When Erykah Badu released her digital mixtape But You Can’t Use My Phone in late 2015, she embedded into the album art and her songs a code to her fans. The code revealed the telephone number to a burner phone, which she diligently answered, taking FaceTime calls from those who knew how to look, decipher, and take a chance at calling her. The mixtape itself celebrates the wordsmiths of black culture, from classic R&B to the latest Drake song—all waxing poetically and frankly about hooking up, connecting, and communicating over the phone. Badu effortlessly distills the complexity of sexual and cultural hopes, expectations, and longing in a simple turn of phrase, “I can make you put your phone down. ”
Similarly, Norman and Simmons—who mine the Internet for their poems—examine the entanglement of sexual and cultural expectations, finding inspiration in the provocative, frustrating, and cunning comments of Bossip users. As users’ comments turn into conversations with one another, they spill over the boundaries of the article’s content, actively breaking down social decorum and public mores. Norman and Simmons painstakingly trace the ways in which users develop sexual codes that appear to be effortless, and yet tirelessly continue to update a black vernacular.
While playful and vulgar, communicating through the comments is not a thoughtless or meaningless process. Yielding the wit and its underlying anxiety of these exchanges, Norman and Simmons demonstrate how words, concepts, and emotions reverberate between poetry and hip-hop. The poems, like the comments, utilize the vivid imagery to crystallize the sexual exchanges that can be overtly chauvinistic and wildly defiant, coquettish and devastating. Indicative of a coded black online culture that both hides and reveals the meaning of its signs, Norman and Simmons tease out these hieroglyphs in a series of complex echo poems that are shaped by both unseen rules and improvisation.
For Norman and Simmons, these codes abounding online are simultaneously formal, social, and technological. As Lauren Cramer points out, “stale mackerels, ” “ghetto gazelles,” and “rachet butterflies” transform women into impossible forms. These forms continue to shape-shift as they make their way out loud, online, and in print, taking on social meaning, if not figuration, through their proliferation. These interwoven formal, social, and technological codes are elaborated once more in the digital form of Norman and Simmon’s poems. Like Badu, Norman has buried messages within her online text. For those who know how to look, decipher, and take a chance, surprising images, sound, and text can elaborate on the ever-evolving world of Les Bossip Mademoiselles.
Written by Kristin Juarez
Kristin Juarez is a PhD student at Georgia State University, studying race and experimental art practices.