By Therí A. Pickens
In my last post, I talked about the way Kanye West’s turn to the monstrous. I’ve been prompted to think more about this intersection of disability studies and black aesthetics by several events, some mundane like my blood draw (or maybe that’s just mundane for me) and some more spectacular like the recent Queerness of Hip Hop Conference. I also just can’t get enough of the song “Monster.”
By necessity, impairment as a material reality requires small communities to form. One person can employ a housekeeper, a nurse, and a therapist. The exchange of goods and services creates bonds of intimacy, relationships that comprise a makeshift family (of sorts). Even when these relationships are distanced by the economy that makes them possible, the intimacy embedded in them forces the participants to transgress societally sanctioned boundaries.
Disability as a social construction forces us to rethink our understanding of excess and boundaries. It questions the distance one can (and often does) place between him/her/zie-self and others, arguing that the impaired aren’t the only ones who are desirous of and participants in makeshift families.
In listening to “Monster,” I ruminate on the way each verse both embraces and threatens community. Kanye, Jay-Z, and Nicki all herald the viciousness of their skills even as they bemoan the way their skills result in being ostracized. All of the monsters have people trying to destroy them. Jay-Z raps, “They all wanna know what my Achilles heel is/love/I don’t get enough of it.” Aw, Jay-Z is a cuddly monster. Considering that the boundary between the monster and the mob is made fluid and necessary here, does that mean that to be deft is to invite one’s own destruction?
Can we truly embrace the monstrous if it means that we do so at our peril? Monsters are radical if only because they force us to confront our deepest fears about race, gender, and sexuality – associated as they are with excess, transgression, and violence. Yet the monster traffics in metaphors so volatile that to name oneself as such threatens unmaking itself and the community that conjures it. The question that opens the song still remains, are you willing to sacrifice your life?
Therí A. Pickens is an assistant professor of English at Bates College and a contributing writer for Black Studies @ SIUE.