Hip-Hop: Not Your Pop's Culture

A conversation with cultural critic Mark Anthony Neal, associate professor in the African and African American Studies Program.


Earlier this spring, the movement to institutionalize the study of hip-hop in academe received a boost. The Smithsonian's National Museum of American History announced that it would enshrine hip-hop culture with an extensive exhibit tracing its evolution from a Bronx pastime in the 1970s to today's global juggernaut.

Mark Anthony Neal, associate professor of black popular culture in the African and African American Studies Program at Duke, has explored the effects of hip-hop culture on black popular culture, black women, and black intellectual production through both his studies and his writing. His four books, What the Music Said: Black Popular Music and Black Public Culture; Soul Babies: Black Popular Culture and the Post-Soul Aesthetic; Songs in the Key of Black Life: A Rhythm and Blues Nation; and, most recently, New Black Man: Rethinking Black Masculinity, have earned him praise for his ability to bridge the divide between academe and the public. Critic Michael Eric Dyson has characterized him as "one of the most brilliant cultural critics of his generation" and says that Neal "writes gracefully, thinks sharply, speaks cogently, and is old school and new school at once."

In April Neal, who is also a regular contributor to seeingblack.com and to National Public Radio's News and Notes, had a public conversation with Tracy Sharpley-Whiting, director of the program in African American and Diaspora Studies at Vanderbilt University, at the fourth annual Duke Magazine Campus Forum. Sharpley-Whiting teaches a variety of subjects, including comparative diasporic literary and cultural movements, critical race studies, feminist theory, and film and hip-hop culture. She is also a professor of French and director of the W.T. Bandy Center for Baudelaire and Modern French Studies and has written several books: Negritude Women; Black Venus: Sexualized Savages, Primal Fears, and Primitive Narrative in French; and Frantz Fanon: Conflicts and Feminisms.

At the forum, the two scholars sought to investigate how hip-hop culture influences a wide spectrum of human interaction, ranging from the idea of the strip club as a new "church" to the tension between artistry and commercial values in music. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation.

On his intellectual "alter ego"

I want you to talk a little bit about your "thugniggerintellectual" concept. You know that is going to rattle some people.

I have an alter ego--my intellectual alter ego. My intellectual alter ego is thugniggerintellectual--one word. And it's been something I've been playing with for a while, because I've been trying to work through in my mind a way to make the life of the mind available and accessible to people who would never think about it as such.

I just became really attracted to this notion of where we look for intellectual production. And it's not always in the places where we think we're going to find it. So, I began to try to work through this kind of persona. It's come to me at different moments, particularly, in the past, doing my work in Starbucks. And folks just fundamentally don't have an understanding of why I'm there at two o'clock in the afternoon with a laptop and a bunch of books.

Folks are saying things to me, like, are you a numbers runner? Are you taking bets? Are you a DJ? Do you sell mix tapes? The last thing they're thinking about is that this cat is an intellectual. So, I actually think of myself differently than people may perceive me. I understand that. But folks will be more apt to think of me as a thug and a nigger before they would ever think about me as an intellectual. In fact, thinking of me as an intellectual is the more dangerous thing because they have no grasp on that. I mean all kinds of things that come up except this idea I'm an intellectual.

I wanted to embody this figure that comes into intellectual spaces like a thug, who literally is fearful and menacing. I wanted to use this idea of this intellectual persona to do some real kind of "gangster" scholarship, if you will. All right, just hard, hard-core intellectual thuggery. And what it really personifies is how I'm thinking about being in these spaces when I'm not trying to fit into these spaces. When I'm not trying to be the collegial colleague. When I'm not trying to sell books. When I'm not trying to get students into my classes. When I'm not trying to be politically correct. This is this other persona. I wanted to really do a book project that spoke to raising these kinds of questions, ultimately, within this guise that, in some ways, identity is all performance. And thugniggerintellecutal is just one of the identities that I perform.

But there are those who, of course, are quite resistant to the idea of the black intellectual intervening in this space and talking over the dialogue of hip-hop. And so, I wonder if we could talk a little bit about that and what kind of interventions do we make, specifically, with respect to hip-hop?

Folks like Henry Louis "Skip" Gates Jr., Cornel West, bell hooks, Michael Eric Dyson--black intellectuals, public intellectuals--were called to duty to provide the labor to explain what these new urban phenomena were.

So, whether it was the race riots in L.A. in 1992 or the case of Skip Gates and 2 Live Crew recording a song that some felt was vulgar or the O.J. Simpson trial, these folks were called to duty to explain the significance of what this stuff was. And in some ways, black, public intellectuals are able to dictate what kind of conversations are going to happen in our society around race and class and popular culture. The best example of that recently is Michael Eric Dyson's very timely book on Hurricane Katrina [Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster]. He's still out there trying to push his book, and, of course, selling his ideas, but at the same time keeping the focus on what happened and what didn't happen last September.

He understands better than anybody that part of selling your ideas in the marketplace is selling the person behind the ideas. The only way the ideas circulate is if a person does. And part of that is about celebrity and personality culture. And so much of contemporary hip-hop journalism, really, is about celebrity journalism. But then, when you have that attention, what do you do with it? What do we do when we have that kind of significant space?

We always have to [ask] ourselves, when we're dealing with the bright lights, are we still having the kind of conversations that allow us to bring the kind of ideas that we're committed to politically into a wider forum?

Cultural commentators: Sharpley-Whiting, left, and Neal

Cultural commentators: Sharpley-Whiting, left, and Neal. Chris Hildreth

On the definition and commercialization of hip-hop

What is hip-hop?

Hip-hop is an art form and social movement that we can trace back to the West Bronx. Afrika Bambaataa will say the specific date that hip-hop was born was August 11, 1973, only because that's the evening that he gave a [now famous] party.

Bambaataa brought to the United States his own sense of what they call sound systems in Jamaica, and really wanted to replicate that space in the Bronx--basically, to get kids off the street and away from the gangs. He began giving house parties in the Bronx. The more technical definition--the folks will say, originally, [had] about four elements--emceeing, DJing, break dancing, graffiti art. We now talk about a fifth element, consciousness. And the last fifteen years of intellectual production around hip-hop would suggest that that's a legitimate plan.

It's gone from basically a fringe underground culture that was seen as only to be embraced by black and brown kids in urban spaces into a global phenomenon. We find hip-hop in Prague. And we find hip-hop in Italy. And we find hip-hop in South Africa. We find corporate versions of hip-hop that I don't like to actually refer to as hip-hop anymore.

We have celebrity hip-hop artists and the celebrity hip-hop journalists. Which came first? Which cultivated the one or the other?

Oh, I think the celebrity artist comes first. And, if you talk to some of the very good journalists, one of the things that they're faced with is that urban magazines don't move magazines based on ideas. They move magazines based on people and their lives. So, when Young Jeezy talks about folks using his image simply to sell magazines, he's dead on.

And if you want to be a successful journalist writing for mainstream vehicles at this point in time, that's part of the process of what you have to do now. And I think that's a very big transition from what the magazine coverage was of hip-hop.

So, you have someone like [the journalist] Elizabeth Mendez Berry and the difficulty she had in terms of publishing her groundbreaking piece on sexual violence propagated by prominent hip-hop artists. She had a real difficulty selling that to many of these magazines that just don't want to deal with having folks who read the magazines actually think about anything. And I think that is reflective of where hip-hop has gone. It's less about ideas and more about personalities and lifestyles and products.

Artistic rendering: graffiti in Los Angeles

Artistic rendering: graffiti in Los Angeles. Neil Emmerson

What you do get is a great deal of pushback against what is happening within the context of the culture in terms of the fashion and the videos and the dance. And that's part of the problem when you think about the whole commercialization of hip-hop, and what has,

I guess, come to be recognized as hip-hop, [about] which, of course, we say, "Well, that's not really hip-hop."

I made the point in my class ["Black Popular Culture"] early today, there's this ongoing question about why [socially] conscious rappers don't sell any records. In some basic way, it's because, aesthetically, the stuff just isn't very good.

What I'm curious about as a scholar is, how do we work through and find spaces within that very, very commercial hip-hop--the stuff that people are actually consuming--that can generate certain kinds of political and social sensibilities? How do we tease out possibilities in 50 Cent? In a song like "Many Men," he has a great line about, "Cat got shot nine times, he's dead. I got shot nine times, I'm still here. I must be here for a reason." Okay, this guy is actually philosophizing about his presence in the world. I can use that for those folks who are listening to 50 Cent.

Now, I can name ten other rappers who have been doing the same thing, who aren't even a blip on the screen to this fifteen-year-old kid that just wants everything 50 Cent. So, [as a scholar,] how do I politicize the 50 Cent moment in ways that become useful? Because this is the stuff that folks are consuming.

In what way does that work with your critique, and mine, of this different kind of hip-hop that we see moving to the forefront?

I think my comment at an academic panel was that I'm about to retire from this hip-hop thing. Because the reality is that, at forty years old and living with hip-hop now for more than twenty-five years in my own life, the kind of conversations that I want to have about hip-hop are not the kind of conversations that folks who listen to hip-hop necessarily want to have. Hip-hop is old enough now to have two kids and pay a mortgage and have car loans and then think about changing its career.

So, you have this very interesting generational shift within hip-hop. And the hip-hop generation [old] guard--Russell Simmons is forty-seven, forty-eight years old. Flavor Flav is forty-seven years old. Chuck D is forty-five--these aren't young people anymore. [Queen] Latifah will be forty shortly. And how I feel about hip-hop is very different than how Young Jeezy talks about hip-hop.

In the mix: DJ turns old sounds into new

In the mix: DJ turns old sounds into new. Andersen Ross

I know there are people who would be hard pressed to believe that hip-hop will eventually go the way of some other forms.

It will morph into something else. We'll always listen to it, but it won't have the same sort of currency.

We are much more focused [now] on the music as opposed to the lyricism, unlike more traditional forms of hip-hop. And for me, crunk is post hip-hop. It's hip-hop morphing into these other things. There's this kind of Northern-Southern bias that somehow Northern culture is so much more cerebral than Southern culture, and rappers get played into that. So, when you get a group like Little Brother, who is an example of cerebral, Southern hip-hop, folks are like, "no that's New York. That's not Southern hip-hop. That's rappers in the South trying to sound like they're from New York." That's the critique.

When you think about criteria of good hip-hop--lyricism, story telling, and flow--these cats ain't got lyricism. I don't know what the story is they're telling, and some of them really are flow challenged. But, I had to come to terms with the power of crunk. What is it about crunk in its natural space that gets people off the wall? And I'm wondering....

On "crunk," strip clubs, and black female bodies

Maybe we should explain what crunk is.

Crunk. Wow, how do you describe crunk? A particular Southern strain of what some folks would call hip-hop that takes part of its roots from the strip-club culture in the South--and, I would argue, the black church.

Crunk has its own development. It has its own steam. It has nothing to do with East Coast hip-hop. And again, if you look at the church, crunk is the new spirituality. The strip club is the new church. That raises all kinds of interesting possibilities around spirituality and black bodies, dealing with issues of spirituality outside traditional notions of what spirituality in a church is supposed to be.

So, with that understanding, we have the glorification of the strip club with people like Lil Jon. Because, as you say, if we look at the strip club as the new church, as the new dating scene, as the new whole bunch of other things...

As the new hook-up. And the ways in which black female bodies are at the center of this. It's a little troubling because of what it is, that it is selling strip clubs as viable employment opportunities. And they are for women who mostly will be forced into low-paying jobs in the service industry.

When we think about women who work in strip clubs, the key component there is that word "work." In some ways this is legitimate labor, and we need to be clear about that. And women make these decisions based on what kind of legitimate labor is in their best interest. While it's important that black women's sexuality not be exploited, at the same time, I don't want to get into the business of policing black women's sexuality, which is just as dangerous.

I think we've raised a generation of men--regardless of race--who see black women's bodies as available. It's that moment in bell hooks' book Black Looks, where she talks about walking down the street in New Haven--when she's teaching at Yale--and she's eavesdropping on a conversation with three or four college students, who are having a conversation about, "Before I graduate I want a black one. Nah, nah, before I graduate I want a Chinese one. Nah, nah, before I graduate I want a Spanish one." That's the conversation that they're having. What is their conversation in fantasy--at that moment--corporate America has given to them as reality via the circulation of black women's bodies and the circulation of bodies of women of color in hip-hop. I think that's part of what we have to take very seriously. And the simple indictment has always been--the default indictment has been--well, this is hip-hop's fault.

I write about women who are exotic dancers. After interviewing these women, I know many of them look at that particular moment in their lives with the understanding that it is something that they will do short term; it's a launching pad for their careers. And some of them will do some of the most outrageous things.

And so, at this moment, I'm a little troubled by that--that's what women have been reduced to.

I think one of the things that we do that's very dangerous is to talk about what hip-hop is doing to women. And we very rarely ask the question about how women are using hip-hop, which is a very different question. And I think, when you talk about the ways in which women are using hip-hop, one way is to develop a certain kind of consciousness about who they are--particularly young women. Look at someone like Joan Morgan [the journalist and author], who in some ways, coined the term hip-hop feminism. Joan is forty years old and trying to get off the hip-hop bandwagon. And I think that, for that generation of third-wave feminists, it probably is very problematic to identify yourself with a dying musical genre.

And you're right. This is the pushback against feminism. This is the pushback against women's-studies programs. This is the pushback against women who have been successful in corporate America. This is the pushback against Hillary Clinton. And the conversation gets really murky when it gets brought back into the context of the black community.

For me, it's about broadening our sense of what hip-hop is. So that when we hear folks saying that hip-hop is not doing this, hip-hop is not doing that, well, hip-hop is in fact doing that. The fact is that hip-hop has, in its own way, grown a generation of feminists, young women who claim feminism and claim hip-hop in the same space. They don't claim hip-hop feminism as simply a pushback against a gender and sexual politics of hip-hop, but actually claim hip-hop feminism as a space to work through ideas of young women and their sexuality, young women and their femininity.

On hip-hop scholarship

I think one of the big problems that we face today is that we are in a post-movement era. We would like hip-hop to be a political movement. But there are those who say that scholars in the academy are, in some respects, doing what the celebrity hip-hop journalist is doing.

I circulate beyond the academy in large part because of the assumption of how I am attached to hip-hop, whether or not that's a legitimate understanding of what I do. But this idea, for instance, is going to allow me to circulate much more easily, much more fluidly than being a black male feminist, which, in some ways, doesn't allow me to circulate beyond my classroom. But I also don't think that it's exploitative in that we are a generation of folks who came of age with hip-hop and have taken it seriously as a mode of scholarship.

We as scholars have to take seriously what hip-hop represents in the social and political and cultural moment. And we have to think about hip-hop not just as this thing that has grown out of the Bronx from 1973, but that has worldwide tentacles, that affects a wide range of people and movements. And how do we bring a kind of critical scrutiny to the way that hip-hop circulates around the globe? That's part of our responsibility. And it's also part of our responsibility to take it seriously enough that we don't have to defend why it's being taught and talked about in a university framing.

In some ways, the conversations that we're having about whether or not hip-hop studies is a legitimate course of study in the academy is not unlike discussions about American literature seventy years ago in the academy. It's not unlike discussions about sociology fifty years ago in the academy. The idea is that hip-hop reflects the humanity of the people who create it and the people who consume it in much the same way that literature gives us a window into various humanities. Hip-hop functions the same way in 2006.

Share your comments

Have an account?

Sign in to comment

No Account?

Email the editor