Tricks Getting Whipped: Race, Class, and the “Politics of Obliteration” in Memphis

believe memphis

In Ralph Ellison’s 1944 review of Gunnar Myrdal’s The American Dilemma, he begins by describing his feelings about the massive work thusly:

“…the Negro must, while joining in the chorus of “Yeas” which the book has so deservedly evoked, utter a lusty and simultaneous “Nay.”

I’m uttering a lusty and simultaneous “Nay” to the frantic white people energy around the Grizzlies playoff anthem, “whoop that trick,” perhaps most notable in this post by Apryl Childs-Potter. “Yea,” yes, “yea” for white folks’ “learning to stop worrying and love whoop that trick.” But also, “nay,” since it precisely is white folks (and some misguided black middle class folks) who for structural reasons and reasons of unexamined privileged are more likely to be embarrassed by the city’s reputation and public face in the first place. Many of us have always loved the city, like we love America, despite the fact that it doesn’t do us right. We are the embodiment of the blues, a blues people, a post-soul people. In the blues, you don’t learnto love the one who does you wrong. You can’t help it because your life is inextricably linked with that person or object, the love, the pain, and the structures that influence how you experience the love-pain dialectic.

When I was a Sociology and Southern Studies prof at the University of Mississippi, I made several classes watch Craig Brewer’s 2005 film Hustle & Flow, including two very white Introduction to Southern Studies courses and two more or less integrated Urban Sociology courses. I’ve used Brewer’s film often in my research about southern cities, southern cultures, and contemporary black southern identity, despite some of its problematic epistemology, and I see it as an important teaching tool. Thus, when Memphis crowds began chanting “whoop that Clip” during the Clippers’ series, signifying on the Al Kapone song from the film, “Whoop that Trick,” and eventually just went all out and actually chanted “whoop that trick”—I was immediately proud. I was also simultaneously perturbed.

“Whoop That Trick” is a classic shit-talking, I-dare-you-to-step-to-me rap song with a classic southern (and West African) call and response chorus: Whoop that trick! (Get ‘im!) Whoop that trick! (Get ‘im!). Heavy on the down beat like funk, the impetus and directive is to, well, whoop! somebody who has violated you. With star Memphis writer and rapper Al Kapone at its helm, the song also offers a distinctly Memphis rap sound, a buck-jumping, gangsta walking sound, popularized at Crystal Palace Skating Ring in the late 1980s and 1990s and given a larger audience via Lil’ Jon and others on the Atlanta crunk scene in the late 1990s.

“Whoop that trick” enters the film when characters Shelby and Key, played by Nashville-native D. J. Qualls and Anthony Anderson, respectively, are working with the problematic-pimp-protagonist DJay (Terrence Dashun Howard) to create a crunk song for radio release. Flipping through his pad of lyrics, the original hook DJay comes up with is “beat that bitch,” which Shelby and Key gently suggest might be, ahem, offensive to women. Because DJay “ain’t trying to call no ho no bitch,” or isn’t trying to be offensive to women, they come up with “whoop that trick” instead. Shelby generates the beat “old school” style with an MPC, Key assists with the preparation for recording, an accompanying (organic, almost) dance ensues, and “whoop that trick” is born.

“Trick,” as it is used in the film, is a moniker that springs from black cultural use, and is thus inherently racialized as black. White sex workers might have Johns; black sex workers might have tricks. “Trick” also retains the gendered implications of the object to be whipped—a trick could be a John, a client of a sex worker; the sex worker (regardless of gender), who are in a disadvantaged class and power position; women generally, also in a disadvantaged class, power, and gender position; or perhaps a bitch-nigga, who is a man who, well, has qualities or engages in behaviors that society genders as feminine or female, even when, of course, they are not. (Katt Williams elaborates famously on this notion in ways that both challenge and reinforce the gendered logic of bitch-niggadom.) But it ain’t tricking (being a sex worker or being a pimp) if you got it, as we are reminded ad infinitum by rappers. That is, if one has the ability, the body, or the wit to run a trick, then it is not, in fact, a trick because one has not relied on deception or illusion. Or, if a person, usually a man, is willing to spend “excessive” amounts of money on a partner, usually a woman, than he might be justified in so doing if the partner is deemed worthy of such lavish treatment. As a sex worker, a “trick” may lure a client based on false terms, and the client may be tricked, leaving the encounter without her or his money or services. We are all taught to look out for “tricks.” And of course, as Dre told us, bitches ain’t shit but hoes and tricks. All women, and by extension gay and transgender men, then, are tricks, trying to “trick” men out of their money with falsehoods and schemes. Sounds like white people with ho-hum GPAs and extracurriculars talking about affirmative action keeping them from getting into top schools to me. Or, sounds like white Memphians telling people to “get over race.” These complex and intersecting layers of power, privilege, sex, race, class, and gender bulge from the word “trick.” To be clear, even if one is not aware of these layers, they are not lost in the translation. When we say “whoop that trick,” we are signifying a gendered, bodily violence that is visited upon the disadvantaged by the powerful, even if that is not our intention.

As it was operationalized for the playoffs, “Whoop That Trick” inevitably crossed race and class boundaries that it would not have otherwise crossed, and therein lies the rub. When a massive group of people in power (relatively economically privileged fans), as a collective, take up an idea outside of its original context and use it, as it was used in this case, to promote an unconscious solidarity, what occurs is not cultural appropriation, but as Nicholas Brady has pointed out, cultural obliteration. Brady argues convincingly that “appropriation” isn’t, in fact, the term to use to describe the process, as searching for the origins of a cultural object is messy at best. He asks us to pivot our analyses:

Our rage should be directed at the modes of obliteration that connect “stealing” black culture to the violation of black bodies. Instead of looking for the proper owners of culture, perhaps we can task ourselves with looking after those whose flesh is perpetually open to use, abuse, and obliteration.

It is this obliteration, connected with the violation of black bodies and flesh and lives in Memphis, that I thought about when the chant echoed through the FedEx Forum: the same F(f)orum that displaced largely black unhoused and poor populations; that F(f)orum that is a mere block from a largely black public housing project; that F(f)orum steps from where a mob burned down Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s The Free Speech & Headlight of Memphis when she told the truth about lynching; that F(f)orum whose namesake underemploys scores of black and white working poor folks whose bodies are bent from the labor and whose mucous is black. I could go on. The chant, in this forum, was a communal reparations for these past, present, and future wrongs, offered by the mostly white crowd in attendance. The chant, in this forum, allows people to put on a cloak of blackness, black culture, “urban” culture, without directly engaging the people from whom the culture springs and moreover the systemic racism and inequality that structures their lives. In short, chanting “whoop that trick” at a Grizzlies game, no matter how racially subversive or seemingly innocuous, always already discursively obliterates the lived experience of blackness, and in particular the black poor, in Memphis. I won’t even get into the commodification of black bodies that is the NBA (or NFL). I’m reminded of Ellison’s boxer in Invisible Man, the white spectators demanding a blood-pummeling. Were they, too, chanting “whoop that trick”?

Tricks in Memphis are getting whipped, all right. Whipped by patriarchy, racism, and sexism. By the specific deployment of the urban violence of displacement, marginalization, and gross underfunding of the education system. By an infrastructure that supports domestic violence. By an infrastructure that refuses to systemically provide and/or support quality access to reproductive healthcare and information for marginalized women. By churches. By poverty pimps writing hopey-changey grants without effectively or thoroughly engaging black communities as partners rather than projects. By a lack of good research. By faulty epistemology. By lack of imagination. I could go on. Tricks is getting whipped in Memphis.

I love the spirit and the energy, even though I find it odd to be visible to my white counterparts in ways that I am not usually because of it. “Yea,” “yea,” “yea,” I say, for the spirit. But “nay” to the absence of interrogation of that spirit and its obliteration of black bodies and lives in Memphis.

 

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