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Buy one of the following Tricia Rose books from amazon.com:

'Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America' (1994)

'Longing to Tell: Black Women's Stories of Sexuality and Intimacy' (2003)

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Get Real

Tricia Rose is an author, a hip-hop scholar, a feminist and a prof at UCSC, but more importantly, she cuts to the chase on MTV charades, sexism and the 'unfettered whiteness' of being

By Todd Inoue

TRICIA ROSE is about to kill it. The new prof at UC-Santa Cruz is closing her second quarter by cramming more than 150 years of blood, sweat, tears, slavery, church, blues, rock, jazz, R&B and hip-hop into a 90-minute espresso shot of academia that encompasses theories on cultural capital and binary oppositional thinking. Before the lecture is through, she will reference Ralph Ellison and Eminem. Heads will nod when she questions why black people form 12 percent of the population yet produce 70-80 percent of pop music. Backs stiffen when she theoretically questions why white suburban kids get their sag on and openly appropriate Black Cool but would be shit scared to actually be black.

But before Rose gets open, she notices two students carrying on a conversation on a bench outside the classroom doors, just loud enough to interrupt her flow. Dressed in an airy linen suit, she strides over and squashes the tea party. "Guys? I'm trying to teach a class here. Could you do whatever you're doing somewhere else?" They up and leave, and the class titters. Class is in session; protect ya neck.

Since leaving NYU and arriving at the American studies department last summer, Rose has shattered the laid-back vibe of UCSC like a balsa-wood backboard at Rucker Park. Her Big Apple realness has added a charged element to the lush environment of educational privilege, and her two classes--Introduction to African American Studies and African American Music and Culture--quickly filled up. Her wide-angled lectures, marked by hand gestures and pained expressions, balance precariously between structure and off-the-top-of-the-dome explorations ("writtens" and "freestyle," in hip-hop parlance). For 10 weeks this past spring, students witnessed a divine convergence of deep context, historical backup and street cred.

In her Oakes College office, the 40-year-old Bronx native curls up in her chair. She admits to mellowing out--just enough for folks back home to tease her--but she packs New York heat wherever she goes.

"I wasn't mean about it, but I was real clear that it was a little rude," Rose recalls, when reminded of the interruption. "It was clear that I was running a class, and they're chilling outside like they should be talking out there. So it's very New York to be direct, not indirect. Not saying, 'Is there a noise? Do you hear a noise?' thereby indirectly telling them to move along. Why bother? Get to the point and move on. That's certainly a trait I take everywhere."

In July of 2002, Tricia Rose left a professorship at NYU and a home in Connecticut and arrived on California's shores with her husband, Andre C. Willis, a humanities professor at San Jose State University. The UCSC faculty impressed Rose ("I've read more of the professors' work here on my own than at other schools," she says, citing Angela Davis, Donna Haraway, sociologist Herman Gray and psychology professor Aida Hurtado as examples), but the clincher was being offered the chance to head up a new comparative U.S. studies graduate program at UCSC.

Dean of the humanities department Vlad Godzich says he sought out Rose because of her knowledge of music and women's issues.

"She has really made quite a splash," Godzich says. "Her classes are oversubscribed, and students seek her out. We have a few celebrities on campus--Angela Davis and so on--and Tricia is rapidly falling into that category."

Among her credentials is a 1995 American Book Award for Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. The book, which chronicles rap's rise and addresses critical issues regarding black cultural expression, sexism and technology, was one of hip-hop's first academic reads. Last month, Rose released her second book, Longing to Tell: Black Women's Stories of Sexuality and Intimacy, on an entirely different subject: black women dealing with sexuality and intimacy.

When asked about acclimatizing to her new coast, she speaks about the "aggressive space" that black people take up back East. New York, because of the subway culture, puts people of all races and classes shoulder to shoulder on a daily basis. The Bay Area, due to its car-driven culture, makes people of color easy to ignore, especially black people, especially in Santa Cruz. The ease and acceptance of this dichotomy is a situation that Rose describes as "unfettered whiteness."

"Out here, it seems that a much higher comfort threshold for unfettered whiteness exists. It is an entirely invisible, comfortable whiteness as the norm, at the center--across class--that is not possible in big cities on the East Coast," she says. "[Unfettered whiteness is] whiteness without conflict, without anxiety, without concern, without worry that perhaps all this racial privilege, all these resources, might anger or frustrate these other people all around me. There is a high comfort level with white racial privilege, even among the radicals, in Santa Cruz."

When she first arrived at UCSC, Rose admits feeling mild surprise and disappointment when her students revealed some "simple-minded conceptions" about African American history.

"There was a sense that slavery is irrelevant, that we've moved past it," she says. "Or that California had nothing to do with the slave trade or didn't benefit--like it was a Southern problem, and [California] didn't exist yet--and having no real sense of African American creative productivity other than the mass media angle."

Never Scared

Born in Harlem and raised in Coop City in the Bronx, Tricia Rose grew up in a working-class home with her mother, a legal secretary, and her father, a transit-authority worker. Her family, she recalls, loved semantics, and debating was like a game in the household.

"There were a lot of good arguments in our house," she says. "If you made a point, you could stay in the conversation. We always talked about social issues. It was a good place to hone the skills that I'm invested in now."

In college, Rose became interested in law and social justice. She originally wanted to become a defense attorney, but after visiting law schools, she decided that changing the system was a higher priority than becoming a part of it. "I went to law schools and realized they weren't invested in social justice, they were invested in the ideology and language and procedures of the law and not social work," she says. "That wasn't going to work. This wasn't what I needed to be."

Rose attended Yale and received her bachelor's degree in sociology in 1984. She transferred to Brown University to earn her master's and Ph.D. in American civilization in 1987 and 1993, respectively. Her thesis--on rap music and black culture in contemporary America--became the basis for Black Noise.

Hip-hop takes up a large part of Rose's identity and thinking time. She grew up in the '70s as hip-hop culture blossomed around her Bronx borough. Over the years, she observed its growth from the parks to the clubs to the arena. In Black Noise, she discusses in great detail issues of appropriation, motivation, sexism, racism, property ownership and the future--ideas far beyond what constituted mainstream hip-hop journalism of the time. She says that scholars tried to dissuade her from dedicating her thesis to a musical form that they felt would last for one summer.

"People thought I'd never get a job, or I wouldn't be a professor because I was writing about this obscure music that was going to be over before I finished," she remembers. "There was a lot of pressure that said I was totally pigeonholing myself. Once it came out and got a lot of attention, and it was clear it was connected to larger issues in the world like technology, copyright law, gender relationships--it was understood as a meaningful book."

Tricia Rose Is Killing It

On a sunny June afternoon, Rose reads passages from her new book, Longing to Tell, at Marcus Books, an African American bookstore in downtown Oakland. The audience members sit on creaky folding chairs and listen intently. Most came after hearing Rose on KPFA earlier that afternoon. Through excerpts, she introduces the assembled to Sarita, a 22-year-old biracial ex-Muslim, and Luciana, a 38-year-old ex-model and rape survivor. Her stories are met with giggles and head nods, shock and awe.

Longing to Tell is the conclusion of a unique and demanding seven-year project, during which Rose traveled across the country and interviewed 50 women willing to share their personal stories about sex and intimacy. There's Millie, a female drummer, who deals with overt sexism in the drumming sphere and has to endure comments that she'll "become sterile" by drumming, even though the djembe was invented by a woman.

Another writer, named Gloria, hates sex, has always hated it and has two husbands and two children to show for it. Others write about their boyfriends, losing their virginity, telling their parents about their boyfriends, betrayals by girlfriends, babies born, babies lost.

The 20 stories that made the cut are broken into three subcategories: "Through the Fire," testaments to survival; "Guarded Heart," which reveals women in a highly defensive state of mind; and "Always Something Left to Love," which examines the possibilities of love and intimacy.

The original plan--to write a book based on the conclusions collected from the interviews--changed as the project went along. Rose allowed the women to tell their stories from beginning to end. Thus, Longing to Tell turns into a hypnotic read for the sheer diversity of voices and range of experience that affected these women's lives--whether it's Luciana's discovery of orgasm late in life or the identity politics of Audrey, a half-black and half-Dominican American. We meet Linda Rae, who offers the most traumatic story, with moments of incest, rape, drugs, prostitution, having her children beaten to death by one of the fathers, contracting AIDS and her eventual rebirth as an AIDS activist.

"The same impulse that drove my interest in hip-hop drove my interest in this project," she says. "I was driven to do things that haven't been done. I have investment in projects I feel that have been neglected, that represent space that could use serious treatment. There's no sustained oral history on black women's sexual narratives ever in print. There had been no serious scholarly treatment on hip-hop at that point. It was part of the impulse."

Rose says Longing to Tell created a public place for conversations the women were already having with themselves, many of which had never been shared.

"I hope black women are able to see in these rich stories that elements of their life experiences are part of a vast collective, so they don't feel like they're alone, targeted, isolated in experiences that never get talked about or talked about in ways that they don't experience," Rose explains. "There's nothing more powerful than recognition--to see parts of yourself recognized in the social landscape. If someone can see you for who you are and appreciate that--or you see that someone else is experiencing things that help you feel like you belong--that's the most powerful thing in the world."

Believe the Hype

Combine the topics of black women, sex and hip-hop, and you create a speedball for conversation that perks Rose up. She points out how the role of women in hip-hop has radically shifted. Whereas in hip-hop's early days, women were seen as active, if sideline, participants, today's emphasis on video and materialism relegates women to background objects. She appreciates the multidimensional representations by Jill Scott and Musiq Soulchild but balks at the idea that the raunchy, sex-filled raps of Missy Elliott, Li'l Kim, Trina or Foxy Brown formulate anything close to a feminist construct.

"It's sad to me that people think just being tough, loud or explicit is feminist; that just shows how little people know about the feminist concept of being," she says. "Feminism acknowledges gender inequality as a formal structural problem; have you heard any lyrics from Li'l Kim that said anything about that? That's really troubling. Female power is a structural, economic and social-relations matter. It's not how sexually explicit you can be and get away with it; since when is that feminism? Particularly for black women who've been constructed as sexually deviant for 400 years--to show that they can perform like porno queens for popular culture is by no means a critique of anything.

"But more power to them. I'm not against them," Rose adds. "The new Li'l Kim song ["The Jump Off"] with the New Orleans backbeat is a great jam. I'm not saying they have to be feminist, but let's not confuse them."

Rose still follows hip-hop culture with the fervor of a certified beat junkie, that is, one installed with high-grade filtering software. She's an expert bullshit caller--one who can abhor the message yet appreciate the artistry. For instance, she loves Jay-Z, amazed by both his lyrical prowess and how narrow his vision can be.

"I'm grateful that I could be a late adolescent of hip-hop and know pre-hip-hop consciousness," she says. "I'm grateful because the hip-hop consciousness that we're forced to take up today is so heavily commercialized. To only have a commercial derivative of your culture to draw on is a horrifying thought to me."

She recalls a recent episode of MTV's Cribs that featured a member of the Cash Money Millionaires clique. It wasn't the opulent house or the 24-inch rims that bothered her; when the artist showed off a baby grand piano that he didn't know how to play--now that infuriated her.

"I'm not disrespecting him, but the genre elevates the absence of knowledge," she says. "It's begun to crystallize that it's better not to know. Wouldn't you want to say that with all this wealth and privilege that you'd get a dope jazz-piano teacher or black-music person who's willing to sit down with you so you can learn these other traditions? Are you going to lose your hip-hop edge by learning more? That's counterintuitive! You grow by learning. That constant alienation from knowledge is enhanced by fear. 'It's too hard, it 's daunting.' Sure it is! But it's not too hard if you're capable of inventing entire musical genres and perpetuating them and developing talents to create all these sounds, untrained! Training is not going to get in your way!"

Each One Teach One

For the future, Rose wants to write another book about music and possibly add a chapter to Black Noise. Her plan for the new UC-Santa Cruz comparative U.S. studies graduate program will recalibrate America's place at the center of the universe and re-examine our country's relation to the rest of the world.

"We're a global imperialist nation," she says. "We can be happy about that or not, depending on our political persuasion. We are nonetheless a critical force in the world and need to be thinking about what we do and what happens in our name and be much more conscious of that. The program is an effort to put ourselves in conversation with other groups, other nations, as well as ourselves."

Rose remains focused on educating while changing inequities one student, one woman, one book, one country at a time. Teaching and living among the peaceful forests and absorbing the touchy-feely patchouli oil vibrations of Santa Cruz, Rose still keeps it real, but most of all, she keeps it right.


Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America; Wesleyan University Press; $19.95. Longing to Tell: Black Women's Stories of Sexuality and Intimacy; Dimensions; 432 pages; $25 cloth. Tricia Rose will sign copies of 'Longing to Tell' at Alexander's Books, 50 Second St., San Francisco, on July 10.


Blow Your Headphones

What does a hip-hop scholar sound like? Metro set an iPod in front of Tricia Rose, supplied the beats and headphones, then recorded her thoughts.

By Todd Inoue

'The Message'--Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five
"Rats in the front room roaches in the back / Junkies in the alley with the baseball bat / I tried to run away, but I couldn't get far / because the man from Prudential repossessed my car."

It's a great, in-depth, physical, panoramic--almost cinematic--portrait that turns psychological and interior. It's an amazing portrait. New York is a very intense place, so this sense of it being a concrete jungle is quite real, especially in the summer. It put into words what hadn't been put into words in a long time--this sense of being fed up and stuck. It's still articulating a lot of problems that come up in hip-hop now but not glamorizing it at all.

'Don't Believe the Hype'--Public Enemy
"Suckers, liars get me a shovel / Some writers I know are damn devils / For them, I say don't believe the hype / Yo, Chuck, they must be on a pipe, right?"

The pinnacle of politically aggressive hip-hop; nobody's come close. To be funky enough to dance to--to party to politically progressive music--nobody has been able to do it. You got Dead Prez, Rage Against the Machine, but they're not danceable in the same way, they're not funky like this. Man this is funky junk.

'Baby Got Back'--Sir Mixalot
"So Cosmo says you're fat / Well, I ain't down with that! / 'Cause your waist is small, and your curves are kicking / And I'm thinking 'bout stickin'."

"Baby Got Back" was a slightly distorted homage. I don't think it should be understood as a straight homage, because a straight homage wouldn't perpetuate the objectification of parts: ass, tits. There's too much of that already.

'Big Poppa'--Notorious B.I.G.
"To all the ladies in the place with style and grace / Allow me to lace these lyrical douches in your bushes / Who rock grooves and make moves with all the mommies? / The back of the club, sipping Moet, is where you'll find me."

Here's the problem with Biggie. He put so much funk inside the player profile. He made it too irresistible. Black Cool is this very powerful force, but the question is, what are you going to do with it? It's hypnotizing, and the question is, could it be that hypnotic and not be what it's about? I want someone to take that challenge up. I want Jay-Z to take this up. Could they be as incredibly seductive, powerful and cool and in control and be the one who is never being taken advantage of but talk about something else that positions them in a different relationship to women, to other people, to commodities? Is that possible?

'Ms. Jackson'--Outkast
"I'm sorry Ms. Jackson, I am for real / Never meant to make your daughter cry / I apologize a trillion times."

I read "Ms Jackson" as a personal statement, not as a general statement like "Big Poppa." This feels like he wrote this to Erykah Badu's mama. He's sorry junk didn't work out. It's good to hear someone say they're sorry about something in hip-hop. Nobody ever says, "I messed up, I'm sorry," in hip-hop. Can you think of anyone who said they're sorry?

'Brotha'--Angie Stone
"You got your Wall Street brotha, your blue-collar brotha / Your down for whatever chilling on the corner brotha / A talented brotha, and to everyone of y'all behind bars / You know that Angie loves ya."

I'm happy there's a homage to brothers; I think it's a wonderful thing. I don't have a problem with a general homage, but what's the male equivalent of this song? She's straight loving all brothers for where they are and what they do. She's a powerful person, and I appreciate her effort here. I see it as a real political effort to affirm brothers in a real way, but I feel this is the kind of song that women are so likely to do. It so rarely comes back the other way.

'I Can'--Nas
"You don't wanna be my age and can't read and write / Begging different women for a place to sleep at night / Smart boys turn to men and do whatever they wish / If you believe you can achieve, then say it like this / I know I can."

Here is this idea of having aspirations. This is an old-fashioned concept. It's almost quaint. Commercial hip-hop has almost given up on the idea that you should invest because what is the hustler profile? The hustler profile is a refusal to invest. The hustler is like, "I'm getting mine, I'm getting it on the outside and I don't care what happens, because I'm getting mine." "I Can" is the antithesis of that, which is to say, you have hopes and a sense of possibilities. Are you willing to invest in it? You're going to acknowledge you have dreams. Having a dream is, in a certain way, vulnerable. A hustler doesn't dream, he gets his now.


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From the July 10-16, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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