Warren Hedges from Southern Oregon University, defines kamp as:
1. “A satirical or amusing quality present in an extravagant gesture, style, or form, esp. when inappropriate or out of proportion to the content that is expressed.”
2. “Delight in artificiality, exaggeration and affectation, esp. when used in conjunction with banality and outlandish trivia.”
What then, pray tell, is Ashanti doing in this video, where despite singing all the lyrics, she still manages to end up as the “hook girl” to Nelly’s grunts? Ostensibly, Ashanti and Nelly are engaged in a playful, tongue-in-cheek (or beer can in hair) romp. I’m sure, certain really, that this video is intended to be funny – that everything in it, from the beer cans Ashanti is sporting in her hair as rollers, to her unrealistic outfit while cooking, is supposed to be a huge joke.
Indeed, on the surface, one would surmise, “Good Good,” is an example of kamp acculturated for hip-hop culture. There is evidence for most of Hedges definition. The video is intended to be funny, it is extravagant and over the top, there is a sense of artificiality, and surely there is exaggeration. Yet, the key ingredients – irony and subversion, are missing. This is especially true, when you consider that strong, thinking, sophisticated (and highly vocally talented) womyn have all but disappeared from mainstream R&B and hip-hop landscapes, one has to wonder if the uber-sexualized and highly fantastic presentation of Ashanti, extolling the virtues of her “good good,” signals deeper trends within hip-hop culture. Namely, that a culture often castigated for its controversial use of fantasy, kamp, and subversion, has become trapped in its own fantasies. In other words, playtime is over; now we’re just acting out.
To use a cringe-inducing metaphor, it’s the equivalent of being a child playing house. Everything’s okay, delightful even, until someone playing the game decides that mommy and daddy need alone time. That reaction you just had – yes, that’s precisely what has happened to mainstream hip-hop. More now than ever, the mainstream hip-hop fantasy revolves around the erasure of the female presence. Unless, of course, that presence can be dominated, subverted of its power, or hyper-sexualized. In many ways, this erasure – paired with stylized hyper-sexualization, is walking in tandem with hip-hop’s evolution toward gangsta-rap, which notoriously focuses on street life, and seems always inevitably to lead to prison and other homoerotic and homosocial environments. Gangsta-rap genre bled over into the R&B genre, as more and more womyn entered the industry by singing the “hook,” otherwise known as the refrain, on a male rapper’s song. In fact, that’s how Ashanti got her start ten years ago.A start that has led her to this particular video. video.
Neither genre has looked back, as womyn have become scarce in both the R&B and Hi-hop genre. Certainly there are many talented womyn in both genres – but more often than not, few of them have reached mainstream status. There is Mary J., Beyonce, Jennifer Hudson, Chrisette Michelle – but think back to the ‘90s and the diversity in female musical talent that existed in hip-hop and R&B, in comparison to today. There’s much speculation on what happened. Recently, in a Slate Magazine article entitled, “Where Did all the Female Rappers Go?,” Jonah Weiner, wondered much of the same, saying: The ’90s stars that followed her—Lil’ Kim, Eve, Lauryn Hill, Da Brat, and Missy Elliott chief among them—have either faded or flared into tabloid ignominy. Today, female rappers are flukes on the charts, and exactly zero women were nominated at this year’s BET Hip-Hop Awards and VH1 Hip-Hop Honors. What happened?
I can’t even begin to tell you – at least not here. What I can say, is what I love about kamp is that as Hedges explains, it “exaggerates dominant conventions to the point where they are exposed as conventions instead of “natural,” “proper,” or “inevitable.” In the case of heterosexual conventions, for instance, under the pressure of camp, they begin to look affected, strained, or ridiculous (though an enjoyable lark all the same). This disrupts the privileged status of what a culture valorizes as natural.” What then of this video? Why does it miss the kamp mark?
Well, for one, kamp is best when there is a significant level of cognitive dissonance and tension between the social norm being flaunted, and the content of the material being played with. In the case of “Good Good,” conventional gender roles are being affirmed, not only in the content of the song, but also are played out in the video. The result is that instead of a ridiculous flaunting of convention – a convention which often in the African-American community, is lamented as not being sufficiently followed, is a stylized video, which borrows from kamp, but doesn’t actually practice kamp, it only uses its aesthetic.
Second, any member of the African-American community can tell you that gender roles, norms, and dynamics are a highly contested terrain. Ashanti then, is acting out, what Weiner has called a “radical compliance,” with the fantasized female role. Instead of holding the power of kamp, she is offering herself “up almost as [a] grotesque[s], inhabiting lewd sexual fantasies almost to the point of caricature.” Ashanti becomes a caricature, not a playful doyenne of kamp. She does nothing to disrupt the heterosexual fantasy of subordination. The video is meant to be funny – not a challenge to the fantasy, the pornographic heterosexual male gaze, or even to good ironic song-writing in the vein of Eartha Kitt’s, overtly sexual, yet fully controlled (and even demanding) “Santa Baby.”
Third, okay – say it’s all a joke. It is an overtly sexist joke: Ashanti is presented engaged in traditional tasks that are associated with the home in an era also associated with the cult of domesticity; a time when some womyn were relegated to the home; a fantasy that most Black womyn were never able to live out, either because they were working for social justice, or as historic statistics show, were overwhelmingly represented in the workforce earning for their families. The time-period setting is ironic, because it represents a time, the 1950’s, when most Black womyn were forced to work as domestics for white families. As you pull each thread of supposed irony and kamp, it circles to the heart of the skein – deeply embedded internalized oppression.
Moreover, Ashanti’s “character,” in the video is prized not only for her work around the home, but also becasue she knows her “place.” She understands that her ultimate role is to be sexually available (look at each outfit she wears), and gamely calls out exactly which features she is making accessible, naming it all as her power of the “good good.” And if we were confused, Ashanti helpfully gestures to her breasts, legs, and her crotch. How would we feel is Ashanti was referring to her tw*t, or c*nt throughout the video, as opposed to the euphemism she utilizes.
Last, but not least, the entire piece is complicated by Ashanti’s assumed role and her real-life role as assumed sexual partner to Nelly. It’s been widely reported (check out www.ybf.com) that Ashanti and Nelly are dating. As a viewer, we’re posed a confusing casting line-up. Are Ashanti and Nelly playing out their real-life relationship? Are we intended to watch them at play – which again raises the spectre of the pornographic gaze, this time giving it a racialized lens? Are we to think that this is indeed how Ashanti keeps her man in excessively-beautiful Hollywood? Is this what Nelly expects of a “good” womyn? The relationship prevents any real subversion or usurpation of male power from happening, and as a result stultifies any real use of kamp. Ashanti’s taking it all too seriously for it to be a joke.
Which leaves me troubled – for years activists and scholars have been discussing the role that these kinds of images have on young womyn. Joan Morgan, is a great example of a womyn, who loves hip-hop, and who has also critically reviewed the representations of womyn. And yet, the genre remains resistant to change. Maybe if I show it my “good good,” and make it a good meal, it will deign to sit down for a chat – you know, after I clean the house in heels.