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Kajikawa, Loren. 2015. Sounding Race in Rap Songs. Oakland: University of California Press.

Tracy McMullen

In 1991, Scott Deveaux warned that an “official history of jazz had taken hold,” aided and abetted by the work of academics. From a “chaotic diversity of style and expression” came a “coherent whole, . . . a skillfully contrived and easily comprehended narrative” (525). Deveaux attributed this primarily to textbooks, which reinforced the narrative of neat stylistic decades (1920s New Orleans jazz, 1930s Swing, 1940s Bebop, etc.) and the institutionalization of jazz studies within colleges and universities. Because jazz was a relatively recent art form, Deveaux could watch the official history develop and cohere before his eyes. Now it may be hip-hop’s turn. Like jazz, hip-hop is a new art form minted in the United States through the expressive practices of African Americans. The rise of hip-hop has been concurrent with the rise of ethnic studies departments and, more recently, the inclusion of popular music as a serious field of study in the academy. Thus, while jazz studies took decades to be accepted as a legitimate field within music departments, hip-hop studies is better positioned to find its way into a multitude of academic disciplines. It is important, therefore, to take lessons from the development of jazz studies as the field of hip-hop studies takes shape. Is it possible for hip-hop studies to resist the model of “official history” with monograph-style counters from the margins (“women in hip-hop,” “Latinx in hip-hop”)? What would the field look like if scholars could collectively eschew the tendency to create a dominant narrative with its immutable “key elements,” masterpieces, and great innovators? Rather than center and margin, perhaps hip-hop as a field could choose flow as a model—an early example of which might be the foundational and helpfully plural text, The Hip-Hop Studies Reader (Forman and Neal 2012).

Unfortunately, Sounding Race in Rap Songs does assume the official story as its foundation and in so doing falls prey to what Paul Gilroy, Kyra Gaunt, and many others have criticized: that despite its diasporic richness and complexity, “contemporary black cultures from Harlem to London . . . are reduced to black masculinity as the primary, if not sole, signifier of race in mass popular culture” (Gaunt 2006, 114, italics in original). Examining four touchstone rap songs from 1979 to 1999—“Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang, “Rebel without a Pause” by Public Enemy, Dr. Dre’s “Let Me Ride,” and Eminem’s “My Name is”—Sounding Race in Rap Songs argues for the ways that rap “sounds race.” Kajikawa’s focus on sound—including music production, sampling, rapping, and musical form—offers a necessary rejoinder to the often verbal and visual focus in hip-hop analysis. In this way, Sounding Race adds complexity to a growing official history. The author’s decision not to employ a more intersectional analysis of how race is sounded, however, significantly weakens his intervention.

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October 23, 2018
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