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Brothers Gonna Work it Out

Review By Tami Navarro

It is often said that a book should never be judged by its cover. It stands to reason, by extension, that one ought not base one’s judgment on a title, either. However, both the title and cover of Charise Cheney’s recent Brothers Gonna Work It Out: Sexual Politics in the Golden Age of Rap Nationalism accurately reflect the work she does throughout this text.

The cover image, a shot of militant beret-sporting black men (including Chuck D and Flava Flav of Public Enemy (for those unfamiliar with this groundbreaking rap group, the latter figure, toting his signature stopwatch around his neck, may be recognized from his recent foray into reality television with the program “Flavor of Love”)—sets the tone for Brothers: an exploration of the masculinist under- (and over-) tones in the world of rap.


Moreover, it is important for Cheney’s project that the figures depicted are wearing the sunglasses and berets commonly associated with members of the Black Panther Party (as well as raising their fists in the symbol for “Black Power”), as she goes on to explore the possibilities for politically-aware rap, such as that created by Public Enemy.


Finally, Brothers Gonna Work It Out raises questions about the complex relationship between an artist, their art, and the consuming public: What can be expected of rappers? How do they see themselves functioning in various, including political, spheres? How successful are politically-motivated rappers at affecting political change?

Cheney makes the connection between rap and politics clear at the outset of this text by framing her discussion in terms of rap nationalists. Terming politically-sentient rappers like Chuck D “raptivists” (one of the milder attempts at verbal wizardry that make an appearance in this text. “GangstAfronationalist” is among the more far-fetched), Cheney writes that “this book locates ‘raptivism’ within black popular culture and political culture.”


While she represents these ‘raptivists’ as Gramscian organic intellectuals, busily engaged in the work of speaking truth to power, she does recognize the limits of this argument, writing that the inclusion of all rap music under the banner of political “dilutes rap music’s significance as a mode of black cultural expression…and undermines the social authority of those artists whose lyrics explicitly and mindfully engage the issue of black liberation.” 


Her project, then, is an engagement with politically-minded rappers during what she understands as rap’s “golden age” (late 1980’s/early 1990’s). I find the beginning chapters of Brothers Gonna Work It Out particularly interesting, as it is here that Cheney lays out her argument and is most clear about the intellectual conversations in which she is engaged.


For instance, early on this text she borrows from Paul Gilroy’s work on the black Atlantic and modernity, writing: “born in the school of hard knocks at the crossroads of black Atlantic migrations, rap music is a form of black and urban expression that was forged as a truly New World, or diasporic, music.” 

She goes on to argue that “rap music is a truly pan-American phenomenon, a postmodern example of they type of cultural traffic that has been occurring in the black Atlantic since Africans were first brought to the New World.” 




Cheney borrows this notion of the black Atlantic to argue for both the centrality of rap as a traveling art form connecting members of the black Diaspora (a claim about which I am generally wary, as it is a slippery slope toward a quasi-Hersovitsian search for Africanisms in various cultural forms) and its attempt to be simultaneously a cultural and political endeavor. What is most interesting about the former point is her brief engagement with a discussion of what, for lack of better term, I will call ‘diasporic blackness.’


To be fair, she does give a shout-out to the fact that many African-American rap artists have transnational backgrounds (“Many influential hip-hop artists—both DJs and lyricists—are first- or second-generation West Indian immigrants”) yet this casual note seems underdone in light of her broader project of situating rap music as a thread connecting the black Diaspora.

While Cheney is interested in representing rap music as a point of connection among the African diaspora, her central argument remains the positioning of politically-minded ‘raptivists’ and as such, she goes on to engage in a discussion of the political stance taken by many such artists during “golden age”: black nationalism.


Part history lesson, part citation-fest, Cheney uses this section to provide the reader with a working knowledge of (black) nationalism. She cites black nationalists such as Malcolm X who called for the creation of a separate black nation, but herself sides with thinkers such as Wahneema Lubiano, Sterling Stuckey, and Komozi Woodard, who “recommend that definitions of black nationalism go beyond the nation-state configuration and be comprehensive enough to include its cultural manifestations.” 


Clearly, the inclusion of cultural forms in a black nationalist platform is central to Cheney’s argument. For her, ‘raptivism’ is often rooted in nationalist ideology. However, it is also the case that nationalism has often worked to silence groups within the nation and downplay their leadership abilities (this has been the case particularly in regard to women). Thus, it comes as no great surprise that the politics of rap music are also problematic in regard to gender.

The third chapter of Brothers Gonna Work It Out, a section which shares its title with the overall work, features Cheney acting as an historian, tracing the historical links between rap music (and its practitioners) and politics.


Describing artists such as Chuck D, she writes that “they purposefully invoked the rhetorical and political styling of the Black Panther Party and the Black Power movement of the late 1960’s, complete with its envisioning of black nationalism as a politics of masculine protest…Rap nationalists intentionally conjured a tradition of model, and militant, black manhood.” 


She goes on to outline the ways in which raptivists during the ‘golden age’ modeled themselves on political actors such as Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, and Louis Farrakhan.


It is in this section that Cheney’s temporal bracketing (i.e. her single-minded focus on rap during the 1980’s and 1990’s) begins to strike an odd chord: while she is able to make clear the links between culture and politics during this period (a feat accomplished in large part because of her careful contextualization of rap within the larger societal moment defined by issues such as stagflation), her decision not to include more recent artists works to weaken her argument regarding the central importance of the genre.


It is true that her final chapter focuses on Mos Def and Talib Kweli (two current hip-hop artists who also perform together in a group known as “Black Star”—a moniker whose political implications are clear to those even fleetingly familiar with Garveyism).


However, the fact that this engagement with contemporary hip-hop comes at the end of the text and lasts only a few pages causes Brothers Gonna Work It Out to seem more like a work on the historical particularity of the ‘golden age’ than a treatise on the space where hip-hop and politics meet.


In one telling passage, Cheney cites Lord Jamar of Brand Nubian who suggests that “…with rap music a lot of masculine men said, ‘Yeah, this is the way I can sing without singing, and this is a way for me to write poetry without being a poet, like a soft poet.’ And that is why rap is so popular because you can still keep your masculinity.” 


This passage, representing rhyming and singing as mutually exclusive for masculine black men calls to mind work done by John Jackson in his recent text, Real Black. In this text Jackson credits, coincidentally enough, Mos Def with bridging this seeming chasm: “Hip-hop polices the borders between singers and rappers quite stringently…Singers are not rappers just as much as the reverse—except when making specific moves to increase the distance between those two forms by crossing that line in recognizably ironic and parodic ways…”


However, Jackson goes on to claim that by singing and rapping seriously on his album Black on Both Sides, “Mos Def opens up space for the black, male, hip-hop body to sing itself anew, to destroy the categories of expressive difference that make an authentic male rapper different from an authentic male singer…” (Jackson 187-8).


While Cheney does the important work of situating her examples within their broader sociopolitical context, this reader felt that her decision to explore the interstices between rap and politics during the ‘golden age’ make her arguments seem dated: her primary example of someone who transgresses predetermined gender roles she turns to Speech of Arrested Development. Perhaps her introduction of gangsta rap was meant to circumvent this critique, but fails to do so as her discussion centers around artists such as Ice Cube.

There is much to recommend Brothers Gonna Work It Out: Cheney is clearly a capable scholar and hip-hop fan (a combination that makes her text both thoroughgoing and insightful); her style of writing is easily accessible, allowing the reader to follow the ideological course she is plotting, rather than struggle through disciplinary jargon.


Further, Cheney does the brave work of outlining fractures within the black community. While she is centrally concerned with inter- gender divisions, she also points to intra- gender complexity, a point most clearly demonstrated in her discussion of the divergent ideological positions taken by Queen Latifah and Sister Souljah in relation to female participation in hip-hop.

In her conclusion entitled “Be True to the Game,” Cheney continues her project of problematizing black nationalism by introducing gender while noting the “continued power of ‘it’s-a-dick-thing’ masculinity and masculinist politicking in U.S. black nationalism” (Cheney 170).


In closing Cheney turns to Anne McClintock whose work points to the dangerous silences often produced by nationalism. Toward the end of McClintock’s text, Imperial Leather, she writes: “A crucial question thus remains for progressive nationalism: Can the iconography of the family be retained as the figure for national unity, or must an alternative, radical iconography be developed?” (McClintock 386).


Cheney’s contribution is her ability to use rap to skillfully introduce race into the equation such that, for this reader, the question becomes: “Can the black community continue to be understood as a family (or an unproblematized Diaspora), or must this representation be revisited?”


Brothers Gonna Work It Out: Sexual Politics In The Golden Age Of Rap Nationalism
By Charise L. Cheney
Paperback: 222 pages
Publisher: New York University Press


With thanks to Dr Mark Anthony Neal at New Black Man


TAMI NAVARRO is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University.


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