Just a day in the life of “Hip-Hop Eshu: Queen B***h 101” could’ve answered all the questions posed about the course last semester, including whether or not it would deal with the upcoming trial of Lil’ Kim. Somewhere along the line, someone decided to simply re-title this course that developed out of my on-going research on race and sex in the context of empire, as if it were now a course on celebrity biography—not lyricism. Wasn’t the course description from the ten-page syllabus on-line? Who is Eshu? How did this West African orisha or “trickster-god” provide a profound framework for our hard-core work? What does it mean here that the “fifth element” of Hip-Hop is knowledge, according the Universal Zulu Nation? We were so academically ill that a lazy, ignorant set of folk could ill-afford to find out.
Around mid-term, thirty-plus students and I were set to analyze three texts in one session: (1) a song-skit from Lil’ Kim’s sophomore solo album; (2) an article called “Law and Disorder” by Dasun Allah and J.F. Ratcliffe on government surveillance of rappers; and (3) an “open letter” by Sylvia Wynter, a powerhouse intellectual critic. Her title was “No Humans Involved.” She examines the “N.H.I.” acronym used by Los Angeles police officers—around the time of the Rodney King beating–to refer specifically to Black and Latino youth: “No Humans Involved.” She asks all her colleagues, at Stanford University and beyond, who is in charge of the system of knowledge in which such practices make sense? Who is in charge of changing this intellectual regime in which not only “America” but “humanity” is characterized in white and middle-class terms? The piece by Allah and Ratcliffe (which was first published in The Village Voice–by Allah–and then revised for republication in The Source with Ratcliffe), it called to mind a new phrase: “Rap COINTELPRO.” This refers to the FBI’s de-classified “counter-intelligence program” that violently destabilized the Black liberation movement of the 1960s and ’70s. Now, from New York to Miami and Los Angeles, rappers are openly subject to systematic surveillance like the organized activists of old. As head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover said Black youth must be shown that “the only revolutionary is a dead revolutionary,” an infamous line that omits exile and prison as other options, of course. Finally, there is Lil’ Kim, of Hip-Hop Revolution: “Pardon me, Your Honor/May I approach the bench?/They’re trying to assassinate me/Like they did to Larry Flynt/Uh-hum. Excuse my persona/I may be hard-core/But I’m not Jeffrey Dahmer!” Enough said.
This was a brilliant response to the roar created by her classic debut, Hardcore. There were lovers as well as typically hypocritical haters. This was when her persecution was strictly rhetorical, or verbal, a trial of bourgeois public opinion. Gorged with double standards, the puritanical moralists said–in public, at least–she was a “bad woman,” as if this weren’t the highest compliment paid her foremothers in Black folklore and the Blues. How far removed from Black history and consciousness they must be. Lil’ Kim makes it beautifully clear to anyone who is not committed to illiteracy in the language and literature of Hip-Hop: “Big Momma Queen B***h” overturns male domination, lyrically, and rigid, homophobic gender identity on record–way more effectively than any elite Women’s or Gay & Lesbian Studies program in academia. Her whole system of rhymes radically redistributes power, pleasure and privilege, always doing the unthinkable, embracing sexuality on her kind of terms. So she is more “controversial” than Dahmer, the white cannibal who fed on Black flesh? Her statement about “moral crusades” and “criminal justice,” that it is more “criminal” than “just,” this could be no more clear and in the tradition of Hip-Hop.
But art becomes “evidence” in the prosecution of emcees, who have always argued that the system is itself gangster; or that it makes prosecution and persecution indistinguishable. Why was it important for a U.S. court to try Lil’ Kim for “perjury,” of all things (i.e., not complying with the “unquestionable” state, allegedly), To do so, it mobilized fears of “violence” that the Patriot Acts do not allow in the case against U.S. militarism, state repression, imperialism, etc. This was certainly a test-case for “Law and Disorder,” or the so-called “Hip-Hop Cops,” and the use of lyrics and music videos in courtrooms as opposed to classrooms. It is certainly a hit on the much-needed justice her art represents, to the fullest, the “sexual-poetic justice” which was a great theme of our course. The conviction is meant to hide state repression, state lies and COINTELPRO injustice; and by “state” I mean “the government” (as when Public Enemy rapped, “I got a letter from the government/I opened it, and read it/It said they were suckers!”). There will be no corporate media coverage of this perspective on the state: The New York Post asked me for my perspective, as the professor of the collegiate course on Lil’ Kim; but since I gave it to them, I’ve never heard back from them again.
Will sexism or sexual conservatism be a “Trojan Horse” for the government that would scapegoat her as an effective strategy for locking up Hip-Hop in general?
We see recycled certain old stereotypes here about Black women and “lies,” especially Black women who do not conform to white racist codes of sexual repression, as if this conviction could possible represent “justice.” Despite all the reports of 50 Cent’s ties to the NYPD, not to mention Eminem’s Secret Service agent security guards, any Hip-Hop that lacks the vision to see through state lies is not the real thing; any Hip-Hop that is too afraid to resist state lies and Rap COINTELPRO is fake as hell. This case was not about “perjury” at all, no more than the U.S. in Iraq is about “liberation.” It’s about whether or not we cooperate with state power, however illegitimate, and this includes its power to persecute us–as usual. It is about the power of the government to criminalize and imprison us along lines of race, class and Hip-Hop affiliation, over here, when they don’t send us to commit their own violence over there. And if “lies” were actually “immoral,” according to the U.S. state, its prison-industrial complex might not be large enough to house those who rule us.
How do we communicate the political absurdity of this brilliant Black female artist facing hard time in the age of George “Weapon of Mass Destruction” Bush, and all these corportate lies?
Lil’ Kim has always spoken a truth that everyone except her many fans seem to fear. As Sylvia Wynter might say, our intellectual and political struggles continue. No doubt, so will “Hip-Hop Eshu: Queen B***h 101,” for as long as her words are powerfully necessary; and that, they are.
Professor Greg Thomas teaches at Syracuse University.