“Just make sure you rise above all this madness out here. Mind elevation, man.”
Taken out of context, this quote may contain, to its reader, no pertinent or tangible meaning. And so I ask, if you will, to picture this scene. It is a blistery New York City day and a narrator explains that we are looking at the Rosedale Projects in Queens. The camera zeros in on a figure stepping out of a parked white Mercedes. It is Sincere, the narrator and one of two main characters in Hype Williams’s 1998 film, Belly, a scene from which I am describing. He approaches a nearby park bench — the trees are bare and the landscape is stark, and yet there is something distinctly beautiful about this scene. There is a general blue tint to the visuals, a feature that adds a unique glow to the melanated skin of the two individuals to occupy this particular scene. As Sincere walks toward the park bench he speaks of Shawty, the twelve-year-old boy sitting on it:
“Shawty was like twelve going on twenty. A real loser type nigga. No hope for the future, you know. To him, it just wasn’t realistic that he was ever gonna make it out the projects. And he was right.”
Sincere sits down to talk to Shawty, and Shawty tells Sincere, with a raspy voice and jaded vernacular, about his latest drug-dealing escapades — he had recently been robbed and had to shoot a man. He, then, reaches into his pants and pulls out a gun that glistens metallic blue in the tinted light and goes on about how, from now on, he’s going to “hold it down”. Shawty pulls out and lights a marijuana blunt which he passes to Sincere, who proceeds to warn the preteen not to let people steer him wrong because “it’s a war out here” . Sincere, then, stands and hands Shawty a chain that gleams brilliantly under the blue hue. Sincere tells the boy, “That’s you. That’s from me, baby. Just make sure you rise above all this madness out here. Mind elevation, man. Fuck that petty shit. You don’t need it. For real.” Sincere walks away.
Mind elevation, the blue tint, the black skin, the gold chain — it’s all connected by one single element of visual culture, hip-hop visual culture to be specific. That element is ‘shine’.
Krista Thompson’s “The Sound of Light: Reflections on Art History in the Visual Culture of Hip-Hop” defines shine as, “the visual production of light reflecting off polished surfaces or passing through translucent glass, [a technique used by artists] to emphasize the materiality and haptic quality of objects.” She later places a hip-hop filter on her definition by explaining the role of ‘shine’ in representations of blackness, or more broadly, race: “bringing the surface of the black body and blinding visibility in hip-hop into focus sheds light historically on how prevailing scopic regimes configured notions of race, both the supposed transparency of whiteness and the glare of blackness.” Shine, a tool utilized frequently by Hype Williams whose work mainly resides in the realm of the music video, is a reclamation of representations of blackness by black individuals. It takes into account exaggerated, caustic, hypersexualized, criminalized, etc. representations of blackness which often dominate the mainstream at the hands of white paternalism; and it reclaims those depictions and transforms them into a celebration of blackness. Hype Williams’s Belly epitomizes this concept visually with its use of lighting, music video-esque camera work (combined with an amazing soundtrack), and hyperreal imagery. While it is hard, in writing, to describe the ways in which a concept is visually achieved, this article will seek to explain the theoretical pillars behind ‘shine’, as it pertains to Belly, which includes gaze, the hyperreal, Afrofuturism, and surfacism.
But first — how Hype Williams primes his audience for his hyperreality by allowing them to buy into the real: Belly’s plot, in short, revolves around Tommy “Buns” Bundy and his friend Sincere — two gangbangers who grow to make a considerable amount of cash by selling dope and pulling off armed robberies. They make it big but, as these movies tend to go, they become too big for their britches and start to spiral. Vyce Victus’s article, “In Defense of Belly”, makes a good point in stating that, “On paper, Belly is just another boilerplate crime drama about how a life of street crime can only end one way, where eventually even the mightiest must fall,” but makes an even better point in stating that Williams’s casting of the film is a key an underappreciated contributor to the film’s brilliance:
“The genius in Belly’s casting is that the two leads, hip-hop legends Nasir ‘Nas’ Jones [playing Sincere] and Earl ‘DMX’ Simmons [playing Tommy], are essentially just playing themselves. While this might seem lazy on the surface, it’s important to understand that the well-established musical personas of each artist — the hard yet wise street sage Nas and the unpredictably outspoken rough rider that is DMX — allow the audience to buy into their respective characters as the calm and calculated Sincere and the volatile live wire Bundy almost immediately.”
Williams’s deliberate grounding of his viewers’ experience in reality is important in understanding the nuance behind the hyperreal atmosphere of the film’s visuality.
Now, let’s tackle the concept of the gaze. Sturken & Cartwright’s Practices of Looking defines the gaze as “the relationship of looking in which the subject is caught up in dynamics of desire through trajectories of looking and being looked at among objects and other people.” The Facts of Whiteness’s article, “The Black Gaze” details the ways in which author and black feminist bell hooks applies this ideology to the fact of blackness and society’s gaze of such a fact: “hooks directs attention to the way black people are represented and reflected in the media generally and how these representations situate and position them. She also demonstrates how the black gaze, so often controlled within white supremacist discourse, equally interrogates whiteness.” This idea of the interrogation of whiteness will make a comeback with the discussion of mental colonization to follow. hooks bolsters this point in her essay, “Representing Whiteness in the Black Imagination,” where she speaks on the white supremacist power trip on the black gaze, stating that, “In white supremacist society, white people can ‘safely’ imagine that they are invisible to black people since the power they have historically asserted, and even now collectively assert over black people, accorded them the right to control the black gaze.” The author is suggesting here that a white supremacist society totes with it the assumed right to black representation and spectatorship — a notion that will almost unfailingly negatively impact the psyches of a marginalized population. Post Colonial critic Giyati Spivak offers a summation of the issue at hand: “What we are asking for is that hegemonic discourses and the holders of hegemonic discourses should dehegemonize their position and themselves learn how to occupy the subject position of the other.” In the face of a white paternalistic society, this is a call for reclamation — a reclamation of representations and celebratory spectatorship in the black community.
These dominant and controlling “hegemonic discourses” Spivak mentions are active tools in the ongoing psychological process of mental colonization. Mental colonization is a concept that, in my own words, explores the psychological effects on the African diaspora of white supremacist colonialism, slavery, and systematic oppression throughout history and the reinforcing of dominant hegemonies that make it okay. Psychiatrist and intellectual Frantz Fanon was a pioneer in the study of mental colonization and offers a commentary on the idea in his essay, “The Fact of Blackness”:
“I move slowly in the world, accustomed now to seek no longer for upheaval. I progress by crawling. And already I am being dissected under white eyes, the only real eyes. I am fixed. Having adjusted their microtomes, they objectively cut away slices of my reality. I am laid bare. I feel. I see in those white faces that it is not a new man who has come in, but a new kind of man, a new genius. Why, its a negro!”
He speaks on the stagnant and fixed nature of the colonized black mind — the subject of spectatorship and never the spectator. This mindstate has detrimental effects on the psyche as these hegemonies grow to breed self-hate within the negro: “As I begin to recognize that the Negro is the symbol of sin, I catch myself hating the Negro. But then I recognize that I am a Negro.” Fanon follows this commentary with crossroads between two possible solutions to this issue, each with very different outcomes: “There are two ways out of this conflict. Either I ask others to pay no attention to my skin, or else I want them to be aware of it.” Seeing as the first option is nearly impossible, Belly proudly takes the route of the latter option. By strategizing cinematic techniques to create a hyper-awareness of blackness, Hype Williams seeks to reclaim the black gaze in a “for us, by us” manner.
Next, I will the explore notions of the hyperreal and its intersections with the Afrofuturism in the context of the black gaze and, more specifically, Belly. The University of Chicago ‘Theories of Media’ website defines the hyperreal as “a condition in which the distinction between the ‘real’ and the imaginary implodes.” The hyperreal is key in understanding Jean Baudrillard’s theory of the simulacrum, or the simulation that has become reality. Professor Thomas DeFrantz, in his article “Believe the Hype: Hype Williams and Afrofuturist Filmmaking”, speaks on the elements of Hype Williams’s Belly thatc create a hyperreal representation of blackness as its presented in this specific plot:
“With Belly , Williams offers an extended meditation on how movement, musicality, and outrageous style can create a visual experience that extends possibilities for the medium of filmmaking toward the evocation of black visual intonation. In the stunning first seven minutes of the film, the audience encounters extreme saturations of color, familiar from the videos Williams previously directed; sensuous and meticulous art direction that coordinates costume and scenery in complementary palettes; and, of course, the tactile accordance of musical soundscape and rhythmic editing to produce a seamless, Afrofuturistic whole.”
The color saturations, the costumes, the interior decor of the film’s sets, the blue-tinted lighting — all to the tune of a masterfully put-together soundtrack, one that complements every situation, adding rhythm to every movement and endeavor the film presents. This is the hyperreal that Hype Williams creates for the sake of an “Afrofuturistic whole”. DeFrantz, in this article, also offers his take on the theoretical makeup of Afrofuturism, deeming it, “a postindustrial aesthetic project to propel black Americans toward a digital future where musical performance and technology collide, suture, and produce an impossible but undeniable synergy.” However, as the Afrofuturism aesthetic can show itself in multiple modes of media, I would switch out the word “musical” with the more general “artistic”. It is a movement pioneered by artists like Sun-Ra, who combined ancient Egyptian symbolism with notions of refuge in space; Lee “Scratch” Perry, a sound engineer turned musician who quite literally technologized black music in America; and Parliament Funkadelic, whose synthesized sound and eccentric style laid the P-Funk mold, which later artists like André 3000 and Janelle Monae would adopt. DeFrantz proposes that, by adopting said characteristics of the hyperreal, Belly creates a sort of Afrofuturistic refuge and radicalism, two sentiments that would be necessary in the reclaiming of the black gaze: “The distinctive aesthetic that Williams has achieved spawned a visual style widely imitated among video artists outside of hip hop, and we must note how its radical rhythmicity has placed black visual intonations center screen in widespread manifestations of global popular culture.”
It is on this note of radicalism and reclamation that I would like direct our attention back to Thompson’s article, Frantz Fanon, and the literal history of ‘shine’. Returning to Krista Thompson’s “The Sound of Light: Reflections on Art History in the Visual Culture of Hip-Hop”, she states, in the sectioned titled “Shine and the Fact of Blackness”, that, “slave traders actually greased the bodies of enslaved Africans, using sweet oil or greasy water ‘to make them shine,’ as freedman Moses Roper described it, ‘before they [were] put up to sell.’” This historical context casts a rather dark and dimming effect on the power of ‘shine’, as its literal history is an ugly one. Thompson goes on to say:
“In this way, the reflective surface of the black body — what might be characterized as the visual production of the slave sublime — served to blind buyers, if you will, to the slave’s humanity. This treatment of their skin sealed them, as Fanon so succinctly described, ‘in crushing objecthood’.”
While this history is dark, Hype Williams, following the theme of Afrofuturism, shows through his blackness-highlighting visual media, that the future is bright. Hype Williams’s re-appropriation of ‘shine’ — a re-appropriation that recognizes its history in “the commodification of blackness” and transforms its purpose into one of recognition and celebration — is an act of radicalism. As Thompson put it, “bringing the surface of the black body and blinding visibility in hip-hop into focus sheds light historically on how prevailing scopic regimes configured notions of race, both the supposed transparency of whiteness and the glare of blackness.”
And now, a final word on shine with the mention of ‘bling’ and surfacism. By now, you understand what I mean by , “he recognizing power of ‘shine’”. ‘Shine’, as defined by this essay, is the radical reclamation of black representation and spectatorship, a critical re-appropriation of the use of ‘shine’ during slavery for the purpose of the commodification of the black body, and a multimedia aesthetic and idea that contributes to movements like Afrofuturism. That’s established. However, there is one last detail of which one must be aware in his/her study of ‘shine’, and that detail is surfacism. Circling back to the scene mentioned in this essay’s intro, I mentioned two metal objects, both of which glisten in the blue lighting: a gun and a gold chain. One is a weapon and one is considered ‘bling’, yet their materialities both react the same to the cinematic nuances of the scene. Returning, again, to Thompson, according to her article, “‘Surfacism’ refers here to an emphasis on the materiality or visual texture of objects within or of the picture plane, ‘the elaborately wrought and highly finished representations of objects that are themselves elaborately wrought and highly finished.’”. The use of ‘bling’ and, in this case, a metallic pistol, only compounds upon the overarching commentary on the commodification of blackness:
“Bling’s emblazoned invisibility recalls much of the literature on what Fanon referred to as the ‘fact of blackness,’ the way the overdetermined surface of the black skin prevented many from seeing the humanity and subjectivity of persons of African descent. In other words, inherent in hip-hop’s surface visual economy is a critical reflection on how observing the surface appearance of things has been an obstacle to certain ways of seeing, a fact of visibility’s limits.”
‘Bling’ and, more deeply, surfacism offer a commentary both on the commodification of the black body and the societally perceived one-dimensionality of the African American experience. Similarly to shine, it makes a statement about surface value — the radicalism lies in the fact that it is an open letter to the white paternalist mindstate, addressing the glare and beauty of the ‘blinged’ out object or individual and, at the same time, stating, “I am way more than what you see right now.”