Hip hop’s history abounds with fat, thick, full-bodied figures. From women pioneers such as Heather B, Missy Elliot, and Queen Latifah to groups like the Fat Boys and solo acts including Heavy D, Fat Joe, Big Pun, Big Boi, Bone Crusher, and the Notorious B.I.G., big, black and brown bodies have occupied a salient if unspoken centrality in the evolution of hip hop’s culture and poetics. The differences between and among these acts are profuse; gender and ethnic disparities, stylistic diversions, target audience markets, and more distinguish each of these artists, as does the extent to which the spectacle of fatness figures as part of their creative personae.
Of this limited roll call of corpulent rappers, it’s the earlier names—the women—around whom rumors of queerness and same-sex erotics have circulated. Speculation about rapper Missy Elliott’s sexual relationship with R&B singer and label mate Tweet; the excitement over rapper-turned-Cover Girl Queen Latifah’s misreported coming out in June 2012; and the ample word-of-mouth that has swirled about old-school hip hopper Heather B’s relationships with women for decades1 all highlight the function of queerness and queer optics in understanding both hip hop celebrity and hip hop corporeality. That these are women achieving economic and cultural capital in one of America’s many masculinist, heteropatriarchal industries upsets gender norms and no doubt contributes to the rhetoric of nonnormativity that surrounds them. Yet what does it mean that these figures depart not only from economic and gender norms, but also from norms of bodily shape and size?
This paper considers the links between fatness, blackness, and queerness on the terrain of late-twentieth-century hip hop culture. Examining the poetic and iconographic resonances of queerness and fatness in 1990s hip hop allows us [End Page 200] to parse out connections between these alterities, and to examine the nuanced ways in which difference functions in twentieth- and twenty-first-century American culture. If fatness bears some unspoken link to queerness for rappers like Elliot and Latifah, whose corpulence remains decidedly unarticulated in their names and in much of their work, where do we find the link between fatness and queerness for those other rappers who do claim bodily profusion as part of their brand and spectacle? How does hip hop queer fat bodies, and what can the queer corpulences of hip hop tell us about anti-normative theorizing?
Corpulent rappers such as Latifah, Elliot, and the Notorious B.I.G. highlight the intersections of fatness, blackness, and queerness, and throw into relief the need for greater dialogue among queer studies and fat studies, particularly on the grounds of black cultural production. They illustrate the many ways in which fatness and hip hop embodiments are both legible in terms of queerness. I define “queer” through Cathy Cohen’s notion of the term as a collectivizing identifier in which sexual difference is inextricable from racial, ethnic, class, and other social nonnormativities. Queerness, here, is not limited to nonnormative sexual practice, but, rather, is defined by larger identifications with difference, in which, as Cohen suggests, “the nonnormative and marginal position of punks, bulldaggers and welfare queens,” emblems of multiple forms of subjugation, desubjectivation, and alterity, form “the basis for progressive transformative coalition.”2
Works by Eve Sedgwick, Michael Moon, Marilyn Wann, Kathleen LeBesco, and others examine the place of fatness on the map of human alterities, charting what Sedgwick and Moon call “the closet of size” and its impact on fat spectacle, hypervisibility, and invisibility.3 As Elena Levy Navarro points out, accepted historical and medical narratives are “used to debase the nonnormative, including the transgendered, the lesbian, the queer, and the fat.”4 And, in the context of American cultural production, fatness, like queerness, is a difference to be un-spoken, un-done, erased from the record; as D. Lacy Asbill points out, simply “being fat and positively sexual is radical in a culture thoroughly inculcated with sexism and anti-fat prejudice.”5
Viewed through a black queer feminist lens, this connection between fatness and queerness articulates...