We discussed the problem of black nihilism and the ghetto street culture embodied by Chicago based "hip hop artist" Chief Keef and the murder of his rival "rapper" Lil JoJo a few weeks ago. Other matters intervened and we moved on to other things. It would seem that street urchin troglodyte highwaymen who want to be hip hop stars are a topic of conversation once more--this time by the Chicago Tribune.
Broken communities, broken homes, and broken families make broken people. America is a violent society. As such, I am not surprised by the vicious beating dealt out by Lil Reese upon an unidentified young girl in the above video.
However, I am fascinated by the various norms and values which are given life at the intersection of commercial hip hop and ghetto street subculture.
In the Chief Keef, Lil Jojo, Lil Reese imbroglio, we have wannabe man children who use the prefix "Lil" in front of their names, where on one hand they want to embody the virtues of hyper thug black masculinity, while holding onto some type of youth and ironic innocence. They are not likely aware of the contradiction: the Lil JoJos, Chief Keefs, and Lil Reeses of the world are stuck, like so many young black ghetto underclass men, in a hybrid and maladaptive developmental state where they want desperately to be "men," but are socialized as perpetual children, and made dependent by and upon the women in their lives.
As a result, they are feminized and live in a youthocracy and subculture where responsible adult men who have social capital beyond a four square black area are not at all present in their lives. The normal rites of passage and markers of adulthood are often not readily available to these young men--jobs and education--so, they seek out validation and meaning according to the norms of their world. Unfortunately, these norms will have them living most of their lives in prison.
Likewise, there are young women in the same communities who are taking these examples of manhood as idealized types. They lay with them, have children with them, are courted by them, and desperately seek the approval of these hyper masculine thugs. In some cases, because these young women are also products of a street culture where vulnerability and tenderness are seen as weakness, they too reproduce the very same violent hyper-masculine thug norms to the cumulative disadvantage of their communities, families, and children.
Language does political work. It embodies how power, values, and norms relate to one another in a given society.
In the video of Lil Reese beating a young girl, and then stomping her, the "provocation" would appear to be the phrase "bitch ass nigga." This is the new "faggot," the word that started so many fights when I was in high school not so long ago. However, I do not recall girls being beaten for calling boys such an ugly word.
We have another puzzle: Lil Reese, and the type of masculinity he embodies, are supposed to be so tough--what is really a guise and a mask to hide vulnerability and weakness--that a phrase, a mere suggestion, is enough to force him to act violently. Is his honor and sense of identity, and those of other men like him, that fragile?
Moreover, and this is the dark tragedy of how racism and internalized oppression are reproduced, these young people call each other "nigger" as easily and quickly as they inhale and exhale oxygen. While some engage in the gymnastics of black vernacular English, with its related and silly claims about reclaiming hate speech by subtly modifying it, I would assert that "nigger" and "nigga" are fundamentally the same word. A whole generation of people call each other most ugly word in the English language on a routine basis, but they are willing to kill each other after being called a "bitch ass" or "faggot." Bizarre.
Digital technology has destroyed the divide between the public and the private. The Black Superpublic, as a concept, and a practice, means that we can no longer police how our images are represented. The gatekeepers of black respectability have always had to struggle with this issue. As demonstrated by this video and many others, the most debased images of black and brown humanity can be recorded on a phone, uploaded, and shared around the world for consumption by a mass public. Technology has the power to reproduce white supremacist norms; technology also has the power to subvert them. In this case, Lil Reese's antics are a strong example of the former.
As the walls dividing the black private sphere and counter-public are demolished, a journal of record such as the Chicago Tribune, a white owned company, can take said images and feature them in a story. Both the traditional media (as they long have), and New Media are combining to circulate debased, degenerate, gross, and one-dimensional depictions of black humanity. Together, they reinforce some of the oldest stereotypes about black people in the United States, where we are seen by the white gaze as adults for the purposes of incarceration and punishment, but children in terms of civic belonging and behavior.
Once more I return to Cornel West, and the challenge of Black Nihilism, in order to make sense of this violence--and the street ghetto underclass culture that so many have taken to be authentically "black."
I wonder if the Lil Reeses and Chief Keefs of the world be saved? And do they want to be?
Like all Americans African-Americans are influenced greatly by the images of comfort, convenience, machismo, femininity, violence, and sexual stimulation that bombard consumers. These seductive images contribute to the predominance of the market-inspired way of life over all others--and thereby edge out nonmarket values--love, care, service to others--handed down by preceding generations. The predominance of this way of life among those living in poverty-ridden conditions, with a limited capacity to ward off self-contempt and self-hatred, results in the possible triumph of the nihilistic threat in black America.
A major contemporary strategy for holding the nihilistic threat at bay is to attack directly the sense of worthlessness and self-loathing in black America. The angst resembles a kind of collective clinical depression in significant pockets of black America. The eclipse of hope and collapse of meaning in much of black America is linked to the structural dynamics of corporate market institutions that affect all Americans.
Under these circumstances, black existential angst derives from the lived experience of ontological wounds and emotional scars inflicted by white supremacist beliefs and images permeating U.S. society and culture. These wounds and scars attack black intelligence, black ability, black beauty, and black character in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.
The accumulated effect of these wounds and scars produces a deep-seated anger, a boiling sense of rage, and a passionate pessimism regarding America's will to justice...Sadly the combination of the market way of life, poverty-ridden conditions, black existential angst, and the lessening of fear toward white authorities has directed most of the anger, rage, and despair toward fellow black citizens, especially black women. Only recently has this nihilistic threat--and its ugly inhumane outlook and actions--surfaced in the larger American society. And it surely reveals one of the many instances of cultural decay in a declining empire.