Southern Rap as the Double Other (Part 2)

Big K.R.I.T. at ACL night show.

Big K.R.I.T. at ACL night show.

This is the second post in a two-part series about Southern Rap. These are excerpts from a paper I wrote for Dr.Robin Moore’s Class “Music, Race, and History” at the University of Texas.

 

Nostalgia and the Embrace of Southern Otherness

Southern rappers “walk a fine line between refutation and celebration, as the forces that have helped to marginalize them are the very same ones that can now make them distinctive (and marketable) within the context of the rap music industry.”[1] These Southern stereotypes have acted as a double edged sword, on the one hand sabotaging creativity, and on the other hand providing Southern rappers a marketing tool: the ability to profit from preconceptions. Though the original Goodie Mob concept of the “Dirty” South, began as a critique of Southern racism, it has since evolved to have a multiplicity of meanings. Journalists swarmed at the idea of forcing artists into a category largely based on a construction of stereotypes (often anti-black and anti-rural) about the South, even though in reality, expressions of Dirty South rap are complex and varied.

Karl Miller, in his book Segregating Sound: Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow, reveals that many black Southern artists of the Jim Crow era, “found favor by actively personifying the racial musical categories the academy and the phonograph industry associated with a Southern culture defined through its primitivism, exoticism, and supposed distance from modern urban culture” when they moved from a local to a national stage.[2] Ironically, participation in racist blackface minstrel shows became a path for black Southerners to seek commercial success as composers of “coon songs” (to be sung, of course, by white singers), and eventually the blues, by exaggerating their Southern-ness, innocence, and folkloric qualities. This was particularly true for artists that moved to New York City, such as Vernon Dalhart, who catered to northeast fantasies about “indigenous” Southern sounds. Dalhart shows himself to be uniquely qualified to write minstrel songs because of his familiarity with real “negro dialect,” much in parallel to the way that Dre and Juvenile talk about their “Southern drawl”: “When you born and brought up in the South your only trouble is to talk any other way.”[3] Like Vernon Dalhart’s exaggeration of folklore, it is hard to say whether the “Southern rap” qualities listed in the above section (cadillacs, front porches, drawls, fried food) come from a genuine place, or from a place of advertisement.

In Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity, James Cobb focuses his tenth chapter on “Blackness and Southernness: African Americans [Looking] South toward Home.” Originally, after the “suffering and injustice imposed on African Americans by the Jim Crow South, external critics found it both easy and logical enough to conclude that the last thing any black person in the South would crave would be an identity as a Southerner.”[4] In the early twentieth century, immediately after Jim Crow, this was proved true by migration out of the South, but in the 1990s migration changed directions, heading back into the South. Savannah, Georgia native Harold Jackson, who left the South but eventually returned to Atlanta, explained that he participated in the reverse migration not only because there were more job opportunities in the South, but also because “the opportunities to solve the problems that exist are here, too.”[5] Around the time of this reverse-migration, nostalgic representations of the segregated Jim Crow South started appearing, partially because of the way it brought together communities. For example, Cobb points to major literary figures like Nikki Giovanni taking about Knoville, Tennessee; or Maya Angelou discussing Stamps, Arkansas.

Ironically, the end of Jim Crow segregation had resulted in a “sense of lost community among black Southerners who had lived in the South before and after Jim Crow.” Jim Crow-era black communities “confirmed that black Southerners had managed to retain a viable culture and a sense of their own worth in a society where color barriers had confronted them at every turn.” And by the end of the twentieth century, many “seemed to reflect so wistfully on this accomplishment precisely because they felt increasingly hard pressed to sustain it in a post-Jim Crow era.[6] In a way, Southern rap’s representations of nostalgia for front-porches are a reflection of this Northern nostalgia for Southern Jim Crow black community.

In the Introduction to Away Down South, Cobb talks about the American inclination to make comparisons between North and the South, holding the North as the norm:

Traditionally, “identity” has been defined as the condition of being simultaneously both “one’s self or itself and not another.” Typically, the creation of any sort of group identity, be it regional, national, ethnic, or otherwise, has required what Susan-Mary Grant called a “negative reference point,” against which it may be defined in stark and favorable contrast. Noting that Europe and the West once used the Orient as the “other” against which they identified themselves, David Jansson saw a similar process at work in the United States, a kind of “internal orientalism” that built and sustained a “privileged national identity” by consigning most of the undesirable traits exhibited by Americans to “the imagined space called ‘the South.’” The northern identity is considered “American.” Whereas the southern is cast as an “other.”[7]

According to Murray Forman, in Race, space, and place,we construct our identities based on what opposes our identity.[8] Certainly this is true of Southern rap. For example, the almost violently repetitive, refrain from Goodie Mob’s “Dirty South” (the single that coined the phrase “Dirty South,” from their 1995 album Soul Food), “What you niggas know about the dirty south?” is a defiant assertion of rap from the South as being other from the norm of rap from the North. Sarig Roni claims in the introduction to Third Coast: OutKast, Timbaland, and How Hip-Hop Became a Southern Thing that Southern hip hop has “benefited by not being tied to notions of hip hop orthodoxy – to Northern concepts of what does or does not qualify as hip hop.” This has left Southern hip hop artists occupying a space of otherness.

 

Rap as Counter-Hegemonic Otherness

What qualifies rap as a means of discourse? In The ‘hood comes first: Race, space, and place in rap and hip-hop, Murray Forman invokes Nancy Fraser’s concept of the “subaltern counter republic” to describe the cultural arena that hip hop has constructed, as well as bell hooks’ advocacy of the radical process of “talking back” as a political articulation.[10] In Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop, Imani Perry argues that hip hop is a public space because it is a  “spoken art form that cherishes open discourse, we find in hip hop a dialogic space in which artists’ voices articulate ideas about existence on a number of registers. The space of hip hop is public and yet interior.”[11]

Perry also argues that the discourse of hip hop is one of counter-hegemony. Hip hop “nourishes by offering a counter-hegemonic authority and subjectivity to the force of white supremacy in American culture in the form of the M.C. The centrality of the latter’s experience and voice often also presents a transcendent or powerful model of survival.”[12] The MC becomes a counter-hegemonic black hero. Hip hop scholar Tricia Rose agrees:

Rap music is fundamentally linked to larger social constructions of black culture as an internal threat to dominant American culture and social order. Rap’s capacity as a form of testimony, as an articulation of a young black urban critical voice of social protest, has profound potential as a basis for a language of liberation. Contestation over the meaning and significance of rap music and its ability to occupy public space and retain expressive freedom constitutes a central aspect of contemporary black cultural politics.[13]

Hip hop has what Perry calls a “commitment to otherness,” where “the historic construction of blackness in opposition to whiteness, in which blackness is demonized, has become part of the art form’s consciousness. Whereas previous generations of black Americans utilized various means to establish a self-definition that negated the construction of blackness as demonic or depraved, many members of the hip hop generation have chosen instead to appropriate and exploit those constructions as metaphoric tools for expressing power.”[14] Blackness is constructed as an identity in opposition to whiteness, in much the same way that Southern-ness is constructed as an identity in opposition to Northern-ness. Southern rap embraces the demonization of both of these categories. Therefore, Southern rap is the “double other.”

 

Implications

This “double otherness” means that Southern rappers experience a double marginalization. At the height of Southern rap, in the mid 1990s when OutKast took the Source Awards, simply the presence of black rappers from the Southern region on the mainstream stage was an important way of claiming space for this doubly marginalized group. Asserting the rights of counter-hegemonic figures such as Andre 3000 to be recognized. And for artists like Goodie Mob in Houston, it was about having black communities living in the post-Jim Crow South recognized. “It’s just dirty in the form of … racism,” says Khujo of the Goodie Mob in the documentary The Dirty South: Raw and Uncut, when asked what made the South “dirty.”[15]

In the “Dirty South” Goodie Mob elaborate “the shadowy world of the illegal drug trade in which neighborhood-based groups battle for their share of the spoils and try to avoid corrupt police.”[16] Lyrics from the first verse revolve around a scheme in which rapper Cool Breeze scams the President out of a drug deal: “Now if dirty Bill Clinton fronted me some weight/Told me keep two, bring him back eight/And I only brought him five and stuck his ass for three/Do you think that Clampett will sic his goons on me?” This reference to Bill Clinton “speaks to the complicity of (white) economic and policital elites in the drug trade…New South politicians like Clinton are integrated into an imagined space where unfairness reigns, and where law enforcement is nothing but an extension of a corrupt and racist power structure.”[17] This is a good example of how Southern rap in the mid 1990s served as Tricia Rose’s counter-hegemonic “testimony.”

But what does this “double otherness” mean for Southern rap now? It is hard to say. How do the lines that define the “regional” Southern rap movement stand up when an arguable majority of the most popular and memorable tracks of the late 1990s were created by Southern producers? OutKast of Atlanta have produced mega hits like “Hey Ya!” and “The Way You Move,” Virginia’s Timbaland produced Missy Elliott’s “Get Ya Freak On,” and Gwen Stefani’s “HollaBack Girl,” and the Neptunes, also of Virgnia, have written mega hits like Britney Spears’ “I’m a Slave 4 U,” Snoop Dogg’s “Drop it Like It’s Hot” and Justin Timberlake’s “Senorita.” Can a movement still be regional, still be “other,” when it becomes the status quo of the national mainstream? Matt Miller argues in his online article for SouthernSpaces, Dirty Decade: Rap Music and the U.S. South, 1997–2007, that “the Dirty South served as a marketing hook and an alternate political imaginary, but as its proponents have achieved goals of genre inclusion, acceptance, and a piece of the commercial action, they have moved on to a different set of concerns. The Dirty South as a reference or identification in rap is likely to become more infrequent.”[18]

As the recent popularity of Big K.R.I.T.’s 2011 single “Country Shit” shows, with a remix featuring Atlanta’s Ludacris and Houston hero BunB as guest rappers, nostalgic portrayals of Southern stereotypes can still be marketable. With lyrics in the chorus like “Let me tell you ‘bout this Old school pourin’ lean candied yams and collard greens,” and references to Cadillacs, it’s clear that K.R.I.T. is painting an ideal of “ridin’ clean” down Mississippi streets, home cooked meals, and “porch” life. The music video for the remix opens up with shots of the Houston skyline, signs pointing to Port Arthur (BunB’s hometown), and chicken being barbecued outside. Most of the video focuses on Big K.R.I.T., Ludacris, and BunB rapping on the front lawn of a small rural house, interspersed with shots of a black family passing food around at dinnertime, a large group of friends drinking beer in the garage, and (of course) there are Cadillacs in almost every frame.

Marketable, yes. But are these images still subversive? More than a decade after the mid 1990s rise of the Dirty South, is Big K.R.I.T.’s front porch style still a relevant way of claiming space? I would argue that it is. Though the regionalized “genre” of Southern rap has disappeared from the national mainstream consciousness, as Big K.R.I.T.’s packed Live from the Underground Texas show would suggest, there is still a local need for a mirrored reflection of black, Southern, counter-hegemonic heroes. BunB has become a pillar of the Houston community: he co-taught a class at Rice University on hip hop and race in Fall of 2011, as well as hosted a food drive in August. His constant shout outs to the city of Houston are such a source of pride that last year he was honored by the mayor, Annisse Parker, with his own “BunB Day.” Southern rap has come full circle to the point where the message is less about proving something to the North, and more about building and sustaining communities in the South. I would argue that “Country Shit” is more of a celebration of stereotypes for those who live in the South and own them, rather than a lampooning for Northern pleasure. It is about building black Southern pride.


[1] Matt Miller, “Rap’s Dirty South: From Subculture to Pop Culture,” That’s the Joint! The Hip Hop Studies Reader, 2nd Edition (2000): 284.

[2] Karl Miller, Segregating Sound (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010): 21.

[3] Miller, Segregating Sound: 140.

[4] James  C. Cobb, Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity (Oxford University Press, US: 2006): 262.

[5] Cobb, Away Down South: 263.

[6] Cobb, Away Down South: 277-78.

[7] Cobb, Away Down South: 2-3.

[8] Forman, The ‘hood comes first: 198.

[9] Sarig, Third Coast: xiii.

[10] Forman, The ‘hood comes first: 12-13.

[11] Imani Perry, Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop (Durham: Duke, 2004): 43.

[12] Perry, Prophets of the Hood: 44.

[13] Tricia Rose, “Hidden politics: discursive and institutional policing of rap music.” In Droppin’ Science:  Critical Essays on Rap Music and Hip Hop Culture, (1996): 253.

[14] Perry, Prophets of the Hood: 47.

[15] Wills Fellin, The Dirty South: Raw and Uncut (2000).

[16] Matt Miller. “Dirty Decade: Rap Music and the U.S. South, 1997-2007,” Southern Spaces (2008).

[17] Matt Miller, “Rap’s Dirty South: From Subculture to Pop Culture,” That’s the Joint! The Hip Hop Studies Reader, 2nd Edition (2000): 276.

[18] Matt Miller. “Dirty Decade: Rap Music and the U.S. South, 1997-2007,” Southern Spaces (2008).

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