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Hip Hop and the Black Ratchet Imagination
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Most recently, Cathy Cohen’s Democracy Remixed has eloquently captured how multiple moral panics about hip hop shape black politics, and so it seems necessary to make more comprehensible the nature of hip hop as a movement with different aims and levels. As with most black liberation movements, we must consider the above ground and below ground tactics. Hip hop traffics in above ground and below ground actions. Such fluidity might be best read through the lens of queerness. Queer studies and queer theory enable a conversation about space and place in hip hop that is less about origins and dispersal shaped by race and nation, as Murray Forman theorizes in “Represent: Race, Space, and Place in Rap Music.” Instead, it helps us consider the nook and cranny spaces of transitional bodies and public spheres as well as moves us away from a privileging of forms and mediums such as music, dance, graffiti, deejaying, and fashion in these discussions. This same privileging of forms has contributed to the proliferation of a gender hierarchy since they are susceptible to commodification by corporations that divest hip hop of all its queerness. Hip hop has been used in ways that belie its misogynist, homophobic, sexist tag when it is centered on transitional bodies in transitional spaces, rather than a fixed body in transitional spaces. Hip hop is black funk’s intervention on Greek and Roman eros. In Sylvia Wynter’s parlance, it unmakes the imperialist project of Western modernity, the order of knowledge, and its overrepresentation of man.

Taking my cue from Freedom Dreams: Black Radical Imagination , in which Robin D. G. Kelley insists that “surrealism recognizes that any revolution must begin with thought, with how we imagine a New World, with how we reconstruct our social and individual relationships, with unleashing our desire and unfolding a new future on the basis of love and creativity rather than rationality….[W]e must break with the current injunction to ‘keep it real” (193), I invoke a similar call for the Black Ratchet Imagination.

The queerness of hip hop demands that we better comprehend how the Black Ratchet Imagination, its unreality and performance of failure, is a vital part of the below ground movement. When André Breton, Salvador Dali, and Aimé Césaire promote experimental writing, spontaneously writing without censoring thought, tapping into the subconscious to unleash the power of the imagination, and deal in myth and primitivism, they are perceived as participants in one of the most influential movements of all time. When certain segments of the hip hop community do so, they are positioned as cooning and devolving into minstrelsy. Far from still being about black authenticity and keeping it real, this present phase of hip hop interrupts the order of knowledge and eros with antiwork activities, posthuman subjectivity, and postwork imagination.

The words of Issa Rae’s J in the Web series Awkward Black Girl , Judith Halberstam, and C. Riley Snorton provide us with the foresight to see how valuable the Black Ratchet Imagination can be, especially with regard to gender and sexuality. Ratchet has been defined as foolish, ignorant, ho’ishness, ghetto, and a dance. It is the performance of the failure to be respectable, uplifting, and a credit to the race, as opposed to the promotion of failure or respectability that is important here. In The Queer Art of Failure , Halberstam suggests that “under certain circumstances failing, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing may in fact offer more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world” (2). Freeky Deeky writer Hal Bennett would call it undoing the sense of being a consciousness. Even if we believe that Tyga, Hurricane Chris, and YG aren’t the best rappers, their performance of the failure to uplift does lead others to create something more “useful” in other transitional spaces.

In an episode from season 1 of Awkward Black Girl (ABG ), J insists to herself, “Rap and poetry had a baby named spoken word. I wish I could abort that baby.” These words capture the queer art of hip hop’s performance of the failure to be respectable. The irony, hilariousness, and brilliance of the line would be lost had...

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