- Trafficking in Monikers:Jay-Z’s “Queer” Flow
Around the year 1977, the late poet Audre Lorde began to introduce herself at poetry readings as a “black, lesbian, feminist, mother poet warrior.” According to Alexis De Veaux in Warrior Poet, her biography of Lorde, fellow poet June Jordan was disturbed, in particular, by Lorde’s need to articulate her lesbian identity, because “she felt distanced from Lorde’s complex definitions as more than black.” Lorde’s choice of a complex identity, rooted in her blackness, is something she began to grapple with in her youth in relation to her Caribbean roots. De Veaux suggests that “Lorde was to become ‘a living philosopher’ whose social consciousness was articulated through constant intellectual shape-shifting as she came to view herself as representative of multiple oppressed communities—identities that were at once externally static and internally fluid” and perhaps even embodied in identities as seemingly disparate as “nigger” and “lesbian.”
Lorde’s conceptualization of a complex black identity was fully articulated in her book Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. According to De Veaux, Zami “originated a new discursive space for more complex renderings of black women’s lives.… With this reframed identity at its center … Zami posed Lorde’s identity and sexuality as fluid aspects of her transnational blackness, rooted both in migration between ‘there’ and ‘here’ and in the ‘there’.” Zami, both as concept and biomythography, was as De Veaux asserts, a “response to an absence or negation of black lesbian narratives. It became a testament to her own life, to loving, to the women who’d nourished her essential ways.” At the center of Zami was the figure of Afrekete, who Lorde describes in the book’s epilogue as the “mischievous linguist, trickster, best beloved, whom we must all become.”
Nearly twenty years after the publication of Zami, Jay-Z taped a performance eventually broadcast as part of MTV’s Unplugged series. Sitting on a stool, [End Page 156] wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt and jokingly referring to the session as “Jay-Z’s poetry reading,” Jay-Z begins his performance by stating that “I go by a couple of names … sometimes they call me Jay-Z, sometimes they call me Jigga, sometimes they call me young hov’ [Iceberg], tonight I’m ‘H to the Izzo, V to the Izza’ [sung by vocalist Jaguar Wright].” Here Jay-Z articulates what has been a time-tested practice in hip hop—that of the multiple persona. But whereas most hip hop artists simply adopt alternative personas, often referencing underground drug lords or fictional Mafioso figures, Jay-Z created a complex “hip hop” identity that speaks to concepts such as fluidity, mobility, and social capital. Christopher Holmes Smith suggests that among so-called hip hop moguls, including Jay-Z, a “major aspect of the mogul’s utopian sense of freedom is one of identity shifting, or at the least, identity layering.” Smith adds that “while hip hop moguls can never be said to deny their racial and ethnic heritage, they are encouraged to use the material aspects of gangster social formations … to expand the options for social performativity normally afforded blacks or Latinos.” Journalists, who are often enamored with the ease with which hip hop moguls seem to negotiate their commercial personas and their real identities, reinforce Holmes’s point. As Lorraine Ali observed of Jay-Z, “[H]e even raps in his own natural speaking voice—unlike almost any rapper you can think of. It’s not that there’s no distinction between the star and the man—it’s that he navigates between them so gracefully.” This collapsing of stage(d) personas and “real” identities among some hip hop figures plays into the desires of audiences concerned with notions of authenticity; “Are these cats for real?”
Theorist Ronald A. T. Judy defines authenticity in hip hop as “adaptation to the force of commodification.” Notions of “adaptability” and “fungibility” are economically expressed within hip hop discourse via a term such as “flow,” which references not only a technical proficiency at reciting lyrics but the global circulation of hip hop culture. In a telling and at times...