Ten years have passed since Memphis rap group Three 6 Mafia (or Triple 6 if you are about that life) won an Oscar for their song “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” from the movie Hustle & Flow. It was the second hip-hop song to win an Academy Award. Three 6 Mafia performed the song during pre-show festivities with Hustle & Flow co-star Taraji P. Henson. Their win is important for two reasons: Their song served as an ambassador of Southern hip-hop in one of the whitest and most mainstream venues of American popular culture and that hip-hop could be recognized and validated as a source of high art. It should be noted, however, that with Three 6 Mafia, “high art” is both literally and culturally interpreted.
Although commercially successful, hip-hop, like other black cultural experiences, is pigeonholed into malleable and easily digestible vignettes for white audiences. Contemporary archetypal blackness, the roles and narratives that are immediately recognizable as black, are visible in white folks’ imaginations and gazes. To be clear, it is not breaking news that the Academy Awards are the epitome of white people’s imagination. Whether through lack of foresight or no interest, black people’s complexity does not fully register in these spaces. Hip-hop and African-American popular culture serve as a brief respite instead of a complex stop in America’s culture-scape. For example, the films Creed and Straight Outta Compton, both heavily invested in hip-hop and black folks, are represented on the ballot by their white co-stars or writers. Straight Outta Compton, the biopic for pioneering gangsta rap group N.W.A., aurally and visually bridges hip-hop and blackness. Although Creed is a spin-off of the Rocky franchise, writer and director Ryan Coogler intentionally emphasizes Philadelphia as a black and hip-hop city, from the use of slang like “jawn” to the powerful scene where Adonis (played by Michael B. Jordan) is surrounded by dirt bikes and ATVs while a mashup of “Lord Knows/Fighting Stronger” featuring Philly rapper Meek Mill plays in the background.
Hip-hop annotates the white imagination in ways that are more comfortable than visualizing it. Consider Quentin Tarantino’s use of hip-hop in Django Unchained. It is mostly aural: A mash-up of Tupac Shakur and James Brown’s music titled “Unchained” is used in the film’s trailer and Rick Ross’ track “100 Black Coffins” used in the film frame of Django as a badass whose masculinity transcends historical and cultural markers of slavery. Returning to Hustle & Flow, it is a film that dared to show the grittiness of how some Southern black folks have not even seen the mountaintop promised in the Civil Rights Movement. Hustle & Flow centralizes hip-hop as an outlet to vent frustrations lodged in race and class. Although the musical score was recognized, the film itself was not nominated for an Academy Award.
There is a discomfort in visualizing hip-hop rather than listening to it. Hip-hop’s nods in the Academy Awards signify a literal unseeing of African-Americans that serve as a buffer for confronting the biases and prejudices associated with seeing — witnessing — black people’s lives.
Popular culture is in a peculiar space: On one end it is used to push an agenda that #AllLivesMatter while being bombarded with footage and stories that suggest black folks lives don’t. This year’s Academy Awards suggest that black folks’ narratives don’t matter. It is important that our avenues of cultural achievement reflect the use of popular culture as a vehicle for conflict and change.
The Academy Awards needs to get and stay woke.
Dr. Regina N. Bradley is a writer, scholar and freelance researcher of African-American life and culture. She is a recipient of the Nasir Jones Hiphop Fellowship at Harvard University (Spring 2016) and an assistant professor of African-American literature at Armstrong State University. Dr. Bradley’s expertise and research interests include hip-hop culture, race and the contemporary U.S. South, and sound studies.