My discussant comments at the book launch for Jooyoung Lee’s BLOWIN UP: Rap Dreams in South Central (University of Chicago, 2016)
On Thursday, December 1, 2016 at the Munk School of Global Affairs, we convened to celebrate the achievements of our colleague Jooyoung Lee, Assistant Professor of Sociology, and 2016–7 Bissell-Heyd Research Associate at the University of Toronto’s Centre for the Study of the United States.
I want to thank Jooyoung for asking me to help celebrate the launch of his book, BLOWIN UP. Jooyoung has actually never heard this story before, but back in 2009, I was an early-stage graduate student in Sociology at UC Santa Barbara. The title of a just-published article in Social Psychology Quarterly caught my eye — “Facework in the Rap Cipher” and as I began to read it — I discovered that there was a guy named Jooyoung Lee, a sociology graduate student just down the road, a couple years ahead of me at UCLA, who was studying the scene that was producing the hip hop I was listening to — and that these artists, who would sometimes come up to perform small shows in Santa Barbara, and who my husband Clayton and I were beginning to befriend as fans — were some of the same folks who were Jooyoung’s generous, compelling interlocutors in BLOWIN UP. This is just a long way of disclosing to you that not only have I been a fan of the genre and the scene that is at the heart of Jooyoung’s book, but that also Jooyoung was the first young sociologist who I was ever really aware of, outside my own institution, and the first young sociologist whose career I followed in earnest. So it’s a happy, full circle moment to be asked to discuss BLOWIN UP as his faculty colleague– one national border and almost a decade later.
Our colleague Dan Silver joked to me yesterday that this all means that I’ve been a fan of Jooyoung before HE blew up in the field of Sociology and that maybe after tonight, his official book launch, I can claim a true-school fan identity as one of the first adopters who liked his early stuff, before Jooyoung sold out and became famous. Of course and in all seriousness — BLOWIN UP is a rigorous and urgent text, and it cements my interest in Jooyoung’s research program and his chops as a researcher. I’m going to use the time I have to describe just five of the reasons why I read the book as a one-of-a-kind intervention in the academic discipline of Sociology.
First and foremost, by paying fine-grade attention to time, Jooyoung is able to deftly use the richly detailed everyday lives of his interlocutors to add new dimensions to pathbreaking, major contemporary classics in sociology and American studies. It is EPIC how many theoretical traditions, across so many subfields, he navigates: Randall Collins’ interaction rituals, Rob Sampson and John Laub on turning points in the life course, Elijah Anderson’s code of the street, Robin DG Kelley on play labor, Jooyoung’s own concept of “stepping stones” as a form of psycho-social forecasting, and of course of course of course his expert use of the symbolic interactionist tradition. But it is Jooyoung’s central concept of existential urgency that is among the most creative, and analytically powerful theoretical openings that I can think of to emerge out of our generational cohort in sociology. His attention to how heightened time sensitivity shapes life and career goals forces us to grapple with how exactly dimensions of inequality cut differently and more severely across certain occupations, vocations, and livelihoods. Without ever losing site of foundational sociological theories of the life course and identity development, Jooyoung shows how in particular, for the interlocutors in his study, who must make constrained choices from environments where they are dodging legal and extralegal violence and navigating low wage, racialized service work — all for a precarious future where nothing is guaranteed and everything can be lost in a split second-- stakes is high -- much, much higher for the young artists whose lives he follows.
As a fan of the generation of artists who came up through Project Blowed and later, Hellfyre Club and Low End Theory and the broader Los Angeles scene, BLOWIN UP coaxed me into going back to these artists’ more recent tracks to find traces of existential urgency. Suffice to say, Jooyoung nailed it. In these later recordings — which map onto the end of Part II of BLOWING UP — and if you’re a nerd for this stuff, check out Open Mike’s “I Rock” (2010) or Intuition and Equalibrum’s self-titled album (2014) — there’s lyrical and sonic evidence of existential urgency as an actual register of sound in the music, as these men are staring down the barrel of the end of their rapping careers. Existential urgency has so much potential analytic purchase for so many subfields in sociology– and shout out here to my husband and our colleague in Sociology at UofT, Clayton Childress, for pointing out to me that the emotional dimensions that underpin Jooyoung’s concept of “existential urgency” are something sorely needed in the literature on careers, creativity, and work and that some incredible cross-pollination could happen, according to Clayton, by marrying existential urgency to, for example, Katherine Giuffre’s work on mobility in artistic careers as not ladders but as quickly shifting piles of sand. BLOWIN UP needs to be read specifically by folks in sociology of culture, economic sociology, networks, and work and occupations.
Secondly, Jooyoung’s methodological attention to change over time by following the same people over time provides an important model for how to conduct sociological research and how to craft a scholarly career. He writes: “if I’d kept my eyes on my original interests -- I would have missed out on the unexpected twists and turns that eventually shaped this book. In academia there is a lot of pressure to publish or perish, not unlike the hurry for rappers to blow up. But our rush to gather data and publish quickly can blind us to the unexpected ways people change over time. Spending extended time with the same people enriches our thinking and our writing.” Through his method of charting change over time, we the readers, watch rappers in the scene transition — sometimes awkwardly, or painfully — from being held up as role models to being held at an arm’s length as cautionary tales. We as readers, also chart Jooyoung’s own change over time in his identity as an ethnographer, videographer, and researcher — when he generously reveals times when he fell off, when he got it wrong, or was called out — and how he came to make the decisions that he did: in particular in Chapter 8, when he bares his own trepidations over whether or not he could successfully convey Flawliss’ humanity out of an experience of extremely violent and heartbreaking dehumanization. Jooyoung is a masterful methods teacher throughout the book.
Thirdly, Jooyoung’s fidelity to the sociology of emotions allows him to document in unflinching detail a range of emotional ups and downs — from wack MCs crashing and burning at Project Blowed to where as the reader you are literally cringing and want to cover your face in your hands and just pretend like this is NOT happening; or to elicit incredibly profound reflections from interlocutors like Open Mike Eagle on the neural circuitry that links the physical and emotional toll of battle rapping –and the incredible amounts of emotional and mental discipline that battling and rapping more generally demand — or to simply convey the joy and camaraderie and effervescence of music. Like when the extremely verbal VerBS describes to Jooyoung how he finds himself ritualistically rhyming sweet nothings to his girlfriend in a two-person cipher that she didn’t ask to be a part of when they’re home alone in an intimate moment at night. This book contains many emotions, and joy is NOT often one we are used to finding in Sociology, and certainly not among the urban ethnographies that Jooyoung’s book will undoubtedly be placed alongside. This is a huge achievement of his work. He writes on page 33 “When academics write about hip hop they often neglect the immediate pleasures and visceral reactions that hip hop elicits among hip hop heads.” He turns us as scholars away from analyzing hip hop as ONLY a political instrument — he reminds us that hip hop is fun, rewarding, an expression of ecstasy and fantasy as well as distress and suffering. Indeed, what Jooyoung is doing — to turn our scholarly attention to positivity and fun without losing sight of human pain — is political itself.
Fourthly, Jooyoung captures Project Blowed and Los Angeles as a unique “scene” with its own rules and rituals. In so doing, he captures a moment in time and a sense of place that, for me, opens up SO MANY new questions in 2016 about the after-effects of technology and urban change and creative industries for the scene. If you Google them today, you’ll find that a small but not insignificant proportion of the interlocutors from Jooyoung’s narrative are now men in their 30s navigating different but nonetheless still-precarious paths through arts and entertainment: as performers and personalities in the alt-comedy and podcasting worlds; as essayists for LA Weekly; or appearing as themselves in cameos in commercials for corporations like Smirnoff Vodka set in now-more-fully-gentrified downtown LA. So if no one from BLOWIN UP blew up in the more traditional sense Jooyoung describes, then who did? From our vantage point in 2016, we can trace a new cohort of inheritors to the tough path forged by Aceyalone, Freestyle Fellowship, and others from the Good Life and Project Blowed. But it’s a new cohort that never actually paid dues by rapping on the corner with Blowed or by claiming them directly as their predecessors. It’s the next artistic micro-generation of multiracial millennials who uploaded their music directly to Soundcloud and YouTube– who were born in or moved to Los Angeles — Odd Future, The Internet, Frank Ocean, Anderson Paak, Vince Staples, and of course Kendrick Lamar who have blown up into major label deals, fashion spreads in GQ, and critical acclaim. It leads me to wonder what do first and second generation Blowdeians think about the young heads who essentially used the Internet and social media to “cut in line” in the alternative rap scene? By choosing Leimert Park as a fieldsite, I also want to note how Jooyoung ended up anticipating the premiere of the first season of Issa Rae’s critically acclaimed HBO show Insecure, and its window into existential urgency among black Angelinos in their late 20s — which takes as its shooting location and guiding aesthetic quite literally the same Leimert Park where Jooyoung was video taping rap battles.
Fifth and finally, BLOWIN UP is the most comprehensible “first book” by a sociologist you will read maybe ever. Jooyoung isn’t hiding behind impenetrable jargon as a protective shield or as a way to puff himself up and prove he’s down with Sociology or academia. His text is open, it is inviting, it encourages an iterative conversation precisely because it’s not participating in narrow academic gamesmanship — the ideas are there for everyone to read, synthesize, analyze, critique. In short, he shows the same control, discipline and respect for language throughout the manuscript as the artists whose dignity is captured so astutely in this book.