2000 Volume XXIX, No. 2
The Muze 'N the Hood:
Musical Practice & Film in the Age of Hip Hop
by Guthrie P. Ramsey, Jr.
With these thoughts in mind, I want to consider African American films
produced during the Age of Hip Hop, focusing on Spike Lee’s Do the Right
Thing (1989). I am interested in how the soundtrack shapes the way we
perceive cinematic narratives; how the music helps audiences experience
characters, locations, and plots; and how the soundtrack relates to the
techniques of the classical
For many scholars,
Lee’s use of rap music works provocatively in Do the Right Thing
because of the audience’s unconscious knowledge of conventional
Johnson argues convincingly that Spike Lee is conversant with classical scoring conventions and that he manipulates these conventions to orient the audience within the story. In addition, Lee explores unconventional approaches that “disorient” the audience, through strategies that include “unrealistic” camera angles that call attention to the camera itself, cartoonish characters, and music that establishes both “bath of affect” and “listen to me” narrative positions. Moreover, Lee’s use of rap music and its associated musical practices provides a compelling discourse on the body, dance, gender, and black nationalistic politics.
Consider the opening scene, which features a dance sequence by actress Rosie Perez. Dressed in boxer shorts and gloves, she aggressively executes a series of boxing and hip hop moves to the beat of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” Critic bell hooks has leveled scathing criticism at this scene, concluding that: “Alone, isolated, and doing a male thing, this solitary dancer symbolically suggests that the black female becomes ‘ugly’ or ‘distorted’ when she assumes a role designated for males. Yet simultaneously the onlooker, placed in a voyeuristic position, can only be impressed by how well she assumes this role, by her assertive physicality.”5 hooks’s discussion, while provocative, misses much of the signifying potential at the heart of the scene. Boxing is certainly an important metaphor in the performance, but the role of dance is even more significant. If we begin, as hooks does, with the necessary observation that the brand of black nationalism echoed in Do the Right Thing downplays the role of women in that struggle, then there is a temptation to read everything in the film through that particular lens. If we position this performance in the realm of vernacular social dance, however, we can arrive at a more thorough reading of this segment.
Perez progresses with agility and authority through many of the hip hop
dance moves that appeared during the 1980s. She moves from the Womp to the
Women have played a key role in the creation and dissemination of black social dances that circulate and re-articulate powerful cultural energy. For these reasons, I see Perez as doing a very female thing and not an exclusively male one. While it is true that at points in the dance sequence (which is a series of jump cuts) Perez wears boxing gloves and shorts, her costume in other frames are more typical of late-1980s fashions. Since the boxing movements of jabs, uppercuts, and shuffles are similar to the upper body gestures of hip hop dance, I experience strong political links among the lyrical and instrumental import of “Fight the Power,” the sport of boxing, and the expression of hip hop dance. The lyrics of “Fight the Power,” a call to arms for black liberation, are given life through Perez’s kinetic narrative.
In fact, at one point during the dance she mimes the lyrics of a particularly salient political statement. Perez’s lip-syncing, together with her gestural emphasis on the words (unlike any other sequence in the dance), connects her unquestionably to the song’s overtly political sentiments. Moreover, this moment of “self-consciousness” invites the viewer to make an explicit connection between the flowing words and the moving body. From this perspective, Perez’s performance can be seen not as extratextual, or as merely objectified by the camera’s lens, but rather as the active insertion of a distinctly female presence into Public Enemy’s somewhat phallocentric cultural nationalism.
The lyrics of “Fight the Power” scream “1989!” at the beginning of the piece. The immediacy of Perez’s dance says the same thing. We are in the present, a present that has urgency, particularity, politics, and pleasure. Lee’s choice to introduce in dance an entire song that will be of utmost importance to the film’s story line works exceptionally well. Because music with a plethora of lyrics would lose some of its communicative effect if heard solely within filmic narrative or action, the wordless yet semantic dance allows viewers to experience the full impact of song’s sentiments. When we do hear this song nine more times during the film, we can concentrate almost exclusively on the cinematic meanings it generates.
Lee replaces the cinematic use of Perez’s body during the film proper with that of Radio Raheem, a key character who speaks sparingly but who signifies much. In the climatic scene of Do the Right Thing, Raheem is killed–“accidently on purpose” as folks used to say–by police officers trying to quell a riot outside of Sal’s Pizzeria, an Italian American owned business in a predominately black neighborhood. Radio Raheem, a Bigger Thomas with a boom box, is almost represented in shorthand by Lee. He rarely speaks and doesn’t have to. “Fight the Power” speaks for him. And what's more, his body is objectified as an imposing presence that is to be taken seriously, if not feared. The sonic force of producer Hank Shocklee’s innovative and explosive rhythm track combines with the lyrics to create a palpable and pleasurable tension. More so than any other musical form heard in the film, rap music stands alone because of its singular cinematic treatment. In fact, because Radio is associated with rap music, no other character, in my view, approaches the intensity that his presence achieves.
A good deal of the dramatic thrust of Radio Raheem’s character is due to how he is framed musically. No music underscores the two scenes prior to his first appearance on screen. This strategy effectively establishes Radio Raheem as an important presence in the film. He never responds to the tune by dancing or even moving to its rhythm. Yet because of Perez’s dance performance, the bodily connection is never lost on the audience. After we meet Radio Raheem, he has a brief but very important interaction with one of the characters who serves as an important marker in the narrative. Earlier in the film we had met Mister Senor Love Daddy, the DJ at the neighborhood’s radio station, which programs various popular musical styles throughout the day. Importantly, the music of the station is, for the most part, heard diegetically and situates this neighborhood in a specific cultural space, not a universal one.
Love Daddy’s on-the-air patter belongs to a long tradition of black radio DJs. When he and Radio Raheem share a scene, one would expect the stationary and portable DJs to have an unpleasant confrontation. Instead, while standing outside of the control booth’s exterior window, Radio Raheem salutes Mister Senor Love Daddy, who responds in kind by acknowledging and complementing him on the air. This passing sentiment, together with the opening scene, situates rap music within the cultural orbit of other black vernacular traditions. At the same time, the cinematic use of rap singles it out as hyperpolitical when compared to the treatment of other musical styles of music in the soundtrack. The singularity of Lee’s artistic and political construction insisted on the silencing of rap music and the threat it posed to the white establishment. This move was achieved, for the sake of narrative closure, through the inevitable destruction of Radio Raheem’s boom box and his subsequent death at the hands of the police.
The cinematic and the musical construction of a character like Radio Raheem was very influential on later hip hop films. After Do the Right Thing, cinematic depictions of black maleness, violence, nihilism, or certain strains of black cultural nationalism could be closely tied to certain forms of rap music. In Boyz N the Hood (1991), for example, director John Singleton used gangsta rap to depict the nihilistic aspects of South Central Los Angeles gang culture. At the same time, he employed soul music and the New Jack Swing style of rap music as the sound track of “community.” And in the film Love Jones (1997), director Theodore Witcher portrayed a Chicago-based black bohemia culture that absorbed and expanded the performance codes of hip hop culture, reflecting the way that rap had multiplied into numerous satellite idioms.
More than a decade after the release of Do the Right Thing, rap music and hip hop culture continue to speak to diverse audiences. The use of rap in recent black cinema demonstrates this dynamism and provides valuable insight into the process by which music and visual imagery intertwine to generate cultural meaning.
Click on note number to return to its place in the text.
1 Ralph Ellison, Shadow and Act (Vintage, 1972), 275.
2 Manthia Diawara, “Black American Cinema: The New Realism,” in Black American Cinema, ed. Manthia Diawara (Routledge, 1993), 6.
3 Claudia Gorbman, Unheard Melodies: Narrative Film Music (Indiana University Press, 1987), 6.
5 bell hooks, Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics (South End Press, 1990), 181.
Editors' Note: This essay is a condensed version of a lecture delivered
in the series American Music at the Millennium: Transnational and