Whose line is it?

Over the last few weeks I’ve spoken to a number of reporters about reporting outside of their neighborhoods or experience.  One common theme that I’ve heard is the importance of using people’s own language to describe places and institutions in their communities.  Patrick Barry, a senior scribe working with LISC/Chicago, said journalists documenting community development projects had to rethink their use of language when reporting on the low-to-middle-income communities that were the focus of the organization’s New Communities Program.  Even if a reporter’s impression of a neighborhood was that it was a “bombed out ghetto,” Barry said, they needed to be aware that neighborhood residents didn’t use that language to describe their neighborhood and didn’t necessarily think of their community with such an exclusively negative framing.  “We have learned a lot from neighborhood people about how to talk about places,” Barry said.

The New York Times Magazine recently ran a story about New Orleans rappers Big Freedia and Katey Red.  The print version of the story about Freedia ran under the clever headline like “Neither Straight Nor Out of Compton” (I can’t find my copy of the magazine to confirm the exact title).   However, the web version uses the (apparently) search-engine-optimized title “Sissy Bounce, New Orleans’ Gender-Bending Rap” in the title of the web page (the text that shows at the top of one’s browser window) and “New Orleans’ Gender-Bending Rap” on the page itself.  These different versions of the title reflect, perhaps, reflect the contentious use of the term “sissy bounce” to describe the music of Big Freedia and other gay, transgender, lesbian or bisexual rappers who perform New Orleans’ signature hip-hop style of “bounce.”

Jonathan Dee, the story’s author describes bounce like this:

Bounce itself has been around for about 20 years. Like most hip-hop varietals, it’s rap delivered over a sampled dance beat, but it has a few characteristics that give it a distinctively regional sound: it’s strictly party music, its beat is relentlessly fast and its rap quotient tends much less toward introspection or pure braggadocio than toward a call-and-response relationship with its audience, a dynamic borrowed in equal measure from Mardi Gras Indian chants and from the dawn of hip-hop itself. Many, if not most, bounce records announce their allegiance by sampling from one of just two sources: either Derek B.’s “Rock the Beat” or an infectious hook known as the “Triggaman,” from a 1986 Showboys record called “Drag Rap.” (That’s “drag” not as in cross-dressing but as in the theme to the old TV show “Dragnet.”)

Katey Red is quick to point out that LGBT artists in New Orleans are part of the larger bounce music culture, not a separate genre.  “Ain’t no such thing as ‘sissy bounce,’ ” she said. “It’s bounce music. It’s just sissies that are doing it.”  In this video interview from Fader Magazine, Freedia expresses a similar sentiment:

Bounce music generally is just bounce music in New Orleans and you may have a gay rapper that does bounce music and you have straight rappers as well.  So I just really want to clarify that bounce music is not sissy bounce it’s bounce generally and you have some sissies that represent bounce music, you know, like myself, Sissy Nobby, Katey Red .  You know, there’s a few more.  It’s not called sissy bounce at home, it’s called bounce music.

The story does explain that most artists object to the phrase.  “They have no desire to be typed within, or set apart from, bounce culture; and indeed, within New Orleans itself, they mostly are not,” Dee wrote.  And it also explains the origin of the label “sissy bounce,” New Orleans music writer Alison Fensterstock.  Still, the nuanced perspective of how the artists view gender and sexuality as part of their identities and the identity of their musical community falls under a web page title that acknowledges “their bookings elsewhere in the country are founded increasingly on the novelty of their sexual identities.”  Even if the artists eschew the term “sissy bounce,” the Times seems aware that people may search for information about this music using this term, and they want to make sure that people can find the article.

This forefronts a challenge for journalists when choosing words in their stories – should one use the language of those most involved in or affected by a story or terminology that may be more widely used?  Does using the popular language for something legitimize language that doesn’t accurately frame an idea?    The best approach is probably the one Dee took in the story about New Orleans rap, to explain disputed language, its origins and how it reflects the nuance of the subject.  This is possible, and even adds depth to a longer article, but can a writer do the same thing in a daily news article?

Being aware of and taking the time to explain complicated stories behind language are important obligations for journalists that will only become more difficult in the age of online news.  As more and more people seek news and information on the web and find it through search rather than visiting the news organization’s web site directly, there is greater pressure for journalists to include widely-used language in stories to make the stories discoverable.  One solution may be to link phrases in the story to pages that describe the origin of the phrases.  The New York Times website already allows users to access definitions of words in articles by clicking on the word.  Linking such functionality to user-contributed content, like urban dictionary, may give added insight into the origin of language used in stories, though it could make it more convoluted.

Photo by Incase via Flickr. It’s captioned as a photo of Big Freedia, but the performer more closely resembles Katey Red.

memes for media literacy discussions

  • Lupe Fiasco on sexism (from masculinities in media blog). I heard about Lupe Fiasco when someone brought ihis music up in the Q&A after the MED lecture last month. I heard a really great song called Kick, Push about skateboarding by Lupe Fiasco along with a lot of other great music on the Pandora Radio site.
  • Gabriel Teodros (thanks st!) on multi-racial identity and language in Africa East.  More and more I feel like punk music doesn’t speak to the questions that I need help answering, or to my experience, or connecting my experience with bigger things.  If it does connect with my experience, it seems often to link from my intentional investment in a particular subculture.  That’s not entirely true, because I think punk culture and the experience of playing music and organizing shows in a small town was, and remains, so honestly and beautifully linked with my experience growing up in central PA (and my parents as college-educated middle class people and the lifestyle that created for me).  But, that’s not my whole story, and it’s more and more unsatisfying to feel so invested in music that seems to lack a language to talk about some things, or has a political motivation without a complete perspective (say, in punk’s consistent striving to talk about and against racism but doing so without talking about race).  I’m searching for, and would like to think that I can help make multicultural music, not stylistically in the Lotus Fest, Puntamaya sort of way, but in terms of theme and perspective.

they don’t make em’ like they used to

I watched the film Girls Town last night.  I thought it was really good.  It dealt with topics like domestic violence, rape, motherhood, and suicide in a way that was both empowering but not naively triumphant.  I liked that the fact that the group of friends that the movie’s story followed were coming from different ethnic backgrounds and differences in class, even in the worn, urban setting of the film, were definitely eluded to, but weren’t exploded into the cliches that one finds in a lot of films about urban youth.  The film’s soundtrack also reminded me of the song U.N.I.T.Y. by Queen Latifah which is awesome and it made me sad that the standards seem to have been lowered so that it is seen as important when there are women MCs, period, even if people in mainstream music aren’t talking about challenging things in a direct, personal way like Latifah and other artists did in the 90s.

On a side note, I found this review of the film on IMDB really endearing:

I’m a 62-year-old white male in Northern Michigan, and I liked this film. Rightly or wrongly, I felt that I was getting a good inside look at a culture that I have never brushed shoulders with. Lili Taylor, for a 30-year-old gal from Illinois, seems to have captured the spirit of Patti in a very convincing way, and her body language showed that she really had rapport with her friends. Under ordinary circumstances, I would not choose to watch a film about the subject of school kids in Brooklyn or Hackensack or wherever, but I liked these kids. It’s a nice piece for older people to watch, and be entertained by people telling you things you probably didn’t know. Rightly or wrongly. I’m not in a position to judge the authenticity of the cultural overview that the film presents. Warning to old fuddie-duddies: The F-word uccurs 31 times in a 51-second scene (Is this a new record?) so don’t watch if the grand-kids are around!


So what if I got called out by Corinna and Dustin for carrying the hipster pda – it really is a pretty great organizational tool.

After being out of town for a while, I’m trying to play catch-up with a bunch of projects and I’m trying to clear out some older notecards.

Once, when I was soliciting for postage donations for Pages, a man angrily asked, “Why don’t you support the military instead of goddamned people in prison?” The statistic that I wish I could have produced, not that it would have likely made any difference is that, as of 1998, there were 56,500 Vietnam veterans and 18,500 veterans of the persion gulf war in prison in the us. These statistics are from the US Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Here’s some things that I want to check out:

  • Ras K’dee – Abbey and I were driving around listening to WFHB when we heard an interesting interview with this Hip-Hop artist. Maybe it was this one. He has a new record called “Street Prison”.
  • Chris, a new volunteer at pages who is really amazing suggested that I tap the IU progressive faculty alliance for finding common interests and issues to our work at pages. Chris is a pretty interesting guy. He’s an Eagle Scout who rebuilt and restocked a prison library for his scout project. As a reference, most people do things like build bridges on hiking trails or paint fences at a park. Chris suggested that we look into how to help out prison libraries as well as look into larger scale donations from publishers.
  • Ryan recommended the record Hex by the band Earth or the more obscure Smashed Guitars and Sunn Amps. I think he got into the whole drone-metal thing from his friend Orion. I feel like drone metal has been everywhere in my consciousness lately. There was the Sunn party at the Stabbin’ Cabin the night of the Piedmonster show. Ian, a boy that I talk to sometimes on the Internet mentioned it as an influence to his drone-metal project, and Mike in Detroit was wearing a Sunn t-shirt and talking about how it was currently the music he was excited about. I think Sunn has a new double LP out.
  • Jenny recommended the documentary Afropunk, I think, in the course of a conversation about culture within subculture.
  • Freshman Rhethoric is a “mathy post-punk” band that one of the guys who set up the show at Shipwrecked in G-Rad plays in. I think they have a MySpace page or something.
  • I enjoyed listening to Re:sound from Chicago Public Radio when we were driving through.
  • Someone I talked to in Lexington mentioned a radio show they had on WRFL on Tuesday from 4-6pm that combines punk music with news headlines.
  • I finally got to see Taryn Simon’s The Innocents photo show at the CaC in the ‘natti. Its also showing at The Provisions Library in DC where my friend Katy works.