summer hits

The Misunderstood Cultural History of City Girls’ ‘Twerkulator’

“The word twerk went into the Oxford English Dictionary in 2013 with the wrong definition — the Oxford people got that wrong.” —Dr. Kyra Gaunt

Among the shortlist of hits that Switched on Pop anticipates keeping on steady repeat this summer is “Twerkulator” by Miami rap duo City Girls, led by the commanding presence of its two young stars, JT and Yung Miami. It’s a track with enough sonic energy to power a small town (not to mention a matching viral TikTok dance whose momentum led to the song’s official release), but that’s not all we love about it. The music includes a chain of samples that stretches back through pop history — from ’90s house to ’80s electro to ’70s German krautrock — and poses an implicit challenge to some of hip-hop’s most problematic figures. Meanwhile, the lyrics celebrate a tradition of movement that’s as culturally important as it is misunderstood.

To break down the manifold dimensions of twerking, Switched on Pop co-host Nate Sloan sat down with Dr. Kyra Gaunt, ethnomusicologist, professor, author, and presenter of the TED Talk “Broadcasting Black Girls’ ‘Net Worth’,” to discuss the history of the dance — which even the Oxford English Dictionary got wrong. You can listen to the episode and read an excerpt from the discussion below.

You’ve described the music industry, like so much of the rest of the world, as a hostile space for Black women. When you listen to a song like “Twerkulator,” do you hear it as trying to reclaim some of that space?
I think there is something that defies imagination and logic, at least for me as somebody who’s from an older generation, about how twerking — and this sex-positive moment and this resistance to shame and blame — is being launched by these women artists. I would say that the shift probably should be marked in 2013 when the music industry really started to monetize music streams, particularly through YouTube and [now] through other platforms like TikTok. Women like City Girls and Cardi B have been able to use these platforms in ways not unlike the kind of early manifestation of underground culture out of the back of your trunk, making cassettes.

What made you interested in researching twerking?
At ground zero, I’m a dancer. As I’ve been doing this research the last 20 years, more and more I’m realizing just how it is really about kinesthetic nonverbal communication and the power of dance and African diasporic culture.

So that’s one layer of it. But the other was that I was offended for young women when Juicy J [held his] 2013 twerk contest for his song “Scholarship.” I was offended as an academic that this song was going to be promoting girls out there to try and buy a $50,000 scholarship; it was hiding the feminization of poverty, not just in the Black community but among white girls, because white girls were most of the people submitting videos for that contest.

But there is some magic happening. I think that City Girls are toying with, I don’t know, revenge porn for hip-hop. But I got into [this research] feeling protective of this young woman who might be the winner [of that Juicy J contest], who goes off to college and is known as “the winner of the twerking contest.”

Meanwhile, I didn’t have a problem with the dance — or at least I eventually and very quickly realized it’s not the dance.

What do you wish people understood about twerking that you don’t think is common knowledge?
So the word twerk went into the Oxford English Dictionary in 2013 with the wrong definition — the Oxford people got that wrong. They said it was a mix of twist and jerk. I spoke to some local people when I first went to New Orleans in 2011, and a guy driving the taxi that I was taking to go to a conference on gender, sexuality, and hip-hop at Tulane said that twerk was a contraction of to work.

And I was like, Oh, of course! It’s to work that body because that is a common trope across translocal communities throughout the United States. Everybody’s “Twerk it baby, work, work that body!” It’s work.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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The Misunderstood History of City Girls’ ‘Twerkulator’