If the early hip-hop visual archive was characterized by “Wildstyle”—graffiti covered trains, B-boys breakdancing on concrete, hands overlapping across Technics turntables—how then would we characterize a visual aesthetic in southern hip hop culture?
Craig Brewer’s 2005 film Hustle and Flow tells the story of DJay, a pimp who describes himself as having a midlife crisis and decides that rapping might provide an escape from his existential despair. The film exists within an archive of other similarly situated contemporary ‘Southern’ films— The Apostle, Monster’s Ball, O Brother, Where Art Thou, and Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy and while deeply problematic in some ways, it nonetheless provides us with a road map of how race, gender, and hip hop culture expand our concept of Southern identity.
A central feature of the film is the relationship of bodies to space. Bodies are inextricably tied to both the detritus of post-industrial urban decay in Memphis and the residue of the pervasive reality of the plantation economy. Folks are still poor and still navigating a sphere of entrenched social and economic immobility. Hustle and Flow puts the dirt in ‘the dirty South,’ as the embodied aesthetic of dirty, sweaty bodies also extends to the physical landscape of Memphis populated by rundown storefronts, old-model cars with shiny rims, and grimy strip clubs; a reminder of the irony of the designation ‘the New South.’ Hip hop culture situated here in Memphis, once a capital of soul music, reminds us of the powerful legacies of Stax Records and of soul pioneers like Isaac Hayes (who plays Arnel in the film) and DJay exists at the ‘crossroads,’ the allegorical blues realm where you sell your soul to find your voice.
The film also foregrounds how these bodies reproduce anxieties that have dogged the region for decades. It reminds us of the politics hovering around black female sexuality and interracial desire and of the cinematic pathologies of black masculinity. The film attempts to ‘flesh out’ the painful lives of the women (Shug, Nola, and Lexus) and their disturbing co-existence with DJay, their pimp and patriarch. Yet it ultimately restricts the women from hip hop’s power and the economies of creativity and performance. While DJay accesses a voice that inspires a sense of self-determination, hip hop culture is not an escape for these women.
Hustle and Flow grounds Memphis as a site of religious, soul (perhaps “post-soul”) and hip hop culture and as a space that continues to haunt us, reminding us of the unresolved social and emotional rifts which leave us fractured, but which have inspired many a blues and hip hop record.