto life which serves to buttress the prison industrial complex, a contemporary ‘leviathan’ of racial inequality maintained through a ferocious combination of government law, private corporations, police terrorism and racist cultural attitudes. The constant turn to ’ghetto blackness’ as a model of ‘authenticity’ and hipness in rap music limits ‘blackness’ to ‘a primal connection to sex and violence, a big penis and relief from the onus of upward mobility.’
As scholar Tricia Rose notes, ‘hip hop merely displays in phantasmagorical form the cultural logic of late capitalism.’ Hip hop is a multi-billion dollar industry and vital creative enterprise of the African diasporic community (where is houstatlantavegas located approximately?) the germinating stage of which occurred in the aftermath of 1977’s devastating New York city black out. While the Times reading set was gaping at hallowing images of the desolate looted Bronx as if the borough were the city’s dangling excoriated appendage, black youth were congregating in the streets to dance, brag, paint, swagger and rhyme as a practice in collectivity and spontaneous reciprocity. They were creatively repurposing boxy electronics left dusty by outsourced industries that once put food on their family’s tables. Says Rose, rap videos satisfy ‘poor young black people’s profound need to have their territories acknowledged, recognized and celebrated,’ as they converge around the ‘local posse, crew or support system.’Fusing the racially disparate post-industrial conditions of urbanity with the sensate fury of the African drum which once called the community to war – hip hop, like spiritual practice, is a matrix concerned with territory, belonging and identity.
I was born in 1984 at the very moment hip hop irrupted as an overwhelmingly lucrative genre with MTV to cement its aesthetic as a hip style. White youth of my generation consume this music in a fashion 20th century German musicologist Theodor Adorno termed ‘culinary’ appreciation. We thereby feed exclusively on the music’s, ‘Certain over sweet sounds and colors… like musical cookies or candies.’ Music, the art form possessing the most efficient means of accessing the pleasure receptors in the subconscious brain, when manufactured purely as an ‘object of exchange,’ serves as ‘a reservoir of a secondary, infantile satisfactions and magical authority.’ Whereas real art in music is the ‘transcription of historical suffering,’ Adorno condones produced music for insisting that its listeners are ‘forced to passive sensual and emotional acceptance of predigested yet disconnected qualities, whereas those qualities at the same time become mummified and magicized.
My interest in hip hop culture drinks at the trough of my neuroses. It forever pays homage to the tripartite pleasures of my bulimic youth in suburban California. My first car, my first taste of Wild 94.9 and 106.1 kmel jamz on subwoofers, my flight from anorexia into bulimia – these three instances together culminated in an unmitigated feeling of sensory overload, danger and freedom. The ‘fantasy,’ of a perfect love union set forth in the musical lyrics doomed to cold oscillation just as the repeated abuse of food persisted only as a lucid and shameful false transgression.
Lil Wayne was my first consciously spiritual experience with hip hop. Weezy loved candy. Weezy got high, drank syzzurp, ate candy, ate pussy, ate beats. Weezy legally postponed his imprisonment to undergo eight urgently needed root canals and my father was an orthodontist. Weezy sang about ‘Ice Cream Paint Jobs’ and ‘Young Money.’ To the artist Mya in her hit Lock U Down, the subject of many a personal flash fantasy, Weezy sings ‘got a sweet tooth, Miss Caramel, I need 3 scoops.’ Weezy coughed, growled, heaved. Weezy’s style is part of a few subgenres. One being a slower, southern-derived approach in which the artist drags out vowels and leaves breathy spaces, as if ‘hot air’ lives in the rhymes. The other being ‘swag,’ an abbreviation of swagger - the evocation of style and guts, also connected to the African tradition of boasting or bragging - considered a non-genre or meta-genre in which artists engage in excessive bragging about their ‘swag,’ (money, cars and clothes). Swag not only has a triple function (genre, action, baggage), it also serves to illustrate the way in which ‘swag’ style as the parody of a die-hard materialist culture means swag objects function in my hip hop spiritualist cosmogony as a type of ‘occult bric-a-brac,an economy of excess which cleanses meanings by metaphorical loops.
Weezy Baby – the lyrics, the locks, the lawlessness and constant spinning out into pleasure – cranked up my transcendental limits. Weezy appealed to me in so much that he represented the purity of recklessness, youth, and abuse of power hinging on one’s ability to overspend, to binge – to reinscribe the law at the very moment one breaks it. Lil Wayne was the epitome of the prosthetic boyfriend I had experienced through the surrogate of music and food since adolescence.
Remarks Slovenian continental philosopher and critical theorist Slavoj Žižek, ‘The singing voice at it most elementary [is] the embodiment of ‘surplus-enjoyment’…the paradoxical ‘pleasure in pain.Singing raises vibrations in the body. Popular music entails a partisanship based on a private, sensual contract. ‘Surplus-enjoyment’ in the purest sense here is the return of the energy invested in the fetish, the invocation of a spiritual longing for connection to a distant, majestic and mysterious force. It is epitomized in the bulimic’s privileged relationship to capitalism’s compulsory over-consumption and endlessly deferred gratification. What Žižek suggests here is that desire can essentially be boiled down to the thinking human’s unique ability to create a law that is a defense against the body’s full expression of jouissance.
The hunger to repeatedly ‘eat the other’ (and his ‘distant danger’) is one and the same with the desire to break the self-imposed dietetic rules. This concept is one Adorno fleshes out in a problematic passage of Current of Music on the development of Jazz: ‘Even if the girl enjoys unconsciously the idea of making herself prey of a strong colored fellow, she certainly also wants unconsciously to punish herself for the crime of her imagination…for the unlawful pleasure which she wants to give and to deny herself at the same time. It is the typical Romantic gesture in which one ‘Elevates the longing as such, at the expense of the object one longs for.
Neuroses is perhaps both a generative creative condition as much as a ‘luxury problem’ of the rich typically treated with anti-depressant or anti-anxiety medications. It often manifests in the form of obsessive compulsive behaviors and eating disorders and its historical predecessors would be neurasthenia and hysteria. Commodity fetishism has crystallized our imaginations into dominions where anxiety and ecstasy are twins, whereby the market and its depotentiated subjects are forced to always and only ‘reproduce by way of borrowing from the future. Our culinary and fetishistic communion with the Other while listening follows the basic Laconian ontology in which the ‘field of reality has to be ‘sutured’ with a supplement’ and what is elevated as a positive entity is in reality a ‘negative magnitude.’
According to Susan Sontag, illness as a metaphor or ‘trope’ of the self is considered an outgrowth of the Romantic period in art and poetry. In her text Illness as Metaphor, Sontag outlines the history of illness as ‘fashion’ – melancholy was the disease of 19th Century Romantics. Insanity, associated with ‘superior sensitivity,’ and hailed as the conduit of spiritual feelings and ‘critical’ discontent was claimed by the 20th Century Modernists. She notes the 19th century physician Bichat who called health the ‘silence of organs’ and illness ‘their revolt.
Exploring the sensuality of spirituality entails that organs have their ‘revolt’ against the mandates of a structured society. The ‘pleasure’ of listening holds a consuming transcendent potential - a glittering alchemy that occurs at the moment when the subaltern speaks in the visual, when the symbol is transgressed and all the energy falsely invested in cognitive distance provides an explosive gateway into the infinite.
Hip hop culture as appropriated by white hipsters may disrupt bourgeois values, but as a d.i.y. tradition of black underprivileged youths it is an undoubtedly ideological act of insubordination traced back to the ritual singing and dancing of slaves and what theorist Fred Moten identifies as the root of the black radical tradition: ‘The commodity whose speech sound embodies the critique of value, of private property, of the sign. According to Marx, the commodity who speaks is an impossibility. The slave who enacted verbal insubordination in various forms – screaming, grunting, singing – defied his objecthood through unmediated experiential and vibratory collective action causing spatio-temporal dislocation. A singer at work is no longer at work. He is no longer bound to the structure of time defining his bindedness.
Fred Moten pinpoints this moment of dislocation as the ‘generative break,’ at the root of the black radical tradition, a space ‘wherein action becomes possible, one in which it is our duty to linger in the name of the ensemble and its performance.Again, this calls to mind bodily activation in the form of dance, song and bodily expression as a revolutionary practice undoing the divisive laws of language, capitalism, commodity, and perhaps most important, time as a definitive distinction: labor or leisure. As if epitomizing this temporal freedom, says rapper Nas during the intro to N.Y. State of Mind (released on the 1994 Illmatic album, what has been called one of the greatest hip hop albums of all time) ‘Black is time.’
In yet another, particularly poignant articulation of the power of hip hop, Birdman, Lil Wayne’s industry father figure rhymes,
In a quick succession of speech lasting merely a few seconds, Birdman had burned through several double and triple metaphors, speaking to racism, masculinism, power, luxury, ownership, God, radical rebellion, food, sexuality and abundance. Black cultural theorists and feminists have rightly referred to African-Americans as the first post-moderns marked by a pluralistic or shifting notion of self. Remarks artist Lorraine O’Grady of the West’s monotheism in respect to African-American holistic folk wisdom, in which ‘Self revolves about a series of variable centers, such as sex and food (Hail Weezy); family and community; and a spiritual life composed sometimes of God or the gods, at others of esthetics or style.’ She goes on to say the ‘discontinuities of our experience as black slaves in a white world have caused us to construct subjectivities able to negotiate between centers that, at least, are double.
Hip hop’s multitudinous meaning in language is an important indictor of the power of black post-modern subjectivity. The use of slang and triple metaphor as an expressive medium is an important element of the spirituality of hip hop. Take for instance the word ‘Swag,’ a term very quickly acquiring a permanent space in the American vernacular. Swag is noun, verb, musical meta-genre. Swag is a symbol branded all over the backs of youth in Atlanta, a major center of hip hop in which the most popular tattoos of 2010 included musical notes, stars and moneybags. Atlanta Braves player A. Juney of Rich Kids even went so far as to get a Gucci Bag tattooed on his neck. Trap occupies similar territory to Swag. It is a southern rapper’s word for a place where drugs are sold, a verb (to sell drugs) and a subgenre of music: unsmiling dudes rapping in first person about the drug trade. Snap, another slang term, has a laundry list of meanings among them (a sexual nap, a bowl of weed packed for a single hit and the expression SAME HERE!) and is also a subgenre of hip hop utilizing slow beats characterized by the finger snap effect in place of the snare drum. Snap music has controversially been called the ‘death of hip hop.’ ‘Crunk,’ a word which is literally a conflation of ‘drunk’ and ‘crazy’ also moonlights as a popular genre of rap, named because the music is said to make you crunk.
All margins are dangerous. The music is powerful because it represents a collective space of unconscious, instant, unmediated vibratory action upon the psyche, brain and organ systems. It works in the break of the workday, in the break of the verb, noun, pronoun. In the break of the pitch: recall how T-Pain converted the city of Atlanta to auto-tune pitch correction software, so that most of the hip hop world, professional and amateur, now makes music sliding around rather than on its notes.To quote Moten, ‘The radical materiality and syntax that animate black performances indicates a freedom drive. Along the French Psychoanalytic school of feminism philosopher Hélène Cixous developed Écriture feminine to interrogate language as a libidinal economy of expenditure and loss. Writing in 1975 she imagines new cultural subjects as, ‘Persons-detached, persons-thought, persons born of the unconscious, and in each desert, suddenly animated, a springing forth of self that we did not know about – our women, our monsters, our jackals, our Arabs, our fellow creatures, our fears…a crystallized network of my ultrasubjectivities. I is this matter, personal, exuberant, lively masculine, feminine, or other in which I delights me and distresses me. Cixous here exploits the binary self-other to denote a universal and self-reflexive desire to see and be seen. She urges us to break our differences over our backs.
Feminine ecriture, like hip hop, suggests a new and freely sensual and aggressively volatile economy. Cixous’ multiple inscriptions of desire meets Moten’s ‘dispersive sensuality’ as we read hip hop’s triple and quadruple metaphors without the cloak of academic feminism and the binary terms it has used to mostly demonize the genre: subject/object, male/female, power/submission, dick/vag… Coming from a strictly academic feminist background, I’m tired of enacting the same closed slogans, the circumscribed agendas and consolidation of terms always leading back to the same predictable questions…feminism must look beyond the ‘penetrative gaze’ into the ‘break’ into linguistic discontinuity. Does this put feminism and radical political aesthetic reason on a shaky intellectual edifice? It knocks the edifice on its backside and shouts ‘Yeeeeeeaaaw!’ from its perch at the edge of the abyss.
Pop Culture is a vital source of gender pedagogy. Even the most commercial, formula-driven music videos feature bodies and gestures, the enactment of which proceed beyond decorative value. In the popular artist Ciara’s video Ride, her dance is comprised of a squatting posture closely resembling the yogic asana known as Goddess. Asanas (yogic postures) are ritualistic gestures that balance or enhance our state of consciousness. Goddess pose stimulates the uro-genital, respiratory and cardiovascular systems. Interspersed with other gladiatorial gestures of sports and combat are erotic 2nd chakra gyrations, making Ciara’s body proper an undeniable symbol of divine female sensuality and strength.
Leonard Schlain, notable for his bestseller The Alphabet and the Goddess, notes that Goddess worship and female power depend on the ubiquity of female archetypal images. A Laparoscopic surgeon from Northern California, Schlain contends that the shift from matriarchal to patriarchal society corresponds to the introduction of written language and the subsequent cultural shift from right brain to left brain dominated thinking and comprehension. In Schlain’s lights, hip hop as a contemporary form of worship appeals to the non-verbal right brain which is responsible for the comprehension of the language of cries, gestures, grimaces, cuddling, suckling, touching and body stance. Hip hop, to use Schlain’s terminology is a veritable ‘kaleidoscopic religious event’ involving all the senses experienced in a collective state of Dionysian madness. Schlain’s final and most profound point is that ironically, modern advancements in technology have made a huge cultural turn back to the image, particularly in terms of the internet.
With thousands of individuals across the globe downloading music and watching music videos online, not to mention taking these sounds and images with them wherever they go via their ipod/pad/phone – hip hop emerges as not only a collective form of worship but a free and ubiquitous, multi-sensory spiritual holism. Rather than conceive internet-age image reception as merely an act of alienated, passive consumption weighed against some lost dream of utopian community; let us situate musical fetishism in terms of its relationship to powerful pre-linguistic devotional practices involving idols, animal totems, images of female deities and nature. –Katie Cercone