China: [singing melodramatically] Another lesson learned! Better know your friends! Or else you will get burned! Gotta count on me! ’Cause I can guarantee that I’ll be fine. . . . No more pain, no more pain, no more drama in my life, no one’s gonna hurt me again.
China identifies with the adversity Mary J. Blige has overcome, as illustrated both in her music and in the performer’s personal narrative. Asked why Blige is her favorite singer, China responded:
She’s mad real. She don’t front for nobody. If you listen to her music you learn stuff about her life and how she struggled to get where she is. She’s not just singing about how she’s out at the club. She’s mad real.
While Blige’s personal struggles, which include overcoming poverty and drug addiction, resonate with China, her subway performance is less about China’s own “drama” and more an action staged in defiance of her surroundings. Unlike the many child performers, such as break dancers and candy sellers who earn a living on the subway, China’s mini-performance is improvised and not intended to please anyone other than herself and her friends. She negotiates the public space of the subway as if on the attack and uses her poor singing as an affront to the other riders. China and her friends are accustomed to adults, especially White adults, regarding them suspiciously in public settings. When they shop for clothes, salespeople and other shoppers observe their every move, certain that they are shoplifters. At school, asserting a West Indian identity can sometimes put China in the good graces of teachers, but in settings such as the subway and retail stores, China is stereotypically marked by her age, gender, and race.
Placing Black Youth
China and Nadine are among the West Indian teenage girls you will get to know in this book. While China’s raucous rendition of Blige’s song took place on a New York City subway, Black teenage girls are overwhelmingly represented in national and global popular discourses in negative terms, either as being “at risk” for teenage pregnancy, obesity, or sexually transmitted diseases or as helpless victims of inner-city poverty and violence. Examples include the pregnant, overweight, and abused young woman depicted in the film Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire and the fat-lipped and scarred pictures of Barbadian hip-hop/R&B star Rihanna after famously being assaulted by her boyfriend, singer Chris Brown. Meanwhile, popular images represent their male counterparts as dangerous menaces to society or as hapless casualties of pathological family life; common portrayals of a Black inner-city teenage boys include dark-faced, hooded drug dealers, aspiring rappers, and, the character Precious’s male equivalent, the illiterate football player rescued by an affluent White family in the film The Blind Side. These representations do not fully convey the diverse, real life experiences of Black teenagers. However, such popular representations are pervasive and often portray Black adolescents’ consumer and leisure culture as corruptive, uncivilized, and pathological. This book is intended to intervene and to heed the alarm educators, policymakers, parents, and the media have sounded with regard to the negative ways in which teens in general, and Black teenage girls in particular, are being “influenced” by popular Black youth culture. She’s Mad Real takes Black youth culture as its starting point, arguing that West Indian adolescents are strategic consumers of popular culture and that, through this consumption, they assert far more agency in defining race, ethnicity, and gender than academic and popular discourses tend to acknowledge. The consumer and leisure spheres are revealed not as unabashed arenas of pleasure and power but as dynamic sites in which marginalized Black teenage identities are produced and contested, confined and liberated. Indeed, we will see that youthful racial, gender, and nation-based identities are critically constructed in popular representations.
She’s Mad Real: Authenticity, Femininity and Popular Black Youth Culture
She’s Mad Real paves new ground by engaging concerns about female adolescent identity formation vis-à-vis consumer culture with the social construction of West Indian notions of belonging. It addresses questions such as: What constitutes Blackness in today’s global world? Are teenage girls equipped to form strong self-definitions in the face of a hip-hop culture that is largely characterized as corruptive? The pursuit of “authentic Blackness” takes center stage in youthful constructions of Black femininity, and China emphasizes this centrality when she describes Mary J. Blige as “mad real.” She plainly articulates African diaspora scholars’ theorizations regarding the importance of authenticity in popular Black youth cultures (Fleetwood 2005; Gilroy 1993; Gray 1995; Hall 1996; Jackson 2005; Kelley 1997; Ogbar 2009). This book puts West Indian and African American girls in dialogue with scholars who have analyzed the paradoxes attached to notions of Black authenticity. The West Indian and African American girls you will meet strive to identify “real Black people” among the contradictory media images routinely offered to them. This is, of course, a tangled and precarious exercise. For West Indian youth in particular, “realness” is contingent and deeply problematic—they struggle to negotiate “authentic” West Indian selves while sometimes simultaneously identifying with African Americans. The quest for authenticity also has significant implications for the youths’ gender identities. For China and her friends, calling a performer like Mary J. Blige “mad real” is the highest compliment they could bestow because it connotes a feminine style that confronts and circumvents mainstream racialized and classed notions of beauty. Thus, being “mad real,” “really for real,” and “keepin’ it real” reemerge throughout this text as a central trope.
These scripts provide guidelines for proper and improper behavior, for legitimate and illegitimate group membership, for social inclusion or ostracism. We use these scripts as easy shorthand for serious causal analysis, and scholars who invoke “racial authenticity” usually do so to talk about how such scripts delimit individuals’ social options—describing how racial identity can be made to function a lot like social incarceration, a quotidian breeding ground, claims Paul Gilroy, for even more brutal forms of fascism (Gilroy 2000; Jackson 2005, 13).
Rather than interrogating authenticity to “delimit individuals’ social options,” in this book we will come to see girls’ reliance on “being mad real” as central to their subjectivity formations as critical social actors. While a number of scholarly analyses interpret the pursuit of realness as serving to essentialize Black people and limit Black youths’ chances for success by situating them outside White mainstream America, She’s Mad Real reveals how girls use invocations of realness to (re)write their own social scripts (Fleetwood 2005; Gilroy 1993).
 As anthropologists Sargent and Harris note, “child fostering” is not an exclusive outcome of migration, rather, it is a “prevalent” and “culturally legitimate” survival strategy in the West Indies, where an urban Jamaican woman, for example, may pass her children to rural kin if she is financially unable to care for them (Sargent and Harris 1998, 212).
Below is an excerpt from LaBennett’s new book, She’s Mad Real: Popular Culture and West Indian Girls in Brooklyn (NYU Press, 2011).