I’ve always been fascinated by how rappers not only wear their masculinity on their sleeves but also position themselves as style warriors in an on-going battle for supremacy. Rap is famous for its ghetto realness, its (s)language of thug poetics, its rude-boy politics. I think of it as an exercise in ghetto glamour, today’s representation of the ever-evolving colored brotha as style arbiter. From baggy jeans to hightop fades, from gold chains to sneaker pimp-dom, hiphop’s dictated how urban dwellers and suburban kids defined themselves through style.
Of course my reading of rap (my queering of it?) as a site of fashion performance has elicited criticism, mainly because—as my reading pre-dated the cultural acceptance of metrosexual-style fashion flamboyancy—my critics didn’t like me aligning the overly-masculinist hiphop with something as fey or gay or un-masculine as “fashion.” Well, I’ve always agreed with brilliant philosopher of style RuPaul: “We all came into this world naked. The rest is all drag.” And no cultural sphere over the past thirty years has represented itself through its costumery, its drag—or convinced the world that it mattered—like colored boys in hiphop.
In music videos, on concert stages, it always seemed to me like boys performing their boyness for other boys, striking poses, earning points in the competition for realness that defined rap’s peacock-ing primacy. Calvin Klein may not have been a friend of Run-DMC’s but that didn’t stop them from name-checking him or, like good fashionistas, fetishishizing desire of their Adidas. Wrote scholar Tricia Rose, “Hip hop artists use style as a form of identity formation that plays on class distinctions and hierarchies by using commodities to claim the cultural terrain.” Not only was hiphop a bunch of poor black kids pretending to be rich for a bunch of rich white kids pretending to be poor, but also a site where “straight” boys indulged the allure of style to re-inscribe their straightness, their cock-of-the-walkness. The funny thing is: all this posing and self-regard, might well have taken place in a site of supreme fey, gayness: one of the LGBT balls immortalized in 1990’s Paris is Burning. One of the ball categories (see video) is Banjy (or Thug) Realness, in which gay boys strut in their finest “straight” boy apparel, trying to pass for butch to win the prize. What is hiphop, style-wise, than just the longest walk for Banjy Realness we’ve known? Rock the runway, indeed!
Scott, this is just great.
Scott, this is just great. What you said reminds me of what E. Patrick Johnson has brilliantly called the "specter of the black fag," the break in black masculinity. But it seems like what you're speaking about is the "specter of the black thug," which puts a finger on the issue of whether or not, and how, black masculinity gets performed, and by whom. Doesn't this just show that black mascunlinity is as unstable a category as any? What is it, anyway?
Quite a brilliant reading! As Madison notes, I think you are suggesting black masculinity as partially unstable, which explains why and how homophobia might arise in such spaces of sociality (maybe I'm just borrowing Sedgewick here). The presence of actual queers in straight spaces makes painfully clear the hidden queer performances within hiphop and its style-driven spaces. It's the kind of disruption we need, and why balls are so central, I think!
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