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Muzing New Hoods, Making New IdentiTies
Film, Hip-Hop Culture, and Jazz Music
We make our lives in identifications with the texts around us everyday.
Anahid Kassabian, Hearing Film Music
The medium of film has communicated, shaped, reproduced and challenged various notions of black subjectivity in 20th century America since D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation appeared in 1915. Writing in 1949, Ralph Ellison argued that Birth of a Nation "forged the twin screen image of the Negro as bestial rapist and grinning, eye-rolling clown--stereotypes that are still with us today" (Ellison 275). Such depictions in cinema had already existed in print media; and they have persisted in all mass-mediated contexts in varying degrees throughout the century. Film, however, has provided a most salient medium for the visual representation of African American subjects. If, as Manthia Diawara has argued, the camera is, "the most important invention of modern time," then it becomes an even more powerful tool when its technology is combined with the powers of music. Indeed, when filmmakers combine cinematic images and musical gestures they unite two of our most compelling modes of perception: the visual and the aural.
Below I consider two films produced during the Age of Hip Hop: Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing (1989) and Theodore Witcher's Love Jones (1997). 1 On an immediate level, I am interested how music shapes the way we perceive these cinematic narratives individually; how music informs the way audiences experience their characters, locations, and plots. But I am also making a larger argument for how the musical scores of these films are sites for the negotiation of personal identity and self-fashioning on the one hand, and the making and negotiation of group identity, on the other. Both of these activities inform "meaning" in important ways. Jazz music, in these films generally serves as a foil to hip hop music, which the directors use as the primary musical index for the black "authentic" subject. While the use of jazz in these three films may be comparatively minor, a discussion of it is instructive about the developing meanings of various black musical styles.
Below, I address several questions with regard to this cinematic function of music in hip-hop film. What role does musical discourse play in cinematic representation? If one of the primary thrusts of black cultural production has been the resistance to [End Page 309] and countering of negative black stereotypes forwarded since Birth of a Nation, how does the musical score of the film participate in this agenda? How does the score, in fact, score or artistically (re)invent a black cinematic nation? The musical scores of Do the Right Thing and Love Jones provides excellent examples of the fluidity and contestation embedded in the notion "black identity," a topic that had become such a compelling one for theoretical, political, and artistic reflection in the late 20th century. Before moving to the music in these films, I need to address an important topic raised in most discussions of them: the degree to which they accurately portray an "authentic" black cultural experience.
Keeping it Reel:
Diversity, Authenticity, and the Hip-Hop Muze
Hip hop culture has taken on the profile of a cottage industry because of aggressive corporate commodification. The postindustrial decline of United States urban centers, a downward turn that ironically spawned hip hop's developments, has been co-opted by corporate America and represented as a glossy, yet gritty complex of music idioms, sports imagery, fashion statements, racial themes, danger, and pleasure. While history shows us the persistence of the exploitation of African American culture in the United States, hip hop represents an exemplary case in this regard. As the historian Robin D.G. Kelley writes, "few employment opportunities for African-Americans and a white consumer market eager to be entertained by the Other, blacks have historically occupied a central place in the popular culture industry" (Kelley 46). Kelley argues further that
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