Monday, May 7, 2012

'My World Is Yours'

Rappers & Firefighters 

Dessa gave a speech as part of the Nobel Prize symposium in March, sharing her views on misogyny in hip-hop. It was thoughtful and thought-spurring, generous & interesting, too brief. I was struck by the similarities of macho posturing in rap ‘culture’ and in firefighting ‘culture,’ with similar false assumptions and norms persisting despite enormous proof to contrary, and with the active perpetuation of false ideology by many trying to fit in. 

In both cases, there is a connection between misogyny and homophobia--I’d suggest, anti gay-male homophobia is an extension of misogyny. Both stem from flawed and fraudulent expressions and/or conceptions of manhood. 

Some thoughts: 

Rappers. Early and mid-90s hip-hop & rap, there were cyclical 'conversations' (or witch-hunts) for the alleged gay MC that everyone claimed to know about but no one could identify. Innuendo and rumor were the primary modes of dis-course. 

Rappers put stock in an identity, and a verbal construct, that was often binary--heterosexual (as opposed to homosexual), male (as opposed to female), warrior/gangster/player/conqueror (as opposed to weakling/loser/conquest). So much of a rapper's effectiveness was predicated on linguistic and imagistic prowess. The constant battling with foes real & imagined for respect, realness, turf (airspace or actual blocks of the city) put a premium on 'being a man.' No matter how wrong-headed this construction might be, it carried social currency. A man does this... and this... and this... Thus, to be a man, one must also do said things, lest one is perceived as not-a-man. Anyone who didn't do those things was suspect, vulnerable to the attack. Lose your manhood, lose your mic status, & vice versa. A dick is a dick is a dick, swinging hard and ready for action (but heterosexual action only, mind you). 

It’s no wonder women have had such a struggle earning legitimate respect in the rap world. This artificial dynamic by its flawed definition precludes women. It certainly cannot support or even allow the idea of a comfortably gay male among them. Whither the fear? If the easiest & most effective/common put down was to dis a man's machismo/manhood, calling someone a bitch or a faggot was a verbal disposal of him as a man, a rapper, a threat. 

Iceberg Slim’s theorem that a white man was, by definition, a faggot--a sexually inferior & insecure, less-manly weakling--isn’t far removed from this construct of masculinity in rap. A weaker man is a faggot or a bitch: two pejorative insults and identity assaults, removing manhood status from the dissed person. Less male, less Black, less skilled with mic or dick. Weak, wack. ‘Faggot, sissy, punk, queen, queer...’ (‘Language of Violence,’ Disposable Heroes) 

It’s heresy to argue instead that there could be an actual legit MC who was proudly gay, since the two were constructed to be inimical, if not polar opposites. Rap identities come from specific, direct articulations of black street/cultural identities. I am not the one to debate the myriad complex aspects that shape both the private and public layers of black maleness. A rapper’s persona, manufactured and shaped for public consumption, is an artistic license, but where the premium on (the concept of) realness is so high, the pressure to live up to an identity or persona removes the option of nuance or alternatives to the usual. The result can be a roomful of young men striving to out-tough each other on the mic, and on tape. A hysterical hyper-machismo--cartoonish but for the consequences of living up to the image: gun battles, sexual assault, beat-downs, fear and paranoia; closed-minded hysteria. 

The idea that a less-than-macho rapper was out there a conundrum: It's one thing to smear rival rappers with the queer label but, apparently, far more conceptually troubling to allow the existence of an *actual* gay rapper--one whose rhymes were strong while his orientation was gay. 

In the 60s, some Black Power adherents argued that it was important for black women to postpone/subordinate/sacrifice their (feminist) liberation to help their men achieve redemption in a culture that had systematically deprived black men of identity, manhood, self-worth, value. After the men gained agency, the women would get theirs. Except it didn’t really happen that way. Chauvinism or misogyny trumps solidarity. Where does this leave female rappers, MCs & fans, even? If it’s been declared an essentially (black) male space, with hyped-up machismo the primary currency, how to open the field for the women who love and practice the art? One school answers the question with typical chauvinistic simplicity: There is no space for women: They can’t rap--meaning they may not, or their work should be dismissed out of hand. NOTE: Women can’t rap just the way they cannot drive race cars, tell jokes, write books, lead nations, paint, fight, hunt... Only in the limited minds of those afraid of equality--or in those whose notion of what IS limits what can be. 

So many songs employ vicious misogynistic lyrics, deployed with humor or vitriol or both to bolster the rapper’s credentials. When challenged, if called out, the artist can hide behind ‘artistic license’ or ‘it’s just a rap, a rhyme.’ Lighten up, Sandy, baby. Or, Bitch can't take a joke

In the early 90s, critic Greg Tate took Public Enemy to task for, in their black nationalist fervor, demonstrating a glaring blindness to chauvinism and outright misogyny. Michael Franti addressed homophobic attacks, false notions of manhood in the mid-90s, making not just conscious, non-hateful music but also writing songs that called out this very toxic issue. So have the Roots, Gang Star. Far more prevalent are boasting, violent imagery, etc... Odd Future/Tyler the Creator, Eminem, NWA, Too Short, 50 Cent: the list is quite long of young men whose artistic expressions take what might be personal insecurities or issues with women (with their own identities as men, really) and blow them into horrific exaggerations. Note: most of these artists ‘mature’ out of it, looking askance on the idiocy (or worse) of their earlier selves. Unfortunately, that shit’s out there, in perpetuity. And successive micro-generations of young men are gobbling it up, taking THAT particular approach to articulate their own relationship issues. 

Locally, it was an easy decision to let my kids listen to the music of each AND all of Doomtree’s members than their peers in Atmosphere/RSE: too much misogyny in Slug’s lyrics; enough weak-MC quasi-homophobic bashing in Brother Ali’s earlier work. I think both are smart, powerful artists but too raw and ugly to play around the kids. Now, both men’s lyrics have matured, and both have a lot of sharp, smart things to say. But those early songs remain on disc, widely disseminated. Which is precisely the problem and my point. I remember arguing with a student in the early 90s about the Beastie Boys, noting that the same pro-women rappers of Check Your Head & Ill Communication were wildly less cool during Cookie Puss & License to Ill. One doesn’t negate the other, and we all grow (or should grow), but there’s an accountability for what we put out there. 

And, yes, I was a total asshole a whole lot when I was younger. I’m grateful I had chance to feel embarrassed at myself, and to be a better person for it. 

It’s possible--quiet easy, really--to write and rap lyrics that are powerful, funny, astute, clever, vindictive, and whatever else without deploying the bitch trope, the gold digger trope, the fuck ‘em just to see the look on their face trope (RHCP aren’t actually rappers; are guilty of same old shit). If, as Nikki Giovanni said, (the) ideal black man is a cool mind atop a hot body, there’s certainly room for men to show their right with respect, humor, compassion, courage. 

When guys listen to misogynist/homophobic lyrics, when they play it loud in their cars or quote it to each other when hanging out, they perpetuate the casual acceptance of women as objects, gay men as anathema. They also play the lackeys by consuming whatever drivel their heroes spit out--in their fandom they cut their own balls by accepting rather than challenging.

Refusing to break free of a restrictive, deceptive, limiting falsehood of identity means men hurt themselves, hurt their families, hurt their offspring, their communities, their future. As a city firefighter/emergency responder, I have spent over a decade witnessing myriad consequences of the conceptual embodied in fleshy realities--in the form of domestic abuse, absentee/vacated parenting, fatal decisions in name of pride or street cred, and the hundreds of victims of senseless, pointless black male on black male violence. The number of shootings I’ve been to where one, or more, life is ended and several more squandered & ruined, because of a macho posturing--it’s galling and heartbreaking. Rappers hewing to, broadcasting, sanctifying the code becomes the soundtrack of self-genocide. 

                                           * * *

Firefighters... Like lumberjacks with bushy mustaches, red suspenders, and shiny axes--and the simmering homo-social machismo. 

 It’s a traditional job with a supposedly clear identity, having the security of a presumptive norm: The career was all male and all white in many/most US cities for generations. Firefighters of yore were firemen: brave, brawny, noble, sooty. Guys. Not a job for everyone--who runs into a burning building when everyone else is running out? Fair enough--except: false reasoning mis-states what’s essential in the job. Men and women, black, brown, white--it takes someone special to do the job, certainly. But it’s not whiteness, nor maleness, that makes one essentially special.

Racial and gender progress have been painfully slow in most departments--often requiring court orders to open the station doors. Many departments have slight racial mix and far poorer gender ratios. Men of different races may not see eye to eye, trust each other, or get along, but they are, at least, men: He-Man Woman-Hater’s Club in all its glory. Women provided a conceptual shock for firefighters--and for the public. ‘What? Some girl is gonna pull me out of a burning building? Ha!’ 

Typical firefighters (in the sense of Consolidated’s ‘Typical Male’) invest a good deal in maintaining an image of themselves as heroic, stoic, macho, competent, unflappable strong men. I first became interested in the Mpls Fire Dept via several female firefighters I knew. Only after I met more people did I realize the degree to which the women, no matter their skills and competencies, were marginalized, dismissed, vilified. Men were uncomfortable and, rather than admitting they had things to learn, clammed up in defensive resentment. It remains psychologically necessary for some/many guys on the job to undermine and trivialize the regular and special achievements by women. Why? To reinforce their delusional status quo. The same fireground tactics by a woman will be riddled with scorn, criticism, or mockery--and a guy’s actions will be the work of a ‘real fireman’ or an example of someone ‘doing what had to be done.’

I got hired in a deluge of diversity (which still netted, unsurprisingly, far more than enough white men like myself) at the turn of this century. Minneapolis is/was relatively progressive as a city and a fire department, but neither are without big issues. MFD’s diversity was result of 30-year Federal injunction: hiring freeze & wave of retirements of Vietnam-era firefighters (overwhelmingly white males) put the department well understaffed. Fire Chief told Mayor, let me hire, I’ll solve the overtime & budget issues AND I’ll solve the diversity issues. She said Go; he said OK, and here we are. 

The rank and file were predictably resistant to having enforced diversity. The bristling resentment of ‘unqualified’ minorities and women of all stripes was rampant in many quarters. A collective narrative of end-days was spun from the mighty Lazy-Boy arm chairs across the cities: ‘She couldn’t even lift the axe...’ ‘He can’t read but he’s connected to that black guy downtown...’ ‘She can’t even reach the rope--pathetic.’ The need for reassurance and perpetuation of patently untrue myths (black men’s racism, illiteracy, shiftlessness; white women’s weakness and conniving; black women’s utter Otherness...) drives this toxic hot air into both Scripture and paranoia. 

Within this cauldron of boiling resentment, rancid racial and gender pride, and impotence, it is an easy step to Fidelity Tests. A (white) man who liked working with women, or who who wasn’t oppressed with African-American crew members was, sadly, suspect. A race & gender traitor. With a new generation arriving to give the old guard reactionaries ample grist for their beer-hall tears, the specter of a gay firefighter arose. Now, there had/have been the same number of closeted gay firefighters as closeted any-other-sort of workers for however long. Them’s the odds. But an actual queer?! As with the rap world, the incredulous gossip became hysteria (too shitty to register merely as the hysterical irony it is: Rooms full of leather-daddy looking guys who prefer male bonding to their wives’ company getting their panties in a bundle over the threat of an actual out gay co-worker). And it was vile: ‘No way that fucker is sleeping in the dorm with me.’ ‘I’d let him die in a fire.’ ‘Hell, I’d shut the door and pull out the line.’ 

The need to scapegoat, to witch-hunt (queer-bait?) reflects a group need to maintain surface order: If HE is that, & he is not us, then WE are not that. Phew, everybody’s safely hetero now. By running from one suspect to the next among the new hires, the gossiping queens--I mean, the Real American Heroes--could perpetuate a parlor game or a fantasy draft, rather than looking at what they were actually scared of. Instead of admitting that a woman, a minority, a gay man could adequately do the job, the white men clung together, throwing one hyperbolic injustice up after another. Predictably, a good many of the new hires leapt to join the safe haven of gratuitous entitlement: if all it took to gain acceptance of these hard-eyed men was white skin, a cock, and antipathy toward all of Them, a great many newbies had an easy choice. Many of them felt the same bigotry, too, but, by 1999, the rest of society had progressed more than within the atavistic fire station caves.

Speaking of which, there have been out gay cops for at least fifteen years, so why no openly gay firefighters? Or, even, so why the overkill homophobic hysteria? Most guys say it’s because of our shift work--we live together for twenty-four or forty-eight hours at a time--and particularly the sleeping arrangements. That is such a threadbare, pathetic rationalization--beyond the reductive slur that gay men would be predatory in the dorms--and so hypocritical from a bunch of self-aggrandizing, homoerotically obsessed macho men. The banter is coarse, crass, and callous around the stations. Cruising the streets on the rigs, there is a constant adolescent narrative and barely suppressed catcalling whenever the crews pass women. Male bonding is fraught with really dubious iterations (groups of guys watching porn together; drunken wrestling; nude poker) that are laughable in contrast to the expressed fear or ‘principled’ objection to homosexuality. 

I wonder at these similarities between rappers and firefighters with this extension of compulsory heterosexuality into hyper-macho caricature. The creation and reinforcement of an identity that’s both inaccurate and fraudulent, yet which is posited somehow as an essential trait, it is so laborious to maintain, so barely able to remain propped up (how much willful denial must occur). With very little scrutiny, the illusion collapses. Yet before the collapse, how many people’s lives are significantly ill-effected? From the men who live twisted lives to protect/fulfill these bloated types, to the women used as pawns, props, beards so the guys can maintain their postures, to the young men and women--boys and girls, really--whose minds are imbued with the false rhetoric of the insecure. For, at root, an easy solution exists: Don’t Believe the Hype.

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