“The Persistence of “Wild Style” : Hip-Hop and Music Video Culture at the Intersection of Performance and Provocation

Curator's Note

My piece in the JCMS In Focus, “Modes of Black Liquidity: Music Video as Black Art” is defined by the term “wild style,” a seminal trope of the nascent years of hip hop’s visual aesthetic, which described the bold, spray-painted style of lettering that morphed into coded phrases, pictures and tableaus—scenes springing from the minds of young black and brown youth in NYC. My reanimation of wild style takes flight by examining a series of hip hop music videos noting how particular gestures and styles of performance in these texts reanimate earlier modes of performance and social critique (what Daphne Brooks might call dissent) and how they flow across nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first century popular culture. The videos I engage are not simply political, ironic or controversial; I argue that they deploy embodied, discursive, and aesthetic provocations to destabilize categorization and meaning. Provocation is a thing, a graphic depiction of violence or a gesture, for instance, and a mode of performative encounter. I trace how elements in these videos modulate the space between paradigms of legibility and illegibility. Legibility refers to ways in which music video form fosters accessibility, transparency, or familiarity, and how it circulates to multiple audiences triggering exposure and commercial viability for the artist. Illegibility, then, is embodied as the impasse or disconnect between the artist and some viewers, or, as conflicting or paradoxical interpretations of the video and its relationship to the broader archive of race and performance. To be certain, it is not always clear what is legible/illegible, but it is the tension between these spheres that is intriguing; how these texts deploy both elements in a single video; how we are often disturbed, confounded and awed simultaneously; how provocation and critique are at times wielded bluntly, while at others nuanced and precise. Beginning in the twentieth century, I discuss the groundbreaking video for the South Bronx’s Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five’s (GMFFF) iconic song “The Message” (1982) then pivot to the twenty-first century imagination of Donald Glover, and his musical alter-ego Childish Gambino, whose video “This is America” (2018) engages the archive of racialized movement and dance from the nineteenth century and became a viral phenomenon. Lastly, I consider how SoundCloud music streaming enabled the rise of new iterations of hip hop music and video form, briefly discussing a video from the late provocateur XXXTentacion entitled “Look at Me” (2017). 


I really love this piece (the IMR post and the original InFocus essay)--the way the writing moves between moments in hip-hop history beautifully mirrors the "wild style" you're describing. I'm really interested in your description of provocation as something distinctly anachronistic. And, because we're talking about black music videos that have such a massive impact on popular culture around the world, I wonder if part of wild style's provocation is its inevitable re-appearance in other space (in K-pop music videos, on runways in Paris, etc.). I've always throught that was the power of a video like "This is America"--the way it immediatley inspired close analysis (some good/some bad) and remakes meant these gestures moved into spaces that actually performed the blurred boundary between legible and illegible.  


Michele, your work here makes me think of Hal Foster's analysis of the Dada mime as a form of immanent critique where the form of the satire and its satirized object are indistinguishable: such figures so often risk illegibility, but Foster also argues elsewhere that in the 21st century it is increasingly impossible for critique to succeed in opposition to its object. The collapse that the music art video suggests between high art and commercial form itself suggests this murkiness: both are commodity products in the end.

Hi Jenny,

So, this is an interesting point you make about satire and commodity form, particularly given Glover's oeuvre and how his work functions overall. In his show Atlanta, for instance, Glover operates in a kind of liminality where he is not really satirizing life in Atlanta, but seemingly offering some critique of our idea of it and relishing in that, playing with it. He moves between familiar tropes and also renders them 'indistinguishable.' And yes, both the show and music video are fundamentally commodity forms, but I do think there are some ways that we might re-think some of these forms as commodities, particularly in relationship to 'high art.'

What I mean here is that I think we can learn a lot at the intersection of hip hop culture, high art and commodification. High art would eat, literally consume the work and persona of a Basquiat for example. He had little say in how he or his art were valued, exhibited, and culturally consumed. What has shifted significantly, and what I discuss in the essay more precisely, is that in the era of SoundCloud, YouTube, and  streaming platforms that there is a breech, however slight, in the balance of power that artists have and in how they are commodified, the value of their artistry, and how they encounter audiences.

High art was/is a framework in which value and the mode/means of production, exhibition and distribution were carefully policed and controlled. The current landscape still polices, still assigns value, but the circuits that maintained their rigid authority been re-wired. And again, I return to the graffiti artists to explain the re-wiring of the system. They would take the transportation system, which had a explicit function, and repurpose it as their own means of producing and disseminating their work. They would then name themselves (often using aliases of course) but claim a power and authority over the trains and walls. Their art would be painted over countless times, but they'd be right at it again the next day. This process of naming, claiming, valuing and devaluing played on an endless loop.

Now, of course, capitalist frameworks always recalibrate to either destroy or co-opt the breeches in their systems, but this dance of exploitation, access, valuation, and control is seminal to the experience of black cultural production in this country. So, I agree, commodities, yes, but oh the stories we can tell about the dance.

These are all great points, Michele and it's interesting to think of YouTube and video art as the Intenet equivalent of the street and the street artist. Of course, the appropriative appetite of art as an institution still persists today, perhaps as is suggested by the meteoric rise of Arthur Jafa.

Thank you Lauren!

There's a lot to unpack in your post. I would say first, that there are a few concepts, which as you point out, are often connected in visual and cultural studies, and, not to sound esoteric, are literally moving across time and space. 

For instance--provocation, spectacle, circulation, gesture, legibility--these terms are all equally relevant to studies of visual culture across the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries. And for me that's an exciting and rich proposition.

In the 19th century the minstrel and vaudeville shows, circuses, carnivals, and World's Fairs all trafficked in the performances of race, difference, movement/gesture and were, by their very nature, exercises in new-found human mobility and cultural expropriation. And we've now spent decades unpacking how to interpret those performances.

Glover's video and contemporary music video in general provides, at the risk of overusing "archive," a referential archive of how these forms have interacted over time. Here I'm thinking too of Nkiru and how she deploys a multitude of references, which Alessandra unpacked earlier this week. 

What I would also say though, is how important the study of early graffiti art and culture is to how I think about hip hop, visual culture and music video form, which I foreground in the use of the term 'wild style.' For me, graffiti is the perfect metaphor, the perfect window through which we can see how language, artistry, and a particular cultural impulse literally move through the world. NYC graffiti artists took particular pleasure at being able to tag cars that would travel though all of the boroughs (going "all-city") which meant that their name and mythic status would expand and that they could then encounter and 'provoke' as many people as possible. Provocation then, be it legible or illegible, is at the core of human cultural expression.

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