Virile masculine black characters have a tradition in black folklore. Eithne Quinn has documented the long history of “bad man” characters in African American cultural lore through a postbellum Southern black working-class practice identified as toasting. Toasting occurred among black men in the postbellum period, and was the practice of reciting partially improvised stories or oral poems of physical and sexual triumph. The most notorious toasting figure of the time being Stackolee (also called Stagger Lee), whose typical stories routinely had him killing a bartender who had offended him, engaging in intercourse with prostitutes, and killing arch-enemy Billy Lyons all the while laced with heaps of profanity and working-class slang (Quinn 94-5). Stackolee stories gained wide popularity in the black south by the early 1900s; and were revived by Julius Lester in the 1960s. Lester updated the character in the midst of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. Lester kept Stackolee’s pastoral roots, however, in order to “forge links between folklore, nationalism, and a sense of virile black pride that rewrote dominant historical narratives of black dispossession and dependency” (Quinn 96). Of the character of Stackolee, Lester writes:
[Stackolee] was undoubtedly and without question, the baddest nigger that ever lived. [Stackolee] was so bad that the flies wouldn’t even fly around his head in the summer time, and the snow wouldn’t fall on his house in the winter. (Quinn 96)
Quinn’s reading of Stackolee places him as a formative character in the construction of the black “bad man”, who takes little nonsense from anyone, is quick to respond with violence, whose sexual prowess has no equal, and as Lester suggest above, plays a role in defining black manhood. Given the hostility of a repressive state in the postbellum period it is no wonder that brash and unashamed characters, such as Stackolee, would resonate with black folk. It is not wonder that black folk looked towards similar “bad man” characters in tough inner-city locales such as Compton, in which seminal gangsta rap groups such as N.W.A. chronicled police brutality and racial profiling with anthems like “Fuck tha Police”. N.W.A. would find their forbearer in Stackolee (Quinn 104). In this way, Stackolee’s ultra-violent and hypersexual masculinity is carried on through Blaxploitation films of the 1970s serving as an archetype for characters such as Dolomite, and further down the line to gangsta rap as well (Quinn 96).
It is important to start with Stackolee because implied in his fictional stories and in gangsta rap is an insecurity that is inherent in the hypermasculine approach of both art forms. Quinn observes that many of Stackolee stories include versions where he is tormented by the evils of his past deeds, and indeed gangsta rap songs include some of these same moments of fear, regret, and uncertainty. Quinn points to the Geto Boys 1991 classic “My Mind is Playing Trick on Me” in which the Geto Boys fall into fearful, paranoid state with regards to their past criminal activity (Quinn 99). The irony of this duality is that with every rejection of fear or emotional ambiguity regarding the gangsta lifestyle is a reminder of the centrality of those emotions to the gangsta subject (Quinn 99).
The masculine ambiguity is especially apparent around the hypersexual nature of gangsta rap music. In rap music videos and in male rapper’s lyrics the female body has largely served as a possession of masculine sexual power. In rap music videos women appear gyrating their scantily clad backsides, breast, and hips into the camera lens, their bodies bifurcated for and by the male gaze. The practice of calling these women “video vixens”, “video ho’s”, and more generally the use of derogatory words such “bitch” and “ho’s” as synonymous with women within rap lyrics reduces female presence to their ability to please men sexually. In this way, the male rapper only interacts with women as sexual beings, silencing other aspect of their identity and only focusing on those elements that lend power to patriarchy (Rose, Noise 172).
Tricia Rose posits that, gangsta rappers such as Ice Cube “expose the vulnerability of heterosexual male desire in their exaggerated stories of male domination over women” (Rose, Noise 172). In gangsta rap music, anxiety around the sexual power of women has resulted in a mistrust predicated on a women’s ability to use sexual power to meet their own ends within heterosexual relationships. Gangsta rappers routinely address this fear within their music, warning men to be weary of beautiful women who offer pleasure, but are truly dangerous because they will challenge masculine power. Female rappers engage with male rappers in this sexual politics by expressing their sexuality openly in their own videos and language, “challenging patriarchal assumptions that interpret open displays of female-controlled sexuality as a threat to male privilege and power” (Rose, Noise 173). Heterosexual relationships within Hip Hop are a contested space where both women and men are routinely competing for power. Rose’s reading, however, points to the ways in which heterosexual masculine subjectivity turns to patriarchal power in order subjugate women in hopes of hiding its vulnerability to female sexual power. Overall, the hypermasculine approach taken in gangsta rap in some ways disguises the insecurities just beneath the gangsta veneer.
This reading of gangsta rap should give a sense of nuance and history to a genre generally derided as absent any depth or complexity. It is not my intention here to dismiss the hyper-violent and sexist lyricism within gangsta rap, but instead to put the genre in proper context. In this sense, gangsta rappers were keenly aware of the tropes they pushed into an American mainstream popular culture already ripe for images of African Americans males as lurid, dangerous, criminal and hypersexual. Gangsta rappers took part in the interdependent nature of race in that they performed a particular blackness and were implicated in that performance. Quinn suggests that gangsta rappers where motivated by multiple reasons among them,
to induce black masculine resistance, pride, and pleasure; to goad and provoke black and white bourgeoisie society with its badass-nigga performance; to adopt a mask in the face of intractable mainstream demonization; and to be sure, to sell racially encoded rebellion to an eager youth market. (Quinn 106)
The social, artistic, and political figures like the gangsta and street hustle substantially devolved into apolitical, simple-minded, almost comic stereotypes. Indeed, by the late 1990s, most of the affirming, creative stories and characters that had stood at the defining core of hip hop has been gutted. (Rose, Wars 2)
50 Cent is one of the most successful rapper of the gangsta aesthetic in the new millennium and is instructive in illustrating this shift away from a nuanced rap landscape to one that has narrowed significantly and has become even more closely attached to masculine sources of power. One of 50 Cents’ most compelling examples of this shift is his song “Wanksta” that appeared on is debut studio album, Get Rich or Die Tryin’ (2003). “Wanksta” exposes faux-gangstas, essentially black men that don’t live up to 50 Cent’s standard of gangsta manhood which in this case refers to a virile violent masculinity, the ability to attract women, and of course the accumulation of wealth (“You say you a gangsta, but you never pop none/…You go to the dealership, but you never cop none”). “Wanksta” is empty any statement that might challenge hegemonic patriarchy, and instead celebrates a near caricature of masculinity and derides those who don’t attempt to meet its standards. By the early 2000s the masculine identifying characteristics within Hip Hop culture circle around the elements in “Wanksta”: women, money, and violence. 50 Cent, Lloyd Banks, Cam’ron, Ja Rule, Fat Joe and many others enter into an era of pop-gangsta Hip Hop. Gone largely is the nuance and that marked earlier gangsta rappers such as Scarface, Tupac Shakur, and the aforementioned Geto Boyz.
Continue to Track Three: Emerging Black Masculinities