Posted in A Professor's Thoughts...

The South really does have something to say folks…

The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse “is an immersive multimedia art exhibition that traces 100 years of African American cultural influence and artistic expression.” This statement really does sum up so eloquently what visitors will see and hear when visiting this exhibition at the VMFA.

So upon walking through the doors, I am greeted with smiles and hello’s by a few VMFA workers, I pick up a brochure and I immediately see a thing of beauty… SLAB, 2021 (1990 Cadillac Brougham d’Elegance with custom accessories) [see below]…before you even walk into the actual exhibition one has to take a drive-by (rather walk-by lol) this classic vehicle, which in many ways sets the tone.

(“SLAB, 2021”-By: Richard FIEND Jones [aka International Jones] at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) in Richmond, VA, Picture Courtesy of Grace D. Gipson)

This clean ride brings some joy into my heart and definitely made me smile. But what would come next stops me in my tracks. In the distance, I hear this faint but “chill up your spine” sound reminiscent of “Strange Fruit” sung by Billie Holiday. And as i get closer of course my ears do not deceive me at all, it’s this one lyric “Black bodies swingin’ in the southern breeze” on loop… One moment you hear and see Billie Holiday and then the next you hear and see Jill Scott, while simultaneously you see this video of a little Black girl on a swing enjoying the simple pleasures in life! I was like WOW, I’m just getting started and they GOT me!!

The Dirty South in so many ways is about identity, preservation, labor, expression, pain, joy, faith, tradition, and so much more. There were many moments when I would either get goosebumps or this tingle of my spine ( a couple of times I felt both) after hearing a jarring sonic sound, or gazing at an image that left me speechless. With each room I never knew what to expect, which made the exhibition like this exploratory adventure. But it was also like a Southern scavenger hunt, where I had this internal list of artists and themes that I knew I would have to find. Some of these artists/creatives that I would find included Bisa Butler, Romare Bearden, Kara Walker, Nick Cave, Clementine Hunter, Fahamu Pecou, Sun Ra, Deborah Roberts, among many others!!

(A collage of various works [Fahamu Pecou, Kara Walker, Renee Stout, Clementine Hunter and Bisa Butler] that are part of “The Dirty South…” exhibition at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) in Richmond, VA, Picture Courtesy of Grace D. Gipson)

The Southern Black experience and culture was truly present so much so that I definitely had a few out of body moments where my spirit momentarily left, eventually making its way back to my body. So often the south gets placed into a singular box, but this exhibition made it very clear that is definitely not the case. As I always say #RepresentationMatters and that message was loud and clearly (literally and figuratively)!! Your thinking of the South will definitely be transformed. Blackness is unapologetically centered, but is enhanced by a spiritual conjuring, the regional inclusions, the Black queer voice, the labor, the children, the sonic vibrations, and the persistence of Black folks from the past all the way to the future!! So many stories, so many voices, so many points of view, just so much to take in…this was a time where I welcomed the feeling of being overwhelmed….My cup runneth over!!

Another moment worth mentioning that really made a huge impact was the way in which children were represented. I appreciated that not only did I see the pain and trauma, but also the way in which many of the images of the children were so innocent, simple and carefree. Some of the photographs like the one below took me back to my childhood days of going to church with mama and grandma and dozing off into a brief slumber on their lap, or flipping through the hymnals and singing along with the choir….ohhhh the memories.

(Top-“Ali and Quentin in Church” [1988]; Bottom l-r- “Ali” and “Ali and Quentin on Avenue S” [1988] By: Marilyn Nance at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) in Richmond, VA, Picture Courtesy of Grace D. Gipson)

Nothing was off limits in The Dirty South, trust you will get it all and some!! Valerie Cassel Oliver, who serves as the exhibition curator creates a playing field that hits several home runs!! You will leave having many definitions of what the south represents. And without spoiling the last feature of the exhibition, I will say this just make sure you are prepared for every emotion to seep out of your body, just make sure to release and let it go…

Mississippi, Georgia (Atlanta), Alabama, Tennessee (Memphis), Texas (Houston), Louisiana (New Orleans), Florida (Miami) even parts of Africa and the galaxy have space in the The Dirty South exhibition. So if you have a chance, or you will be in the Richmond area it would be worth your while to stop by and check out this amazing aesthetic, cultural, and sonic experience!!

(“Strange Fruit” [1989] By: David Hammons at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, VA, Picture Courtesy of Grace D. Gipson)
(“DJ Screw in Heaven 2 [2016] By: El Franco Lee II at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Richmond, VA, Picture Courtesy of Grace D. Gipson)

The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse will be at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts through September 6th, 2021.

#VMFADirtySouth

~Dr. G “An Honorary Southerner”

Posted in A Professor's Thoughts...

A Professor’s Thoughts…

“Outkast and the Rise of the Hip-Hop South” (Book Review)*

“The South got something to say!” This call to arms from Outkast member André Benjamin (better known as André 3000) best summarizes the frustration, the need to self-validate, and the opportunity to make Outkast’s presence known within the hip-hop landscape and the South. These words also resonate as a proclamation of resilience as well as another approach to how we understand the southern narrative. 

In Chronicling Stankonia: The Rise of the Hip-Hop South, African American literature and southern hip-hop scholar Regina N. Bradley offers an intersectional examination of the contemporary southern Black and hip-hop identity via the Atlanta hip-hop rap duo Outkast. Bradley centers the musical and cultural work of Outkast (an acronym for “Operating under the Krooked American System Too Long”)** and highlights their relevance to hip-hop and Southern (specifically Atlanta) culture. Coming from a post-Civil Rights lens, Bradley provides a multi-layered approach to the various southern experiences of obtaining the American Dream while Black.

Big Boi and André 3000 perform as OutKast, October 18, 2014 (Sterling Munksgard / Shutterstock.com)

As a southern text, Chronicling Stankonia blends music, literature, film, and southern history while simultaneously giving voice to the Black American South and a musical culture that has often been ignored and sidelined by Northern/East Coast contemporaries. Additionally, Bradley makes southern Black musical storytelling very legible by weaving in her own personal narratives as well as using Outkast as a focal point. 

Bradley’s introduction, “The Mountaintop Ain’t Flat,” is a personal introduction to her background as a product of the American South. More specifically, her entry point to southern hip-hop via Outkast suggests another entry point for how we examine American southern hip hop beyond just being culture producers. Influenced by such post-Civil Rights Black cultural texts as Nelson George’s Post-Soul Nation, Mark Anthony Neal’s Soul Babies, and Zandria Robinson’s This Ain’t Chicago, Bradley inserts a specific southern experience, which had not been done previously. Also, through her personal interests and professional engagement with Outkast, Bradley acknowledges how they function as architects of the Atlanta hip-hop scene by using rap as a tool of “signifying their existence as young Black men” along with how they push against the dominant hip-hop scripts (p. 7). As Black southerners, Outkast redefine what it means to be Black and southern.  

In the first chapter, “The Demo Tape Ain’t Nobody Wanna,” Bradley further argues why Outkast should be taken seriously academically, socially, musically, culturally, and globally. As contemporary post-Civil Rights icons, Bradley engages with Outkast’s unapologetic nature to contribute regular sonic commentary on the South, the nation, Black manhood, class, socioeconomic status, and racial displacement. Through Black futuristic imaginings of the hip-hop South, Outkast’s earlier semi-autobiographical work Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik (1994) followed by ATLiens (1996), Bradley examines their ability to be metaphorical wordsmiths and lyricists who resituate the gaze on how the Black south is perceived and acknowledged. Furthermore, their lyrics create a space to make certain communities (local and regional) that have been marginalized feel visible and seen.

In the second and third chapters, Bradley incorporates the blending of literature, film, and television with hip-hop to discuss storytelling, hip-hop aesthetics, and the preservation of southern culture and traditions. Chapter 2, “Spelling Out the Work,” reflects on Kiese Laymon’s book, Long Division (2013), and the complexity of southern Black culture. Both Outkast’s and Laymon’s ability to not sanitize trauma and southern Black culture and how they exist in the past, present, and future speaks to how they both use hip-hop aesthetics as a form of storytelling to connect readers to universal truths about ourselves that transcend generations. Drawing on Mississippi’s history of trauma and racial terror, Bradley brings Laymon’s work into the discussion of southern Black culture and how he also features Outkast’s 1998 track “Aquemini” in the context of the Mississippi Freedom Summer and Hurricane Katrina. Through Laymon’s text, Bradley also examines the legitimacy of hip-hop masculinity, acknowledging the multiple southern Black experiences and even tapping into the need to center southern Black women’s and girl’s experiences. Chapter 3, “Reimagining Slavery in the Hip Hop Imagination,” takes a similar approach to explore storytelling with alternate realities through the relationship of hip-hop aesthetics, the American South, collective memory, and slavery. This reimagining of slavery in hip-hop imagination troubles the idea of what slavery looks like in popular culture. Here, Bradley explores the blending of sonic hip-hop sounds with southern slave narrative visuals such as Kanye West in the opening scene of the WGN series Underground and Tupac Shakur and Rick Ross in the 2012 film Django Unchained. From these relational interpretations, Bradley argues that each of the above sonically and visually reclaim a southern Black identity while remaking the plantation and slave narrative.

The final chapter, “Still Ain’t Forgave Myself,” questions the southern hip-hop space via the lens of “the trap” through the sonic sounds of Clifford “T.I.” Harris and Mississippi author Jesmyn Ward’s books, Where the Line Bleeds and Men We ReapedT.I.’s lyrics and complicated personal and rap life coupled with Ward’s narration of socioeconomic disparities speak to the pressures of hypervisibility and the consequences attached. Like Laymon, Bradley points out the way Ward weaves the experiences of Black men and boys and southern hip hop as a “unifying thread.”  Ultimately, both works as described by Bradley, also situate “the trap” as a space for southern Black men to grieve, to mourn, and to be legible. 

Bradley argues that the South, much like Blackness, is not monolithic and it should be read the same way. Chronicling Stankonia serves as a successful investigation on how and why we should expand our thoughts about how southern Blackness and hip-hop operate. She not only takes a deep dive into Outkast and southern hip-hop but manages to celebrate their longevity and create larger conversations surrounding Black masculinity, regional legacies, and identity formations/politics. Bradley’s ability to go back and forth between her own personal/social encounters and intellectual experiences provides a captivating example of what it means to be a fan-scholar. 

Moreover, Chronicling Stankonia contributes to the growing legacy of southern hip-hop studies, which includes Darren Grem’s essay, “The South Got Something” (2006), Ali Colleen Neff’s book, Let the World Listen Right (2009), Maco Faniel’s book, Hip Hop in Houston (2013), and the upcoming edited volume, An Outkast Reader: Essays on Race, Gender, and Postmodern South. Bradley’s ability to bring more attention to the dearth of academic representation on southern hip hop (particularly in Atlanta) speaks to how André 3000’s earlier statement continues to reign supreme: “the South still got something to say.” 

  • *Previously posted in Black Perspectives
  • **This moniker also operated initially as a way to address their (initial) displacement in the hip hop landscape (based on the dominant northeastern aesthetics).

~Dr. G