Regina N. Bradley, Ph.D., wears many hats: assistant professor of African-American literature at Armstrong State University in Savannah, Ga.; alumna Nasir Jones Hip-Hop Fellow at Harvard University; Red Clay Scholar; and my sister SpottieOttieDopaliscious angel.
Bradley has created a following outside the classroom with her Outkasted Conversations, a critically acclaimed dialogue series dedicated to thinking about the cultural and academic implications of Outkast, one of the most revolutionary and beloved hip-hop groups to ever do it.
Bradley is known for stirring the thick gumbo of collective black experiences in the Deep South until it all blends perfectly, while Outkast provides the soundtrack.
It only makes sense, then, that she would take her love for Big Boi and Andre 3000 and create a class at Armstrong State dissecting the lyrics and vibing to the gems the Aquemini brethren have dropped on us over the years.
“Outkast and the Rise of the Hip-Hop South” is an upperclassman English course conceptualized by Bradley. In a one-on-one with Bradley, we discuss the iconic group, performances of masculinity, deep-fried cultural production and why the South will always have something to say.
The Root: The South has something to say! In hip-hop, it’s often demeaned as is a lot of cultural production from the South. Why did you feel it was important to shake that load off?
Regina N. Bradley: Don’t we?!
I wanted to teach this class because I finally had enough receipts to do it: Ph.D., proof of academic rigor, all that good stuff. Outkast was pivotal for me in understanding who I was as a young black Southerner. Their music was a springboard for understanding the complexity of being young, black and Southern: We could be joyous, we could be spiritual, we could be crank and whoop ass, or we could just be chill.
Outkast always had an eye on the past and a foot in the future. My Outkast class helps work through that loaded question: What does it mean to be Southern and black after the civil rights movement, when the movement is non-Southern folks’ go-to social-historical context for defining a “contemporary” American South?
TR: Outkast was making it plain in “Aquemini” when Andre said, “Now question: Is every nigga with dreads for the cause? Is every nigga with golds for the fall? Naw. So don’t get caught up in appearance.”
Can you talk a little bit about that and how the policing of black bodies and performance leads to state-sanctioned violence, but also this idea that you have to talk, dress, act a certain “respectable” way to escape how white supremacy pathologizes blackness?
RNB: I think I wore Aquemini and its title track out. I saw them perform “Aquemini” at their reunion shows, and that moment was just so intimate. I felt like I was eavesdropping.
Anyway, policing and performance of black folks runs rampant everywhere, but it’s especially amplified in the South. When I was growing up, my grandparents, especially my grandmother, paid extra attention to how I looked, how loud I talked and if I used proper grammar, how I interacted with white folks like my teachers, everything. They came of age during Jim Crow, so self-policing was a survival technique more than a coping mechanism.
More than anything, I wonder in this current social climate if there is a nostalgia for that type of respectability policing. Wearing a suit and a slip and a skirt that hit just at the knee meant you had on the full armor of God to change the world. But even the straightest suit and starchiest slacks didn’t stop you from getting your ass whooped in the name of change. What this current moment is showing us is that there is no room to be respectable and be angry. How do you dress up rage? MLK and Malcolm X dressed up rage in a suit. Luther the Translator from Key & Peele was dressed-up rage.
I find myself becoming more interested in this question and how it manifests in pop culture. When we gon’ admit that policing and white supremacy are skinfolks and kinfolks? There’s a deep investment on both sides of what it means to be respectable and black.
Thinking about Outkast, they were policed in hip-hop—gatekeepers who didn’t want to think about the South, so they decided Outkast wasn’t fit and tried to boo them off hip-hop’s stage—literally at the 1995 Source Awards. Big Rube’s articulation of Outkast as an acronym—Operating Under the Krooked American System Too Long—in the interlude “True Dat” from Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik also spoke to pushing back against standardized narratives of normalcy for black folks.
And Outkast broke away from the cookie-cutter mold: fashion, lyricism, production, sound, everything. My takeaway is we need to break away from restrictive binaries of marking (il)legible black bodies in protest. Dreads, fronts, saggin’ baggin’ britches, weaves or ’fros. We all (need to be) tryna get free.
TR: “SpottieOttieDopaliscious” is probably one of my favorite ’kast songs because it speaks to that sweaty, sexy, juke joint, pitch-black nightlife where sensuality and rhythm meet. I can’t think of anywhere else that embodies this more than Atlanta. And the backdrop of “Damn, damn, damn, James” centers black pain and love and nostalgia, creating this kind of catharsis—as the beat drops.
What is your favorite Outkast song and why?
RNB: I’mma just take your answer and ride with it. [Laughs.] Even though I have a ’kast song for nearly every milestone of my life—“B.O.B.” for those Olympic sprints to the last lunch of the day in high school; my husband courting me with “Prototype,” and our first introduction as married people was “International Players Anthem”—my two favorite Outkast songs ever are “In Due Time” from the Soul Food soundtrack and “Liberation” from Aquemini. “In Due Time” got me through seventh grade. I was mercilessly bullied because, well, I was an outcast. My folks couldn’t afford name-brand clothes, and I was hitting growth spurts.
Middle school is a battle ground, and middle school girls who are starting to smell themselves are vicious. The chorus especially soothed my spirit. “Liberation” was my go-to when I was dissertating and my grandfather—my Paw Paw—was transitioning after a battle with leukemia. He was my superman, and to watch him and be helpless, it hurt. I wanted to take all his burdens, shake his load off, like the countless times he’d done for me. And all I could do was hold his hand.
I watched my hero and my love dying, so that soft piano and rainstick cried for me when I couldn’t cry for myself.
TR: Black women in hip-hop, even the pioneers, and black women who love hip-hop have been objectified, but also placed in this queen-whore binary that doesn’t leave a lot of room for the full expression of womanhood. Do you discuss Outkast and gender in your class? I’m specifically thinking about Sasha Thumper and the different ways that Big Boi and Andre tackle the issue.
RNB: Chile, I write about Sasha Thumper at length in my book Chronicling Stankonia. Sasha Thumper reminds me so much of what Anna Julia Cooper said about Southern black women and girls being “that large, bright, promising fatally beautiful class that stand shivering.” Wow. Sasha Thumper’s vulnerability, the fight to remain alive, her ultimate demise, haunts me and how I think about the representation of Southern black women in girls in the work of folks like Kiese Laymon, Jesmyn Ward and Sanderia Faye.
You can’t talk about Outkast without talking about their experimentation and growth in how they view black women. You can link it to obvious life milestones, i.e., the birth of Big Boi’s daughter Jordan and Andre’s fantastic voyage with a Ms. [Erykah] Badu. They still have their misogynistic moments.
Dr. Treva B. Lindsey brilliantly labels it melodious misogyny—but there is marked growth. Andre’s pining and personal exposés off The Love Below, for example, are grounded in the existential question of where he fits into black women’s lives and experiences, not vice versa. There’s also the question of black women’s pleasure and joy, which is marked sonically in their work in very intriguing ways.
TR: I need to sit in on your class! What do you want the takeaway to be for your students?
RNB: It is a requirement everybody enrolled in the course become a fan of the ’kast by the end of the semester. [Laughs.] Nah, but seriously, I hope to expand students’ perspectives on the significance of popular culture as a site of interrogation. They’ll be practicing critical reading, writing and listening skills that can be translated into job skills. Go figure [insert Prince incredulous face here].
Check out Regina N. Bradley’s Outkasted Conversations series here.