From Jim Crow to Jay-Z: Race, Rap, and the Performance of Masculinity

By Rollefson, J. Griffith | Notes, June 2013 | Go to article overview

From Jim Crow to Jay-Z: Race, Rap, and the Performance of Masculinity


Rollefson, J. Griffith, Notes


IDENTITIES From Jim Crow to Jay-Z: Race, Rap, and the Performance of Masculinity. By Miles White. (African American Music in Global Perspective.) Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011. [163 p. ISBN 9780252036620 (hardcover), $60; ISBN 9780252078323 (paperback), $22.] Appendix, bibliography, index.

In From Jim Crow to Jay-Z: Race, Rap, and the Performance of Masculinity, Miles White traces the ways in which racial masquerade has proven central to the development of working-class masculinities from nineteenth-century blackface minstrelsy through today's performances of hardcore hip-hop. Establishing the contradictory ways that American minstrelsy "objectified, fetishized, and commodified representations of black males" in the first chapters, White's body-centered text then examines how hardcore hip-hop performance has "helped to articulate new models of self and identity" for black youth and for white-and notably, for better and for worse (p. 3). Building on the foundational work of Eric Lott's Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (New York: Lexington Books, 1992), he examines the profound consequences of minstrelsy on subsequent representations of African-American men, arguing that tropes of the black brute "reached an apotheosis with hip-hop culture and hardcore rap music beginning in the 1980s" (p. 4). While the stoic hardness of hip-hop artists after Run-D.M.C. provided appealing images of power and self-reliance to young black men, White also stresses how hardcore hiphop performance nonetheless retained "notions of deviant black male subjectivity as its most defining subtext," especially in the racial play of white hip-hop artists (p. 3).

The pivotal turn, according to White, is a move from "hard" to "hardcore" hip-hop after N.W.A. made stories of inner-city violence a commercial success (ostensibly an argument about the shiftfrom nascent gangsta rap to commercial gangsterized rap). Extending the frame of John W. Roberts's "From Trickster to Bad Man" (from The Black Folk Hero in Slavery and Freedom [Philadelphia: University of Pennsyl vania Press, 1989]), the author examines the ways that hardcore hip-hop eschewed the trope of the "bad man" black folk hero for the self-interested "bad nigger" stereotype abhorred by whites and blacks alike. Thus, argues White, N.W.A. reformulated minstrelsy's "black brute as hardcore rapper," and "transformed black males from the 'hood into totemic performers of a powerful masculine authenticity and identity at a time in which there appeared to be few real men left" (p. 64).

In the first three chapters White's book really sings. His reading of racial masquerade and its centrality to the formation of American masculinities is crafted with nuance and rife with searing insights on performances of blackness in popular music. Chapter 1, "Shadow and Act: American Popular Music and the Absent Black Presence," tracks the ways that technologies from burnt cork and sheet music to grease paint and recording technologies "made possible a distancing of black music from its socio-cultural origins" and opened the floodgates for new racial commodities (p. 9). (Each chapter title riffs on titles of influential books, here on Ralph Ellison's classic collection Shadow and Act [New York: Vintage International, 1953], which contains the relevant essay "Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke.") Especially instructive is the author's explanation of how the ideas of a uniquely American popular culture and normative whiteness were constructed together around (mis)representations of blackness and black music. By policing the black body in public space and covering black music on the stage and later on the airwaves, this process simultaneously centered stereotypes of black masculinity and denied the agency of masculine power to black men. While he does not delve into the specific musical sleights of hand in blackface minstrelsy, his argument accurately stresses the ways that commercially available black music was constructed largely without regard to African-American musical performance practice. …

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