1 “To See You Coming Round”: Bubba Sparxxx, Southern Hip Hop, and the Politics of Interracial Enjoyment

Kurt Newman In recent years, hip-hop music from the southern states, often called “Dirty South,” has become enormously popular.1 To the untrained eye (and ear), there is something surprising about this phenomenon. In the first place, as the historian Michelle Brattain notes, when people speak about “the South” in the United States, what is usually meant is the “white South.”2 Additionally, following the great waves of migration of southern African Americans to the urban north and Midwest in the twentieth century, many forget that substantial communities of African Americans never left the South. Significant numbers of African Americans have returned to the South over the past few decades, following the jobs that fled the rust belt for the Sunbelt, or escaping the newly unlivable deindustrialized cities of the North for the more affordable towns of Dixie.3 Not only is the presence of rap and hip-hop music in cities like Atlanta, Houston, and Virginia Beach novel (and not just to middle America—the “primal scene” of “Dirty South” hiphop was the deafening silence and boos from the representatives of the East and West Coast rap establishments when Atlanta duo OutKast won the Best New Rap Group at the Source Awards in 1995), but the nature of the construction of southern-ness in “Dirty South” hip-hop bristles against expectations.4As Darren E. Grem notes, the “Dirty South” movement has by and large
1 2

See Tamara Palmer, Country Fried Soul: Adventures in Dirty South Hip-Hop (New York: Backbeat Books, 2005). Michelle Brattain, The Politics of Whiteness: Race, Work and Culture in the Modern South (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), 7. 3 James Gregory The Southern Diaspora; Jefferson Cowie Capital Moves: RCA’s 70-Year Quest for Cheap Labor (New York: The New Press, 1999); Nelson Lichtenstein, ed. Wal Mart: The Face of Twenty-First Century Capitalism (New York: New Press, 2006). 4 Darren E. Grem, ‘The South Got Something to Say’: Atlanta’s Dirty South and the Southernization of Hip-Hop America,” Southern Cultures, Winter 2006, 56.

2 forsaken any explicit political engagement with the more troubling aspects of southern identity and instead has “preferred to promote Dirty South as a loosely defined, inclusive concept, and a lucrative set of attractive commodities”5 It was not always so. In the mid-1990s, Atlanta artists such as OutKast and Goodie Mob presented politically potent challenges to the smug selfcongratulation of Georgia whites and launched salvos against neo-confederate nostalgia.6 They also painted frank depictions of the contingency and insecurity of working-class life in the premillennial African American enclaves of the South. Texas groups like the Geto Boys shared this concern with lurid ghetto realism, often amplifying the psychic toll of trying to survive despair and poverty in Houston’s Fifth Ward with wild flights of violent surrealistic fancy.7 Darren Grem notes, however, that by the early years of the new millennium, “the real-life experiences of inner-city African Americans living in the post-civil rights south faded from articulations of what it meant to be black, southern, and a part of the ‘Dirty South.’”8In its place, a celebratory picture of the contemporary black South has become ubiquitous, overlapping seamlessly with the marketing of the American (and the global) South as one long, hyperextended Bourbon Street, a Mecca of laid-back hedonism where uptight workaholics and college co-eds can escape for a week of olympic inebriation and wet t-shirt contests. That these constructions play on a toxic combination of racist romanticization of tropical Others and an aggressively misogynistic “raunch” culture, predicated on a material base of economic
5 6

Ibid. Atlanta has long prided itself on its racial progressivism, calling itself the “City Too Busy to Hate,” despite its history as epicenter of racist vigilantism and backlash politics. Many of the leaders of the 1994 “Republican Revolution” in Congress hailed from Atlanta and suburban Georgia, notably Newt Gingrich and Bob Barr. See Kevin Kruse, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), and Stephen G.N. Tuck, Beyond Atlanta: The Struggle for Racial Equality in Georgia, 1940-1980 (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2001). 7 For an excellent discussion of gangsta rap in Los Angeles, see Robin D.G. Kelley, “Kickin’ Reality, Kickin’ Ballistics: Gangsta Rap and Postindustrial Los Angeles” in Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class (New York: The Free Press, 1994) 8 Grem, 65.

3 underdevelopment, systemic racism, and state neglect, has as yet not emerged as a contradiction profound enough to disrupt the fantasy of the South-as-pleasure-zone, even in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. No better example of this unfortunate reversal in the political thrust of southern hip-hop can be found than white Georgia rapper Bubba Sparxxx. In 2001, Sparxxx—born Warren Anderson Mathis, in the mill town of LaGrange, Georgia in 1977—released a recording called Dark Days, Dark Nights, produced by the Virginia-born produced Tim “Timbaland” Mosely, which impressed rap fans and critics with its thorny and complicated negotiation of racial, class, and regional identity. While not explicitly “political” or “protest” music—the furthest Sparxxx went in this direction was to note that the LaGrange of his youth, “we loved some Jimmy Carter”--Sparxxx was immediately recognized as a left-populist icon. This reading of Sparxxx in many ways played against expectations of the political perspective embodied by white hip-hop performers. Almost every other white hip-hop performer, with the complicated exception of Marshall “Eminem” Mathers (who has been seen both as reactionary because of his violently misogynistic and homophobic lyrics, and as a latter-day Steinbeckian proletarian hero) has been assimilated into popular culture without being read as politically progressive. If anything, between the suspicions that white hip-hop performers are opportunists seeking to become rich by translating black culture into a white vernacular acceptable to racist music consumers and the lingering memories of blackface and other forms of racist parody, it is safe to say that most white hip-hop artists are assumed to be politically ambiguous, if not in some sense reactionary, by most audience members prior to the articulation of any ideologically explicit messages. The embrace by white performers of hip-hop’s “antisocial” tendencies by artists as diverse as the Beastie Boys, House of Pain, Vanilla Ice, 3rd

4 Base, and Eminem, to say nothing of wider appropriations of hip-hop culture by white suburban youth culture, in the rock-rap of groups like Limp Bizkit, Korn, and Insane Clown Posse, and in video games like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas—particularly the celebratory treatment of misogyny, homophobia, conspicuous consumption, drug use, and violence—only compounds these expectations. “Ugly”: “White Trash” and the “Proletarian Grotesque” In “Ugly,” the video that introduced Bubba Sparxxx to MTV’s audience, Sparxxx wears overalls and drives a tractor, gestures that summon a wide range of connotations: the rural selfmockery of Grand Ole Opry country-comedy artists like Lonzo and Oscar, but more importantly, the folk leftism of Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, and the Almanac Singers. In a manner unlike almost any American artist since the emergence of Bruce Springsteen, Bubba Sparxxx’s artistic vision, in its initial iteration, seemed to echo the culture of the 1930s left. Sparxxx’s music and videos seemed especially to recall the experiments in folk art and proletarian literature characteristic or the early New Deal era, and the affirmative, patriotic, and democratic culture of the Popular Front period, especially if we follow Michael Denning’s reconceptualization of the arts, criticism, and mass culture of the 1930s as a “cultural front,” the product more of a shared “structure of feeling” than a robotic response to the dictates of the Comintern. One important aesthetic continuity connecting Sparxxx to the “cultural front” is the creative engagement with the aesthetic trope called the “proletarian grotesque” by cultural historian and literary critic Michael Denning. Drawing on the work of Popular Front-era literary theorist Kenneth Burke, Denning suggests that the working-class artistic movement of the Great Depression years should be characterized as “proletarian grotesque” rather than the more

5 commonly applied “social realism.” Denning focuses on a 1935 address to the American Writers’ Congress in which Burke argued, in a somewhat Brechtian vein, that the “grotesque is the poetic form most appropriate to moments of crisis and transition, a form in which ‘the perception of discordances is perceived without smile or laughter.’”9 For Burke, the key trope of the “grotesque” was the oxymoron, the apparent contradiction, symbolized by the gargoyle, a human head on the body of bird, which violates accepted classifications. Denning makes a powerful argument that the arts of the 1930s are populated by radical experiments in oxymoron, or the production of figurative gargoyles. Billie Holiday’s recording of “Strange Fruit” is Denning’s most powerful example of the oxymoronicas-radical-aesthetic-trope: the contradiction between the pastoral imagery and lilting, “Southern” music, and the stark depiction of a lynching victim swinging from a tree. This impossible juxtaposition does not produce laughter, as do most literary uses of discordance, which is why, for Burke, “the grotesque tends to revolutionary.” Unlike humor, which “tends to be conservative,” the grotesque way of seeing links communism to surrealism, forcing the listener to confront the reality of racist violence in a more powerful way than could be achieved via techniques of documentary sincerity. “Strange Fruit,” for Denning representative of the artistic culture of the American left in 1930s, demonstrates the importance of the “grotesque” as an “attempt to wrench us out of the repose and distance of the ‘aesthetic.’” 10 We can see almost every aspect of Sparxxx’s “Ugly,” from its title to its image-repertoire, as connected to a long tradition of left-wing populist aesthetics.11 As a “white-trash” icon— the

9

Michael Denning, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century, (London: Verso, 1997), 122- 123. 10 Ibid. 11 Michael Denning, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (London: Verso, 1997)

6 video features not just overalls and tractors, but bug zappers, tractor races, and pig wrestling— Sparxxx speaks from a location traditionally construed as racially impure and dangerously liminal in relation to the dominant white order. Although Sparxxx later claimed that he resented having been marketed as a “hee-haw”-ed novelty joke, he continued to make use of “white trash” references for several years after breaking with his original handlers. Using the Denning/Burke theorization of the “proletarian grotesque,” we can probe the difference between the grotesque, oxymoronic, gargoyle-esque, and possibly radical uses made of “white trash” signifiers by Sparxxx, and those of “Blue Collar Comedy Tour” comics like Jeff Foxworthy and Daniel Lawrence “Larry The Cable Guy” Whitney, meant to invoke laughter in what seems to be an undeniably recuperative, conservative, and cynical exploitation of “redneck” masculinity. As John Hartigan points out, the figure of “white trash” threatens to pollute carefully policed racial boundaries, which stand at the very heart of southern society. 12 Hartigan’s thoughtful analysis of the political meanings of “white-trash” establishes a connection between the “proletarian grotesque” and the resources inherent in “white trash” for creative reappropriation: “white trash is an image of abject poverty, where the obviousness of a body’s decay or lack of decorum and comportment ‘explains’ the economic condition or overwhelms any suggestion that systematic market forces are responsible for producing such conditions”13 Hartigan’s most powerful application of this interpretation of “white trash” aesthetics is in his reading of the 1972 film Deliverance (d. John Boorman), based on the 1970 novel by James Dickey. Hartigan draws out of the narrative of middle-class white-collar white men confronting a caucasian “heart of darkness” in a canoe trip to backwoods Appalachia the core anxieties that
12

John Hartigan, Jr. Odd Tribes: Toward a Cultural Analysis of White People (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005). See especially Chapters 3 and 4; Chapter 4, “Reading Trash: Deliverance and the Cultural Poetics of White Trash” is an insightful discussion of the 1972 film version of James Dickey’s novel. 13 Hartigan, 136.

7 make “white trash” so potent an element of America’s language of class. Drawing on this cluster of meanings, Sparxxx named his 2003 release Deliverance, which went even further in articulating a radical agrarian-populist vision, rejecting any unproblematic identification with southern whiteness or “Dirty South” paeans to the pleasures of spring break. In 2006, Sparxxx reemerged with a new album, The Charm, and “Ms. New Booty,” a single very much in the sexist and hedonist vein of mainstream “Dirty South” hip-hop. 14 Whereas Sparxxx had once sung of sweating at work like his truck-driver father for the same “unjust check,” he now proclaimed bluntly, “Bubba is a capitalist.” Predictably, Sparxxx released a tour DVD tie-in with Joe Francis and Mantra Films’ Girls Gone Wild franchise. The Charmed Life Tour DVD maps a postmodern South, from South Beach, Miami, Florida to South Padre Island, Texas: nodes on a circuit of vacation destinations and non-stop parties, overlaid, in a process of active forgetting, over the sites of slave plantations and civil war battle sites, Jim Crow segregation, and festive rituals of racial violence.15 It would be easier to dismiss the reactionary turn of Bubba Sparxxx, and “Dirty South” hip-hop more generally, if their music was thoroughly evacuated of politically provocative content. But this is not the case. Instead, many of the themes of Sparxxx’s earlier work coexist with the more retrograde and regressive misogyny and braggadocio. In both, women are excluded as active subjects. Bubba Sparxxx directly addresses male listeners, at times indicating that his speech is directed towards white, black, or interracial listenership, but never does he speak or appeal to female listeners. While black male voices are strategically deployed on

14

This reference to spring break was originally meant to be humorous, but after it was written I discovered that southern rappers Chingo Bling and Paul Wall appear on a series of mix-CDs called Kingz of Spring Break. 15 See Ariel Levy, Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006). For discussion of the South and public memory, see

8 Sparxxx’s recordings to demonstrate interracial male friendship, female voices are present only as sexual performers and subordinate objects of male desire. The exclusion of women as active subjects from Sparxxx’s aesthetic vision is embedded within his celebration of a unique “southern mode of enjoyment.” Here we can see one of the main discontinuities with Popular Front culture, despite strong resonances with the “proletarian grotesque” aesthetics of the New Deal era. Whereas the culture of the 1930s was concerned with incorporating the creative traditions of marginalized Americans into a national popular culture, the music of Sparxxx is instead proudly particularistic in its celebration of regional difference. It is precisely this gesture that makes Sparxxx’s music a powerful venue for articulating interracial solidarity. Shared familiarity of the working-class South, and somewhat surprisingly, shared affinity with it as a cultural home, unites African-American and white southern hip-hop artists. Hip-hop fans, especially those who do not live in the communities celebrated by southern hiphop artists, therefore participate imaginatively in this fantasy construction of an interracial working-class South, a psychic engagement at once ancient—going back to the earliest plantation pastoral propaganda of the South—and radically new, a product of the postmodern South of the post-Civil Rights, post-Sunbelt, and post-Republican Revolution moment. Whiteness, Southern Enjoyment, and Musical Constructions of Black-White Male Bonding Bubba Sparxxx’s engagement with whiteness is central to his public persona-- as it has been for every white rapper who has negotiated the politics of racial mimesis. In the first instance, these artists must avoid any hint of parody or blackface—what Michael Rogin brilliantly analyzed as the playful expropriation of black culture by whites “under conditions of

9 hierarchical, interracial harmony”-- even while they work in a form dominated by an ethic of authenticity, at least part of the signifying markers of which derive from the long history of African American verbal expression and musical preferences. It is worth noting here that two of the most powerful pieces of scholarship on hip-hop and white consumption in recent years, those of Bill Yousman and Jason Rodriquez argue against the possibility of white investment in hiphop, Yousman seeing a white supremacist anxiety beneath rituals of appropriation, and Rodriquez finding a “color-blind” ideology on the part of white fans serving as a means of denying the reality of persisting racial inequalities and their own tacit or unconscious role in sustaining them.16 Bubba Sparxxx’s recordings stage of a particular kind of ritual, one aimed at healing historic grievances and wounds, and fusing black and white listeners through a mode of interracial enjoyment. Sparxxx explains the choice of the moniker ‘New South’ for his brand of hip-hop, for example, by highlighting its evocation of interracial southern hip hop as a “unifying force in the region, carrying the South past racism, divisiveness, and rural backwardness”17 There is cause to be optimistic about the potentials of this mode of enjoyment—especially the impressive way in which it rehabilitates an oppositional residual working-class culture, brilliantly voicing it through the emergent practice of hip hop—and as it battles other articulations that would rehabilitate a bygone racist mode of enjoyment. The mode of enjoyment celebrated by southern hip-hop at times approaches a redefinition of hip-hop away from racial particularism, and towards something like a shared ethic of personal authenticity. Crucial to the
16

Bill Yousman, “Blackophilia and Blackophobia: White Youth, the Consumption of Rap, and White Supremacy,” Communication Theory, Thirteen: Four, November 2003; Jason Rodriquez, “Color-Blind Ideology and the Cultural Appropriation of Hip-Hop,” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, Volume 35, No. 6, Dec. 2006. 17 Quoted in Grem, 67. Creative use of history by southern rappers is becoming a hallmark of the aesthetics of “Dirty South” hip-hop: for example, Mississippi rapper David Banner wearing an “RIP Emmett Till” T-shirt in the video for “Cadillac on 22s,” and the evocation of the Jim Crow south by Sparxxx, Virginia-born rapper Missy Elliot, and Georgia-based hip-hop duo OutKast, among other, in their videos.

10 contextualization of this interracial mode of enjoyment is the recognition of its rootedness in southern culture, with its long history of interracial intimacy alongside the official order and ritualized etiquette of racial segregation.18 In order to understand the nature of the “southern mode of enjoyment," it is useful to turn to the work of Slovenian Lacanian theorist Slavoj Žižek, from who the term is borrowed. Reflecting on, among other things, the rise of ethnic nationalism in the Balkans, Žižek notes that when pressed to define the essence of national identity, patriots and nationalists are never able to pinpoint a specific, non-metaphorical source of group cohesion. As objects of ideology, various kinds of fantastic surrogates for the elusive real national essence—“blood,” “lineage,” “body politic,” “nation-as-family”--tend to become tremendously attractive sites of investment; a particularly important variation on this phenomenon is the contemporary fantasy of “DNA” or “genetics” as a “real” internal determinant of national identity.19 Lacking any real material basis of national difference, nationalists typically list specific practices, habits, orientations, that apparently exemplify the national essence. For Žižek, “enjoyment,” a category which encompasses both the more abstract psychoanalytic notion of “jouissance” and the more concrete everyday meaning of affective pleasure, is the source from which these examples of national identity and singularity derive. He writes, “We always impute to the ‘other’ an excessive enjoyment: he wants to steal our enjoyment (by ruining our way of life) and/or he has access to some secret, perverse enjoyment. In short, what really bothers us about the ‘other’ is the peculiar way he organizes his enjoyment, precisely the surplus, and the
18

See, for example, Victoria Bynum, “‘White Negroes’ in Segregated Mississippi: Miscegenation, Racial Identity, and the Law,” Journal of Southern History, Vol. 64, No. 2 (May, 1998), 247-76 and the essays and primary documents collected in Werner Sollors, ed. Interracialism: Black-White Intermarriage in American History, Literature, and Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000). 19 Slavoj Zizek, “Enjoy Your Nation as Yourself!” in Tarrying With the Negative: Kant, Hegel, and the Critique of Ideology (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), 200.

11 excess that pertains to this way: the smell of their food, their noisy songs and dances, their strange manners, their attitude towards work.”20 For our purposes, this analysis is extremely valuable—it allows us to recognize the importance of ideas like “southernness,” blackness” and “whiteness,” while affirming their lack of material basis or scientific validity. Žižek ‘s emphasis on the link between enjoyment, the nation-as-“Thing,” and the ideological role played by the “examples” of the elusive national essence explains the heightened significance of certain sonic signifiers in the music of Bubba Sparxxx. The purposeful collation of sounds suggestive of a particular, regional mode of enjoyment, by musicians such as Bubba Sparxxx and Timbaland parallels, in its very structure, the logic of national identification.21 The harmonicas, fiddles, and high-lonesome-bluegrass vocal samples seem to be the “white” equivalents of the “black” 808 drum machine bass lines, Stax and Philadelphia International horn samples, and hip-hop drum loops against which they are juxtaposed on Sparxxx’s recordings; at the same time, all of the sonic elements serve as partobjects of the absent “Nation-Thing” (or, in the case of southern-ness, perhaps “Region-Thing”), which is constructed as racially egalitarian. Sparxxx’s insistence on authenticity as the shared value that provides continuity from one cultural location to another further confirms that these sonic markers are meant to function as “white” versions of “soulfulness.” As Sparxxx told an LA Times reporter, "The music belongs to everybody and to everyplace," Sparxxx says. "My music is about who I am and where I'm from, what I've seen. That's what makes it so hip-hop and why street people in urban areas relate to it. Hip-hop is rooted in authenticity, and this is as authentic as it gets."22 Sparxxx’s lyrics are replete
20 21 22

Zizek, 203.

Steve Hochman, “Pop Eye; A Redneck Rapper and Other Breakthroughs,” Los Angeles Times, September 16, 2001, 1.

12 with references to “the land,” to the frank discussion of poverty, with imagery of blood and obsession with filial relations, and with assertions of the essential dignity of working people in the face of near-universal scorn from their social “betters.” Cultural Legacies of Southern Racism and Musical Transgression of Racial Boundaries The complicated historical legacies that shape perceptions of certain sounds as white and others as black constitute the terrain on which much of Sparxxx’s experimentation is performed. Of course, like all other markers of race, and the concept of race itself, musical and aural markers of blackness and whiteness are radically indeterminate and cultural constructed. In the mythology of American popular music, this indeterminacy has in fact been frequently employed as a catalyst of cultural change, in particular as a harbinger of radical social change, in which interracial friendship and intimacy replace antagonism and hostility. From widely circulated (and probably apocryphal) tales of Elvis Presley “sounding like a black boy” to Colonel Tom Parker and Sun Records engineers, and subsequently scrambling the racial matrix of Memphis, Tennessee in the mid-1950s, when his music was broadcast over the radio without verbal confirmation of his racial identity, to the most recent presentation of interracial southern music as a utopian transgression of southern racism in the Coen Brothers’ O Brother Where Art Thou? (d. Joel and Ethan Coen, 2000) where a racist and blind white DJ is unable to discern that the group he is enthusiastically recording is in fact composed of both black and white musicians, the technology of mass reproduction and diffusion of recorded music has long served symbolically as a potential agent of “pollution” of racial boundaries.

13 We will not be able to make sense of the musical representation of race in southern popular music without recognizing the extent to which white supremacist anxieties throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century have been fueled by the fear of pollution of racial boundaries, especially in the form of sexual intimacy between whites and blacks, or as it was called, “miscegenation.” Sparxxx’s home state of Georgia long enjoyed a reputation for especially vicious racist demagoguery fueled by anti-miscegenation hysteria. W.E.B Du Bois wrote early in the twentieth century that “the Negro problems have seemed to be centered in this state,” an observation that was confirmed by the emergence of race-baiting governor Eugene Talmadge, and by a record of violent lynchings of blacks that outpaced every state save for Mississippi. The police obsession with miscegenation and race-mixing was so strong that an assistant police chief in Macon, Georgia regularly dressed as a woman and cruised the African American part of town in an attempt to discover sexual deviants.23 White Georgians in the Jim Crow era were overwhelmingly convinced of the innate inferiority of African Americans, and they developed a repertoire of segregationist excesses, including the infamous provision of separate black and white bibles for black and white witnesses in Georgia courthouses in 1945. After World War II, both a revived Ku Klux Klan and neo-fascist organizations enjoyed periods of popularity. Segregating southern popular culture was much more difficult than segregating its restaurants and accommodations. To the extent that “southern culture” exists, it embodies practices from African American, as well as Native American, European immigrant, and Latino and Mexican-American traditions. Policing a binary white-black cultural divide in the South has always been a consummately impossible part of the white supremacist agenda. Even when the
23

Tuck, Beyond Atlanta, 13.

14 force of law has been marshaled for this purpose, the extent of hybridity in southern culture has frustrated any hopes of defending white culture. An example might help clarify this dynamic: the music of Clifford Pee Wee “Johnny Rebel” Trahan. A violently racist country singer from Louisiana, Trahan released a series of white-supremacist 45s on the Reb Records label in the 1960s. 24 One such song, “Move Them Niggers North,” is fairly typical of Trahan’s modus operandi. Over very competently played honky-tonk country backing—electric guitar, pedal steel, bass, drums, fiddles, piano-- Trahan sings lyrics reminiscent of the rhetoric of 1960s-era southern demagogues George Wallace and Asa Carter. The song opens with a martial snare drum roll, after which the guitarist plays the classic kick-off familiar to country music fans as the signature intro that Billy Byrd brought to Ernest Tubb’s Texas Troubadours in the 1950s. In an irony that will multiply many times throughout the duration of the song, this guitar motif finds its origins in the electric guitar playing of African American musicians Charlie Christian and TBone Walker, and before in acoustic blues “string dazzlers” like Lonnie Johnson. Trahan then begins singing the song’s chorus, “Move them niggers North/Move them niggers North/If they don’t like our southern ways/Move them niggers North.” Embellishing his lyrics, structured in an AABA pattern pioneered jointly by African American and white southern vernacular musicians, Trahan growls and quivers, drawing on expressive vocal traditions unknown to white singing until the late 1940s, and borrowed self-consciously from African American rhythm and blues singers. Ten seconds into a celebration of the white “southern way of life,” meant undoubtedly to sound proudly “white-Southern” to his audience, in musical as well
24

The only scholarly discussion of Johnny Rebel that I am aware of is Aaron Fox’s brief discussion of his use of racist language in “White Trash Alchemies of the Abject Sublime: Country as ‘Bad’ Music” in Bad Music: The Music We Love to Hate, Christopher Washburne and Maiken Derno, eds. (New York: Routledge, 2004).

15 as strictly lyrical terms, “Johnny Rebel” makes creative use, probably unconsciously, of at least four recognizably African American cultural resources. As this example demonstrates, there are no “white-Southern” musical tropes available for articulations of southern whiteness that are not intimately connected to African American culture. This helps to set up the creative dilemma faced by artists like Sparxxx and Timbaland when we attempt, as in this paper, to “reverse-engineer” the process by which their musical construction of southern whiteness or a representation of a particularly “southern” interracial mode of enjoyment. Peter Burger provides valuable insight into this operation of “reverse-engineering,” which he describes as the analysis of artistic means. Burger writes that through this analysis, “the artistic process of creation can be reconstructed as a process of rational choice between various techniques, the choice being made with reference to the effect that it to be attained”25 Pursuing this work of “reverse-engineering” one step further, we can imaginatively reconstruct some of the creative limitations and structural constraints under which Sparxxx and Timbaland operate when working to evoke their specific presentation of white southern-ness. On the one hand, explicitly aping African American aesthetic tropes, whether in terms of slang, accent, or inflection, would automatically serve to de-authenticate Sparxxx, establishing him as a “wannabe” in the tradition of Vanilla Ice. At the same time, veering too far towards unambiguously “white” gestures poses manifold dangers—from self-abasement to cornpone to evocations of “white pride”—none of which would work to establish Sparxxx as an “authentically” hip-hop voice.
25

Peter Burger, Theory of the Avant-Garde (Michael Shaw, tr.) Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996/1984.

16 Fortunately for Sparxxx and Timbaland, the established tropes of “Dirty South” hip hop encompassed a wide variety of tendencies that were not overdetermined racially. When African American southern hip-hop artists speak about the specific sonic differences that characterize southern hip-hop, they frequently prioritize features that are not, apparently, specifically “racialized” in their own aesthetic imaginations. The most important of these are drawling, “lazy” speech, slowed down beats, and a laid-back feel.26 For an artist like Bubba Sparxxx, all of these aesthetic features are, in theory, available without necessarily calling into question racial bona fides from hip-hop fans, and in fact, these are the main resources upon which Sparxxx draws. However, because an aggressively masculinist and misogynistic is embedded within this aesthetic framework, the shared interracial culture of southern hip-hop tends to provide more opportunities for male bonding in rituals of exploitation and degradation of (primarily African American) women than venues for politically progressive evocations of black-white friendship. Recognizing the limitations of southern hip-hop as a progressive agent of social change does not mean that we should disregard the work of artists like Bubba Sparxxx-as-purveyor-ofracial-reconciliation. Fans and listeners make use of popular music that exceed the often narrow interests of artists; it is entirely likely that representations of interracial southern friendship and celebrations of a southern mode of enjoyment, in the hands of listeners, become a means to overcome the racism that American culture constantly repackages for new audiences, and inculcates in our shared “common sense,” often in ways we have trouble recognizing. Sparxxx’s articulation of a shared sense of southern "enjoyment" that crosses racial lines is in part an attempt to heal the historical wounds inflicted by this history of systemic racism. Implicit in Sparxxx's assertion that southerners "enjoy themselves" in a unique way is the
26

Grem, 59.

17 possibility whites and blacks can overcome history through collective participation in this culture of enjoyment, rather than through racial conflict or varieties of separatist nationalism. This shared culture of enjoyment is also situated against the background of a variety of other practices that attempt to heal the wounds of the past by neutralizing them in ironic reenactment or the putatively transgressive engagement with historic racism. Consider, for instance, the well-publicized phenomenon of “white trash” and “ghetto fabulous” parties on southern college campuses, typically thrown by affluent white students. In fall 2006, white students threw a racist Martin Luther King Day party, at Tarelton State College in Stephenville, Texas, at which they rehearsed familiar racist stereotypes: Aunt Jemima costumes, fried chicken, gang sign flashing, and 40-ounce bottles of malt liquor. Last year, University of Texas Law School students hosted a “ghetto fabulous” party, where students wore afro wigs, carried 40-ounce bottle of malt liquor, and wore nametags with traditionally black and Hispanic names.27 College students from New Orleans displaced to Texas by Hurricane Katrina reported to a friend that “Old South” parties were a common amusement for Tulane fraternities, where fraternity members dressed up in “historical costumes” and hired “poor black people to pick cotton in the back yard.”28 Against this background of racist mimesis and working-through the trauma of southern racism by embodying its worst elements, Sparxxx’s project, as a kind of alternative mode of remembering through collective interracial enjoyment seems even more urgent and radical. Nevertheless, the absence from Sparxxx’s vision of collective interracial enjoyment of women as active subjects remains its Achilles heel. For Sparxxx, as for Eminem, healing the wounds of
27

“Dean chides students over ‘ghetto’ party,” Associated Press, Oct.13, 2006. Accessed online at http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/15248533/from/RS.4/, March 28, 2007. 28 Personal correspondence with Sandy Ewen.

18 racism is primarily a question of male bonding. By prioritizing the shared pleasure of white and black men in the objectification of women, in music videos and song narratives, as the key moment of transcendent racial reconciliation and reunion, a crucial opportunity is lost. The continued articulation of a cultural terrain in which whites and African Americans share affective investments, however, should encourage us to continue looking at southern hip hop as a source of politically hopeful potentials.