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  • The Persistence of "Wild Style":Hip-Hop and Music Video Culture at the Intersection of Performance and Provocation
  • Michele Prettyman (bio)

Hip-hop, an enduring historiographical enigma, invites reflection on what is past and what is prologue, particularly in relationship to race and the visual archive of performance.1 I discuss the groundbreaking video for the South Bronx's Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five's (GMFFF) iconic song "The Message" (Alvin Hartley, 1982), then pivot to the twenty-first-century artist Donald Glover, and his musical alter-ego Childish Gambino, whose video "This Is America" (Hiro Murai, 2018) engages the archive of racialized movement and dance from the nineteenth century and became a viral phenomenon. Last, I consider how SoundCloud music streaming enabled the rise of new iterations of hip-hop music and video form, briefly discussing a video from the late provocateur XXXTentacion entitled "Look at Me" (James "JMP" Pereira, 2017).

The phrase "wild style," first invoked roughly forty years ago by hip-hop pioneer Fab 5 Freddy, originally referred to graffiti, specifically to its bold, spray-painted, bubble style of lettering and later to the coded phrases, pictures, and full-blown painterly tableaus. It also refers to Charlie Ahearn's groundbreaking film Wild Style (1983), which, like music video, provided a visual account of hip-hop's nascent cultures of writing, movement, lyricism, and turntablism. Kodwo Eshun provides another useful take on wild style, explaining that it "exercises the senses, puts the eyes and ears through an escherized assault course."2 Embedded in the wild style trope is the notion of coding and decoding phrases, references and visual cyphers that may be disorienting, inaccessible, or [End Page 151] so purposefully cryptic that those who are uninitiated may not be able to gain access to the world of meaning created by its makers.3

My articulation of wild style takes flight by examining a series of hip-hop music videos, noting how particular gestures and styles of performance in these texts reanimate earlier modes of performance and social critique—what Daphne Brooks might call dissent—and how they flow across nineteenth-, twentieth-, and twenty-first-century popular culture.4 The videos I engage are not simply political, ironic, or controversial; rather, they deploy embodied, discursive, and aesthetic provocations to destabilize categorization and meaning. Provocation is a thing, a graphic depiction of violence or a gesture, for instance, and a mode of performative encounter. In what follows, I trace how these videos modulate the space between paradigms of legibility and illegibility. Legibility refers to ways that music-video form fosters accessibility, transparency, or familiarity and how these videos circulate to multiple audiences, triggering exposure and commercial viability for the artist. Illegibility, then, is an impasse or disconnect between the artist and some viewers, which includes conflicting or paradoxical interpretations of the video and its relationship to the broader archive of race and performance. To be certain, it is not always clear what is legible or illegible in a given video, but it is the tension between these paradigms that is intriguing: how these texts deploy both elements in a single video; how they often disturb, confound, and awe us simultaneously; how provocation and critique are wielded bluntly at times and used in precise and nuanced ways at others.5

"Don't Push Me, 'Cause I'm Close to the Edge."

These lyrics, excerpted from "The Message" on GMFFF's debut album, became a clarion call, an anthem, the (graffiti) writing on the wall, announcing to listeners that hip-hop was an oral—and visual—provocation to be reckoned with. By then, artists including the Sugar Hill Gang and Kurtis Blow had already appeared in rudimentary music videos, but "The Message" became a groundbreaking hit record, and the accompanying video would create a stylistic template for hip-hop visual culture. While on-street and club performances continued to help spread hip-hop's momentum, music videos like "The Message" expanded the medium's popularity.

The music video for "The Message" reflects the song's lyrics and depicts age-old social problems through early video distortion techniques, creating a nightmarish, dystopian aesthetic. Group members pose not simply in a classic...


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pp. 151-157
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