Monday, June 09, 2008

The Pornographer's Daughter




I.

      For the December/January 2003 cover of Russell Simmons’ now defunct fashion and music magazine One World, Lil’ Kim posed in a designer bikini and a burqa, raising the ire of many Muslims across the spectrum of Islamic faith. It was a hugely evocative image. The oppositional garments are fraught with symbolic heft individually; when they’re taken in tandem, the viewer almost feels gorged on culture clash and its metaphors. Fundamentalists reacted in predictable outrage at the disrespect of having a half naked, unapologetically hypersexual woman use the traditional head cover for a photo-shoot prop. But even some moderate-to-progressive Muslims who hold mixed or negative feelings toward the burqa were less than pleased with the photo. (Some likely just yawned.)
      Following the September 11, 2001 attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, Muslims saw their religion and symbols that are (accurately or not, fairly or not) associated with it commandeered by Islamic fundamentalists and misunderstood by fear mongering and mongered people around the world. Kim’s and the magazine’s contrived shock gesture was seen by many (not just Muslims, and not just killjoys) as the cavalier, opportunistic usage of a politically/culturally charged artifact, with no thought beyond generating easy controversy. It was a heavy-handed “statement” – the profane, hypersexual woman brazenly rocking and mocking the perceived symbol of female oppression and suppression. The idea sizzles on paper but somehow came off facile in the execution.
      The problem from a strictly political-art POV was that the balance was off. The controversial headgear grossly outweighed the cartoon femme sporting it. If anything, the burqa turned the tables and mocked her, called her on her own hypocrisy and lack of self awareness. Kim pulling on the burqa was her high-heeling her way into an arena more culturally and politically complex than anything her work or persona had grappled with or even acknowledged before. Female agency and sexuality are hot-button issues in that arena but they’re bracketed by a host of perceptions and misperceptions, seemingly conflicting directives. Kim’s photo was a blatant stab at Madonna-style controversy, without even the pretense of deeper political awareness, commentary or contrived agenda in which Madonna shrouds herself when flipping the money-making bird to patriarchal authority.
      The unabashed-hood-ho-made-good mythology and rep that Lil’ Kim has built around herself have resulted in a persona that’s hollowed out. For all the bluster and bravado issued, there’s very little there, there. (The distinction has to be made between the woman and her public self; it’s significant.) Meanwhile, the burqa is a battleground of meaning. Heated scholarly debate has raged around whether or not the burqa and the veil are religious or cultural items. Esteemed Islamic scholars and historians have repeatedly declared that they’re the latter, with no basis in the Quran. Still, there are huge disagreements over what the Quran does or does not say or mean regarding modesty and the covering of women’s bodies. Nuance, and the fact that there are different sects and interpretations of Islam at play on the world stage, is often missed in mainstream dialogue about the religion. And that’s been a source of confusion and fear for a lot of non-Muslims, many of whom fold assorted horrors (female circumcision, honor killings, creeping fundamentalism and fanaticism) under the symbolic fabric of the burqa.
      The politics around Lil’ Kim have always been site specific to the body and scars of Kim herself, overlapping, obviously, with issues of patriarchy, misogyny, sexism, and racism that women around the globe deal with. But Kim’s never really shown that she understands or is even aware of the myriad interlocked ways that women (including herself) are truly oppressed, and may participate in their own oppression. That’s never been subject matter for her self-obsessed Vagina Dentata monologues. The sexual hypocrisy she ostensibly turns tables on by mimicking heartless male fucking with voracious and emasculating female carnality, all while name-checking designer fashion; the violent gangsta moll and Queen Bee (Queen Bitch) fantasies she maps out in song after song, CD after CD; the bemoaning of her mo’ money mo ‘problems status (including being plagued by backstabbing women and sell-out niggas) have all often been amusing and occasionally inspired. But her autobiographical lyrics, even when spinning off into the realm of obvious fantasy, are from the pen of a woman who hasn’t demonstrated much commentator nuance or world perspective, and who seemingly has only the narrowest consciousness of issues and worlds beyond herself and the “reality” she’s cribbed from her own life but filtered through pop culture dictates of “authentic” (and desperate) blackness: criminality, hyper-sexuality, obsession with material wealth. Ironically, that’s what gives her work its force – it has the red-hot scald of a narcissist’s self obsession.



II

       “My father was kind of an outcast in his family. His sister was light-skinned so she was favored. I think he kinda brought that to his children.” – Lil’ Kim, interviewed by Rob Marriott for the Vibe magazine article, “What Price Queen Bee?” June/July 2000

      Kimberly Denise Jones, born July 11, 1975 in Brooklyn, is one of the most important artists in hip-hop. It has almost nothing to do with her music. The first buzz around her came from her raps on the hit singles “Player’s Anthem” and “Get Money” with Biggie Small’s Junior M.A.F.I.A. collective. The only femme in the posse, she all but stole the 1995 album Conspiracy right from under the fellas. Back then, she was a cute, petite, cocoa-complexioned, brown-eyed, small breasted, blunt-spoken young black woman – black like “The Love You Save” / “I’ll Be There” Michael Jackson. By the time she dropped her 1996 solo debut, Hardcore (whose lyrics and the uproar behind them recalled the controversy that erupted around Vanity 6 and their explicit, ball-breaking songs over a decade earlier,) her physical transformation was already underway, though few would have guessed how far it would go. Just before the album dropped, major cities across the country were wheat-pasted with that infamous one-sheet of her squatting, legs spread, pussy visibly outlined through her drawers, staring defiantly into the camera. Hardcore, and Kim’s accompanying style and persona, rewrote the blueprint for female MCs, spawning countless imitators. The CD established itself as a hip-hop classic with the hits “No Time,” “Big Momma Thang,” “Not Tonight” and “Crush on You.”
      In 1997 iconic rapper Biggie Smalls, Kim’s lover and mentor was murdered. He’d married fair-skinned, biracial Faith Evans in 1995 (reportedly after knowing her for nine days) while still involved with Kim, with whom he’d been in a relationship for years. The grieving Kim – now an unofficial widow, like countless sideline-women throughout history – took three years to release her sophomore CD, 2000’s Notorious KIM. It was named in honor of Biggie but was also a play on her increasingly scandal-driven rep. The cover art shows a Kim who’s gotten implants, a wind-blown blond weave, blue contact lenses, and photo-shop skin lightening. “How Many Licks” and “Suck My Dick” were the minor hits / fan favorites. Though the cover of 2003’s La Bella Mafia had her back in dark hair, her ever-growing chesticles chronicled her ongoing descent into plasticity. By the time of 2005’s Naked Truth (flawed, but her best album since her debut,) she’s a ringer for an anime girl: Straight, lightened hair; blue contacts; collagen lips; skin so light in the airbrushing that her face looks like a painting. There’s little left of the black girl from Junior M.A.F.I.A.



       “Yet we have only to look at the number of black women entertainers/stars (Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, Donna Summer, Vanessa Williams, Yo-Yo, etc.) who gain greater crossover recognition when they demonstrate that, like Madonna, they too have a healthy dose of ‘blonde ambition.’ Clearly their careers have been influenced by Madonna’s choices and strategies.
      For masses of black women, the political reality that underlies Madonna’s and our recognition that this is a society where “blondes” not only “have more fun” but where they are more likely to succeed in any endeavor is white supremacy and racism. We cannot see Madonna’s change in hair color as being merely a question of aesthetic choice. I agree with Julie Burchill in her critical work Girls on Film, when she reminds us: “What does it say about racial purity that the best blondes have all been brunettes (Harlow, Monroe, Bardot)? I think it says that we are not as white as we think. I think it says that Pure is a Bore.” I also know that it is the expressed desire of the non-blonde Other for those characteristics that are seen as the quintessential markers of racial aesthetic superiority that perpetuate and uphold white supremacy. In this sense Madonna has much in common with the masses of black women who suffer from internalized racism and are forever terrorized by a standard of beauty they feel they can never truly embody.” – bell hooks, Black Looks: Race and Representation

       “They call me the black Pam Anderson.” – Lil’ Kim to Blender magazine’s Rob Tannenbaum, May 2003

III

      There was something thrilling and subversive, the feel of lines being crossed, propriety being pissed on, with Hardcore. It was the unleashed id of someone who’d been silenced and ignored, then come roaring back from the sidelines. As such, it wasn’t just embraced by black, hetero women who found in Kim an outlet for their truths and / or fantasies. (On the flipside, many black women recoiled at her coarseness, seeing her as the manifestation of stereotypes and preconceptions they battle daily.) Assorted outsiders embraced the CD, underscoring a common denominator: The sexualities of women (of all orientations) and gay men become receptacles into which all manner of fear, suspicion, myth and dysfunctional desire are dumped. The human beings upon whom this murk is projected have to climb from under it to define self and sexuality. In particular, Kim became an instant icon for a host of gay black boys whose online profiles and internet personas would reference her bawdy lyrics and increasingly drag-queen-like image(s) for years. When she rapped on “Big Momma Thang” that she, “used to be scared of the dick / Now I throw lips to the shit,” punctuating her boast about proudly taking it up the ass with her trademark, “yah!,” her lack of shame or guilt around her unbridled sexuality served as a powerful blueprint for her new disciples.
      While furor was stoked around her lyrics, it was Kim’s voice, her literal speaking instrument – deep, forceful, no-nonsense – that was so enthralling. It was a voice that barreled unapologetically forward, that didn’t cower or hide or ask permission. There was nothing tentative about it. It was a voice made tough and defiant from experience but that flicked away broken-victim status. It was a you-don’t-wanna-fuck-with-me voice that reveled in the escapist pleasures and big money paydays of fucking. Detractors didn’t always hear it, but triumph was as much between the lines as between the sheets. The lyrics may have been triple-X and narrowly focused but for a lot of fans it was that voice which spoke to larger struggles and survival of them. And for a while, that was enough.


      Kim is a hip-hop / rap VIP because she’s the embodiment of a certain connection between American Negro creativity and ground-zero Negro realities in a way that few rap or hip-hop artists are. Black Americans constantly reinvent our music, our fashion, our art movements, ourselves, as (conscious or not) acts of resistance, to scribe our lives, dreams and realities into the ever shifting sands of relevance and meaning in American culture and politics. To lift ourselves above America in order to give self to self. We constantly reset the terms that others then follow. But we carry the seeds of self-hatred – absorbed white supremacy and racism – within our psyches like a virus, and whatever “next” shit we come up with is infected at conception. Illness crops up like a cancerous old subtext that constantly threatens to overwhelm the new text. And sometimes it does. Hip-hop evolved from Black and Puerto Rican street expression in the Bronx into the pro-black consciousness of KRS-1 and Public Enemy. That gave way to (was pushed toward) cartoonish thuggery and consumerist niggery in which blackness is sold as a disposable, market-driven commodity subservient to the whims and dictates of whiteness. Full circle back to plantation perspective. Others may have been pulling the strings of rap’s (d)evolution, but Negroes already knew the shuck & jive/bend over & spread ‘em moves by heart.
      The adult Kimberly Denise Jones is a clearly damaged figure: Fake titties, butchered nose, tranny chipmunk cheeks, pumped up lips, blonde Ross-like weaves, colored contact lenses. Mutilated and disfigured. Mangled. The external as too-obvious-metaphor for the internal. But how do you define self and power when your imagination has been jacked (or as academics would say, colonized) and when victories you would claim as liberating and self-empowering actually circle back to re-inscribe the status quo that diminishes you? Dig the post-Black-but-old-school vintage self-hatred that’s in full and seemingly permanent effect, despite protestations to the contrary.

Excerpted from the essay The Pornographer’s Daughter: Lil’ Kim Likes It Raw. Copyright 2008 by Ernest Hardy.

For the rest of the essay, check out Blood Beats Vol. 2: The Bootleg Joints.

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3 comments:

Anonymous said...

intellectual masturbation at its finest!

take two tourés and call me in the morning.....

Tino said...

Wow In other words, Lil Kim is anonymous...

Anonymous said...

This is a link to a Hard Knock radio session which may be somewhat related to your article.

Advance the stream about 7 minutes as everything before than is mostly news highlights.

Misogyny of all sorts gets a past from so many of us.



http://kpfa.org/archives/index.php?arch=26877