“It is impossible to get a man to understand something if his livelihood depends on him not understanding.”
― Upton Sinclair
Gnatola ma no kpon sia, eyenabe adelan to kpo mi sena. (Ewe-mina)
A moins ce que le lion ait son propre narrateur, le chasseur aura toujours la belle part de l’histoire. (French)
Until the lion has his or her own storyteller, the hunter will always have the best part of the story. (English)
When I first heard about the Juicy J $50K scholarship back in September 2013, it was a black male student who brought it to my attention as part of the Black Girl YouTube Project. I remember discussing it with him and saying, “What happens when she goes off to college and everybody knows. ‘OH!!! She’s the one! She’s the one who twerked in the $50K video. Oh!!’ So, what happens when the business professor sees the video??” Ryan agreed and said he’d thought about the same thing. Managing one’s future identity is not always something late adolescents can see. Many do not have the cognitive ability to do so yet. I added, “And what happens when the football team learns about it?!?” The Steubenville rape case involving two high school boys dragging a girl like a jump rope from party to party raping her without consent was still fresh in my memory from months earlier. Consent has been on my mind a lot lately.
I also thought “there will be no privacy for the girl who wins that scholarship.” Perplexed, I simply thought that young women entering the contest really just wanna get the money. It was all about “makin’ it rain” as the strip club “proverb” goes. That was my gut reaction and boy I was wrong. I had not way of seeing the issues of class that would come along with a twerking contest for college.
Since late November, I’ve seen many of the submissions by black and non-black college women. Some of the videos are brilliant, one in particular by Miss Kimari who I recently interviewed was made private [but is now again available, click the link] since the results were announced. She is concerned about her future identity and needs to stop, think and plan. She’s been quite cautious with her identity online. Like Miss Kimari’s video, some involved twerking, others didn’t. One submission by a young, naive black woman from Illinois named Rashyra was extremely vulnerable–sharing her history of trouble with several times in lockup and attributing her problems to an absent dad. I thought that was not only costly relative to putting it out there in a YouTube video to persist on the Internet forever, but also costly relative to the kind of social negotiation that students take for granted when entering college. People are watching and judging you. I didn’t always think this way, but radical openness is a risk not everyone can afford to take. The winner from Rashyra’s submission, and many others, was actually Juicy J who got a strong shout-out from her to any viewers: please, download his “Scholarship” single. It’s only $1.98 on iTunes. Free promotion on the backs of broke and recovering college girls. Yeah, stay trippy, alright.
The actual winner Juicy J selected, Zaire Holmes, posted a video that I thought was savvy in its execution and self-presentation. She rapped to open the video and rhymed “straight As” with with “I need more than just…financial aid.” It was cute, seemingly innocent and genuine. Zaire edited in appearances by her references including her boss and friends. She talked about being a single mom, and she was by far not the only single mom in the lot. She made a bold appeal for wanting to become a doctor, citing that it would take her 11 years and she would use the funds to cover her lab fees. YES! It was a great college interview. Still, I was convinced Juicy J wouldn’t pick a woman who didn’t twerk. I thought even less about what would happen if he did and what the implications were for so many who occupy the position recognized as the feminization of poverty happening domestically and around the world. This is a case for how complicated issues of male privilege and gender oppression have gotten in hip-hop despite certain dominant trends:
Sexual and gender relations inside and outside of the African American community are shifting in relation to three important discourses: (1) the mainstreaming of pornography culture, (2) black capitalism and consumption, and (3) post–Civil Rights colorblind racism.
Perhaps you’ve already read the brilliant post by @ProfessorCrunk aka Dr. Brittney Cooper for the Crunk Feminist Collective’s blog critiquing Juicy J’s reversal around the context (“It’s not always about shaking your ass”) as if he didn’t originally intend for girls to “make it rain” by twerking as the credit he’d use to sell his “Scholarship” single and make more profit. Yes, no twerking required…now, he claimed in the winner’s video.
Zaire says at the end of the video, “a lot of people thought you had to twerk but you just had to read the rules.” And Juicy J chimes right in, “See that’s what you get for shaking your ass and thinking you were gone get some money. It’s not always about shaking your ass.” (B. Cooper)
I’d been checking the special HipHopWorldStar website for the last 8-9 weeks waiting anxiously to see who would be the chosen one. I first thought race was the issue that stood out with the submissions since a majority of the top-rated and most-watched videos found on that site where submitted by white women, mostly blondes with hundreds of thousands of views compared to the black women’s submissions that had less than 2,000. I speculated that this could be evidence of structural inequalities that were once called the digital divide as whites have better access to larger networks simply by privilege of their race and some non-blacks who would see liking the non-black videos as an opportunity to strike blow against at demoralization of American work ethics which most do not see in rap, among working-class blacks whose pants sag or who twerk, and even the products of Affirmative Action on the college level didn’t really earn the access they got. (Ask me about my alma mater University of Michigan and the anti-Affirmative Action cases that have set back admissions for minorities across the nation.)
The thing that really stood out to me about this contest was the issue of class (SES) relative to the “baby mamas” who were predominately white. There were a number of submissions by white women who are mothers trying to finish college also working 1-2 jobs. In every one of these videos that I saw, the white woman always chose to twerk. Ironically, most of the black and latina women chose not to. Class was playing a bigger role than my racial lens allowed me to see at first glance. But in any case, what most concerns me right now about twerking are issues of sexualization. Whether the women in this contest were white or black, what impact is this having on younger and younger girls in the U.S. given that these videos will also be mediated and shared via YouTube.
Earlier today, while researching this subject, I read about the cognitive and emotional consequences of the sexualization of girls in an executive summary of a report by The American Psychological Association Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. It read:
“Cognitively, self-objectification has been repeatedly shown to detract from the ability to concentrate and focus one’s attention … While alone in a dressing room, college students were asked to try on and evaluate either a swimsuit or a sweater. While they waited for 10 minutes wearing the garment, they completed a math test. The results revealed that young women in swimsuits performed significantly worse on the math problems than did those wearing sweaters. No differences were found for young men. In other words, thinking about the body and comparing it to sexualized cultural ideals disrupted mental capacity. In the emotional domain, sexualization and objectification undermine confidence in and comfort with one’s own body, leading to a host of negative emotional consequences, such as shame, anxiety, and even self-disgust.”
Obviously, there is more to say but let me return to the contest and a specific video Juicy J released recently.
I wanted to post the “semi-finalists” video (above) released on Jan 8, 2014 to highlight the group of women that were selected to appear in and represent the deliberation of the contest. Juicy J’s objectifying, misogynist and patriarchal commentary is worth noticing.
Among the 10 women semi-finalists featured:
- 7 were non-black; all of them twerked
- 1 of the 10 seemed to be a woman of color (not black nor white); she twerked, too
- and 3 were women of African descent or black women
Clearly, post-racial “colorblind” politics were at work in both who submitted and who they chose to represent here but I don’t have it all worked out enough to respond about that but I can say that designations of class abounded among the women. They discussed how many jobs they held while going to college, and I would even consider identifying themselves publicly as parents in these videos was a particular salient aspect of class when it comes to college. Pregnant mothers or the appearance of being a single mom is just not talked about where I teach. Far too many colleges today don’t even offer childcare for professors much less students. And yet the women twerked.
What’s more interesting is that none of the women included their kids in the video. It’s consistent with male rappers rarely saying anything about their family life in their rapped realities.
[CORRECTION: There are videos of mothers with their children. I had not seen those videos yet. A YouTube search for "Juicy J Scholarship Contest" produces about 66,700 results!! Really considering doing a study of just these videos and thanks to a blog post by Monique John, another twerk-ologist writing on the same topic, for pointing this out for me. It appeared a few days after my post and featured a video of a mom and her son. Please read this millenial's great post on the ladies of the contest.]
Before I close, let me share that I just can’t get Juicy J’s evaluation among the semi-finalists’ videos out of my head.
One of the semi-finalists, a black woman named LaDawn from the University of Miami shared that she currently had 2 jobs–one part-time, one full-time. Juicy interjected: “Work-work-work- work-work, and now she’s gonna twerk-twerk-twerk-twerk-twerk” and then he judges her twerking for the audience it’s “not that good” and “it’s kinda boring.”
Another black woman, Krysisha from a university in Milwaukee, uses “special efx” that catch Juicy J’s eye. She never mentions anything about twerking or not twerking. “I am really tryin’ to go to graduate school, y’all. I kinna wanna be an A&R, PR, or tour manager, or maybe all three!” she says. Juicy pensively responds: “She wants to be in the music business” and adds with sincerity, “I think that’s really inspirational.” O_o
A white woman named Emily who attends the University of Southern California painted a mural of Juicy J saying “I painted you, ratchet hoes, [and] dollar bills]” He interjects “I need to see more than you painting a picture, [and] smoking weed.” When hear her video continue “I signed my name on a stripper’s ass” pointing to her own work. Talk about intersectional oppression gone wild. #ijustcanttonight
Women from the West, the Midwest, and the Dirty South all vie for one $50K scholarship from one rapper. A rap mogul who has an estimated net worth of 20 million dollars.
WAITING FOR MY INTELLECTUAL BEAT TO DROP
I need some time to really think about this implications of this contest. From one perspective, this contest gave working-class women who twerk a reason to voice concerns that have rarely if ever been a part of hip-hop, not by male rappers or female with the exception of perhaps Lauryn Hill (can’t think of others at the moment). From another perspective, it was promoted by the Miley Cyrus mainstreaming of twerking and Juicy J’s capitalization on the exploitation of girls and young women in college.
The ongoing challenge for feminist researchers and researchers of color is to fully investigate the effects of commercial hip-hop, while avoiding the limiting nature of the “politics of respectability,” the historically black middle-class ideology of “proper” womanhood and “controlled” sexuality (Reid-Brinkley 2008; Rose 2008). The politics of respectability should not prevent black women, as rappers or video dancers, from exploring the full terrain of black women’s sexualities. However, the banner of “sexual freedom” also cannot be used to ignore the uniform and prob- lematic caricaturing of black women and girls’ sexuality (Ransby and Matthews 1993). [Quote from Margaret Hunter, "SHAKE IT, BABY, SHAKE IT: CONSUMPTION AND THE NEW GENDER RELATION IN HIP-HOP," 2011]
CLASS IS (NOT) IN SESSION & THERE WILL BE A TEST
I titled this post “The Class is (not) in Session” because I was really thinking of how relevant issues of class were in the submissions. Issues including respectability politics, socioeconomic class, the feminization of poverty, the lack of available funding and loans for college that wouldn’t leave you in debt for life and much more. I have to remind myself to not let my feminist investments blind me from the intersectional politics that I am just beginning to see which were not predictable before. They still require study and cannot be pulled up so quickly since the issue of azz everywhere still grabs the focus.
$50K might go a long way for one woman and her child, but the fact that all these seemingly single woman–none self-identified as married–of all ethnic backgrounds were in some form of despair about their education such that twerking might become a way out of no way for them was telling. I can’t even wrap my head around the issues of gender identity that come up on these videos. I’ll leave that to the capable hands of folks like Bettina Love.
Whenever people look askew after I tell them I am studying twerking, it is moments like this one surrounding the Juicy J contest that remind me that this kind of scholarly and cultural work is worthwhile and truly justified. Black girls on YouTube need critical theory about the larger politics at work when they twerk. Someone who’s danced like them and who’s learning how to twerk but who someone who has some distance from its pleasure politics to explore its costs and pains.
OK. That’s more than enough for tonight. More blogging soon. I am deep in fit of writing finishing an article about the context collapse of self-presentation on YouTube and our collaborative documentary is coming soon, too.