home | about

Pimp Notes on Autonomy
Pop Stars of the 21st Century

By Beth Coleman

Pimping may be the second oldest profession in the world, but it was in America first that the pimp became a black pop star.


"At one time we lived on the coast of Africa that was called Maritania. We were a proud family. We were people of dignity people of structure. The Canary Islands is where they actually was making them slaves. By the time they got over to America the Europeans was so impressed with the beautiful black sister that he would often rape her. What happened was the male African got wise, 'What does he do to you when you are with him?' 'He makes me have sex and offers gifts like pork chops.' Being that we was in a precarious situation, being that we were in a negative disposition the African at that time who was a slave, he said, 'Alright, what you do is ask him for two pork chops,' you know what I'm saying, and the system of manipulation began for survival. The European the slave master knew that this was transpiring but he did not want to do anything about this because he was so into her he would get her at any cost, but his wife did not condone it and his children did not condone it, so it was a secretive movement. We being an intelligent people, we knew that it was happing any way so we had to benefit from it. At that time the white men called us wimps. In 1865 Lincoln freed the slaves, the African kings and queens. And once he freed them what happened was we remembered the things that had transpired during the plantation system so we began to execute certain elements. We would tell the European that I would connect you. They wanted to continue their barter system, the female for the money. People would see these brothers back in the day driving these horse and carriages. They thought they were driving these carriages for the master, but they realized these are not wimps these are pimps. We went from wimps to pimps. From horsy backs to now modern day Cadillacs."

I quote Pimping Ken from the video documentary, Pimpology, of which he is executive producer. Pimping Ken breaks down the classic components of pimping like a banker with lyrical flow. He reduces the economy to two preconditions of capital: property and autonomy. In Pimpology, Pimping Ken draws a portrait of himself as a self-made-man in the tradition of Benjamin Franklin and Iceberg Slim. In this case, he substitutes the printing press for the video camera. The "written" form for pimping in a postmedia landscape is video, website, DVD, and modeling agencies, forms which have become as indelible as ink. Like the rest of the culture, Pimp culture dubs itself via virtual portals. What used to be an informal economy now has shelf space at Tower Video. To state the obvious, the videos exist because there is a market for them.

Post-gangster rap, the call for verisimilitude in black thug life is clearly demonstrated. When the pop star R. Kelly graced the cover of Vibe in November 2000, a story on pimp life also received a cover line. Magazines such as F.E. D. S and Murder Dog publish monthly escapades into the real criminal minded, creating a new order of penitentiary pin ups: the mythic stories of "street life" told in the first person by the pimp stars themselves. The Hughes brothers' 1999 indie documentary American Pimp debuted at Sundance Film Festival to controversy. The same year, This American Life, the acclaimed National Public Radio show, ran a piece called "Pimp Anthropology" devoted to the nuances of the pimping game. Pimps, with the help of popular culture, have made a fetish of their business. A business, which is of course, based upon the appropriation of a person for commodity.

Pimping in the twenty-first century, reflects a porous relationship between illegal or at least illicit commodity and the hot glow of publicity. The media intersection expands the game in manners ingenious and diabolical. The video camera takes a profession with territory but no boundaries (sometimes a pimp has got to take his bitches on the road) into a space of accelerated circulation. The prostitutes don't know when they are on camera, thus video creates a tool for extended surveillance. For the pimp, media extends control. In turn, covert operations extend his domain. The home movies originated are a form of entertainment and punishment, as described by Pimping Ken: "'Bitch I don't want you to do nothing I don't tell you to do.' But that bitch is on tape recorder. Scoop her like ice cream. Once you play that tape for that ho I guarantee you, you wont have no more problems with that ho. These are some mutherfuker rules that I really should not be telling. I'm giving you mutherfukers some raw ass game" (Pimpology). Pedagogy has always been a critical issue in black communities and the pimps "give back" in these videos by providing instructional material for the aspiring young player. The clandestine footage used to keep order functions equally well in the form of a calling card ("If you want an intro or outro talk to Pimping Ken, I'll put you in the game"). Pimpology is unmediated (raw) but self-edited. It is a moving image ad for a culture of incarceration. The thing being advertised is not the women but the pimp himself.

Pimp Theory lies at the intersection of fetish and pathology. The first really is external, such as a shoe, a show, or an exhibition, while the latter is externalized, like pimping. And that is why pimps must wear good shoes, handmade genuine leather from Italy. Because the pimps is both. He is a parody of propriety, a levered mechanism, an electronic Negro. The essential overvaluation of the object, the black fetish, is his trump card. "Daddy, we sure been humping for you" is the siren's call in this the recapitulation of mastery. To play the black fetish one has to make ones peace with our man Osiris, he who rocks the double affirmation, who is kissing cousins with the Dog headed god--the dead dog is transformed into the top dog.

It is worth noting that the women who appear in Pimpology are silent, with the exception of an entrepreneurial "model" who gives the viewer a sample of a girl on girl moment that seems like a parody of sexual pleasure, low production value not excepting. The women are shiny, frosted, boosted and bleached. They walk, they dance, they sex, but nobody home. In a sense, this is progress, as the industry organizes itself, proliferates, and celebrates itself. You can see the Pimp Balls and Pimp Award ceremonies much in the same style as the Oscars or music awards, just more razzle dazzle (bling bling) to the participants.

You're a star, baby. The fame of black people possesses the retro glamour of a Marlene Deitrich. It is a fame based on the foresight that race does not exist anymore, which does not necessarily make a body right. The definition of a fetish is an essential overvaluation of the object. It is a thing, often an inappropriate thing like a shoe or hair substituted for the person. In a tradition with Scheherazade or Salome, in her films Deitrich mastered her own representation. She was that iconic thing so well that Deitrich became fetish of a fetish, a sign of a sign. M is for machine, the thing that turns you on. The "essential overvaluation" of the object is the basis of such performances as Blue Angel, Thriller, Pimpin Ain't Easy, and Elephant Shit. With Deitrich was a performance about total control. For the black super star, on the flip side, you are that famously abject thing. Whether old or young, rich or poor, you are famous for being invisible, an already misappropriated. (Criminality and black identity get linked from the getty up.) The pimp is the boss because he masters the art of black representation. He's a veritable signpost for black fame in his shiny shoes.

When Iceberg Slim wrote famously of pimp theory in 1969, what Slim made clear is that the sexy part of pimping is not the sex, but the control. He writes, "A pimp is happy when his whores giggle. He knows they are still asleep." In the incredible opening paragraphs of the memoir, Slim describes the perils of leaving oneself wide open to interpretation. His nose inflamed from the "gangster" he just snorted, tired, and psychically leaky, he needs to stop up the holes in his persona. (The pimp is anal if nothing else.) To get himself together, Slim performs a ritual transformation that is repeated throughout the book. He disciples his whores by, uh, metaphorically speaking, tearing them a new asshole. The right of mastery is dedicated in the most mundane of manners: a car full of dirty, tired people, creeping through the early morning. But what is played out for the pimp, at the expense of the women, is the reassertion of right. He lays down the law.

Big Daddy Kane, the ur-pimp hip hopper rhymed, "I'll tax that ass like the government." The point is you are the boss. Like the government, like inevitability, that ass will be taxed. The unchallenged patron rapper of pimping is the California wordsmith Too $hort. A featured interviewee in Pimpology, Too $hort tells the boys that he himself was turned out by a grade school pimp when he was just a little Short: "[The guy] was nine years old and he said he was a pimp. I said, 'You nine, how you a pimp?' He said, 'People pay me to talk.'" You have to be a bad ass to get paid just for your breath. The magic trick of pimping is to make something from nothing. He is a student of power, a classic trickster. The pimp sees an impossible situation, then finds a way to maximize. Eldridge Cleaver, Black Panther/ author, and politicain, wed sexual violence to black liberation. In doing so, he played a trump card that electrified the nation. Get that second pork chop, brother.

America did not invent pimping, but it did invent the famous black pimp. He has run rampant through Europe as the devil or another figure of temptation for ages. In the Americas, due to the devilry of slave culture, he was made manifest. The black pimp produces such glee in his audience precisely because he cross-wires the machine. For him to be the master is a local revolution unto itself; for him to trade in a localized zone of human labor is the twist of the screw to the point of giddiness. The irony is that if he does his job well, in order to become a free agent, he must reproduce a peculiarly limited mode of bondage. For, of course, the commodity of pimping is sex. It is a commodity rendered lifestyle by the pimp, formatted across much the same blueprint as the plantation system. One might say pimps are simply repeating a scene of mastery dear to the history of Western culture. Fast food slavery for a commodities market. Instead of selling the whole person, it is but a part. It is the business of dealing with people reduced to parts at which the pimp excels. The pimp is the one who shines up some dark thing and takes her to the market. He maintains control of his stable by circumscribing all behavior, shuttering her down to size.

Code Noir: the historical fetish of slave property

Even from the point of view of early colonial travelogues, sexual repression was not an aspect of West African culture, but self-discipline was. Europeans mistook for lasciviousness in Africans the same qualities of self-determination hailed in liberal theory in the models of Greek and Roman republicanism. Sex and choice had not yet been invented in European culture. The European creation of primitivism in the literature and philosophy of the eighteenth century one might understand as a strategy to contextualize difference by making it ahistorical, thus non-threatening. When we get to a formal theory of the fetish in the late nineteenth-century it is not a coincidence that this same difference is ascribed to the dark continents and primitive peoples to provide an analogy for sexual perversion. In the fantasy of the Industrial Revolution and the destiny of the twentieth, all are subjected to mechanization (rendered object or fetish). Slavery had been a preview to what it's like to be a machine. And how that subjection to the inhuman became a national obssession.

The Code Noir, a conglomeration of loosely assembled laws from early Spanish and French colonial work, as well as strands retained from Roman slave law, established in the late seventeenth century the basic outlines that would govern black slavery in America through the nineteenth century. The Code attempted to address, as all slave law does, the classical anxiety of holding a person property. It is also, I would argue, a legal history that tells the story of how black became a fetish. I quote historian David Brion Davis in his description of the Code:

"The capacity to marry was closely related to the capacity to make contracts, own property, and hold offices or commissions, all of which were specifically denied by the Code Noir. As early as 1623 Bermuda prohibited Negroes from exchanging goods for tobacco without the consent of their owners; and within a century British colonies from Connecticut to Barbados had evolved an elaborate system of police regulations which required Negroes to have a pass or ticket, signed by their masters, for buying or selling goods. These measures, which were designed to curtail theft, were a tacit admission that a slave might act as his master's agent."

As Davis points out, it is the possibility that the slave can stand in for the master, i.e. be his agent or accurate representative, that reminds the lawmakers why there is need for the law in the first place. One rarely fears that one's cat or horse will pay for the groceries or sleep with one's wife. It is the slave's ability to mimic the gestures of agency that make him the most helpful of tools and the most dangerous. ("People pay me to talk.") The prohibition against slave marriage is a critical point in dehumanization and the "ruin" of slave mores. To allow a slave to marry recognizes agency and right to contract--it would make the slave too close to the citizen. Of course, slaves did marry and some masters blessed the unions, but the law went unaltered. The fundamental shift between American slavery and the history of world slavery is that in the New World slavery was not a caste but a race. All of the weight of the Code Noir would come to be justified not upon "rightful" conquest, but a racially organized holy mandate, and by the late eighteenth-century, science. The basis of slavery shifts from social condition to genetic precondition. In the growing black population of the colonies, and the growing imbalance of power between slave and master class, the legal system and social custom moved further away from the slave as subject by reinforcing the slave as property. That the use of black slaves as sexual slaves became part of a black market economy was an event pre-established by laws such as the Code Noir. Slavery in the United States created an economic and social order. What was it also reflected was a cathectic relationship to blackness.

Skin can't really be a fetish because it is a whole, not a piece. But color, like class, can be. "I go for maids." "I dig black girls." They are equivalent statements regarding desire for a type not a one. In 1909, sitting in Vienna, Freud writes that everyone is subject to perversion. "A certain degree of fetishism is thus habitually present in normal love," Freud writes in Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. The distinction he draws between normal and broken is expressed as a difference of scale. You have tipped the scales once a lady's garter can actually replace the lady herself. This kind of mistake is characterized as a sexual perversion. What the Code Noir and other such documents institute is the serial repetition of taking the lady for a garter: slave law validates the condensation of a person into an intimate object quickened only by the desire of the master. This, one might say, is a social perversion. Fundamentally, a person is an unsuitable fetish. A fetish, by definition, has to be a thing. The specific and finite (personal perversion) is directed toward public and general (a cultural mandate). One can say then that the overcompensation and over-investment that historically characterize slavery can be considered a kind of fetishist behavior. [footnote 6] For black people to be treated that way was not just wrong, it was pathological.

Pimp Theory is a formal readdress of mastery even as it is a form of repetition compulsion. It relies on the double spin, playing the black fetish. It is a philosophy that states that a priori the consolidation of power happens--with or without your consent. Pimp theory says, "We being an intelligent people, we knew that it was happing any way so we had to benefit from it." After planning an escape by water and land with his comrades on the Freeland plantation, Douglass was finally returned to Baltimore as an overly independent, skilled, difficult Negro. One day he wrote himself a note that explained he was a sailor traveling for his owner along such and such a route. He then put on a sailor's uniform and took the train to New York. Pimping it, Douglass rode the wheels of steel to freedom. He went from horsey back to Cadillac.

"Responsibility rests upon recognition, and recognition is a form of agreement," state Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. All the big dogs understand that agency calls for representation, yet black had no public agency. If you are outside the economy, you are free to play any card in the deck. In the pimp discovery of America, the Joker's wild. Pimp Theory is to be that thing so thoroughly for your audience (whores, patrons, colleagues) that one is able to rob the man and have him thank you for it. That is the magic trick, the moment of transformation, and that's why he's a Black Nationalist hero. And now you know why the little girls love L'il Bow Wow. The pimp perfects that peculiarly black American skill to hide in plain sight.

© 2002 21C Magazine