Friday, January 14, 2011

Black Studies & Alternate Personas

Four of my black studies contributors perform rap and spoken word, and keeping with the rituals of their fields, they have alternate personas or stage names. There’s Prophecy, Symmetry, Nemesis, and Just Cindy.

I thought of the alternate personas of those members of my black studies crew yesterday when I read an entry from editor Chris Jackson, who’s guest blogging on Ta-Nehisi Coates’s blog.

Jackson, who served as editor for Jay-Z’s book Decoded, noted that “The voice of the rapper can be first-, second-, or third-person, comic or hyperbolic or earnest. Even then it's complicated: Jay-Z's voice, even in earnest first person, is not necessarily Shawn Carter's voice, but then again sometimes it is.”

Somehow, I see elements of that fusion and disconnect associated with Jay-Z/Shawn Carter with members of my black studies crew.

It’s fascinating that in class and various formal academic settings, those students are the people with those official names on the roll books. But catch them in performance spaces or communities, and they are someone else or someone extra.

Last year, Prophecy produced the music for this Malcolm X Mixtape, and it’s hard to envision his mere student version making it happen. This past fall, I didn’t realize my newest members were artists until I brought out my recorder and asked them to drop a few verses. Before rhyming, they’d introduce themselves and always say “also known as Symmetry” or “also known as Nemesis.”

And Just Cindy. Interestingly, her stage name is designed to resist a special stage name. “It’s just Cindy,” she had to say so often explaining that she did not have a special name. So, the “just” stuck, and her name became "Just Cindy."

What’s really important about all the names is that they indicate membership in these artistic communities where participants have freedom to be themselves and possibly something more. From the Malcolm X Mixtape to a series of compositions to the overall artistic energy of our program, I’m certain we’ve benefited from having lead participants in our group who belong to these communities.

It’s worth mentioning that two of our earliest black studies contributors are now actively involved in roller derby and go by the names Starry Starry Fight and Rioter’s Block. There are some major differences between roller derby and the communities of rap and spoken word. But there are those alternate persona issues and the significance of community and artistic energy that links them.

The Trouble with Histories of Black Poetry

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