September 23, 2003

Let 'Em Loose

They Only Want Me For My...

Fancy that my first contribution to Macroscope has something to do with the aesthetics and iconography of that classic figure from black culture...the pimp. Perhaps I'm late into this game, but I only recently heard of this new venture of Nelly's. Pimp Juice. And I must admit that I have mixed feelings about it.

Just to rewind things a bit here, I suppose I should first acknowledge my mixed feelings about Nelly in general. When he first came on the scene with "Country Grammar", I didn't really have strong feelings either way, and was as likely as anyone else to turn up the car radio a bit when it came on. Of course, with subsequent offerings like "#1", I began to feel like he was just a little too comfortable with his "pop" location in the mix of things for me to personally stomach. Then, I heard "Pimp Juice". And man...I loved it. There may be a host of reasons why...personal issues at the time, a funky guitar riff in the hook that I could really get my mind into, whatever. But if nothing else, it at the very least got me to publicly stop hating on this cat, and allow him to comfortably settle somewhere into my landscape of black culture.

So, when I heard that an "energy drink" was being marketed under the name Pimp Juice, I didn't quite know how to react, particularly in the context of my mixed feelings about it's front man. My first reaction was to be upset about yet further appropriation of cultural iconography by, well, the Man.

But then, I began to read the criticism of Pimp Juice from what I guess is the official Anti-Pimp Juice-Brigade. Featuring the likes of such notables as Clarence Page (okay, maybe that was just up on Mr. Page and draw your own conclusions). And now I'm quite confusedly caught up trying to decide whether my enemy's enemy is my friend. Because on the one hand, I'm not quite sure that I like the undertones of why a large commercial beverage concern would want to use the imagery of a black pimp to sell products to black people. But on the other hand, the religious right is almost always wrong (as far as I'm concerned) on these type of issues. Which isn't to say that there are some valid points on their side of the argument. Women being physically, sexually and emotionally abused by pimps (or men responding to some sort of pimp-influenced masculinity) is surely not a good thing. And alcoholism (brushing aside the minor point that Pimp Juice isn't actually an acloholic beverage for a moment) is certainly a problem in the black community.

But is there any denying that the figure of the pimp is deeply intertwined with whatever black masculinity is? Not to say that it's defining of black masculinity, but in some sense, should not the pimp be regarded in the same way as the jazz musician, the athlete, and the rapper? Complicated for sure, certainly reactionary in part, but subversive in the context of a would-be hegemonic white-masculine power structure nonetheless. And not to give Nelly too much credit for this, but did anyone actually listen to the lyrics of the original song? Sure, they don't totally make sense, but it should be plain to the casual observer that the figure of the pimp embedded in these words is somewhat more nuanced than the one that his critics are reacting against.

Which brings me back to my point of departure. Perhaps I'm overidentifying with Nelly here (g-d forbid), but it seems to me that in some sense this is a microcosm of the struggle to define a black masculine identity. On the one had you have a (presumably?) largely white economic interest trying to market black male identity in a somewhat irresponsible way. And on the other you have a reactionary element of the black community struggling so hard to prove that they're not different that they miss the opportunity to define themselves. And in the middle you have the one creative person in the mix, who (though he quite possibly does not) might actually have something new and interesting to say.

Let 'em loose.
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