1992’s ‘Baby Got Back’ started a revo­lu­tion of em­pow­er­ment

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By Christo­pher J. Smith

Born An­thony Ray in1963, Seat­tle-based rap­per Sir Mix-a-Lot de­vel­oped a di­ver­si­fied ca­reer out of early suc­cess in the niche mar­ket of a re­gional rap scene. “Baby Got Back,” was from his 1992 al­bum “Mack Daddy,” and it be­came a cross-mar­ket an­them, es­pe­cially in the wake of its ac­com­pa­ny­ing mu­sic video, which was briefly banned by MTV, be­cause “Baby Got Back” is a paean to fe­male anatomy.

In the1980s, women’s beauty mag­a­zines like Vogue and as well as and mu­sic videos by rock bands like Whites­nake, Ratt and Bon Jovi — ob­jec­ti­fied big-haired, thin-hipped Cau­casian mod­els. When “Baby Got Back,” was re­leased, the idea of cel­e­brat­ing con­trast­ing fe­male body types was it­self rev­o­lu­tion­ary — but what made it more so was that “Baby” rep­re­sented a cel­e­bra­tion of the black and brown fe­male body.

The video be­gins with par­o­dic di­a­log: two teenaged Cau­casian ac­tresses ob­serve an African Amer­i­can model in a tight knit dress through a styl­ized key­hole:

In an abrupt cut, Mix’s bari­tone roar en­ters:

The cam­era pulls back on Mix, in his iconic Mack-Daddy leather coat and fe­dora, perched atop a gi­ant ab­stract peachshape­d pair of honey-col­ored hills, sur­rounded by his crew and African Amer­i­can fe­male dancers in tight work­out shorts.

In con­trast to the or­na­men­tal white mod­els in main­stream rock videos of the pe­riod, the women in “Baby Got Back” are not posed semi-nude around the frame like ap­pli­ances or tro­phies. In­stead — as was com­mon in hip-hop videos and live dance in the pe­riod — the fe­male dancers pro­vide a pow­er­fully phys­i­cal, vis­i­ble and in­de­pen­dent counterpoi­nt to the rhythm track.

Cer­tainly, cam­era an­gles and edit­ing do not ne­glect the fe­male pos­te­rior. But more sig­nif­i­cantly, the dancers are pow­er­ful in­di­vid­u­als, in­ter­act­ing ver­bally with one an­other and the rap­per. And one cli­mac­tic mo­ment in the rhythm track, a whiplash elec­tronic crack, is mir­rored by one dancer’s flaw­lessly-ex­e­cuted mar­tial arts side-kick.

Mix’s rhymes fur­ther ex­pli­cate the song’s po­lit­i­cal cri­tique of body aes­thet­ics:


When “Baby Got Back” ex­ploded on MTV, Mix and its other pro­duc­ers were ex­plicit about the po­lit­i­cal mes­sage: They pushed back against network ex­ec­u­tives’ timid­ity re­gard­ing both the topic and the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of em­pow­ered booties. Patti Gal­luzzi, a se­nior vice-pres­i­dent at MTV at the time, re­called Mix telling her that the song was a re­sponse to the con­stant bom­bard­ment of women and girls by images of su­perthin mod­els in the me­dia.

Mix even ob­jected, dur­ing the video shoot, to the semi-naked cos­tum­ing orig­i­nally in­tended for the dancers, telling the di­rec­tor “This song is called ‘Baby Got Back,’ not ‘Baby’s a Ho.’ ”

Per­haps the most rel­e­vant ar­gu­ment against the in­ter­pre­ta­tion of “Baby Got Back” as merely sex­ist ob­jec­ti­fi­ca­tion comes from Amylia Dorsey-Rivas, the song’s orig­i­nal in­spi­ra­tion and voiceover artist: “Even if I’d never con­trib­uted to it, I would still have ap­pre­ci­ated what it did. When peo­ple said it was de­grad­ing, I would say there’s not one thing de­grad­ing about that song to any­one who felt like me.”

Mix him­self said, in an “oral his­tory” in­ter­view with Vul­ture’s Rob Kemp in 2013: “Black women got the song im­me­di­ately. Ev­ery­body [from] my mom, to Amylia, to ev­ery black woman I knew or met said ‘about time’ and ‘thank you.’ Girls who didn’t have big butts thought the song was cute, but girls who did have butts thought it was a revo­lu­tion.”

In 2013, 20 years af­ter the song dropped and MTV be­lat­edly got on board, Sir Mix-a-Lot re­turned to his home­town to per­form with the Seat­tle Sym­phony in their “Sonic En­coun­ters” se­ries, which is inted to at­tract new and more di­verse au­di­ences. The tu­mul­tuously joy­ful re­cep­tion of the song — and the mag­nif­i­cent di­ver­sity of body types among the women who Mix in­vited to rush the stage in cel­e­bra­tion — was the clear­est pos­si­ble illustrati­on of dance mu­sic’s ca­pac­ity to in­fil­trate, sub­vert, em­power and lib­er­ate the imag­i­na­tion.

Cos­mopoli­tan —

Oh, my, God Becky, look at her butt It is so big, she looks like

One of those rap guys’ girl­friends. … She’s just so black

I like big BUTTS and I can­not lie…

I’m tired of mag­a­zines

Sayin’ flat butts are the thing…

So your girl­friend rolls a Honda, playin’ work­out tapes by Fonda

But Fonda ain’t got a mo­tor in the back of her Honda…

So says you’re fat

Well I ain’t down with that…

Christo­pher J. Smith is Chair of Mu­si­col­ogy at Texas Tech Univer­sity and the au­thor of “Danc­ing Revo­lu­tion: Bod­ies, Space, and Sound in Amer­i­can Cul­tural His­tory.” This es­say was orig­i­nally writ­ten for Zócalo Pub­lic Square.


Seat­tle Sym­phony-go­ers hopped on­stage with Sir Mix-A-Lot dur­ing the or­ches­tral ren­di­tion of “Baby Got Back.”


Sir Mix-a-Lot

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