|Commodity Fetishism and the
Theory of Surplus Shock Value
bell hooks, in her essay "Eating the Other," names rap music as a site
where the most desired body of white supremacist culture can be displayed:
the young black male body. Within a world unable to feel (suffering from
"anhedonia"), bored, numbed by
the hyperreality of the mass media and the increasingly abstract nature
of social relationships, consumers—especially young white men—come to desire
the image of the outside, of the undomesticated, of the wild. hooks
writes, "It is the young black male body that is seen as epitomizing this
promise of wildness, of unlimited physical prowess and unbridled eroticism."1
This is nothing new. The continuing desirability of this body links the
bad present to the worse past while concurrently supplying the overculture
with an object for its polymorphously perverse fantasies. "It was this
black body that was most 'desired' for its labor in slavery, and it is
this body that is most represented in contemporary popular culture as the
body to be watched, imitated, desired, possessed." The brutal physical
exploitation practiced by the slave master is repeated in a virtual mode
via television, film, and recorded music.
young black male
body that is seen as epitomizing this promise of
|hooks writes that the black male body, the locus of this fatal pleasure,
is both "desired and dangerous." The desirability of this body depends
on its relation to death and violence, to the intensity of danger. In a
reversal of fortune, the danger that produces the body becomes a danger
emanating from the body. This perceived threat particularly (and perhaps
only) in its commodified form is in turn desirable. The more militant and
violent the message, the more menacing the product, the more desirable
it becomes, for the young white male longs for the thrill of death, even
the death threat, reaching out across the vast proximity of the commodity.
Therein lies one paradox of the attraction exercised by gangsta rap. It has shock value. Not only does the dense sound montage exercise a power over the body, but the violence described and practiced by the lyrical track shocks the body. The rapper RBX, rapping on Dr. Dre's megahit, "The Chronic" (1993), expresses this shocking moment when he says, "You're a victim from my drive-by of thoughts." He's addressing the listener. Gangsta rhymes must be conceived as acts of violence (however blunted by the mediation provided by the commodity): "Cuz what I said/Split his head" (RBX). The white male body, which enjoys the shock dealt by this music, does not go so far as to establish a physical proximity to the black male bodies producing it. He keeps his masochism virtual and leaves the ordeal of "direct contact" to the massive apparatus of the culture industry (and the "thin blue line").
The erasure of physical community is just one by-product of the electronic public sphere's ascendancy. Describing the situation, bell hooks writes, "Communities of resistance are replaced by communities of consumption." These latter communities are notoriously apolitical and difficult to mobilize, primarily because they do not occupy a precisely localizable physical space. They are distributed throughout the country, constituting so many nexes of the electric web. The political impact of this music is affected by this diffusion in social space, a diffusion that makes it "easy for consumers to ignore political messages" (hooks), but also by the absence of an organized political opposition that could anchor it in concrete activism.
Thanks to this isolation/diffusion, the model for political action that arises within the context of rap music is that of the urban guerrilla. Gangsta rap, at certain moments, becomes an electronic/virtual Black Liberation Army. One group that has called most emphatically for the replacement of the gangsta by the guerrilla is Da Lench Mob. They have done so most recently on the soundtrack to Menace II Society (on the track, "A Guerrilla's Not a Gangsta"), as well as on their 1992 release, Guerrillas in tha Mist, produced by Ice Cube (who also wrote or co-wrote most of the songs). The title refers to the infamous references to "Gorillas in the Mist" made by police officers during the Rodney King beating. Da Lench Mob (and independently the rapper Paris) reappropriated the racist image of the black "savage" in the jungle, turning it into one of the most threatening images from the standpoint of white hegemony: the guerrilla.
Because the main threat to imperialist hegemony has been offered by guerrilla movements from Peru to Afghanistan, and thanks to the "defeat" of the United States at the hands of a guerrilla force in Vietnam (not to mention the recent guerrilla resistance in Somalia), open identification with the guerrilla here mobilizes a complex network of cultural anxieties. The connection to Third World struggles is made explicit by Da Lench Mob in their video for "Guerrillas in tha Mist." This video depicts a series of violent encounters, in a jungle setting, between helicopter-borne American troops and black-clad guerrilla fighters (played by Da Lench Mob and Ice Cube). What could be interpreted metaphorically as a cop-killer scenario is explicitly an anti-imperialist scenario. It is not so much their militant nationalism (and repeated references to the Nation of Islam) that comprise the hegemonic challenge issued by Da Lench Mob as it is their understated vision of solidarity between liberation struggles here and abroad.
The white male consumers of this music, to the extent that they exist,
find themselves on the receiving end of the hate and the rage expressed
in it. This can upset them, but because it fulfills the law of shock value,
it can also produce a fascination or desire for this music. Da Lench Mob
consciously assume the image of black men as threatening and wild, and
then supercharge this image with political fury. They make it clear that
the violence emanating from them has its source in the structures of racist
oppression permeating American society, a fact expressed most boldly in
their invocation of "lynching" as an appropriate mode of oppositional practice
(the critical difference being the white body hanging from the end of the
rope). Guerrillas in tha Mist attempts to redirect the pervasive
violence of the ghetto. Rather than killing based on drug-related territory
infringement or macho competition, Da Lench Mob suggest turning the violence
on the enemies of the people: cops, drug dealers, and sundry white
There is always the possibility that the consumer could hear marching orders in the grooves pumping from the sound system. For example, on Ice Cube's recent album, The Predator (1992), in the rap "Now I Gotta Wetcha," he sends out a revolutionary APB: "Guerrillas, guerrillas,/ report to the mist." One reviewer of this album (in Time, December 28, 1992) heard the line as, "Gorillas, gorillas,/report to the mist." The reviewer reverses the political alliance invoked by Ice Cube in this line (and simultaneously reveals a racist substructure to his auditory system). Although the order as articulated by Ice Cube presupposes the existence of guerrillas, his music and that of Da Lench Mob represents an important step in the production of the guerrilla. By virtue of the mythic, enunciative power of the aesthetic, calling the guerrillas to action simultaneously calls them into being.
We could thus conceive of a diffuse war of resistance and liberation being waged against the forces of white supremacy with rap music serving as its communication system. Ice-T puts this into practice in a piece called "Message to the Soldiers." Here he addresses the faceless "soldiers" in the war against racist oppression, sending them warnings and tactical suggestions. His advice, "Speak in code/cuz you're never alone," raises the possibility of transmitting esoteric or subliminal signals to waiting cadres through the rap format. This "message" appears on Ice-T's Home Invasion album, a recording that demonstrates that, more than mere instrument of communication, the gangsta rap commodity can function as the actual guerrilla fighter. It, not the rapper, infiltrates the camp of the oppressor (like a kind of Trojan horse). The medium here truly is the message. The image of the "home invasion" is both metaphoric and surprisingly literal. Rap music, as the objectified representative of the gangsta, invades the white world and steals white kids. [sound sample]