Finding My Way with Words: A Journey Alongside the Internet (part 2)

As I was looking through the course catalogue at the start of this semester, this course immediately jumped out to me. This course was perfect for my social studies focus field on “Representations of African-Americans in the Media.” Additionally, this course stood out to me because it promised to take me through the historical structures that shaped technological and racial discourse today. Now, as I reflect on the semester, I have come away with so much than what is listed on the courses’ syllabus.

This reflective essay assignment kind of allows me to come full-circle to the start of my semester. Our first assignment for this course was to write a digital autobiography that required me to trace my journey alongside technology and look back on how technology has shaped my upbringing. While that first assignment required me to reflect backwards on how the Internet and technology have impacted my development until now, this assignment allows me to think back on this course and how it fits in with my life long journey thinking about the implications of race in technology.

Now I would like to talk about how the units in this course that were the most formative. Even though all of the units in this course were incredibly helpful to my understanding of race and formations of technology, there are particular units in this course that really expanded my view on what racism is and what ‘counts’ as technology.

I think my favorite unit hands down was “Slavery and Capitalism.” This unit really helped me broaden my definition of what constituted technology. In our modern era of computers, phones, the Internet, apps, etc., I only thought of technology in terms of digital tools. This unit reminded me of a technology class I took in sixth grade. My teacher told us, “Technology is anything that is designed to simplify human life.” Since the “Slavery and Capitalism” unit, my sixth grade teacher’s definition has become my working definition of technology.

The “Slavery and Capitalism” unit also taught me that technology doesn’t exist in a vacuum. There are always social and political constraints on how and who uses technology. The technologies we use are always colored by a complicated history based in capitalist structures. The Seth Rockman reading “The Future of the Civil War Era Studies” and the Darla Thompson dissertation “The Materiality of Slavery” really drove home these points.

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What I found most intriguing was how American students are socialized to believe that capitalism is a 20th century phenomenon, and not something that has been occurring since the beginning of slavery. The tales of the slave collars in the Thompson reading also moved me. Never did I think about technology as a means to subordinate an entire race of people. I was able to draw connections between the controls of the collars in the era of slavery to today’s technologies of control.

In addition to expanding my definition of technology, this unit also helped me realize the important role technology can play in reparations for slavery. Professor Vince Brown’s work on digitizing the narratives of slaves and providing interactive tools to tell stories that would have otherwise gone unheard was incredibly moving.

I think the most eye-opening unit was “Ownership, Privacy, and Information.” Throughout all of the readings and the documentary Terms and Conditions May Apply, my jaw was always slightly agape, There is a wealth of information collected on you, even if you don’t have a social media website. The data collection that is mundane today would have been fodder for a dystopian novel thirty years ago. This unit caused me to think critically about the disparities that exist in technological literacy. There is a huge gap in the knowledge and resources that everyday people, much less people of color or economically disadvantaged people, have to battle behemoth social media agencies. It is also concerning how little regulation there is to defend the privacy rights of citizens. The government has access to so much personal data that could be damaging to the lives of average citizens.

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The units that challenged the most on how I think about my identity the most were “Black Twitter” and “Intersectionality.” As a black woman from rural Georgia with Caribbean parentage, I always had a hard time thinking about my own blackness in relation to these sometimes-monolithic definitions of blackness. I really enjoyed Baratunde Thurston’s How to be Black. This comedic memoir and social commentary really resonated with me. I also enjoyed the Andre Brock reading on Black Twitter. Brock really got at my own thinking: why do people always want to study what black people do, but at the same time if people do not study ‘blackness’ then there is no dialogue to encourage action that makes social structures that benefits black people.

Both pieces reminded me of the idea of black people being ‘unicorns.’ I always remember growing up how impressed people were with me—not always by my personality or skills. Instead they were impressed that me—a black girl with a ‘ghetto’ name—was as smart and capable as I am. I was definitely always the unicorn of my friends in high school. I also realized that being the resident black person in many settings is a huge responsibility that I did not choose to bear. The “Black Twitter” and “Intersectionality” units pushed me to think about how I use social media and other story telling tools to add more diversity to the conversations of blackness. I have a unique voice because of all the identities I possess—very few, if anyone else, can provide the perspective I offer.

Overall, this course has been incredibly meaningful to me. As an aspiring journalist, this course gave me tools and strategies that will help me do a better job of telling the stories of people. This course also made me more thoughtful about what structures impact how and when particular individuals make the news. Going forward, I am going to be more cognizant about how to present news through graphics, long-form articles, and smaller packages that are more reader friendly.

In my time at Harvard, I don’t I have every interacted with a professor or teaching fellow as much as I have talked with Carla and Kera. Even though all of my classes won’t be small seminars, I am now more inclined to reach out to my professors and talk to them about my interests. I only have four years as an undergraduate at Harvard, so I need to take advantage of the wealth of knowledge surrounding me. I have also never spoken up as much as I have in this course. Being brave enough to put your ideas forward is incredibly important to enhancing not only your own learning, but also the learning of everyone else in the room.

For the rest of my time at Harvard and for the rest of my life, I would like to challenge myself to the following: 1) Always write, 2) Always speak up, and 3) Always treat people as people.

Works Cited:

Brock, André. 2012. “From the Blackhand Side: Twitter as a Cultural Conversation.” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 56 (4): 529–49.

Thurston, Baratunde. 2012. How to Be Black. New York, NY: Harper. (selections)

Carbado, Devon W., Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, Vickie M. Mays, and Barbara Tomlinson. 2013. “INTERSECTIONALITY: Mapping the Movements of a Theory.” Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race 10 (02): 303–12.

Rockman, Seth. 2012. “The Future of Civil War Era Studies: Slavery and Capitalism.” Journal of the Civil War Era. http://journalofthecivilwarera.com/forum-the-future-of-civil-war-era-studies/the-future-of-civilwar-era-studies-slavery-and-capitalism/.

Thompson, Darla J. 2014. “The Materiality of Slavery.” In Circuits of Containment: Iron Collars, Incarceration and the Infrastructure of Slavery. Cornell University dissertation, pp. 1-57.

Un-Rapping Black Feminism: How Black Female Rappers Verbally & Visually Subvert Traditional Rap Culture

Setting the Stage:

“‘I do not see myself as a female rapper anymore, I’m sorry. I see myself as a rapper,” said Nicki Minaj in an interview with MTV. Minaj is the preeminent black female rapper of our modern era and unapologetically uses her sexuality to push the boundaries of what is possible for a female rap artist. Minaj holds her own in the Drake and Lil Wayne dominated Young Money rap collective, often collaborating on songs together. While Minaj wants to be viewed as an outright rap artist and not just the token female rapper, her identity as an African-American female rapper actually lends her a distinct voice in shaping not only black hip-hop culture, but also black feminist thought more broadly.

Over the course of this paper, I will argue that how black female rappers engage with the traditionally male-dominated rap culture verbally and visually is culturally important in order to critique and further discussions on black feminist thought. The unique status of African-American female rappers provides broader insights into understanding a shifting rap culture and perhaps other, more general elements of black culture. According to Patricia Hill Collins, “black women fashioned an independent standpoint about the meaning of black womanhood” (White 609). Collins goes on to say black women have the ability to “resist negative evaluations of black womanhood advanced by dominant groups” (White 609).

Black female rappers, including Minaj, subvert the oppressive elements that create a new forum for black female empowerment and appropriate the traditional tropes used in African-American rap because they “draw additional energy from their simultaneous discussions of race and gender” (Roberts 141). While Nicki Minaj is not the first woman to use rap as a way of reclaiming space and expressing other sides to black women’s sexual identities, she has been the one to do so in the view of mainstream America. Minaj’s predecessors including MC Lyte and Lil Kim have used their words and the visual portrayals of their bodies to make statements on rap culture and its treatment of women. Although these statements on rap music have been made in forums outside of the African-American community (and outside of the music industry), I am choosing to focus on black hip-hop culture from the rappers’ perspectives because rap as a medium is built upon self-expression and personal viewpoints. In addition, there is an extensive history of black hip-hop culture that I can use as a reference for my own arguments. I also am interested in adding to the theoretical analyses of how black men and women interact with each other.

As I’ve mentioned before, black feminist theory will be incredibly important to how I orient black female rapper’s détournement of traditional rap culture. While black feminist theory doesn’t have one monolithic definition, I do need to lay out a few fundamental tenants on which to present my arguments about black female rappers engagements with rap culture. According to Patricia Hill Collins, one of the most widely known black feminist scholars, states, “all African-American women share the common experience of being black women in a society that denigrates women of African descent” (Collins “Defining”). She goes on to say that black feminist thought is rooted in “a legacy of struggle” (Collins “Defining”). My analysis of black female rappers and their music will illuminate how black females fight against the structural oppressions that face them.

For this paper, I will also be using the framework of Guy Debord and Gil Wolman’s theory of détournement to analyze the subculture of African-American female rappers and the ways in which they participate in the subversion of the tropes within the African-American male-dominated rap tradition. Rap as a cultural art form engages audiences both verbally and visually. That is to say, female rappers have the ability to infiltrate the canon of rap tropes and then disrupt their normal uses through both verbal and visual appropriation schemes. Black female rappers’ uses of détournement are done most effectively when it utilizes the prevailing language of African-American rap culture. African-American female rappers use lyrics and backbeats to engage their audiences through common word plays and allusions to other rap cultural markers and then utilize them in a way that is inclusive of the black female perspective. The advent of social media and blogging have also expanded the verbal cultural communication of female rappers beyond three-minute songs to include a plethora of word content that inserts a black female perspective into a more prominent place in African-American rap culture.

African-American female rappers also use videos, photography, and other graphics to visually subvert traditional archetypes within rap music. Female rappers place their bodies in photos and videos in the traditional stances and environments of male rappers. This changed engagement with the camera shifts the gaze and scope of roles for the black female’s presence in rap culture.

Now that I have outlined what it means for rap to be a verbal-visual culture, I would like to further elucidate the role of détournement as a theoretical framework for my analysis. I see détournement as the type of subversion female rappers engage in when they appropriate and sabotage the male-dominated rap culture. In particular, the “deceptive détournement” Debord and Wolman describe speaks to rap and the black female rapper’s unique position. “Deceptive détournement […] is in contrast the détournement of an intrinsically significant element, which derives a different scpe from the new context” (“User’s Guide”). They go on to write, “the main impact of détournement is directly related to the conscious or semiconscious recollection of the original contexts of the elements” (“User’s Guide”).

In relation to my study of black female rappers, the idea of relating to the subversion to the original contexts is key to how their music is able to be widespread—it is subtle enough to pass through the censors, but bold enough to change the way black women are included in the formation and continuation of African-American rap culture. Throughout this paper, I plan on outlining how black female rappers express their individual stories and unique approaches to engaging with the black rap culture in addition to analyzing the common themes and tools they use to achieve détournement. These larger themes can be included into the discourse around black feminist thought and how it can be understood.

Given the scope of this paper, I have decided to focus my analysis on four rappers whose experiences collectively cover a wide range of engagements with the rap industry, verbal content and style, and visual representations. Nicki Minaj, Missy Elliott, Azealia Banks, and Rapsody all play with traditional rap culture to create new spaces for women. All four artists contribute different perspectives that challenge prevailing notions of black women’s sexuality and position in the broader rap sphere.

My analysis of how détournement is a tool for black female rappers to dismantle traditional tropes in rap music can be extended beyond the particularities of this paper. With the research constraints of this paper, I am not able to include more female rappers in my study and take into account how critical race theory can compliment the claims of black feminist thought. Another piece I am not able to include within this paper is how other racial and ethnic groups appropriate African-American rap culture.

Another broader stroke of this paper would be an in-depth look at how the capitalist nature of the music industry can help to structurally reinforce the oppressions against African-Americans, and in particular African-American women. I am also curious to study how the relations between male-dominated rap culture and female rapper’s subversions relate to other forms of culture and entertainment. It would be interesting to note the similarities and differences in gender relations between black men and women in rap music culture and other media forms. These broader implications could be studied in a senior thesis.

Theoretical Framework & Research Design:

There are two main components to my research design. The first part of my research design includes outlining all of the terms and theories I will be using so I have a solid foundation on which to build my arguments. For the second part of my research design, I will use the four female rappers I selected as case studies to do a content analysis of their work.

As I presented in my introduction, I will be using the black feminist thought and the concept of détournement to ground my arguments. The détournement of black female rappers pairs beautifully with black feminist thought because, “détournement not only leads to the discovery of new aspects of talent; in addition, clashing head-on with all social and conventions, it cannot fail to be a powerful cultural weapon” (Debord and Wolman “User’s Guide”). The détournement work of African-American female rappers adds to the sometimes-nebulous definition of black feminist thought.

Perhaps most important to my paper’s analysis is the description of what exactly composes traditional rap culture. The rap culture we are most familiar with today arouse out of the Bronx in the 1970s. Rap music is composed of “a complex social institutions that contain the individuals within it and is constituted by a history of practices, rituals, and habits” (Brunson 7). Rap culture “functions as a source of identity formation and social status by and for black and Latino youth” (Brunson 7). However, this medium of story telling has ben appropriated by major white capitalist music behemoths. Given our modern context, rap music has moved from a space of giving black youths voices to a space hat silences one half of the African-American population it was intended to serve.

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Noah Hubbell, a blogger on hip-hop culture, designed a comprehensive chart that outlines the four domains of the rap kingdom and catalogs the main tropes and stereotypes within them (see appendix). Hubbell’s chart breaks down the “practices, rituals, and habits” of rap music (Brunson 7). The four main domains found within rap culture are the streets (the main space of violence; the rapper’s playground), the grind (the everyday hustling and power-reification), the game (how a rapper engages with the ‘system’ and his personal rapping skills), and the swag (the physical manifestations and symbols of power; i.e. cars, money, jewelry, etc.) (Hubbell “Top Ten Tropes”). In each of these spheres, rappers use their lyrics as autobiographies of how they personally dominate each space. As a culture based on self-promotion and bragging, a constant trend within each space is how rappers exercise their power over others. Street cred and status are measured in violent bouts and sexual conquests.

What is most particularly interesting within the scope of my paper is the treatment of women within the traditional male-dominated rap culture. Historically, male rappers treat women as bitches. Women are only as valuable as the male rapper deems them. In this respect, women are treated as side objects and only gain function at the leisure of the male rappers. Within the scope of traditional rap culture, women are not people, but rather units of currency that add to the status and sexual prowess of male rappers. Women have particularized purposes, sexual identities, and aesthetics within the traditional rap game.

In the orthodox rap space, women are seen as trophies and objects in the overall narratives of the rappers. Visually and lyrically women take secondary roles in the biography of this subset of black culture. In many rap songs, women are discussed in terms of what pleasure they can provide their male counterparts or how their involvement in the rapper’s life can derail his personal success. Rap music videos feature up-close footage of gyrating, barely-clothed women surrounding one alpha male rapper. While I do think that rap is music is a valid medium for the black voice to be heard, I find it problematic how rap traditionally relegates women to secondary roles. Rap as a genre that upholds personal story telling and autobiography cannot and should not silence the stories and personal experiences of a subset of its population.

Now that I have outlined my academic foundations and specified what makes up the traditional rap game, I must actually engage with black female rappers. While conducting interviews with black female rappers would have been ideal, I will instead use content analysis to learn about the female rappers. I have methodologically done this by selecting four female rappers to be used as case studies. I performed an in-depth content analysis of their music and personas to see instances of détournement. The rappers I chose to study how female rappers engage and play with prevailing rap stereotypes in their music to enact the ideals of black feminist thought are Nicki Minaj, Missy Elliott, Azealia Banks, and Rapsody. Across all four MCs, I also want to study how they rose to prominence. Their tales of entering the rap game can be quite telling of how they were raised and became acclimated to the dominant rap culture.

Where my emcees at?!

Before continuing my analysis, I think it would be helpful to provide brief justifications and background information on each of my case study selections. Generally, I wanted to have a range of artists with different relationships to mainstream rap culture. I also wanted artists to engage with female sexuality and blackness in different ways so I could draw broader conclusions when I relate my findings to black feminist culture. Even though all of my rappers have had different career trajectories and have different styles, “the legacy of struggle against racism and sexism is a common thread binding African-American women” (Collins “Defining”).

Although Minaj seems like an obvious choice because of her popular and mainstream success, I also decided to use her because close ties to the male-dominated rap collective Young Money. Out of all of my rappers, Minaj has the closest relationship to the traditional rap culture so any subversion she engages in is particularly interesting. Minaj is also an interesting player given her verbal-visual self-presentations. Minaj plays were her sexuality and persona in interesting ways that incorporates non-traditional forms of sexuality. Despite her current solo-success, Minaj rose to prominence after being featured on several of Lil Wayne and Drake’s songs after dropping several mix tapes and signing minor music deals.

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Missy Elliott, who has also enjoyed mainstream success during her career, plays an important role to my research as well. Elliott’s lyrics are known for their explicit references to female sexuality. What I also find interesting is how she positions herself visually; she consistently dons baggy pants, oversized shirts, and a fresh pair of Jordans. These masculine touches challenge the typical way women are portrayed in rap culture. Elliott’s entry into the rap music industry differs from my other exemplars; Elliott wasn’t “discovered” in the typical sense. She had formed her own rap all-female rap group and then sought out her neighborhood friend and major producer Timbaland. Elliott’s rap career also included several years of writing top hits for other artists. Elliott, the oldest rapper in my paper, didn’t drop her first solo album until 1997.

Azealia Banks and Rapsody are much-less known out of my four case studies. However, both ladies’ careers can speak to the various ways black female rappers navigate the male dominated rap culture. Banks is interesting for not only her lyricism, but also for her social media presence. While she hasn’t signed a contract that has lasted more than a year with a major label, Banks utilizes the free resources of the Internet to share her music. Banks is also famous for using sites like Twitter to share her opinions of rap culture and other African-American issues. Rounding out my quartet of female rappers is Rapsody. Originally hailing from North Carolina, she aims to restore rap to its original, story telling purpose. Rapsody avoids using sexual references and wearing suggestive clothing as a part of her brand. She has yet broken into the mainstream rap industry, but she is famous for her mix tapes and collaborations with artists like Big K.R.I.T. and Mac Miller.

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Word Play: Female Rappers Use Lyrics to Subvert Dominant Rap Culture

Rap culture at its core is a large part of the oral (and aural) traditions within African-American lives. The lyrics and beats of each song play into a larger network of songs that reinforce the dominating elements of modern rap music. As I mentioned in my map of the traditions of today’s rap game, song lyrics are often braggadocious reminders of power, violence, and often times, continue the oppression of black women. I, however, contend that the work of black female emcees breaks apart these oppressions by using similar words, themes, and beats in their own music.

Roberts writes, “Since rap revolves around self-promotion, female rappers are able to use the form without being accused of being self-centered for narcissistic” (142). Whereas other spaces usually condemn outspoken black women and label them ‘angry black women,’ rap music is an outlet for African-American women to speak up without the fear of vilification. African-American female rappers’ utilization of a music form most associated with black men is a prime example of deceptive détournement. Still, as black female rappers continue to be subversive, they must remember, “détournement by simple reversal is always the most direct and the least effective” (Debord and Wolamn “User’s Guide”). When Minaj, Elliott, Banks, and Rapsody create their music, they cannot directly steal from their male counterparts. They must instead take particular elements and use them in a way that is unique only to the black female rapper perspective.

In this section of my paper, I would like to present how my four female rappers have used their music to creatively combat the oppressive rap structures they face. While I am not trying to create a single monolithic way each artist détourns, I do think it is important to see the commonalities among their techniques (Collins “Defining”). Black culture sociologist Robin Roberts says, “through lyrics, female rappers make explicit and overt assertions of female strength and autonomy” (42). Robert goes on to assert “through their lyrics, style, and dance, female rappers draw what Audre Lorde has described as ‘usees of erotic: the erotic as power” (42).

Let us first consider Nicki Minaj’s song “Anaconda.” While this originally came off as another hypersexual big-booty anthem, one must take a deeper look to see Minaj’s musical genius. Sampling the infamous line from Sir-Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back”: “My anaconda don’t want none unless you got buns, hun,” Minaj is able to strike a chord within listeners’ collective memory. At the same time, Minaj is changing the voice of who is talking about female bodies. Instead of male rappers talking about the black female body as a tool for sexual pleasure, it is Minaj talking not about other bodies, but her own body. In addition, the men Minaj references in the rap are her personal sex objects. Throughout the song, Minaj talks about how they pleasure her. In the media, people often comment on Minaj’s body, especially her impressive derriere. Minaj’s “Anaconda” is one way of her reclaiming her body and sexuality.

In Minaj’s most recent hit “Only,” her first line is “Yo, I never fucked Wayne/ I never fucked Drake.” Minaj is clearly directing these lines towards individuals that see her as just Lil Wayne’s prodigy. Another example of Minaj lyrically reclaiming her sexuality and pushing the boundaries of what is possible for women in the rap game is the remixed version of Beyoncé’s “Flawless.” Minaj’s verse is the epitome of the self-praise trope within rap music. From rapping how she is the “queen of rap, slaying with Queen Bey,” to “It’s every hood nigga dream/fantasizing about Nicki and Bey/ Curvalicious,” Minaj is making herself the main subject of desire. Minaj doesn’t only use her sexuality in her music. She is also known for her aggressive lyrics and cutthroat rhymes. Within “Anaconda,” Minaj turns the vision of gun-toting male rappers on its head when she mentions how she has a “gun in her purse, bitch I came dressed to kill/ who wanna go first/had them pushing daffodils.”

Minaj isn’t the first female rapper to use lyrics to increase dialogue on black women’s sexuality. In fact, Missy Elliott has been one of the female rappers at the forefront of this type of détournement in rap. Elliot is perhaps best known for her it “Work It.” This song not only always gets people moving on the dance floor, but it also provides a space for black women to talk about sex as subjects, rather than objects. The lyrics “you do or you don’t, you will or won’t you/ go downtown and eat it like a vulture” is different from the traditional male expectation to sexualize women. Instead, Elliott expects men to pleasure women. In her seminal hit “Get your Freak On,” Missy Elliot references her long-time collaboration with producer Timbaland, and continues rap’s bravado tradition of challenging other emcees to dethrone her. Not only is she stating her status as an equal with male rappers, but she is also sharing her confidence in her abilities to remain a top contender in the rap game.

Elliott and Minaj’s sexual lyrics not only challenge the ways in which black female bodies are discussed in the traditional rap game, but they also magnify a larger issue within black feminist thought—the large exclusion of black female sexuality from the conversation. Rapper Azealia Banks follows in a similar vein to Minaj and Elliot in terms of her lyric’s sexual content. Banks’ lyricism is crucial to understanding how black female rappers use détournement to challenge traditional tropes within rap music. These trends can be noticed in her latest album “Broke with Expensive Tastes.” Her song “JFK” with Theophilus London talks about how she is “Miss Icon,” and how she’s come to give lessons to all the other people at the party. Banks has also changed the setting of where the rap is taking place. No longer on the streets and maintaining street cred, Banks as a rapper says that she can school people no matter the setting or circumstance.

Also on the album, Banks brings back her most famous hit “212.” While several female rappers including Minaj, Elliott, and Rapsody have reclaimed the word “bitch,” few other rappers have attempted to reclaim the word “cunt.” Banks has turned one of the most derogatory terms for a woman into a term of sexual desire. One last example of how Banks is subverting the canonized elements of dominant rap culture is how she has battled colorism in her song “Liquorice.” Often times in rap culture, rappers discuss their preferences for lighter-skinned women. Colorism, “cultural construction…that is learned and cultivated” is an issue beyond rap culture (Brunson 7). Banks’ decision to have an entire song about making darker-skinned women just as desirable adds to the conversations people have in regards to black feminist thought and challenges the dominant “team light-skin” culture. Banks’ decision to take on rap culture’s colorism is a bold move on her part. The lyrics, “Can I catch your eye sir/Can I be what you like, yeah/ I could be the right girl/ tell me if you like your girl in my might color.” She is changing the dialogue surrounding dark-skinned girls and giving them a newfound sense of sexuality.

Even though Rapsody’s lyrical talent is not as prevalent, she has still garnered critical acclaim for her work. In each of her albums, Rapsody strives to be different from the mainstream artists and strives to retain a “classic” hip-hop vibe. Particularly in her first two albums, Rapsody presents a bold challenge to modern day rappers. The title of her first album, “Return of the B-Girl” hints towards the early days of hip-hop when it was more closely tied with breakdancing culture and less commercialized. Her second album titled “Thank H.E.R. Now” seems to reference the title of Drake’s debut album “Thank Me later.” On this album, I find her song “Black Girl Jedi” interesting for two reasons. First of all, the science fiction reference to Star Wars is very different from the typical allusions rappers make. Secondly, when Rapsody says, “Keep it hot, we beat girls forever/ Hip-hop on top, won’t stop forever” seems to reinforce her desire to include more female voices in rap music for the better men of rap music’s future.

Rapsody’s song “All Black Everything” seems like it would be a take on Chief Keef’s “All Gold Everything.” However, the song is different from traditional rap songs that are self-praising and discuss personal struggle. Rapsody instead uses the song to discuss the larger systemic issues facing all African-Americans. Throughout the entire song, she ties her individual actions to mean movements of solidarity for African-Americans.

Video Girls: Changing the Visuals of Female Rap Culture

The lyrics to rap songs are central to rap culture, but the music videos and other accompanying visuals also help perpetuate the tropes and themes of the traditional male-dominated African-American rap culture. The visuals present in rap music videos allow rap culture to be replicated in a variety of spaces outside the vicinity of the rap music industry; inventions like Twitter and Instagram allow not only the artists other platforms to share their image, but fans can more directly engage with the artist’s representation. “In a music video, the performer’s dress, gestures, enunciation, and style all become signs liable to interpretation,” Roberts comments (143). That being said, the artistry of rap music videos adds to the richness of the lyrics and provides another layer on which black female rappers can use détournement in African-American rap culture. As African-American female rappers subvert the traditions within African-American rap culture, it is important to keep in mind “the main impact of a détournement is directly related to the conscious or semiconscious recollection of the originally texts of the elements” (Debord and Wolman “User’s Guide”). Not only must Nicki Minaj, Missy Elliott, Azealia Banks, and Rapsody use their lyrics and other words to inform their visual presentations, but they must use them in ways that relate to the particular images that are iconic to male-dominated rap culture, including “violence, sex, political awareness, and materialism” (Zhang, et al 789).

Knowing that the modern rap game involves several corporate players, Minaj uses her body with the motto “sex sells.” Her curves sign her paychecks. Despite critics saying her over sexuality detracts from the aims of black feminism and contributes the continued sexualization of the black female body in African-American rap culture, I argue that Minaj using her body as she pleases (sexually or not) is actually reclaiming agency over her body.

In addition to her image as a hypersexualized woman, Minaj also plays with various personas in her music videos. Minaj utilizes both dominatrix-like and Barbie-like images to evoke different moods. Minaj is able to engage audiences multiple ways and play with multiple tropes. In fact, “this duality, of confrontation, is central to the female appropriation of the music video form and helps explain why so many black female performers are so effective in this subversion” (Roberts 144). These changing personas help female rappers be viewed in multiple lights and not in one monolithic image. Minaj’s visual representations also play around with concepts of sexual identity. Minaj’s use of the video girl challenges traditional heteronormative interactions between rappers and video girls. Minaj’s dueling personas can be seen in her music video for the song “Monster.” Minaj utilizes both her dominatrix and Barbie personas. By including both personas in her music video, Minaj breaks down the idea that rappers must be tough all of the time. The use of multiple personas allows for vulnerability to be introduced to a space that traditionally rejects it.

While at first glance Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” music video may seem like an anthem that once again dissects a black woman’s body into bits and pieces for the male gaze, Minaj is actually subverting the traditional scope of rap in two ways. First of all, she is using the backbeat of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” to frame her lyrics on her sexuality. Secondly, she is using her body and the bodies of her video vixens to add to her own subjectivity. In the traditional rap landscape, rappers use their backup dancers to add to their power and sex appeal. Minaj is using them in a similar way. Minaj is “assert[ing] her right to express sexual desire and to control her own body” (Roberts 149). She is also using their bodies to play with the ideas of heteronormativity. Minaj has ” taken agency in defining her personae and thus encapsulates the essence of the “sexual entrepreneur'” according to black feminism researcher Theresa Renee White (610).

Missy Elliott is also famous for her visual representations in her songs. Elliott’s stance as the center of her highly sexual songs changes how black female sexuality can be represented. The traditional visage of a light-skinned, curvaceous woman with long hair are subverted and replaced with Elliott’s masculine-dressed body. Elliott has been vilified and snubbed by various media sources because she doesn’t have the traditional video girl look. Despite the pushback from traditional media, Elliott aims to subvert “the skewed and unrealistic picture of female bodies” (Zhang et al 794). In the opening sequence to Elliott’s “Lose Control” video, Elliott has her male and female backup dancers wear the same exact blue sweat suits. Even though the clothing choices do not immediate identify her dancers’ genders, all of them are still dancing in provocative ways. To that end, Elliott is putting male and female sexuality on a more even playing field. Elliott’s “initiative and presentation of sexuality as power goes against the stereotypical image of black women in hip-hop” (White 615).

Azealia Banks, who identifies as bisexual, can contribute an interesting perspective to the visual representations of women in rap culture. Banks creatively uses the damsel-in-distress archetype and the image of expensive cars and motorcycles in her music video “Heavy Metal and Reflective.” Banks is initially tied up in the middle of the desert in the video. However, she boldly claims that she is the “baddest bitch in the rap game” as the removes her restraints. The video is also filled with sequences of her rapping against a backdrop of motorcycles and automobiles. Even as she rides on the back of one of someone else’s motorcycle, Banks still commands the gaze of the camera by maintaining sexual poses. Azealia Banks also uses her social media presence to share her visual persona in ways not directly tied to her music. Her Instagram feed is full of memes that reference historical moments in rap and also photos of her that play with traditional notions of sexuality.

Rapsody has said explicitly in multiple interviews that she does not want to play into the traditional means of female representations of rappers. In an interview with Ebony Rapsody says:

“When you think about the female artist today, you’re supposed to be sexy. You’re not supposed to rap about messages or current events. It’s always supposed to be about your body or what you can do sexually for a man. It’s really disheartening for that idea to be put out, especially when you have young girls that look up to that.”

Rapsody chooses not to use her body sexually to engage her audience, much less subvert the traditions within African-American rap culture. Instead, Rapsody takes images from older iterations of rap culture and brings them back in a 21st century context. For example, Rapsody utilizes images of underground rap battles where male rappers would verbally eviscerate each other in her video “Drama.” Rapsody stands at the center of crowed of men and completely owns the stage—all while wearing a baggy hockey jersey. Also in the video, Rapsody takes on traditionally male stances and flips the bird to the camera multiple times. These gestures seem to say that she doesn’t need to sexualize herself in order to be a successful rapper.

Even though the four rappers I have outlined use different methods to visually subvert the male-dominated African-American rap culture, all four ladies do so effectively.

Conclusion: What’s next for female rappers in the rap industry

I was initially drawn to this topic because I constantly think about how I participate in the traditional rap narrative. As a listener and viewer of a music genre that simultaneously provides a voice to people who look like me and silences a group of people who look like me, I felt it was incumbent upon myself to learn about the various structures at play. In addition, “feminist rap music […] requires the viewer to participate in their construction and analysis” (141). The swirling of discussions in my classes along with the Internet breaking and re-breaking because of the “controversial” things rappers were doing converged to create a perfect moment for me to write this paper.

Despite laying out all of my theoretical claims and my definition of what constitutes the modern mainstream rap culture of African-Americans, analyzing how female rappers use détournement was much more complicated that I had originally anticipated. Even though I limited my research to the content analysis of four female rappers with differing backgrounds, there was still of plethora of information on their individual artistry and black female rappers generally. There was so much rich information that I was not able to utilize within the scope of this paper.

One of the major take-aways from this paper is that the female rappers I studied are not only trying to subvert the tropes within African-American rap culture. They are also navigating the intricacies of the capitalist music industry. In that regard, I am left with questions regarding how affective my rappers are in subverting the oppressions within rap culture.

Without a doubt, Nicki Minaj, Missy Elliot, Azealia Banks, and Rapsody all contribute an immense amount of talent and intellect to the rap music industry. In each artist’s way, she is able to manipulate bits and pieces of male rap culture to not only serve the purposes of individual self-expression, but also to push rap music culture to include more female voices. More broadly speaking, Minaj, Elliott, Banks, and Rapsody contribute to the on-going dialogue of black feminist thought. The verbal-visual creative process these artists use add to the richness of black feminist thought. Music is often the best exemplar of a movement, and the raps included in this paper can be anthems for African-American women and their allies.

As Debord says in his User’s Guide to Détournement, “Ideas and ceations in the realm of détournement can be multiplied at will. For the moment we will limit ourselves to showing a few concrete possibilities, in various current sectors of communication—it being understood that these separate sectors are significant only in relation to present-day techniques, and are all tending to merge into superior syntheses.” In this regard, the work of Minaj, Elliott, Banks, and Rapsody, among all other female rappers is not done. Their work is part of a larger network of work done by different people who are using different mediums to subvert the hegemonic forces at play. While I was obviously not able to bring all of those discussions into the scope of this paper, I do believe that my analysis of black female rappers contributes to the cause of détournement as a whole.

Works Cited

White, T. R. “Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott and Nicki Minaj: Fashionistin’ Black Female Sexuality in Hip-Hop Culture–Girl Power or Overpowered?” Journal of Black Studies 44.6 (2013): 607-26. Web.

Zhang, Yuanyuan, Travis L. Dixon, and Kate Conrad. “Female Body Image as a Function of Themes in Rap Music Videos: A Content Analysis.” Sex Roles 62.11-12 (2010): 787-97. Web. 17 Nov. 2014.

Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. New York: Routledge, 2000. 221-38. Print.

”Nicki Minaj Just Wants to be a Rapper, and not a Female Rapper” by Eliza Thompson via cosmopolitan.com

Brunson, James E., III. “Showing, Seeing: Hip-Hop, Visual Culture, and the Show-and-Tell Performance.” Black History Bulletin 74.1 (2009): 6-9. Web. 11 Dec. 2014.

Collins, Patricia H. “Defining Black Feminist Thought.” The Feminist EZine. The Lilith EZine, n.d. Web. 08 Dec. 2014. <http://www.feministezine.com/feminist/modern/Defining-Black-Feminist-Thought.html&gt;.

Debord, Guy, and Gil J. Wolman. “A User’s Guide to Détournement.” Situationist International Online. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Dec. 2014. <http://www.cddc.vt.edu/sionline/presitu/usersguide.html&gt;.

Hubbell, Noah. “The Ten Biggest Tropes in Rap Music.” Backbeat. Denver Westword, LLC, 14 Sept. 2013. Web. 11 Dec. 2014. <http://blogs.westword.com/backbeat/2013/09/ten_biggest_rap_tropes.php&gt;.

Morgan, Glennisha. “Why Is Rapsody Still ‘Hard to Choose’? [INTERVIEW].” EBONY. Ebony Magazine, 17 Sept. 2014. Web. 11 Dec. 2014. <http://www.ebony.com/entertainment-culture/why-is-rapsody-still-hard-to-choose-interview-403#.VIm4N2TF-Vc&gt;.

Roberts, Robin. “Music Videos, Performance and Resistance: Feminist Rappers.” The Journal of Popular Culture 25.2 (1991): 141-52. Web. 11 Dec. 2014.

Rucker, Coral. “‘Broke With Expensive Taste’ By Azealia Banks: Album Review.” Neon Tommy. University of Southern California, 14 Nov. 2014. Web. 11 Dec. 2014. <http://www.neontommy.com/news/2014/11/broke-expensive-taste-album-review-0&gt;.

Nicki Minaj’s website “My Pink Friday” (mypinkfriday.com)

Missy Elliott’s website (missy-elliott.com)

Azealia Banks’s (azealiabanks.com)

Azealia Banks’s Instagram (@azealiabanks)

Rapsody’s website “I Am Rapsody” (iamrapsody.com)

All song lyrics courtesy of AZ Lyrics (azlyrics.com) and MetroLyrics (metrolyrics.com)

Intersectionality: Stretching a seemingly inelastic concept

Introduction:

I first came across the term intersectionality after doing the Freshman Urban Program, a pre-orientation program that introduces Harvard freshmen to social justice in Harvard, Boston/Cambridge, and beyond. While not explicitly using the term ‘intersectionality,’ Audre Lourde’s “Hierarchies of Oppression” spoke to me because her piece gave me the language I could use to describe my experiences growing up as a Caribbean-American in a rural Georgian town and at Harvard. Later, during my first WGS course, I read excerpts on Kimberle Crenshaw’s first intersectionality piece. Her work taught me that I hold multiple identities at once in all the spaces I occupy. While I apply that thinking to myself, Harvard isn’t necessarily conducive to thinking about intersectionality on campus. There are several disparate organizations that unite people on the grounds on just one or two identities that someone possesses. On the other hand, people possess so many different identities that there cannot be an organization or collective to represent all of them at once outside the bodies of singular individuals.

For this post, I would like to delve into the Brock, Kvasny, and Hales reading titled “Cultural Appropriations of Technical Capital” and the Carabado, Crenshaw, Mays, and Tomlinson piece called “Intersectionality: Mapping the Movements of a Theory.” I would like to expore the ways in which technology adds or detracts from the concept of intersectionality. In addition, I would like to see how intersectionality as a term couldn’t be used as an “identity catch-all.”

 “Cultural Appropriations of Technical Capital” by Brock, Kvasny, and Hales

One of the initial things I noticed about this article was how it used content analysis to study three blog responses from black women. I immediately thought of all the black blogs and Tumblrs I frequent in order to find similar experiences to my own.

I find it really interesting how this paper intertwines technical capital with cultural capital. These connections make sense because the cultural group that dominates the technical sphere will create technologies and systems to reinforce the power of that same dominant culture. This creates a feedback loop of representation and control.

“Bordieu’s concept of cultural capital is an attempt to expand the category of capital to something more than just the economic and to identify culture as a power source” (1024). Bordieu’s breakdown of how and where cultural capital exists is also an incredibly useful framework to guide my discussion. Cultural capital exists in the mind and body, institutions, and cultural goods like technology and art.

I really like this breakdown of cultural capital because it is a multidimensional explanation of how culture isn’t just traditions that exist in “people,” but culture is a “living” mechanism that doesn’t just impact the people that proscribe to it, but those outside of the culture as well.

I also find their analysis of the matrimonial market interesting. “In the matrimonial market, the cultural capital held by a black woman is mediated by the object of competition between the woman and her competitors” (1043). These remarks remind me of how black women are represented and engaged with on online dating websites. Study after study shows that black women get the lowest response rates. In my own personal experience with online dating websites, I get more sexually explicit messages than I do actual messages of courtship. These messages (from predominately white males) are racially charge and fetishize my black womanhood. These men are exercising their “symbolic power.”

In regards to the black feminist theory initially outlined in the article, I didn’t like how passive it made black women seem, especially in the matrimonial context. Towards the end of the authors’ analysis of black feminist theory, they began to break down that image of black women. They alluded to ideas of code-switching and double consciousness when explaining that black women have to operate on their own understandings and within societal perceptions. Using black female bloggers was a smart choice on their part because, in my opinion, black female bloggers subvert dominant systems.

As the article moves into the main argument regarding three bloggers responding to Helena Andrews’ “Successful, Black, and Lonely,” I found the two of the most intriguing parts of the article were about how the bloggers engaged with the concept of interracial dating and provide discourse around the word ‘bitch.’ The interracial piece was interesting to me given recent Crimson articles on interracial dating that caused a firestorm of backlash on the BSA email list. There are two messages pressed upon black women in regards to interracial dating. Some parties argue that black women are limiting themselves by choosing not to date outside of their race. A BuzzFeed article from several months ago made this argument and event went as far to say that black women should travel to Europe for interracial love. On the other side of the debate, critics vilify black women who chose to date anyone other than a black man.

When thinking about the term bitch, my first thought always goes to the Meredith Brooks song “Bitch.” Not only is this the perfect period anthem, but the song talks about all the identities and roles a woman possesses and how angry women are ‘bitches.’ There are so many permutations of the modern bitch. There is the ‘bad bitch’ who doesn’t take ish from anyone, the ‘basic bitch’ who is uneducated and materialistic, and the ‘bitch’ who is scared to take action, to name a few iterations.

These discussions on the identities and roles black women possess bring me to the Carbado reading on intersectionality.

 “Intersectionality: Mapping the Movements of a Theory” by Carbado, Crenshaw, Mays, and Tomlinson

The opening line discussing how little has been done to trace the history and various complications of the world ‘intersectionality’ is so true. “The theory is never done, nor exhausted, by its prior articulations or movements.” So many times in social justice work, words get thrown around and don’t become evolving parts of the movement in the sense that they transform and get redefined as the movement itself progresses. “No particular application of intersectionality can, in a definitive sense, grasp the range of intersectional powers and problems that plague society” (305). In my opinion, intersectionality is more a way of thinking about people than it is a definition that encompasses everything.

One of the biggest “ah-ha” moments of reading this article for me was how Caribbean feminists used the term intersectionality to also incorporate the particular sentiments of nation-building and historical relations. Intersectionality incorporates more than just personal identity markers, but also the social contexts in which they exist.

In this article, the section that most fascinated me was how the identity of the black male was incorporated in the idea of intersectionality. Even though Cho stated earlier in the article that the term intersectionality applies to more people than just the black woman, I still use that as the default example given that a black woman wrote the article and my own identity colors my viewpoint.

The concept of ‘black male essentialism’ was so new to me. It almost says that black men can’t be at fault or held responsible for any negativity because so many societal structures are at work against them. The black men that are successful are told held in higher esteem. Black women almost seem to be a prize for their success. The article insists that these notions are dangerous and actually harm the social justice needed for black women. It is argued that intersectional thought can be applied to black political thought to make social justice possible for both black men and women.

Discussion Questions:

  • When celebrities like Raven-Symone choose to dismiss their racial and sexual identities as differentiating factors, does this harm discourse on intersectionality? Does this type of thinking move people further towards equity?
  • Theories and applications of intersectionality seem to work for marginalized people of color, how does this concept work with the privileges of white people, in particular straight white males? Do we leave the task to white writers like John Scalzi who write pieces like “Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting”?
  • How does one build technical and cultural capital? Does the equity of these capitals come from members of the dominant culture actively sharing the space or do marginalized groups have to take capital away from the dominant culture?

Citations:

Brock, André, Lynette Kvasny, and Kayla Hales. “Cultural Appropriations Of Technical Capital.” Information, Communication & Society 13.7 (2010): 1040-059. Web. 15 Nov. 2014.

Carbado, Devon W., Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, Vickie M. Mays, and Barbara Tomlinson. 2013.“INTERSECTIONALITY: Mapping the Movements of a Theory.” Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race 10 (02): 303–12.

Cooper, Brittney. “America’s Sex and Race Failure: Why Raven-Symone and an Ohio Couple Are Struggling.” Salon.com. Salon Media Group, 8 Oct. 2014. Web. 15 Nov. 2014.<http://www.salon.com/2014/10/08/americas_sex_and_race_failure_why_raven_symone_and_an_ohio_couple_are_struggling/&gt;.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ivt_N2Zcts

http://www.buzzfeed.com/anitabadejo/why-black-women-in-america-are-being-told-to-find-love-in-eu

http://www.clutchmagonline.com/2014/04/europe-single-black-womans-promised-land/

http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2014/10/27/interracial-dating-at-harvard/

Racial Profiling & The Age of Internet Representation

Racial profiling is a loaded term. The practice of law enforcement and other individuals purposefully monitoring people of color or other marginalized groups because of preconceived notions of them being a higher security threat is normally associated with border patrol, stop and frisk laws, and shoplifting. However, in this new digital age, racial profiling is not only happening in person, but it is carried out on various Internet platforms. Despite claims that the Internet would be the great equalizer of our society as outlined in John Perry Barlow’s email manifesto “A Cyberspace Declaration of Independence,” existing structural oppressions that have been reconfigured to fit within the space of the Internet have made the Internet a breeding ground for social inequality. These inequalities include disparities in ability to access digital tools and how people are able to represent themselves on the Internet.

One of the largest controversies surrounding racial profiling is Facebook’s ‘real name policy.’ Under this policy, Facebook users are required to use their real names on their profiles. Facebook users who do not comply with this rule are subjected to repeat warnings from Facebook administrators, temporary profile suspensions, and in many cases, a deletion of the profile. This type of policy disproportionately affects people of color with ethnic names and LGBTQ individuals who have changed their names for various reasons. Huffington Post blogger James Nichols writes, “With this policy in effect, it is virtually impossible to find an entertainer — or anyone who self-identifies with a name that isn’t legally documented — on Facebook unless that individual operates a separate fan page.”

Not only is this an issue of security for individuals, but this is also an issue regarding self-representation. Names and the act of naming are so important to our society; names allow for common understandings and imbue the people, places, and objects in our lives with meaning. Washington Post feature writer Jane Leavy says, “Naming is a privilege of reason and the province of bullies. We name to tame and to maim; to honor the great, the dead, and ourselves.” The names written on one’s legal documents may not be representative of their actual lived experience. In addition, names that aren’t traditional are the beginnings of the stories that are often left untold in mainstream American society.

By allowing algorithms designed by white men in hoodies to determine the ‘realness’ of a name, we are allowing them to “tame and maim.” They are taking away the ability for individuals to “honor; I do want to point out one glaring inconsistency in Facebook’s policy. Their name change policy says, “The name you use should be your authentic identity; as your friends call you in real life.” Facebook officials maintain that the aim of their site is to “be a community where people use their real identities.” However, authenticity cannot actually be achieved until people are able to represent themselves as they see fit.

One of the early responses to Facebook’s name change policy was the social media site Ello. This site, created by queer white males, seems to be a safe haven for individuals harmed by Facebook’s policy, but the premise of the website is exclusionary. The fact that users have to be invited by other users creates a dynamic “who knows who” dynamic. I do have to applaud Ello’s efforts to be a “public benefit corporation.” Recently, in an Al Jazeera article, Amel Ahmed writes that Ello is committed to being “ad-free and not sell user data.” This is an amazing step in the direction of user agency on the Internet, especially given the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s letter to Facebook.

The racial profiling as a result of names brings me to a larger conversation that needs continued discourse. Racial profiling and self-representation are tied not just to the name an individual has on their profile, but one’s entire Internet presence. In class we discussed Airbnb’s price disparity among people of color and white users. There is also something to be said for the various parody accounts created on Twitter and Vine that appropriate elements of ‘black culture’ and use it for entertainment. Finally, how these questions of self-representation differ depending on the social media site one is on. For example, one person’s profile on Facebook versus their profile on LinkedIn may have different aspects of their personas emphasized.

In closing, I would like to emphasize how cool it was to see Facebook responding to its name change policy after a grass-roots type movement from drag queens.

Works Cited

Collins, Jareb. “The Art of Self-Representation.” LinkedIn. N.p., 2 Aug. 2014. Web. 27 Oct. 2014. <https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/article/20140802191728-217555853-the-art-of-self-representation&gt;.

“Dear Facebook: Sorry is a Start. Now Let’s See Solutions..” Electronic Frontier Foundation. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Oct. 2014. <https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2014/10/dear-facebook-sorry-start-now-lets-see-solutions&gt;.

“Ello’s new legal status leaves questions unanswered | Al Jazeera America.” Ello’s new legal status leaves questions unanswered | Al Jazeera America. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Oct. 2014. <http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/10/24/social-network-ellosnewlegalstatuspartoflargertrend.html&gt;.

Nichols, James. “Facebook ‘Name Change’ Policy Disproportionately Affecting LGBT Community (UPDATE).” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 15 Sept. 2014. Web. 26 Oct. 2014. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/09/15/facebook-name-change_n_5824836.html&gt;.

“barlow@eff.org.” Barlow Home(stead)Page. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Oct. 2014. <https://homes.eff.org/~ba

Rap: An Integral Part of American Culture

When thinking of a topic for my final project, I wanted to study something that was a part of my life at Harvard and that connected race and technology in an interesting way. After talking about several potential topics with one of my roommates, I decided that I wanted to holistically study rap music. I think rap music is essential to the idea of black voices speaking about black experiences. While I know that this is a particularly broad topic, I hope to analyze rap and its role in American society in four specific ways: rap as a lifestyle, arbiter of gender roles, economic structure, and part of consumer culture.

First of all, I want to look at how rap functions as modern tales of upward mobility. By this I mean, I want to “code” the various ways rap is used to express the ascension of individuals. Take the follow chorus from Rich Gang’s song, “Lifestyle” for example:

“I’ve done did a lot of shit just to live this here lifestyle. We came straight from the bottom to the top, my lifestyle. Nigga livin’ life like a beginner and this only the beginnin’. I’m on top of the mountain, puffin’ on clouds and niggas still beginnin’.

-Rich Gang “Lifestyle”

Rich Gang among other contemporary rappers use their lyrics as a way to share their stories of upward mobility in America. Their stories are in stark contrast to “traditional” stories of American upward mobility like Horatio Alger tales of the late 19th century. But does that make them less relevant to understanding conceptions of American success? Does rap fully explain the experiences of minority youth? Through my research, I want to explore what defines success according to rap, and what core values are central to the rap lifestyle.

Second, I want to analyze the role gender plays in modern rap music. Rap and hip-hop music are constantly blasted for being “sexist,” but what does that actually mean? The sexism occurs lyrically and visually. Not only are the lyrics demeaning and subvert women, but also rap music videos objectify women’s bodies and use only certain types of bodies. However with hip-hop and rap icons like Missy Elliot, Lil Kim, and Nicki Minaj, rap is being used as an agent for empowering female sexuality. I think a powerful example of female rappers “reclaiming” their sexuality is Minaj’s “Anaconda.” The reclamation is happening on two levels: 1) taking the hook of a male rapper’s song and transforming it into something new, and 2) Minaj uses her body as a way to dominate males.

Teen’s React to “Anaconda”

Third, I also want to look at the very production of rap. Rap is often cited as “thug music” that retells the stories and experiences of inner city youth, but is that actually reflective of the music industry? Who are the studio executives and who decides what acts get contracts? I like to think of rappers and the music industry executives in terms of the ubiquitous chicken and egg scenario. Are the rappers making certain types of music on their own accord or are the wishes of the CEOs forcing rappers to make “thug music.”

Finally, I want to analyze how rap is shared and discussed. At the end of the day, music is written and produced for an audience. However, who exactly composes the audience of rap music? As part of my research, I want to explore how different groups engage with rap music. I also want to look into the various types of media people use to discuss and share rap music including Twitter. There seems to always be a great deal of tension between white people appropriating rap music and rap culture and the actual lived experiences of African-Americans.

Another element of rap’s audience is the context in which it is heard. During my time at Harvard, I have been guilty of judging a party on how “fun” it is based on the type of music that is playing. If a party is playing more “ratchet” rap music, I assume that the party is going to be more fun. However, I find it troubling that I am not listening to the lyrics of these songs and how they may be continuing to perpetuate gender inequalities or promote violence.

Even though rap music has been and is continuing to be studied, I think that I can add more to the current discourse on rap music. In terms of conducting my research, the bulk of my methodology will be the content analysis of contemporary rap music lyrics and videos. I am very excited to utilize Harvard’s Hip Hop Archives as a major source for background research. In terms of gathering reactions to rap music, I will scour Twitter, Tumblr, and other blogs to find a variety of opinions. I also want to gather the voices of Harvard students, so I may conduct informal interviews with my peers.

I think what I am most looking forward to in this project is the intersectionality of rap. Not only how it is interpreted and used by various races, but also its economic implications. Rap music is a huge part of American culture and can provide insights into gender issues, structures of oppression, and how people are able to tell their stories.

Which Rapper Are You?!

Works Cited:

– “Lifestyle” by Rich Gang via YouTube

-“Hilarious Reactions to Rap Lyrics that Don’t Make Sense” by CollegeTimes Staff @ collegetimes.com

-The Top 10 Most Sexist Songs (That AREN’T Rap or Hip Hop) by Noor Al-Sibai via feminspire.com

-“Teens React to Anaconda” via YouTube

-“Anaconda” by Nicki Minaj

-“Nicki Minaj Just Wants to be a Rapper, and not a Female Rapper” by Eliza Thompson via cosmopolitan.com

-“Miley Cyrus Has Given Up On Twerking; She’s Columbused the Nae Nae” by Yesha Callahan via theroot.com

-“It’s About Time I Stopped Ignoring Sexist Rap Lyrics” by Christiana Mbakwe via xojane.com

-Which Rapper Are You via BuzzFeed

Finding My Way with Words: A journey alongside the Internet

When I was three years old, I used to go to work with my mom until I was old enough to enter pre-K. At my mom’s job, I remember her doing work and printing files from a Dell desktop computer. I recall being so fascinated by my mother sending documents to the dot matrix printer and seeing the characters and charts on screen be spit out of a giant printer. This action that seems mundane today blew my mind as a child.

My first experience with a computer and the rest of my introductions to modern technology came from my mom. (It was not until recent years that my father has decided to utilize computers and the Internet for his automotive business.) Because her company is a contractor for the United States government, she had access to many computer-based resources. It was actually through her job that we as a family came to own a computer. As more new technology poured into her office, my mom’s company started an initiative where employees could purchase old computers at a huge discount. This Dell desktop made my V-Tech Smart Start “computer” look obsolete—the built in cassette player and grainy pixelated images couldn’t capture my attention the way the Internet, much less Microsoft Paint could.

VTECH

I remember how much the sound of dial up would excite me. The weird computer-babble transported me to another world. My favorite website bar-none was http://www.barbie.com/en-us. I loved the online makeovers and endless wardrobe options online-Barbie had. My school also started using computers in the classroom due to various government grants that made purchasing computers in the first place affordable. For a while in elementary school I got to be a helper for the mobile computer lab that carted clunky laptops to classrooms all over the building.

School reinforced the social capital computers and the Internet possess. All students in my third grade class were required to get an email address in order to communicate with the teacher and each other for various assignments. Middle school came around brought a new dimension to the social world of technology. All my friends were on MySpace (except for me because I wasn’t allowed to have one) had AIM instant messaging accounts, and this other site called http://www.stardoll.com/en/ where users created virtual versions of themselves. The website’s tagline was “the world’s largest online fashion and dress up games community for girls.” The creation of these online personas, particularly directed at ‘girls,’ reminds me of Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto in that the cyber world is a space of gendered creation, but I digress.

Once I entered high school, I kept up with my AIM account and continued keeping in contact with friends through email. I was, however, banned from using Facebook. My parents weren’t keen on Facebook’s politics and the number of stories of kids kidnapped, sexually assaulted, or bullied as a result of Facebook communications. I did, however, start a Twitter because of a journalism class I took one summer. I also lurked on social media spaces dedicated to art and short stories like Deviant Art and FanFiction. Both these sites served as an escape for me—reading the fandom short stories allowed me to find a space on the Internet that wasn’t as judgmental. I usually accessed these sites from my derpy phone that had limited Internet capabilities.

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Promptly before college, my parents and I got into a huge argument about my social media presence. In the end, I deleted my accounts as a sort of social media cleanse. This past summer, I recreated by Twitter account because of essential it is to my future aspirations as a journalist. I chose not to bother with a Facebook because its purpose doesn’t suit my needs. Though it is frustrating how people have become reliant on Facebook to keep in contact with each other. A friend request or an occasional like should not (and in my opinion cannot) replace face-to-face interactions, or even phone calls, texts, or emails.  I also think it is is frustrating (and slightly disconcerting) that so many of our online accounts are linked to each other and/or are dependent on the existence of another. For example, before Harvard switched to Philo’s streaming services, students needed a Facebook login to access Tivli.

(From philo.com)

(From philo.com)

Where am I today with technology? As a college student in the United States, it is necessary to have a lap top computer. When the opportunity came for me to replace the PC laptop I’d had since 8th grade, I definitely opted for a MacBook Pro. I didn’t choose it because of tech-specs—I merely chose it because it is the “college computer.” It is the main accessory to the college aesthetic.

I also have a touchscreen smart phone with Internet capabilities. I have added Snap Chat and Instagram to my list of social media memberships. Since getting my smart phone last February, I feel as if I could never go back to a standard phone—all of the features and capabilities of my phone integrate so easily into my life. The various apps allow me to participate more in the social lives of my friends here at Harvard, back home, and even from all over the world.

Computers and technology also have huge implications for my future career. As a journalist, it is imperative that I have a Twitter and constantly monitor its feeds and produce content for it. I also decided to create a website for myself as a way to anchor my identity in the online sphere—most of my social media sites and the articles I have written for other publications are linked. This is also a space for me to test my writing voice out and produce my own original content with no gatekeeper besides myself. I also created a LinkedIn profile for myself as a way to connect professionally with people.

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I do think it is interesting that there are so many forums that people use to highlight particular aspects of themselves online–dating sites to showcase desirability, LinkedIn for hirability, Facebook for connectability, etc.. I find it fascinating that these disparate profiles are more “public” in certain spheres (“personal life,” work, interactions with friends). I also think it is interesting that some of the goals/personal presentations of one person on each these sites may contradict each other.

My future with technology—for the most part—is unclear. I hope that I can retain some of the barriers I’ve built for myself. Technology is a huge factor on what journalism will look like after I graduate college. How news is created and shared is dependent upon people’s engagement with technology.

Finally, I would like to close my digital autobiography with big questions that have been raised for me as I move through this course. 1) Will technology make a “raceless” society or will it classify individuals in new ways? 2) What are the immediate and long-term implications technology will have on class, gender, sexuality, nationality, and race? How do these identities impact the access one has to technology?

Works Cited:

Screen shot of “V-Tech Smart Start Elite” courtesy of pintrest.com

Screen shot of tweet courtesy of @MiraidaM via Twitter.com

Screen shot of “Philo” courtesy of philo.com

Screen shot of “Finding my Way with Words” courtesy of wordpress.com (owner’s name withheld for anonymity

Haraway, Donna Jeanne. Simians, cyborgs, and women: the reinvention of nature. New York: Routledge, 1991. Print.