Strange! The gossip is so tragic / They call me a faggot / And me and all my women laugh at it.
—Rick James, “Pass the J”
Then the question is “Big Boi what’s up with André? / Is he in a cult? Is he on drugs? Is he gay?”
—OutKast, “Return of the G”
In 1986 Rick James released The Flag (Figure 4), his final solo album under Motown Records. The album was a dramatic departure for James. Instead of the party-filled and drug-laden records that most listeners associated with him, James wanted The Flag to be a more serious take on his life and politics. James was purportedly now sober (after decades of drug abuse), he had briefly moved to Sint Maarten to record the album and maintain his sobriety, and he was increasingly upset with the nuclear crisis of the Cold War and what he called the “hypocrisy of the American empire” under President Ronald Reagan.1 The Flag was James’s response to these personal and political issues. He criticizes Reagan and Soviet Union General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev on songs like “Funk in America / Silly Little Man”; and he discusses his struggles with sobriety on “Free to Be Me.” When it came time to shoot the album cover, James did away with his standard long wigs and glittered body, and opted instead for a natural hair look and fully clothed all-black leather jumpsuit. Additionally, the cover finds James standing in front of and holding a red, black, and green flag, which James dubbed the “freak flag,” an allusion to his erotic 1981 hit song “Super Freak.” More than that, the colors of the flag and subject matter of the album signified an Afro-diasporic and pan-African political aesthetic that we saw in the previous chapter on Miles Davis’s On the Corner album. And in addition to, and in conversation with, The Flag’s gestures to Black freedom struggles, James also saw this album as a symbol of “freedom, truth, a conviction of love for our brothers and sisters on the planet Earth.”2
A decade later, southern hip-hop duo OutKast, comprising Antwan “Big Boi” Patton and André “André 3000” Benjamin, released their sophomore album, ATLiens (Figure 5). Like Rick James with The Flag, OutKast broke new creative ground with ATLiens. It came at a time of transitions for Big Boi, André, and OutKast as a whole. Big Boi was trying to make sense of the gift and the grief of his daughter’s birth, on the one hand, and the death of his parental guardian, on the other. André was newly single and, following a trip to Jamaica, newly sober, vegetarian, and spiritual. Finally, as a group, OutKast was reeling from the controversy of unexpectedly winning Best New Rap Group at the 1995 Source Awards (at the time The Source was a leading hip-hop magazine in the United States) and then immediately contending with the mostly bicoastal audience publicly booing them as they accepted the award. While Big Boi tried to ignore the jeers by placating the audience with praises to New York, André responded with the now often-quoted, impassioned statement, “The South’s got somethin’ to say.” It is within this personal and professional whirlwind that ATLiens embodies and OutKast articulates what exactly the South had to say. Musically, ATLiens draws on sparse, industrial, and minor dark tones in order to narrate the particular struggles of poverty, fame, relationships (romantic and platonic), and death and mourning in the Black South. Visually, ATLiens remakes OutKast into superhero aliens. Both the liner notes of the album, which took the form of a twenty-four-page comic book, and the album’s accompanying music videos, present Big Boi and André as Afro-futuristic aliens who originated in an ancient, North Africa–like place called ATLantis on “new Earth.” And it is in ATLantis that they are tasked with protecting ATLantis and “positive music” from an evil force called Nosamulli and, as the “Elevators (Me & You)” music video outlines, lead oppressed peoples from bondage.3 If Rick James’s The Flag rallies around the liberatory potential of the freak flag on “planet Earth,” OutKast on ATLiens pursues such freedom dreams on “new Earth.”4
In this chapter, I want place these albums and artists in conversation because I believe that, in addition to and constitutive of their similarities outlined above, they exemplify 1980s and 1990s iterations of what I’m calling throughout this book the other side of things: those queer imaginative spaces that are expressed and enacted through sonic and cultural Black and South Asian relationalities. What I find most striking about both Rick James and The Flag in 1986 and OutKast and ATLiens in 1996 is that their respective Afro-diasporic (as both were influenced through travels in the Black Caribbean) and Afrocentric (via ties to pre- and postcolonial Africa) political ideologies rely on South Asian aesthetics. The Flag is not simply Rick James’s first and only explicitly political solo album; it is also his first and only solo album with South Asian instrumentation—on various songs contained therein James plays the sitar and tabla. For OutKast, the period surrounding the album ATLiens (prior to, during, and after its release) generally marks a moment in André’s life when he started wearing turbans and South Asian–inspired clothing. While most likely a response to André’s Jamaican spiritual awakening (similar to that of John Coltrane’s outlined in chapter 1), the liner notes / comic book and music videos cast André’s new sartorial style as indicative of his new alien life form Bin Hamin (a take on an Arabic and Muslim reworking of Benjamin, André’s real-life surname) who couples a turban with an Indian sherwani or kurta or, in a possible nod to blending African and South Asian aesthetics, a dashiki.5 Rick James and André 3000, thus, engage and adopt South Asian culture as essential elements in and extensions of their musical pursuits. They become central to their imaginings of a different kind of transnational, and for André otherworldly, Black aesthetics and politics—in other words, they become expressions of James and André’s performance of the other side of things.
If the previous chapter explored Miles Davis’s On the Corner to illustrate how the corner helps us imagine a political site and movement from which to articulate an intersectional and coalitional Afro–South Asian politics in the 1970s, this chapter locates Rick James’s “freak” in The Flag and OutKast’s “alien” in ATLiens as cultural figures who express a similar kind of queer and comparative political alliance in and for the 1980s and 1990s, respectively. Freaks and aliens are not neutral social formations. They are historically situated and are produced through race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, and other modes of power, difference, and belonging. To be a freak and/or an alien is to be a racial, gendered, and sexualized other. It is to be an assemblage of difference that is simultaneously separate(d) from and subject(ed) to norms of cultural and legal citizenship. As African Americans and South Asian Americans are routinely racialized as non-Americans whose outsider racialization is dependent on and conditioned by gender and sexual nonnormativity, the figure of the alien and freak holds particular resonance for both communities.6 The freak and the alien are avatars of strangeness whose racial, gendered, and sexualized transgressions mark them as threats to the state as well as the norms governing “proper” racial identities (here, Black and brown identity). Indeed, the lyrics quoted in this chapter’s epigraph are responses to the rumored queerness of James and André 3000 that Black funk and rap musicians fueled in the 1980s and 1990s for those figures’ embrace of freak and alien aesthetics. And so when we consider how the 1980s and 1990s witnessed an increased rigidity and anxiety around social and geographical borders that came with the rise in the middle-class norms of respectability of African Americans and South Asian Americans as well as hysteria around public health (via HIV/AIDS) and immigration (via threats of communist infiltration, NAFTA, and H1-B visas), it not only makes it that much more important that we think through the linkages of queerness and Afro–South Asian cultural production in works like The Flag and ATLiens. It also underscores the political stakes of Rick James and André 3000 adopting the positionalities of aliens and freaks at this moment in time.
This chapter considers how Rick James and André 3000 cultivated new Black sonic and political possibilities through using freaks and aliens, respectively, as Afro–South Asian intercultural queer aesthetic formations. I argue that James and André’s incorporations of South Asian culture were not anomalies in the sense of negligible encounters. Rather, they were anomalies in that they were crucial to and articulated with the outsider positionalities of aliens and freaks. South Asian style and sound in ATLiens and The Flag were necessary aberrations in the Black queer political performance of the alien and freak. James and André’s engagements with South Asian culture helped them create new imaginative ground of Black identity, music, politics, and performance. I explicate these points, first, with Rick James’s The Flag to think through what it means to build a cross-racial and queer coalition around a “freak flag” during the 1980s Cold War and AIDS crisis. I then move to OutKast and ATLiens to explore how André 3000 and Big Boi (although primarily André) use aliens in order to stage an Afro–South Asian futurist new South. Finally, I will close by briefly exploring Missy Elliott and her 2001 hit song “Get Ur Freak On.” It is with “Get Ur Freak On” that I read how she continues the legacy, the Afro–South Asian genealogy of sound, of James and André’s freak and alien, respectively, by bringing them into the twenty-first century.
Punk Funk and Desi Superfreaks
According to his autobiographies as well as published interviews, Rick James developed an appreciation of South Asian life and culture when he traveled to India in the late 1960s and early 1970s, prior to the start of his solo career. James claims that he and his then girlfriend Kelly were broke, and that a friend suggested that they try their hand at selling drugs in order to make some quick cash. This friend was a purported drug-dealing middleman between India and Toronto, where Kelly and James were living at the time, and coordinated the drug pickup. James and Kelly soon flew to New Delhi to pick up the shipment, which they would later sell in Canada as well as the United States, and it was in New Delhi that they met a relative of famed sitarist Ravi Shankar.7 The meeting proved fruitful as James remarked that Shankar’s relative “sold me a sitar and gave me lessons. I loved the axe.”8 After a few lessons, James returned to Toronto with weed, money, and his sitar in tow.
In order to get more insight into James’s relationship to South Asian culture, I interviewed, separately, Rick James’s brother and former manager LeRoi Johnson as well as Motown’s former creative director Johnny Lee. For Johnson, he informed me that his brother “loved Indian culture. He even had a room in his home that he called the ‘India room’ that contained all kinds of Indian instruments.”9 Lee echoed Johnson’s remarks, and noted that the “India room” was a space that “nobody got to go in to except Rick. . . . He wouldn’t even let me see it when he was giving me the tour of his house! But he actually said to me, specifically, ‘Nobody goes in to this room except me.’”10 I continued my line of questioning with Johnson, and decided to bring up the drug-deal proposition that supposedly led to James’s introduction to the sitar and Indian culture:
EHP: I read in his autobiography as well as Peter’s [Peter Benjaminson’s] biography that Rick learned how to play the sitar during his time as a drug dealer when he traveled to India. What can you tell me about that?
LJ: Well [long pause] I think you also have to consider that Rick was living in Toronto. He’d dodged the draft and a lot of draft dodgers were there. The counterculture and hippies were there, you know? That’s where he started his first band with Neil Young and—
EHP: The Mynah Birds, yeah.
LJ: Yeah! And so you have the counterculture there. And there were also a lot of Indian people in Toronto, too. So that’s where you have to start. London too.11
I want to focus a bit on Johnson’s sidestepping of my question concerning James’s drug dealing in India. I do so not because I think Johnson dismisses James’s accounts in India, or because he might not be familiar with his brother’s time in India or drug-dealing background, or even because he does not want to further tether his brother to drug culture. Rather, I’m interested in Johnson’s reluctance to speak about Rick James’s time in India, and instead digress to Toronto and London, because this move speaks to what Alexandra Vazquez theorizes as the power of “asides.”12 For Vazquez, following the work of Barbara Johnson, an aside “is a compelling example of what broadening the terms of the musical can make possible. It enables us to read and hear music as that which goes beyond songs and/or praxis. It is a thread of performance—if and when it is picked up—that allows for movement into critical and creative places often lost.”13 Johnson’s aside, then, works as a reframing of my question. It is a directive to me to “consider” and to “start” elsewhere, an elsewhere that looks to relocate my intellectual inquiry and reorient a narrative. In particular, I read Johnson’s aside as an opening into a different genealogy of James’s artistry, one that places his interest in South Asian music (1) as an African and South Asian diasporic formation; and, relatedly, (2) in conversation with the other cultural and political developments that would come to shape James’s signature “punk funk” sound and its attendant relation to the figure of the (super)freak.
By most accounts, Rick James’s years outside the United States, and especially those in Toronto, were the most formative in his career. It was in Toronto that James became part of his first professional band, an R&B-forward rock group called the Mynah Birds (initially named the Sailor Boys) that he fronted and that included soon-to-be-famous rock artists Neil Young, Bruce Palmer, Nick St. Nicholas, and Goldy McJohn.14 It was in Toronto that Motown Records signed the Mynah Birds, giving James his first record contract and initiating his professional relationship with the label. And it was in Toronto that James went AWOL due to his opposition to the Vietnam War and subsequently changed his name from James Johnson to Rick James. In essence, it was outside the United States that Rick James, literally and figuratively, became Rick James.
But LeRoi Johnson’s interview with me complicates this standard narrative and the Black and white terms in which it is frequently framed. This general account places James, an African American man, in a predominantly white band, living in the predominantly white city (or imagined as such) of Toronto, and signed to a Black label (Motown).15 But locating James’s introduction to South Asian culture in Toronto (and later in London) and not in India, leads us to consider the ways South Asian diasporic culture was a part of these formative years as well. For Johnson, South Asian diasporic culture was a part of James’s everyday life in the early 1960s, and not something he encountered later in his career. Moreover, Johnson’s allusions to hippies and counterculture in Toronto and London serve as reminders of the place of Indophilia in psychedelic culture (e.g., yoga) and the music of bands like the Beatles that I outlined in this book’s introduction. But since the Mynah Birds were an R&B band with a Black lead singer, these South Asian influences are routed through and in conversation with Black music. In his autobiography, James notes that he and his white bandmates shared music, with his bandmates introducing him to folk artists like Bob Dylan and James sharing the music of jazz musicians like Pharaoh Sanders. While Dylan never dabbled in South Asian–appropriative practices, Sanders was a student of John Coltrane (and later played with Badal Roy) and adopted Coltrane’s South Asian–inspired spirituality, politics, and sound. In this way, we might speculate that the influence of Indophilic psychedelia on James and the Mynah Birds—if any, because most of their recordings with Motown are lost—came as a complement to the already-established Afro–South Asian linkages in jazz I discussed in the previous two chapters.
Such Afro–South Asian connections that James listened to and through with musicians like Sanders were also present in the cities of London and Toronto during James’s time there in the 1960s and 1970s. LeRoi Johnson’s remark that “there were also a lot of Indian people” in Toronto and London highlights the postwar immigration patterns of Indians from the Caribbean and East Africa to Toronto and London. It also, though unstated, is a reminder of the parallel patterns of Black Caribbean and West African immigrants in those same cities who lived in the same or similar working-class neighborhoods as the South Asian immigrants. While, as many ethnomusicologists and popular music studies scholars note, the cross-cultural music that these immigrant communities collectively formed would not emerge until the 1980s and 1990s, we should not diminish how living among Black and brown people shaped James—Johnson’s aside forces us to consider that possibility.16 And when we think through, as I explained in the prior chapter on Miles Davis, that the late 1960s and early 1970s marked a period in the United States where South Asian and African diasporic solidarity and political possibility waned (via white supremacist legislation of the census and the 1965 Immigration Act), then we must wonder what it means for an African American individual like James to move to Toronto and London during this same period and to experience those collectivities intact. Johnson’s words caution us not to treat James’s forays into South Asian music as experiences in exoticism. Rather they engage cultural practices that, in the context of the cultural and political disentanglements of Blackness and brownness in the United States at the time, held deep political significance and that are central to (if not always audibly present in) the formation of his solo music career.
Rick James defined the music of his solo career as “punk funk.” For James, punk funk is a particular brand of funk that shares the working-class and anti-establishment “riotous spirit” that came to be associated with London-based punk of bands like the Sex Pistols, and whose antecedents (but in no way derivations) are located within the antiwar ethos of 1960s counterculture that James encountered in Toronto and London.17 Punk funk deviates and it was deviant, breaking the traditional boundaries of funk as well as punk. And in suturing punk to funk, James’s new sound offers an alternative formation of punk rooted in Blackness rather than whiteness. Jayna Brown, Patrick Deer, and Tavia Nyong’o note in their introduction to their special issue on punk for Social Text that the subculture and genre’s attention to queer people, women, and people of color (and those at the intersections) is less about a liberal politics of inclusion and more about showing that “punk never was a bastion of straight, white masculinity.”18 In a similar vein, punk funk also offers a different kind of genealogy of punk, one situated within the Black radical tradition as it makes rebellion central to Black aesthetics.
But punk funk does not just recast the dominant tenets of funk. It also opens up new imaginings of and for funk. Punk funk does not have the interstellar thematics of Parliament or George Clinton; it is not clean and romantic like the music of the Isley Brothers or Earth, Wind & Fire; and it refuses the precise and tight style of James Brown. Punk funk is instead—again thinking about the working-class neighborhoods in Toronto and James’s hometown of Buffalo, New York, where he honed his craft—a Black street aesthetic of the everyday. It is direct and transgressive, it is raunchy and rough, it is wild and loose. Punk funk’s disruptions of Black sonic norms make it a queer Black aesthetic. Punk, after all, and as Tavia Nyong’o has powerfully articulated time and again, has a particular resonance in African American culture.19 Punk is Black slang for a gay man, a “faggot,” an always already assumed bottom. James’s penchant for wigs, glitter, lip gloss, heels, and revealing clothing confounds norms of Black masculinity. He and his band developed a performance of Black nonconformity that further fueled James’s punk subjectivity—that he was indeed a faggot.
Consider, for example, the now-infamous back cover of James’s 1981 hit album Street Songs (Figure 6), in which a white police officer pats down a red leather, thigh-high-booted James and a Black woman sex worker in animal print, with both James and the sex worker lifting their asses in the air. James’s hooker boots and ass-tooting emphasize his sex worker status and punkness, and the corner on which the scene is set underscores the street aesthetic of punk funk. But the image also does much more. By featuring a woman alongside James, the photograph troubles the Black vernacular logic that attaches punk to men. And her booty-tooch, to borrow from Tyra Banks, produces what Jennifer Christine Nash defines as “black anality,” an analytic that describes “how black pleasures are imagined to be peculiarly and particularly oriented toward the anus.”20 Here, James and the female sex worker, much like the figures on the cover of Miles Davis’s On the Corner, envelope a queerness in the Cathy Cohen sense of the framework I discussed in the introduction to this book as well as Cohen’s related framing of queerness as “deviance.” Cohen pushes us to think through deviance, especially when it concerns Black communities, as a broad concept that is about the pathologizing discourses of LGBT peoples as well as defining those like single Black mothers whose “intimate relationships and sexual behavior are often portrayed as directly in conflict with the normative assumptions of heterosexism and the nuclear family . . . [and] also often live under the constant surveillance of the state through regulatory agencies.”21 The power of such re-conception of queerness as deviance for Cohen resides in its ability to reframe “the reification of the nuclear family, the conformity to institutionally prescribed and informally regulated gender roles and intimate sexual relations.”22 On the Street Songs back cover, then, James’s and the female sex worker’s status as sex workers and their sexual behavior as sodomites represent—they literally depict—those Black subjects whose sexual behaviors, in labor (sex work) and leisure (noncommercial Black analities), were deemed deviant and therefore assumed to be deserving of surveillance, policing, and criminalization. James is not simply, or perhaps no longer, a punk. He and his fellow sex worker are and have transformed into, as the breakout single from Street Songs alludes, deviant freaks and super freaks.
In invoking freaks, I do not intend to set punks and freaks in opposition. My goal here is to instead illuminate the ways in which the freak, as a subject position and analytic, offers a more capacious framing to imagine differently otherness (erotic and otherwise) in the Black queer aesthetic of punk funk. Which is to say, if punk in Black vernacular is always already tethered to men and male-derived masculinity, then the freak presents a broader Black cultural lens from which to engage racial, gendered, and sexualized otherness. Take, for example, the fact that the super freak in James’s biggest hit isn’t a man, but a kinky, orgy-loving, female sex worker—she is, as the lyrics outline, “a very kinky girl / the kind you don’t take home to mother / she will never let your spirits down / once you get her off the streets.” “Super Freak” was not the first time that James created music about the deviance of the freak. In his 1979 hit “Love Gun,” James speaks about his love for a woman to penetrate him with her “love gun,” a euphemism that critics rightly argue connotes a penis but wrongly posit that it is James’s penis. James’s imagined sexual partner appears to be a trans woman with an uncircumcised penis—“put your finger on the trigger / when you pull it back I’ll figure”—and someone who James wishes would ejaculate inside of him—“give me a shot of your love gun / fire me up girl and we’ll have big fun.” James’s investment, then, in the freak’s resistance to heteropatriarchal and cisgender norms is, in part, why L. H. Stallings argues that the freak is a key cultural producer of funk who shares and informs funk’s erotic, sensorial, and androgynous possibilities. For Stallings, Rick James is an icon “of funk and superfreak extraordinaire” who performs and “personifies an ecstatic androgyny that could coalesce Black men and women into perversely playing with anti-bourgeois performances of gender and sexuality.”23
But we must remember that such an anti-bourgeois stance of the freak for James is dually informed by and in conversation with a working-class street upbringing in Buffalo as well as his AWOL status in Toronto in which he participated in counterculture activities and, as his brother posits, was surrounded by South Asian immigrant and diasporic people and culture. If, as I described above, South Asian (diasporic) culture was a part of James’s early professional life in Toronto and London, which was central in the production of punk funk, then we must also consider its place within its production of the punk’s transformation into the freak. As I described in the introduction, in addition to “freak” having a particular resonance in Black and queer cultural spaces, South Asian American and immigrant history in the Americas is also historically tied to representations of deviant freakiness. Scholars like Janet M. Davis, Nayan Shah, Jasbir Puar, and Susan Koshy have all argued that the early twentieth-century freak-show and immigration legislative provisions produced South Asians as gendered and sexual others within the racial imaginaries of the Americas (especially Canada and the United States). And it was this otherness that created a racial and sexual taxonomy that buttressed South Asian diasporic discrimination in housing, employment, and immigration status and admission.24
It is perhaps then not surprising that we later find James explicitly incorporating South Asian music into the music of his multiracial all-female freak band the Mary Jane Girls. The Mary Jane Girls included a genderqueer and/or butch woman and a whip- and handcuff-wielding leather dominatrix, and James wrote, produced, and played the sitar on their 1983 and 1985 albums.25 The deviant and freaky sartorial styles of the Mary Jane Girls as well as their erotic lyrics led them to become listed among the Tipper Gore–led Parents Music Resource Center’s infamous “Filthy Fifteen,” a list of fifteen songs that the PMRC argued evidenced the deviance of “porn rock” and that threatened the normative nuclear family.26 James’s sitar playing on the Mary Jane Girls’ perverse and “filthy” albums underscores the freak’s ability to allow for relational resonances between Blackness, South Asianness, and queerness—James brings these three formations in close proximity and intimacy. James would continue this three-way of queerness, South Asianness, and Blackness on his 1986 album The Flag, a record dedicated to the “freak.” On The Flag James plays the sitar as well as the tabla, and he delves into the sexual and geopolitical politics of the freak. It is thus with The Flag that James explicitly showcases and expands his South Asian musical abilities and makes plain the queer relations of Afro–South Asian collectivities and collaborative sounds.
Let Your Freak Flag Fly
As I noted at the outset of this chapter, The Flag is Rick James’s first and only solo album with South Asian instrumentation, his first and only explicitly/self-described political album, and his first and only album that sought to address and critique life in the 1980s under the Reagan administration. James had been critical of Ronald Reagan since at least 1983 when, in an effort to get the audience to clap along to his music, he instructed them to pretend that their left hand was the KKK and Reagan and to smack their left with their right “as hard as you can.”27 Visually, the cover of The Flag speaks to the record’s political import. On the front cover, James stands alone, staring at the camera/viewer with arms folded, rocking a shorn haircut, and dressed in an all-black leather ensemble. The background of the photograph is what James would later describe as the freak flag (hence the album’s title). The flag is divided into the colors of red, black, and green, with a diagonal line separating the flag into a red and black side, and with green lining the flag’s perimeter. The back cover (Figure 7) features James in the same outfit, against the same flag backdrop, but this time he has his left hand on his popped-out hip and he is holding a smaller version of the freak flag.28
The album cover of The Flag represents many of the political and cultural facets of Rick James and the formations that produced punk funk’s iteration of the freak. While the red, black, and green suggest a pan-African tie to the freak flag, James remarks in The Flag’s liner notes that the colors also connote love and bloodshed, the circle of life and the inclusivity of Blackness, and Earth and “Mother Nature,” respectively.29 In so doing, the colors meld the pan-Africanist and hippie counterculture political projects that circulated during the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s of James’s time in Toronto and London. Moreover, the diagonal split of the flag between red and black coincidentally replicates the anarchist flag, further emphasizing the punk in James’s punk funk music as well as punk’s leftist politics. But James also signals a Black queer articulation with the punk on the album’s back cover. His shift in bodily comportment—hand on the popped-out hip—as well as all black leather attire mark James as perhaps a queer leather queen (“Leather Queen” was incidentally a song he recorded for the Mary Jane Girls a year prior to the release of The Flag). And as James is pictured center stage on the cover, we might also read this as suggesting how such Black queerness becomes a central component to the rest of the cover’s racial, capitalist, and nation-state allusions. Which is to say, the freak flag operates as an assemblage of anti-racist, anti-capitalist, and anti-queerphobic politics. The freak flag signals where and how these political imaginings overlap and intertwine.30
Musically, The Flag deepens such intersectional and coalitional projects. The album opens with James and his Black R&B female protégé Val Young singing in harmony on a song aptly titled “Freak Flag.” They sing, “Wave your freak flag / wave your freak flag / rally ’round the red, black, and green.” This collaboration between James and Young on “Freak Flag” is important because it underscores and sets the tone for the concept of the freak flag, and the freak aesthetic, as an embrace and expression of gender and sexual nonnormative collectivity. James’s freak status, as I explained above, had already been established by the time of The Flag’s release, and Young, while a relatively new artist, had started to establish an image as a sexually desiring and desirable Black woman. James famously dubbed her the “Black Marilyn Monroe” as a means to mark and promote Young’s beauty and vivacious erotics. Johnny Lee, creative director at Motown Records, shot the cover of Young’s debut album Seduction, and when I asked him what he could share with me about Young and the photo, he replied, “I really like Val! She’s no-holds-barred! If she was horny she’d tell you she’s horny! [laughs].”31 But while Lee appreciated the personal frankness of Young as a Black woman who took charge of her own sexuality, he did not believe that such an identity and personality should be attached to Young’s professional image. He explained to me that when it came time to shoot the cover for Seduction, “I wanted to make her a little more acceptable. Rick and I fought a lot about that. I was not too happy with her first cover. It was too nasty.”32 Here Lee’s desire to make Young “acceptable” speaks to the kinds of capitalist and Black middle-class normative logics of respectability and sexual silence that too often organize Black women’s sexualities. Lee, it would seem, was not only concerned that Young, as an emerging artist, would get caught up in the conservatism and controversy of the PMRC, but also extend the racist and sexist stereotypes of Black women as sexually excessive. Nevertheless, James (and I’d argue Young) decided to connect Young’s personal sexual politics to her professional erotic representation, as evidenced by the cover of Seduction, which finds Young sitting atop a satin bed; and by Young and James singing together on “Freak Flag.” It’s that song, as the opening track, that frames the remainder of the album. Indeed, “Freak Flag,” and Young and James’s attendant harmonizing lyrics on it, are repeated again as an interlude in the middle of the album as well as The Flag’s closing song.
And it’s on this point of how the album ends, especially the final three songs, that I want to turn my attention. The antepenultimate song is titled “Om Raga” (sometimes referred to as “Rick’s Raga”), and it is a thirty-second instrumental of James playing the sitar and tabla.33 “Om Raga” is an alap of sorts, referring to the introductory section of a North Indian classical music piece where a soloist (here James on sitar) explores the raga (or collection of pitches) of a performance. But rather than provide listeners with a full version of this performance, the song abruptly ends and transitions into the next one, titled “Painted Pictures.” “Painted Pictures” is a sitar-driven funk ballad that examines the problems with erotic façades. Notably, James treats the sitar as a bass, and only uses it to amplify the sonic hallmark of funk music: the one. The one is, as many scholars and musicians have explained, “the first beat of the pattern and as such the focal point of the groove.”34 In essence, the one is what makes funk funk. And so in playing the sitar and the bass on the one, Rick James, much like Badal Roy during the recording sessions of On the Corner discussed in the last chapter, blends South Asian music—and specifically North Indian classical music, given that the preceding song is an alap—with Black music. James makes them central to and puts them in conversation with each other. And since the lyrics deal with erotic play, he underscores the ways such relationalities articulate with sex and sexuality. And it is probably for this reason that “Painted Pictures” is the final full song before James and Young reprise “Freak Flag” to conclude the album. That is, the Afro–South Asian coalitional erotics of “Painted Pictures” allow for a circling back to James and Young’s sex-centered collaborations and imaginations of the freak flag. This transition and looping back brings listeners back to the beginning of the album and its purpose: for us to proudly proclaim and embrace our freakiness, to move from the hidden and enclosed erotics of “Painted Pictures” to the explicit publics of the freak. South Asian and African culture, then, in conjunction with the Afro-diasporic aesthetics of funk, leads us (back) to an uncompromising and unapologetic freakiness.
Freakin’/Freak in Politics
But what does it mean to center and be an unapologetic freak in 1986, at a time of increased AIDS-related deaths, the Reagan administration’s disturbing silence around such a public health crisis, and the racist and queerphobic violence and hysteria that informed—and were informed by—such silences? In calling for listeners to rally around the freak and its pan-Africanist colors of red, black, and green, The Flag frames the freak as the primary subject from which to build a broad-based coalition. Similar to Cathy Cohen’s notion of a radical queer politics that is defined by one’s relation to power rather than a subject identity, The Flag’s organizing around the figure of the freak eschews the narrowness of bounded framings of identity for a radical and transformative vision, grounded in the politics of Black culture, that addresses multiple oppressions. The freak cuts across and binds various differences to speak to and sound ways in which power unevenly affects and marginalizes communities across the lines of race, class, gender, sexuality, and citizenship. The Flag’s centering of the freak jettisons single-identity frameworks in order to pursue a multi-issue platform. And it is one that builds solidarity between, among, and for those whose histories and lived realities are imbricated with production of the racialized gender and sexual nonnormative and outsider positionality of the freak.
To be clear, I am not arguing that The Flag or Rick James must be seen as leading figures in 1980s AIDS activism. But what I am saying is that historical context lays bare political import. And thus we cannot detach The Flag from the political terrain from which it emerges. Its music and visuality signal multiple and heterogeneous marginalized communities—African Americans, South Asians, anarchists, queers, (Black) women, and those at the intersections—affected by AIDS and involved in AIDS activism during the mid to late 1980s. From the Gay Men of African Descent, to the Women’s AIDS Network, to the anarchist influences of ACT UP, to the Third World AIDS Advisory Task Force, the thematics of The Flag speak to these organizations and the HIV-affected communities for which they organized. The Flag’s privileging of the freak, then, resists the dominant image of white gay male AIDS activism to pursue something else, to create the sounds of and for coalition building. To go back to the album again, Rick James’s harmonizing with Val Young on the opening and closing of The Flag and the South Asian instrumentation that leads to such a finale are important acts because they position Black women’s voices and South Asian cultural formations as emblematic of the solidarity that resides in the potential of the freak.
Moreover, to continue this line of thought around situating The Flag within 1980s U.S. politics, while James’s song “Free to Be Me,” which addresses drug addiction (he discusses freebasing and smoking crack cocaine), is a tale of personal struggle, it must also be read alongside Reagan’s war on drugs and its centrality in the mass incarceration of Black and brown people that increased the rates of new HIV infections. And when we couple this with the AIDS quarantine ballot in California in 1986 and the Bowers v. Hardwick case that eventually upheld anti-sodomy laws (the Supreme Court had yet to rule on the case by the time The Flag was released), then we are faced with an album like The Flag that culturally articulates with the fight against the criminalization of racialized, gendered, and sexually marginalized groups. The Flag’s multiple resonances link HIV/AIDS activism with challenges to the carceral state, and consequently suggest that the politics of the freak are what we might call the politics of the punk, bulldagger, and welfare queen.
The Flag’s use of the freak as an intersectional and coalitional framework isn’t limited to the domestic; it’s also international(ist) in its political scope and reach. Recall that Rick James recorded The Flag in part as a response to 1980s U.S. imperialism and Cold War politics. The Flag, then, returns James to his AWOL history and the counterculture antiwar working-class musical space in Toronto. The Vietnam War was obviously over by 1986, but the United States and the Soviet Union still waged war and occupied geopolitical spaces, doing so under the auspices of spreading/saving democracy or communism. James expresses his frustration with the United States and the Soviet Union on the song “Funk in America / Silly Little Man,” where he ridicules Reagan and Gorbachev as “silly little boys,” attacks the proliferation and genocidal implications of U.S. global nuclear arsenal, and laments that the Cold War is a “a shame and a pity.”35 Despite all of this, James remains hopeful for the future. He insists that “it’s time to take other measures,” which he qualifies as an alternative agenda focused on the practice of anti-militarism through nonalignment. The goal here for James is, as he and Val Young sing at the beginning and end of The Flag, to rally around the freak flag. James is not interested in finding space to critique U.S. imperialism while still remaining allegiant to it. Nor does his critique of U.S. empire move him to support Soviet-defined communism. He and Val Young are aligned with neither nation-state or empire and instead pledge allegiance to the freak and their own freakiness.
This move toward nonalignment recalls the Bandung conference of 1955 where newly sovereign African and Asian nations formed an alliance against U.S. and Soviet imperialism. This position expressed an outright refusal to participate in war (and a nuclear war at that) as well as an “us versus them” ideological hailing that sought to interpellate African and Asian nations and communities (and those tracing cultural/historical ties to these areas and peoples) as subjects loyal to the United States or the Soviet Union. The title of James’s “Free to Be Me” song, while again about struggles with drug abuse, intimates a sense of self-determination that organized much of the political movements that led to the independence of these African and Asian nations and their orientation toward nonalignment. Moreover, and perhaps most important, James’s sitar and tabla playing on The Flag, and his transition into “Freak Flag,” make audible and present such Afro-Asian histories. To instrumentally close with South Asian sounds and vocally end with collective singing about organizing around “red, black, and green” produces an Afro–South Asian musical melding. It forms the literal culmination of The Flag, a sonic meeting between, to, and through the South Asian and the African diasporas. These Afro–South Asian sounds of solidarity, thus, index Bandung and bring its 1950s transnational politics into the then present, and helps listeners imagine what nonalignment might sound like in and for the 1980s.
But because this updated Bandung sound centers the queer (of color) subject of the freak, it is a sound that intertwines Afro–South Asian anti-imperialist/nonaligned formations with racialized nonnormative erotics. Indeed, as L. H. Stallings argues, the slippage of “funk” and “fuck” holds potential to produce “identity and subjectivity anew and alter political and artistic movements.”36 To that end, “Funk in America,” which speaks out against the military–industrial complex and the imperial logics of Reagan’s Cold War, simultaneously becomes “Fuck in America,” thereby signaling Reagan’s anti-queer policies. But the slippage continues. Because the phrase “Funk in America” appears by itself and not attached to the surrounding lyrics, “Fuck in America” can also read as “Fuck-in America,” as a directive to beat-in to disrupt or rupture America, or as a sit-in style protest of public sex; we might also interpret it as an exasperated “Fuck, in America”; as an affective disappointment of “Fuckin’ America”; or as a queering method where one is invested in “Fuckin’ America.” The point is not to discern which interpretation is the “correct” one, but rather to show how the multiple (mis)readings further underscore how organizing around the freak, as articulated in The Flag, allows for a political vision that powerfully addresses the entanglements of race, gender, sexuality, nation, and war in the 1980s. The Flag, thus, not only links AIDS activism with the prison–industrial complex, but also, by raising the specter of Bandung and Cold War nonalignment, it connects both formations to antiwar politics.
It’s perhaps because of this that Johnny Lee compared Rick James’s vision for The Flag as similar to his 1981 album Street Songs, and saw the former, visually and musically, as a concept album that is anchored by “an anthem.”37 Shana Redmond defines anthems as “world-altering collective visions” that “symbolize and call into being a system of sociopolitical ideas or positions . . . [and] that make the listening audience and political public merge.”38 “Freak Flag” is such an anthem. It is, of course, an anthem of The Flag, but more to the point, it is an anthem for those in 1986 facing multiple and overlapping oppressions of racism, sexism, imperialism, serosorting, queerphobia, and mass incarceration.39 Like the corner was the site for collective action for Miles Davis in 1972, the freak was the figure through which Rick James offered an anthem of coalitional organizing.
In a way, then, The Flag is the culmination of Rick James’s earlier career (at least as it was outlined in LeRoi Johnson’s interview with me). His initial engagements with South Asian music came at a moment of outsiderness, a moment of exile (similar to but still separate from Baldwin and Coltrane’s that I wrote about in chapter 1). He was AWOL, he was in Toronto, he traveled to London and India, and it was while in exile, while an outsider, that he encountered and participated in the drugs and antiwar politics of counterculture as well as South Asian music. These encounters in exile led James to the queer Black aesthetic sounds of punk funk and its central figure: the freak. The Flag was James’s only album that was dedicated to the freak and that made plain how political organizing around the freak can lead to radical visions of intersectional, transnational, and coalitional politics, ones that James witnessed as an outsider, as a funky freaky punk.
Unfortunately for Rick James, The Flag’s anthem went unheard. It was a commercial and critical failure, and is a largely forgotten album. In fact, when I initially interviewed LeRoi Johnson, James’s brother, about The Flag, he confused it with another low-performing Rick James album. James was on a commercial and creative downswing following the lack of interest in The Flag. Within five years of the album’s release, he had relapsed, sued Motown Records, and was incarcerated. And although Rick James never resurrected the cultural and political possibilities of the queer racialized other of the freak, a rap duo from Atlanta called OutKast would embrace another kind of othered and othering subject that shared James’s punk and freak. For OutKast, the subject was an outcast of sorts, and one that was literally and figuratively out of this world.
My move to place OutKast, and André 3000 specifically, in conversation with Rick James might come as a surprise. André is often, and rightly, discussed in relation to Prince. The falsetto style, songwriting, quirky Black masculinity, and Black dandyism that we now associate with André are clear citational expressions of Prince’s legacy. My interest in tracing the resonances between James and André is not to diminish Prince’s influence, but rather, as I did in chapter 1 with James Baldwin and John Coltrane, to open up and allow for new meanings of their music. In particular, my aim is to highlight how OutKast deployed and embraced positionalities of otherness on their second album, ATLiens, and did so in ways that drew on South Asianness and that imagined Blackness, Black music, and Black politics differently.40 For James the figure through which to imagine this alterative formation of Blackness was the freak, rooted in and routed through the punk. As we shall see for OutKast, such an alternative formation manifested in and through the alien via the outcast.
Imani Perry argues that OutKast is emblematic of the “outlaw” tradition in hip-hop. For Perry, the outlaw is a multifaceted archetype that rejects “norms that unfairly punish Black communities or discount the complexity of choices faced by those Black and poor in the United States.”41 OutKast occupies this racialized position of the outlaw in its own name. Spoken-word artist Ruben “Big Rube” Bailey, member of the Atlanta-based rap collective the Dungeon Family that includes OutKast, reveals on OutKast’s 1994 song “True Dat” (from their debut album Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik) that OutKast is an acronym: “Operating Under The Krooked American System Too (Long).” The parenthetical usage is of my own doing. I do so in order to underscore how the acronym does and doesn’t spell out OUTKAST, and to show how the (mis)applied acronym simultaneously signals the enduring history and presence of injustice and oppression in the United States (i.e., “too long”) as well as building a community of marginalized folks experiencing such oppression (i.e., “too”). That is to say, the slippage and flexibility in Big Rube’s explanation of the acronym is productive because it names the system that produces outcasts while at the same time inviting and constructing a collective of outcasts. Additionally, the use of “K” instead of “C” in “K/Crooked” emphasizes the social structures producing an outcast/OutKast, as it is a signifyin’ method that has roots in Black Power ideologies of the 1970s and the use of satirical misspellings to highlight white supremacy (e.g., the Ku Klux Klan) in the United States (e.g., “Amerikkka” instead of “America”). The “K” in “Krooked” indexes such Black radical history, inextricably tying OutKast to the long history of Black liberation struggles, and particularly those in the U.S. South.
Indeed, OutKast is a southern rap group whose southern Black political identity extends and explicates their layered outcast position. At the time of Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik’s release, hip-hop was largely understood and treated like a bicoastal affair. Rap markets overwhelmingly ignored southern hip-hop, and only paid slight attention to southern rap acts if they adhered to either West or East Coast visual, lyrical, and sonic standards. The logic went as follows: if it was not from or conformed to the East Coast or West Coast, then it was not hip-hop. The name OutKast, then, also signaled their racial, geographical, and cultural positions as outcasts.
When OutKast released their debut album in 1994, they refused assimilation to the normative logics governing rap at the time. To again quote Perry, OutKast’s music and image relied on and spoke to “the position of Otherness as a site of privileged knowledge and potential.”42 Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik was decidedly Black, southern, and rap. The album features Big Boi and André 3000 as southern Black teenage womanizing “playas” who do not hide their southern drawls, who routinely use geographical references that only those familiar with Atlanta will understand, who rap over live instrumentation (courtesy of southern production team Organized Noize) that departs from the sample-based music of New York or Los Angeles, and who rap about the ongoing effects of racial segregation and displacement and anti-Black policing (which is always already anti-Black) in Atlanta. OutKast’s debut album, thus, speaks to and cultivates a community for those pushed to the margins and for whom assimilation is not an option.
But while OutKast’s position as outcasts in 1994 seems to have coalition-building possibilities, Big Rube ended up undercutting such potentiality on the same song that he articulates the meaning of OutKast’s name. Rube implores those on the margins, those who are outcasts/OutKasts, to “take back your existence” or “die like a punk.” Rube’s use of the pejorative “punk,” an epithet for Black queerness that I discussed above, sets up an opposition between outcasts/OutKast as the heroes challenging oppression—taking back their existence—and the queer punks whose betrayal undermines the struggle and are therefore better off dead. Situating Rube’s words in 1994, and especially his linking of death and punks / Black queers, raises the specter of the AIDS crisis and the significant number of Black men who sleep with men (MSMs) who had seroconverted or had died from AIDS. Perry, again, writes that one of the powers of the outlaw figure is that it “presents itself in the creation of alternative values, norms, and ideals in contrast to those embraced in American society.”43 For OutKast on Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, Big Rube’s words suggest that the outcast/OutKast failed to create new norms of sexuality and gender—those norms looked a lot like, if they were not exactly the same as, the old norms. But, it appeared, these gendered and sexual norms would shift by the time of OutKast’s follow-up album in 1996. It was at that point that OutKast had figuratively left America as well as Earth, and had transformed from outcasts into ATLiens.
I want to start this conversation about ATLiens by first going back to the 1995 Source Awards. It is there that OutKast won Best New Rap Group and where the majority of the attendees booed them. The experience of simultaneous celebration and condemnation led Big Boi and André to consider, and address on their album, the double-edged sword of success and scrutiny. It led them to think through the multiple ways in which they’re rendered alien and respond to such alien status. ATLiens is the album that addresses these issues. Lyrically, the record remains rooted in the quotidian experiences of Black men in Atlanta. As mentioned above, many of the songs specifically namecheck places and areas that only people from Atlanta, from Georgia, and at most the South, will recognize. In so doing, OutKast embraces the ways in which bicoastal rap reads southern hip-hop as foreign. Further, songs like “Elevators (Me & You)” and “Mainstream” consider whether OutKast’s newfound fame has alienated them from their initial, local fan base. These songs explored the following question: If fame has made OutKast, a group from Atlanta, alien to the people of Atlanta, then are OutKast consequently alien within their own home? And lastly, sonically, OutKast’s ATLiens is drastically different and distant from their previous album and mainstream hip-hop in general. The opening song, for example, starts with a woman reading a Portuguese poem, deterritorializing the listener. André 3000 and Big Boi also began producing on their own on ATLiens. The resulting sound is one that is dark and sparse. ATLiens especially makes central guttural sounds like grunts, laughter, and sighs, which were not so common in hip-hop at the time, but sounds that are, following Samuel Floyd, indicative of musical traditions of the broader African diaspora and enslaved Black people in the South.44 As Regina Bradley notes, if the Best New Artist win marked OutKast as the future of hip-hop, then ATLiens shows listeners what this alien Black future sounds like.45
Ironically, in presenting their ATLiens sound and exploring what it means to be an alien (to their home of Atlanta, to the bicoastal rap market, etc.), Big Boi and André 3000 were increasingly becoming alien to each other. I interviewed Vince Robinson, the former art director at LaFace Records, which was OutKast’s record label, about ATLiens, an album he worked on as the illustrator of the album’s comic book liner notes. I asked him to describe how, if at all, he saw Big Boi and André change between Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik and ATLiens. He informed me that “Big Boi had that cool pimp and playa thing going on both albums. He was the same guy.” But when I asked Robinson about André 3000, Robinson remarked, “He was wearing turbans and weird clothes. With all kinds of colors and patterns. . . . He was just one way one minute and then turned into something else the next, you know. I just thought he was creatively dynamic like that.”46 I asked Robinson if he ever asked André why he changed his style, and his response surprised me. Robinson told me that he had not asked André about his decision to change his style because he didn’t want to make things “awkward with André.” Nevertheless, Robinson eventually confessed to me that he and his friends at LaFace would sometimes talk about, and notably not to, André and his clothes and wonder “what that was all about.”47
It is here that we get a glimpse of the queer politics and purchase, the kinds of illegible masculinities that I discussed in reference to Coltrane in chapter 1, of the turban for André 3000. The narrative that Robinson tells me is one familiar to many queer people: friends and family see something “different” or “creative” about your way of dress, talking among themselves about this “difference” and the potential concerns that it raises, but never confronting the subject of this difference out of fear of making things “awkward.” Such a narrative is part of a set of practices like silence, rumors, euphemisms, and gossip that surround the (in)visibility of and, to quote C. Riley Snorton, the “popular panopticism that regulates” nonnormative genders and sexualities.48 It is an attempt to question illegible sexualities and genders in order to make and mark them as legible and open to more vulnerability and/or surveillance. The questioning of André 3000’s gender and dress was made even more evident in a 2004 VH1 special on OutKast. In it, they devote a small segment to André’s turban and change in style during the ATLiens era. The segment features two Atlanta-based artists who are close to OutKast—producer and friend of Big Boi, Nsilo Reddick; and rapper and member of the Dungeon Family, Big Reese—and whose discussion of André’s turban look echo and extend Robinson’s comments to me:
Nsilo Reddick: I still remember [pause] like one day he was in jeans and a T-shirt and a fresh, fresh pair of sneakers on. And then BAM! He’s in a turban!
Big Reese: It was actually a hat that you get from the beauty supply store. You know them little grandmama hats that they wear in church [laughs].
NR: Dré walks out with a turban on and everybody’s looking like [Reddick performs inquisitive side-eye for the camera] “Man, what in the hell is Dré doing? What does he have on?” The next second you go out to the mall and everybody got on turbans!49
While the segment ends with a gesture toward André’s influence on other men in Atlanta—“everybody got on turbans”—and thus a sign of André’s successful entry into normative Black masculinity (the proceeding segment is about André’s courtship of and child with Erykah Badu), Reddick and Big Reese’s testimony also articulate an initial puzzlement with André’s improper performance of masculinity. Big Reese’s association of André’s turban with those worn by Black southern grandmothers marks André as a cross-dresser of sorts whose gender transgressions are tied to his transgressions of temporality. For Big Reese, André participates in a queer, backward-looking aesthetic practice of crossing gender—man to woman—and time—young to elderly—that, as Reddick’s statement notes, confound and render suspicious the norms of present-day Black masculinity. André 3000 would, as this chapter’s epigraph attests, go on to recognize the heightened visibility and questioning of his sartorial choices as well as such surveillance’s implications of dissident sexualities. And he addressed it on the song “Return of the G” from Aquemini, the album proceeding ATLiens. He raps, “Then the question is ‘Big Boi what’s up with André? / Is he in a cult? Is he on drugs? Is he gay?’”
Oddly enough, VH1 chose to use two South Asian–inspired rap songs to accompany Big Reese and Nsilo Reddick’s commentary on André’s turban. As they spoke, listeners hear the tumbi-driven song “Ugly” by Georgia-based rapper Bubba Sparxxx as well as “Indian Flute” by Virginia-based African American rapper and producer Timbaland and his South Asian American protégé Rajé Shwari. Timbaland produced both songs, and I will discuss him at great length later in this chapter and especially in chapter 5. But for now, it is important to note that the choice to use South Asian music and South Asian American artists as background to André’s initially perceived cross-dressing turban attire highlight the intersections and entanglements of Blackness, South Asianness, and queerness in Black popular music that I seek to grapple with throughout this book and especially this chapter.
To be clear, turbans are not exclusive to South Asia. Turbans exist across Asia and Africa, as part of various religions, and, as Big Reese explained to VH1, in southern African American women’s style politics. But the turban, at least prior to 9/11, has often represented a marker of South Asianness within the broader U.S. racial imaginary. During the early twentieth century, political cartoons, film, and other media frequently depicted Indians as wearing turbans. And as Indian immigration—irrespective of religion—increased during this period, nativists came to fear what they saw as the rising “tide of the turbans.”50 The legacy of such a conflation between South Asianness and the turban emerged when I first mentioned to Vince Robinson that I was interested in talking with him about the ATLiens album, André 3000, and Black musicians donning turbans. Upon hearing my interest, Robinson told me, “Unless they are practicing Sikhism, I don’t know what they are attempting to get across.”51 Here, Robinson, like Rick James’s brother LeRoi Johnson, exercises an aside that reveals a perceived connection between a Punjabi-originated religion of Sikhism and the turban. That is, similar to Johnson’s aside pushing me to consider Rick James’s interest in South Asian culture through his encounters with South Asian immigrants and diasporic peoples in Toronto and London, Robinson’s aside further signaled to me the need to pursue the South Asian—via Sikh—connections between André 3000 and his turban aesthetics.
And in so doing, I discovered that André 3000 is part of a longer history of African American men wearing turbans to signify South Asianness, especially in the segregated U.S. South. As Vivek Bald explains, donning a turban and posing as South Asian became one of the many ways that southern Black men sought to “cross the color line and temporarily, contingently, outwit the racial apartheid of Jim Crow.”52 This was such a “recurring and prominent theme” that two of the leading Black publications, Ebony and Jet, wrote about it.53 Ebony referred to the practice as “do-it-yourself-segregation,” and Jet wrote that “some of the race’s best folk tales are tied up in turbans and a half dozen other ways dark negroes ‘pass’ down south.”54 Rather than pass as white, as is the often-told narrative of racial passing in African American history, these Black men passed as exotic and often wealthy South Asian men, and used Orientalist fantasies due to the ways white people in the South frequently (but in no ways exclusively) “treated them [South Asians] differently, afforded them greater privileges of movement, or even sought them out of the goods they sold, the ‘wisdom’ they bore, or the ‘magic’ they performed.”55 Historian Paul Kramer extends Bald’s narrative by exploring African American male musicians’ attempts to pass as South Asian. For example, Kramer tells the story of a late 1940s St. Louis–born Black artist named John Roland Redd who became the first Black man to own his own television show when he moved to Los Angeles, changed his name and identity to the turbaned Indian organist and spiritual personality Korla Pandit, and starred in the hit program Koral Pandit’s Adventures in Music.56 And while there were other Black male artists during the 1940s and 1950s who donned turbans and were not explicitly engaged in evading anti-Black racism, many Black male musicians like Babs Gonzales, Dizzy Gillespie, and the Reverend Jesse Routté found turbans to be cultural objects that offered relatively temporary and limited relief while touring in the U.S. South.57
André 3000’s wearing of turbans during the ATLiens period revisits and revises this history. As a Black man from and living in the South, and as a Black man rapping about anti-Black racism in the South, André’s turban acts as an homage to those African Americans (artists and nonartists alike) who saw the turban as a tactic and tool for navigating the Jim Crow South. And yet, and as we will see, while some African American men of the early and mid-twentieth century used the turban to temporarily mask their Blackness and adopt an ethnoracial positionality—South Asian—outside the strict Black–white binary, André’s turban amplifies and rescripts his Blackness. The turban becomes part of André’s alternative and Afro-futurist Black expression. It is an imagining that, via the turban, queerly resonates with South Asianness in order to express Black masculinity differently. As Jasbir Puar argues, the turbaned South Asian male subject is historically attached to “hypermasculinity, perverse heterosexuality . . . and warrior militancy” within the U.S. racial imaginary, and as such, it overlaps with the long history of representations of Black masculinity as a racialized site of immanent gendered and sexualized excess.58 But the turban, as well as the South Asian subject, is also a marker of foreignness, of exoticness, of alienness. And so it is at this nexus of the turban’s Afro-South Asianness and alienness that we locate André 3000’s turbaned performance as a site of alternative and futuristic Black masculinities.
The ATLiens comic book is instructive here. To refresh, the comic book follows two alien superheroes from an outer space city called ATLantis as they fight to save music and ATLantis from an evil entity named Nosamulli. Big Boi’s alien name is Daddy Fat Sax (also stylized Dad-Efat-Sax), a doubly hetero-masculinist name that signals the phallic and stereotypically masculine saxophone as well as the “sax” as a slang for testicles—(ball)sack—and therefore a sign of masculine virility. Moreover, Big Boi’s superpower is the ability to summon a black panther. The overlaps of Black masculinity and the black panther not only draw parallels between the ATLiens comic book and the Afro-futurism of the Black Panther superhero comic, but more to the point, it also draws connections to a more conventional framing of the Black Panther Party as heteropatriarchal. As Regina Bradley notes, the comic situates Big Boi’s alien character within larger Black freedom struggles, but it does so in ways that shore up norms of gender and sexuality.59 Big Boi converges with the kinds of Black Panther aesthetics and politics that were a part of Miles Davis’s political vision in 1972, as I discussed in chapter 2. But, importantly, in developing an alien character that espouses and summons Black gender and sexual normative superpowers, Big Boi deviates from Davis’s positioning of queerness as central to the Black Panther Party and Black Power aesthetics.
André 3000, conversely, becomes the alien superhero Bin Hamin (sometimes written as Bin-Hamin) in the ATLiens comic. The name signals Arabic as well as Islam, and Robinson drew André (as Bin Hamin) as a turbaned fighter who works with Daddy Fat Sax in battling Nosamulli. While Daddy Fat Sax has an animal as a superpower—the black panther—Bin Hamin’s superpower is the spiritual and intellectual gift of discernment, a third eye that allows him to “see through bulls#!t.”60
There are four things I want to note about Bin Hamin’s biography as narrated in the comic book. First, the use of a third eye as a superpower further illustrates the ways in which South Asian culture informs André 3000’s superhero character, if not his rapper persona as well. Here, I’m reminded again of Robin D. G. Kelley, whom I mentioned in this book’s introduction, and the ways in which his Afro-diasporic mother and her beliefs in South Asian spiritualities informed the Black utopic praxis that Kelley calls “freedom dreams.” For Kelley, his mother pushed his family to “live through our third eyes, to see life as possibility.”61 And it is this kind of third-eye training, grounded in, as Kelley explicates, the Black radical tradition, that Bin Hamin uses in helping to render life possible on ATLantis and new Earth.
Second, by featuring a superhero with an Arabic- and/or Muslim-inspired name like Bin Hamin, the comic book disentangles the turban from a strictly Sikh formation to one that signals the various regionalities and religious traditions in which turbans are worn. In so doing, it makes room for us to read the ATLiens iteration of André, via Bin Hamin, as participating in a broader legacy of Islam in rap music as well as indexing the history of turbaned Black men passing as South Asian in the U.S. South. This is not an either/or scenario, but an and/both, especially since Islam exists in South Asia. Nevertheless, as Sohail Daulatzai articulates, U.S.-based rap has increasingly focused on the “relationship between Blackness and Islam” since the mid-1980s with artists like Rakim, Lupe Fiasco, Ice Cube, and Jay Electronica.62 But whereas Daulatzai reads Malcolm X as an explicit and central figure in these Black Islam recordings, we find no similar reference for Bin Hamin / André. Instead, I would argue, Sun Ra is perhaps the more appropriate historical reference for Bin Hamin, as his turbaned, third-eye, alien life-form interpellates Bin Hamin into a similar Afro-futurist trajectory.
Third, and related to Sun Ra, Bin Hamin expresses as queer racialized gender performance, an illegible alien masculinity (to extend Mark Anthony Neal’s conception of illegible masculinities to its most futuristic possibilities). Whereas, as Francesca Royster illustrates, Sun Ra’s “eccentric queerness” partly manifests in his “campy, outlandish, and gender-bending aesthetic,” Bin Hamin’s Black queer alien masculinity is more apparent in comparison to the phallocentrism of Daddy Fat Sax.63 Moreover, in the two pictures that act as a preface to the ATLiens comic book / liner notes, André and Big Boi are photographed separately sitting in a wicker chair reminiscent of the one in the iconic 1967 photograph of Black Panther Party Minster of Defense Huey Newton (Figures 8a and 8b). Big Boi / Daddy Fat Sax is sitting upright with his daughter; and André / Bin Hamin is pictured childless, wearing what looks like a Chinese martial arts uniform, and slouching in his chair. André’s failure to sit upright, his failure to sit straight, like his partner Big Boi, works as a queer bodily comportment. Because Daddy Fat Sax’s superpower is the ability to summon animals like a black panther, then it makes sense for him to sit up straight in the Black Panther–like chair—he’s aligning himself with the Party. Bin Hamin, on the other hand, does not have a superpower that is explicitly tied to the Black Panther Party and so instead sits askew, in a pose that, when coupled with his childless anti-reproductive futurity and the Chinese martial arts sartorial style, renders and registers a queer embodied practice.
And so, fourth, and nevertheless, Bin Hamin and Daddy Fat Sax work together in the struggle for justice in ATLantis. They present readers with an Afro–(South) Asian alliance, a coalition that is literally otherworldly. It is a kind of Afro-futuristic practice of Afro–(South) Asian solidarity that bridges Alondra Nelson’s “past–future visions” with Ramzi Fawaz’s “popular fantasy” in order to “resist a variety of repressive social norms but also to facilitate the ground from which new kinds of choices about political affiliation and personal identification could be pursued.”64
ATLiens Moving On Up Out of This World
It is with the ATLiens comic book’s gesture toward Afro-Asian solidarity that I want to now turn, and think through the music video for “Elevators (Me and You),” the first single from the ATLiens album. Here we see Bin Hamin and Daddy Fat Sax lead a group of white and Black men and women through a jungle. Viewers do not realize until the end of the video that the group is headed toward, and successfully finds, the utopic space of ATLantis. What I find interesting about this video is that the first character to have a solo scene, or any scene of any significant length, is not André or Big Boi, but an Asian American male teenager reading the comic book chronicles of Bin Hamin and Daddy Fat Sax’s journey to ATLantis (Figure 9). Asian Americans are both historically and currently racialized as perpetual foreigners within the U.S. popular imaginary. Legally, such alterity is the result of a series of laws that dramatically shaped Asian American immigration patterns in the United States. These include, but are not limited to: the 1875 Page law that outlawed Chinese women from immigrating to the United States; the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act that barred Chinese men from entering the country; the period between 1913 and 1917 when Congress used the language of “aliens ineligible for citizenship” as code for Asian immigrants; the construction of the “Asiatic barred zone” as a way to geographically mark and exclude all Asians from entering the United States until 1965; and Japanese incarceration during World War II. In essence, these and other U.S. immigration laws helped create a culture whereby Asian Americans were rendered perpetual aliens. And it this racialized positionality that is represented in the “Elevators (Me and You)” music video, and that establishes a fantastical meeting between the forever alien of the Asian American and the ATLien of Big Boi and André 3000.
Importantly, temporality does a lot of work in mediating this kind of encounter between the Asian American male teenager reading a comic book in the present about a southern alien superhero duo of the future. Khyati Joshi and Jigna Desai posit that Asian Americans and the South have unique and oppositional relationships with time. The South is frequently depicted as belated and backwards while Asian Americans, as I articulated above, are often perceived to be foreign and by extension new immigrants. Such a relegation of the South to the past and the Asian American to the forever present “renders the two—the Asian American and the South—[as] allegedly mutually exclusive and incongruous.”65 As such, the ATLiens comic book and the act of the Asian American male teenager reading it makes the Asian American and the South congruous and constitutive because the future becomes a site of possibility. For the Asian American teenager, reading the ATLiens comic book helps him break free from the strictures of the present because it allows him to imagine life in the future. And for André / Bin Hamin and Big Boi / Daddy Fat Sax, living in the future resists the kinds of temporal attachments of the South and the past. That is, the “Elevators (Me and You)” music video illustrates the future as a space where cross-cultural coalitions can occur. It offers a kind of cross-racial identification that charts the resonances without flattening out the differences between African Americans and Asian Americans. And as the “model minority” category was in full swing by this time in 1996, the video refuses the pitting of Asian Americans against African Americans. It chooses instead to develop alternative temporalities that can render anew the dual alienations of Asian Americans and African Americans in the United States. The video makes room for Afro-Asian collectivities in the form of the Asian American male teenager and the characters of Bin Hamin and Daddy Fat Sax.
But this is also a kind of alliance that restricts the Asian American male teenager from solely using the scripts of Black heteropatriarchy to construct alternative identities, temporalities, and worlds. This character is privy to the hetero-masculinist Daddy Fat Sax as well as the queer male character in Bin Hamin, the latter of whom the teenager seems to identify as the scene in the music video and the panel in the comic book he’s reading immediately segues into a scene with Bin Hamin. Which is to say, the video gives the Asian American male teenaged reader the space to develop cross-cultural and cross-racial queer imaginings, and imaginings that productively move beyond the confines of the nation-state as well as the world. To quote Fawaz again, the Asian American male teenager reading the ATLiens comic is a subject who is “witnessing impossible phenomena or experiencing lifeworlds that have no everyday corollary.”66 As a music video, then, “Elevators (Me and You)” is a demand to imagine otherwise and to imagine the otherworldly, and is to do so in ways that are nonnormative and coalitional. It is to pursue and produce the other side of things.
And yet, this is not an entirely emancipatory vision within the world of ATLantis. Women are largely marginalized, and despite Bin Hamin’s queer masculinity, his and André’s personae on the album (and in the comic book) are still expressed through patriarchal narratives and practices. In the album’s last single and music video, titled “Jazzy Belle,” André 3000 engages in sex-negative slut-shaming of men and women in order to espouse a politics of romanticism centered on respectability. Jazzy Belle is a play on words that blends the African American female stereotype of the hypersexual jezebel with the southern womanhood archetype of the belle. Jazzy Belle, then, for OutKast is a southern form of a jezebel. In the song and music video for “Jazzy Belle,” Black women are the props that work to further center André and Big Boi. In various scenes, André 3000 is in what looks like a club, perhaps even a strip club, with Big Boi, who is giddily flirting with and cruising for women. André looks disgusted at the display of sex work, and looks down on the women. For André / Bin Hamin, these female characters are perpetuating stereotypes of Black women as always already excessive. And so André’s position on “Jazzy Belle” illustrates the need to remain attuned to how queer Afro–South Asian aesthetics are deployed, and the ways they might be liberatory for some and limiting to others along the lines of gender.
Soon after the release of “Jazzy Belle,” André stopped wearing and performing in turbans and moved to other sartorial forms of expression. Furthermore, as Vince Robinson explained to me, while there were plans to develop a real-life OutKast/ATLiens comic book, LaFace Records quickly scrapped that idea. And with that, Bin Hamin and Daddy Fat Sax (at least in the new Earth iteration) were no more. But five years after the release of ATLiens, a Black woman rapper from the South—Virginia to be specific—would record and release a song that would continue the legacies of Afro-futurism of OutKast, of Rick James’s freak, of the queer Afro–South Asian thematics of both James and OutKast, but would also and simultaneously speak to the elided sexual politics of and for Black women. The Black woman rapper was Melissa “Missy” Elliott, and the song was “Get Ur Freak On.”
When the Freak Meets the ATLien, She Get Her Freak On
When Elliott and her production partner Timothy “Timbaland” Mosley went to the studio in early 2001 to record Elliott’s upcoming third album, they had one plan in mind: “Pretend nobody else in the world existed.”67 The result was an album, Miss E . . . So Addictive, that did not sound like anything else in the world, and that did not sound like anything else of this world. For this record, Timbaland and Elliott continued their well-known history of creating futuristic-sounding music—unusual drum patterns, robotic sound effects, and synths—and added instruments and voices from Asia and Africa. And when it came time to select the first single, and therefore the representative for Miss E . . . So Addictive, Elliott chose “Get Ur Freak On,” and with it, released a song that musically and visually reimagined the queer possibilities and potentiality of and for Afro–South Asian collaborative sounds, of and for the other side of things.
To do so, Elliott revisits the figure of the freak. Like Lisa Lowe’s use of the “coolie” figure in rendering legible the “intimacies of four continents”—the imbricated processes of settler colonialism, slavery and the transatlantic slave trade, and imported indentured labor that were central to the formation of European liberalism and that tied the geographically disparate Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas—the figure of the freak similarly (but in pointedly different ways) binds people of color, queer people, and people with disabilities whose marginalization as nonnormative subjects—as freaks—prop(ped) up the systems and violences of white supremacy, heteronormativity, and able-bodiedness. As critical race, feminist, queer, and disability studies scholars compellingly articulate, an array of scientific, medical, and colonial institutions used black bodies and other bodies of color (e.g., Sarah Baartman / Hottentot Venus), bodies with disabilities (e.g., Chang and Eng, the conjoined twins), nonnormative gendered and sexed bodies (e.g., Peter Sewally / Mary Jones), and bodies that sit at the intersections of all three marginalizations, as primitive and monstrous and proof that such communities were “foreign and biologically degenerate curiosities, if not outliers, in the mythic nation.”68 “Get Ur Freak On” signals and makes intimate these histories. By intimate, I again draw on Lowe to express an intimacy in the formal (what she calls “dominant”) sense of sex(uality) and reproduction as well as what Lowe calls “emergent” and “residual” definitions of intimacy that treat them as “close connexion” or “the implied but less visible forms of alliance, affinity, and society among variously colonized peoples beyond the metropolitan national center.”69
Visually, we see such intimacies take shape in the “Get Ur Freak On” music video, which is set in a dark, underground, futuristic lair removed from white people. This underground space solely comprises Black people, Asian people, people of color with disabilities (via norms of mobility), butch women of color, gender nonconforming people of color, and figures (aliens?) whose relationship to the human is (purposely) unclear—figures for whom L. H. Stallings deems as the hallmarks of the freak: “the otherly human, inhuman, or nonhuman” (Figures 10a and 10b).70 Within this underground, the freaks live and collectively and sexually dance with one another. This point of collective erotic dance is important because not only was “the freak” a 1970s funk dance, but also, following Stallings, Black culture has long linked Black dance and the Black orgy.71 It is thus against this historical backdrop that “Get Ur Freak On” directs viewers to bear witness to the erotic attachments of the freak and the ways in which such an underground space is a site by and for freaks, that houses and affirms freaks, that marries the otherworldly with the otherly human, and that is a space for freak fucking and other forms of collective freak action.
Musically, “Get Ur Freak On” sounds such collective action, especially as it concerns Afro–South Asian relationalities. The track opens with a Japanese lyrical phrase—“korekara min-na-de mecha-kucha odotte sawago sawago”—and then proceeds to an interplay between an Indian stringed tumbi, tabla drum patterns, and Afro-diasporic syncopated rhythms. Such an Afro–South Asian sonic interplay anchors “Get Ur Freak On,” and becomes the foundation from and through which Elliott raps. It is with this Afro–South Asian collaboration of sounds that Elliott deploys a stuttering rhyme of “getcha getcha getcha getcha getcha freak on” that signals solidarity with disabilities. And it is with this Afro–South Asian musical interplay that Elliott launches her chorus to “go get your freak on.” Similar to the slippage between “funk” and “fuck” that I discussed above, “freak” is also a euphemism for “fuck,” and as such to “get your freak on” is to also “get your fuck on,” an erotic call to which the characters in the video adhere and allude. And in this way, to “get your freak on” can also be understood to mean to produce more freaks through fucking. It is a call, an anthem of sorts, to reproduce, expand, and build a community of queer of color and disabled freaks. I, of course, use anthem here deliberately to draw parallels between Rick James’s “Freak Flag” and Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On.” Indeed, we might read Elliott’s call to “get your freak on” as a twenty-first-century extension and iteration of James’s call to rally around the freak (flag). It is through and with the freak that a coalition can be built, and as such “Get Ur Freak On” insists on a development of more underground—more southern—spaces through which to support and reproduce a queer Afro–South Asian politics of the freak.
Unlike The Flag, however, “Get Ur Freak On” became a commercial and critical success. Missy Elliott scored her first Grammy award with the song, and it was also a top-ten Billboard hit. The popularity and praise of “Get Ur Freak On” began to influence the music market, and rap and R&B labels started to release music that featured South Asian instrumentation and artists. These records were, however, released amid the growing war on terror (something that Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On” missed by a few months) and the surveillance, detention, and disappearance of Muslim and Middle Eastern peoples (and those assumed to be Muslim / Middle Eastern, including turbaned people). And with that, the stakes of drawing on South Asian culture became an even more complicated field. In the following two chapters, I address this complexity, and how Black artists developed new approaches to the other side of things that created alternative expressions of Afro–South Asian collaborative sounds.