Saturday, August 7, 2010

In Offense: Gangsta Rap and the Positioning of One Faggot Ambiguously Brown Self to the Ghetto

A prefatory note:

I hope to complicate things with messy and truthful details, to show that a system of absolutes when dealing with the complexities of race and ethnicity is elementary and in hopes of opening up a frank and honest conversation about race that is more invested in transformation than in righteousness and exclusiveness.

I would also like to acknowledge that there was no one response to the Berlinquent’s show in Copenhagen and thank a number of the conflict resolution moderators who demonstrated an unbiased intelligence and patience.

At the end of the number 10 bus line, in a bleak and industrial landscape lay an old factory where a queer bubble had been inflated with a lot of hot air: Queerfestival 2010—Copenhagen, Denmark. The demographics of the festival were typical: almost entirely white save for a few “brown saviors,” most straight out of the Ivory Towers and into the queer enclave to give workshops and to assist in tackling the monochromatic problem. In general, I felt the space was an academic masturbatory experiment where two years prior a man was thrown out of the festival for wearing a pair of army pants. Tense, to say the least. On the closing night of the festival, to a Hip Hop soundtrack, the brown flag was raised high with a big capital N (N for you know what), and the crowd charged.It didn’t matter much if those who had raised the flag where brown bodies themselves, in this pink-even it was a chance to use their newly learned ‘critical white’ skills. The reaction was one based on racial assumptions and stereotypes unquestioned and protected by a thick skin of self-righteous academic elitism

So what exactly happened?

The Berlinquents, a queer hip hop dance troupe based out of Berlin of which I am a member, performed as one of the “warm up”/ opening acts for the Sex Party on the last night of the Copenhagen Queer Festival. We danced to two songs, Cypress Hill’s “Insane In-The brain” and Method Man’s “Release Yo’self” that use the word “nigga” derived from the derogatory word “nigger” (probably the most offensive word in contemporary American English). While performing our choreographed dance to the music some members of the group sang along, some lip-synced, while the majority simply danced. There were no microphones on stage and singing was not a premeditated component of our show. One woman in our group wore a large brunette Priscilla Queen of the Desert-esque bouffant, which in the context of Hip Hop (because it’s ‘black music’) was read as a kinky Afro. In essence we, were accused of performing Black Face or of superficial appropriation. Some commentators (for example, Spike Lee, in his satirical film Bamboozled) have criticized Gangsta Rap as analogous to black minstrel shows and blackface performance, in which performers – both black and white – were made up to look African American, and acted in a stereotypically uncultured and ignorant manner for the entertainment of audiences. I agree with Tricia Rose in her book, Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America that one should focus on the burning problems of racism and economic oppression that Gangsta Rap draws attention to, rather than to questions of obscenity.

Some members of audience were offended and half way through our show, about 10 minutes in, the sound and video plug was pulled and the presenter came on stage and announced that the show would no longer continue due of its offensive racial nature. In response, some members of audience clapped while others booed. After which, we the Berlinaquents went into our impromptu dressing room and began to process what had just occurred when a blonde and fair skinned individual him came barging in and yelling at the top of their lungs while waving their finger in my face and screaming, “how dare you! You have no right! It’s not my job to educate you on race.”

You have no right!”

I was born to a teenage high school dropout mother addicted to drugs and utterly lost in poverty. My mother successfully ran away from home at the age of 16 from a physically and sexually abusive father and stepmother, legal and illegal immigrants from Mexico. At the age of 21 my mother found herself with three children, a horrible drug addiction and married to a heroin addict and pretty successful dealer of it. I am the only person in my entire family who graduated high school, sadly including my younger brother and sister. The first time I had a gun pulled to my head I was 6 years old. "It was fucking Gangsta", one could say. Not to mention that Latino communities, or those perceived to be from such communities, have been demonized in the U.S. popular media for years as being infested with gang.

My family loved hip-hop music, especially Gangsta Rap. In fact I have a number of cousins who were professional rappers. I was drowned in hip-hop and simultaneously alienated from it, because as a faggot sissy I wasn’t necessarily embraced full heartedly. Gangsta Rap became the most lucrative genre of Hip Hop in the early 90's, the exact time of my “coming to age”, and is perhaps one of the most homophobic genres of Hip Hop, which is partially why I am drawn to it today. Death Row Records, the crown jewel label of Gangsta Rap, was established in 1992 in California, my place of birth and origin, and began signing new and upcoming Californian rappers such as Snoop Dogg and 2pac.I kissed a girl who claims to have had a romantic interlude with 2pac. Perhaps that’s beside the point. The point being: I was simultaneously drowned in and alienated from Gangsta Rap growing up and therefore this is the music I choose to, and will continue to, queer fully aware that it is a dangerous crossroads full of possibilities and complications.

Gangsta Rap music is the music I was raised with and the music I choose to engage with today, because the music engaged me. So to have a blond haired, fair skinned individual in Copenhagen, Denmark yell at the top of their lungs to me and say I have no right to use such music or to have one of the moderators tell me, “there is queer hip-hop. There is white hip-hop” I want to dance to the music I grow up with.In this specific incident and its contextual framework to enter into a dialogue about race it seemed a certain academic background as opposed to a particular ethnic or racial background was more important and valid, when in fact the discussion at hand was race. Experienced racism and academic discourse on race had been conflated. Thus the perversion: for now it was possible for an individual with no history of experienced racism to “educate” or “school” a person of color about racism.

Dancing to the N-Word is extremely dangerous grounds indeed and I do not want this note to be interpreted as some sort of justification for people of non-African ancestry to use the word as if they have the right to reclaim it in some sort of epic fight against the "oppressive forces of Political Correctness." I fully apologized if I ever took for granted the usage and gravity of that word, the "N-Bomb". I will reconsidered our performance so that the context of the music is clearer as well as making sure that no one in the group sings along to the music while such a word is used. The point I am concerned with is what my engagement to such a genre of autobiographical importance and relevance--where such a word is pervasively used, should be. I do not believe a simply and complete disengagement with the music is the answer or in any way productive or transformative but rather one based in fear.

A Classic Queering

What do we have the right to queer? It is a valid question and I do not believe one has the license to queer anything and everything, but does not one have the right to queer that of their own past, even if that past is intimately intertwined with that of the other? Should I simply not interact in public manner with any music that uses the N word, for that would mean an almost entire disengagement with that of Gangsta Rap? How can people use an art form that they respect, that has strong history of resistance while being aware and grateful to the contributions of an unshared history?

In this case I am speaking specifically about the relationship between Latinos and African-Americans in impoverished areas of the United States and a certain shared musical culture, Gangsta Rap. Of course in California, "ghetto" culture is shared with that of poor whites, Arab-Americans, the Hmong people and other South East Asian communities. The Point I am trying to emphasize is the complexity and interconnectedness of race and class, a “dangerous Liaisons” that is anything but pure, and that having certain absolutes, especially in the arts, is dangerously limiting to deeper understanding thereof. Because it is wrong, because it is dirty. It doesn’t belong, especially if one doesn’t fit the perceived bill perfectly, a Mexican, Irish, Hawaiian, Punjabi faggot playing the part of a black man supposedly straight.

Ghettoizing the Ghetto: Acculturation, Transculturation and Neoculturation Between Minorities.

“It wouldn’t be L.A. without Mexicans. Black Love, Brown Pride, and the sets again. Pete Wilson tryin to see us all broke. I’m on some bullshit out for everything they owe. Remember K day.”

To Live In Die in L.A., 2Pac

In my research between cultural relationships between two ethnic minorities, such as between Latino and African-American cultures, I have found very little. Whereas, most interracial discussions speak s solely to black and white relations, or to white and some other racially oppressed group. But what of the relations between two racially oppressed groups? Of course there is also loads of tension, especially when dealing with limited resources. For instances what of Latino communities appropriating elements of African American histories, or using the N word?

Groups such as Los Angeles-based Cypress Hill (one of the bands we danced to), which has black and Hispanic members, serve as an explicit bridge between black and Hispanic communities that builds on long-standing hybrids produced by blacks and Puerto Ricans in New York since the beginning of Hip Hop[1]. Rap music brings together a tangle of some of the most complex social, cultural, and political issues in contemporary American society. Rap's contradictory articulations are not signs of absent intellectual clarity; they are a common feature of community and popular cultural dialogues that always offer more than one cultural, social, or political viewpoint. These unusually abundant polyvocal conversations seem irrational when they are severed from the social context where everyday struggles over resources, pleasure, and meaning take place. Poly-vocal[2].

See colored people as just black and brown and not really carrying about the specifics of ethnicity or community, a simple lumping together with no concern for the details. If I were never to engage with music that uses the N word that would mean almost the complete elimination of Gangsta Rap. Instead, I see the need to engage in honest, dynamic, specific conversations about real racial issues that continue to divide us in our day-to-day interaction. A system of absolutes is elementary, especially when dealing with the complexities of ethnicity.

A Re-visitation in a New Pair of Sparkly Pink Pumps

I remember once getting my ass kicked with single sentence preface: “You walk like a Bitch.” As I grow up and I distance myself from the community I had grown up in and tried to make myself more white—I actively tried to “correct” the way in which I spoke, I changed my clothing, I wore the highest SPF face and body creams I could find that wouldn’t cause my acne to break out and even started occasionally using skin whitening creams. Dancing to Hip Hop music, to mainstream Hip Hop music, to Gangsta Rap made by black and Latinos, the Hip Hop I grew up with while dressed in a pink mesh teddy and denim bra in the company of queer women and men, allowed me to revisit my history and feel comfortable with my sexuality and gender non-conformity while simultaneously feeling comfortable with my brownness.

To have the plug pulled on my performance half way threw and than told by a white European moderator that “there is queer Hip hop” that we could dance to felt totally inappropriate to me. To me queer is building coalitions with other oppressed people and my personal history is in and of itself a messy dirty mixture of cultures and colors.


How interesting it is that policies enacted to protect and foster a safe space for people of color are the same ones that pulled the plug on the only expression of queerness that was not traditionally white in the festival. When things tend to be extremely uniform they tend to be hyper conscious of variables that break that homogeny, especially when such variable are much discussed. In such instances there can be a certain swelling up or rupture where long stored tension comes pouring out. Blind accusation and gross generalization plague "discussions" of almost every racial issue that come up. When people disagree, they all too quickly and frequently resort to name-calling and refuse to entertain opposing or even tangential points of view. When challenged, many just cling to their original position more tightly[3].

Although I disagree with many of the policies of Eric Holder I do agree with him that America has become a nation of cowards when it comes to talking and dealing with race. Certain rhetorics of Political Correctness can be used to inhibit people from speaking frankly about race and encourage silence rather than dialogue. Because when we speak of race it is likely that we will offend, because we are socialized in racist structure and carry many racial tendencies we are unaware of. Furthermore, we will disagree with each other. This is why there must me a compassion in the fight against oppression. Compassion in the fight against oppression is the only sustainable option; otherwise we mimic the similar abuses of power in which we hope to fight.

When my failures come crashing down, may the debris of attempted and failed structures fall towards some useful direction, this is all that I can hope

[1] From Bomba to Hip-Hop: Puerto Rican Culture and Latino Identity, Juan Flores.

[2] Black noise: rap music and black culture in contemporary America , Tricia Rose.

The Berlinquents dancing at the Alexa Shopping Mall.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Stevie, I was the presenter on the night you performed. Your post did make me think a lot, so I would like to respond.

    I understand that you feel like you're being denied the right to express yourself in an art form you grew up with and relate to. I think you raise some good points about whether this excludes traditionally non-white art forms, such as gangsta rap from queer spaces, but in this instance what we had was a few white people enjoying gangsta rap, while most of the tiny amount of POCs there feel excluded and uncomfortable. Also I can't agree with your assumptions about the people of colour at the festival who were affected by the performance.

    A group of people of colour at the festival felt further excluded from what was already a very white space (as you point out) by your performance. The N-word for many was triggering, and I don't think it's for those of us for whom it's not to disregard that in what's aiming to be safer space. The whole policy of the festival is meant to be survivor-centric and this is something we wanted to respect. Especially in the context of it being entertainment for an overwhelmingly white crowd, some pocs at the festival found the N-word and the wig (which, regardless of the intention, looked very much like an afro wig) to be really personal, like a parody or mockery. I don't think the fact that you are not white makes their feelings less legitimate.
    CPH wasn't intended to be a completely free space, but a space in which we aimed to make those who attended the festival feel as safe and included as possible and this involved listening to the concerns of those who often get marginalized in this space and acting on them.

    I think I made it pretty clear onstage that I never intended to make this about good guys and bad guys. It's not like I've never offended anyone. I'm sad that someone came and shouted at you and made you feel threatened, especially if this was a white person (and I don't wanna make the assumption that they were, cos I don't know) shouting at you that it wasn't their job to educate you on race. That is what I was explicitly trying to avoid when I made the anouncement.

    However, I really think it is worth considering how some POCs in that space felt because of the Berlinquents performance. I understand your frustration because the one traditionally non-white art form get dropped, but -though some white people were offended- it wasn't the white people at the festival who felt further excluded and unsafe because of the repeated use of the N word, etc.