Check It While I Wreck It: Black Womanhood, Hip-Hop Culture, and the Public Sphere

Article excerpt

Check It While I Wreck It: Black Womanhood, Hip-Hop Culture, and the Public Sphere. By Gwendolyn D. Pough. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2004. Pp. 265, introduction, notes, bibliography, index, illustrations.

In Check It While I Wreck It: Black Womanhood, Hip-Hop Culture, and the Public Sphere, Women's Studies professor Gwendolyn Pough makes significant contributions to both black feminist thought and hip-hop scholarship. A third-wave feminist of the hip-hop generation, Pough critiques rap music's masculinist dynamics but stops short of dismissing hip-hop culture as inherently misogynistic or thoroughly corrupted by commercialism, as is the tendency for second-wave feminists and other scholars who came of age before rap. Rather, Pough convincingly argues that hiphop offers rhetorical tools to invigorate black feminist discourse and increase its relevance to new generations of female intellectuals and activists of color.

Central to Pough's argument is the conceptualization of hip-hop as not simply an aggregation of artistic texts and performers--as is the case with most research on hip-hop, which takes the form of cultural history--but as a sphere of discourse, an expressive space within which young people, including young black women, communicate their experiences and articulate their political concerns. Yet it is a contested, male-dominated space in which women struggle for room to maneuver; hence, Pough's central metaphor of "bringing wreck," the hip-hop slang term that "connotes fighting, recreation, skill, boasting, or violence" (17). More specifically, she asserts, bringing wreck with regard to black women in hip-hop means to "fight hard and bring attention to their skill and right to be in the public sphere" (17).

Another key term Pough continually invokes is the aforementioned "public sphere," a concept she productively mines to develop her spatio-political theorization of hip-hop as a locus of political and personal expression. Her primary theoretical orientation derives from the Black Public Sphere Collective, a group of African-American scholars who in the mid-nineties reworked critical theorist Jurgen Habermas' influential notion of the "public sphere" of civic participation to include the activities of black civil society. In Chapter One, Pough offers a succinct synopsis of Habermas' central claim: that the public sphere is an egalitarian zone of democratic debate in which individuals put aside personal differences and private interests to talk about a common good.

Pough's first chapter serves as a useful introduction to the basics of public-culture theory for those unfamiliar with the literature. Here Pough also provides an astute overview of the Black Public Sphere Collective's key criticism of Habermas: that those bourgeois spaces he idealized--the cafes, meetinghouses, and salons of the eighteenth century--were always hostile to minorities as well as women, who could not as easily bracket off their differences as a private matter. Pough asserts that "as a result of Black history in the United States ... these concepts have to be rethought when applied to Black participation in the larger U.S. public sphere" (17). Check It While I Wreck is part of a growing body of scholarly efforts to rethink the traditions and practices of African-Americans in relation to Habermasian ideals, framing black culture in the U.S. as a "counter-public" formed in response to bourgeois exclusions and thriving today in places of African-American congregation, from barbershops to Baptist churches to street corner block parties, as is the case with hip-hop.

Although Pough directly links hip-hop to the enduring legacy of black public culture in the U.S., she argues hip-hop exists today as a counterpublic in its own right in which African-American youth "claim control of the public's gaze and a public voice for themselves" (17) despite oppressive ideologies and structural conditions that continually marginalize them. …