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Literature Last Updated: May 30th, 2008 - 11:49:13

Ernest Hardy's Bloodbeats
By Mark Anthony Contributing Editor
Jul 11, 2006, 00:25

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Bloodbeats: Vol. 1—Demos, Remixes & Extended Versions (Redbone Press) by Ernest Hardy

Keep this nigga boy writing—Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

I thought about the above quote as I began to read Ernest Hardy’s new collection of essays. The “nigga boy” that Gates was referring to was Greg Tate and the quote appears in Gates’ forward to Tate’s collection Flyboy in the Buttermilk: Essays on Contemporary America (1992). It was as if Gates intuitively understood that there would be little motivation for Tate to keep writing in a world where there would be little acknowledgement and even less love for the art of cultural criticism—particularly written by Black folk and, in the case of Tate, an Afro-bohemian at that. That Ernest Hardy is not generally recognized as one of the smartest and most nuanced critics working today bespeaks the very pitfalls that Gates seemed to portend nearly 15-years ago. And while I’d like to say that the publication of Bloodbeats: Vol. 1 will change all of this, it is perhaps better said that Bloodbeats sets the bar high for those for which cultural criticism—journalistic or otherwise—has been reduced to name dropping and ego-tripping.

Hardy’s essays and reviews have appeared in organs as diverse as Vibe, The New York Times, The Source, and the Millennium Film Journal, but it is his regular work at the LA Weekly that has earned him a loyal following. Much of Bloodbeats is drawn from his work at the (so-called) independent weekly from 1996-2000. His work resides at the obvious (to some) intersections of Blackness, gender and sexuality, but to simply align his writing and style to the now clichéd province of intersectionality is to miss the point of the work. This is writing that is doing real labor—heavy lifting, if you will—on behalf of those folks—the artists, the audiences, and the activists—who are grappling with “new language in the effort to overthrow…everything.”.

The space of “intersectionality” that so many of us lovingly and legitimately embrace is just an empty signifier for the possibilities that exist just beyond our own abilities to name and claim those possibilities. And for Hardy, this doesn’t just resonate in the artistry of Jean-Michael Basquiat (“When your life is not valued, when you are shoved to the margins, the art you create to reflect who you are and what you experience of the world might likely be a howl of protest against the so-called norm”) but also during the early 1970s where rock ‘n’ roll was pushed “hard into the realm of identity politics…subtext and text flipped back and forth constantly, and gender roles were demolished. Sexuality was liquid and queer still had meaning beyond simple faggotry.”

In a moment when the lines are too often blurred between critics selling us sumshit and actually trying to make us think (to think about art, would be too much to ask), Hardy is fully cognizant of his (and our) own complicity in an enterprise for which the “many enclaves of Blackness…are scooped out and placed into jars, to be catalogued and studied…theorized and sold.” As Hardy admits, “[S]elling blackness is permissible in the marketplace; celebrating it is not. Few folks know the difference..” Such jewels of wisdom are unearthed throughout Bloodlines, but Hardy rarely theorizes at the expense of the art (as those of use who are academics writing popular criticism are often apt to do). Thus Hardy can be alternately persuasive (his review of PM Dawn’s body of work), prescient (linking the late Lisa “Left-Eye” Lopes career trajectory to the late Supreme Florence Ballard, four years before Lopes’s death), brave (“Hip-hop has been colonized by bourgeois Negroes, with the media being a major point of infection.”) and just plain smart, as when he describes Marlena Shaw’s 1977 single “Yu Ma/Go Away Little Boy” as a blueprint for Erykah Badu’s “Tyrone.”

Like any critic desiring mainstream portability (and that would include the world of independent weeklies) Hardy shows off his cultural fluidity, thus we are treated to reviews of films such as “High Art” (1998) and Todd Haynes’ “Velvet Goldmine” (1998), alongside his reads on Afroboho classics like “Love Jones” (1997) and “Hav Plenty” (1997). Hardy’s music criticism comes off as much less fluid (at least in terms of range of genre), but that likely has more to do with what kinds of music Black critics are allowed to write about. The beauty, though, of Hardy’s music criticism is that like the best of the folks who have written about “Black music,” the music simply serves as a starting point for the complexities of Black life, mirroring in many ways, the very utility of Black music in the lives of Black folk, in the first place. This last point is particularly relevant to the two essays that really capture the breadth of Hardy’s travels within Blackness, in this case seemingly expansive gap between the artistic worlds of Tupac Shakur and Me’shell NdegeOcello.

Writing on the occasion of Tupac Shakur’s death, Hardy recalls his only fact-to-face encounter with the slain rapper, which typically found Shakur giving off “that patented daggers-in-the-eyes look that Black men reserve for each other” but really revealed a young man whose “face was the one that [Tupac] once told Vibe had gotten him teased mercilessly by his cousins when he was growing up: pretty, almost girlish, and unguarded.” Shakur embodied the cultural schizophrenia that is damn near unique to African-American men (and I do mean African-American as opposed to diasporic masculinities). As Hardy describes this reality, Shakur “improvised as he went, awkwardly and clumsily, embracing authenticity clichés because he had little proof that his existence would be recognized otherwise.” When Hardy’s critique to Shakur’s performative gestures are juxtaposed with his equally trenchant observations of Ndege’Ocello (“A Black, bi-sexual working mother whose art is rooted in unapologetic political testifying and unflinching romanticism…something both rare and powerful: freedom within the margins”), it becomes clear the struggles within maintaining one’s self both within and beyond the art. Ultimately the market will toss you aside and what you are left with, in the case of Ndege’Ocello, is only your humanity or in Hardy’s words, “not some industry-generated, flossing jigaboo, but a living, breathing struggling ‘self contained within the grooves.”

Hardy closes Bloodbeats with an extended “bonus disc”—a compelling examination of the burgeoning Homo-hop scene that LA Weekly refused to publish back in 2000. The article speaks to both the illusions of freedom that true artistry promises and the bottom-line realities that ultimately bankroll our desires as writers and critics. When all is said, Hardy is a critics’ critic—the kind of writer that demands that we all go back to the lab and press on.

Mark Anthony Neal is the author of four books including the recent New Black Man, which will be published in paperback in September. Neal is Associate Professor of African and African-American Studies at Duke University. He blogs at

© Copyright 2006

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