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Body Capital: How Twerking Shapes The Sound Of Southern Rap

Twerking, and the music born in its image, creates a liberating space for those gathered on this side and the other.
Jahdai Kilkenny for NPR
Twerking, and the music born in its image, creates a liberating space for those gathered on this side and the other.

This essay is part of The South Got Something To Say: A Celebration Of Southern Rap, NPR Music's canon of the best songs, albums and mixtapes by Southern rappers. The project — created by a team of Southern critics, scholars and writers and led by Briana Younger — is an enthusiastic celebration that recenters the South as a creative center in hip-hop and acknowledges the region's wide-ranging contributions to the genre.

I grew up twerking in my room, at the skating rink, in a circle in the street and basically at any gathering where young people were alone with bass and new bodies. When I recently asked my 17-year-old about her twerk anthems, she sent over Zed Zilla and Jucee Froot's "Shake Dat Ass," which calls up the Miami Bass song by Splack Pack, and Shardaysa Jones' "Gimme My Gots," warning me that they may be too much for me. In response, I played for her some of my girlhood favorites: Uncle Luke's "Scarred," "B****** (Reply)," the femme reply to DJ Jimi's "Where They At" and 2 Live Crew's "Pop That Pussy." I have subjected her to my twerking since she was born, but these staples, or the idea of me dancing to them in some cases when I was younger than she is now, made her conjure some pearls to clutch. "Mom, y'all's generation..." she trailed off.

"Twerking," the word DJ Jubilee offered for the ecstatic booty-bouncing, popping, gyrating and shaking movements on New Orleans dance floors, carries within it a recognition of and reverence for the rigorous labor involved in the process. To move requires the privilege of ability and skill as well as the permission and encouragement of the community. The sound has to be right to communicate and document what is necessary: healing or rage, death or birth, and all things overlapping and in between. Club dance floors clear rapidly if a beat is wrong; likewise, dancers in the South's strip clubs determine which combinations of rhythm and words are the key to unlocking what they and/or their clients desire. This process, in turn, shapes a wide swath of Southern hip-hop and an overwhelming majority of its dance music. Strip club music, which makes up most of the popular music landscape today — with its heavy bass, trap claps like ass claps and stable of Southern blues men emcees with just enough of a country accent to make "shake that ass, b****" sound just like "I respect you, I love you and I am proud of you and you only" — is one of the South's most widespread sonic exports. In and out of the club, everyone wants to make the sound that makes the girls dance. Everyone gets paid then, albeit unequally, in power, purse or pussy.

In this context, twerking is a kind of cyclical exchange in which songs are created to facilitate dancers', which facilitates clients', often men's, pleasure, power and profit. Dancers receive some portion of the profit their labor generates, which is to say they are exploited within a capitalist system that keeps clubs, radio stations, promoters, rappers, the music industry at large and men's egos afloat. This economic exchange overlays the everyday negotiations of gendered power in relationships. Several songs within the twerk music tradition have attempted to capture these dynamics. "It must be the pussy cuz it ain't your face" from DJ Jimi's 1992 bounce hit "Where They At" is met with "It must be the money cuz it ain't your dick" on the aptly titled response song "B****** (Reply)." Twenty years later, Georgia producer Mike WiLL Made-It produces two similar tracks, one for Rihanna and the other for Juicy J, that became strip club anthems from the perspective of performers and patrons, with Rihanna embodying both: spender/spectator, earner/performer.

The Ying Yang Twins basically dedicated its entire twerk corpus, and most notably the classic "Whistle While You Twurk," to documenting the exchanges across patron and dancer experiences. Offering encouragement for the laborers and recognizing the hazards of the job, the duo offers this tidbit, for instance: "Say them n***** in the club wanna hate / wanna touch her pussy never wanna pay / I said shawty, "f*** that n**** do ya thang / I see ya crunk, tiger stripe, G-string.'" Even if one is not aware that several levels of financial and symbolic capital exchange and exploitation feed powerful multinational corporations, these songs remind us that scores of decisions are made at the micro-level that influence and are influenced by these power structures.

We are fortunate to live at the same moment as two of the most prolific twerkers of all time, Big Freedia and Megan Thee Stallion. They are fluent in languages from both sides of the Atlantic — the chants, the rhythms, the drums, the movement, the adornment, the occasions, the occurrences, the rituals, ancient and future. They are at once dancers and emcees, word rappers and body rappers, stories of simultaneous sound and motion. Their sound movements tell us about the moment, whether after the devastation of Katrina or in the deep space of personal grief and mourning, encouraging us to keep going, listening, moving, purging, reconciling, returning ourselves to ourselves. Where two or three asses are gathered and thrown in a circle, there is God with them.

In the context of heteropatriarchal capitalism, twerking has been shorn of its spiritual and archival meanings and forced to signify Black femme excess, greed and lasciviousness. From Lizzo to Megan to Cardi B, femmes who twerk, whether they are globally famous or club unknowns, continue to be met with criticism for daring to shake their booties. Twerking is blamed for sexual violence against Black women, femmes and non-binary people ("If she wouldn't have been doing all that nasty dancing..."); our economic despair ("You worried about twerking when you need to be worried about an education!"); our lack of morals ("These girls don't know how to act because they mama's out here twerking, too!"), "Black-on-Black" crime and gun violence ("If all these women wasn't trying to twerk then maybe these kids wouldn't be in the street killing each other!") and whatever else ails Black communities. In turn, as the home and soundtrack of twerking, the South and Southern hip-hop are blamed for twisting a once staid inner-city protest genre from "fight the power" to "snap ya fingers, do your step." Joy and play, and especially women and femmes' joy in the movement of our own bodies, have no place in Black liberation.

In the West, following the Enlightenment idea of the mind-body dualism, there are binary, dichotomous, or entirely discrete portions of the self — the mind (mental) and the body (physical), which correspond with familiar, hierarchical binaries: Madonna/whore, straight/gay, logic/emotion, male/female, North/South. Twerking, then, might be interpreted as a failure or absence of the mind, which is normatively supreme, evidenced by its inability to control the body. The body, the flesh, is primitive, anti-intellectual, deviant, sinful, base and has no logic or agency. And without thought, without a mind — recall René Descartes' "I think, therefore I am." — does one even exist? Does the body? If neither exists, does the self? Does such a mindless self with an uncontrollable body have human rights?

Black theories of the relationship between bodies and minds make a different set of assumptions. The body is more than a betrayer that communicates, through unconscious movements, the full thoughts of the mind. Rather, the body, mind and spirit are one system, and thus the movement of the body cannot be isolated and interpreted separately. This philosophy is illustrated by the worship and spiritual practices of various West African groups, from which twerking is descended. Their worship, which we observe and understand in the West as "dancing," includes bodily movements and their concomitant percussive elements and rituals and an occasion or moment to mark. When whites enslaved them, different African groups brought their respective practices with them to the U.S., South America and the Caribbean where they continued and were syncretized into Blackness.

Some of the best evidence of this syncretism, as well as of white folks' offense at Black dancing, can be found in the history of New Orleans' Congo Square. Bambara, Angolans and others of New Orleans' Caribbean and African ethnic groups performed spirit rituals, of dance and drumming and chanting and adornment, on Sundays in open public space. White people being unable to translate what was being communicated in the rituals likely contributed to the construction of the gatherings as threats. Between the late 1830s and the late 1850s, congregating and dancing were systematically legislated out of existence through increasingly repressive surveillance. After Reconstruction, as local governments enshrined white supremacy into nearly every aspect of public life, Congo Square was renamed for a Confederate war leader Beauregard, which remained the official name of the space until six years after Hurricane Katrina.

It is fitting, then, that it is in New Orleans that this liberatory language of the body rose once again. The triumphant re-envisioning of this particular kind of dance in Black New Orleans was made possible by Uncle Luke and 2 Live Crew, whose pioneering Miami Bass music brought mass Black dancing out of clubs, house parties, music videos and the increasingly polished choreography of "Soul Train" and onto the beaches and streets of the American imagination. But it was New Orleans, that cosmopolitan amalgam of Caribbean and West African influences complemented by rhythmic horns, that returned it to the elevated center through the city's DJs, emcees, and producers (including Jubilee, Mellow Mellow, Devious, and Jimi); a sample of "Drag Rap," known widely as "Triggerman," by New York City group The Showboys; the call-and-response movement of Black queer men and Black femmes; and the freeing leisure space of dancefloors improvised and staged. Mannie Fresh pushed this perfect combination of sound and movement beyond the banks of the Mississippi, producing the Twerk National Anthem, that genius reconciliation of bounce and gangsta music realities, "Back That Azz Up," performed by Juvenile. From pussy popping contests at Crystal Palace in South Memphis to the top dancers at Atlanta's Magic City, sound and ass were everywhere.

Ironically, if unsurprisingly, it was East Coast rappers who reacted with Cartesian disgust at the movement of Southern hip-hop. While they tolerated Miami Bass and certainly did not protest when they visited The Blue Flame, they chided their carnal, country cousins, left behind in the Great Migration, for their fear of white folks, their passive non-violence, their dancing and their anti-intellectual disregard for clever lyrics and the English language—essentially, for ruining hip-hop and making Black folks look bad in front of white folks. After all, the North, through Fat Joe, asserted that dancing was out and that instead we were doing the Rockaway, or "leaning back." This dance supremacy was a clear demon-stration of Southerners' unfitness for the inheritance of hip-hop, the exemplification of the Third Coast's illegitimacy. But in the kind of hilarious cosmic vengeance only a Black femme God could bring, New York's biggest hip-hop export in recent years was a stripper: Our Lady of the Twerk, Cardi B.

Twerking, and the music directly and indirectly born in its image, is sensual, pleasureful, expressive and percussive, and creates a liberating space for those gathered on this side and the other. By bringing the bottom to the top, the back to the front, twerking calls attention to the fallacy of the binary and its hierarchies, suggesting a third way, or perhaps the first and only way, of understanding the language of the body, and moreover, the language of the self or the human. So 55 ass claps for the twerkers, past, present and future, at house parties, in circles, in rituals, on stages big and small, in contests, and in their bathroom mirrors. Nine pussy pops in a handstand for the twerking rappers like Shardaysa, Megan, Freedia, Cardi and City Girls (whose "Twerk" anthem explicitly connects the birthplace of hip-hop to the birthplaces of booty-music). Hit ten splits for the women, savvy culture workers in and out of the club, whose names we may never know, and who may never get paid what they are owed, but whose labor and spiritual gifts are responsible for the soundtracks of our best and worst nights at the club. We owe them deference, acknowledgment, dollars and so much more not only for what they have done for hip-hop, but moreover for the joy and fullness and movement they have brought to our lives. When we say "the South got something to say," we mean lyrics but we also always mean Southern bodies, or mind and body unified and reconciled in the being of a people. There is no Rosetta Stone.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Zandria F. Robinson