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Talkin' 'bout the Ghetto: Popular Culture and Urban Imaginaries of Immobility


  • I am grateful to Petrina Dacres, Wayne Modest, Christien Klaufus and Freek Colombijn for their comments on an earlier version of this article, and to the three anonymous IJURR reviewers for their helpful suggestions. Effort was made to ascertain the copyright status of all lyrics quoted in this text. I apologize in advance for any omissions or errors that may have been made in this regard.

Rivke Jaffe (, Institute of Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology, Leiden University, PO Box 9555, 2300 RB, Leiden, The Netherlands.



The concept of the ghetto, referring to specifically urban experiences of sociospatial marginalization, has played a prominent role in black popular culture. This article explores the role of the ghetto as a discursive space of immobility and traces its global journey as a mobile imaginary. Focusing mainly on the US and the Caribbean, it explores how this popular culture imaginary is produced and employed to frame and negotiate social and spatial marginalization in a broad range of urban settings. As ‘the ghetto’ begins to travel through the global dissemination and appropriation of black popular culture, its relation to racialized understandings of blackness shifts. This move, in which the ghetto can belong to anyone, allows the imaginary both to function as a site for the production of transgressive, cosmopolitan ‘immobile subjects’, and to be transformed by commercial forces into a global commodity.


Le concept de ghetto, visant les expériences spécifiquement urbaines de la marginalisation socio-spatiale, a pris une grande place dans la culture populaire noire. Cette étude porte sur le rôle du ghetto vu comme un espace multiple d'immobilité, tout en retraçant son voyage planétaire en tant qu'imaginaire mobile. Consacrée surtout aux États-Unis et aux Antilles, elle explore comment cet imaginaire de la culture populaire est créé et utilisé pour définir et surmonter la marginalisation sociale et spatiale dans divers cadres urbains. Au fur et à mesure que «le ghetto» se déplace grâce à la propagation et à l'appropriation de la culture populaire noire à travers le monde, sa relation avec les conceptions racialisées de la négritude évolue. Ce flux, grâce auquel le ghetto peut appartenir à n'importe qui, permet à l'imaginaire d'opérer comme site de production de «sujets immobiles», cosmopolites et transgressifs, tandis que les forces commerciales le transforment en produit mondialisé.