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The Conversion of Gucci Mane

Also, is RZA a clone?

Last Tuesday night, the rapper Gucci Mane married his longtime girlfriend, beauty and fitness entrepreneur Keyshia Ka’oir, live on BET. The bride wore white; so did everyone else. The event materialized on TVs and streaming devices like a fairytale, as if beamed in from a black utopia. (The interior design theme was probably something like “opulent igloo.”) With diamonds and glittering gems adorning the hall, the affair was, in the parlance of Gucci, so icy. The traditional matrimonial accoutrements were there: something borrowed (the concept, from Diddy’s all-white Hamptons parties), something blue (the light refracted from jewels). The something old and the something new were both Gucci, who, having undergone a stunning physical conversion in the last year, has been accused—in jest and in all seriousness—of being a clone. This weird idea has now followed him all the way to the billowy-curtained, ethereal cloud-like atmosphere of his wedding parlor, the enchanted Mount Olympus of trap music’s Zeus.

The “Gucci is a clone” meme articulates something that has historically been projected onto black people, which is the idea that we have no interior agency.

The conspiracy theory first started when Gucci was released from prison last summer, sporting a new physique and mentality. It was clear that a paradigm shift had taken place. Of his metamorphosis, he writes in The Autobiography of Gucci Mane, “I felt different. Sharper. Stronger. More at ease. The exercise was helping me deal with stress. I wanted to push myself harder, transform myself further.” (In this light, the wedding’s all-white look also signified a clean slate, the blanc of a fresh piece of paper that you might write rhymes on.) But people are not so accepting of change. Browsing The Shade Room the other day, I saw a comment under a post about the wedding that read, “the real Gucci wouldn’t have gotten married.” Many other comments and tweets said the same, more or less.

Perhaps for some, Gucci’s jumping the broom felt too sudden a pivot from his old ways, from the days when he released the Trap House series of albums and mixtapes. This was the man, after all, who penned “Freaky Girl”—now he had brought his girl home to mama. To them this marriage, not to mention Gucci’s new lease on life, is highly suspicious. The whole scheme, in fact, risks alienating Gucci’s core fan base. Which is to say that the “Gucci is a clone” meme is internet catnip taken curiously far, but it is also the articulation of an idea that has historically been projected onto black people—the idea that we don’t have, or shouldn’t exercise, interior agency.

Gucci’s 180 reminds me of a circumstance involving RZA, the legendary producer, musician, and leader of the Wu Tang Clan. On Monday of last week, RZA appeared on Power 105.1’s The Breakfast Club to talk about Wu Tang history and promote the band’s new album. After digging in the crates, so to speak, and offering old chestnuts about music production, he dropped a bit of recent nostalgia. Namely, he spoke about an incident from last October involving Azealia Banks, who claimed that while attending a party with RZA, the actor Russell Crowe spat in her face, choked her, and called her the n-word. Crowe denied that he used the n-word, and alleged that Banks had acted combatively, insulting partygoers and threatening to cut a woman’s face. The situation must have been complicated for RZA, because it involved Banks, who’s also the star of his upcoming film Love Beats Rhymes, and Crowe, who acted in his directorial debut, 2012’s The Man With The Iron Fists. After the incident, RZA admitted to TMZ that Crowe did in fact spit in Banks’s face, but backed up Crowe’s version of events. Now, a year later, he  has reiterated some of what Banks alleged, saying “He spit at her. I saw that.” When asked by Breakfast Club host Charlamagne Tha God if RZA had addressed the spitting incident with Crowe, given the racial undertones of a white man spitting on a young black woman, he said that Crowe apologized to him. He did not say Crowe apologized to Banks.

In a statement posted on her Facebook page, Banks wrote of her disgust and disappointment with RZA’s failure to take her side:

I finally make it to Hollywood to star in a film and to get spit on and completely disrespected at a party, by a legendary actor more than twice my age was a nightmare. I would think that one of my mentors and friends in RZA would have taken my back immediately and called it out for what it was, and not waited a year for the world to recently cave-in and realize how awful women can be treated in Hollywood. I’m still disgusted that it happened to me, but feel somewhat vindicated.

Instead of having her back, on The Breakfast Club, RZA spoke evasively about the things that go down in Hollywood’s private spaces. “I think we just had a bad night. Look, bad nights happen,” he said. “There’s always a party you can go to, and it’s usually real private. We in a world now, that when something happens it explodes. So, if that would have been something that happened and stayed in the room, it would have been something that happened and stayed in the room. But it got out the room.”

It’s not shocking that RZA, like many other men with power in the entertainment world, are oblivious to their actions and the ways that women are systematically abused, both in and outside of their industry. I did not think he was a feminist, or even an ally. But what’s surprising is that RZA, who is known for being the abbot, the man who engineered Wu Tang’s rise out of the projects of Staten Island and Brooklyn, basically Kanye-shrugged the incident away, as if he was unable to affect anything. Almost thirty years after coming into the entertainment world with an insurgent’s attitude, it seems RZA is kowtowing to power.

The comparison is revealing: both RZA and Gucci Mane have made stark shifts in their points-of-view. But one man, Gucci, has radically changed his lifestyle for the sake of his personal happiness, bucking an institutional credo of hard living and groupie-loving; RZA, on the other hand, now sounds like a company man. Maybe the latter’s move is some kind of wizened ambivalence about the corridors of power, but more likely it’s co-optation into a dark system. This departure leads one to wonder: is RZA, AKA Bobby Digital, the actual clone?

What do we mean when we say someone is a clone? While the term “android” has been around since at least 1728, “clone,” meaning an exact replica, originated in the early twentieth century. The terms were popularized with novels and films, specifically Philip K. Dick’s 1968 sci-fi novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the source text for Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). Dick’s ideas gave American pop culture the word “replicant” and further popularized “android.” Star Wars and Dolly the Sheep cemented these ideas into the ‘80s and ‘90s zeitgeist.

Recent events have prompted a resurgence in the use of sci-fi metaphors to explain the real world. For some, the 2016 election, the Patriots’ improbable Super Bowl comeback, and the Academy Awards’ “Best Picture” gaffe all brought credence to Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrum’s “simulation” theory.” In a piece called “Did the Oscars Just Prove That We Are Living in a Computer Simulation?” the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik engaged a thought experiment that posited we might be “living in the Matrix, and something has gone wrong with the controllers.” (That wild thought has been disabused with a smart race and class analysis.) Our predilection for using fictive technological ideas to give meaning to real life is a fact of living in the twenty-first century. So on the one hand, yes, it makes sense that someone has invoked artificial intelligence to poke fun at a new and improved Gucci Mane. But these ideas do have a long tail.

Another idea with a long tail: there is a longstanding argument, one that dates back to the antebellum period, that says black people simply lack interiority. Famously, in Thomas Jefferson’s treatise “Notes on the State of Virginia,” the president referred to black expression as a mask-like “eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immoveable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race.” Then there’s the uppity “zip coon” minstrel figure—a poor copy of an intelligent white man—who wore finery, used malapropisms, and comically failed to recognize his inhumanity. The Jefferson writing and the minstrel character, while not sci-fi concepts per se, are fictive, and at one point the former was deemed scientifically plausible. They did the work of undermining black intelligence, linking it to mimicry and comparing its function to that of inanimate objects. These notions were part of a larger cultural machinery that enforced a degraded view of black inner life.

In Louis Chude-Sokei’s The Sound of Culture: Diaspora and Black Technopoetics, the writer links the android to conceptions of blackness that formed as early as the 1900s. “Far in advance of cyborgs of [Donna] Haraway and [Michael] Chaney,” he writes, “the linkage of Negro, dolls, and automata, and blackface and machine already operated within an unquestioned logic, each as a mask of the other.” This systemic machinery continues, in Hollywood, in the music industry, at parties with the Gladiator, and in Harvey Weinstein’s hotel rooms and offices. Which is why Russell Crowe can spit at—or on—Azealia Banks and think nothing of it. It’s why Richard Ford, in 2002, angered by a critical review Colson Whitehead had written of his latest book, spat in the younger author’s face at a party and defended the act for years to come. (In June, fifteen years after the assault, Ford wrote in Esquire that he still doesn’t regret his actions.)

Gucci Mane is not a clone, and neither is the RZA. But they both work in the entertainment industry, an institution that often tries to invalidate the humanity of others, even as it professes to be (and occasionally is) a conduit for thoughtful and expressive work. It’s a place where the black man is not God, as RZA (through his belief in the Five Percent Nation credo) would have it; nor are women—Hollywood is ruled by wealthy white men. Writing about the Weinstein scandal for the New York Daily News, Caitlin Flanagan acknowledged that while systemic sexual harassment can happen in any industry, “Hollywood probably has a special talent for hiding dark secrets for decades because there are few industries with such a fantastic glut of overqualified workers and such a tiny number of available jobs.”

If living within a capitalist framework makes us expendable, most of us are then capable of being cloned.

If living within a capitalist framework makes us expendable, most of us are then capable of being cloned, of being replaced by more compliant, cheaper, less difficult labor. RZA’s failure to defend Banks in that moment a year ago, as problematic as she can be, suggests that he might be the sort of person who would rather retain his Hollywood valuation (and connections) than challenge it when the moment arises. I won’t deny him his intellectual agency, but that’s a depressing thought. It’s frustrating to see powerful men of all races throw up their hands at systemic injustice. To borrow a dark phrase from Jefferson, that routine ambivalence—with its attendant handwringing and “I knew, too” maneuvering—is eternally monotonous to watch. It’s the kind of inhumanity bred by gross privilege.

Gucci Mane’s wedding, on the other hand, made me feel good. While a BET television show is not revolutionary by any stretch of the imagination, it’s worth it to see a black man embrace his autonomy—Gucci has also promised to remain an independent artist—against an industry that would rather strip him of it altogether.