On May 2014 the self-identifying ghetto-metal band, Body Count, released their fifth album, Manslaughter, after an eight year hiatus. Body Count’s front man, Tracy Lauren Marrow, better known by his stage name Ice-T, formed the band in 1989 with fellow Crenshaw High School friends Ernie “C” Cunningham, Lloyd “Mooseman” Roberts, Victor “Beatmaster V” Ray Wilson, and Dennis “D-Roc the Executioner” Miles. All members hail from South Central Los Angeles and Compton, and from an early age shared an interest for metal music. Ice-T is better known for his role as the “Godfather of Gangsta Rap” and his participation in the TV show Law & Order. Body Count began garnering media attention in the early nineties for their lyrical content, but the group has fallen far short of the same level of success as Ice-T’s solo projects. Popular among followers of 90s hardcore music and heavy metal music enthusiasts, Body Count has functioned as an intermittent musical project that delivers commentary about urban decrepitude, militarization, police brutality, and drug use in the inner city.
Metal is not often thought of as music consumed or produced by people of color because of the genre’s association with whiteness, given that many mainstream acts are predominantly white. The racialization of the genre as white should be seen in the context of the commercial success of hip-hop and the increasing incorporation and recognition of white rappers into the hip-hop mainstream. For example, Macklemore’s recent reception of the 2014 Grammy for Best Rap Album of the Year and Pharrell Williams’s call for a “New Black” identity that does not overemphasize race illustrate the changes hip-hop has undergone recently in the direction of espousing a multicultural and post-racial ideology. Whites can rap and blackness can no longer be about race. This move dehistoricizes the material conditions from which hip-hop emerged in the 80s and conveys a message of meritocracy: if you are good enough at what you do, you will get the recognition you deserve. Both artists are examples of the commodification of hip-hop as a profitable mass cultural item fit for the entertainment of everyone with access to their music.
In contrast to hip-hop, the multicultural and post-racial impetus has not yet reached alternative mainstream genres associated with metal and hardcore music. To this day, various strands of rock music are often times coded as white in spite of the ample participation and genius performers of color have historically contributed to subgenres and undercurrents. Additionally, the commercial success of metal in the eighties has not been replicated in recent years compared to rap. Making metal in comparison is a less commercially profitable feat. Body Count’s music defies an easy categorization as some argue Body Count pioneered the “rap metal” genre. Given Ice-T’s reputation as a rapper, the authenticity of Body Count as a ‘real’ rock band has been put into question and Body Count has dedicated many tracks to addressing this racialized perception of rock music being a white thing. Similar to the NYC funk metal band Living Colour, Body Count defies claims about authenticity related to what counts as a more authentic form of black musical expression, as Ice-T straddles two genres with significantly different economic value and appeal.
Ice-T’s comments in a recent interview explain his predilection for the possibilities enabled by Body Count instead of his celebrated rapper persona:
That’s just the music I’m really into. I like rock because it lets you expand upon what you could talk about. Hip-hop has become kind of narrow minded, but with rock I could get global. I can tag hip-hop if I want and come back. And I can still be raw…Maybe I can do another Ice-T album, but you have to pick the right climate to do a hip-hop album. There was a Public Enemy climate; there was a Rage Against The Machine climate. Right now we are in a very glitzy, superficial climate. Nobody wants to hear anything about anything (Murphy 2014).
I am particularly interested in Ice-T’s comment about identifying a “right climate” given the commercial success of hip-hop vis-à-vis metal. The idea that the current climate is not appropriate, ostensibly one of the reasons making hip-hop “narrow minded,” makes Body Count’s most recent single an interesting object of analysis. Ice-T’s allusion to a “very glitzy, superficial climate” situates the debut of the first single from Manslaughter (2014), “Talk Shit, Get Shot,” in a position to convey and transmit a message that has the potential to be ‘global.’ The discussion of the video that follows takes into account Ice-T’s preference for Body Count as a medium capable of being more effective at allowing the band to broaden the scope of the themes of their music.
Although both Ice-T, the rapper, and Body Count, the band, belong to a popular culture repertoire with access to the mainstream through their connections to big music labels, I argue that these projects differ in the latter’s ability to speak to a collective experience of racialization that is disabled in the current hip-hop moment. Dominant representations of blackness in the US have ascribed criminality, deviance, and abnormality to black males and have generated the conditions for a shared experience of marginalization. This representation challenges the ideology of the individual as blacks as a collective have been denied individuality by means of their racial difference. Blackness itself becomes the explanation for a subordinate position in the American racial hierarchy, not the legal, social, and economic factors that produce inequality. Body Count foregrounds these societal tensions and the conflicts revealed in their lyrics prove too political for the current state of mainstream hip-hop.
The video for “Talk Shit, Get Shot” begins with three friends, all black, casually chatting inside of a liquor store. As they comment on each other’s fashion sense and sartorial choices, one of them is browsing a smart-phone. He announces to the rest that Body Count has returned and proceeds to mock and berate the band, writing it off as passé and irrelevant, two adjectives associated with the metal genre, as visible in the early 90s popular film Wayne’s World.. The young man’s harangue against Body Count and Ice-T includes a reference to Toronto pop-rapper Drake. The young man reminds his friends of Drake’s contemporary relevance as an artist, as nobody wants to listen to Body Count. Shortly after, Ice-T breaks the signal and emerges from the mobile phone to interrupt the tirade against Body Count, grabbing the young man by the neck. Then, as if by work of magic, Ice-T zaps him into the smart-phone screen. The remaining two men are stunned and run from the scene. The music begins to play.
The video is a dramatized fantasy involving white-bashing in such an exaggerated form that the use of violence against white people becomes a way to underscore the fictive element of the violence. Throughout the video, Body Count plays a show while the camera follows a van with armed men. The armed men, all men of color clad in black hoodies, engage in three drive-by shootings against whites. The first drive-by shooting occurs as a young white man skates on the sidewalk, dressed with a shirt that says “vegan.” While checking his smart phone, the young man dressed as a hipster rolls his eyes at a heading that reads “Body Count is back.” As he is about to reply to the heading with a “#FuckBodyCount” hashtag, the van pulls up and the armed men shoot him point blank.
This essay engages in a reading of Body Count’s “Talk Shit, Get Shot” music video to elaborate its latent critique of post-racial discourses that assume race to be an obsolete aspect of contemporary life in black America. The themes appearing in Body Count’s video range from gentrification, represented by the character of the hipster on a skateboard, corporate America, struggles over censorship in popular music, and police brutality against communities of color. I inquire about the potentiality of critique in popular music forms such as the one visible in Body Count’s video. Specifically, I discuss the ways that Body Count’s video uses signifiers to speak to gendered racial tensions. Why are all the victimizers black men? Why are all the victims white? Why is the young black man dissing Body Count at the beginning of the video left to live and forced to watch a live performance of the band and everyone else who talks shit gets shot? I recur to the video for “Talk Shit, Get Shot” to address the ways in which Body Count articulates a disidentificatory racial politics that rebut the notion of a post-racial moment.
In Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics, Jose Munoz examines the work of queer performative artists who rely on mainstream culture to concoct a critique located within majoritarian expressions of sexual, gender, class, and racial difference. A disidentificatory critique is not positioned against majoritarian representations nor in favor of them. Instead, a disidentificatory practice enables the artist to utilize prescribed hegemonic identities, like the image of hooded thugs shooting at respectable white people, in order to create new realities that challenge dominant representations. Munoz elaborates further:
Disidentification is about managing and negotiating historical trauma and systemic violence…I have wanted to posit that such processes of self-actualization come into discourse as a response to ideologies that discriminate against, demean, and attempt to destroy components of subjectivity that do not conform or respond to narratives of universalization and normalization (Munoz 1999: 161).
The disidentifying process is a strategy useful for coping with systemic inequality. The band’s name, Body Count, references the bodies of people of color who only appear in the national consciousness as decontextualized casualties whose death is probably due to their own inability to assimilate and incorporate themselves into the universality and normality of the American way of life. Speaking to the realities of South Central and Compton, Body Count’s inception was spurred by a love for rock music and a desire to express the collective element of racialized poverty and inequality that conditioned the lives of many black men in south Los Angeles, including those of its band members.
Three of the original five band members are dead. D Roc and Beatmaster V died from health-related illnesses and Mooseman as a result of being hit by a stray bullet in a drive-by shooting. The not-so-glitzy realities confronted by the band are not too distant from the realities faced by the communities they hail from. Body Count’s commercial did not translate into a longer life span for its members and provides a tragic example of the collective grievances affecting black communities in Los Angeles. In comparison to lifestyle-related deaths common to other mainstream genres, the deaths of Body Count’s members are indicative of the health concerns arising in poor, urban communities of color. Body Count’s members remained vulnerable to the types of crime and health-issues affecting other men of color. People of color’s structural location, lack of access to affordable health care, nutritious food, and good living conditions bespeak the racial inequalities present in the city. The video for “Talk Shit, Get Shot” is a response to these and other grievances. The band’s decision to resort to dramatized violence engages mainstream audiences familiarity with the daily violence consumed in syndicated television shows, such as Law & Order. It relies on the easy recognition of violent scenes pervasive in much of today’s entertainment, like the redundancy of shootings in video games, television series, and music videos. Society’s normalized consumption of daily doses of violence is hinted at by Body Count’s use of drive-bys.
Disidentification sheds light onto the layers of meaning in “Talk Shit, Get Shot,” illustrating the strategies people of color develop in order to make visible the racialization that persists in multicultural post-racial America. Racialization describes the process by which society develops an understanding of social and cultural differences based on race. As such, racialization involves thinking about how American society has dealt with issues of race throughout history. It looks at how race becomes coded into the law, such as the incorporation of blacks into citizenship with the 14th Amendment, or how the election of Obama was taken to represent a move into the current post-racial moment. In “Talk Shit, Get Shot,” Body Count hints at a new reality by using the familiar trope of the aggressive black male. In fact, the entire video consists of the racial common-sense of post-racial America.
The familiarity of decontextualized images of criminalized men of color permeates mainstream representations of black males. The scenes in the video whereby white people get shot in the street for dissing black performers provide a strange role reversal to other familiar scenes of violence, such as the habitual violence inflicted onto communities of color. The role reversal denotes Body Count’s disapproval of a reading that decontextualizes violence between whites and blacks from a history of racist exclusion. It urges the reader to think about what actually gets labeled as racist violence through the overt scenes of black on white crime which Body Count already foresees as being interpreted as “reverse racism.” This is part and parcel of Body Count’s provocation. The tragic murder of black, hooded youngster Trayvon Martin by a vigilante or the equally horrifying assassination of Oscar Grant by Oakland police sparked outrage and highlighted the continuity of racist structures in post-racial America, yet the mainstream refused to acknowledge that both murders were a continuation of racist acts against blacks. Body Count takes a symbol, the black hooded male, and imbues it with an extra dose of violence to expose what has become a truism in American perceptions of racialized crime: the naturalness of black men’s violence. The hoodie highlights the racialization process of black men by appealing to audiences’ anxiety regarding the figure of the black hooded male. Body Count takes the sign of the hooded thug and amplifies the violence that racial common-sense already attributes to it.
The racialization of black men, equating blackness with violence, is exposed in Body Count’s representation of the shooters. After all, are black men not supposed to be inherently violent in post-racial America? This racialized equivalence is made evident in Body Count’s decision to portray violence against whites in a larger-than-life way. I argue that this decision emphasizes the violence of mainstream representations that reproduce people of color as inherently deficient given their racial difference. Body Count pushes the viewer to question who in reality gets shot for talking shit. Mainstream representations of racial diversity dominate the public sphere and often times allude to common tropes of racial difference because race has become a shorthand for ‘knowing’ something about the other. Popular and mass culture rely on mainstream representations of racial difference to reproduce a narrative that continues to place a white, middle-class reality as a desirable norm. The performers in Munoz’s piece engage with mainstream representations instead of denouncing them. Instead, queer performers of color such as Vaginal Davis and Carmelita Tropicana embrace mainstream representation of race, they recycle them and put them to another use. Often though, the recycled use of a mainstream trope critiques a reality that locates heterosexual whites as the norm to be followed and emulated. Therefore, “Talk Shit, Get Shot” hints at mainstream representations of criminalized black males, a familiar image, and shows the hooded black man as the mainstream would already perceive him to be. The recycling of the trope of the hooded black man eludes such facile reading.
Munoz’s concept of disidentification describes a recycling strategy allowing queers of color to construct new worlds filled with sensibilities and ways of being otherwise made impossible through mainstream homonormative representations of queerness. In my analysis I turn to disidentification to describe Body Count’s decision to use of the trope of the hyper-violent black man to counter post-racial ideologies. Munoz’s inspiration resided in the work of director whose films depict drag NYC subcultures in exaggerated ways to poke fun at the “pasty normals” and their white-heteronormative gender expressions. Munoz’s original use of disidentification explores the various ways queer performance artists of color counter normativity through their use of clichés and overly-sexualized, gendered, and classed representations. Munoz’s main argument is that queers of color embrace mainstream techniques of self-making to critique and push against a consumerist gay and/or lesbian identity that reduces their sexuality to a lifestyle choice without addressing issues of structural inequality in communities of color. Similarly, I argue that Body Count’s recycling of the image of the hooded thug shooting from a moving black van in “Talk Shit, Get Shot” seeks to show how white-supremacist representations of black masculinity inevitably understand blackness as threatening and criminal.
Following the murder of the hipster-vegan on a skateboard, an allusion to the gentrification of neighborhoods of color in , the black van goes after a white corporate-looking couple walking along the sidewalk. A white man in a business suit snubs the debut of Manslaughter while using his smart phone and bumps into one of the men from the van walking in the opposite direction of him. The white man yells at the black man in reaction to the shoulder bump and the black man proceeds to shoot him in front of his white female companion; then he flees the scene. Subsequently, the last murder scene involves two older white women who are sitting outside a café. One of the women has a screen shot of Body Count on her laptop and is typing “Body Count Must Go” under a header titled “M.A.M Moms Against Metal.” She indicates her disgust by sticking her tongue out at the screen and as she types, Ice-T speaks in a fashion reminiscent of nineties hardcore song structures, where the singer would interlude to give a political message representative of the band’s political ideology:
For some reason, you motherfuckers think this is a game, you think you can say anything you want and nothing will ever happen to you, you think we live in a new age, but lemme tell you, it could happen real easy, don’t make me bring the gravity nigga!
As soon as Ice-T finishes, the van drives by and the passengers shoot at both women with the refrain “anyone can get it” as the musical backdrop to the scene. Meanwhile, in the Body Count concert, the young man who disses the band at the beginning is tied to a chair in the middle of the audience, a forced spectator to the show. The video concludes with the band walking side by side in the street as a patrol car slowly appears behind them, spurring them to run away as if chased by the cops. This is the last image—an NYPD patrol car driving in the direction of the camera. It begs the question, why did Body Count decide to not shoot at the cops as a last form of revenge?
The murders of the vegan hipster, the corporate couple, and the censorship moms represent different elements to the displacing and marginalizing of people of color in the alleged post-racial moment. The allusion to gentrification trends displacing communities of color, the unpunished crimes of white, corporate America since the economic crisis of 2008, and the singling out of rap and hip hop by concerned mothers all point to the complex racialization people of color experience in the United States. White hipster vegans are seldom at the receiving end of violence in the streets and they are neither the usual suspects nor targets of policies such as “Stop and Frisk,” for example. The white-collar crimes of corporate America are seldom racialized, as opposed to the petty crimes committed by people of color. Lyrics explicitly using violence can be found in many musical genres. However, lyrics produced by racialized performers elicit campaigns against the immorality of their messages. Such was the case against a 1992 track from Body Count’s Original Gangster album, “Cop Killer.” The song garnered the attention of Dan Quayle, George H. W. Bush, and other Republicans who denounced the song as obscene for inciting violence. The music video for “Cop Killer,” a commentary against police brutality, developed out of the LAPD beating of Rodney King and the subsequent L.A. riots. Ice-T also claimed inspiration from another less evident source, the Talking Head’s classic “Psycho Killer.” However, the Talking Head’s song received much critical acclaim though little, if any, accusations for its role in inciting violence.
“Talk Shit, Get Shot” foregrounds the racial tensions felt throughout the United States and insists on a reconsideration of the post-racial ideology dominating so much of contemporary mass culture. The critical juxtapositions found in the video urge the viewer to ask who and why, literally and metaphorically, gets shot in post-racial America.
Jael Vizcarra is a Ph.D. student in the Ethnic Studies Department at the University of California San Diego. She researches the self-organization of immigrants and her current project is a comparative study of Mexican migrant women active in the informal economy of Los Angeles and Turkish migrant women active in the informal economy of Berlin. She is also interested in the cultural production of people of color and popular representations of race in music, film, and politics.