Review of Charise L. Cheney, Brothers Gonna Work It Out: Sexual Politics in the Golden Age of Rap Nationalism (New York: New York University Press, 2005), x + 222 pp.
It's about framing. One morning I see the profile of Henry Louis Gates pan across the television screen. The commentator introduces the segment of "Good Morning America" by emoting, "Rap music, the music of angry black youth ..." Gates, a black male, an intellectual with titles behind his name, speaks directly and passionately defends rap music, attempting to disrupt and even "reframe" the genre, asking the audience to place rap within its proper context to be understood. Today the same preamble occurs in the discussion of rap music in contemporary American culture--"the music of angry black youth." Cheney's Brothers Gonna Work It Out disregards the popular demagoguery and forbids a populist perusal common amongst documents produced by many popular intellectuals; instead her text frames hip-hop culture from a critical cultural perspective, which recognizes nationalism, rap music, and even African American culture as contested domains where black nationalism is explored "as an embodied-social politics or a politics that is determined by race and gender discourses." Through the use of oral, literary and lyrical text, "race/gender politicking" is made apparent within hip-hop culture (p. 3). Such a critical perspective provides greater flexibility to enable "scholars to envision black nationalism in ways that are inclusive of various forms of expression, from those of territorial nationalists to those of cultural nationalists and from oral performances to literary stylings" (p. 17). Acknowledging the artists as raptivists, Cheney reminds the reader that "[h]ip hop nationalists are the most recent in a long line of organic cultural workers who are situated between the intellectual activist and the commercialized entertainer."
The book is comprised of six chapters in which three major themes are developed: the history of hip-hop music; race and gender performance; religion and social change. Drawn from the author's dissertation, this thoroughly researched and well-written book leaves very few stones unturned. Cheney opens with a meticulous review of various methods that support the critical cultural frame the project embraces. While providing the reader with a comparative analysis of methods and approaches of interpreting black poplar culture, Cheney "messys" the dominate reading of black culture as stable, linear and parsimonious to unfold the goal of the text which is to re/frame how this genre is discussed in American culture and to engage in the sexual politics of rap.
An excavation of masculine protest discourse is performed in the chapter titled, "We men ain't we." The chapter documents the history of nationalism and nationalistic discourse and foregrounds historical narratives of such "race men" as Alexander Crummwell, Mualana Karenga and Amiri Baraka to Black Panther leaders Seal and Cleaver. The rhetorical analysis reveals the seeds of the pervasive phallic discourse in black nationalism and the reader is reminded of the complexities of such rhetoric within African American communities, including the role of women who embraced and supported the "men in charge" discourse of the Black Panthers, not to mention the ongoing debate between "Nationalism = Masculine versus Non-Violent = Feminine." Cheney also highlights ruptures in the discourse embodied by figures such as Ella Baker, Bayard Rustin and James Baldwin. The opening chapters outline the often hidden or not-well-articulated link between the rhetoric of black nationalism, the civil rights protest of the Black Panther movement to the hip-hop raptivists of the golden age.
The author moves to focus on the work of Chuck D and Public Enemy to explore the popular and political culture of rap music. Cheney opines, "As a trailblazer of the consciousness movement within rap music, Chuck D claimed his legacy as the political progeny of the Black Panther Party" (p. …