Werking The Black Underground: On the Insurgent Politics of the “Ho”
Carl Mydans (photographer), “Slum alley in Washington, D.C.,” November 1935. Photograph retrieved from the Library of Congress.
When Donald Trump placed a wreath on the grave of the infamous “Indian killer” and slave trader Andrew Jackson, the current president explicitly wrapped himself and his regime in the mantle of white supremacy. This symbolic act of violence against black and indigenous peoples was not unconnected to the current administration’s declaration of war against people of color the world over. The president’s embrace of violence and violent imagery, then, has prompted me to explore the alternative capacities of black culture beyond the normative modes of civil discourse and respectability politics. Simply put: what would it mean to not give a fuck? In the face of Trump, what would it mean to embrace the lawlessness of, say, contemporary “trap” music? How might the outlawry of trap necessarily energize our politics?
Trap is often critiqued for its hyper-capitalist and exploitative themes, and for its misogyny and homophobia; and yet there is something so powerful in the honesty with which trap artists present themselves in this regard. This is especially true with regard to women and queers in the genre, who are unabashed by life under neoliberal-carceral capitalism. I am drawn to the ways in which these artists skirt the lines of respectability, and to their embrace of disreputable forms of social existence vis-à-vis normative civil discourse—indeed, I am drawn to this music because it represents an opening for political traction in a different register. I hear in the lyrics of trap aspects of a politics of unmaking through social forms of lawlessness. And as much as we need to fashion a new world, we need to end the current order.
Black lawlessness is a historical phenomenon. It has evolved alongside and against legal and extra-legal forms of surveillance and violence that have sought to contain black communities. Its history can be traced from the era of an emergent plantation-urban complex to the present age of hyper-policing, carcerality, and political repression. In order to gain political purchase on the insurgent work of contemporary trap, then, I want to return to an earlier moment in the history of what we might call black illicitness.
In March 1997, the go-go band Rare Essence performed at Deno’s nightclub in Northeast Washington, DC. Deno’s (later known as Club Rio), a 2,500-square-foot former warehouse, was one of the few venues where live go-go could still be heard in the nation’s capital. Following a shooting at a live show of the band Duke and the Boys in September 1991, the city increasingly began to regulate go-go as part of a larger nation-wide effort to hyper-surveil and police black working-class life. As a primary signifier of black working-class youth culture, go-go was increasingly viewed as a kind of “noise,” as Ashon Crawley might put it, or that which is antithetical to the “proper and decorous.” The District of Columbia Noise Control Act of 1977, for example, made it easier to regulate go-go for “disturbing the peace.” The regulation of go-go as “noise,” of course, was part of a wider moral panic in the city about what was perceived as the lawlessness of black urban youth. In the aftermath of the September 1991 shooting, Democratic councilwoman Wilhelmina Rolark, for instance, called for the city to prevent groups from holding these kinds of “unsanctioned events” at such an “eerie hour.” In addition to classifying go-go as “noise,” officials in Washington also used liquor law enforcement to target venues that supported local go-go bands. As a trace from an old-web entry suggests, Deno’s provided the space for what one reviewer described as a “late and out-of-control night”; and this kind of pleasure is precisely what police and government officials sought to snuff out by disciplining the music.
Against the backdrop of rapid urban transformation and increased policing, self-fashioned go-go bands and their audiences embraced some aspects of the outlawry, disorderliness, and disruptiveness ascribed to them. As part of their larger recorded set that evening, Rare Essence performed “What Would You Do For The Money?,” a song which they re-recorded for the 2007 iTunes release of Classic Cuts, the first collected volume of their greatest hits. In the song, Rare Essence conveys a realist vision of the city from a position that neither condemns nor fully embraces the subterranean social worlds of black youth in the city. In “What Would You Do For The Money,” Rare Essence describes a black underworld—an unsanctioned series of alternative spaces often hidden within the dominant landscape. Indeed, this subterranean geography created the necessary space for insurgent forms of sociality, building on a longer history of explicit illicitness in black communities in DC.
The lyrics of “What Would You Do…” create a view of the city’s underworld through a counter-archetypical Bildungsroman, revealing some of the gendered assumptions of the band. Through their lyrical use of hyperrealism, Rare Essence also describes the contradictory promises and pitfalls within an emergent neoliberal cityscape. Instead of following the moral trajectory of the normative coming-of-age story, the song’s protagonist slips into one of the most reviled social categories of the 1990s—the category which came to be defined (at least in public discourse) by the figure of the “Ho.”
As the narrative unfolds, Rare Essence maps primary sites in the underground—places where the “Ho” works/werks; her body serves, foremost, as the primary site of violence, negotiation, and insurgent power. When her dreams of college dissipate, she chooses to follow Chuck, “who had to have a girl who was getting buck.” She chooses sex with Chuck as a means of economic security, while Chuck, who sees a double value in her vulnerability, gets her to “drive a bucket” to Florida to “smuggle the weed” and to sell it “to other brothers” that she knows—an innuendo suggesting that he is already either forcing or luring her into the explicit sale of drugs, sex, and other contraband.
As one of the most disparaged figures in the late-twentieth-century American imaginary, the “Ho” evolved out of the historical trope of the Jezebel—a black woman whose social and economic marginality was purportedly a product of her alleged sexual deviance and prowess. And yet, she is also an insurgent figure who is performing work. While moralism is still latent in this all-male band’s rendition of the “Ho,” she is also an agent who uses the space she opens through what Mireille Miller-Young describes as the “booty antics” of survival and/or desire. Rare Essence points to the “Ho” and to other gendered and racialized tropes of the 1990s not necessarily as affirmative identities, but as figures who “trouble the notion of black collectivity that rests on ideologies of racial uplift and moral citizenship.”
Against the strain of masculinist moralism on the part of the band, the “Ho” here remains an insurgent figure, embracing werk as a means of survival, perhaps even pleasure in the face of vulnerability, fungibility, and disposability. She embraces being “‘Out There,’ aggressive and brazen, in a realm normally foreclosed to women.” After her “fall,” she does not seek to remediate her labor and life, but rather she continues werking as a dancer at bachelor parties “with her body on display.”
In her insurgency, this unnamed woman is also connected to the histories of women in Washington’s black underground—the “Black subterranean world,” as Sharon Harley puts it, or “a possible site of autonomy and power” for working-class black communities forged in the city. As Harley makes evident, insurgent figures in Washington’s black underworld were part of a distinctive black political spectrum. Not only did these figures use the underground in order to gain personal wealth and influence, but some of them, including Odessa Madre, also used the wealth gained from their illicit work to fund formal political action against the city’s Jim Crow infrastructure.
Mug shot of Odessa Madre. According to The Washington Post, she was arrested 37 times.
At the same time that she stood down the forces of other violent members of the black underworld, the unnamed woman from Rare Essence’s hood-tale also stood up and outside against the circumscribing legal conditions of the state. Her survival and unsanctioned pleasure both point to the power of illicit insurgence as a point of possibility, if not a fully elaborated politics in the face of Trumpism. If it is clear that the law will continue only to serve the kleptocrat and his cronies (rather than a larger social existence), then our investments in morality and law will neither interrupt this order nor create the world that we need. However disparaged, the figure of the “Ho” offers us much in the way of an alternative mode of power as we confront the end of civil discourse as we knew it.
J.T. Roane received his Ph.D. in History from Columbia University in 2016. In August, he will join the faculty at the University of Cincinnati as an assistant professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.
I am indebted here to Mireille Miller-Young, to whom I owe this formulation of the “insurgent work” (or politics) of the “ho.”
 Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2007).
 Simone Browne, Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015).
 John Blume, “‘To Die for a Lousy Bike’: Bicycles, Race, and the Regulation of Public Space on the Streets of Washington, DC, 1963-2009,” American Quarterly 69.1 (2017); and Elizabeth Hinton, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016).
 Ashon Crawley, Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility (New York: Fordham University Press, 2017).
 Nathan McCall, “D.C. Go-Go Bands in the Glare,” The Washington Post, September 9, 1991.
 Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (New York: Routledge, 2000).
 Mireille Miller-Young, A Taste for Brown Sugar: Black Women in Pornography (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014).
 Regina Austin, “‘The Black Community,’ Its Lawbreakers, and a Politics of Identification,” Southern California Law Review 65.4 (1992).
 Sharon Harley, “‘Working for Nothing but a Living’: Black Women in the Underground Economy” in Sister Circle: Black Women and Work, eds. Sharon Harley and The Black Women and Work Collective (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2002).
 Jennifer Nash, The Black Body in Ecstasy: Reading Race, Reading Pornography (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014).