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Oh Brother 2006: 'My Passport Says Shawn'
By Mark Anthony Contributing Editor
Nov 27, 2006, 23:46

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Around the year 1977, the late poet Audre Lorde began to introduce herself at poetry readings as a “Black, lesbian, feminist, mother poet warrior.” According to Alexis De Veaux in her biography of Lorde Warrior Poet, fellow poet June Jordan did not see the need for Lorde to articulate her lesbian identity, in particular, because “she felt distanced from Lorde’s complex definitions as more than Black.” Lorde’s choice of a complex identity, no doubt rooted in her Blackness, is an early articulation of what curator Thelma Golden would later describe as “post-Blackness”—not quite The End of Blackness that my friend Debra Dickerson refers to, but a Blackness that willingly destabilizes essentialist notions of what exactly Black people and Black culture are.

Lorde began to grapple with these definitions early in her life. As De Veaux suggests, “Lorde was to become ‘a living philosopher’ whose social consciousness was articulated through constant intellectual shape-shifting as she came to view herself as representative of multiple oppressed communities—identities that were at once externally static and internally fluid.” Lorde’s conceptualization of a complex Black identity would be fully articulated in her book Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. According to De Veaux, Zami “originated a new discursive space for more complex renderings of Black women’s lives…With this reframed identity at its center…Zami posed Lorde’s identity and sexuality as fluid aspects of her transnational Blackness, rooted both in migration between ‘there’ and ‘here’ and in the ‘there’.”

In late 2001, hip-hop artist Jay Z recorded a live session that was eventually broadcast as part of MTV’s Unplugged series. Sitting on a stool, wearing a Che Guevara t-shirt and jokingly referring to the session “Jay Z’s poetry reading,” Jay Z began his performance stating that “I go by a couple of names…sometimes they call me Jay Z, sometimes they call me Jigga, sometimes they call me young hov’ (iceberg), tonight I’m ‘H to the Izzo, V to the Izza’ (sung by vocalist Jaguar Wright).” Here Jay Z articulates what has been a time-tested mainstay in hip-hop—that of the multiple persona. But whereas most hip-hop artists simply adopt alternative personas, often referencing an underground drug lord or fictional Mafioso figures, Jay Z has created a complex “hip-hop” identity that speaks to concepts such as fluidity, mobility and social capital.

Christopher Holmes Smith suggests that among so-called hip-hop moguls, including Jay Z, a “major aspect of the mogul’s utopian sense of freedom is one of identity shifting, or at the least, identity layering.” Smith adds, that “while hip-hop moguls can never be said to deny their racial and ethnic heritage, they are encouraged to use the material aspects of gangster social formations…to expand the options for social performativity normally afforded Blacks or Latinos.”

Theorist Ronald A. T. Judy defines authenticity in hip-hop as “adaptation to the force of commodification.” Notions of “adaptability” and “fungibility” are economically expressed within hip-hop discourse with a term like “flow,” which references not only a technical proficiency at performing lyrics but the global circulation of hip-hop culture. In a telling and at times bizarre profile of Jay Z on an episode of "60 Minutes II" broadcast in November of 2002, interviewer Bob Simon says to the rapper: “Now people have told me that in the business, you’ve got the best flow. My problem is, I don’t know what that means.” Jay Z responds “here’s the melody (hums) Me I’ll rhyme like (making rhyming sounds). So I’m in sync with the beat, like when the music’s going (hums) I’m going (making rhyming sounds), with words though. See?” What Jay has articulated to his befuddled interviewer is the concept of “flow” as a metaphor for adaptability.

Jay Z’s very career as a rapper is premised on his ability to adapt. The artist first emerged on the track “Can I Get Open,” which he recorded as a member of the group Original Flavor. On the track, the group members, including Jay Z, feature a rapid fire delivery originally associated with Big Daddy Kane and later refined by acts like Leaders of the New School (featuring a young Busta Rhymes) and Das EFX. By the time Original Flavor released “Can I Get Open” the rapid-fire style was passé as hip-hop fell under the sway of West Coast G-Funk. When Jay Z reemerges in 1996 with Reasonable Doubt, his delivery is more subdued—some have called it lazy—but it is a style more in sync with the flow of artists like Nas and The Notorious B.I.G., who were at the forefront of the resurrection of the New York City rap scene. As critic Kelefa Sanneh describes it, Jay Z’s “words pour out so effortlessly that rhyme and rhythm seem almost like an afterthought.” Jay Z alludes to his switch-over on the track “My 1st Song” on his so-called retirement recording, The Black Album, by mimicking his rapid fire delivery from “Can I Get Open.”

Within the Jay Z oeuvre, songs like “Can’t Knock the Hustle”, “Rap Game/Crack Game,” “Hard Knock Life”, “Dope Man” “Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love)” and “All Around the World” are legendary examples of the relationship between rhetorical and social flow. Perhaps the best example of Jay Z’s flow in this regard is contained in the remix to his popular hit, “Girls, Girls, Girls.” In the line “but for now I get Around/like the late Makiavelli or Perelli twenty inches/or Caine and O-dog stick up tape from menace” Jay Z metaphorically captures his fluidity by linking his flow to “I Get Around” a popular song by the late Tupac Shakur (who changed his name to Makiavelli towards the end of his life). He also celebrates Tupac’s social capital as a sexual icon within hip-hop, the literal rotation of a brand of automobile tires held in high regard among ghetto taste makers and, finally, a fictional video tape that circulated in the Hughes ghettocentric film “Menace II Society.” The film begins with the main characters, Caine and O-Dog, involved in a shooting of a Korean store owner. After shooting the store owner, O-Dog takes the video tape that captured the shooting. In the aftermath of the shooting O-Dog often shows the video to others as a way to validate his hardcore ghetto “rep.” Thus Caine and O-Dog’s social capital is directly linked to the circulation of the video tape—it was indeed their calling card. By linking his own social capital to the most celebrated icon within hip-hop, to a material possession that conveys ghetto chic and to a cinematic example of how to build social capital in ghettocentric publics (both real and imagined), Jay Z represents one of the ultimate examples of “flow” within the context of Hip-Hop culture.

In addition to the identities that Jay Z articulates at the opening of his "Unplugged" performance, he has also been known by his birth name Shawn Carter and S. Carter. Each moniker that Jay Z reference serves distinct purposes related to his ability to exhibit social capital and remain fluid in the various publics in which he has influence, be it the upper echelons of the recording industry, the mainstream pop charts, Madison Avenue taste makers and of course the “hood.” For example, Jigga relates to his identity as the “ghetto every man.” “Hova”—as in Jehovah, the “savior” of hip-hop—represents a moniker that has value to hard-core hip-hop fans that desire the most “authentic” product, the hardcore ghetto thug. “S. Carter” initially represented Jay Z’s song publishing entity—the title that show up on the song writing of his recordings and those for whom he ghost writes for. Given the history of Black musicians who have sold off their potential publishing royalties for paltry advances, “S. Carter” is evidence of Jay Z’s savvy as a business person. Currently “S. Carter” adorns his signature athletic shoe line (in partnership with Reebok), which is one of the best selling signature shoe lines not named after a professional athlete. The moniker “Jay Z” is of course is the quintessential hip-hop commodity that is at the root of the rapper’s social fluidity. In addition the urban entertainment company that he founded with Kareem Biggs and Damon Dash is called Roc-A-Fella, which is an obviously play on the Rockefeller Family and New York State’s Rockefeller drugs laws. What these examples make is clear, is the extent that Jay Z’s various monikers represent distinct brands.

Perhaps most interesting is Jay Z’s relationship to his birth name “Shawn Carter.” In the song “There’s Been a Murder,” Jay Z discusses his birth-name persona suggesting that from time to time he “kills” Jay Z and returns to “Shawn Carter the hustler”. Much of Jay Z’s music is rooted in his own “biomythography”—the world of “Shawn Carter the hustler” the drug dealer from Brooklyn’s Marcy Projects. It is “Shawn Carter” that embodies the rapper’s hustling instincts—the instincts that have help translate his street wit into a rap career of some distinction. In this regard it should not be surprising that Jay Z has urged journalists and others to refer to him only as “Shawn Carter” as he makes the transition from best-selling artist to the Presidency of the Island/Def Jam label.

And it is the marketplace that is of course the all-too-willing compatriot in Jay Z’s attempt to manage his monikers. For example, in May of 2006 Hewlett Packard unveiled the first in a series of commercials featured in their “The Computer is Personal Again” ad campaign. The initial commercial in the campaign featured Olympic snowboarding champion Shaun White. The second commercial, featuring Jay Z, was initially broadcast during the National Basketball Association (NBA) Championships in June of 2006. In the latter commercial a disembodied Jay Z—only his torso, attired in a business suit, appears in the commercial—states “my whole life is on this thing,” referring to his Hewlett Packard laptop computer. Produced by the San Francisco firm Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, the 60-second television ad elaborates on the branding of Jay Z as the artist discusses his many
endeavors as president of Island/Def Jam, CEO of Roc-a-Wear (“New Roc-a-Wear campaign—shot it in Aspen. Think it’s kinda cool”), as a co-owner of the NBA’s New Jersey (soon to be Brooklyn) Nets (“New Frank Ghery plans for my team in Brooklyn”) and of course as a internationally known recording artist embarking on a world tour (“trying to be a rock star and a role model”). The commercial also gives some inkling of Jay Z’s personal life via references to his investment portfolio (“I’m retired, right?”) vacation pictures and his love of on-line Chess (“Game over. I wonder if he knows”).

As part of the on-line component of the ad campaign, the website for the ad campaign features a simulated desktop of Jay Z’s HP Pavilion dv8000t Entertainment Notebook. Among the things that appear on Jay Z’s desktop is a folder simply called nicknames, which include many of the aforementioned monikers. The “personal” nature of the Hewlett Packard campaign—the idea that their notebooks hark back to the personal empowerment that the term personal computer (PC) originally suggested—only heightens the sense that Jay Z closely manages and maintains his monikers. The full power of those monikers is evidenced throughout the “The Computer is Personal Again” ad by the clear recognition of who Jay Z is despite the fact his face never appears in the commercial. Though admittedly some audiences might have recognized Jay Z’s voice, the point of the commercial was that Jay Z and his monikers are synonymous with a high-brow brand of hip-hop culture that those monikers have helped to circulate. The ad exemplifies a particular brand of commercial cosmopolitanism—“I’m not a ‘businessman’, I’m a business, man”—which Z Jay has come to embody.

I am cognizant of the implication of Judith Halberstam’s observation that “bodily flexibility has become both a commodity (in the case of cosmetic surgeries for example) and a form of commodification.” Well taken is Halberstam’s point that “promoting flexibility at the level of identity and personal may sound like…a queer program for social change. But it easily describes the advertising strategies like the Gap, who sell their products by casting their consumers as simultaneously all the same and all different.” And yet I remain committed to fully exploring the very gestures that Jay Z makes toward a more progressive and even radical conceptionalization of Black masculine identity within hip-hop, even as it is quite apparent his highly skilled ability at manipulating and exploiting those very gestures in the name of branding.

“‘My Passport Says Shawn…’:Trafficking in Monikers” is excerpted from the chapter “Jigga—A New Spelling of My Name: Cosmopolitan Niggas and the Queering of Hip-Hop” which appears in Mark Anthony Neal’s forthcoming book, The TNI-Mixtape (New York University Press).

© Copyright 2006

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