Keeping it Unreal: Rap, Racecraft, and MF Doom

American musical genres are soundtracks of “race.” This is what Montero Lamar Hill, popularly known as Lil Nas X, inadvertently revealed with his hit song “Old Town Road” in 2019. Initially listed on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart, the song was later excluded from the chart because, in the words of Billboard’s official statement, it “does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version.” Billboard invoked the “elements” of country music as if the entertainment company’s decision were simply a matter of form. Such reasoning feigns ignorance about some distinctions that are probably obvious to most people who are familiar with American musics and social identities: Country is white; Lil Nas X is Black. Country is sung by white cowboys (and a few cowgirls); artists like Lil Nas X are more often rappers or R&B singers. Country has guitars and twangs; rap has bass and thumps. As Joshua Clover points out, “millions of listeners…understood full well that the exclusion, despite disavowals, derived from the fact that the artist is black…and because the song’s rhythm track and collage character signify black music, hip-hop in particular.” After “Old Town Road” was removed from Hot Country Songs, it reached its “proper” place at the top of Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs.

Genre theorists have long argued that genres cannot be adequately defined by listing their necessary and sufficient conditions. In a seminal study, Rick Altman states that “[g]enres are not inert categories shared by all,” but are instead constituted by “discursive claims made by real speakers for particular purposes in specific situations.” In other words, genres are made and unmade by their social and cultural uses, i.e., by the historically shifting and competing discourses and practices of producers, marketers, cultural gatekeepers, and consumers, among many others. Billboard’s expulsion of “Old Town Road” from the country chart was not a reaction to what country is and what Lil Nas X’s song is not. Neither sheer sound nor sound patterns create genres; people do. Cultural gatekeepers at Billboard drew upon dominant discourses about country and rap to shift the social and cultural uses of “Old Town Road.” Their reclassification of the song was an attempt not to describe the song’s non-country status but to enforce it. 

Altman’s focus on the uses of genre still misses Clover’s intuition that popular American music is constituted not only by explicit discourses but also by implicit ways of hearing, seeing, and constructing “race.” “Old Town Road” has an ambiguous relationship to country because it sounds like rap and because rap is “Black” music. To be sure, rap, like jazz and the blues, is deeply rooted in (though not completely defined by) the historical musical traditions and experiences of Americans of African ancestry. In this sense, to speak of the “Blackness” of rap is to make a valid statement about history and some of the peoples who produce and consume the music. But since both popular cultural genres and “races” are social constructions, not natural modes of existence and categorization, neither “Black” music nor “Black” people (nor any other “race”) exist. More precisely, “race” does not exist ontologically objectively, independently of minds and practices as a “brute” fact. Yet if the “Blackness” of rap does ultimately possess a kind of objectivity, it is because “race” is a pervasive organizing fiction—a worldview, a common sense, an institution with profound practical consequences. As Michael Omi and Howard Winant point out, while “the categories employed to differentiate among human beings along racial lines reveal themselves, upon serious examination, to be at best imprecise, and at worst completely arbitrary,” they are “not meaningless” because “race does ideological and political work.” Thus, to call “race” a fiction is not to trivialize fiction but to foreground its ideological, political, and cultural power.

Focusing on the masked rapper Metal Fingers (MF) Doom, this article uses Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields’s concept of “racecraft” to theorize how the insidious fiction called “race” shapes and reshapes popular “Black” music. The concept of racecraft draws an analogy between racial common sense and practice, on the one hand, and witchcraft, on the other. The Fieldses do not mean that racecraft and witchcraft are irrational superstitions to be dispelled with proper scientific literacy, for even science reproduces racecraft. Rather, racecraft and witchcraft are ensembles of belief and practice that tie together—“craft”—a dense lived reality that actors find plausible and recreate through further belief and practice. The Fieldses write: “Witchcraft and racecraft are imagined, acted upon, and re-imagined, the action and imagining inextricably intertwined. The outcome is a belief that ‘presents itself to the mind and imagination as a vivid truth.’” Moreover, since the materials with which it stitches social reality are ultimately supersensible and conjectural, racecraft is always speculative, a quotidian form of science fiction. While observable traits like nose and eye shape, hair texture, and skin color may appear to be pure sense data, they become visible markers of a person’s “race” only when linked to speculations about unseen “natural” essences, which themselves are often bound up with speculative geography. The features that constitute a person’s visual “racial” differences are tied to conjectures about their continentally-defined psychological, moral, or cultural differences—“the presumed inward, invisible content of that person’s character.” For example, the Swedish naturalist Linnaeus racecrafted the invisible content of “race” together with skin color and continents in his Systema Naturae, an eighteenth-century book that is widely regarded as the first work of “scientific” racial taxonomy. Linnaeus’ four “races” are the “red” and “choleric” Native American, the “white” and “sanguine” European, the “black” and “phlegmatic” African, and the “pale-yellow” and “melancholy” Asian. Today Linnaeus’ taxonomy can be found wherever pseudo-scientific thinking about bio-geographical identity is conjoined with speculations about IQ scores, criminality, laziness, religious fanaticism, or propensities for sports and math. Or for certain kinds of music.

Rap is a mode of racecraft that speculatively binds historical musical forms (lyrics, rhyming schemes, drum patterns, etc.) to “natural,” bio-geographical and -cultural traits (inner cities, skin color, hair texture, vocal timbre, spontaneity, fashion, etc.). The result is a “musical metaphysics”: rap counts as “real” and authentic to the degree that it sounds “Black,” while “Blackness” ontologically expresses itself in rap. Yet while the markers and meanings of “race” are not simply chosen but ascribed, the case of Doom illustrates how racialized peoples can appropriate ascriptive practices to craft their own identities against dominant forms of racecraft. The ideological and political work of “race” is not only oppressive but also gives members of subordinated “races” a means of critique, rebellion, and self-affirmation—an ensemble of counter-science fictions. Doom is a remarkable case study in rap and racecraft because when he puts an anonymous metal mask over the social mask that is his ascribed “race,” he unbinds the latter’s ties while simultaneously revealing racecraft’s durability. In this way the science fiction called “Doom” captures the dialectic in science fiction scholar André M. Carrington’s concept of “speculative Blackness”: a Blackness that is simultaneously socially fictional and real, itself and not itself, speculatively transcended and reconstituted. For there can be no non-contradictory representation of “race” in a racecrafted world.

Read the rest here, Humanities 10, no. 1 (2021)

Image credit: “MF DOOM Live Concert @ Ancienne Belgique Bruxelles-9474” by Kmeron is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0