Expert Witnessing in the Case of Rap

Houston A. Baker, Jr.

I WANT TO say a few things about an essay I read in the Boston Re­view (December 1991) entitled "Beyond Racism and Misogyny: Black Feminism and 2 Live Crew" by Kimberle Crenshaw. I came upon the essay with an open mind and read it, as well as the enthusiastic re­sponse to Crenshaw by Henry Louis Gates in a single sitting. When I had finished the essays, my mind was decidedly closed against what seemed to be a drearily conventional mode of response by adult scholars to popular cultural forms.

The conventional response is what I call a "start in the middle of the game approach." Most grown-ups ignore popular cultural forms, the controversy, the public event, and everything else beyond their bedroom and kitchen walls. But if the adults are academics, they will tell you that their obliviousness is a function of too many committee assignments or their residence in the long, dark tunnel of the tenure process. They will insist that they never have time to raise their heads above mere iambic pentameter or the middle style of publishable prose. But if the triggering event that brings the popular cultural form to attention will not go away, or if it is taken up by a media net­work, then even the most oblivious adults seem compelled to write something or take action vis-a-vis the popular cultural form in ques­tion.

Crenshaw’s essay seems to demonstrate this typology. Though 2 Live Crew’s lyrics cannot be considered innocuous in any way, the Crew is controversial for one reason only: the media networks, in a mode that I call "instant expertism," have made them so. If I under­stand Crenshaw’s argument correctly, it is about "intersectionality."

Crenshaw debates whether she should judge 2 Live Crew as a black or as a woman. In other words, the intersectionality, which is simply a dualism here, forecloses the possibility of what any one of us might encounter in our everyday lives—a black Vietnamese-American, Ivy League-aspiring, basketball-playing, sushi-eating woman. What then privileges, in such multiplicity, the simple duality of black or woman? Where is the carnivalesque site of the griotic tradition of African-American culture—a space occupied mainly by women? Where is the voodoo priestess who stands, not at an intersection but literally and figuratively at the beginning and the ending of all roads that lead anywhere, mediating the marriage of heaven and hell, life and death? And why does a simple intersectionality prevent an aca­demic scholar from seeing that the simple one-liner "Ain’t I a woman?" can be an encyclopedia for cultural studies? Harriet Tub­man and Sojourner Truth did not have trouble being both black and female.

Crenshaw has written interestingly, eloquently, and persuasively on this intersectionality in the discourse of black women and the law, but I don’t think this intersectionality can be applied to 2 Live Crew. Why, on any grounds, would one sanction the 2 Live Crew, anyway? They are vile, juvenile, puerile, misogynistic guys who are only out to bank beaucoup "dead presidents."

There is absolutely no reason for a noble, shocked defense of 2 Live Crew within the popular culture forum of rap music—a forum that has raps dedicated to the education of black and white children; that says, "Be a father to your child"; that strongly advocates the rights of women; that is perhaps one of the only sites available to young people in this society that says, "This is what policing and sur­veillance are about and these are your rights in a free society"; that has so many positive sites that it has become a transnational informa­tive youth cultural site.

Nobody is going to tell me that the only place I can go to refer­ence that form is 2 Live Crew. I understand that there is no innocent sexuality, but I also understand that one has to know the history of the form and understand the spaces of the popular. One cannot con­stitute oneself as an instant expert and send or sing just anything that comes down the line just because you have been asked to do so.

In a word, all instant experts on popular cultural forms need to get their stuff far, far more together before they take the stand. After all, everybody knows that when people speak about a unique popu­lar cultural form that they have not bothered to fully inform them­selves about, we simply cain’t trus’ it. Public Enemy has the final word, then, on instant experts, whether they are black or white.


This essay is edited from a presentation Houston A. Baker delivered at a sym­posium on Black popular culture. The complete presentation appears in Black Popular Culture (a project by Michele Wallace and edited by Gina Dent) (Seat­tle: Bay Press, 1992), 132.