Throw Up a Fist, or Turn the Other Cheek

You should never argue about religion, politics, and…umm… sagging pants. The 1990’s gave rise to many fashion trends, but sagging pants has stood as one of the most controversial. People have argued over the historical roots, the psychology behind people showing their behind (slight word-play pun intended), and there have even been instances of people pushing to ban sagging pants altogether. “Which movie was better: Friday or Boyz n the Hood?”, “Who had a bigger impact: Biggie or 2pac?”, “Did O.J. really do it?”, and “Why did many people in urban areas begin sagging their pants?” are all topics that universal scholars and barbershop clients could endlessly debate.

Image result for sagging pants in prison

One popular narrative regarding the rise of sagging pants in the 90’s is that prison fashion trickled over to everyday fashion worn in the street(s).This argument has grounds because between the years 1990-2000, U.S. prison rates grew from roughly 800,000 to 1,400,000. Prison populations aren’t allowed to wear belts and are often provided with oversized clothes. Many believe that such prison clothing distribution practices led to a normalization of sagging pants; one that ex-prisoners did not abandon upon being released back into their personal communities. Furthermore, about a decade before the 90’s, various influential sources, such as the Washington Post, began publishing articles declaring that “Prison Has Become ‘Rite of Passage’”. If such a theory is true, then it may strengthen the arguments of those who believe that sagging pants originated in prison; if prison is a rite of passage (for at least some groups or individuals), then quite naturally various people would lean towards dressing as if they’ve been imprisoned.

There’s also a separate prison origin-based belief, that accredits the initial act of prisoners sagging their pants to sexuality, rather than a sheer lack of belts and better clothing. A commonly perpetuated idea has been that prisoners began showing their behind in order to advertise sexual availability. It has also been said that certain prisoners were forced to wear their pants below the waist in order to communicate to other prisoners that they were taken (“taken” as in concurred/controlled by another inmate). Though such narratives are popular, like the Big Bang theory, their accuracy has yet to be completely confirmed.

Stepping away from the prison narrative, some argue that the trend of sagging pants that rose in the 1990’s was simply a result of young people in urban communities trying to maneuver poverty: children and teenagers tend to have many growth-spurts, and in the midst of economic struggles, continuously buying clothes for growing children can quickly become costly. A solution implemented by many parents and young shoppers was to buy clothes that were too big, so that the intended wearer would have an opportunity to grow into them over time (a practice that is still very common). due to many families struggle in urban communities, purchasing belts were sometimes viewed as a luxury, rather than a necessity. Some people believe that the two factors (oversized clothing and not being able to afford belts) led to the trend of urban youth unapologetically wearing baggy pants that hung below their waistline.

Though as human beings we tend to search for simple explanations, the reality is that few things are black and white, and it’s possible that all the arguments/narratives above may hold some level truth. But to shake up the conversation a bit, if the saying “there’s nothing new under the sun” holds any validity, then potentially the most accurate answer regarding the roots and psychology behind the birth of sagging pants in the 90’s can be discovered through exploring eras prior to the decade.

Image result for zoot suit

Historian Luis Alvarez states that zoot suits of the 1930s and 1940 “share much of the same DNA as the trend of sagging pants that gained popularity in the 1990’s. Zoot suits were baggy, worn by youth in urban spaces and associated with criminal activity by Black and Latino people.” The suits were initially worn in such a way due to people not being able to afford fitted suits and was eventually adopted as an intentional style linked to Jazz music. Sagging pants started out being worn by youth in urban spaces and was/is associated with criminal activity by Black and Latino people. Also, the affordability and mainstream music adoption aspect has perpetuated the popularity of the style as well. One important thing to note about the zoot suit wearers is that, for them, the style represented a form of moral and political defiance. Luis Alvarez states that zoot suits were “ways that people made statements about their relationships to other people and their circumstances”. A majority of narratives regarding the birth and psychology of sagging pants are wrapped in notions of people being controlled/dominated and/or lacking self-respect, but history shows society’s fashion outcasts are often people exhibiting strength through social and political defiance. Image result for 70s afroFor example, dashikis and afros were seen as signs of defiance and militancy in the 1970s, as many Black Americans backlashed against American norms. Perhaps sagging pants came to popularity in the 1990’s, out of urban youth’s desire to defy social norms and expectations. Perhaps people began empowering themselves with sagging pants by blatantly rejecting the control of mainstream American society… A society that they felt would never fully grant them acceptance; so they stopped striving for the acceptance and worked to make it clear that there was no longer a care for mainstream approval… Perhaps.

What do you believe led to the popular trend of sagging pants that emerged in the 90’s?

God’s Property and the Rise of Urban Contemporary Gospel

Background, God’s Property:

God’s Property, founded in 1992 in Dallas, Texas, was developed by Linda Ray Hall-Searight, a public-school music teacher, and her son, Robert Sput Searight, who has since gone on to become a world-class drummer and Grammy Award Winner. The original ensemble included more than fifty singers and a band of approximately twenty musicians, recruited mostly from Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts High School (where other notable alumni such as Erykah Badu, Willie Hutch, and Roy Anthony Hargrove also attended[1].)

In 1993 the choir collaborated with Kirt Franklin, providing backup vocals for his 1995 album Whatcha Lookin’ 4. In turn, Franklin appeared on and helped produce the group’s debut album, God’s Property from Kirk Franklin’s Nu Nation, released May 27, 1997. The album won the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Gospel Artist, the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Music Video, the Soul Train Music Award for Best Gospel Album, and the Grammy Award for Best Gospel Choir or Chorus Album in 1998. The album was #1 on the R&B Albums chart for 5 weeks, #3 on Pop Charts, and would go on to be certified triple platinum with over 3 million copies sold across the United States[2]. The lead single “Stomp”, featuring Cheryl “Salt” James (of Salt-N-Pepa), made it onto Hot 100 Airplay, Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Recurrent Airplay, Rhythmic Top 40, The Billboard Hot 100, and Top 40 Mainstream[3].

Interview with L. Nyrobi N. Moss:

CECILY: Hello, this is Cecily McMillan of writing for Professor Scott Heath’s course: Archiving the Black 90’s. I am attempting a new way at archiving the black nineties by speaking to a Ms. L. Nyrobi N. Moss, who was a foundational and central member to the musical group, the musical phenomena: God’s property, that pretty much developed the genre of Urban Contemporary Gospel. In which way did you find a path to participate in the arts and the music of the nineties?

NYROBI: So, I went to performing arts high school, I also went to performing arts junior high school as well, but my interest in the entertainment industry came via arts magnet, which was a breeding ground for a lot of major artists, but a lot of creative expression in Dallas and, essentially, spreading to the world. So, in addition to attending arts magnet, I also was one of the original founding members of the choir called God’s Property Ensemble and God’s Property was of course released under Kirk Franklin’s label in 1997. However, before that release, we already had a really huge following in the Dallas, Houston, L.A., and a lot of different markets as far as Gospel groups were concerned, and that also kind of led us to work with other artists and playing with different background vocals and singing on other people’s tracks. But we were also signed by B-Rite, a division of Interscope, so Tupac Shakur was one of my label mates. So that is my introduction to the nineties in music.

CECILY: You said that album popped off, like, the group was signed by the label in ’97?

NYROBI: No, we were assigned before 97. The album got released in 97. So, the first full album was God’s Property with Kirk Franklin’s The Nu Nation. However, I want to note that we were God’s Property before Kirk Franklin was Kirk Franklin, and I know because I sang on his first album. But, either way, you know, it was the terminology of who gets picked up first in the industry versus who releases whom. So, at the time he had the platform and he did a lot of producing on our first album when we worked with him.

CECILY: OK. So, 1997. You’re in high school?

NYROBI: No, I was way out of high school. But God’s Property started when I was [at Booker T. Washington] high school. We first formed God’s property, I want to say in ’93-’94.

CECILY: Booker T. Washington, was it a racially diverse high school?

NYROBI: Booker T. Washington for the Performing and Visual Arts was racially diverse. It was culturally diverse, religiously diverse. Some of my best friends were, you know, satanists and had shaved heads, and we all were just these artists that lacked on things, but we didn’t have a problem just crossing over and figuring out who was what. You know, at Booker T. you could see all these different genres in silos and nobody really was kind of singled out. It was just like, you got your group of those who are visual artists and those are the vocals. And those were the hip-hop kids and, so, the music tied us all together.

CECILY: So, I’m thinking about the form of music that you’re talking about. And obviously there are songs, especially in the nineties, I mean the first one that comes to mind for me obviously as Madonna, Like a Prayer. But the incorporation of Gospel into songs, especially ballads, is a super powerful mechanism. Did that become popular in the ’90s?

NYROBI: I want to be clear: It wasn’t about incorporating Gospel. Gospel is pretty much the root. If you find any artist, especially black artists, they’re going to tell you their group got started in Gospel. The reason why God’s Property was so pivotal was because we were young, and we were fun and we were hip and we used to bring, you know, rap melodies [into the music]. Like when I was in junior high school, I played classical piano and I hated every minute of it, which is why I switched over to theater, musical theater, because it was boring. So, God’s Property was the first time that I knew that music could be fun and that it could be interesting, and it could have a great high energy. And Gospel, in turn, like we used to bring down houses and churches. Our biggest criticism was the fact that, you know, that we were singing devil songs and we were jamming to Gospel music. And we were doing that in church, and we brought such high energy to it, and, you know, we were too radical. So, people couldn’t tell the difference between what our music was and what Gospel was and that was a problem. Now it’s old hat. Now, you can find you all these different Gospel artists and they all hip-hop, and this and that and the third. But that wasn’t done then, you know. We used to get a lot of flack for that.

CECILY: Yeah, I could see that on the church side. But also, thinking about myself as a teenager, it seems totally incomprehensible that I would get together with a group of my friends and want to do something Gospel inspired. So, I’m clearly missing a link here. How did this emerge?

NYROBI: They’re all linked. The interesting thing is that R&B, hip-hop, they all have roots in Gospel. If you ask any artist where they came up, where they got their musical influences, then they’re gonna say in the church. So, the thing about that is that church, especially in the black community, always influences where we are socially, where we are politically, you know, how we build movements, what that looks like. So, I will say that it wasn’t far removed from us because we used to be in a church doing jam sessions. And even jazz, which is one of the greatest art forms ever because it has these different musicians that’s riffing, that’s doing all this other kind of improvisational stuff. All those things were not removed from us. They were all part of who you were. And so, therefore, we were young. We lived, we loved, we lived hip-hop. We lived where hip-hop started, what it was all about, know what I’m saying? In the nineties, we had your 2 Live Crews and different artists… when hip-hop was kind of risqué. But where we were and where we sat was in this place where it was all creation, it was all music for us. We blended all this together and they weren’t separate for us.

Cecily McMillan

Works Cited

[1] Wikipedia – Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts

[2] Enacademic – Kirk Franklin

[3] Billboard Music Charts

Let’s Talk Julie Dash’s 90’s Indie: Daughters of the Dust, & What It May Mean For Black Identity

 

 

 

"I am the first and the last. I am the honored one and the scorned one. I am the whore and the holy one. I am the wife and the virgin. I am the barren one and many are my daughters. I am the silence that you can not understand. I am the utterance of my name." Nana Peazant (Daughters of the Dust), via The Thunder, Perfect Mind

It was through this incredible 90s seminar that I was introduced to Julie Dash and Daughters of the Dust. I thought to myself, “this looks like Beyoncé’s video.” In fact, the year that Mrs. Knowles-Carter dropped her historic Lemonade visual album marked the 25th anniversary for Daughters of the Dust, as well as a seemingly pivotal time in defining and accepting black identity; I don’t think it happened coincidentally.

Daughters of the Dust tells a compelling story of a self-preserved Gullah Island family who overtime, has been able to maintain their ancestor’s unique culture.  They are the direct descendants of the slaves who worked the area.  The film is packed with tradition and gives a new meaning to perseverance. However, after many years, much of the Peazant family has decided to move into the “mainland.” This manifestation of assimilation into mainstream and modern culture is a major theme throughout the film. While the matriarch of the family, Nana, would probably never give the mainland the time of day, others are willing to part ways with tradition in hope of easier life. What they don’t realize however, is that mainland life isn’t as glorious as it appears. (As evident in the return of Yellow Mary)

I began to think about black identity, specifically, black American identity. I can’t be the only one who has felt as if black Americans, to Africans, are another rendition of the light-skinned versus dark-skinned beef. Again, it brings me to question what black identity really is, what it isn’t, and who gets to make these decisions?

Maybe we are struggling so much in determining black identity because for once, we are peaking out of the veil and feeling the need to define ourselves, for ourselves. Daughters of the Dust offers a revelation that the antagonist of their black Gullah identity is influence of European culture. (The mainland) This could explain why blacks from Africa often disregard black American’s as their own, due to American influence in our black American culture. This also helps to explain the dark-skinned versus light-skinned beef, as lighter-skin is too often associated with European relation.

So…I paint the question to you; what really is black identity? Sociologist have long said that race, “black” and “white” are merely social constructs but with what identity does that leave the entire black race when we consistently label the assets of our identity with the inclusion of the word “black”?

Could it be possible that identifying black culture begins with embracing, understanding, and breaking down what it means to be African American? Both African. And American.

I believe America’s war on black people makes it difficult for us to want to identify ourselves as pieces of them, but truth be told, we are. Also, and not to be confused with assimilation, maybe we can come to consider ourselves as the evolved versions of our ancestors. Not to get evolution confused as being “advanced,” but rather “a new model fit for its circumstances.”

What Daughters of the Dust offers us is a chance at witnessing a facet of our African American culture.

Let us consider long gowns in modesty, oversized hats, Sunday’s best with ruffles, white lace and a small dose of sheer, capable of bearing imagination. Let us consider traditional names that speak to our being, and a tongue that makes love with the creole. Let us embrace, and not abuse family; “Eli, your wife does not belong to you, she only married you.” And for our women, embrace your independence, “for it fine to want a man to depend on for only if you need to.” Embrace nature around you and the organics things nature give to you. Try fresh gumbo and weaving baskets.

Let your hair be the feelings that you wear; brief or long, twisted or puffed, free or tamed. To be sassy in demeanor is ok, enthralled with the spirits of your ancestors, but always in love and protection. If you shall dance, dance; Practice your footwork, let your arms go and let your body tell its message. Be spiritual; in whole like your hopped jewelry. Love and respect thy elders in a way the master respected thy whip.

Too, the pieces of this very archive, the years surrounding it, the historical black American events, trials and tribulations, further aid in the quest to define our African American identities.

On this 27th anniversary of Daughters of the Dust, I consider preservation, multiculturalism and evolution. From the time I began to learn in depth about black American identity I felt that black Americans must have it the hardest. Because truly, we are African and truly, we are American. One must come to a place of balance, a place of love, two seemingly polarized identities in which you’ve been birth. Without the impact of this social construct of  what”blackness” means to our European counterparts, the African and the America represents the true essence of double consciousness. (As defined by Du Bois)

-Tysheira Scribner


More To Ponder: In defining black and African American identities Daughter’s of the Dust can give us insight on assimilation as a negative occurrence. I think it is important to note that as African Americas, we are not assimilated, yet more so of heterogeneous nature. 

More Than Noise: “Hip-Hop you the love of my life” (An Ode to Black Culture)

In my mind it is the bridge between the unspoken and white picket fences. We’re talking as gutta as Wu-Tang Clang, as authentic as The Roots, as everlasting as Pac and Biggie, and as pivotal as Shawn Carter; there is a reason this black noise was bursting through Jordan Davis’ red dodge Durango. I believe the misinterpretation and seemingly irritable nature of black noise served as a death sentence for Davis; but unfamiliarity is always the archenemies of privilege.

What black noise is, is a lifeline for pain and questionability. These are real voices that convey the everyday lives, perceptions, and inevitable truths of  one of American’s third worlds. Reality defines the state of things in which they exist. To be blinded by such, can be defined as privilege.

Early black “noise” was the inspiration behind a once billion-dollar Black Entertainment Television network. It is more than noise. It is kin to the triangular trade that birthed this discarded third world nation. Though this vibration driven tale dates back to the tumultuous 70’s, it is its 90’s alliances that put these voices on the map. Hip-hop deserves its own Mount Rushmore up on Sedgwick Ave in the Bronx.

It didn’t surprise me in 2018 when I was tackling Tricia Rose’s critical analysis Black Noise, when she revealed an encounter with a colleague after which she had presented some research on this thing we call hip-hop. For the same reason it served as a death sentence for Davis, it served as a simple “nothing” to Roses’ colleague, the same nothing Jordan Davis’ privileged predator left him to descend into. In chapter three of the 1994 publication, Rose recalls hip-hop’s misinterpretator as stating, “Well, you must be writing on rap’s social impact and political lyrics, because there is nothing to the music.” (62)

“They ride down the street at 2:00 am with it blasting from car speakers, and (they) wake up my wife and kids. What’s the point in that?” Rose further recalls. (62)

As a self-proclaimed hip-hop baby I know how it makes me feel to ride with reasonable doubt blasting through the highest volume of my Civic. I am relating. I am feeling. I am understanding. Obliviously, I am dreaming. Can I live, in imagination that life has something more for me than it did my mother? Can I live, feeling in empathy for the black men whose public school systems don’t believe in anything more than their ability to be a drug dealing or dead ridden statistic? Can I live, with the least bit of comfort knowing somebody out there knows my story? And cares too.

Those political lyrics are as acquainted with Keisha down the block as the star spangle banner is to American stadiums.

Hip-hop’s coded language is the underground railroad that for once, refuses to cross its legs in favor of lady-likeness. Hip-hop lets the truth hang, something political correctness has never done. Hip-hop is a gift only received by those rich enough to understand our value.

As real as it gets, hip-hop tells the 1991 story of the 12-year-old Brooklyn girl that threw her baby down a chute and into a trash compactor. That’s “Brenda’s got a baby.” For those who have consistently lived behind white picket fences, the traumatization of third world tendencies are imaginable. I’m talking Margaret Garner and Beloved feels. I’m talking “the damage is irreversible” pull the plug type of feels.

“Can I live” speaks the inevitable consequences of the the Cross-Bronx Expressway and the ways in which something as politically correct as gentrification leaves third world residents to by any means necessary, make things happen for themselves.

This revelation that rap is mere noise is a reflection of the heart and eyes in which our melanin has always been regarded. For my fellow hip-hop babies, welfare recipients, affirmative actions beneficiaries, and driving while black inheritors, this revelation of meaningless noise is as Jim Crow as it gets.

Hip-hop is perfectly imperfect in the sense that it accurately lets the rest of the world know of the unprosperous cards black people have been (and are being) dealt.

For a moment, I will entertain the foulness of NWA’s “Fuck The Police” era that often ends up being the burden of proof that rap is merely a loud, violent, and unnecessary hobby.  If “affluenza” is legit, so is “Fuck The Police.”

Why is it that affluenza [i] can get a wealthy white teenager out of drunk driving and killing four people yet a black man cannot utter a cultural expression to his oppressor?

It is unfair to hold one to a standard of moral and political correctness, while the other through the lens of superiority. Two wrongs don’t make a right but they do enforce a pattern. Expecting black men who have lived their entire lives under racial and social inequality to suddenly take the “high road” when you have yet produced them with some sort of ladder to equity is incomprehensible to say the least.

America’s law enforcement system was founded through the same moral and politically incorrect systems that make black bodies “less than” and a target for unjust treatment. The only time a black body is held in high regards is when it opposes its oppressor. It is then that the 3/5th compromise never existed.

“Fuck The Police” is a black man’s back against the wall (literally) and his only way out is to fight the thing that put him there. Hip-hop is not guilty of creating detrimental social impacts. In order for something to not be innocent it has to be the perpetrator of wrongdoing or crime. Verbal expression over banging beats regarding 1990s crown heights or 1990s Compton is as virtuous as we know.

Yes, hip-hop is noise. Voices are noise. And voices are quintessential to this thing we call life.

Hip-hop is necessarily unapologetic, too, a result of morally incorrect ideology this country stands on. Hip-hop’s critics may never acknowledge the role black coded laws played in putting black expression on the map.

I recently encountered a 23-year-old Chinese woman who has been a U.S resident for just 6 years. She began to speak to me regarding the interesting American things she’s encountered; a colleague had just given her an introduction to rap. Stunned, I immediately asked if hip-hops controversial lyrics interfered with her ability to enjoy it. Her response, and I quote “Not at all. It is part of the culture.”

In 5 years of American culture and 1 brief lesson on hip-hop, this China native who was still grasping English orality understood this black expressiveness. I stand strong when I say, black noise is consistently and inaccurately regarded as “nothing” due to its close resemblance to black life. Hip-hop’s acceptance as legit art is parallel to white Americans acceptance of black Americans, and the removal of the veil in which black Americans have always been hidden under.

-Tysheira Scribner

Footnote

[i] Affluenza- a psychological malaise supposedly affecting wealthy young people, symptoms of which include a lack of motivation, feelings of guilt, and a sense of isolation. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethan_Couch

Work Cited

Rose, Tricia. (1994). Black noise : rap music and black culture in contemporary America. Hanover, NH :University Press of New England.

How the South Got Something to Say: The Origins and Impact of the Dirty South

Image Source: San Antonio Current

In 2004, OutKast became the first hip hop group to win album of the year for their record-shattering and now-classic album, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below.

With such hits as “The Way You Move,” “Hey Ya,” and “Roses,” most mainstream audiences wouldn’t be surprised to find out the album was certified Diamond, selling over 10 million units before it could even turn 10 years old. 

What mainstream audiences might be surprised to find out, is that during the timeframe that album swept the Grammies—the midst of the Crunk era, whose many artists could trace their roots to Southern hip hop, whether it be Houston, Atlanta, or Memphis—OutKast’s accomplishment was perhaps the highest peak reached by a group that could trace its roots to a sound that originated in Dirty South, a sound that started in a basement in Atlanta’s College Park and East Point neighborhoods in the 1990s.

During that same decade, radio and television airwaves were saturated with the sound of the West Coast / East West Coast rivalry that defined a generation. We can hear this sound in some of the most popular songs of Tupac and Biggie, whose heavy beats and hardcore lyrics—especially when taken along with their heavy and hardcore lifestyles—came to define the dynamic between East and West Coast sounds as a competition between socially conscious songs about serious issues being played out in real time on American radio and television.

It is phenomenal, then, that the Dirty South sound could emerge during this decade, much less become immortalized in the proverbial hop hall of fame when OutKast’s André, while up on stage to receive the award for Best New Artist at the 1995 Source Awards (after the group was boo’d by the audience no less),  approached the mic and finally got a word in edgewise:

Source: Rap Genius

André’s words were controversial that year for many reasons, not least of which because they interrupted what the East Coast/West Coast rap scenes thought would be an answer to the question of which region was producing the best new artist. According to the critics, that region was the South.

But it was also a production company called Organized Noize, which produced not only OutKast, but Goodie Mob, the less-known group whose 1995 track “Dirty South” coined the genre term.

Like a lot of East Coast/West Coast songs of the time, “Dirty South” featured some socially conscious lyrics that called attention to some serious issues affecting their local neighborhoods, including a hyperactive police force:

One to da two da three da four
Dem dirty Red Dogs done hit the door
And they got everybody on they hands and knees
And they ain’t gonna leave until they find them keys

Not to mention some of the implications of Bill Clinton’s tough-on-crime policies at the time:

Now if dirty Bill Clinton fronted me some weight
Told me to keep two, bring him back eight
And I only brought him five and stuck his ass for three
Do you think that Clampett will sick his goons on me?

But its biggest contribution was the refrain:

What you niggas know about the Dirty South?

Along with the track’s minimalistic beat, reverb, and call outs to Atlanta neighborhoods and street names like East Point, John Freeman Way, Delowe, and Piedmont Park, the song defined the “Dirty South,” and specifically Atlanta, as a place that was just as socially conscious as Los Angeles and New York City, if not with a slightly lighter sense of humor.

 

 

This message and sound would be repeated on the title track “Soul Food” with even more melodic elements, as Goodie Mob members like Cee Lo Green both rapped and sang in a soulful way that would come to define the Dirty South sound as having brought a soulful melody to what had mostly been a back-and-forth between beats.

The southern sounds launched by Organized Noize and Goodie Mob on this critically acclaimed album would later come to define many of the sound qualities that can be said to distinguish the most popular songs of the Dirty South from some of the most popular songs coming out of the East Coast / West Coast rap scenes. These include but are not limited to:

  • More melodic elements that blend singing and rapping for soulful vibe
  • An emphasis on large group, almost family-oriented collaboration
  • Very socially conscious but often lighter sense of humor
  • Slower beats per minute (see: chopped and screwed)
  • Horns and other non-electronic instrumentation

Artists that benefited from the production of Organized Noize include but are not limited to:

  • OutKast on Southernplayalisticcadillacmuzik
  • TLC on “Don’t Go Chasin’ Waterfalls”
  • Ludacris on “Saturday (Oooh! Ooooh!) ft. Sleepy Brown”

So while Outkast may be the group to which the Dirty South sound is often attributed because they are the most mainstream group to climb all the way from that basement in South Atlanta to the world stage, it would be more accurate to say the Dirty South sound originated from the production of Organized Noize, its Dungeon Family, and Goodie Mob.

For it is mostly likely these groups’ impact on OutKast in 1995 that drove André to say “The South got somethin’ to say.”

—Joshua Ryan Jackson

Works Cited

Jones, Qunicy. The Art of Organized Noize. Starring Sleepy Brown, Raymond Murray, and Rico Wade. Netflix, 2016.

Westhoff, Ben. Dirty South: Outkast, Lil Wayne, Soulja Boy, and the Southern Rappers Who Re-invented Hip Hop. Chicago Review P, 2011.

Darius Rucker — Reclaimer of Country Music or Uncle Tom Sell-Out?

Maybe we can’t change the world but
I wanna love you the best that…

…the best that I caaaaaannnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn

– “Hold my Hand,” Cracked Rear View, Hootie and the Blowfish.

That’s the perfect blend of optimistic pessimism and cheerful apathy we’ve come to expect from the surprisingly successful “rock” band “Hootie and the Blowfish,” whose name was lit up in khaki-colored lights for some of the mid-90’s. The name of the band seemed enough of a reason to approach their music with caution, lest we caught Loser Cooties by being seen anywhere near the vicinity of their band, even just next to the CD at Sam Goody’s. But a stranger image stamped a large red “What The Hell” on everyone’s faces: why was some black guy wearing tan pants singing with those three white dudes in the back? Did they kidnap him and force him Rep for The Plaid? Was he mocking them for playing the geetar, and we’d soon hear the DJ’s (insert scratch noise here) and this dude would reappear in a Cadillac, sippin’ on ‘gnac? And why was his name “Hootie?” Was he a new addition to the Dungeon Family?

(Hootie Hooooooooooooooooooooooo!!!)

Darius Rucker, frontman of the band, later explained that he thought of the name “Hootie and the Blowfish” in college during a party: he saw one guy who wore glasses (and, thus, projected an owl-like demeanor) and another whose cheeks were puffy. He nicknamed the former “Hootie,” the latter “Blowfish,” and anointed them lead singers of hypothetical band, Hootie and the Blowfish. His dream became a reality when, just one week later, he and his friends started a band by the same name. (He says their exact response to his suggestion was: “Whatever.” Ironically, “Hootie” went on to halfway rename himself when he began a solo career as Darius Rucker, country musician, while his indifferent bandmates seemed destined to always, and only ever, be known simply as “The Blowfish.”)

The exact genre of the band’s music is the subject of much debate –  pop, rock, pop rock, light country, pop country, country pop, pop grunge, happy grunge, dad rock, or toothless cousin folk? – and neither fans nor critics of it knew quite what to make of this “Hootie” or his band.

Rucker grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, in a home with his mother and a few siblings. He loved the radio and listened to all kinds of music. Whenever his older brother apparently teased him about listening to “white boy music,” his mother insisted he be allowed to listen to whatever he liked without grief from anyone else – though she did reportedly supplement his daily diet of musical mayonnaise with some Al Green.

A telling picture shown in a televised interview with Rucker and Dan Rather (of course, one of Rucker’s all-time heroes, representing warm American goodness with extra picked-from-George-Washington’s-own-cherry-tree cherries on top) finds a young Rucker, smiling, surrounded by a group of happy white children. Schools in his area had been integrated just after Rucker finished kindergarten, so though he lived in an all-black neighborhood, he didn’t experience the same culture shock his older siblings and friends did. He felt comfortable around his new white friends. During high school, he realized he loved to sing, joined a singing group, and started listening more closely to a variety of artists, becoming interested in Kenny Rodgers, Randy Foster, and Charley Pride, one of the few black country artists who was widely accepted by white audiences.

“Country Music Hall of Fame – Charley Pride”

“He was doing something he wasn’t supposed to do and proving everyone wrong,” he says to Rather, knowing the connections Rather must be making.

Rucker and his buddies found modest success in Charleston, but every now and then, they’d find themselves performing in a bar or venue that didn’t seem very welcoming of their color-blind inter…musical stylings. Rucker remembers developing extremely thick skin, determined (albeit in his signature sheepish-grin-shrugging-shoulders way) not to let some small-minded people stop him from making the music he liked. Nine years later, a label look a chance on “Hootie and the Blowfish,” and they soon found themselves playing on New York City radio stations and performing on David Letterman’s late night talk show. As they worked their favorite-worn-pair-of-jeans charm on America, they also faced some backlash, mostly in the form of spoofing or sarcastic teasing. But there were harsher critiques from fans of both Biggie and George Jones: no one seemed to know whom Hootie was repping for. Had Hootie lost his black card, or at least some points from it, for daring to put out what might effectively be called, “Nuthin’ but a Coon Thing, Baby?”

Hootie and the Blowfish – Live on The Late Show with David Letterman in 1995

But, surprise! It turns out Darius Rucker only knew what many had forgotten: that slightly country sound, the one that runs through his music, the one he’s constantly mocked for singing, has its roots in black culture, just like pretty much everything else that’s actually good about America.

The music industry was largely responsible for how music was marketed to audiences of different colors and how country music came be identified as “white” music despite sharing much of its genetic makeup with the blues tradition, which is decisively black and also the precursor rhythm ‘n blues, rock ‘n roll, psychedelic rock, heavy metal, and even rap beats. As a result of exploitation and appropriation, country music failed to accurately represent any of the cultural intermixing that occurred in the nascent stage of this genre’s development.

Brief Peek into Country Music’s African-American Roots:

“African-American Influence Part of Country Music’s Legacy”

Black Artists Whose Work Shaped Country (and, really, American) Music:

Mamie Smith – “Crazy Blues”

Bessie Smith – “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”

Little Brother Montgomery – “Riverside Boogie”

T-Bone Walker – “Don’t Throw Your Love on Me So Strong”

“Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy & Junior Wells – ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’ & ‘Mannish Boy'”

Darius Rucker is, and has been, one of the few country musicians of color to have a lengthy career, and though he was originally teased for not being “black enough” and selling out to white country audiences, I posit he’d receive more support if he debuted today. “Hootie and the Blowfish” was not a bona fide country band, but in the intimidatingly talented shadow of new artists who dominated the 90’s music scene with rap, alt rock, and grunge, all languages that seemed to en-trance young people who hungered for words to put to their rage and their pent up energies, Hootie’s light seemed to shine on older, less hip crowds who had settled into routines of adult life that made young rage look not only pointless but tiring.

Additionally, rap music and grunge rock are often committed to portraying a certain authenticity – those artists don’t hide their dark, violent feelings or the grim realities of life. But black audiences, and even certain white ones, have always craved and prized authentic expressions, starting with “Negro” folk music of the early twentieth century, which were rerecorded but unsuccessfully marketed to black listeners because, according to black vaudevillian artist Perry Bradford, they didn’t sound right:

“There’s fourteen million Negroes in our great country and they will buy something if recorded by one of their own because we are the only folks that can sing and interpret hot jazz songs just off the griddle correctly” (Keyes 112).

Rucker’s response to haters echoed that call for authenticity: “I mean, it was better to be honest.”

“Hootie and the Blowfish,” then, was also just trying to keep it real. As a child, Rucker dreamed of leaving Charleston for the big city of New York, NY London, England Paris, France Columbia, SC, but after living there for several years, he couldn’t shake the urge to go back home, physically, emotionally, and apparently culturally. It’s hard to “Hootie and the Blowfish” as anything more than a feel-good memory of pre-Trump America, but after learning that Darius Rucker might actually be the keeper of one of black music’s lesser known traditions, it’s hard not to think of him as the hero some people really needed, one who could interpret country music’s “real” soul and serve it hot and fresh off that metaphorical griddle. Perhaps the 90’s should’ve have allowed poor “Hootie” — sigh, fine, Darius Rucker — to just let him do him. Although, that glint in his non-threatening eye has always said: Let the Haters Cry.

Radhika Nataraj

Works Cited

  • “Darius Rucker.” The Big Interview with Dan Rather. AXS TV, 21 Apr. 2014.
  • Dre featuring Snoop Doggy Dogg. “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang.” The Chronic, Death Row, 1992.
  • Hootie and the Blowfish. “Hold My Hand.” Cracked Rear View, Atlantic, 1994.
  • —. “Let Her Cry.” Cracked Rear View, Atlantic, 1994.
  • Keyes, Cheryl L. “The Aesthetic Significance of African-American Sound Culture and Its Impact on American Popular Music Style and Industry.” The World of Music, vol. 45, no. 3, 2003, pp. 105-29.
  • Lewis, George H. “The Color of Country: Black Influence and Experience in American Country Music.” Popular Music and Society, pp. 107-19.
  • “Hootie Hoo.” Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, LaFace, 1994.

Venus and Serena Williams: From Compton to the Courts

With big smiles and several tiny braids adorned with colorful beads, the Williams sisters arrived on the tennis courts that never saw them coming. Legend (and a snippet from an E! True Hollywood Story) has it that their father Richard, who worked security before the sisters were born, once watched the winner of a women’s tennis match collect a check for more money than he’d ever made and prophesied his future daughters’ domination of the tennis world. He trained them on courts near their home in Compton, California – the same hood where those O.G.s of Gangsta Rap, Dr. Dre and Snoop, put both their raps and their macks down.

But, well, back to the lecture at hand.

Serena, Venus, and their five siblings were raised as Jehovah’s Witnesses in a part of Compton that didn’t make it to music videos: the wholly unglamorous one-story homes with picket fences surrounding small backyards. The Williams family led a fairly routine, “normal” life which included several hours of early morning tennis practice followed by home-school lessons. In a brazen move, while affluent parents sought expensive and exclusive lessons for their future tennis champions, Mr. Williams initially coached the girls himself after teaching himself the game via instructional videos. This tension between the carefully crafted game of prestige and the scrappy, can-do attitude of the Williamses played out in myriad ways, some nuanced and some blatant.

The Williams Sisters – Their Rise to Fame

Williams continued to coach the girls, only sending the girls to Brentwood coaches and tennis academies every now and then, and he boldly chose to keep his daughters out of the junior tennis circuits, where products of elite training schools competed for press and notoriety. The Williams Sisters’ sudden appearance on the courts seemed to shock the country club crowd that didn’t seem previously exposed to such… diversity.

They were viewed by some as disrespectful disturbers of the tennis circuit’s norms. Their powerful strength game visibly differed from the precision and speed game the beiger players had meticulously cultivated, and their absence from the prep schools and junior tournaments appeared to confirm their lack of “proper” training and etiquette.

Several platforms sustained efforts to subtly critique sisters’ background, family bond, dress/hair style, athletic strength. The intense media surveillance of them almost seemed determined to “keep an eye” on what was considered a threat. The media tried to downplay the sisters’ major achievements, their contributions to the black community, and their obvious inherent talent. But neither Venus nor Serena made an effort to hide signifiers of black culture and style, like braids, or their cultivation of outside interests, and the black community often voiced praise of the young women who had already broken barriers just by stepping onto those courts and appearing in the news articles which noted black talent, black excellence, and just overall black girl magic.

Even as they faced criticism from their peers for being aloof and daring to pursue educations, they quickly caught Corporate America’s attention and signed lucrative endorsement deals, one with Reebok for $12,000, 000 over five years.

The family continued on The Glow Up (that Concept Formerly Known as The American Dream): Venus was representing international brand, they bought a mansion in Florida with its own tennis courts, and the girls started to attend a noteworthy private school. The Williams were following the footsteps of Althea Gibson, who was the only African-American woman to win a Grand Slam title before Venus and Serena basically won the 90’s – they won their first Doubles title in 1998 and the U.S. Open Doubles title in 1999, the same year Serena defeated longtime champion Martina Hingis to win the U.S. Open Grand Slam. Their international tennis rankings skyrocketed; their investments of time and hard work were finally paying off, and they would eventually continue on to win the 00’s. But performing on a larger stage brought even more visible racist sentiments to the forefront.

Serena, in particular, was routinely attacked for qualities white culture has often attributed to black women. In the 1800s, Saartjie Baartman (“Hottentot Venus”), a South African woman, was brought to London in 1810 as a symbol of racial difference (and the supposed superiority of white beauty) and placed in a circus display alongside conjoined twins, dwarfs, and other alleged “deviants.”

“… Hottentot was assigned the role of a creature bridging human and animal realms” (Strother, 4).

According to their father, the Williams sisters were trained to be “warriors,” “attack dogs.” But the media and several tennis enthusiasts ridiculed and chastised them for their “beast-like” physical appearances, “lewd” athletic wear, and “angry” outbursts. They tended to characterize Serena and Venus using some of the most common stereotypes of black women: overly sexualized women (who chose to wear outfits they liked whether or not those clothes highlighted physical features that tennis viewers were not used to seeing) and angry black women (who dared to express basic human emotions like frustration without wearing a mask to protect the “delicate” sensibilities of an audience famous for its dignified silence and barely audible clapping).

During the 1997 U.S. Open Women’s Singles Semi-Final match between an unseeded Venus and an 11th-seeded Irina Spirlea, both players bumped into each other as they customarily switched sides during a changeover. Williams said neither of them were looking where they were going; Spirlea said she expected Venus to move out of the way.

Venus Williams_Irina Spirlea US Open “Bump”

“She’s not going to turn … I’ve done it all the time, I turn. But she just walks. I wanted to see if she was going to turn. She didn’t.” – Irina Spirlea (This is the clean version of the quote. Make your best guess for which obscenity she used to describe Venus.)

Such inane controversies were veiled attempts to subdue the sisters who would routinely take long breaks from the game, only to come back stronger and more determined to embarrass those who underestimated them.

Venus and Serena continue to raise questions about what it means to be feminine, beautiful, strong, black, successful, wealthy, and sisters; despite their numerous successes, they also unfortunately still encounter racism, forcing them to boycott tournaments and defend themselves when they choose to finally fight  back. Their eagerly and bitterly watched debut in the 90’s served as a harsh reminder that the black athleticism which white audiences celebrated on basketball courts and football fields did not translate to women’s sports, especially one which still requires its players to dress in all white for certain tournaments. But their exuberance in play and dignity in the face of charged attacks and elitist snubbing also won them many fans who finally saw themselves represented in uncharted territory.

— Radhika Nataraj

Works Cited

  • Alexander, Rachel. “Open Final Lands on Venus.” Washington Post, 6 Sept. 1997, p. B1.
  • Bass-Adams, Valerie N., Keisha L. Bentley-Edwards, Howard C. Stevenson. “That Not the Me I see on TV…! African American Youth Interpret Media Images of Black Females.” Women, Gender, and Families of Color, vol. 2, no. 1, 2014, pp. 79-100.
  • Douglas, Delia. “Venus, Serena, and the Inconspicuous Consumption of Blackness: A Commentary on Surveillance, Race Talk, and New Racism(s).” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 43, no. 2, 2012, pp. 127-45.
  • Hobson, Janell. “The ‘Batty’ Politic: Toward an Aesthetic of the Black Female Body.” Hypatia, vol. 18, no. 4, 2003, pp. 87-105.
  • Strother, Z.S. “Display of the body Hottentot.” Africans on Stage, Indiana UP, 1999, pp. 1-
  • Wright, Joshua. “Be Like Mike? The Black Athlete’s Dilemma.” Spectrum: A Journal on Black Men, vol. 4, no. 2, 2016, pp. 1-19.

 

“Do the Bankhead Bounce”: Classic Cookout Dances of the 90s

When I think about my summers in Atlanta, I think about going to various cookouts my parents used to take me and my sister to when we were younger. They were either their close friends or co-workers who always welcomed my family with great BBQ, fun games and plenty of music and dancing. It’s amazing that Black people possess the creativity and dancing skills that shape dance culture in the Hip-Hop world. Some of my favorite dances came from the 90s, especially memories of having booty shaking (aka twerking) battles with my friends at summer camp and trying to do the Tootsee Roll on roller skates.

I’ve always had a love for dancing, so when my favorite song, “C’mon N’ Ride It” by the Quad City DJ’s came on at the cookouts I was ready to show out. I would begin to bounce my shoulders, roll my arms and rock side-to-side in a rhythmic fashion and proceed to ride the train. This dance was closely similar to the popular Southwest Atlanta dance, the Bankhead Bounce originating in the Bankhead neighborhood. The original song that the Bankhead Bonce originated from was performed by an Atlanta rapper named Diamond and featured D-Roc in 1996 [i]. This dance required a rapid shoulder bounce with hands and fist bouncing in front of you from side to side. This dance could have been performed to any southern Hip-Hop song such as A-Town Players, “Wassup Wassup”, 95 South’s “Whoot! There It Is” and TLC’s Waterfalls, which they performed in their music video in 1995 [ii].

Most of my early summers were spent at my local Boys and Girls Club. I had a cool group of girlfriends who were always down to dance. So, when one of the camp counselors brought in their mix city with the latest Hip-Hop songs we would rush to the boom box and dance till our moms came to pick us up. A classic was the 69 Boyz, “Tootsee Roll” which actually peaked at the number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100 Rap chart and number eight on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1994 [iii]. This dance was a more inverted funky chicken, which one would wind their knees inward while doing a dip. We also enjoyed the butterfly—similar to the Tootsee Roll, Da Dip by Freak Nasty and any other song that provided us instructions to shake our hips or drop it low.

As a young Black girl, I wasn’t aware of why I was shaking my butt at the young age of eight but similar to the women who were getting’ down at Freaknik or Black Bike Week it was a fun dance to do and you couldn’t resist the beat of the music. Growing up in the era of 2 Live Crew and Uncle Luke, or hearing songs that tell you to “Back that azz up” it’s a dance move that’s hard to refuse. When me and my friends or cousins got together at a family cookout hearing Juvenile’s “Back That Azz Up” really took over for the ’99 and the ’00. With its sexually explicit lyrics demanding listeners to back their ass up on the rapper himself, this song defiantly is a cultural favorite and can still be heard on your local HBCU campus and neighborhood cookouts.

The beauty about Hip-Hop is that it has the ability to make listeners feel good and bring people together to have a good time. I have many great memories as I reflect on the times when I used to dance to these songs. Now that I’m older the songs and the dances are quite nostalgic and take me to a place where I remember eating saucy ribs and burgers, smelling hot links on the grill, and bouncy houses in the backyard. Importantly, these dances are still remembered today and when played at parties or clubs now, me and my girls will still get low and do the Tootsee Roll and twerk to Uncle Luke’s “Cap D Comin’”. I just hope that this new generation of Hip-Hop dances continues to provide the same nostalgic memories and blissful feelings that we all grew up with in the 90s. —Adeerya J.

Citations

[i]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bankhead_Bounce

[ii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/95_South

[iii]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tootsee_Roll

 

 

Afrocentricity: A Commentary

In our discussion of 90s Black experiences and cultural expressions, the concept of Sankofa is important to consider for both reflection and analysis. Sankofa is a Twi term from the Akan peoples of mainly Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, West Africa. The word is a verb meaning “to go back and fetch:” to retrieve important items previously lost, forgotten or stolen. In the context of one’s culture, the idea of Sankofa requires one to both re-learn and adapt crucial skills, collective understandings and overall lessons from his or her ancestors. From this process, it is understood that the person who does the “fetching” receives the power from those “items” of knowledge. The ultimate goal of this retrieval is for one to then project themselves and their descendants into the future, working from informed positions of self-reflection, self-knowledge and self-determination.

For African Americans, in-depth studies of both our historical and current experiences in this country reveal ongoing, consistent reenactments of this Sankofa concept. Documentation of developments in our music, education, fashion, social arenas, family practices – and more – prove our active revitalization and reincorporation of the ways of our ancestors: in Africa, the United States, the Caribbean, South America…wherever people of African descent landed globally, by force or by choice.  Our cultural expressions reveal the agency exhibited in sampling, remixing or reinventing what we have learned for practical application in modern times.

From this position, I wanted to tackle the concept of Afrocentricity – which as a term became prominent in the 1980s and 90s. There are many conflicting interpretations of this term, and its often conflated with Afrocentrism, African-centered thought, “Afro-“ vs. “Afri-”, and so on. This happens to the point where the idea of someone being “Afrocentric” entails a host of stereotypical tropes, caricaturing and misunderstandings. This is particularly evident in popular media of this time, as well as public reaction in many Black communities. 90s film characters like “Ahmal” in Sister Act 2, Damon Wayans’ “Conscious Brother” in “In Living Color” episodes, the dreadlocked player on A Different World, and many other examples would depict a kufi-and/or-dashiki-wearing individual spouting random historic statements about “The Pyramids”, ”the white man” or “Shaka Zulu.” Dressed in kente, mismatched colors and military-like gear, this type character would often act in arrogant, misinformed behaviors, which would ultimately isolate them from the larger Black community.

These tropes are a testament to the simplified nature of discussions and expressions relating to what are considered Afrocentric theories and praxis. For some it’s wearing traditional African clothing, for others it’s adopting African names – or also re-identifying with an African ethnic group or spiritual system. For many, its academic scholarship: focusing on prioritized pre-colonial African historical periods deemed “classical” or “enlightened” – above any other cultural expressions or achievements of any other group of people in the world. Conversely, many researchers of African and African Diasporic value systems, knowledge bases and cultures have sought to identify common threads amongst these intricate systems, in an attempt to create blueprints for strategic unification, productive cultural alliances, and community building for liberation and ultimate sovereignty. All of the actions mentioned in this paragraph are interlinked, and are products of individuals making either informed or uninformed choices to change their lives in a way that reconnects them to a cultural source. At the same time, we need to continuously reevaluate our ideas, and challenge ourselves to avoid recreating limiting, dogmatic or one-dimensional systems of cultural expression – where one organization deems themselves “more African” or “more Afrocentric” than the next, based on attire, ideology, spiritual practices, how many visits to Africa they made or how many books they’ve read on Black history.

In looking at the long history of our people in this country, and in the African Diaspora, we have infinite examples of resistance to oppression, reapplication of cultural expressions and innovative methods of growth and renewal. Viewing them all as equally important to consider keeps us from developing an essentialist trait of prioritizing some experiences over others: resulting in an Afrocentric definition that may confine, stereotype and simplify. In the United States, the respect-based process of learning about our families, communities and their solution-building strategies has helped us to overcome all obstacles to survive and go forward. This empowers us to progress with the informed appreciation and application of our African retentions, forms of knowledge and practices. Kweku Vassall

RANT WARNING! lol: <I would also like to challenge this idea of one being “conscious,” a popular phrase in Black communities in relation to African-centered or Afrocentric thought. Conscious is often said as if all that needs to be learned has been learned – or that there’s this class of enlightened people who know-what-they-don’t-know-their-neighbor-also-knows, because one is so busy being “more informed”. Not to negate people coming to important realizations, BUT knowledge of oneself also deals with positive relationships with others, implementing practical solutions to problems, adapting in various environments and creating new knowledge to fit one’s current situation – all things Black people of all walks of life and ideologies have accomplished. This idea that a few are “awake” and the majority are “asleep” works within this larger misconception that up until recent years Black people were ignorant, chitlin-eatin (non-vegetarian) slaves who couldn’t observe their environments enough to notice oppression, or were disconnected from their ancestors and relatives to point where they had no appreciation for the family values and principles for survival passed down for their benefit. Our grandmothers and grandfathers may have experienced hell (in various class statuses and locations, obvious and hidden torments included), but at the same time, honoring our African ancestors teaches us that the experiences of our most recent African American relatives are valid and worthy or respect, honor and consideration. We should see them as active participants, not passive bystanders, in our history and cultural development. This is true especially considering the marginalization and oppression they faced, how they either thrived or psychologically crumbled as a result, and the sacrifices they all made for us to both be here AND have the privilege to operate in learning spaces to obtain further knowledge that was often hidden from them. It would behoove us to look back to the important information they knew, which can help us even more to face our current reality.>

The 90s Kente Aesthetic

Image from http://www.projectbly.com/destinations/kumasi/meet

The type of cloth we know as “Kente” originated in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, West Africa. Kente was/is mainly created by the Asante and the Ewe peoples, descending from the ancient empires of Ghana, Mali and Songhai from before the 15th century. These empires were located in the general area from the West African coast to as far north as Mali, and as far west as Chad. According to historian Herbert M. Cole, author of Icons: Ideals and Power in African Art (Smithsonian Institution publication), the term Kente may be a corruption of the Fanti word for “basket” – alluding to the hand-weaving process. Cole goes on to explain that only males create the long strips, on an intricate loom. Each design has a distinct name, with proverbs associated with particular patterns – wearing particular colors and shapes sends specific messages you want viewers to understand. Among the Asante and Ewe, kente was often associated with and reserved for chieftains and royal figures – fabric trades with Europeans provided materials for locals to rework into traditional designs. Unlike the 1980s and 90s, kente wasn’t originally sewn into garments for everyday wear (Cole 1990). This historical perspective gives greater context to the recent boom in kente cloth wear, and the newer ideas associated with these designs.

I can’t think of the 1990s without thinking of Kente. I remember being 6-7 years old and going to an independent school called Lotus Academy in Philadelphia. In our yearly closing graduation, students would wear kente sashes, kufis, bow ties and skirts for girls. We would march in the auditorium to Freedom Songs, chants of encouragements originally sung during the Civil Rights Movement. For us, and our parents, the colorful print cloth represented our link to the Motherland, to Africa: ideas of glory, achievement, kings and queens, and societal stability before enslavement/colonization. Wearing kente symbolized that we were continuations of these ideas, the charge that we could reinvent and achieve greatness as our ancestors did. This expression really took hold in popular culture, particularly with the continued rise of several elements:

…hip hop, with recording artists like Queen Latifah, Heavy D & The Boyz, Salt n Pepa (those kente hats!), other artists and fans who sported Cross Colours garb…

…the highlighting and celebration of black college campus culture, with kente prints as iconic motifs for newly-launched Black Studies program materials, “Class of 199_” sashes for African American Studies majors, and the like. With this imagery in academia, Black students tied this tradition to the charge to represent one’s family, community and ancestry – to learn about their past to create new solutions for the modern era.

…African motifs in television and mass media: Michael Jackson dons kente and stands with chiefs in Cote D’Ivoire in 1992. In 1998, President Bill and Hillary Clinton display their kente print during their Ghana visit. Black sitcoms, performances and Kwanzaa specials frequently featured characters who were up on the latest trends, wearing dashikis, kufis, lappas (waistwraps) and headwraps.

…Craft activity books for Black children: With Black history at the fore of many grassroots published workbooks, handouts, coloring books and illustrated stories for children, Kente symbolizes variety and diversity within the Black family and community. This larger theme is evident in a recent Ladybug magazine entry: an arts and crafts project of picture frame decoration. Colors and shapes in Kente are used to prompt young readers to think about the unity in difference amongst their own family members (Kapp 2007). Kente Colors, written by Debbi Chocolate and illustrated by John Ward, introduces small children to their basic colors – matched with poetry and elaborate illustrations of West African life scenes and kente-weaving (Chocolate 1997).

…African inspirations in high fashion and streetwear magazines – where it was often called “ethnic print” or “mustard” cloth. Adidas came out with a brand of kente cloth sneakers – to match the widespread popularity of “conscious” Black History t-shirts and sweaters. For high fashion tastes, prints were incorporated into elaborate dress patterns, tuxedoes, blazers and hats. In a 1990 edition of Black Collegian, Julia Wilson presents a spread featuring hot, new gear on the market. In her section “ Looking Good: Back-To-School with Ethnic Pride”, she notes the following:

“Historians have documented African culture in fashion from the Ashanti to the Zulu peoples. This gives all of us descendants a renewed sense of self in historical terms and inspirational knowledge of where creation began in the first place. From the mustard colored kente cloth being copied today by leading designers to braided and dreadlocked hairstyles, African people have – since the beginning of time – been at the center and forefront of fashion styles – passing along their zest for life through their creations.” (Wilson 1990)

Building on this quote, further interesting positions on this topic are presented by Cole, who posits that:

“..African Americans are now designing cloths, creating outfits, and marketing fashions that owe much to Africa, yet are not, in fact, African. The sensibilities in the Kente adaptations are modern and American-African-American. Surely it is appropriate for Americans whose ancestors lived in Africa, some in Ghana and Togo, to modify and celebrate a powerful African artistic tradition.” (Cole 1990)

Reflections on the popularity of kente raise a need for further analysis. A few questions surface with regards to this phenomenon in the 1990s. What can we learn about instances of cultural and symbolic appropriation with regards to African Americans adoption and revitalization of kente’s use? Is appropriation a valid term to even apply, given a broader question of identity – what is African culture? Who can access it? Can there even be a sole authentic African culture, or correct, authentic cultural elements? I couldn’t possibly answer these questions with this entry. However, I hope this discussion continues with folks to add their insight from both history and personal experience. Kweku Vassall

 

Works Cited

Chocolate, D. (1996). Kente Colors. New York, NY: Walker and Company.

Cole, Herbert. M. (1990). Kente: A Meaningful Tradition in Cloth. American Visions, 5(5).

Kapp, Jody. (2007). Kente Cloth Frame. Ladybug (Magazine), 17(7), 37.

Wilson, Julia. A. (1990). Looking Good: Back-To-School With Ethnic Pride. Black Collegian, 21(1), 24.