Sounding Soul (Food): Blackness, Food, and Place in Southern Hip-Hop
This work was presented at the 2019 MLA panel titled "Southern Foodways: Textual Transactions and Regional Food Writing"
I. Introduction: Place/Food/Music as Cultural Objects
Black artists from the U.S. South have virtually always perceived food as a particular marker of southern authenticity and blackness. From Ellison’s Invisible Man being comforted by the sweetness of a yam on the streets of Harlem (“I yam what I yam!”) to Kevin Young’s more contemporary “Ode to Grits” (“Like sorrow, or pigsfeet, or God, your name holds multitudes”), a bowl of grits or a plate of greasy greens have provided black artists with a symbol of comfort, strength, and identity. According to African American foodways scholar Doris Witt, there has not been a robust engagement of scholarship treating the relationship between black music and food.[i]This study attempts to answer Witt’s call for connecting soul food with black music by interrogating the possibility of reading soul food through the lens of place. Looking specifically at Goodie Mob’s Soul Food (Atlanta), Bun B’s Instagram series “#Trillmealz” (Houston), and Lil’ Wayne’s Carter II(New Orleans) this study will explore how blackness, soul food, and the city co-create identity on a discursive plane in Southern hip-hop.
Since Emancipation and the later Great Migration, the city has been a significant space for African-Americans. The city signifies community, racial progress, wealth, and access to resources that were either unavailable or denied to black folks living in rural areas. The city is equally significant for black Americans because it is a site of change in foodways specifically. Urban migration drastically shifted black American food traditions since it cut off or reduced the ability to forage, hunt, grow crops in personal gardens, keep chickens in the yard—all of which were the strategies that formed black culinary traditions in the era of slavery and in rural areas after Emancipation.[ii]
Within a more general spatial turn in social theory, this presentation reads place and the city as a discursive event or object itself. Place is an object that is a constituent element of identity, one that is used by subjects in order to form themselves in conjunction with or contradistinction to it. Following Edward Soja and Yi-Fu Tuan, I affirm that spaces of representation define their own spatial frame—they are meaningless without their determined frame—and thus they do not just affect or influence space, but define it.[iii]Put very simply, I am reading place as an object manipulated by subjects in identity formation
Hip-hop comes to this discussion of space and representation by being both a mode of representation that defines the spatial frame and also a form that is uniquely married to urban space particularly. Murray Forman, in his masterful treatment of space and hip-hop in The Hood Comes First describes the city’s role in hip-hop thusly, “Rap music takes the city and its multiple spaces as the foundation of its cultural production….the city is an audible presence, explicitly cited and sonically sampled in the reproduction of the aural textures of the urban environment.”[iv]Hip-hop removed the city and its space from its traditional understanding as geographical space and treated space and the city as discursive objects, ones which interact with and create one another.
As is the case with space, food also can serve as a cultural object that operates on a discursive plane. While music has traditionally been treated as an identity-forming cultural object, food and cities have been privy to other types of analyses, particularly those in the Social Sciences. Within soul food traditions, space constitutes a specific cultural diasporic identity, one rooted in slavery and marked by cultural pride in the face of political and social oppression.
Perhaps the most easily interpretable example of soul food as discursive boundary is how black women used soul food to create a space of nurturing and comfort within a greater societal forum that attempted to remove all forms of comfort and belonging. While all of the artists in this study are male, it is significant to mention that soul food’s creation, development, preparation, and symbolic relevance originates in the souls of black women. There is no proper study of soul food without affirming the creation of its cultural significance by black women. In other words, soul food is not simply a cuisine, as soul food engenders identity formation itself, and these artists’ elision of black women’s contributions to their formulations of soul food in the city is a specter that rests above this analysis. There is no Soul Food (album), Trill Mealz, or Lil’ Wayne’s New Orleans, without black women.
With both the city and food operating in conjunction with music as makers of identity, the process of critiquing how these identity markers interact shifts from critical moves such as interrogating how music reflects place or how place can be tasted through food to reading these elements as intersecting on a discursive plane of identity formation. They work dialogically within identity formation to help form the totality of identity for the subject, and they operate as cultural objects that are manipulated together to create cultural boundaries of belonging and exclusion. This study will now turn to showing how this discursive plane manifests itself in Southern hip-hop, and how food, the city, and music co-constitute identity in different Southern urban centers.
II. Atlanta: The City of Soul Food
Goodie Mob’s debut album Soul Food (1995) marries soul food’s universal signification as belonging, comfort, and nurturing for black Americans with the urban space of Atlanta and its culinary particularities. In terms of hip-hop history, Soul Food can be interpreted as a pioneering venture, one that follows through with Andre 3000’s infamous dictum “The South has got something to say!”[v] Soul Food represents one of the first commercially and critically successful hip-hop albums that come from and identify with a Southern city, following OutKast’s hit debut Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik(1994), and certainly the first to truly attempt to capture the sounds of a Southern city.
The city’s geography deeply impacts the album’s sound. Situated in a geo-political crossroads, Atlanta’s hip-hop scene and its foodways both have access to a wide variety of resources and cultures that pass through the city. Organized Noize, the production team of both OutKast and Goodie Mob, was thus able to pull from Houston’s screw music, Miami’s heavy-bottomed bass music, and its access to northern hip-hop that travelled southward to create its own pastiche of a style that was unique to the city and became symbolic of it. The city’s geo-political organization is not just an influence on Soul Food; it is actively a part of the album itself. In fact, “Guess Who” and “The Day After” are the only full-length tracks on the album that do not explicitly mention Atlanta or a space within Atlanta as a point of reference.[vi] Atlanta is imbricated into the narrative of the album and serves as a discursive field by which Goodie Mob positions their identity as artists and black citizens of the city.
Food, specifically the titular idea of soul food, likewise figures into Goodie Mob’s formation of identity in the album. Throughout the track “Soul Food,” the MCs list a wide variety of foods that they consume including “soul food chicken, rice, and gravy,” tropical punch, hot grits, waffles, “hot wings, bleu cheese, and celery,” fried chicken, mac and cheese, collard greens, and hush puppies.
Most of these foods directly represent a national cuisine of soul food, particularly: fried chicken, collard greens, mac and cheese, and hush puppies; hot wings—particularly lemon pepper wings—signify Atlanta’s take on soul food specifically.
However, the locations of soul food joints throughout the city are what directly connects the food to the place; they name Mo-Joe’s, 1365 Wichita Dr. [the site of their church], Bankhead Seafood, and JJ’s Rib Shack specifically as sites of soul food consumption. These soul food joints are imbricated into the lives of the citizens of Atlanta, particularly those in Goodie Mob’s community: “Looking to be one of them days / When Momma ain’t cooking / Everybody’s out hunting with the family / Looking for a little soul food.” Soul food replaces the comfort of home cooking, and thus soul food chefs take the place of mothers and soul food restaurants replace the home on these days that Goodie Mob is describing. Soul food becomes a metaphorical home away from home, and it is indicative of a place that is intimately connected to the identity of those consuming it.
Goodie Mob turns to metaphorically situate their music itself as soul food, albeit for the mind. CeeLo Green, one of Goodie Mob’s emcees, raps, “Got some soul on blast in the cassette / Food for my brain / I haven’t stopped learning yet.” Like the nourishment of soul food when there is none in the homestead, Goodie Mob’s music provides mental nourishment when the city’s inhabitants may be exasperated by the tensions and burdens of living in a black urban environment that is wracked by poverty and crime, which is evident through the other narratives in the album. Goodie Mob situates their music as a “healthy” alternative to the “fast food” soul-less commoditization of music. Their music, unlike fast food music, is for their city, their community, and its collective soul.
III. Houston's Trill Foodways
#TrillMealz is a series of one-minute cooking tutorials that Bernard “Bun B” Freeman (one half of Houston’s hip-hop group UGK) posts on Instagram and YouTube approximately once a month. The videos are a bricolage of short vignettes in which Bun B briefly narrates the steps to creating a dish while his wife, Queenie, and sometimes his daughter, Tay, actually cook it, which matches with the idea of black women as the progenitors and keepers of the foods that these artists enjoy. These videos are significant to this study of soul food and Southern hip-hop not just because of the overt foodways connection and locale, but also because of Bun B’s role in creating Southern hip-hop and his legacy in the Dirty South.
Houston’s hip-hop scene has long been associated with its geography. Houston is one of the most sprawling major cities in the United States—the fourth largest in terms of property, and its lack of zoning laws creates an interesting patchwork of different types of businesses and homes together. The sound of UGK’s “It’s Too Hard To Swallow” from their debut album of the same name (1992) is a perfect demonstration of this type of geography manifested in music.
The beat is slow, sprawling, and the rhymes themselves are equally paced. It sounds as if one is driving through the wards of Houston, watching the disparate types of properties pass by while trying to situate oneself with the landscape. Bun B and UGK helped to create a type of hip-hop that reflected Houston’s geography and encoded that sound into Southern hip-hop.
Houston’s foodways also reflect the pastiche of style of its hip-hop and geography. Houston’s soul food is generally a mix of Gulf South and Black Belt cuisines, and thus typical meals, such as those reflected in Trill Mealz, reflect both affordable access to fresh seafood and more traditional forms of black soul food that arose from the Black Belt.[vii]
This mixing of cuisine is directly expressed in Trill Mealz, as over half of the dishes include some sort of seafood, including dishes like a cheesy seafood and potato pan, seafood potpie, and seafood jambalaya.[viii]
The other half of the recipes tend toward chicken-based dishes, such as red beans and rice with oven fried chicken, oven fried buffalo cauliflower (an obvious riff on buffalo chicken), and chicken potpie.[ix]
This variety of dishes is interesting in that is both reflects the universal appeal of soul food, particularly through chicken as a main protein for the meal, the styles of preparation, and the local importance of seafood to Houston foodways.
It is particularly interesting that Goya products—a “Hispanic owned” U.S. food company that manufactures affordable Latinx food products—and Bun B’s favorite seasoning—Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoning (or as he exclaimed in one video, “Tony! Tony! Tony!—but not the R&B group”) appear in almost every short video. Goya products, although they are accessible throughout many southern communities, would be particularly prevalent in the foodways of Houston because of its robust Latinx population, and Tony’s seasoning reflects Houston’s close proximity to New Orleans and Creole cooking.[x]
Terming these meals as “trill,” a term which Bun B popularized early in his hip-hop career, is also an interesting choice within the cultural discursive plane. Trill can stand for “too real,” “three times as real,” or a combination of “true and real” which describes “someone who is particularly hard and worthy of respect.”[xi]
^The track in which it is thought that Bun B codified "trill."
After UGK gained popular attention, “trill” as a vernacular term spread throughout Southern hip-hop and the South more generally. Within these Instagram videos, the city, Bun B’s music, and the foodways of Houston all interact with one another to create a distinctive flavor that attempts to be uniquely Houston, but also generalizable to soul food’s national status.
IV. Lil' Wayne's Aural Gumbo
If Goodie Mob’s Soul Food captures Atlanta’s status as a Southern urban crossroads and Bun B’s “#TrillMealz” series samples Houston’s hip-hop and geography, Lil’ Wayne’s Tha Carter IIcaptures the distinct flavor of New Orleans Creole cuisine. In terms of hip-hop production, New Orleans is famous for developing Bounce music, which is a distinctly regional style of hip-hop that mirrors the city’s musical traditions such as the second line buck jump dance and large drum line parade music. Bounce music originated in the Treme neighborhood, which was famous for producing musicians in the city and reflected musical traditions of parading.[xii]
Bounce’s distinctive character and New Orleans’ influence upon it can be heard in Lil’ Wayne’s “Best Rapper Alive.”
The track is backed with a raucous ensemble of screeching guitars, a back beat driven by a drum line or imitation thereof, and a chanting background chorus, all reminiscent of New Orleans parade music. “Best Rapper Alive” is difficult to imagine outside of the context of a parade with many voices contributing to the chorus and many musicians playing at once, always on the verge of chaos yet right on step. Lil’ Wayne’s cadence even matches the driving drum line beat. He raps, “The heart of New Orleans / Thumpin' and beatin' / Livin' and breathin' / Stealin' and feedin / Peelin' and leavin' / Killin' and grievin' / Dearly departed erased deleted / No prints no plates no face no trace / Out of sight out of mind / No court no case.”[xiii]The rhetorical movement in the quoted passage mirrors the kick drum that is pulsing at the beginning of each phrase; the drum is literally spoken back to by Lil’ Wayne’s description of the city. The drum that is thumping, beating, living, breathing then itself becomes part of the city and is the heart of New Orleans. Wayne breathes between each short phrase, not because he is in need of breath between such short utterances but because he is punctuating each conjunctive phrase to highlight their connection to the percussive nature of the city. The way in which Lil’ Wayne and the Cash Money production team soundthe city itself and thus give the track a distinctly New Orleans flavor.
However,Tha Carter II doesn’t just sound like the city of New Orleans; it tastes like it. The title track, “Carter II” most directly addresses New Orleans’ foodways and sounds the culinary symbols of the city.
He raps, “Yeah I'm from New Orleans, the Creole cockpit / We so out of it, zero tolerance / Gangsta gumbo, I'll serve them a pot of it / I'm wealthy, still fucking with that block shit.” The only food that Wayne mentions specifically is gumbo, which has come to symbolize New Orleans cuisine as the city’s premier food offering, perhaps only rivaled in reputation by jambalaya. His identification with “Creole” is also of particular importance to the city of New Orleans. The notion of Creole cuisine itself is specifically connected to an idea of “sophisticated” urban cooking in contradistinction to the lower-class and rural associations of Cajun cuisine.[xiv] Creole is an important marker of the urbanity of New Orleans and although it certainly carries classist undertones, it marks the boundary of those cooking within the city from those cooking without.
Incorporating the city’s musical traditions, sounding its parades, and appealing to culinary distinctions allows the listener to taste a distinctly local New Orleans flavor in Lil’ Wayne’s album; the city’s gumbo and Creole cuisine sound the city and resound as important urban symbols to its inhabitants in Lil’ Wayne’s album.
When recontextualized not as separate and disparate fields of study but as cultural objects within in a discursive plane, the city, food, and music can operate to construct and create representations of identity for urban subjects. Music has traditionally been read in this manner, as a representational cultural object, but cities and food can be read as constituent and coefficient constructions of identity as well. Cities and their characters are changed by their musics, and the inclusion of soul food within this greater discursive movement further complicates the field of identity formation. Goodie Mob, Bun B, and Lil Wayne all sound and taste their respective cities in their music. What does it mean to be from a certain city? According to these artists, you must taste it, hear it, and exist in it.
This essay is a part of a longer work that also addresses how hip-hop uses this discursive plane on multiple lines of identity formation including the national to local continuum of soul food cuisine, the urban to rural continuum of southern cities, and the commercial to underground continuum in southern hip-hop.
[ii]Adrian Miller, Soul Food: The Surprising Story of American Cuisine One Plate at a Time, (Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press, 2013), 40.
[iii]According to Harvey’s definition of relational space: “Processes do not occur in space but define their own spatial frame. The concept of space is embedded in or internal to process” (123). David Harvey, Spaces of Global Capitalism, (New York, Verso, 2006).
[iv]Murray Forman, The ‘Hood Comes First: Race, Space, and Place in Rap and Hip-Hop, (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 1997), xviii.
[v]At the 1995 Source Awards, East Coast and West Coast hip-hop tensions were at an all time high. The night was marked by coastal tension, and when OutKast won the award for Best New Artist, crowds were shocked at a relatively unknown group from the South winning such a prestigious award and began to boo. Andre, in response with the boos, yelled into the microphone, “The South has got something to say!” and walked off of the stage. Many hip-hop heads and critics point to this moment as the beginning of the South’s prominence in hip-hop culture.
[vi]“Guess Who” is an ode of Cee-Lo’s mother, or perhaps black mothers everywhere, and thus it makes sense that the space of Atlanta wouldn’t figure too heavily into it. “The Day After” is a heavenly vision of survival after death, so while place figures heavily into this song, it is a place of elsewhere, not the earthly space of Atlanta that populates the rest of the album. Goodie Mob, “Guess Who,” recorded October 1994-August 1995, Track 7 on Soul Food, LaFace, 1995, Spotify. Goodie Mob, “The Day After,” recorded October 1994-August 1995, Track 19 on Soul Food, LaFace, 1995, Spotify.
[vii]Black American foodways can be subdivided into four historical categories: 1) Black Belt cuisine 2) Gulf South/Creole cuisine and 3) Lowcountry cuisine and 4) Chesapeake Bay cuisine. Black Belt cuisine is by far the most geographically extensive and it is purported to be the birth zone of what we think of as soul food today. Adrian Miller, Soul Food: The Surprising Story of American Cuisine One Plate at a Time, (Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press, 2013), 16.
[viii]Episodes are titled by the dish, and these specific videos can be found posted on Bun B’s YouTube channel or Instagram account on 4/13/18, 2/16/18, and 12/11/17 respectively.
[ix]These episodes can be found posted on 4/23/18, 1/3/18, and 12/6/17 respectively.
[x]A full description of the autobiographical history of Goya foods can be found at https://www.goya.com/en/our-company/history.
[xi]Roni Sarig, Third Coast: OutKast, Timbaland, and How Hip-Hop Became a Southern Thing, (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2007), 55.
[xii]Roni Sarig, Third Coast: OutKast, Timbaland, and How Hip-Hop Became a Southern Thing, (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2007), 251-2.
[xiii]Lil’ Wayne, “Best Rapper Alive,” Recorded 2004-2005, Track 7 on Tha Carter II, Cash Money, 2005, Spotify.
[xiv]Adrian Miller, Soul Food: The Surprising Story of American Cuisine One Plate at a Time, (Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press, 2013), 16.