Performing and sounding disruption : coded pleasure in Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “Otis”

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2013-05

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Maner, Sequoia

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From minstrelsy to hip-hop, the black performer has always been entangled in a complex network of branding, packaging, and promotion. The black body is cultural capital and in hip-hop, the black thug and his dangerous body are the fetishized objects of desire. Despite these exploitative constraints, artists find spaces to enact what little resistance is possible. In the following report, I perform a close reading and close listening of Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “Otis.” Paying particular attention to the intersections of the visual and the aural, I find that Jay-Z and West encode desire, pleasure, and imagination beneath boastful rhymes and material opulence. Jay-Z and West adopt American symbols of prosperity and freedom and, in disruptive fashion, resignify black masculinity in the cultural imagination. Soul sound, as intoned through Otis Redding and James Brown, lends a politics of brotherhood and radicalism to Jay-Z and West’s articulation of affective black masculinity. I employ a collage-like network of theoretical frames that span performance, sound, and literary theory to trace how race and gender performance codes a discourse of disruption. I find that “Otis” is a type a blueprint—an instruction manual for youth of color to deconstruct, innovate, and feel deeply. Through linguistic and performative codes, Jay-Z and West create a safe space, a cipher for men of color to desire and, in turn, experience pleasure. I trace how Jay-Z and West move closer to a practice of hip-hop feminism and, in a field notorious for rampant homophobia, misogyny, and violence—that’s remarkable.

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