Today we welcome a guest blog post from Zandria Robinson, author of This Ain’t Chicago: Race, Class, and Regional Identity in the Post-Soul South. When Robinson returned home to interview African Americans in Memphis, she was often greeted with some version of the caution “I hope you know this ain’t Chicago.” In her new book, Robinson critiques ideas of black identity constructed through a northern lens and situates African Americans as central shapers of contemporary southern culture. Analytically separating black southerners from their migrating cousins, fictive kin, and white counterparts, Robinson demonstrates how place intersects with race, class, gender, and regional identities and differences.
In today’s post, Robinson discusses the significance of the OutKast reunion at Coachella this year and the southern hip-hop landscape that the group helped build.
[UPDATE] Watch the video below to see OutKast’s performance at this year’s Coachella. – (4/14/14)
News that legendary Atlanta rap-duo OutKast will launch a reunion tour this year, including headliner performances at hipster music haven Coachella this month, inspired both confusion and rejoicing on social and news media outlets earlier this year. The expected confusion was captured by the clueless texts and tweets of a young hipster public, temporarily archived on a satirical “Who Is OutKast?” Tumblr. The rejoicing, as everyone else might have anticipated, was especially necessary and a long time coming.
The duo’s 1994 debut studio album, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, is widely recognized as a seminal work in southern hip-hop. The album announced unequivocally, as OutKast member André 3000 declared at the 1995 Source Awards, that “the South got something to say.” Twenty years later, the duo’s impending on-stage reunion, and potential studio reunion, is more than just proof that fervent prayer works. OutKast, along with a host of other southern hip-hop artists, re-wrote rap history and the history of the region, making a place for southerners at the hip-hop table and African Americans at the southern culture table.
I grew up watching OutKast videos on the now-defunct Video Jukebox Network, affectionately known as “The Box.” Although OutKast received some play on MTV and BET in the early 1990s, it was on The Box, which featured a range of underground southern hip-hop artists, where I could be sure to see André “André 3000” Benjamin, Antwan “Big Boi” Patton, and other southern rappers in regular rotation. Although initially record labels largely ignored southern artists, through homegrown ingenuity, southern rappers soon emerged as a formidable force in the global music industry. By 2005, top spots on music charts were regularly held by southern hip-hop artists, southern R&B singers, or hits produced by southern artists. As Memphis rapper Project Pat noted in 2006: “Now y’all was thinkin’ Dirty South was like, ‘hee-haw, hee-haw’/Is you worth over a hundred mil? We are, we are.” Indeed, the South had something to say.
Yet, not everyone was enthusiastic about the South’s ascendancy in hip-hop culture. A series of harsh criticisms from East and West Coast rappers characterized southerners as not culturally suited to produce rap music; argued that southern rap lacked lyrical and social substance; and situated the rise of the third coast as the eminent death of hip-hop. Yet, even the most rigid critics of southern hip-hop conceded that OutKast was an exception to the usual regional rules. However, such concessions implicitly negated the group’s southern identity as tangential, rather than central, to its success and mission.
Despite critics’ attempts to erase OutKast’s southernness, the duo has always offered a sonic and visual landscape that represented the region. OutKast created a deliberately southern music experience by drawing heavily on funk traditions, southern black gospel music, Georgia blues, southern marching bands, and the richness and diversity of black rural and urban life in the twentieth century South. As such, their work challenges our traditional understandings of the origins of hip-hop as well as the trajectory of black American life in the twentieth century. Troubling the dominant hip-hop origin story, OutKast highlights the undeniable and historical influences of southern culture in the formation of hip-hop music. The duo’s work also nuances the prevailing grand narrative of black American life, which focuses on Great and Reverse Migrations while conveniently forgetting that most African Americans have remained and continue to remain in the South. From André 3000’s donning of a confederate flag belt buckle in the video for “Mrs. Jackson” to the deliberate southern drawl on the chorus to “ATLiens”—“throw yo hands in the a-yer/and wave ‘em like you just don’t ca-yer”—OutKast has consistently centered the distinctiveness of their experience as southerners, and the southernness of their experiences as African Americans.
OutKast’s emphasis on the South was not restricted to the music. In their 2006 film Idlewild, one of the last projects on which the two worked together, Benjamin and Patton star against the backdrop of 1940s black southern life. Idlewild offers an alternative history of the music and dance stylings of hip-hop through its representations of the town’s juke joint, Church. Patton’s character, Rooster, is a regular opening act at Church, and in 1940s Idlewild, Georgia, his performances feature rap verses. This history suggests that southern juke joints, and moreover southern life, are the creative and collaborative sites in which hip-hop was conceived and then exported to other parts of the country.
For starved fans, OutKast’s 2014 reunion is certainly a cause for celebration. It is also a public reminder that not all southerners are white, and not all blacks left the South for “the warmth of other suns” in the first half of the twentieth century. In an era of the continued significance of southern rap, OutKast’s take on the current hip-hop landscape may jumpstart black southern cultural production across a host of genres. Moreover, their reunion is evidence that the South still got something to say. Twenty years later, the whole world is listening.
Zandria F. Robinson is assistant professor of sociology at the University of Memphis. She is coeditor of Repositioning Race: Prophetic Research in a Post-Racial Obama Age. Her book This Ain’t Chicago: Race, Class, and Regional Identity in the Post-Soul South is now available.