Sunday, May 11, 2008

I'm Gagging...

Here's the first review of Blood Beats Vol. 2: The Bootleg Joints. Written by Alisha Gaines, it's in the current issue of American Book Review, May-June 2008 (vol. 29, n. 4)

      The first draft of this review began boldly enough: “There are very few writers I would call genuine ‘cultural critics’ …and then there’s Ernest Hardy.” Satisfied, I kept the line until chancing upon an interview conducted by Steven Fullwood entitled “Writing in Ernest” (2006) in which Hardy emphatically denounces my attempt at flattery: “I hate the term cultural critic.” And while this review is not shaped to meet Hardy’s taste, his refusal to embrace a term often used to describe him challenges the work and role of the cultural critic, but also, more importantly, how the seeming exceptionality of that relation to cultural production has been grossly fetishized. Hardy then goes on to describe himself as simple a “film and music critic,” a description that falls way too short of fully summarizing the breadth and freshness of his work as seen in publications as diverse as Vibe, Rolling Stone, The New York Times, and most notably and regularly, LA Weekly.

      Then it hit me.
      Ernest Hardy is a black critic.
      Let me explain.

      Hardy operates from a modality of blackness where blackness is, by its very ontology, a trenchant critical stance. “I work from the position that blackness is the most expansive, dynamic and universal filter through which to gauge and interpret the world,” he says later in the same interview. “It just is. It’s certainly been the most vital and important cultural well in this country, the source of its heart and soul.” It is this very heart and soul that pulses throughout Blood Beats: Vol. 2 / The Bootleg Joints, the follow-up to the 2007 PEN/Beyond Margins Award winner, Blood Beats: Vol. 1 / Demos, Remixes & Extended Versions. As Hardy’s epigraph to Vol. 1 cites James Baldwin’s hand-me-down advice to “go the way your blood beats,” the quickening in his veins moves him both through and beyond Los Angeles as he turns a critical and adoring eye on communities working, living, and creating, most often in spite of, and in the cracks left by, the seeming hegemony of mass modes of cultural production. Reminding those “struggling creative folk, that you don’t have to wait for the machine to validate you, that you can do it for yourself,” Hardy’s collection of essays, reviews, and interviews unabashedly considers everything from the “real hip hop” of Kim Hill, the recently unappreciated stylings of Dolly Parton, and Agnès Varda’s remarkable documentary The Gleaners and I (2000) to the commercial blandness of actor Freddie Prinze Jr. and America’s favorite wigger, Eminem.

      Practicing a feminist politics when most are content to only pretend to do so, Hardy opens Vol. 2 with a choir of women’s voices, or a “SampladelicaFemmeatopia” as he titles it. Citing Toni Morrison speaking to the Parisian press, “We [African Americans] made modernity in that country [the US],” Hardy then excerpts an achingly intimate conversation between Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich before shattering the quiet with the deliciously bawdy Roseanne Barr. This sonic assemblage (or perhaps it is only this reviewer that can hear Barr reminding us that “All of American culture is pimp culture”) sets the stage for Hardy’s special brand of deeply insightful funk even as it is sutured to discussions of the most mainstream aspects of popular culture. In a parenthetical riff on the notorious beef between rappers DMX and Ja Rule, for instance, Hardy sharply declares, “You can take black folks’ temperature to find out how the American body is doing.”

      Mining multiple sites of possibility and resistance, Hardy refuses to over-edit, offering us that raw footage most would leave behind on the cutting-room floor. He does so “living at the end of [an] imagination” that sees beyond the stereotypical constraints of both blackness and queerness with a humor that is as profound as it is brash. “If Sex and the City were cast with Negroes and Carrie Bradshaw had dreads and an ass, this might be the show’s nightlife scene,” he writes to describe Rassela’s, an after-hours spot in San Francisco. While Hardy follows blood, he does so while remaining critical of the hackneyed performances of authenticity that often dictate communal belonging. It is this renegotiaton of what “realness” looks, feels, and sounds like that provides coherence to the collection. In “Young Soul Rebels: Negro/Queer Experimental Filmmakers,” Hardy dares to push his readers beyond the seductions of the minstrel versions of blackness that have become comfortably lucrative for some and a violent undoing for others. He writes,

      "We’re all seduced into wanting to play along… Whether it’s spoon-fed uplift the race bullshit or plantation legacies (refurbished by mainstream rap music and videos) of thugs, pimps and gangstas, we are comfortable with and eagerly support images and storylines that merely regurgitate cliché and stereotype or that allow us to be “empowered” by simply putting black faces on cinematic archetype and creaky formula."

      Here, Hardy reminds us to subvert, distort, and play with the edges of blackness. Or as he writes, “Blackness is experimental.”

      Hardy ends his collection with two very sexy, previously unpublished “downloads”—an almost too lengthy genre-bending essay of personal reflection and multi-person interviews on the gay, mainly Latino, porn scene in New York, and a quilted “interview” with Lil’ Kim stitched together from a series of other sources (her publicist let Hardy know she wasn’t interested in a sit down). While the Lil’ Kim essay is inspired by the now infamous photograph of her sporting a bikini and burqa on the cover of One World, both pieces fly in the face of propriety, interrogating constructions of colored sexuality and gender that work to soothe and balm, as well as irritate.

      Hardy theorizes the political through the banal and the spectacular, the funky and the vanilla, while unapologetically forcing his readers to take some necessary conceptual risks: to challenge categories of identity, agitate the status quo, and push the boundaries of what is counted as “culture.”

      This is black criticism.

Alisha Gaines is pursuing her doctorate in the English Department at Duke University, as well as a certificate in African and African American studies. Her interests include twentieth- and twenty-first-century African American narrative, queer epistemologies, visual popular culture, and Michael Jackson.

Buy Blood Beats here

BONUS:

The same issue of American Book Review features this brief but very cool profile of my publisher, Lisa Moore. It was written by Alexis Pauline Gumbs:


      Lisa Moore founded RedBone Press after successfully publishing the groundbreaking anthology does your mama know? An Anthology of Black Lesbian Coming Out Stories in 1997. Featuring work by black lesbian feminist publishing figures including Alexis De Veaux (creator of Diva Publishing Enterprises), Makeda Silvera (founder of Toronto’s Sister Vision Press), Cheryl Clarke (who re-published her self-published book Narratives: Poems in the Tradition of Black Women with Kitchen Table Press in 1982), and Shay Youngblood, who published the important weekly Sisters in Atlanta, Georgia, Moore’s publishing project has been in conversation with a black feminist trajectory from the outset. In fact, when Moore decided to start RedBone, she spoke with the former founders and managers of Kitchen Table Press about her decision to create a publishing space dedicated to black LGBTQ voices.

      RedBone Press has an award-winning selection of collections and monographs by contemporary authors, and has also re-released Brother to Brother (2007), a classic conversational text created by Essex Hemphill and Joseph Beam that has been out of print for years. RedBone ambitiously fulfills a two-fold black feminist mission of both creating space for new critical voices to emerge and insisting on the relevance of earlier work by thinkers committed to the wholeness and freedom of black communities.

      RedBone’s 2008 release by PEN award-winner Ernest Hardy, Blood Beats: Vol. 2 / The Bootleg Joints, consciously pushes the edges of the publishable and exemplifies the formal bravery and avant-garde boldness that only an independent press can offer. Alisha Gaines, an African American and cultural studies scholar who has published work on black cultural performance as varied as Michael Jackson and minstrelsy, is an invested reader of Hardy’s experimental intervention into what it means (not) to be a black cultural critic.

1 comment:

FNJ said...

A beautiful article that articulates what us fans feel about your work but can't express so eloquently! You are one of the best writers of our generation and the world WILL know AND acknowledge!