Legacies of Black Womenhood in Blues and Hip Hop: A Critique of Feminism, Sonic Rhetoric, and Language




McGee, Alexis Renea

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For Black women, shifting is the constant change of identity markers or characteristics to satisfy opposing audiences including one’s selves. One shifts to negotiate exigencies and make the oppressor feel comfortable or at ease. A shift always includes a transition from one’s most salient identity to another salient identity. This can be a physical (e.g. appearance), cognitive, or spiritual change; this maneuver is often internal and for protection and/or survival of the shifter (Jones and Shorter-Gooden 6-7, 62-63). It is this choice of moving or altering ourselves in various instances that I am concerned with.

The choice to shift or not to shift—or more accurately to navigate one’s identity—is what I argue is a rhetorical act, one that engages most often with the development and recognition of agency and resistance to one’s sociocultural and historic existence. Shifting indicates a legacy of rhetorical resistance that can be found in performances, art, and especially music. The act of agency and resistance accompanying these movements are important to both historical and contemporary conversations surrounding rhetoric. The retooling of traditional models of rhetoric must be revised as more attention emphasizes digital and sonic rhetorics; women and gender studies as decolonial and international coalitions take center stage of various movement-making; and even composition studies as writing across disciplines and culturally-relevant pedagogies gain more traction in various forms of schooling (be that public, private, or community-based educational learning spaces).

The purpose of this dissertation is to recast these pathways of shifting as active and rhetorical methods and methodologies presented as a continuing practice of Black womanhood specifically within Blues and Hip Hop discourses. This research is conducted using qualitative and archival methods. This mixed approach to gathering resources and information best describes Black female-ness more accurately, or what I broadly term here as rhetorical Black womenhood. This construction of this rhetorical agent, mainly African American women, is being conceived as a constantly morphing and moving rhetorical agency and process at any moment and for a multitude of reasons. These agents range in scope and magnitude and leads the way for others to follow. These agents lay pathways for others to tread and build upon for their own creation of agency and resistance.

The goal of this work is to expand interdisciplinary dialogues to actually take account of subject positionality that is both intersectional and complex. In this way, “muddying the waters” or “blurring the lines” of conversations regarding Black female-ness within disciplines will demonstrate the employment of shifting to survive, resist, and engage with the systems of intersecting oppression found in the everydayness of navigating multiple agencies. Using qualitative and historical contextualizations of shifting across disciplinary genres encourages incorporating the ideas of Afrofuturism regarding time and space which then highlights these characteristics (i.e. methods of agency, resistance, time, and space) as explicit, rhetorical material and maneuvers. I conclude that tactics found in Black women’s music, more precisely Blues and Hip Hop, are bridge ways and demonstrations of rhetorical Black womenhood. These models of shifting take and reshape its own form, thus, creating legacies of interdisciplinary rhetorical methods for marking and understanding road maps that assert agency and resistance within oppressive conditions.


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Black Women, Blues, Hip Hop, Intersectionality, Rhetoric, Voice