"The Dirty South" and Other Visual Aesthetics

Curator's Note

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.


I love the question of visualizing a southern hip hop aesthetic. Hustle and Flow left me feeling some type of way, like I was missing out on something that only folks from Memphis could understand. The overlap of the Blues and Hip Hop narrative in this film was very evident. It makes me think about how blurry lines of the past and present are in southern cultural expression. You can't have a "present" without a heavy presence of the past. Your reference to Monster's Ball made me think about how the south is still marginalized even within its own space. What type of hip hop influence was signified by Diddy's brief (and strained) appearance early in the film as compared to DJay or even 3 6 Mafia's embodiment of a recognizable southern hip hop aesthetic to a nonsouthern/mainstream audience?

Hustle and Flow has always left me feeling some type a way as well. I think with you naming the restrictions placed on women and access to economies of creativity and performance as subjects names that feeling. I could not help but connect your last section where you discuss Memphis as a site that haunts us and reminds us of unresolved social and emotional rifts but have also inspired many a blues and hip hop record with Elvis and Sam Phillips. In many respects Craig Brewer the film's writer and the shifts in the script from a white protagonist to a black one played, by Terrance Howard registers how race functions in interesting ways in southern musical production.

Both Regina and Akil hit on some of the 'unspeakable' anxieties that Hustle and Flow and Memphis hip hop/blues culture try to articulate. The notion of the 'some type a way' feeling that many of us were left with is very real. I wonder how can we name what we are feeling--whether it is the gender anxieties that the film reproduces or the creative and social alienation that both the women and DJay feel? What might we call this? Whatever it is, it seems to me that it is an outcome of the ways in which the pain, as a memory and an experience, is literally embedded in the objects, culture, and the landscape itself. For instance, if you check out Regina's page: http://www.redclayscholar.com/ there is an image of Regina sitting on an old railroad track covered with weeds flanked by a someone's old couch. This image for me performs a similar function. All of the feelings, the spectral hauntings of past pain that was grounded in the South comes through in this image. Yet the image also captures how we are both alienated by space and pain, but also how our creative and cultural genius blossoms out of this same haunted and sacred space. Hip hop (and blues culture) both create space for these encounters of alienation, brutality and genius. Whether they happen at Regina's crossroads on an isolated railroad track, in a strip club, or in a run-down, souped up car-- these spaces ground the objects around us and the places we inhabit with a sense of meaning and sometimes with a sense of beauty.

Michele’s post, and the insightful comments from Regina and Akil, lead me to think about marginalization and restriction in Southern space. It seems difficult to imagine the South as a space without de-facto segregation, political/economic marginalization and structural oppression. Whether in fictional narratives like Hustle and Flow or Monster’s Ball, or in everyday black life in the South, the fractures and rifts mentioned above are pervasive. Thus, the cinematic pathologies Michele refers to emerge from a lineage of stereotypical tropes in popular culture, but they also reflect the real prejudices of a worldview that sees black masculinity as inherently pathological. Such deeply internalized bigotry allows for the contemporary national media conversation about a “post-racial” America. And, as everyone has said here, intersectionality makes this even more heart-wrenching; gender and race equal double-jeopardy. Yet, as Michele just posted above, new forms of life spring from the wreckage of the old. There is hope, and the "Old South" doesn't get to have the last word, even if change seems frustratingly slow at times.

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