Maxwell Williams

Maxwell Williams is a PhD candidate in musicology at Cornell University, where he researches US hip-hop and the African diaspora. He has given conference papers on topics ranging from gender construction in the music of Amy Winehouse to postcoloniality and London’s grime communities. His forthcoming chapter, “From Black Hipsters to Black Hippy: Flow and the Cultural Genealogy of ‘Neo-Bohemian’ Hip Hop” will appear in The Oxford Handbook of Hip Hop Studies.

“‘I know street shit, I know shit that’s conscious, I know everything’: Sounding Black Masculinity In Between”
Hip-hop artists, fans, and commentators divide the music into several aesthetic binaries, including “mainstream” versus “alternative” styles. This taxonomic work centers upon competing ideas about authentic Black masculinity. For instance, the mainstreaming of gangsta rap in the 1980s revolved around artists’ performances of masculine hardness. In response, representatives of the alternative “jazz/bohemian rap” genre based their own claims to authenticity upon a critique of gangsta rap’s ghettocentricity (Krims 2000; Williams 2013). Both cases contributed to a constraining racial politics, participating alternately in violent heteronormativity and an elitist politics of respectability that elided oppressive social structures. This paper explores how contemporary hip-hop collective Black Hippy transcends these issues by deconstructing hip-hop’s aesthetic binaries and thus disrupting the ideas about authentic Black masculinity in which they are entangled.
The first part of the paper examines how, through its beats and flow (rapped delivery) styles, Black Hippy produces a hybrid musical space, in between mainstream and alternative styles, that reveals the fluidity and instability of these categories and their associated images of Black masculinity. The second part of the paper positions this work in relation to “hipness” as a historical, hybrid aesthetic of Black existence. Through its hip deconstruction of hip-hop’s unstable aesthetic binaries, I argue that Black Hippy challenges the bourgeois politics of Black bohemianism while refusing to reify the ideas about Black pathology at the core of White bohemianism. In doing so, I build upon existing scholarship that models the possibilities of connecting rap’s aesthetics to social issues, but which reflects an uncritical search for musical expressions of stable essences, and particularly Blackness (see Rose 1994; Walser 1995; Krims 2000). By contrast, I suggest that frameworks like hipness facilitate more material, non-essentialist analyses of race and gender in hip-hop, while moving toward a view of Black masculinity as complex and unending.