I am a Houstonian, born and raised. My childhood, teenage years, and college days (Texas A&M University) covered four periods of hip-hop history—the old school, golden age, modern, and bling bling. Though Houston hip-hop culture has its beginnings in the early 1980s—because of its systems of support that included large clubs (Struts, Boneshakers, and Rhinestone Wrangler which held more than 1000 people per night and hosted battle rap contests where many artist got their start before professionalizing the culture), a college radio station that played hip-hop long before hip-hop radio stations existed (Kidz Jamm on TSU’s KTSU), and its large consumer base that was the number one market for hip-hop music for much of the late 80’s and early 90s (Soundwaves, Rap Pool of America – Steve Fournier) and later because of the success of the Geto Boys and Rap-A-Lot Records—,Houston did not have a distinct sound until the mid-1990s when DJ Screw’s (Robert Earl Davis, Jr.) folk musical practices, chopped and screwed, began to spread across the world. I was in high school at that time. I began to listen to DJ Screw “grey tapes” (mixtapes on grey Maxwell tapes) in the summer of 1994, and two years later I began to listen to DJ Michael “5000”Watts versions of this distinct music form. I am a north sider, (from Greenspoint and Acres Homes) so my music collection soon contained more Michael Watts tapes and CDs. This was one of the music forms of my high school years and it was the form that many of us attempted emulate (imma come done, imma come through, its dat boy Maco jamming on da screw) in our school gyms, lunch tables, at bus stops (for me the 44 Acres Homes bus route), or at our makeshift studios in our homes (for me it was the one that my boy Pistol bootlegged). Those who became successful at it were people like Roderick and Broderick Brown, who would later be known as 50/50 twin and a few others who I went to high school with (Eisenhower High School.)
I am also an emerging social and cultural historian who studies hip-hop and who has a book coming out later this year about the early years of Houston’s hip-hop culture (Hip Hop in Houston: The Origin and Legacy (History Press). Hence, I am really close to the chopped and screwed form, southern drawls, minimalist lyrics, raps about candy painted cars, raps about grills, raps about material possessions, raps about drank, etc. because it’s part of my coming of age lived experience. This music, from this culture, in this city is also a discursive space to understand a particular space and place within hip-hop culture and America during a particular time. (See the DJ Screw Digital Archive at the University of Houston’s Special Collection Library, my boy Langston Wilkins‘ blog and my girl Regina Bradley’s latest blog “I Been On (Ratchet): Conceptualizing a Sonic Ratchet Aesthetic in Beyonce’s ‘Bow Down’” for a another look at this aesthetic and its discursive uses.)
At the same time that the chopped and screwed trajectory of Houston hip-hop came around, a group of young women from Houston (north and south side) were in their embryonic developmental stages getting ready to tell the world “No, No, No, No, No, and Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes!” These young women, Destiny’s Child, were distinctly Houston, yet selling their art to a international consumer base. And though all of them, like me, have grown up, developed new sounds and new tastes, had kids, married, been married, been engaged, and hung out with dignitaries, they are still grounded in the various contexts of what it means to be a Houstonian, particularly a black Houstonian navigating through urban, working, and middle class life.
As the world knows, Beyoncé Knowles, was a member of that group. At various times in her career she has reminded the world that she is from Houston (see Check On It featuring Slim Thug and Bun B (2006)). But I think on Sunday, when she dropped her latest song “Bow Down/I Been On,” she truly represented Houston because the song’s content and instrumentation is minimalist, braggadocious, chopped and screwed, talks about Houston’s car culture (leather and wood) and shout out laden (Frenchy’s Chicken, Willie D, Pimp C, UGK.) Yet, this is what critics seem to dislike about her latest artistic showing and I don’t get it (but I really do.)
Before I am accused of overlooking her use of the word bitch: I heard it, it threw me off for a second, I questioned it as a budding male feminist and someone who loves discourse theory (in a foucauldian type of way), I have analyzed it numerous times, and I’ve concluded that I don’t see it as anti-feminist. Some would say that my male privilege precludes me from seeing the song as anti-feminist, maybe, but I also listen to and critique the music and culture paradigmatically instead of syntagmatically (thanks to Dr. Finnie Coleman); therefore, I see the many layers of the song. I hesitantly suggest that her use of the word bitch could be directed toward an invisible other or invisible hater. Not to take the symbolism, history, and power away from bitch, but could the bitch that Beyoncé refers to be the same bitch that her husband spoke of in his song 99 Problems, not a woman, but an other who attempts to hate on her being and progress? (See Sesali Bowen’s piece, “Why Beyonce’s “Bow Down” is not anti-feminist” for a better critique of why it the song is not anti-feminist and see Rahiel Tesfamariam’s piece on why it is, “Beyonce sabotages her female empowerment efforts with ‘Bow Down’”)
I digress on this point because there are others better trained in feminist theory who can and have waxed on this better than I can or have.
But to my real point, the hating on this song because of its style really hits home, and pisses me off. Sorry, but I do take it personal because Houston hip-hop culture and southern hip-hop culture are consistently and historically othered. Even though most of the top hip-hop songs today have some type of screwed break or modulate a southern style, we still gets no respect. Most of the historical and media narratives about hip-hop culture, including the most recent hip-hop documentary,-Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap, present East Coast and West Coast as hip-hop’s universal identity, with everything else presented as subaltern and other. This has made it easy for hip-hop purist and hip-hop old heads to argue that hip-hop was dead when the Southern trajectory of the culture began to take over the commercial radio airwaves and dominate sales within hip-hop and pop culture. (I talk more about this in my book.) But this type of hate also fits within the southern imaginary, that is the ways in which much of America views the South or Houston as slow, country, backwards, un-cultured, and other. To this, Willie D. rapped,in 1989, on the Geto Boys’ single Do It Like a G.O., “The East Coast ain’t playin our songs, I wanna know what the hell’s goin on/Gimme my card, radio sucker, I’ll kick your ass and take the motherfucker/Everybody know New York is where it began
So let the ego shit end.” And Pimp C shouted, on Big Pimpin, “Uhhh, now what y’all know bout them Texas boys, Comin down in candied toys, smokin weed and talkin noise!”
Many of the critiques about the style of the song lack context, and like Beyonce’s husband (Jay-Z) argued in his videoed chat with Cornel West and Paul Holdengräber (Decoded: Jay-Z in Conversation with Cornel West, chapter 3) “anything, any lyric, or any music without context is a lie.” I argued in an earlier Facebook post that Beyoncé, and any other artist, must be understood in context, particularly the space and place contexts that formed them. Therefore, the song, on two levels (content and instrumentation) has to be understood within a Houston, TX, chopped and screwed, 1990s urban experience context. To call it garbage, is to call the culture which it represents garbage, and I am not having that, because I am not garbage and the other people who identify with the space and place that she refers to in the song are not garbage.
It’s funny that so many people have made money off of this garbage, without due respect. It’s really funny that the number one song in the nation Suit & Tie, by Justin Timberlake featuring Jay-Z, is chopped and screwed, but no one has a problem with that. Yes, it has more content, but it does appropriate a sound, in the intro and for the bridge, that is uniquely Houston. It’s odd to me that a white male pop-star (with the help of Jay-Z (the husband, and…) can appropriate this form and go number one, but a native plays around with it and she is denigrated and demonized. Come on!
Today feminist scholar, Dr. Brittney Cooper of THE CRUNK FEMINIST COLLECTIVE beautifully and poignantly argued on her Facebook page today that:
It is so interesting that Bey invokes so many strong opinions. I am convinced that has more to do with our own internal conflicts and contradictions than anything to do with her. I take the latest song to be not a statement for or against feminism. It is meant to be playful, to mix things up, to get a little ratchet (gully, gutta, etc), and to shout out her Houston hip hop roots. That folks are acting like they don’t ever act ratchet is the height of bourgeoisie pretension. To that I say \_ \_ \_. As someone who insists, despite my feminist professor life, on bumping the most ratchet Southern hip hop I can find on a very regular basis, and in fact consider it my cultural right and prerogative to do so since Dirty South rap is what I loved as a teenager (much like Bey), I seriously ain’t got no time for folks who are trippin. This is not the thing to trip about. Seriously.
I concur because I think that most of our diatribes against entertainers (and sometimes politicians) have more to do with our own internal conflicts and contradictions—we want them to represent something better than what we are, something that we wish them to be for our own sakes, but we sure as hell don’t want them to be who they uniquely are as artists and humans.
Beyoncé, an international icon that represents a particular brand and is consumed as an object, is an artist from a particular space and place, a space and place that needs to be understood to understand some of her work, particularly this latest one. Not doing so is bad analyzing and critiquing, and maybe just good ole hating.
Full Disclosure: I am a board member for the Bread of Life, Inc. an organization that Beyonce, Destiny’s Child, The Survivor Foundation, and her family has supported for a number of years.