To celebrate Regina Bradley’s Chronicling Stankonia being featured on Blackfeminisms.com’s Academic Books by and About Black Women – 2021 Edition list, we’ve decided to share an excerpt from the book. This vibrant book pulses with the beats of a new American South, probing the ways music, literature, and film have remixed southern identities for a post–civil rights generation. For scholar and critic Regina N. Bradley, Outkast’s work is the touchstone, a blend of funk, gospel, and hip-hop developed in conjunction with the work of other culture creators—including T.I., Kiese Laymon, and Jesmyn Ward. This work, Bradley argues, helps define new cultural possibilities for black southerners who came of age in the 1980s and 1990s and have used hip-hop culture to buffer themselves from the historical narratives and expectations of the civil rights era. André 3000, Big Boi, and a wider community of creators emerge as founding theoreticians of the hip-hop South, framing a larger question of how the region fits into not only hip-hop culture but also contemporary American society as a whole.
Chronicling Stankonia reflects the ways that culture, race, and southernness intersect in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
I first fell in love with OutKast at the age of fourteen in the summer of 1998, right before my freshman year of high school. I had recently moved to live with my grandparents and father in Albany, Georgia, a small city in the southwest corner of the state. Albany was much slower-paced than my previous residence in northern Virginia, but I wasn’t completely unfamiliar with it. I knew that my name was not Regina but “Mr. (or Mrs.) Barnett’s granddaughter,” that attending my church, Hines Memorial CME (Christian Methodist Episcopal), on Sunday meant staying for Sunday school and regular service, and that Albany’s heat was wet, held on tight like my favorite aunties, and didn’t understand personal boundaries. I transferred to Southside Middle School in the spring, and people did not let me forget that. I had the allure of the “new girl” working in my favor, but I was treading water trying to find somewhere to fit in when everyone was already situated and looking forward to high school. Further, I was a bit apprehensive about letting my guard down: I was mercilessly bullied at my former school and suffered terribly low self-esteem, while working through heavy anxiety and the guilt of leaving my younger brother and sister behind with their dad in Virginia. My schoolmates laughed at my accent and fast enunciation and laughed harder when I tried to dance, equally jerky and quick with my body at the end-of-year dance. Girls chuckled and dudes raised their eyebrows in amusement while dancing behind the popular girls who “danced right.” A girlfriend pulled me aside and told me matter-of-factly, “Chile, you wound up. You talk too fast! You dance too fast! You listen too fast! You just too wound up.” I learned quickly how to slow it down: “Shorty” was “Shawty.” “Girl” was “guh.” “Back” was “bike.” And, in addition to being my folks’ granddaughter, I was described as “that tall, smart, high yellow guh” and later, “Gina Mae.” Gina Mae happened by accident, starting as a joke meant to tone down my northeasternness and officially dub me a southern girl. “We gone get you right, Gina Mae,” my new classmates said, often with a wink and a drawn-out laugh. Their intention wasn’t mean or ill-spirited, which I had accepted as the norm in my previous middle school. I grew to love my nickname and eventually let my guard down.
Upon letting my guard down I quickly realized that I was transitioning into the South through two sets of experiences: my own southernness and that of my grandparents, which was centered on growing up in the Jim Crow South. My grandmother Sara and my grandfather Eugene were among the first black educators to integrate the Dougherty County School System. My grandmother’s ministry was to be ladylike, and her sharp eye for detail about how I presented myself was no doubt rooted not only in her own affinity for beauty but also in retaliation that might arise if black children didn’t reflect a “proper” upbringing. My grandfather was more about the business of being successful—education was the heralded portal to success for my young black self. He warned me about falling short of my potential and how I was “too smart and too pretty” not to do well in school. “Your job is them books,” he scolded with a smile. My grandparents translated their understandings of southernness into their own unique love languages that were grounded in their upbringing in northeast Georgia and southwest Georgia, respectively. Their weariness of white folks, strong advocacy of education and academic excellence, and hyperfocus on developing and sustaining my respectability framed my daily interactions with my friends and classmates. However, a point of departure from my folks’ influence on how I viewed the South was hip-hop.
In the mornings before school started, we were corralled into the school gym. A country fried cacophony of laughter, yelling, cursing, and freestyling pulled me in. My squad and I sat in the top right section of the bleachers where the people-watching was best. Some of the kids stomped their feet as they rapped or argued about lyrics to a song by OutKast, Goodie Mob, or somebody on the seemingly infinite list of artists on No Limit Records. Other students rapped their own bars, quickly moving their arms, pointing at themselves and whomever they were battling, and smacking their hands on their chests. On the gym floor, folks played basketball if the gym monitors were feeling particularly gracious while the less-than-spectacular hoopsters stayed on the sidelines and gave commentary on the game.
It was equally loud after school because Monroe Comprehensive High School was next door and the sound of subwoofers thrumming in old-school Chevy Caprices, beat-up pickups, and crappy Toyotas rolling quickly over cracked cement speed bumps in the school parking lot crashed through the verbal warnings and stares of teachers not to venture over to the “high school side.” I made mental notes of the rapper folks continuously in my ear: OutKast, Three 6 Mafia, UGK, Goodie Mob, and bass artists like DJ Smurf, DJ Kizzy Rock, and Uncle Luke.
Radio mixtapes were still an art and a currency in 1998. I meticulously listened to the radio, careful to avoid recording commercials and to leave just enough quiet space to move from track to track. Among my favorite tracks was Goodie Mob’s “Black Ice.” Besides the bass kick, high electric-guitar notes, and organ reminding me of a gospel song, the swishing sound reminded me of the cicadas that sung from the treetops outside of my folks’ house. We lived in the country, outside of Albany’s city limits. The cicadas would sing loud enough that at moments they harmonized with the swishing on the “Black Ice” track. Additionally, “Black Ice” was the first time I took a hard listen to OutKast: the swagger of Antwan “Big Boi” Patton and André “3000” Benjamin’s effortless yet layered cadence jumped from the track. I fell in love with their voices because they melted and eased into my ear like the voices of my classmates.
However, it wasn’t until marching-band camp at my school Westover High that I truly became “OutKasted.” While marching band didn’t pan out—I ended up being a solid equipment manager for the season—my interaction with Rodney, a senior and one of the trumpet section leaders, jumpstarted my love for OutKast. During a lunch break, I found Rodney cross-legged and silently tapping his fingers against his leg and trumpet. He nodded spontaneously and scribbled on a sprawl of papers in front of him. When I got closer, I heard a soft hum that he emphasized at the end by poking the pencil in the air in front of him:
Ba da bump bump buh!
Ba da bump bump buh!
Ba da bump bump bump bum buh!
“Hi, Rodney!” I squealed with a bit too much enthusiasm. He didn’t raise his head from what he was doing.
“What you doing?”
“Transcribing this song for the stands.” Stand music was the popular music played by the band and heard on the radio between plays and after the band’s formal show at football games. Rodney goes back to humming.
“What song is that?”
I muster up enough courage to ask him one more question. “Who’s it by?”
Rodney looked up with an annoyed expression on his face. I couldn’t tell if it was because I was bothering him while he was transcribing or because I was a freshman.
“That’s tight!” I squeaked. Rodney didn’t respond. The silence was my cue to get gone.
I would have other daily encounters with OutKast in high school, such as through my friend Brandon, a then aspiring emcee, who would blend and riff his own rhymes with OutKast’s music. For example, while the rest of the class found Brandon’s sudden use of André’s ending bars from Cool Breeze’s song “Watch for the Hook” an amusing start to the beginning of the final Spanish exam, our teacher did not, and chided us in English and Spanish. OutKast, along with an army of southern artists behind them, introduced me to the post–civil rights era South. And, above all else, that contemporary southern culturescape was distinctively and intentionally grounded in hip-hop.
Regina N. Bradley is an alumna Nasir Jones Hiphop Fellow at Harvard University and an assistant professor of English and African diaspora studies at Kennesaw State University.