[A] beginning immediately establishes relationships with works already existing, relationships of either continuity or antagonism or some mixture of both. But the moment we start to detail the features of a beginning—a moment likely to occur in examining many sorts of writers—we necessarily make certain special distinctions. Is a beginning the same as an origin?. … Of what value, for critical or methodological or even historical analysis is, “the beginning”? By what sort of approach, with what kind of language, with what sort of instruments does a beginning offer itself up as a subject for study?—Edward Saïd, Beginnings: Intention and Method
Whenever exception—as in “a special issue”—frames the context of scholarly inquiry it’s important to ask about what’s different.—Dána-Ain Davis, Shaka McGlotten, and Vanessa Agard-Jones, “No Beached Whales”
The papers featured in this special issue are drawn from the one-day symposium, “The Queerness of Hip Hop/The Hip Hop of Queerness,” held at Harvard University. When Scott and I began writing the call for a conference [End Page vi] to explore the relationships between queer theory and hip hop studies, we never believed that one scholarly enterprise was needed to recuperate the other. Steeped as we are in both fields, we came to this idea of organizing a venue to think hip hop queerly and figure queerness through the idioms of hip hop’s diasporic vernacularities as an exercise that would generate frameworks, which would exceed the sum of its parts. We hoped—and in some small part, suspected—that issuing a call focused around questions that explored hip hop’s queer historiography, aesthetics, and iconography would be well received. Hip hop’s sonic promiscuity wantonly invites queer rumination just as queer theory’s fascination with ephemeral culture has made room for critical thinking about the queer affects produced in such fleeting moments as when the DJ transitions to the next hip hop track.
We saw the conference as a way to stage an encounter—a more formal meeting—between two fields that had already made each other’s acquaintance. Eschewing the language of inauguration, we saw the symposium as an opportunity to collect our inheritance, enriched by the generations of scholars trained in critical methodologies in queer, critical race, feminist, and cultural studies and nursed on hip hop’s at times resonant and sometimes dissonant lyricism and performance. Throughout the day, established and emerging scholars presented at the nexus of the two fields—while also drawing on other theories of difference to engage questions of diaspora, capitalism, and respectability politics from careful analysis of sites as varied as Freaknik, Toronto’s hip hop karaoke scene, and the professional basketball court.
What we have assembled here are essays and short meditations from our plenary members that represent some of the discussion that began on September 21, 2012. Mindful of Saïd’s reflections on the possibilities and pitfalls that accompany the logics of beginnings and heeding what Davis, McGlotten, and Agard-Jones describe as the particular sensibility of the “special issue,” we offer up this collection of long and short-form essays as one might release a mixtape. And like the mixtape, each track proceeds at its own tempo, exhibiting unbridled methodological dispositions that at once read as ethnographic and literary, historical, and sociological. The practice of citationality exhibited across the texts/tracks—from Audre Lorde to Gilles Deleuze, from 2 Chainz to Gladys Bentley—mirrors the kind of layering, sampling, and postmodern pastiche that characterizes hip hop’s distinctive sound and queer theory’s post-structuralist theoretical toolkit. Some essays, such as Sharon Holland’s for example, take up what Murray Forman refers to as the “extreme local,”1 writing on the experience of watching a show in Bynum, North Carolina, while others explore the transnational circuits of hip hop’s queer and trans receptivities. As Paul Gilroy noted in his influential essay, “Talking seriously about the politics and aesthetics of black vernacular cultures demands a confrontation with the order of ‘intra-racial’ differences. These may be to do with class, gender, sexuality or other factors, but they...