Imani Perry
Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop

(Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004)

Review by Mark Duffett

Prophets of the Hood begins with legal scholar Imani Perry recounting a comment made one day by a fellow student just after their property law exam at Harvard: “I wouldn’t have been able to get through it without that Biggie.” As the prime currency of Afro-American youth, hip hop bridges the class divide. Perry’s project is to explore its politics and poetics, and to celebrate the genre as an artistic expression from black America. Recent intercultural work might have seen the genre as a wide open field, but Imani Perry puts a different case, saying, “Hip hop is an iteration of black language, black music, black style, and black youth culture.” Upon this debatable premise she builds an articulate and frequently insightful case, exploring the music, from the perspectives of its structure, gender politics, resistance and commodification. Appropriately referring to the letter of the law, on almost every page Perry points to relevant lyrics. (Interestingly, there appears little evidence that she has sought copyright clearance.) As a kind of ‘What to Listen for in Hip Hop,’ Prophets of the Hood asserts a particular perception of the genre. To see the it as a series of creative responses to the predicament of black American is not difficult; but what this reading leaves out is perhaps more interesting. Perry’s polemic is disputable because it is inevitably based on selection and interpretation. For instance, the constant discussion of rascally, outlaw gangstas misses the earlier days of hip hop, when break dancing, graffiti and electric boogaloo created a space for Afro-American identity that as was perhaps more about innocent hedonism than knowingly commenting on the impasse of race relations. Further, to accept untestable assertions, like saying the use of metaphors in hip hop plays “on the African American male [slave] tradition of finding freedom in mobility,” or that “hip hop dress is both art and politics because it constitutes an anti-establishment aesthetics of the casual,” requires us to eschew objectivity or scientific judgment and instead join the author in a hunt for relevant associations. In other words, this is about constructing a (broadly essentialist) imaginary for the genre.

The ‘Afro-Atlantic’ theory put forward by Paul Gilroy in his book The Black Atlantic is dismissed with some sadness by Perry as a “fantastic aspiration rather than a reality.” Yet the same could be said of her own interpretation, which in a sense claims too little for the music. While she openly admits to and deftly explores hip hop’s diversity in terms of gender, she cannot do so in terms of race. Of course hip hop was developed by performers from black communities and cannot be fully understood without reference to Afro-American culture. However, commercial music genres tend to outgrow single races or political projects, and you cannot put the genie back in the bottle. To attempt to do so borders on romanticism - a point highlighted when Perry finally discusses the music’s status as a commodity.

Prophets of the Hood is an articulate and in many ways excellent book, but it is a shame that its author withdrew from what could have been the most vital points of discussion. Like the idea of ‘black music’ itself, Perry’s reading is in many ways a useful myth, but it is also one which is flawed. Hip hop is obviously worth reading in relation to Afro-American politics, but does that mean the genre should only be seen as having a black cultural identity? Should the hyper-masculinity of many rap stars really be understood in relation to them “being pimped at the hands of wealthy white recording moguls”? The logic of Perry’s argument breaks down when pushed to its extremes, and the anxiety underlying it is most obvious when she addresses a point made by Ellis Cashmore, that hip hop’s savage imaginary is primarily designed to titillate a white adolescent male consumers. The obvious corollary of this is that the music not only reflects the fraught predicament of black culture, but does so in a way that is inevitably freighted with white fantasies of the Other too. If Perry is quite happy to talk about elements of the genre resonating with the myths of slave culture, one blind spot in her discussion is that she does not acknowledge the way that performers from Queen Latifah to Snoop Dogg seem to unintentionally evoke various archetypes not popular since the minstrel show. Hip hop has long since entered a hall of mirrors where black ethnicity has been turned into a cartoon of itself. Perhaps the real horror of the genre is not its theatre of misogyny and violence, but that the stereotypes have become the most prominent place in the mainstream where black ethnicity is presented to black audiences. In a sense this means there is nothing left to do but reinhabit the stereotypes. Rather than focusing solely on artists that cater to black audiences, Perry decides to assert that hip hop still expresses some elements of black subjectivity, and that the rich white kids are merely voyeurs: faces at the window watching the unfolding turmoil of black cultural life. Eminem, who only gets mentioned once in the book, can in this discourse only represent the return of the repressed. Rather than being a dramatic talent working in a race-neutral genre (which hip hop obviously is not), or – perhaps more correctly – a new minstrel coming to claim his blackface inheritance, the most famous and controversial son of rap can only be labeled an outsider. On this score Perry’s silence is more indicative than her words. And Prophets of the Hood is insightful, but I think that ultimately it misses the point. Contemporary black ethnicity is not compromised but created through a morally ambiguous commercial culture. It is also dual voiced; inevitably partially sold and articulated for the benefit of another race. Hip hop is not therefore a resistant repository of ethnicity that has been mercilessly commodified. Instead it is a diverse and complex commodity constantly reproducing phantoms of racial Otherness within a fractured and changing social environment.

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