Both Reading are attached as the questions as well
Each student will be required to make critical reflections and insights from the Reading Notes
(The first lecture “The Project Muse” is the only one who have specific questions, the other ones is Reading and comprehensive and tell whats the message and our opinion of the lecture)
The Lecture of “Brock Jr is divided in 2 parts : It would be one reflection of the Introduction and 1 chapter , and then another reflexion of the 2nd and 3rd Chapter)
Muzing New Hoods, Making New Identities Film, Hip-Hop Culture,
and Jazz Music
Guthrie P. Ramsey Jr.
Callaloo, Volume 25, Number 1, Winter 2002, pp. 309-320 (Article)
Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press
For additional information about this article
Access Provided by Prairie View A & M University at 09/14/10 11:47PM GMT
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309Callaloo 25.1 (2002) 309–320
MUZING NEW HOODS, MAKING NEW IDENTITIES
Film, Hip-Hop Culture, and Jazz Music
by Guthrie P. Ramsey, Jr.
We make our lives in identifications with the texts around us
Anahid Kassabian, Hearing Film Music
The medium of film has communicated, shaped, reproduced and challenged
various notions of black subjectivity in 20th century America since D.W. Griffith’s
Birth of a Nation appeared in 1915. Writing in 1949, Ralph Ellison argued that Birth of
a Nation “forged the twin screen image of the Negro as bestial rapist and grinning, eye-
rolling clown—stereotypes that are still with us today” (Ellison 275). Such depictions
in cinema had already existed in print media; and they have persisted in all mass-
mediated contexts in varying degrees throughout the century. Film, however, has
provided a most salient medium for the visual representation of African American
subjects. If, as Manthia Diawara has argued, the camera is, “the most important
invention of modern time,” then it becomes an even more powerful tool when its
technology is combined with the powers of music. Indeed, when filmmakers combine
cinematic images and musical gestures they unite two of our most compelling modes
of perception: the visual and the aural.
Below I consider two films produced during the Age of Hip Hop: Spike Lee’s Do
the Right Thing (1989) and Theodore Witcher’s Love Jones (1997).1 On an immediate
level, I am interested how music shapes the way we perceive these cinematic
narratives individually; how music informs the way audiences experience their
characters, locations, and plots. But I am also making a larger argument for how the
musical scores of these films are sites for the negotiation of personal identity and self-
fashioning on the one hand, and the making and negotiation of group identity, on the
other. Both of these activities inform “meaning” in important ways. Jazz music, in
these films generally serves as a foil to hip hop music, which the directors use as the
primary musical index for the black “authentic” subject. While the use of jazz in these
three films may be comparatively minor, a discussion of it is instructive about the
developing meanings of various black musical styles.
Below, I address several questions with regard to this cinematic function of music
in hip-hop film. What role does musical discourse play in cinematic representation?
If one of the primary thrusts of black cultural production has been the resistance to
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and countering of negative black stereotypes forwarded since Birth of a Nation, how
does the musical score of the film participate in this agenda? How does the score, in
fact, score or artistically (re)invent a black cinematic nation? The musical scores of Do
the Right Thing and Love Jones provides excellent examples of the fluidity and
contestation embedded in the notion “black identity,” a topic that had become such
a compelling one for theoretical, political, and artistic reflection in the late 20th
century. Before moving to the music in these films, I need to address an important
topic raised in most discussions of them: the degree to which they accurately portray
an “authentic” black cultural experience.
Keeping it Reel: Diversity, Authenticity,
and the Hip-Hop Muze
Hip hop culture has taken on the profile of a cottage industry because of aggressive
corporate commodification. The postindustrial decline of United States urban cen-
ters, a downward turn that ironically spawned hip hop’s developments, has been co-
opted by corporate America and represented as a glossy, yet gritty complex of music
idioms, sports imagery, fashion statements, racial themes, danger, and pleasure.
While history shows us the persistence of the exploitation of African American
culture in the United States, hip hop represents an exemplary case in this regard. As
the historian Robin D.G. Kelley writes, “few employment opportunities for African-
Americans and a white consumer market eager to be entertained by the Other, blacks
have historically occupied a central place in the popular culture industry” (Kelley 46).
Kelley argues further that
Nike, Reebok, L.A. Gear, and other athletic shoe conglomerates
have profited enormously from postindustrial decline. TV com-
mercials and print ads romanticize the crumbling urban spaces
in which African American youth must play, and in so doing
they have created a vast market for overpriced sneakers. These
televisual representations of “street ball” are quite remarkable;
marked by chain-link fences, concrete playgrounds, bent and
rusted netless hoops, graffiti-scrawled walls, and empty build-
ings, they have created a world where young black males do
nothing but play. (44)
The omnipresence of such imagery in the media has made a strong impact on notions
of “authenticity” in African American culture. And moreover, music and musical
practices continue to play a crucial role in the creation, re-negotiation, and critique of
the authenticity trope.
The intersection of hip hop musical practices and film serves as a cogent example.
Hollywood in the early 1990s presented young fans with films like New Jack City, Boyz
N the Hood, Strictly Business, and Juice, among others. Taken together, these films have
helped to create a highly recognizable hip-hop mode of representing a one dimension-
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al black youth culture. As filmmaker Spike Lee notes, these “inner-city homeboy
revues” created a world in which “all black people lived in ghettos, did crack and
rapped” (quoted in Gates 12). As thematic heirs of the 1970s blaxploitation genre of
film, the 1990s’ version has been dubbed “rapsploitation” or as Henry Louis Gates, Jr.,
has labeled it, “guiltploitation.” Gates uses the latter term to characterize what he sees
as a key message underlying many of these films: ambiguity about upward mobility.
His observations about class status and black mobility are worth noting:
The politics of black identity, and the determined quest to recon-
cile upward mobility with cultural “authenticity,” is a central
preoccupation of these films. If genuine black culture is the
culture of the streets, a point on which the blaxploitation films
were clear, how can you climb the corporate ladder without
being a traitor to your race? What happens when homeboy leaves
home? A new genre—guiltsploitation—is born. (Gates 12)
Gates sees this trend as directly linked to the attitudes and backgrounds of the
filmmakers. Rapsplotiation of the early 1990s occurred, in part, because of an emer-
gence of young, black, college-educated, and middle class directors. Gates argues that
these autuers did not choose to close “the gulf between the real black people behind
the camera and the characters they’ve assembled in front of it” (Gates 13).
Beyond this underlying class status tension, critics have also raised questions with
respect to gender issues in these films. Feminist critics such as Valerie Smith, Michele
Wallace, bell hooks, Wahneema Lubiana, and Jacquie Jones, among others, have
noted that the perceived “realness” of the rapsploitation film genre is also real hostile
to black women. But the class-based and feminist critiques of these films are some-
times difficult to articulate because of the compelling nature of the film experience
itself and what Smith has identified as a documentary impulse. Michele Wallace, for
example, admitted: “The first time I say John Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood , I was
completely swept away by the drama and the tragedy. It was like watching the last act
of Hamlet or Titus Andronicus for the first time. When I left the theater, I was crying
for all the dead black men in my family”(Wallace 123). Upon subsequent viewings,
however, Wallace noticed the strain of misogyny running throughout much of the
film. She perceived that Boyz and other films like it seemed to be saying that the dismal
social conditions depicted in these films were due to character flaws in the women.
Valerie Smith has argued that a documentary impulse authenticates these films
with claims that they represent the “real.” They achieve this documentary aura
through an uncritical use of various aural and visual markers of “real” black living
conditions, reproducing stereotypical ideas about African-Americans. The bound-
aries separating fact and fiction, truth and artistic invention become blurred. Smith
notes that critics, reviewers, and press kits assure audiences that these black male
directors were “endangered species” themselves and are thus “in positions of author-
ity relative to their material” (Smith 58).
While the importance of film cannot be dismissed, we should be careful to
recognize the difference between cinematic entertainment and the “truth” of lived
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experience. There does not exist a one-to-one homology between lived experience and
representations of such in film. At the same time, we should keep in mind that the
same social energy that sustains ideologies like misogyny and other forms of discrim-
ination also circulates in the narratives of these films. In other words, these directors
didn’t invent the misogyny, but they help to reproduce it. In this sense, they—perhaps
unconsciously—kept it real, as the saying goes.
Writer Lisa Kennedy has argued that the complex of money, narrative, and
pleasure bound up in film experiences makes them “extraordinarily powerful.” Film,
she writes, is how America looks at itself.” Nonetheless, she warns us against
confusing the “individual vision” of an artist like a filmmaker with “the” collective
reality of a group of people. Despite this warning, the dialogic interplay among “real”
lived experience and film narratives (and for that matter, television shows news
programs, independent documentaries, print media, and music) remains an impor-
tant fact of late-twentieth century life. In the case of film, “the real lives of people are
substantiated by their reel lives” (Kennedy 110).
And as I will argue over the next few pages, the nexus of “reel life” and music and
musical practices have import on the topic of black music and meaning. What
interests me here is not so much the critique of monolithic representations of black
class status and life expectations represented in these films. (As we shall see, the film
Love Jones does this more than adequately.) Nor do I want to question Hollywood’s
capital driven fixation on exploiting this topic. Rather, I want to explore film as one
way to enter into an analysis of the intersection of black identity and musical practice.
As writers, directors, producers, and composers work together to create convincing
characters and story worlds for audiences, they do so with the help of musical codes
that circulate and in some ways create cultural knowledge, in the present case, about how
“blackness” is experienced in the social world at that historical moment in question.
What’s the Score? Functions of Music in Film
Before turning to the specific films in question, it is necessary to provide a brief
overview of how music in cinema works generally. Broadly speaking, music works to
enhance the storyworld of the film; it deepens the audience’s experience of the
narrative and adds continuity to the film’s scene by scene progression, providing
what Claudia Gorbman calls the “bath of affect” (Gorbman 6). Anahid Kassabian argues
that the study of music in film should not be an afterthought to what might be considered
the more important areas of plot and characterization: “Music draws filmgoers into
a film’s world, measure by measure. It is . . . at least as significant as the visual and
narrative components that have dominated film studies. It conditions identification
processes, the encounters between film texts and filmgoers’ psyches” (Kassabian 1).
The music in contemporary Hollywood films divide into two broad categories. The
first is the composed score, which consists of music written specifically for the film.
The second type is the compiled score: songs collected from sources that often
preexisted the film. According to a Kassabian, these two modes of musical address are
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designed to generate different responses from the perceiver. The composed score, she
argues, is usually associated with the classical Hollywood score and encourages “assim-
ilating identifications,” that is, it helps to “draw perceivers into socially and histori-
cally unfamiliar positions, as do larger scale processes of assimilation” (Kassabian 2).
The scoring techniques of the classical Hollywood cinema can achieve this end
because of their unconscious familiarity to filmgoers: They have become naturalized
through constant repetition. With few exceptions, the musical language of 19th-
Century Romanticism forms the “core musical lexicon” of American films. Music’s
cultural and cinematic work depends on its ability to signify an emotion, a location,
a personality-type, a frightening situation, and so on. The specific musical language
of 19th-century Romanticism works well in this function because it has been used in
this way repeatedly since the 1930s. This repetition has produced a desired result in
film scores, since as Gorbman notes, “a music cue’s signification must be instantly
recognized as such in order to work” (Gorbman 4).
We can experience the hallmarks of these scoring techniques in the classic Holly-
wood film, In This Our Life.2 As the opening credits roll in this black & white film, we
hear Max Steiner’s familiar orchestral strains typical of films during this era. The
string section bathes the soundscape with sweeping melodies and a Wagnerian
orchestral lushness that signals to the audience intense emotion and melodrama.
Throughout the film, orchestral codes sharpen our perception of characters’ interior
motivations, propel the narrative forward, and help to provide smooth transitions
between edits. During the plot exposition of the film, for example, we met the vixen
Stanley, played by the inimitable queen of melodrama Bette Davis.
Although the other characters’ dialogues have revealed some of her less than
desirable personal qualities, the orchestral strains of the score reveal to the audience
much more than mere plot exposition could ever suggest. In her first appearance,
Stanley drives up to the house with a male passenger. Viewers hear an ominous
sounding minor chord that is scored in the lower registers of the sounding instru-
ments. As it turns out, the male passenger is her sister’s husband, a man with whom
Stanley is having a torrid affair. After a brief dialog between the two reveals Stanley’s
manipulative personality—underscored, of course, with melodramatic orchestral
passages—the score transitions into animated rhythmic gestures that dissolve into an
ascending pizzacato string passage as Stanley leaves the car and bounds up the steps
into the family’s spacious Victorian home. The music has helped to situate us in the
plot and to identify with its characters despite our own subject positions, which may
or may not be quite different from those depicted in the film.
The compiled score, a staple feature of many Hollywood films since the 1980s,
brings with it “the immediate threat of history” (Kassabian 3). It encourages perceiv-
ers to make external associations with the song in question and these reactions become
part of the cultural transaction occurring between the film and its audience. Compiled
scores produce what Kassabian calls “affiliating identifications.” The connections
that perceivers make depend on the relationship they have developed with the songs
outside of the context of the film experience. “If offers of assimilating identifications
try to narrow the psychic field,” Kassabian argues, “then offers of affiliating identi-
fications open it wide” (Kassabian 3). The discussion that follows will explore how
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such distinctions bear on the interpretation of music in hip hop film, a body of cinema with
obvious and strong associations with a genre of music with a discreet history unto itself.
Both the classic and compiled scores’ relationship to the story world of the film can
be divided into two primary modes of presentation: diegetic and nondiegetic music.
Diegetic (or source music) is produced from within the perceived narrative world of
the film. By contrast, nondiegetic music, that is, music produced from outside the
story world of the film serves the narration by signaling emotional states, propelling
dramatic action, depicting a geographical location or time period, among other
factors. Most of the music in a film fits into this category.
Another kind of musical address in film blends the diegetic and nondiegetic. Earle
Hagen calls this type of film music source scoring. In source scoring the musical cue
can start out as diegetic but then change over to nondiegetic. This kind of shift usually
occurs concurrently with a change in the cue’s relationship to onscreen events, most
likely with the narrative world and the musical score demonstrating a much closer fit
(Kassabian 44–45). With these ideas about music in film in mind, I turn now to Spike
Lee’s now classic film Do the Right Thing.
Do the Right Thing
As I stated above, Griffin’s Birth of a Nation stands as the symbolic beginning of
American cinema, providing a grammar book for Hollywood’s historic (and unques-
tionably negative) depiction of black subjects. Likewise, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing
(hereafter DTRT) may be viewed as a kind of Ur-text for black representation in the
so-called ghetto-centric, New Jack flicks of the Hip-Hop Era. This film is important for
a number of reasons. Lee succeeded in showing powerful Hollywood studios that this
new genre of comparatively low-budget films could be profitable to the major studios.
DTRT’s popular and critical reception (it earned millions and an Academy Award
nomination) caused Lee’s star to rise to such a degree that he became the most visible
black filmmaker of the past decade. Hollywood studios tried to duplicate DTRT’s
success, thus allowing other black directors access to the Hollywood production
system, albeit within predictably prescribed limits (Watkins 108).
Lee’s use of rap music (and some of the musical practices associated with it)
demonstrated how it could be used to depict a range of associations. Some of these
include: black male and female subjectivity, ethnic identity, a sense of location, emotional
and mental states, a specific historical moment, and the perspectives of age groups.
In these realms, DTRT cast a long shadow over the repertoire of acceptable character
types, plots, and themes in subsequent ghettocentric films during the Age of Hip Hop.
Scoring the Right Thing
DTRT conforms to some of the conventions of classical Hollywood cinema dis-
cussed above but with marked differences. Victoria E. Johnson has recognized the
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importance of music in DTRT, calling it Lee’s most musical film (Johnson). She
identifies two primary modes of musical rhetoric in the score. What she calls the
“historic-nostalgic” strain encompasses, for the most part, orchestral music written by
Lee’s father, Bill Lee. The sound is reminiscent of some of the chamber music by African-
American composer William Grant Still—quaint, genteel, and staid. Interestingly, Bran-
ford Marsalis’s jazz-inflected saxophone and Terrance Blanchard’s trumpet perform
the melodies.3 This music is always non-diegetic, and in Johnson’s view, serves to
convey a romanticized vision of community in the ethnically mixed neighborhood in
which the story takes place. This use of music corresponds to the classical approach.
Rap music rests at the other end of the aesthetic continuum in this film. The group
Public Enemy’s rap anthem “Fight the Power” (1989) is heard diegetically at various
points in the film as it pours out of the character Radio Raheem’s boom box. Johnson
argues that the other musical styles heard in the film, which includes jazz, soul, and
R&B, mediate the two extremes represented by rap and Bill Lee’s original score. There
is one exception to this observation, however. Jazz is also used non-diegetically to
help depict emotional exchanges between characters.
While I generally agree with Johnson’s reading, I depart from it on several points.
Johnson stresses that Lee is conversant with classical scoring conventions and that he
“manipulates convention in a traditional manner to orient spectators within the film
story” (Johnson 52). I experience DTRT somewhat differently here. The somewhat
unconventional approach of the score “disorients” the audience in my view. This
musical strategy is joined to unusual cinematic techniques such as “unrealistic” visual
angles that call attention to the camera, and a use of music that moves back and forth
between “bath of affect” and “listen to me” narrative positions.
The three modes of musical language in the film—the orchestral music of the
Natural Spiritual Orchestra (non-diegetic), the popular music played by WLOV radio
station (diegetic), and the rap music from Radio Raheem’s boom box (diegetic) create
a rather hectic and conflicted semiotic field. Consider, for example, the first five
scenes in which we hear the orchestral music that Johnson believes signals a roman-
ticized community. During a monologue in front of the Yes, Jesus Light Baptist
Church, the speech-impaired character Smiley talks about the futility of hate in
society while holding up a small placard of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Smiley’s stammering seems somewhat at odds with the placid musical gestures heard
in conjunction with it.
The next time we hear this mode of music, the Italian pizzeria owner Sal and his
sons Vito and Pino drive up to their shop, which sits on a garbage strewed corner of
a primarily black neighborhood. (Ironically, other scenes in the film portray the
neighborhood as whistle clean.) In this scene we learn of the deep hatred Vito harbors
for this neighborhood and for the people who live there. Although Sal admits with
glib resolution that the air-conditioner repairman had refused to come around
without an escort, he can barely contain his anger over both Vito’s attitude about
working in the neighborhood. This scene does not, in my view, conjure a romanticized
community. Again, the placid strains of the score seem strangely at odds with the
narrative world on screen.
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When the character Mookie (played by Spike Lee) exits his brownstone into the
morning sun, the neighborhood is stirring with Saturday morning activity. The
orchestral strains do portray a cozy, communal feeling in this third instance of hearing
this mode of music. But in the very next scene in which music of this type is heard, the
character Mother-Sister and Da Major, the neighborhood’s matriarch and patriarch,
respectively, trade insults with one another. The fifth time the orchestra is heard, Jade,
Mookie’s sister, is lovingly combing Mother-Sister’s hair on the sun-baked front stoop
of a brownstone. The communal feeling created by the music and the scene quickly
dissipates, however, as Mother-Sister deflects a compliment from Da Major, respond-
ing to his polite advance by hurling more insults. Thus, I see the score not so much
signaling community. It functions, rather, to highlight conflict and tension in the
narrative world of the film. This strategy sets the viewer on edge and frustrates any
“settle-ness” that might be forwarded in the scene.
But the music that Mister Senor Love Daddy plays on the radio station WLOV does
seem to signal community. It marks the geographic space of the neighborhood and
underscores his references to love and the importance of community togetherness. In
the early scenes of the film, the radio music, which consists of various styles of R&B—
replete with gospel singing and funk beats—is heard in sundry settings. We hear it in
Da Major’s bedroom as he rises, in Mookie’s and Jade’s apartment, in a Puerto Rican
home, and in a Korean-owned grocery store—in every cultural space except Sal’s
Pizzaria. This compiled score music inspires the idea of a “community,” one created
by the spatial boundaries of the radio station’s broadcast span.
Nonetheless, WLOV’s programming inspires one instance of community conflict.
When Mookie, an African American, dedicates a song (Rueben Blades’s “Tu y Yo”) to
his Puerto Rican girlfriend, Tina, a group of Puerto Rican young men enjoy the tune
on a front stoop. As Radio Raheem passes by playing “Fight the Power,” a battle of
decibels ensues. “Fight the Power” wins the bout as Radio Raheem’s boom box
overpowers the scene with one turn of the volume knob. This confrontation contrasts
with the first meeting of Radio Raheem’s music and that of WLOV. Community alliances,
like Lee’s cinematic uses of various musical styles, are fluid and situational. Why, one
might ask, didn’t the Puerto Ricans identify with the “Fight the Power” message?
Gorbman writes that “music is codified in the filmic context itself, and assumes
meaning by virtue of its placement in the film” (Gorbman 3). Because of the audience’s
familiarity with rap music and the dynamic formal qualities of the music, Lee is able
to highlight its “difference” from other musical styles in DTRT’s score. As the film
progresses, however, the audience experiences a level of familiarity with “Fight the
Power” because of its persistent use. Lee is able to re-encode rap music’s signifying
affect during the film’s narrative.
Lee can achieve this because he capitalizes on the history of Public Enemy’s
reputation outside the use of “Fight the Power” in this film. Clearly, this use fits into
the affiliating identifications category. At the same time, the repetitive hearings of the
piece also allow us to spill over into the assimilating identifications arena. I argue this
because the repetitive use of “Fight the Power” allows Lee to manipulate audience
members of different subject positions to relate to the musical conventions and
political message of the piece because they understand what it means cinematically.
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Thus, they have been assimilated into a particular reaction or identification with the
music and, perhaps, the story world and its characters as well.
If the typical classic Hollywood film score renders the audience “less awake,” as
Gorbman contends, then Lee’s use of rap music breaks that pattern. He positions it as
an intrusive, embodied presence in the film.
Among all of the music rooted in the black vernacular, jazz plays a minimal role.
When jazz is heard, it functions much like the music of classical Hollywood scoring.
Its signifying affect narrows the psychic field, assimilating a diverse audience of
perceivers into identifications with an emotional state, for instance. This observation
cuts two ways. For one, it shows where jazz is situated in hip hop discourse of the late
1980s. It had a somewhat marginal status, one that would certainly change, however,
in subsequent years. Second, jazz had achieved a level of familiarity that approached
that of 19th-century orchestral music and could, therefore, be used to situate a
listener’s identifications in the storyworld of a film. As we shall see below, jazz-
related and inspired practices would soon become a more important factor in hip
hop’s aesthetic profile.
Constructing the New Black Bohemia in Love Jones
The film Love Jones expands the hip-hop lexicon of acceptable black subjects and
their corresponding musical associations. The film is an urban, Afro-romantic come-
dy, written and directed by Theodore Witcher and is set in contemporary Chicago.
Darryl Jones, a bassist and native Chicagoan, scored the original music. Love Jones’
eclectic soundtrack and the “musicking” practices associated with the music distin-
guishes the film from run-of-the mill romantic comedies.
Consider the …