115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Life for Bad Boys When the Apocalypse Is Enough: Hip-Hop Imagery in DuVernay’s 13th, and Apocalyptic Imagery in 1990s Hip-Hop

Colin Enriquez, Pepperdine University

Drawing on elements of hip-hop in Duvernay’s 13th, 1990s hip-hop album imagery, and my adolescent experience, this paper argues that mass incarceration and media criminalization of black identity creates a disposition of persecution and nihilism in young black men, and this outlook is reflected in the apocalyptic imagery of hip-hop of the era.


     Over the years, I have often thought about the young men with whom I had grown up. These young men were moderately to highly successful in school, came from working- and lower-middle-class homes, and some came from two-parent house-holds. Despite their stable seeming backgrounds, 6 of my 9 friends were arrested at some point in their youth. Two were incarcerated for murder, three were involved in armed robbery, and all of us were involved in petty theft, vandalism, and “hanging on the corner,” which could land one in jail, under the police sweeps of 1990s New York City. Most of us weren’t in gangs per se, and we didn’t sell drugs; we merely dabbled in crime, and some graduated to serious crime.

     At the time, there seemed to be few means to self-actualization, self-worth, and safety, and, among my friends and acquaintances, criminal activity was seen as a means of establishing these necessities. This dearth of actualization is reflected in the nihilistic and apocalyptic themes abundant in the album images and lyrics of 1990s hip-hop, demonstrating that young black men were aware of the persecution and relatively high rate of homicide they faced. Because the connotation of this imagery suggests contemplations of mortality, transformation, and despair in young, black men, this paper proposes a re-evaluation of hip-hop of the decade as not merely expressions of depravity and braggadocio, as is often assumed.

     The imagery and lyrics of selected albums constitute a narrative and comment on a performed state of vigilance, aggression, and nihilism. Scholar Regina Bradley calls this comportment of violence “sonic cool pose” and defines this as “regurgitated and thus normalized scripts of blackness and black manhood [that are] rewarded by monetary gain and popularity. The artists' investment in such scripts sustains public visibility and thus relevance” (138). Although Bradley’s subject for this definition is hip-hop artists within commercial entertainment, it must be acknowledged that a “pose” of violence also translated to the street-level, where the pose was emulated in hopes of achieving “monetary gain and popularity” and sustaining “public visibility” and “relevance.” Scholar Todd Boyd offers an equally insightful description of this comportment of violence. In his view, the “cool” pose serves as a survival mechanism and “antithesis of white masculinity: "cool is about a detached, removed, nonchalant sense of being. An aloofness that suggests one is above it all. A pride, an arrogance even, that is at once laid back, unconcerned, perceived to be highly sexual, and potentially violent" (118). In contrast to Bradley’s definition, Boyd’s less contextually bound definition is readily applicable to the quotidian experience of black males. The “pose” is not merely a performative act for hip-hop artists. The social and media context of the decade dictated that the average black male execute this pose and its subsequent actions as a requisite of blackness or “keeping it real,” the subtext of which is maintaining or generating one’s blackness.

     The selected albums are a sample of many that contain imagery and lyrics that address an apocalyptic-nihilism which, I believe, permeated the thoughts of young, black men of the 90s. DuVernay’s work provides a statistical and scholarly balancing point to this experience. Her work historicizes and documents the experience that young black men, then and now, have codified in an alternate history and medium. It also helps to provide context for the reaction and themes with which young, black men choose to express themselves. This expression is more than mere youthful exaggeration and rebellion. This period of hip-hop conveys a feeling of living in a world—composed of black, white, and other—that seems bent on one’s incarceration or destruction.

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