Here's How A Tribe Called Quest Redefined Masculinity in Hip-Hop
A Tribe Called Quest - photographed by Shayan Asgharnia.
Do us a favor real quick and type in "rap albums released in 1989."
Did you see it? What came up? If the first album displayed was De La Soul's seminal debut, 3 Feet High and Rising, a 24-song release that found the trio's playful rhymes on top of beats crafted with bits-and-pieces of James Brown, Funkadelic, Michael Jackson and Sly Stone. But even before that introduction hits your ears, you get a sense of how different De La is from their contemporaries based on the album artwork alone.
Three black faces against a bright yellow backdrop; the album title in green and the group's name in pink with a peace sign replacing the "O" in "Soul".
Critics at the time generalized the aesthetic of De La Soul as a "hippie" group, but the truth is that the trio was simply trying to offer a simple sentiment: There is more than one form of representation for black masculinity. De La Soul's aesthetic came to life through their music videos: the Native Tongues posse party cut, "Buddy"; the lave lamp trip of "Eye Know" and the high school sitcom of "Me, Myself and I".
The latter is most indicative of De La Soul's divisiveness as they attempted to be true to themselves outside of mainstream portrayals of black men.
As Dave, Maseo and Posdnous are chastised by Professor Defbeat and their classmates, they offer their raps with deadpan delivery. Their desire for individuality and inclusivity goes unheard, each one antagonized throughout the video. By the end, the trio leave Defbeat's classroom, with the main interpretation from the video being the power of liberating one's self from an identity that is not for them is ideal. But another take away can be one that speaks to a problem that is still prevalent in rap: individuality and inclusivity are seen as mutually exclusive.
Through pure aesthetic alone De La Soul challenged black masculinity. Their use of color, a visual contrast to the images presented in Gangster rap made songs such as "Eye Know" a swirl of fluorescent colors that surrounded the trio. There was a nostalgic comfort to it all. The playfulness De La Soul presented was necessary — that black positivity served just as much significance as black anger.
Then came A Tribe Called Quest.
Tribe was arguably more subdued with their conscious aesthetic, but they were still equally important while challenging representations of black masculinity.
The most notable is their iconic mascot: a naked woman whose body blends strips of black, green and red — a symbol of Afrocentrism. Introduced early on as the album art for The Low End Theory she cradles Tribe in her stomach. For Midnight Marauders — she is front-and-center, as an assembly of rappers from across the country accompany her. In rap, the culture is fueled by hyper masculinity, which is defined in part by the objectification of the feminine body. Here on these album covers, Tribe had omitted what is often objectified, creating an anonymous, overseeing entity whose eyes were the most visible part of her body — bold and captivating.
The commentary could be this: rap was created by men, but men are created by women, so theoretically rap was created by women.
Then, there is this one, which is equally a stretch as a theory, but it relates back to Tribe's Afrocentrism: Africa is "the Motherland," and through her rap is just another representation of African art.
Stay with us here, this is some deep shit.
Interpretations aside, Tribe's mascot plays an integral part in not only their celebration of black masculinity, but black femininity and blackness in general.
Similar to De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest used their music videos to create their visual aesthetic and narrative. There are so many to choose from: the bugged eyed, colorful hilarity of "Buggin' Out"; the road trip sitcom setting of "I Left My Wallet in El Segundo"; and the festive block party vibe of "Check the Rhime" and "Oh My God".
But the one that particularly sticks out most is "Bonita Applebum".
There is a layer of sensitivity and vulnerability in "Bonita Applebum," which is told directly through its visuals. The footage is overexposed throughout its full three minutes, giving the watcher a psychedelic and surreal quality to it all. Q-Tip's eyes shine in the brightness as he attempted to charm "Bonita, Bonita, Bonita."
"Hey Bonita, nice to meet you," he raps before nervously saying, "Eh-heh." The two words fuzz with fluorescent colors, emphasizing Q-Tip's nervousness. There is no thug posturing, no playa-playa smooth talk. The moment is relatable because we have all be there: trying to spit game to someone, fumbling over our words, hoping that any displays of awkwardness or goofiness will be seen as endearing. But that "eh-heh" works in Q-Tip's favor, as he later redeems himself with "for the kind of stunning newness, I must have foreseen you" line that would surely make any woman light up.
And to be frank, this is something we rarely see in rap: this very real and relatable interaction between a man and a woman. The music is loud, the room is swirling, but amidst all of that there is this one particular person who has caught your attention. There is the possibility of making a fool of yourself, but thanks to Tribe, that is OK.
"Bonita Applebum" handles intimacy with such an authentic playfulness that it is otherworldly refreshing. Q-Tip does not portray himself as an alpha male. Instead, he flutters his eyes coyly to Bonita, making eye contact with her in short bursts. She hasn't left him yet, so he gets a little more comfortable, a little more flirtatious.
Then, he shoots his shot: "Hey, you're like a hip-hop song, you know?"
Swish. Game. Q-Tip.
Just as important as how "Bonita Applebum" handles intimacy is how it handles black brotherhood.
The glow that surrounds the black bodies of Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi throughout the video is so visually pleasing and stimulating. They dance together, rap together and lay in a park together. They enjoy each other's presence so much, they only add to the surreal bliss of the day presented in "Bonita Applebum." They are the epitome of #CarefreeBlackBoys, offering others an insightful portrayal of black masculinity that doesn't take itself too seriously.
Think about it like this, guys...Without A Tribe Called Quest, we possibly would not have Pharrell, which means we would not have had Kanye West, Tyler, the Creator, Frank Ocean — and the list goes on and on. Black masculinity is, was and forever will be more than what was portrayed by Kool G. Rap, Snoop Dog or Too $hort—empowered by a freedom of expression it didn't have in the past two to three decades. With the release of Tribe's sixth and final album, plus the passing of Phife — the legacy of the group is as important as it has ever been.
An integral element to that is A Tribe Called Quest's everlasting aesthetic: a desire to be true to one's self no matter what.
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