Southern hip-hop has certainly become, in many ways, “more special than gold.” Southern artists and producers have dominated the hip-hop and R&B charts almost uninterrupted for the past decade. When music and pop culture pundits proclaimed rap a dying form that had reached its apex when sales plummeted (at a time when sales were plummeting across most genres), southern artists shape-shifted into the pop stars their bluesmen and blueswomen predecessors might have been in a different time and place. Their distinctly regional brand of being-in-the-world tapped into American lust for Otherness after we had become too familiar with Snoop, Ice Cube, and 50 Cent in our living rooms. They invited us to consume a different kind of blackness: a grilled up blackness, a candy-coated paint blackness, a snap-ya-fingers-do-ya-step blackness, a Cash Money blackness, a pimp shit blackness. Catapulted definitively into the limelight, with major labels establishing explicit southern branches (Bad Boy South and DefJam South) to cash in on the regional talent, gold grills, actual and figurative, were replaced with platinum ones.
But, after enduring the stigma perpetrated by what Lil’ Wayne has called “rapper racists and region haters,” at what cost did southern hip-hop gain national and global recognition? Has it, like other popular forms, been so co-opted that it can only exist as caricature, a substance-less outline of something that was once there? Does a platinum South have redeemable qualities? Moreover, aren’t such discussions of authenticity a bit disingenuous, supporting an unhealthy nostalgia for a past that may have never been and disallowing the evolution of art and representation in tandem with changing cultural and industry norms? After all, there’s something more to be said for the deft metamorphoses individual artists undergo, and the balancing struggles thereof, than just “she/he sold out.” (Stumble onto any conversation of Lil’ Wayne and hear people wax and gush nostalgic for the days of Tha Carter III.) In a world of Skinny Blacks, is there still room for a Dee-Jay, making music “with simple tools” and “by any means necessary” to “get what you’ve got to say out”?
Enter Trinidad James.
The video for his single, “All Gold Everything,” is a throwback to videos-as-neighborhood/urban ethnography. Shots of three-legged barbeque grills smoking chicken thighs, custom-painted cutlasses, pitbull puppies, plantation-style housing projects, window-unit air conditioning, Clayton County police cars, red dice, magnificent displays of body art of varying quality, and myriad kinds of gold signify a southern urban neighborhood with southern urban folks. Interspersed with these images are the usual rap fare—guns, money stacks, blunts—but the southern signifiers give the usual a different connotation. No one is making it rain. No one is popping on a pole, although James gives the women at Magic City and Onyx a shout out. The guns are framed as a necessary part of the implied business. In his strivings to represent an Atlanta that is obscured by The Real Housewives of Atlanta, Love & Hip-Hop Atlanta, Big Rich Atlanta, and now Doctors’ Wives, James operationalizes gold as a powerful metaphor for an authentic black existence that respects multiple hustles, puts on for its respective cities, and that dares you to watch what it can do despite the odds against it—“don’t believe me, just watch,” James admonishes. This is a blackness that makes it do what it does, shining all the while. To shine through marginalization and urban crisis, one needs gold. Yet, this gold also incorporates more traditional kinds of striving, including educational attainment (“this one from them colleges/them bad hoes at Spelman”), inviting an expansive reading of hustling through the shared iconography of gold.
Recently discovered Dr. Zandria Robinson’s blog and am consuming it with the voracity of a starved gremlin.