Race at the Interface: Rendering Blackness on WorldStarHipHop.com
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WorldStarHipHop.com (WSHH) is an online video aggregating website that describes itself as “the premiere online hip hop destination” and a home for “urban media.” Yet, browsing through the site provides little clarity on what constitutes a hip-hop video or urban Internet space because of the disparate video content, the actual racial diversity of the performers, and the website’s generic design. As a result, WSHH’s taglines make a strange claim about the current state of the black musical tradition. Through close readings of the site, this article considers the architecture of this space of interracial exchange and identifies the interface as an example of Modernist architectural simplicity. I argue WSHH’s modular design is flexible enough to include non-black bodies, while remaining a black “urban” space. Thus, the site’s straightforward architecture paradoxically becomes the scaffolding of a much more complex, de-corporealized, and “shareable” blackness.
WorldStarHipHop.com (WSHH) is an online video aggregator that describes itself as “the premiere online hip hop destination” and a home for “urban media.” But when the website loads, visitors encounter a set of generic design elements. The top block on the page is a banner ad, just below that is a thinner black menu bar with the WSHH logo on the left and links to only three page options on the right (“iCandy,” “Contact,” and “Shop”). After the links there is a search bar and the ubiquitous symbols for the social media sites Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Finally, there is one more, much larger, advertising block. Looking at WSHH, it becomes clear that there is no template or expectation for the appearance of a hip-hop website. WSHH resembles other video-sharing sites and with only three different page options to select, it limits the possible interpretations of hip-hop web design. Similarly, browsing through the site provides little clarity on what constitutes a hip-hop video; visitors will find user-submitted films, professional and amateur music videos, news clips, and sports highlights that all feature diverse performers. Thus, when WSHH describes itself as a hip-hop or urban site, it makes a strange claim about the current state of the black musical tradition.
WSHH is redundant in the Internet space. Visitors who wish to upload their own clips on the site must submit the pre-existing URL for the video. Even videos the site marks as “WSHH Exclusives,” are available in other places. Why watch these videos on WSHH instead of YouTube? WSHH’s nonspecific appearance and its comprehensive approach to curation reflect the contemporary moment in hip-hop visual culture, which has become so expansive that it includes websites, fashion, and even cookbooks. According to the website’s description, WSHH is distinguished and cohered by blackness. Thus, WSHH and hip-hop visual culture are black spaces, despite the genre’s increasing racial, ethnic, and stylistic diversity over the last four decades. That means the challenge of defining WSHH as a hip-hop website is complicated by the equally complex terrain of blackness. If hip-hop is made recognizable as an expression of blackness, how then do we recognize blackness? Returning to WSHH through this racial lens makes it clear that there is also no template for the appearance of blackness. How does a website or a video become black? Further, if hip-hop is a form of the expression of blackness and the genre is broadening and being produced and consumed all over the world, often through social media sites and aggregators similar to WSHH, is blackness shareable?
In a six-part editorial on Vulture.com, the influential hip-hop drummer and producer Questlove complained about the diffuse nature of contemporary hip-hop and the tendency to add the label to any cultural object with an even tangential relationship to black culture. He laments, “there’s even hip-hop architecture. What the hell is that? A house you build with a Hammer?” The artist’s joke is actually a savvy summation of the questions that arise when trying to make sense of WSHH, a structure that uses its interface, which bears striking resemblance to the clean lines of Modern architecture, to facilitate the sharing and exchange of blackness amongst seemingly unrelated videos. Taking Questlove’s challenge seriously, this article will use an architectural approach to WSHH and will thus shift attention away from the wide variety of videos and instead consider the design logic that coheres the structure. Understanding blackness as the architectonic logic of any environment relies on a definition of blackness that is not bounded by phenotype or figural representation because referring to a space, building, or website as black implies the de-corporealization of blackness. Thus, locating blackness in WSHH’s infrastructure begins by identifying the formal qualities of the online video sites that have become such a central part of the flows of media, and results in a definition of blackness that is expansive enough to explain the cultural proliferation Questlove describes.
On WSHH, the aesthetics of blackness are expressed as a set of mediated looking relations that make the unwieldy video archive intelligible. For that reason, this paper defines blackness as an aestheticized social continuity. The videos on WSHH are not black bodies, nor are they black images. However, when these videos enter the rational Modernist architectural space of WSHH, the interface operates like racial discourse that attempts to make race and other overdetermined, illogical categories appear obvious or commonsensical. WSHH’s spatial arrangement mimics the visuality of race, and in that process blackness is no longer maintained to control certain bodies. Instead, the fantasy of blackness is free to enjoy its own movement across mediums. In other words, WSHH’s architecture cannot prevent the tipping point where the investment in blackness results in a loss of control. Of course, this tension between belief and disbelief must be disavowed in order for blackness to remain a meaningful category. However, the expanded representational possibilities of the digital age make rendering this shareable blackness visible on WSHH. I argue the site is a black space precisely because of its ability to incorporate non-black bodies and images.
Using the non-representational theoretical frameworks of visual culture studies and architectural theory, this article suggests WSHH has a distinct spatial arrangement that visualizes a racial event that is typically impossible to see—the process of rendering a body as black. Architecture is not just the backdrop of this event; it constitutes the event. The formation of the racial subject and racialized space is typically concealed by the presupposed objectivity of racial discourse, the “complex articulation of the tropes of fetishism.” Through close analysis I will explore blackness as a technology of vision that operates inside and outside of the diegetic space of individual WSHH videos; then, I expand my analysis to the entire website and illustrate the points of convergence between race as a systematic approach to organizing peoples, digital aesthetics, and WSHH’s modular design. Unlike the individualized aesthetics associated with “Web 2.0,” WSHH resembles The International Style, an impersonal mid-century Modernist architecture that emphasized economic construction through prefabrication, minimalist design, and an investment in technology to overcome the particularities of the social. The International Style was an attempt to build objective architecture; thus, it is a visualization of the surface politics of the technological fetish, not unlike the overinvestment in the visibility of race.
Hip-Hop Architecture: Building Blackness in Space
Black space is not visible; however, academic and popular discourses have been committed to the idea that the cultural and performative spaces of hip-hop are materializations of race’s spatiality. Hip-hop refers to both rap music and a vast cultural aesthetic that, not surprisingly, has made it a challenge to establish a clear definition of hip-hop. However, the genre’s diversity has allowed scholars to ask questions about race, black cultural production, intellectual property, youth culture, gender, and pedagogy. Central to virtually all of these approaches is the question of space—both real and imagined cultural spaces (New York City and the “ghetto”), the space of racial marginalization, and the diasporic routes through which hip-hop and its accompanying objects and visual markers travel the globe. Linking hip-hop with space and place is not only a part of the scholarly analysis of hip-hop; it is an explicit part of hip-hop lyrics, which become the basis for the genre’s rich vocabulary and visual culture. For example, there are hip-hop subgenres defined by regional origin (East Coast or West Coast rap), music that addresses the experience of a certain kind of space or place (Trap music), and there are cultural terms like “ghetto pass” that connect hip-hop to the larger discussion of subcultures that are formed in charged spaces of confinement. These examples illustrate a collapse between urbanity and blackness that, in turn, is essential to defining hip-hop.
The apparent convergence of hip-hop, space and race, which allows these terms to resemble each other, is a primarily aesthetic concern. Yet, aesthetic analysis is a methodology that is largely absent from scholarship on the genre. Instead, the existing literature on these three topics utilizes historical and sociological methodologies and presents these constellations as causally linked. For example, Tricia Rose argues hip-hop is a form of black cultural expression that emerged in post-industrial cities and was a response to black and Latino communities facing economic disenfranchisement. Similarly, Murray Foreman describes the music industry’s marginalization of hip-hop as a parallel to the production of urban ghettos. These approaches are less interested in the formal qualities of the discursive link between hip-hop, space, and race. Although these methodologies offer valuable contextualization, linear approaches to blackness are often too tidy to account for the complex and even bewildering experience of encountering race. For example, determining the causal relations that shape the aesthetics of black popular culture presumes these forms of expression are unchanging.
The aim of thinking architecturally about hip-hop and blackness is to return a sense of depth to these discourses instead of allowing the conflation of these terms to go unquestioned. Restoring the space between hip-hop and blackness also makes it possible to observe hip-hop as a site of interracial exchange that mobilizes blackness. As a result, hip-hop architecture’s implications are primarily methodological. First, hip-hop architecture encourages the formal analysis of a wide range of objects that are often deemed superficial and not included in the analysis of hip-hop’s musical rhythm and composition. As this analysis of WSHH illustrates, attention to colors, shades, and textures should not be disregarded as mere ornamentation. Architecture mediates space, so these surface qualities are actually the primary ways architecture, and cultural objects, manage and materialize sensuous qualities. Second, WSHH’s architectural blackness expands the possibilities for reading blackness in cultural objects that do not resemble or exclusively feature black bodies. It is also a powerful reminder that blackness has always done the objectifying work of managing things—even when those things are people.
Since WSHH’s inception it has managed content that has typically fallen outside of the purview of the music industry and over the last decade, the growing quantity and varying quality of the uploaded videos has resulted in the site taking on multiple forms of affective excess. When WSHH was created in 2005 by Lee “Q” Denat, it was a hip-hop music-downloading site that provided hip-hop fans with minor record label releases and independently produced mixtapes. Today the site still includes music videos by signed and unsigned artists, but the scope of the site has broadened to reflect hip-hop’s cultural expansion. The site first gained mainstream attention when people began chanting “WorldStar!” when filming street fights with their cell phones, illustrating the cultural impact of the website’s shocking content and WSHH’s uncanny ability to reproduce itself. Each day between 20-30 new videos are added to the front page of WSHH. Unlike YouTube or other video sharing sites, WSHH does not organize this material into recommended or thematic categories. Instead, all videos appear on the front page as rectangular thumbnails organized in four tidy columns that are divided by a small banner advertisement and the date of upload. This pattern is repeated on the front and back pages of WSHH, allowing each page to fit 80-90 videos, only four days worth of content, on a single page.
Excess operates at both the formal and narrative level of WSHH; for example, its openness to amateur content creates a space for uninhibited performances by out of control bodies, passionate bodies, and angry bodies that result is an emphasis on the corporeal. Uploaders, using cell phones with limited access to editing or special effects software, bare their bodies to create entertainment value. For example, in a recently uploaded video called, “What Part of the Game Is This? Pregnant Woman Starts Twerking for a Twerk-Contest at the Club,” which has over 200,000 views, a woman performs a sexy and athletic dance in a nightclub. The video is a single long take and the camera is static except when the dancer’s movements become so wild the camera is forced to adjust to keep her body within the frame. The frame is vertical and narrow, a shape that characterizes cell phone videos. At the beginning of the dance the woman faces the camera, kicks her legs out slightly, and allows the small kick to create a chain reaction of movement up and down her body that is exaggerated by the swaying of her t-shirt and the fringe on her boots. When she seems sufficiently warmed-up, the dancer turns around and in profile it becomes clear that the woman is several months pregnant. With her back facing the camera, she bends over and isolates her body parts so the dance that began easily has become more seductive and vigorous. Then without warning, she slides into a split on the floor and the crowd screams. This is a climactic point. The crowd begins throwing handfuls of money to reward the performer, which seems to encourage her to continue varying and intensifying her choreography. She continues the floor-work and at one point bounces on the ground, and from the camera’s low level her pregnant belly is visible under her shirt. The DJ, who has been commenting on the entire performance, then yells “you are going to be a WorldStar tomorrow!”
All of the videos on WSHH include several interfaces, “points of translation between mediated layers,” that are essential to conferring meaning and value on the performances. There are exchanges between the performer and camera, the cinematographer and WSHH, the online viewer and WSHH, online viewers in the comments section, and WSHH and its advertisers. While materially different, all of these exchanges rely on translating an excess or surplus into value or meaning like advertising dollars or the delight of the viewer whose expectations have been exceeded. However, anti-black scopic regimes regularly position the black female body as abject excess that affirms white female beauty and, contradictorily, a form of hypersexuality that asserts masculine strength. Thus, the dancer may be denied the self-possession of her own fleshy excesses as they are inserted into one of these functions and used to support the banner ads framing her body. For example, during the video the DJ repeatedly says, “that’s how she got pregnant!” and “I’m gonna need you to act like you got a baby in that stomach!” His comments are like another interface, aimed to mediate the shocking performance by implicating another (male) body in the solo sexual acts on the dance floor and to remind the dancer of her bodily constraints. Unaffected, the dancer looks almost exclusively at her own body and enjoys watching the effortless movement of her hips and thighs. Nicole Fleetwood offers the theory of “excess flesh” to describe the dancer’s self-conscious refusal to take on the denigrating cultural meanings assigned to black women or to respond to the DJ’s criticism. “Excess flesh” is a way to describe performances that intentionally enact the paradox of hypervisiblity to disrupt the commodity fetishism of the black female body, so she can produce value for herself. Excess flesh overloads the visual field, allowing it to be crushed by its own overdetermination.
In the video, blackness is a particularly important interface because it mediates the dancer’s body, even before the cell phone recording, and thus serves as a point of articulation between her visibility and legibility. The woman in the video is black—that is visible. However, using her representation to extend meaning to the performance is an over attribution of racial meaning. Trying to locate race in the video means identifying it as “a framework for seeing through or...seeing as.” In other words, blackness is present in the potentially conflicting forms of mediation that coalesce around her out-of-control body to make it, make sense. However, when the dancer looks at her body, she disrupts the attempts to be confined within legible space. Rap and R&B artists describe this part of her dance as, “check[ing] on it.” It means not only enjoying one’s own sexual performance, but also finding pleasure in the awareness that someone else is watching. When she “checks on it,” the dancer is like an actor who breaks the fourth wall of cinematic space. Furthermore, by partaking in the pleasure of her own visual spectacle she reveals what is distinct about a black body that is often subsumed by the discourse of stereotypes—always, already being an image. Clearly, the dancer is not opposed to mediating her body, but her aim is for the desire of those watching her to be as visible as her own body and implicated in the image-making process. The dancer looks over her shoulder, toward the camera, as she pushes herself forward and backward on the floor to playfully gauge the camera’s interest. Successfully, she encourages an adjustment in the frame as it tries to capture her body, rendering the unseen cinematographer’s desire on-screen and public.
Blackness is not just a way of seeing the performer’s body; it is a relationship to the fidelity of the image itself. For example, blackness is expressed as two interrelated desires in the video: first, for the performer’s body to be revealed as an image; and second, for the cinéma-vérité style of the cinematography and the “natural” response of the DJ’s commentary to conceal the desire for a transparent body. The ambivalence of blackness is formally expressed in the digital image that is similarly associated with fantasies of both immateriality and presence. Cell phone recordings like those on WSHH that render their mode of production visible in the frame through their distinctly poor quality, shape, and unsteady shots are illogically part of the common-sense immediacy that comes to define the digital. Even as WSHH expands its media platform, by creating a cell phone app for users to submit their videos directly to the site, WSHH continues to make claims to limited mediation. Defining the digital aesthetic through the perceived nearness or representational “proximity” facilitated by digital image production disregards the technical apparatus. Anna Munster defines a digital aesthetic that is “approximate,” referring to both the ultimate visual limitations of the digital image to connect us to “the other” and its ability to visualize a productive, if sometimes troubling, proximity between the organic and the machinic.
Approximity shifts arguments about the digital aesthetic from the visible to the visual, the latter being a point of articulation between technologies of sight and cultural expectation; as a result, the digital aesthetic is not bound to specific mediums or technologies. The “redistribution of spatial and temporal relations into an experience of virtual nearness,” is in fact an astute way to describe the aesthetics of blackness. Alessandra Raengo is explicit about the ontological overlap between the black body and image technologies. She argues the black body shares the collapsed semiotic structure of the photograph, an overinvestment in indexicality she describes as a the “photochemical imagination.” This claim is not unlike the DJ demanding the pregnant dancer perform in a way that is consistent with her image. Blackness is the demand. Thus, not every visible body or Internet video is black; blackness is expressed in the careful negotiation of bodily visibility and technological invisibility on the site. I contend the alignment of digital and black aesthetics shows a clear parallel between the videos of bodies on the website and actual bodies—neither have any inherent racial meaning or value. Yet, WSHH does not function as a space for interracial interfacing without engaging in the ontological confusion of approximity. The most advanced image technologies cannot make the bodies entirely accessible, legible, or available to be shared among viewers—they remain approximate. Yet, images of bodies and bodies as images are subject to governing logics, like space, race, class, gender, or the architecture of a website.
Body Control: WorldStarHipHop.com as Modern Architecture
The management of excess, both quantitative and qualitative, is accomplished through WSHH’s interface, which serves the distinct architectural functions of cohering, stabilizing, and making the content on the site accessible. The most prominent features of the interface are its white background and the straightforward repetition in the video columns. The website’s design closely resembles The International Style, an architectural Modernism that aimed to be so simplistic and detached from history that it avoided identification with even a single nation. The International Style became widely known and formalized in the United States at a 1932 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. The International Style gained popularity after World War II as a functionalist approach to the built environment committed to solving modern spatial challenges through economical construction, designs that emphasize simplicity in color and texture, and an absolute rejection of the excesses of ornament. There is certainly an irony in a website adopting a mid-century architectural style, but Modern values are not the same as contemporary values. By replicating the visual event of blackness, WSHH repeats the formal qualities of several earlier visual attractions like the contained architecture of the peep show or the window displays of a red light district. Architectural Modernism’s interest in establishing a unified, but not universally identical, architectural style helps define the movement as “a readiness for acceptance of change.”
Adopting the standardized appearance of The International Style helps WSHH manage the many excesses of its video collection, affirm the site’s hip-hop identity, and differentiate the site from similar websites. In Modern architecture unadorned surfaces do not indicate an absence of style or intention; instead, they create a strong link between functionality, transparency, and rationality. WSHH is a site of interracial and intercultural exchange and the white background and tidy organization of thumbnail images supports that function by refusing to let interface design visually impede on the objects of exchange, the videos and advertisements. WSHH, YouTube, and Vimeo all use a white background and in the wholly constructed web space this interface color is a design choice, not a default. More importantly, WSHH and the other sites do not use their white space in the same way. YouTube and Vimeo both allow users to login and create a customized front page with video feeds generated from recommendations and user-selected subscriptions. For example, on the right of their video feed, users who pay for Vimeo Plus accounts can see analytics about their own uploaded videos. They are also encouraged to create “Channels” that the site describes as “a simple, beautiful way to showcase and watch videos.” Similarly, because YouTube is a Google subsidiary, users with Google accounts will even see a small image of their face in the upper right corner of the page. On these sites, the appearance of emptiness, represented by the white color, invites users to fill in the space with their preferences. With the exception of the WSHH online store, another point of exchange that has an entirely different web design, visitors cannot log into the hip-hop site and are unable to customize the front page. Because there are limited ways users can insert themselves in the WSHH interface, there is a clear sense visitors have arrived somewhere else—the interface others the space. YouTube and Vimeo are personal architectures, so despite their similar appearances they ideologically run counter to architectural Modernism. If a person is reflected in WSHH’s uniform white surface it is not the individual user but the identity of Modern man, who is universally identified by his pressed white shirt and is the intended audience for these kinds of visual spectacles. The understated approach to WSHH’s identity should not be surprising; as I explained above, materializations of blackness (in bodies or institutions) have always disavowed the process of racialization.
Architects working within the International Style aimed to build environments that suited the needs of inhabitants so well that the structure would effectively disappear. Thus, Modern architecture and the modern computer interface both take their shape as solutions to the problem of representation, specifically designing a form that can be masked by its function. For example, the challenge on WSHH is creating a unique site identity using a redundant web design to cohere a set of videos that are uninhibited, incoherent, unoriginal, and improvised. For example, virtually all news and social media sites include space for commenting below featured content and site administrators establish rules and features to dissuade commenters from using this space for harassment. WSHH has a comment section too; however, in the aim of constructing a black space, the site predetermines its racial identity by including the words, “No Spamming or racism” above user comments. This heading applies meaning to all of the videos from the outside, effectively racializing the site without indicating how this process occurred because it is unclear how uploads even enter this racial context. Although WSHH is a space full of user generated content, users are not privy to the site’s “back end.” Those interested in contributing content to the site are asked to complete a form and wait to see if their content has been accepted. Sealing this space helps ensure that the encounter with blackness appears objective, as if these videos inherently produce racist comments.
Building an objective architecture means not only rejecting certain spatial references, like regional design details, but also temporal markers that indicate the potential for change. To function as an objectively black space, despite its generic design and the clear ways in which WSHH interacts with similar video sharing sites, WSHH disavows the temporality of racialization. On the site, new sets of videos appear under the upload date, as opposed to being organized by subject or genre. Thus, viewers are encouraged to move backward in time for more content but, more importantly, through this style of linear navigation they are made aware of the fact that there will be more videos tomorrow. New videos are simply added to the top of the structure so the site accumulates but its appearance remains the same. The organization suggests one pleasure the site offers is the perpetuity of the visual event, or awareness that certain bodies are always available. Thus, the site repeats the spatial-temporal racial discourse that suggests the black body is, “always already there, or perhaps always there before, whereas the European is headed there, better, not there yet.” Similarly, videos that have disappeared from the site over time or those that simply will not load in time are of no consequence to the whole. All interfaces that incorporate time are not black, but the visuality of the supposedly race-neutral digital space is preceded by the visual logic of blackness. Thus, looking forward to understand the future of interfacing with blackness may be best accomplished through a glance back.
Unlike all of the nondescript elements on WSHH, the site’s logo is a prominent part of the webpage that is, by definition, unique and distinguishable; still, the logo serves the function of erecting an objectively black space for users. The logo is an example of the interface not constructing an actual (black) thing, but a (black) effect. The logo is a metallic star with the letters W.S.H.H. in the same shiny color that appears in the corner of WSHH videos. Just to the right of the letters is a small bullet hole, recognizable by the look of pierced metal. Unlike any other part of the site, the logo includes animation. On a recurring loop two thin puffs of smoke come from the bullet hole and small red flashes appear across the entire logo. This animated detail is not realistic and does not feign transparency, but it is part of a visual culture that links blackness, criminality, and authenticity and allows these terms to become as slippery and interchangeable as black, urban, and hip-hop.
A similar conflation occurs in the film Bamboozled (Lee, 2000), a film that makes the issues of realism, racialized representation, and commodity exchange explicit. The film is about a television producer who achieves unexpected success by modernizing the minstrel show for network TV. Mirroring the plot, Lee’s film adopts a televisual aesthetic that is interrupted by fake commercials. One commercial parodies the Tommy Hilfiger clothing-line, which became popular with rap artists despite the protestations of the designer. In the fake advertisement the white designer intended to play Hilfiger boasts “we keep it so real we give you the bullet holes.” This absurdist moment in the film, like the bizarre smoking logo in the corner of WSHH videos, uses a racial stereotype to create a literal punctum. In her description of the Bamboozled commercial Raengo explains, “the bullet holes confer a powerful image of a racially repressed content piercing through and tearing the commercial’s surface, which, by extension, is also the film’s surface.” Like recognizing the excess movement of the cell phone camera in the dance video, the added bullet holes in the film and logo unwittingly damage the supposedly hermetically sealed Modern surface. These moments, both inside and outside of the videos on WSHH, allow the excesses of racial meaning (belief, disbelief, attraction, and abjection) to be materialized on the computer screen.
Shareable Blackness: The Aesthetics of Fungibility
Like the improbable unity of a global architectural style, part of blackness’s aesthetic function is producing an impossible continuity among bodies, and WSHH visualizes this spectacular racial aggregate. The effect is not just continuity, but commensurability. The smooth, flat surface of WSHH treats fights filmed on cellphone cameras the same as expensive music videos, allowing them to exist on the same plane. The site produces this equivalency by literally and figuratively softening the videos’ edges by rounding the corners of each thumbnail. Captions below music videos from lesser-known artists include the title of the song and information about the video’s submission, either “label submitted” or “unsigned artist.” These labels make the business of hip-hop visual culture an explicit part of the site. However, because these captions do not make distinctions between the quality of the videos, they are not the same as YouTube’s “verification badges” that distinguish official content produced by celebrities and well-known brands with a small checkmark icon. Both the interface and Modern architecture create equivalencies to produce greater efficiency. For example, interfaces create a meaningful threshold that runs in-between viewer and media, not between media, to efficiently manage content. Similarly, Modern architectures use easily exchangeable parts to remain stable in the face of change. When applied to bodies, the same kind of efficiency creates an identical effect with troubling ideological implications by transforming an individual black body into “an object in the midst of other objects.” WSHH visualizes blackness as an aesthetic of fungiblity, a term Saidiya V. Hartman uses to describe “the joy made possible by virtue of the replaceability and interchangeability endemic to the commodity” that is embodied by the black slave. As a result, even the most unexpected animal videos on WSHH are as black as the hip-hop videos. In the fantastical geography of hip-hop architecture, anti-black racial discourse is pushed to its conceptual limit and becomes nonsensical.
The racial diversity of video performers on WSHH, those that appear to have slipped outside of the site’s controlling architecture, only threaten to rupture the coherence of hip-hop’s racial identity if race is understood representationally. I have tried to make a more radical suggestion—participating in the space of the site allows any kind of body or image to be rendered as black. Variation and incorporation become qualities of the black form. Thus, white bodies do not illustrate a structural problem in hip-hop architecture. As Bakari Kitwana argues, “it would take an army of Eminems to divorce the image of hip-hop from young Black men.” Instead of changing the racial identity of hip-hop, multi-racial performances point towards the transformational energy and potential of blackness as it begins to stands up on its own and is able to be shared amongst bodies. Thus, the strange alchemy Kitwana describes is actually hip-hop architecture’s ability to materialize the visual event of blackness, making it possible for blackness to be shared in the form of circulating images.
WSHH builds a black form that is not troubled by non-black bodies or videos because it expresses its blackness in the non-representational mode of pattern. Modernist architecture communicates through repetition and these patterns visualize the kinds of ambivalence that exists in the aesthetics of blackness. Patterns are repetitions of sameness that are capable of managing variance by recapturing the rhythm. This paradox explains how the WSHH interface accomplishes its two seemingly contradictory aesthetic functions: establishing and sharing blackness. Instead of relying on a resemblance to blackness, the WSHH interface constructs its racial identity in the repetition of thumbnail images. While architectural postmodernism rejected Modernism’s standardized repetition, a critique that is also leveled at hip-hop music, James Snead defends repetition in black expressive culture and argues, “progress in the sense of ‘avoidance of repetition’ would at once sabotage such an effort. Without an organizing principle of repetition, true improvisation would be impossible.” By defining black aesthetics through repetition, Snead would suggest the incorporation of non-black bodies is precisely where we can locate blackness in WSHH’s design.
The same confusion or conceptual folding that transforms the fixity of anti-black racial discourse into blackness’s autonomy, is part of the theoretical critiques of architectural Modernism. In The International Style by Henry Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson, the book accompanying the MoMA exhibition, the forefathers of the International Style outline their prescriptions for constructing Modern space. Despite their best attempts to remove the discussion of style from the design theory, their guidelines on fenestration, building materials, and pattern are clearly veiled prescriptions about ornamentation. Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour address this contradiction in their canonical study of Las Vegas architecture, Learning from Las Vegas. The early study of vernacular architecture establishes a vocabulary for the inconsistencies of Modern design. The architects described the absolute unification between form and function within a structure’s physiognomy a “duck”—named after a roadside stand shaped like a duck that sold eggs. Knowingly the authors assign this silly structure to Modernism’s formal purity to suggest a wholesale rejection of applied ornament inadvertently transforms all buildings into ducks. In essence, the study argues the Modernist impulses towards transparency, the same that turn blackness into an epistemology of the surface, allow forms of ambivalence to take on their own spatial dimension. On WSHH, the conflicting desires to build blackness and then deny the complexity of its construction, transforms the website into a materialization of racial sight. In other words, the interface is a big (black) duck.
In December 2008, Mozilla released a web browser designed specifically for African-Americans called Blackbird. Downloads of Blackbird come with preloaded bookmarks from black media sites, its search function prioritizes results that may be of interest to black users, and it includes several points of integration with users’ social media accounts. When the interface was released, it was met with skepticism from tech writers and commenters who could not reconcile the need for a racially specific web interface with the color-blind discourse of the Internet, particularly because Blackbird uses the same features as virtually any other browser. The logic undergirding these criticisms is an overinvestment in representation. For these writers, the site does not look black, so why is it necessary? Why bring the problems of the body into the disembodied space of the Internet?
The critics of Blackbird clearly have an expectation of the appearance of a black website, a clear image in their minds. Hip-hop architecture is a methodology that aims to “check on” that image, meaning this approach tries to consider the entanglement of technology and desire that produce that image. Without considering this process, Blackbird critics are unable to recognize blackness’s ability to take new forms in new spaces. WSHH makes no pretense to improving race relations by foregrounding positive media representations of blackness, so it cannot be as easily dismissed with the post-racial reasoning that suggests the presence of respectable black images eliminates the need for (mediated) conversations about race. WSHH stages the racial displacement that the Blackbird critics try so hard to disavow by rendering blackness in the disembodied space of the Internet.
The truth is, determining the need for a space like Blackbird is complicated because it is a combination of aesthetic and political concerns, including the problem of uneven access to technology. However, both film studies and architectural theory are well aware of the significance of spatial continuity, so when these frameworks are brought together it is easier to understand how the sum of WSHH’s parts create the effect of blackness and allow it to occupy its own space. It is equally important to recognize that the spatiality of blackness is already incorporated into our popular culture objects. For example, Internet videos and memes that are repeated so often that they are defined by their common-sense recognizabilty take on a life of their own, like blackness. These objects, like the structure of WSHH, do not visualize the disappearance of racial concerns, but their re-emergence and localization in new spaces. It is possible that the Blackbird critics were right to argue a black browser is unnecessary, not because the exigencies of the black experience no longer exist online, but because the aesthetics of blackness are so intimately entangled in our visual culture that it is likely a black browser already existed.
Lauren M. Cramer is an Assistant Professor of Film and Screen Studies at Pace University. Her current research project “A Hip-Hop Joint: Thinking Architecturally About Blackness,” considers blackness as the architectonic logic that coheres hip-hop’s increasingly diverse output. Lauren is a founding member and serves on the Editorial Board of liquid blackness, a research project focused on blackness and aesthetics.
“About World Star Hip Hop,” Facebook, accessed December 29, 2015, https://www.facebook.com/worldstarhiphop/info/?tab=page_info.
Although the site description does not mention race explicitly the term “urban,” is defined as, “Of or relating to any of a variety of genres of popular music of a type chiefly associated with black performers; designating this type of music” OED Online s.v. “Urban,” accessed December 29, 2015, http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/220386.
Amazon.com categorizes some hip-hop cookbooks as “Cooking Humor;” yet, the online retailer sells a wide variety of these books including one guide to making hip-hop sushi. Sayre, Scott. Hip Hop Sushi. Scott Sayre, 2013. Print.
Questlove, “When the People Cheer: How Hip-Hop Failed Black America,” Vulture.com, July 6, 2014, http://www.vulture.com/2014/04/questlove-on-how-hip-hop-failed-black-america.html.
Harry J. Elam Jr, “Change Clothes and Go: A Postscript to Postblackness,” in Black Cultural Traffic: Crossroads in Global Performance and Popular Culture (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005), 379.
I am borrowing this verb form of “aesthetics” from Nicholas Mirzeoff. “Aestheticizing” is part of his “complex of visuality” that categorizes and separates people and, most importantly, makes that separation appear “right and hence proper, and even beautiful” Nicholas Mirzoeff, The Right to Look: A Counterhistory of Visuality (Duke University Press, 2011), 3.
Alan Colquhoun, Modern Architecture (Oxford University Press, 2002), 232. The International Style is one among many styles included in American and European architectural Modernism. While these styles share many of the same ideologies, approaches to the built environment vary. For clarity, when this article discusses architectural Modernism it refers to The International Style.
Derrick P. Alridge, “From Civil Rights to Hip Hop: Toward a Nexus of Ideas,” Journal of African American History 90, no. 3 (Summer 2005): 226–52; H. Samy Alim, Awad Ibrahim, and Alastair Pennycook, Global Linguistic Flows: Hip Hop Cultures, Youth Identities, And the Politics of Language (New York: Routledge, 2009); Alastair Pennycook, “Language, Localization, and the Real: Hip-Hop and the Global Spread of Authenticity,” Journal of Language, Identity, and Education 6, no. 2 (2007): 101–15, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/15348450701341246; Dipannita Basu and Sidney J Lemelle, The Vinyl Ain’t Final: Hip Hop and the Globalization of Black Popular Culture (London: Pluto, 2006); J. E. Brunson, “Showing, Seeing: Hip-Hop, Visual Culture, and the Show-and-Tell Performance,” Black History Bulletin 74, no. 1 (2011): 6–12, [Formerly http://asalh.metapress.com/index/W488277721188713.pdf]; Murray Forman and Mark Anthony Neal, That’s the Joint!: The Hip-Hop Studies Reader (New York: Routledge, 2004).
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“What Part Of The Game Is This? Pregnant Woman Starts Twerking For A Twerk-Contest At The Club!,” WorldStarHipHop.com, December 23, 2015, http://www.worldstarhiphop.com/videos/video.php?v=wshhe6WUxBARnFTI5MYE.
Beyoncé and Slim Thug, Check On It (Columbia, 2005). In 2005, R&B and pop musician Beyoncé Knowles released the dance song “Check On It.” The chorus of the song is “Ooo boy you lookin' like you like what you see/ Won't you come over and check up on it?/ I'ma let you work up on it/ Ladies let him check up on it/ Watch it while he check up on it/ Dip it, pop it, twerk it, stop it, check on me tonight.”
Anna Munster, “Digitality: Approximate Aesthetics,” Ctheory, March 14, 2001, n.p., http://journals.uvic.ca/index.php/ctheory/article/view/14595; Raengo, On the Sleeve of the Visual, 37.
“WorldStar Updated Their App So You Can Post Rachetness Directly From Your Phone,” Complex Magazine, November 7, 2014, http://www.complex.com/pop-culture/2014/11/worldstar-camera-app.
Amy Herzog, “In the Flesh: Space and Embodiment in the Pornographic Peep Show Arcade,” The Velvet Light Trap 62, no. 1 (2008): 29–43, http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/vlt/summary/v062/62.herzog.html; Phil Hubbard, “Red-Light Districts and Toleration Zones: Geographies of Female Street Prostitution in England and Wales,” Area, 1997, 129–40, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20003779.
Constance Adams and Rod Jones, “Alpha: From the International Style to the International Space Station,” Architectural Design 84, no. 6 (2014): 73, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ad.1835/abstract.
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For a provocative discussion of the parallels between the structures of Internet connectivity and master-slave relations in the context of blackness, see Marisa Parham’s online scholarly site, Without Innovation: African American Lifeworlds and the Internet of Things.
Alessandra Raengo, Critical Race Theory and Bamboozled (Bloomsbury Academic, 2016). Alessandra Raengo argues Bamboozled performs its own critical race theory through its uncomfortable combination of media, industry, and commodity fetishism.
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