Sunday, September 13, 2009

LA Queer Studies Conference 2009: The Queer Vicissitudes of Hip Hop Expressive Culture

Matt Lipps ©

As promised here are the panel and paper abstracts for a panel I'm participating in with Michael Ralph and Laurence Ralph on Queer Hip Hop at the UCLA Queer Studies Conference (October 9-10). If you're in the LA area the conference is free and open to the public and is a great chance to see some rising young queer scholars.

Anyway, without further ado...

The Queer Vicissitudes of Hip Hop Expressive Culture
This panel delves into hip hop lyricism, fashion, and imagery to explore the queer vicissitudes that structure this mode of expressive culture. A vicissitude is a variation, an alternation, a change in fortune, a mutation: a reversal, perhaps. At the very least, it captures the gap between what one is and what one has imagined oneself to be. The aporia signaled here is not the space between the perspectives of two different rappers— i.e. a gay rapper versus a straight one—but the tension between two different views of one’s self. We explore this phenomenon of doubling by discussing the musical and visual production of several hip hop artists that dominate the contemporary landscape, these include: R. Kelly, Kanye West, Lil’ Wayne, T Pain, T.I., Andrew 3000, and Common.

“No Homo": Racialized Sexual Surveillance in Hip Hop
Hip hop culture is increasingly constructed by scholars and detractors alike as a hypermasculine space of unabashed violence, materialism, misogyny, and homophobia. This concern with sexuality and bodily comportment in hip hop performance tends toward a reified a mode of analysis which places too much emphasis on dubious standards for respectable discourse. In this paper I focus on performances of queer masculinity in hip hop as spaces that contradict dominant depictions of hip hop sexuality as increasingly narrow and formulaic. Hip hop masculinity often straddles the contractions of sexuality, desire, and gender performance, revealing the artifice of its constructions. Performances of queer masculinity in hip hop simultaneously disrupt and reify existing structures of oppression in the process of articulating a complex sexual and gendered personhood that is vibrant, diverse, and complex. By charting the ambivalence of the fad phrase, “no homo,” I explore how hip hop artists speak homophobia as a way of enacting nonnormative intimacies that interrupt racial and sexual surveillance. In this paper, I examine two performances of queer masculinity and intimacy: the first is the phallocentrism of Jim Jones’ “Pop Champagne” music video. The second mode of performance surfaces in a series of advertisements that Lil Wayne did for Strapped Condoms. I demonstrate that these queer performances eschew “respectability,” in favor of a masculine persona that embraces conflicting conceptions of intimacy and desire. These performances do not merely expose the fissures of hip hop masculinity, they exploit them, reveling in their pretenses. By grappling with the complexity of these ambivalent performances, I believe we can establish a scholarly discourse on hip-hop sexuality and gender performance that is, if not quite feminist, undoubtedly queer.

Marisol Lebron
Department of Social & Cultural Analysis

New York University

“I’m a Flirt”
In centering their attention on the “down low” phenomenon, analysts of male same sex intimacy feed social paranoias that frame homosexuality as the principal source of death and disease in African American lived spaces. They also tend to conflate homoeroticism with homosexuality in a way that is both crude and imprecise. Given that male rappers are increasingly marketed as sex symbols for both men and women, and since some of the social contexts rappers draw from (like jails and prisons) are widely known as arenas where male same sex intimacy flourishes, there is sufficient evidence to consider how male homoerotics structure interpersonal relationships in music that draws upon prison culture, like hip hop/r & b. In the song, “I’m a Flirt,” for instance, one man’s claim that he is capable of stealing another man’s girlfriend is precisely what generates a male homoerotic episode—a narrative in which those activities that a man finds titillating become central to a dialogue with other men that evinces more intimacy between them
than with any of their purported female objects of desire.

Laurence Ralph

Department of Anthropology

University of Chicago

“Where I come from, gay people were like aliens …”
Photos that flooded the Internet while Kanye West and friends were visiting Paris Fashion Week in February 2009, ignited a firestorm of controversy. The sartorial decisions that had everyone buzzing concerned Mr. West and the motley crue of fashionistas that looked, by all concerned, “gay.” Kanye dismissed the rumors, explaining that “the way a man dresses doesn’t have anything with what he likes to do at night.” Still, he was more empathetic than angry. In fact, Kanye indicated that he considered it his duty to “educate” his brethren and attributed the prevailing homophobia to the hypermasculinist ethos that pervades street cultures like the one in which he was reared, “Where I come from,” he said, invoking his native land, the south side of Chicago, “gay people were like aliens.” It was an apt image, and not simply because Kanye has routinely cast himself as a space explorer. For his 2008, “Glow in the Dark” tour, ‘Ye cast himself as a protagonist who crash landed on an unidentified planet. This, after he had already featured the track “Spaceship” on his debut album The College Dropout. This paper explores how rappers who artists who are frequently branded as queer—Kanye West, Lil Wayne, Common, and André 3000—have cast themselves as aliens to explain the way they fit into the broader cultural phenomenon that we call “hip hop.” André is an ATLien, Lil Wayne is a Martian, and Common has deployed futuristic, space age sounds, and accoutrements to craft his own gender-bending persona. These are but a few of the examples this paper will explore toward a theory of queer vicissitudes in hip hop lyricism and performance.

Michael Ralph

Department of Social & Cultural Analysis

New York University

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