Queering Hip-Hop, Queering the City: Dope Saint Jude’s Transformative Politics





Hip-Hop Queer politics Gentrification Apartheid

How to Cite

Haupt, A. (2016). Queering Hip-Hop, Queering the City: Dope Saint Jude’s Transformative Politics. M/C Journal, 19(4). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.1125
Vol. 19 No. 4 (2016): transform
Published 2016-08-31

This paper argues that artist Dope Saint Jude is transforming South African hip-hop by queering a genre that has predominantly been male and heteronormative. Specifically, I analyse the opening skit of her music video “Keep in Touch” in order to unpack the ways which she revives Gayle, a gay language that adopted double-coded forms of speech during the apartheid era—a context in which homosexuals were criminalised. The use of Gayle and spaces close to the city centre of Cape Town (such as Salt River and Woodstock) speaks to the city as it was before it was transformed by the decline of industries due to the country’s adoption of neoliberal economics and, more recently, by the gentrification of these spaces. Dope Saint Jude therefore reclaims these city spaces through her use of gay modes of speech that have a long history in Cape Town and by positioning her work as hip-hop, which has been popular in the city for well over two decades. Her inclusion of transgender MC and DJ Angel Ho pushes the boundaries of hegemonic and binary conceptions of gender identity even further. In essence, Dope Saint Jude is transforming local hip-hop in a context that is shaped significantly by US cultural imperialism. The artist is also transforming our perspective of spaces that have been altered by neoliberal economics.

Setting the Scene

Dope Saint Jude (DSJ) is a queer MC from Elsies River, a working class township located on Cape Town's Cape Flats in South Africa. Elsies River was defined as a “coloured” neighbourhood under the apartheid state's Group Areas Act, which segregated South Africans racially. With the aid of the Population Registration Act, citizens were classified, not merely along the lines of white, Asian, or black—black subjects were also divided into further categories. The apartheid state also distinguished between black and “coloured” subjects. Michael MacDonald contends that segregation “ordained blacks to be inferior to whites; apartheid cast them to be indelibly different” (11). Apartheid declared “African claims in South Africa to be inferior to white claims” and effectively claimed that black subjects “belonged elsewhere, in societies of their own, because their race was different” (ibid). The term “coloured” defined people as “mixed race” to separate communities that might otherwise have identified as black in the broad and inclusive sense (Erasmus 16). Racial categorisation was used to create a racial hierarchy with white subjects at the top of that hierarchy and those classified as black receiving the least resources and benefits. This frustrated attempts to establish broad alliances of black struggles against apartheid. It is in this sense that race is socially and politically constructed and continues to have currency, despite the fact that biologically essentialist understandings of race have been discredited (Yudell 13–14). Thanks to apartheid town planning and resource allocation, many townships on the Cape Flats were poverty-stricken and plagued by gang violence (Salo 363). This continues to be the case because post-apartheid South Africa's embrace of neoliberal economics failed to address racialised class inequalities significantly (Haupt, Static 6–8). 

This is the '90s context in which socially conscious hip-hop crews, such as Prophets of da City or Black Noise, came together. They drew inspiration from Black Consciousness philosophy via their exposure to US hip-hop crews such as Public Enemy in order to challenge apartheid policies, including their racial interpellation as “coloured” as distinct from the more inclusive category, black (Haupt, “Black Thing” 178). Prophets of da City—whose co-founding member, Shaheen Ariefdien, also lived in Elsies River—was the first South African hip-hop outfit to record an album. Whilst much of their work was performed in English, they quickly transformed the genre by rapping in non-standard varieties of Afrikaans and by including MCs who rap in African languages (ibid). They therefore succeeded in addressing key issues related to race, language, and class disparities in relation to South Africa's transition to democracy (Haupt, “Black Thing”; Haupt, Stealing Empire). However, as is the case with mainstream US hip-hop, specifically gangsta rap (Clay 149), South African hip-hop has been largely dominated by heterosexual men. This includes the more commercial hip-hop scene, which is largely perceived to be located in Johannesburg, where male MCs like AKA and Cassper Nyovest became celebrities. However, certain female MCs have claimed the genre, notably EJ von Lyrik and Burni Aman who are formerly of Godessa, the first female hip-hop crew to record and perform locally and internationally (Haupt, Stealing Empire 166; Haupt, “Can a Woman in Hip-Hop”). DSJ therefore presents the exception to a largely heteronormative and male-dominated South African music industry and hip-hop scene as she transforms it with her queer politics. While queer hip-hop is not new in the US (Pabón and Smalls), this is new territory for South Africa. Writing about the US MC Jean Grae in the context of a “male-dominated music industry and genre,” Shanté Paradigm Smalls contends,

Heteronormativity blocks the materiality of the experiences of Black people. Yet, many Black people strive for a heteronormative effect if not “reality”. In hip hop, there is a particular emphasis on maintaining the rigidity of categories, even if those categories fail [sic]. (87) 

DSJ challenges these rigid categories. 

Keep in Touch

DSJ's most visible entry onto the media landscape to date has been her appearance in an H&M recycling campaign with British Sri Lankan artist MIA (H&M), some fashion shoots, her new EP—Reimagine (Dope Saint Jude)—and recent Finnish, US and French tours as well as her YouTube channel, which features her music videos. As the characters’ theatrical costumes suggest, “Keep in Touch” is possibly the most camp and playful music video she has produced. It commences somewhat comically with Dope Saint Jude walking down Salt River main road to a public telephone, where she and a young woman in pig tails exchange dirty looks. Salt River is located at the foot of Devil's Peak not far from Cape Town's CBD. Many factories were located there, but the area is also surrounded by low-income housing, which was designated a “coloured” area under apartheid. After apartheid, neighbourhoods such as Salt River, Woodstock, and the Bo-Kaap became increasingly gentrified and, instead of becoming more inclusive, many parts of Cape Town continued to be influenced by policies that enable racialised inequalities. Dope Saint Jude calls Angel Ho: 

DSJ: Awêh, Angie! Yoh, you must check this kak sturvy girl here by the pay phone. [Turns to the girl, who walks away as she bursts a chewing gum bubble.] Ja, you better keep in touch. Anyway, listen here, what are you wys?

Angel Ho: Ah, just at the salon getting my hair did. What's good? 

DSJ: Wanna catch on kak today?

Angel Ho: Yes, honey. But, first, let me Gayle you this. By the jol by the art gallery, this Wendy, nuh. This Wendy tapped me on the shoulder and wys me, “This is a place of decorum.”

DSJ: What did she wys?

Angel Ho: De-corum. She basically told me this is not your house. 

DSJ: I know you told that girl to keep in touch!

Angel Ho: Yes, Mama! I'm Paula, I told that bitch, “Keep in touch!” [Points index finger in the air.]

(Saint Jude, Dope, “Keep in Touch”)

Angel Ho's name is a play on the male name Angelo and refers to the trope of the ho (whore) in gangsta rap lyrics and in music videos that present objectified women as secondary to male, heterosexual narratives (Sharpley-Whiting 23; Collins 27). The queering of Angelo, along with Angel Ho’s non-binary styling in terms of hair, make-up, and attire, appropriates a heterosexist, sexualised stereotype of women in order to create room for a gender identity that operates beyond heteronormative male-female binaries. Angel Ho’s location in a hair salon also speaks to stereotypical associations of salons with women and gay subjects. In a discussion of gender stereotypes about hair salons, Kristen Barber argues that beauty work has traditionally been “associated with women and with gay men” and that “the body beautiful has been tightly linked to the concept of femininity” (455–56). During the telephonic exchange, Angel Ho and Dope Saint Jude code-switch between standard and non-standard varieties of English and Afrikaans, as the opening appellation, “Awêh,” suggests. In this context, the term is a friendly greeting, which intimates solidarity. “Sturvy” means pretentious, whilst “kak” means shit, but here it is used to qualify “sturvy” and means that the girl at the pay phone is very pretentious or “full of airs.” To be “wys” means to be wise, but it can also mean that you are showing someone something or educating them. The meanings of these terms shift, depending on the context. 

The language practices in this skit are in line with the work of earlier hip-hop crews, such as Prophets of da City and Brasse vannie Kaap, to validate black, multilingual forms of speech and expression that challenge the linguistic imperialism of standard English and Afrikaans in South Africa, which has eleven official languages (Haupt, “Black Thing”; Haupt, Stealing Empire; Williams). Henry Louis Gates’s research on African American speech varieties and literary practices emerging from the repressive context of slavery is essential to understanding hip-hop’s language politics. Hip-hop artists' multilingual wordplay creates parallel discursive universes that operate both on the syntagmatic axis of meaning-making and the paradigmatic axis (Gates 49; Haupt, “Stealing Empire” 76–77). Historically, these discursive universes were those of the slave masters and the slaves, respectively. While white hegemonic meanings are produced on the syntagmatic axis (which is ordered and linear), black modes of speech as seen in hip-hop word play operate on the paradigmatic axis, which is connotative and non-linear (ibid). Distinguishing between Signifyin(g) / Signification (upper case, meaning black expression) and signification (lower case, meaning white dominant expression), he argues that “the signifier ‘Signification’ has remained identical in spelling to its white counterpart to demonstrate [. . .] that a simultaneous, but negated, parallel discursive (ontological, political) universe exists within the larger white discursive universe” (Gates 49).  The meanings of terms and expressions can change, depending on the context and manner in which they are used. It is therefore the shared experiences of speech communities (such as slavery or racist/sexist oppression) that determine the negotiated meanings of certain forms of expression. 

Gayle as a Parallel Discursive Universe

DSJ and Angel Ho's performance of Gayle takes these linguistic practices further. Viewers are offered points of entry into Gayle via the music video’s subtitles. We learn that Wendy is code for a white person and that to keep in touch means exactly the opposite. Saint Jude explains that Gayle is 

a very fun queer language that was used to kind of mask what people were saying [. . .] It hides meanings and it makes use of women's names [. . . .] But the thing about Gayle is it's constantly changing [. . .] So everywhere you go, you kind of have to pick it up according to the context that you're in. (Ovens, Saint Jude and Haupt)

According to Kathryn Luyt, “Gayle originated as Moffietaal [gay language] in the coloured gay drag culture of the Western Cape as a form of slang amongst Afrikaans-speakers which over time, grew into a stylect used by gay English and Afrikaans-speakers across South Africa” (Luyt  8; Cage 4). Given that the apartheid state criminalised homosexuals, Gayle was coded to evade detection and to seek out other members of this speech community (Luyt 8). Luyt qualifies the term “language” by arguing, “The term ‘language’ here, is used not as a constructed language with its own grammar, syntax, morphology and phonology, but in the same way as linguists would discuss women’s language, as a way of speaking, a kind of sociolect” (Luyt 8; Cage 1). However, the double-coded nature of Gayle allows one to think of it as creating a parallel discursive universe as Gates describes it (49). Whereas African American and Cape Flats discursive practices function parallel to white, hegemonic discourses, gay modes of speech run parallel to heteronormative communication. 

Exclusion and Microaggressions

The skit brings both discursive practices into play by creating room for one to consider that DSJ queers a male-dominated genre that is shaped by US cultural imperialism (Haupt, Stealing Empire 166) as a way of speaking back to intersectional forms of marginalisation (Crenshaw 1244), which are created by “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” (hooks 116). This is significant in South Africa where “curative rape” of lesbians and other forms of homophobic violence are prominent (cf. Gqola; Hames; Msibi). Angel Ho's anecdote conveys a sense of the extent to which black individuals are subject to scrutiny. Ho's interpretation of the claim that the gallery “is a place of decorum” is correct: it is not Ho's house. Black queer subjects are not meant to feel at home or feel a sense of ownership. This functions as a racial microaggression: “subtle insults (verbal, nonverbal, and/or visual) directed toward people of color, often automatically or unconsciously” (Solorzano, Ceja, and Yosso 60). This speaks to DSJ's use of Salt River, Woodstock, and Bo-Kaap for the music video, which features black queer bodies in performance—all of these spaces are being gentrified, effectively pushing working class people of colour out of the city (cf. Didier, Morange, and Peyroux; Lemanski). Gustav Visser explains that 

gentrification has come to mean a unit-by-unit acquisition of housing which replaces low-income residents with high-income residents, and which occurs independent of the structural condition, architecture, tenure or original cost level of the housing (although it is usually renovated for or by the new occupiers). (81–82) 

In South Africa this inequity plays out along racial lines because its neoliberal economic policies created a small black elite without improving the lives of the black working class. Instead, the “new African bourgeoisie, because it shares racial identities with the bulk of the poor and class interests with white economic elites, is in position to mediate the reinforcing cleavages between rich whites and poor blacks without having to make more radical changes” (MacDonald 158). In a news article about a working class Salt River family of colour’s battle against an eviction, Christine Hogg explains, “Gentrification often means the poor are displaced as the rich move in or buildings are upgraded by new businesses. In Woodstock and Salt River both are happening at a pace.” Angel Ho’s anecdote, as told from a Woodstock hair salon, conveys a sense of what Woodstock’s transformation from a coloured, working class Group Area to an upmarket, trendy, and arty space would mean for people of colour, including black, queer subjects. 

One could argue that this reading of the video is undermined by DSJ’s work with global brand H&M. Was she was snared by neoliberal economics? Perhaps, but one response is that the seeds of any subculture’s commercial co-option lie in the fact it speaks through commodities (for example clothing, make-up, CDs, vinyl, or iTunes / mp3 downloads (Hebdige 95; Haupt, Stealing Empire 144–45). Subcultures have a window period in which to challenge hegemonic ideologies before they are delegitimated or commercially co-opted. Hardt and Negri contend that the means that extend the reach of corporate globalisation could be used to challenge it from within it (44–46; Haupt, Stealing Empire 26). DSJ utilises her H&M work, social media, the hip-hop genre, and international networks to exploit that window period to help mainstream black queer identity politics.


DSJ speaks back to processes of exclusion from the city, which was transformed by apartheid and, more recently, gentrification, by claiming it as a creative and playful space for queer subjects of colour. She uses Gayle to lay claim to the city as it has a long history in Cape Town. In fact, she says that she is not reviving Gayle, but is simply “putting it on a bigger platform” (Ovens, Saint Jude, and Haupt). The use of subtitles in the video suggests that she wants to mainstream queer identity politics. Saint Jude also transforms hip-hop heteronormativity by queering the genre and by locating her work within the history of Cape hip-hop’s multilingual wordplay. 


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Author Biography

Adam Haupt, University of Cape Town

Adam Haupt is an Associate Professor in the Centre for Film & Media Studies at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. He is the author of Stealing Empire: P2P, Intellectual Property & Hip-Hop Subversion (HSRC Press, 2008) and Static: Race and Representation in Post-apartheid Music, Media and Film (HSRC Press, 2012). His research interests include hip-hop, critical race theory, gender politics, social media and intellectual property.