For Shock G, the man who made room for everyone on the dance floor
‘The Humpty Dance’ helped fat girls feel entitled to pleasure, even as we debate the latest unauthorized bikini pic of a Kardashian
I’m only 17% ashamed to admit that the first thing I did after hearing about the bikini pic Khloe Kardashian didn’t want the world to see was go search for the said pic. It was supereasy to find. Kardashian is in a two-piece assembled from animal print fabric strung together on black thread. Her legs are slightly crossed at the thighs, she’s wearing no makeup and she has the soft smile you make when a grandma who cherishes you wants to take your photo.
In other words, Kardashian looks really, really normal.
It’s not that I lack empathy for Kardashian. I’m a woman who’s had terrible photos of herself slapped on the internet. But this is not that. She looks pretty and soft and happy – just not staged and prepped for the consumption that keeps capitalism churning. For years, the Kardashians have cashed in on their contributions to the unattainable beauty standards set by pop culture that paradoxically persuade young women that this level of beauty is attainable in real life with the right purchases. (Belly vanishing tea and lip goop are the starter pack.) Social media is a looking glass that reflects what and who’s allowed to be desirable. Thin waist, thin features. Get you a filter that can do both.
This casual photo of Kardashian popping up online is a Wizard of Oz, behind-the-curtain moment. A friend on Twitter questions this latest Kardashian drama, wondering why they think we, the general public, don’t know the family business is a multibillion-dollar enterprise built on a fantasy made possible by the best lighting, photoshopping, excessive dieting and exercising, plastic surgery and other methods I’m not wealthy enough to know about. I hop into the thread to point out that sometimes the cage is one of our own making, even a beautiful lie is still a lie, and keeping up with your own image ain’t always easy.
By comparison, Cardi B remains unbothered by paparazzi out to catch her off the clock, because the woman has remained real with her audience from day one about what she looks like when she’s not done up. We’ve seen her without makeup, in her bonnet and in all matter of around-the-house clothes. I don’t know what’s at the core of Cardi B’s confidence. But recently, I came to understand that mine, in part, comes from some lyrics in a song whose best-known bars are about getting busy in a Burger King bathroom.
That song, “The Humpty Dance,” was performed by Shock G and the Digital Underground. I hadn’t thought about the group in years, but I was definitely in my feelings when I learned that he died last week at the age of 57. Maybe it was the white wine I’d been sipping that evening, but the news of Shock G’s death catapulted me to the past.
Digital Underground released “The Humpty Dance” in 1990 when I was 5 years old. The music video lost the award for best rap video at that year’s MTV Video Music Awards to MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This.” I had an MC Hammer doll in purple glitter genie pants and I doubt Shock G’s self-esteem anthem disguised as a party rocker was really on my radar like that. But the song likely dominated the radio at the time, the lyrics seeping into my young subconscious on car rides around town.
You can’t always put much weight behind song lyrics. Sometimes they’re dashed off hastily or the performer is simply putting on a persona, and Humpty Hump was Shock G’s alter ego, after all. But what makes “The Humpty Dance” feel real is midway through the song when Shock G raps, “I guess it’s obvious, I also like to write.” It’s a tone shift that gives the words the earnestness of your 10th grade class clown letting his guard down with just you after school. It compels you to move backward and forward in the music to ferret out other truths.
In the music video, shot with what looks like a nearly nonexistent budget, Shock G rocks the mic as Humpty Hump. He’s dressed in a white faux fur cap, tag still dangling, a plaid blazer, a white polka-dot tie around his neck with a second black polka-dot tie slung across his shoulders, and fake glasses with a big plastic nose. When Humpty opened the song rapping about how funny he looks, my kindergarten self couldn’t disagree.
In the ’90s, we may have had Heavy D, the overweight lover in the house, but fat was still, much as it is today, synonymous with unsexy in most circles. Yet when Humpty Hump calls out, “Hey, yo, fat girl, c’mere – Are you ticklish?” it didn’t sound to me like a cruel punchline made at the expense of a woman’s body. It sounded playful. And once I’d gotten older, after experiencing how a man would hock up and spit out the words “Fat b—-!” once rejected, Humpty’s bars sounded joyful and hedonistic.
He was a man making his desires known and making it plain that bodies of all shapes and sizes can be lusted after publicly and are deserving of pleasure: “Yeah, I called ya fat/Look at me, I’m skinny/it never stopped me from getting busy.” In my white wine-induced tribute to Shock G on Instagram story, I passionately made this same argument. A skinny friend slid into my direct messages to share that those bars didn’t just resonate with fat girls who want to be flirted with. He’d used Humpty Hump’s reference to a thin frame as a pre-hookup self-affirmation for years.
I don’t want to force a body-positive lens onto Shock G. The directives for “The Humpty Dance” have not aged well and are ableist, the girls in the music video are all skinny enough to be modern-day social media influencers, and who knows who Shock G was actually sexing down.
But I believe his egalitarian views on pleasure extended beyond this snippet. Later in the song, Humpty raps that he ain’t ashamed of his nose – “It’s big like a pickle!” And on the same album on “Doowutchyalike,” Shock G invites folks of all class and color to strip down and jump into the pool. A year later, Digital Underground released “No Nose Job.” While the song does tip into some body-shaming territory, its primary message is that Black women’s noses, lips and hips don’t need to be corrected by plastic surgery. And Shock G even calls out celebrity greed for furthering the problem: “All of these so-called celebrities selling millions of records and claiming no responsibilities/a young girl sees you on a TV show/she’s only 6 says, ‘Mama, I don’t like my nose!’/Why’d you have to go and mess up the child’s head/So you can get another gold waterbed?!”
Shock G pointed out that little girls can have their view of themselves warped by the media they consume. So maybe it’s not all that unusual that tiny Minda tucked a few words about lusting after a fat girl down into her core to return to over and over again as the years progressed and my body grew and blossomed. That when a culture invested in skinny supremacy tried to teach me that I wasn’t allowed to enjoy my body past a certain weight nor was I worthy of being desired, I had a directive, no matter how minor, to believe otherwise, to continue to seek pleasure and be pleased. How the masses think I should feel about my body never stopped me from getting busy. No Burger King bathroom required.
If you are mindful about who you follow on Instagram, you’ll push past the influencers using their thigh gaps to compel you to buy whatever they’re selling. Your feed can feature fewer backs arched just right in bikinis hitched up high on thighs and more Lizzo blessing you with her body in motion, gleefully being praised and lusted after. You might even tumble into #bookstagram and see books beautifully staged next to cups of tea such as Sabrina Strings’ Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia that makes the link between fatphobia and racism. Or Sonya Renee Taylor’s The Body is Not an Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love with Taylor’s Black body luxuriously splayed on the cover inviting you to revel in your own physical presence. Or a video of Adrienne Maree Brown, author of Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, talking that talk to fill you up, not bring you down. If Instagram insists on selling you something, why not buy what nourishes you?
These books and these Black femme messengers mean I no longer need to protect my desires and my need to be desired with lyrics from a 30-year-old rap song. But it speaks to the power of Shock G’s persona that in just a few words he created a life raft sturdy enough to help keep my self-esteem afloat through culturally engineered waves of self-hatred. Shock G and the Digital Underground will be remembered for their contributions to music, but may Shock G’s memory also be honored for guiding us all toward more pleasure.
If you liked this essay, you can take home a lot more great writing from Andscape by getting our new book, BlackTold, on sale now, wherever books are sold.