“Either they don’t know or don’t care about what’s going on in the ‘hood.” ~Doughboy, Boyz in the Hood
Where da ‘hood at?
Indeed, America is enthralled by the idea of inner city life. For many, the ‘hood is the gage for authenticated blackness. Of course, this is problematic in ways too numerous to dedicate to one blog. But, for this essay, our focus is the relationship between performance, identity, and actuality.
Symbolically, the ghetto serves a dual purpose – to inform an unknowing public and to entertain via humor or violent antics. In other words, the ‘hood is blackness raw and uncut. It is a forbidden zone for some and a land of fantasy for others. But, as Robin Kelley argues, the true voice of the inner city – those who actually experience its social circumstances firsthand – are often overlooked and silenced. Those social scientists who attempt to understand and categorize the ghetto as a functioning social space are often tainted by overgeneralizations and a minute sampling of black representation. “They [social scientists] do not let the natives speak,” Kelley argues. His usage of “natives” struck me as particularly odd. Is the inner city the last frontier for exploration and, to an extent, conquering by American society?
Historically, the ghetto was both a site of despair and the epicenter for civic action and change in black America. Richard Wright demonizes the inner city in Native Son (1940) and his pseudo-autobiographical Black Boy (1945). The term “laugh to keep from crying” rang strongest in the long running comedy Good Times. Does anyone know the entire theme song? If you’re really black or black-affiliated, you know. Or so says Dave Chappelle. On the other hand, Hoyt Fuller’s essay “Towards a Black Aesthetic” (1968) called for the detachment of blacks from white standards of art. He charges African Americans to focus the rebirth of black art and its appreciation in America’s inner cities. The Black Panther Party embedded themselves in metropolises like Chicago, Oakland, Los Angeles, and Atlanta and focused on the rejuvenation of African American inner city neighborhoods. Soul music and funk provided the soundtrack for these occurrences, with Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and the original ‘hood theme “Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler)” leading the charge.
With the crack epidemic, Reaganomics, and just an overall jacked up mantra, the 1980s refocused attention to the ghetto as a place where all hope is lost for those who enter. Rap music replaces Soul as the musical mouthpiece for black frustration in America’s inner cities. Grandmaster Melle Mel’s “White Lines (Don’t Do It),” Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message,” and Public Enemy’s “911 (is a Joke)” spoke to the increasingly dilapidated state of urban black America.
The introduction of Gangsta rap, however, sparked a different response to the plight of the ‘hood. Primarily a California phenomenon, N.W.A., Ice-T, Too Short, Snoop Dogg, and other rappers on the west coast spoke to their own experiences of hoodlife. Violent and in search of retribution, Gangsta rap lyrics often spun tales of police murder (i.e. Ice-T’s “Cop Killer”), and homicide as a daily occurrence (Ice Cube’s “It was a Good Day” speaks about the absence of these occurrences as a hood abnormality). A by-product of Gangsta Rap, the ‘hood film, brought the violent lyrics of gangsta rappers to life. John Singleton’s Boyz in the Hood (1991) and Albert and Allen Hughes’ Menace II Society (1993) immediately come to mind here. What is so fascinating about these films – visual displays of nihilism and condemnation – is how they set the foundation for the understanding of all inner cities and, to extent, urban blackness.
While these rappers and the characters depicted in the ‘hood films were performing based off of a lived experience, along the way that truth became a fetishized reality for outside observers. The rise in popularity of supposedly hoodtastic culture – i.e. colored weaves and a gat (gun) at birth – became the standard for a generalized understanding of inner city life. In a spectacular scene from Paul Beatty’s The White Boy Shuffle (1996) the protagonist, Gunnar, auditions for a position as an extra in a music video by the fictitious rap group Stoic Undertakers. He is dismissed by the director because he is not menacing enough and not an accurate depiction of hoodlife. What is ironic about Gunnar’s dismissal from the set as an inauthentic representation of the ‘hood is the fact that he lives in the community where the video is being produced. He later comments on the making of the video: “carloads of sybaritic rappers and hired concubines cruised down the street in ghetto palanquins, mint condition 1964 Impala lowriders, reciting their lyrics and leaning into the camera with gnarled intimidating scowls. . .” (Beatty 77). Beatty’s observations mirror those of Kelley. The natives did not speak. And because of that silence, true hoodlife is undermined by an overexaggerated representation of fear and repudiation.
Todd Boyd’s theory of the hyperreal is useful in understanding the fascination surrounding the ghetto. He argues that the imagery of the inner city “creates a media image that directs attention away from the actual occurrences and thus put us in the realm of spectacle.” When we consume images and ‘hood stories via television, music, or film, we are not worried about the actual suffering of those who are exposed to those circumstances on a daily basis. We can simply turn it off or change the channel. What is problematic about using the representations that result from these assumptions is the notion that all black folks have the same experiences. We don’t. Therefore, it’s not plausible to use these overgeneralizations to gage our understanding of reality.
This is especially true for those who live outside an urban space. The block becomes the trap or the field. The fast sports cars become big bodies on ‘22s. And the need to distinguish experiences and outlooks becomes desperate. The string of ‘hood allegiance songs that spans the last decade (i.e. “I’m so Hood,” “Georgia,” “Raise Up”) represents the desperation to distinguish and validate experiential differences that challenge or reaffirm the status quo.
Let’s be honest for a minute here, folks. If there was no ‘hood (imagined or factual), rap would probably be non-existent or, at best, a branching off of R&B. Would a consumer public still be interested in a rapper talking about firing his butler or taking his car to get an oil change?