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Check It While I Wreck ItBlack Womanhood, Hip-Hop Culture, and the Public Sphere
By GWENDOLYN D. POUGH
Northeastern University PressCopyright © 2004 Gwendolyn D. Pough
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBringing Wreck: Theorizing Race, Rap, Gender, and the Public Sphere
Wreck: 1) fight. 2) recreation.
Wrecking Crew: 1) boast of rap groups who say one can destroy or "wreck" the other lyrically. They call themselves "wrecking crews." 2) gang of violent thugs.
Wrecking Shop: winning an MC Battle. -Alonzo Westbrook, Hip Hoptionary: The Dictionary of Hip-Hop Terminology
In his 1962 text The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, Jürgen Habermas sets up an idealized model of the public sphere based on a particular historical period and context. Reflecting on the text more than thirty years later, Habermas notes not only his theoretical leanings toward a classical Marxian critique of ideology but also his quite idealized goals. Habermas writes that he felt he could move past the limitations of the worst embodiments of public opinion, publicity, and the public sphere in order to confront these ideas and change their meaning in the process of transformation from liberal to organized capitalism. The idealized nature of his project cannot be neglected as we think about using his concepts to examine contemporary public cultures. It is important that we recognize what Habermas set out to accomplish because it helps us to think about how much relevance his project has for the Black public sphere. The Black Public Sphere Collective, a group of Black scholars who edited a 1994 special issue of the journal Public Culture and then a 1995 anthology on the Black public sphere, defines the Black public sphere as an expansion of Habermas's public sphere. It moves beyond magazines, salons, coffee shops, and highbrow tracts to include vernacular practices such as street talk, new music, radio shows, and church voices. The Black public sphere "marks a wider sphere of critical practice and visionary politics, in which intellectuals can join with the energies of the street, the school, the church, and the city to constitute a challenge to the exclusionary violence of much public space in the United States." This vision of a public sphere necessarily moves beyond what Habermas initially envisioned a public sphere could be.
In The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Habermas deals with very specific terms and concepts in relation to a particular period in European society. When we think of using his concepts and terms to analyze contemporary publics, we must bear the specificity of his project in mind. For example, he acknowledges that several social issues-gender, ethnicity, class, and popular culture-have been excluded from established public spheres and so from his original analysis of them. Though The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere examines a particular European phenomenon at a given point in time, Habermas's model is relevant and useful because it sets up as a model a time when individuals came together, discussed issues of collective good, worked toward change, and challenged state power.
Here, I will interrogate notions of the public sphere, as defined by Jürgen Habermas, and of the Black public sphere, as defined by various theorists of Black public culture, in order to fully understand how intersections of race, class, gender, and sexuality further complicate understandings of the public sphere. I explore issues of spectacle, representation, and the public/private split in relation to Black public culture, and maintain that-as a result of Black history in the United States-these concepts have to be rethought when applied to Black participation in the larger U.S. public sphere. In order to highlight the legacy that Hip-Hop culture builds on, I provide some brief historical examples of how Blacks have negotiated and navigated the larger U.S. public sphere. I also provide examples of the ways that Black people, once they gained access to certain segments of the larger public sphere, sought to disrupt commonly held beliefs about Blacks by bringing wreck to negative images and stereotypes. They did so by claiming control of the public's gaze and a public voice for themselves. Wreck, as seen in the epigraph to this chapter, is a Hip-Hop term that connotes fighting, recreation, skill, boasting, or violence. The Hip-Hop concept of wreck sheds new light on the things Blacks have had to do in order to obtain and maintain a presence in the larger public sphere, namely, fight hard and bring attention to their skill and right to be in the public sphere.
Bringing wreck, for Black participants in the public sphere historically, has meant reshaping the public gaze in such a way as to be recognized as human beings-as functioning and worthwhile members of society-and not to be shut out of or pushed away from the public sphere. I make comparisons and connections between past instances of Black public culture in order to explore the implications for spectacle and representation in Hip-Hop culture and Black women involved in Hip-Hop culture. I maintain that a reworking of Habermas's concept of the public sphere is key to an expanded understanding of the political potentialities of Hip-Hop as a youth movement.
Habermas defines the bourgeois public sphere as "the sphere of private people come together as a public" who use "the public sphere regulated from above against the public authorities themselves, to engage them in a debate over the general rules governing relations in the basically privatized but publicly relevant sphere of commodity exchange and social labor." Because he is describing a particular moment in eighteenth-century Europe, the "private people" Habermas describes are homogeneous in regard to race, class, and gender; there are no women or people of color represented. This does not mean that they were not there, as many scholars of color and feminist scholars have pointed out. Rather, they did not have access to the public sphere in the same ways that white male property holders did.
Therefore, when we apply the notion of "commodity exchange" to Blacks in the United States (specifically Black women), the term takes on a different significance because of the history of slavery. For centuries black people themselves were a commodity, and they provided much of the labor that built the country. They are entering the public sphere after a significant period of being excluded from it; the "general rules governing relations" at one point worked to keep them out. The concept of the public sphere, as Habermas defines it, must be renegotiated in order to fit the specific needs of Black public culture in the United States.
For example, as Bruce Robbins reminds us, the current situation of identity politics and mass media will not allow us to simply reject Habermas as irrelevant for contemporary Black people because his theories are white and European-centered. What Habermas has to say about how one specific group of people negotiated and navigated the public sphere in order to influence the quality of their lives can help us to see how Black people have renegotiated the public sphere in order to claim a public voice. Therefore, it is fruitful to try to flesh out the most useful aspects of his ideas. Pieces of Habermas's theory can be reworked to address the impact of Hip-Hop on the United States and the world, the phenomenon of Black women coming to voice via Hip-Hop, and women's impact on both Hip-Hop culture and the larger public sphere.
If people of color and women are to be represented in the public sphere, Habermas's model has to be altered. A variety of experiences have to be taken into consideration, and those experiences have to be open to differences between and within the various groups. For example, the idea that citizens do not carry their "particularities" into the public sphere would necessarily have to be retheorized. Black women, for example, cannot opt to leave their particularities at the door. They are physically marked as Black and female, and these are two sources of their oppression. Thus their particularities would necessarily inform their very participation in the public sphere. Particularities matter, therefore, when they work as markers that inhibit access to the public sphere. Indeed, it might be more fruitful in contemporary discussions concerning people of color and the public sphere to think in terms of multiple publics. As Nancy Fraser writes in Justice Interruptus, in order for a theory of the public sphere to be adequate it must encompass the multiplicity of public spheres that exist, distinguish between them, and show how some of the spheres marginalize others.
Unlike Habermas's public sphere, Fraser's multiplicity of public spheres cannot be confined to a single model. She recognizes not only media and government public spheres but also everyday, informal public spheres. Fraser recognizes there is not only one way to be political; rather, multiple spheres interact with and even marginalize each other. This opens the door for a consideration of the way Hip-Hop culture functions as a counter-public sphere and the way Black women in particular experience that sphere. For example, today rappers suffer marginalization from official governmental offices-via police harassment, harsh restrictions on concert venues, censorship, and strict copyright laws that affect sampling-because of the themes that they choose to speak about in their lyrics. Some mass-media representations of Hip-Hop cast the culture in a negative light, simultaneously vilifying it and granting it a public voice. This vilification leads to moral panic and public outcry that serves to alienate the Hip-Hop generation from other members of Black communities. The alienation highlights not only the generation gap but also the class schisms that divide Black communities.
Even as the Hip-Hop generation is vilified, alienated, and marginalized, certain elements within Hip-Hop work to vilify, alienate, and marginalize others. For example, while some rappers claim to be the new voice for the marginalized group of Black youth they claim to represent, they oppress and marginalize women and homosexuals. The rap lyrics that make constant references to "bitches" and "hos," "punks" and "faggots," work to create hostile environments for some women and homosexual participants in Hip-Hop culture. This hostility is evident not only in the lyrics but also in the attitudes that some rappers exhibit toward women and homosexuals, marginalizing and oppressing anyone who is not Black, straight, male, and dripping with testosterone. Even though Hip-Hop culture suffers state oppression, it can and does in certain instances act as an oppressor. Knowing and understanding this does not diminish the work members of Hip-Hop culture have to do to navigate and renegotiate the larger United States public sphere, but it does provide a glimpse of the navigation and negotiations taking place within the counter-public sphere of Hip-Hop.
Unlike Habermas's model, in which the bourgeoisie ideally was able to use the regulated public sphere against the public authorities that sought to suppress and squelch their public voice, today's rappers do not have access to the regulatory aspects of the public sphere in the same ways. Bearing Black history in mind, we can see a pattern in which whenever Black dissident voices enter the public space, variables of containment and severe oppression-sometimes from outside forces and sometimes from inside mistakes and misjudgments-go into play that inhibit the strength and forcefulness of their message. Examples of these kinds of dynamics can be found throughout Black history in the United States, but the most recent example prior to the explosion of Hip-Hop can be seen in how the Black Panther Party functioned as a counter-public sphere in the United States during the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The Black Panther Party used spectacle and representation in the larger U.S. public sphere to grab national attention and claim a public voice. The black leather jackets, black berets, and guns contributed to their revolutionary image. Their rhetoric of the gun-of killing and being willing to die for the people-also contributed to their ability to navigate the spectacle. Before Hip-Hop, then, we have the Black Panther Party making use of spectacle and controlling the national gaze. However, unlike what we find in most of contemporary Hip-Hop, the Black Panther Party used spectacle and representation with a social and political goal: power for the people. In this way, the Black Panther Party and Black groups that came before and after them renegotiated the public sphere in order to claim power for themselves.
Examinations of Black history in the United States show that while Habermas's model can be useful, it has to be reconfigured to fit Black experiences. Habermas begs to be reread with the lens of inclusion and difference firmly in place and with a special emphasis on race, class, gender, and sexuality. Because the space for such difference does not exist in Habermas's original work-due to the period in which he wrote it and the specific historical period he deals with-one has to be created through a method of reinterpretation. I find a useful model for reinterpretation in the feudal period, which Habermas also addresses.
For example, representative publicity is a term that needs to be looked at in terms of race, class, gender, and sexuality. Representative publicity and the "publicness" of lords is characteristic of the period prior to the development of the public sphere, in Habermas's model. Habermas describes the publicness of lords, kings, and noblemen as a display or embodiment that presented them as a higher power-higher than the people they presented themselves to. He goes on to suggest that such representation is an aura-something that pretends to make something invisible visible. It is something staged and "wedded to personal attributes such as insignia (badges and arms), dress (clothing and coiffure), demeanor (form of greeting and poise), and rhetoric (form of address and formal discourse in general)-in a word, to a strict code of noble conduct." For Habermas, representative publicity, because of the power arrangements of the era, is something that is placed before the people, a form of spectatorship that lacks political possibilities because there is no participation. However, when one moves forward to the late-twentieth-century United States and considers a minority group that historically has not had access to the public sphere, spectacle takes on an entirely different role.
For Black people in the United States specifically, their role has historically been one of invisibility.
Excerpted from Check It While I Wreck It by GWENDOLYN D. POUGH Copyright © 2004 by Gwendolyn D. Pough. Excerpted by permission.
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