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  • Hip Hop, Pleasure, and its Fulfillment
  • Jayna Brown (bio)

I love hip hop for its irreverence and its misbehavior. I love it for its bad manners and its immorality, its lack of respectability or restraint, for its illicit embrace of overabundance and excess. I love the way it rejects bourgeois happiness and the boring qualities of moderation, discipline and self-denial that are its necessary terms. Since hip hop means a lot of different things at different times for different people, I’ll be specific; I’m speaking of the raunchy, hedonistic mix, the down and dirty tracks, the sexually explicit originals, not the cleaned versions. These are the versions I’m not supposed to like. I’m not an apologist for the reactionary narratives often at the surface of these tunes, a layer sometimes too thick for me to enjoy the track. But there is often an excess, a surfeit of pleasure that cannot be policed, and that’s what I dance to.

These lascivious calls to get freaky are not listening to the anxious cries of a black politics of respectability. They offer up the body, and can’t control who receives. They are about the lower senses, the pleasures of the skin, nerves, muscles, and orifices. We have long been defined as purely physical, assessed for our bodies’ usefulness and/or expendability. But the desires, appetites, and proclivities of these bodies we inhabit are never totally controllable or completely mastered. I’m making an argument for a musical misbehavior that listens to our lusts and their gratification, to our need for taste and touch, for our desire to experience our selves on different terms than as commodity or as (self-) disciplined subjects. I am suggesting that we reclaim pleasure, and the concept of consumption, as political, and as compatible with a critique of capitalism. There is nothing like the dire bleakness and horror of black life that hip hop performs, the dystopian conditions that circumscribe so many black people’s lives and which are always the marked edge of our existence. Underlying even our favorite party tunes is an intimacy with death and cruelty, and life lived in a state of permanent injury. There is no redemption, no future, [End Page 147] no reparative practice to restore rights that were never extended to us in the first place. In this way hip hop potentially offers a powerful critique of liberal humanism and its politics of universalist inclusion. It is precisely the horror that we live in that makes pleasure and its practices, particularly sensorial experience, so political, and potently so in its collective versions. Not as a restorative, but as an assertion of being alive, of living in bodies that can never fully be owned.

How I appreciate these hip hop hits, however quickly they pass (seasons go by quickly for hip hop hits) is that they don’t care about legitimacy, for producing properly familial or national subjects. I grieve that black people were separated from those they loved and were connected with in slavery, and acknowledge the desire to have those relations registered and approved by the state. But here I gesture instead to the importance of the many alternative, creative, improvised forms of sociality and communal structures black people practiced and still practice.

In our world desire is constantly rubbed up against the cult of commodity. Hip hop is notoriously in love with money, and what troubles my argument for lust and its gratification is the way it has been canalized by capitalism. We are in a world where pleasure and consumption are equated with purchase and possession. This is the acquisitive individualist and propertarian model. How else does a diamond cause a smile?

But what if pleasure and the fulfillment of desires were always a collective responsibility? And especially, what if we could seize the concept of consumption altogether? We can do this by unyoking it from the acts of purchase and possession, with which it has been conflated. I for one refuse to give up my desires, pleasures, or acts of consumption. Consumption is about the senses, the pleasure of taking something into the body: tasting, feeling, hearing, seeing; of frottage, pressure...


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pp. 147-150
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