Posts Tagged ‘African Diaspora’

514QhW+WJqL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_Enlisting the support of Detroit lyricist Danny Brown and LA-based female vocalist Jhene Aiko, L.A. rapper and Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE) figurehead Ab-Soul offers an anti-capitalist critique in “Terrorist Threats” that plays on new meanings of the African diaspora through a practice of what diaspora theorist Brent Hayes Edwards would call a “vagabond internationalism.” Such a practice balks at American hegemony and imagines a revolutionary coup of the capitalist state through diasporic identification with anti-colonial struggles abroad. Coined by Edwards, “vagabond internationalism” refers to a shifting black community that subsists outside of the labor force, or political economy, and which reframes our understanding of the ‘surplus population’ (made up of “vagabonds”) not as passive recipient’s of the labor force’s alms, but as a testament to “the powerful history of proletarian self-activity.”[1]

Through the lyrics and video performance of “Terrorist Threats,” Ab-Soul and company engage in a diasporic practice of “articulation”–that is, the connection across gaps of cultural difference through shared experience–by which he invokes the name and image of the Rastafarian emperor of Ethiopia Haile Selassie I to introduce the theme of personal agency, predicated on a rejection of the machinery of Western imperialism that runs through the track. Exhibiting a kind of “vagabond internationalism” in its own right, the song is premised on a “radical doubt” about the black male subject’s place in a capitalist system.

Furthermore, the video proffers what black British cultural critic Paul Gilroy calls a “politics of transfiguration”–“the basic desire to conjure up and enact the new modes of friendship, happiness, and solidarity that are consequent on overcoming of the racial oppression on which modernity and its antinomy of rational, western progress as excessive barbarity relied”[2]–in its photographic piecing together of documentary fragments evidencing urban blight, international terrorism, the puppetry of politicos, and the revolutionary zeal of Pan-Africanism.

Ab-soul’s “bad nationalism”[3] ultimately balks at white supremacy through a subversive subtext that challenges the racism inherent in the American political system. In a manner of diasporic exchange, he stakes a claim in his African heritage without aligning himself explicitly with any nation, creed, or dogma. In this way Ab-Soul’s video and lyrics, as indicated by the ironic title of the song, are a threat to the status quo. They are Ab-Soul’s way of playing off of the highly inflated and propagandistic rhetoric of the “War on Terror” in a manner that allows him to launch a figurative counter-terrorism. By way of black expressive culture, in the form of rap music, he rails against the evils of racial violence and, through the power of the written word, negotiates what Houston Baker calls the “economics of slavery.”[4]

In a word, “he ain’t gonna be nobody’s chattel.”

Ab-Soul’s music video for “Terrorist Threats” begins with a refrain sung by L.A. singer-songwriter Jhene Aiko, who offers a variation on an intro to the 1999 Jay-Z hit, “Jigga What, Jigga Who.” As commentators at testify, Ab-Soul first establishes himself as one in lineage with the New York-bred rap mogul, self-proclaimed hustler, and an emperor of the hip-hop movement, Jay-Z, crooning the song’s hook while paying homage to the political heritage of the aforementioned emperor of Ethiopia who ruled between 1930 and 1974.

Considered by members of the Rastafari movement to be the second messiah who would usher in an age of peace, righteousness and prosperity, Haile Salassie was famous for his involvement in Ethiopia’s liberation from Italy during the Italo-Ethiopia crisis, his charter membership to the United Nations, his attempts at land reform, his support for the decolonization of Africa, and his involvement in the Organization of African Unity. With Haile Salassie as his figurative muse, Ab-Soul imagines the possibility of unifying America’s gangs in a plot to take over the military—a subtle jab at militarism in general and the military industrial complex in particular, which exploits the underprivileged and minority populations, and instrumentalizes human bodies to fight so-called wars for freedom.

Haile Selassie I

Haile Selassie I

In this way Ab-Soul summons the emperor’s memory to frame his critique of American society while hinting at political aspirations for Pan-African nationhood with the words, “Wish I could see out Haile Selassie’s eye.” It is through the lens of this proclaimed messiah that he begins his first verse, portraying images of a socio-economically depressed urbanscape. A kind of heterology,[5] the video collects images of the so-called “waste” or “excess” of capitalism with its unsettling documentary evidence of post-industrial urban decay and homelessness. In it, we see a Western cityscape worn down by an outsourced manufacturing industry and the subsequent street politics of drug-trade and gang violence—the result of political disenfranchisement and a racist infrastructure in “Babylon” where thugs (read: street-hustling drug runners and politicians alike), as Ab-Soul says in clever word play, just “babble on.”

A potential victim to involvement in such warfare, Ab-Soul plays on the stereotypes of black culture that he’s internalized as a result of “Mama’s” (read: America’s) claim that violence is in his blood. “But she don’t know what the fuck I been through,” he says, as he pinpoints in a spirit of anti-capitalist critique, the ways in which the African-American male negotiates the economics of slavery: “To creep through the back door, the typical black boy in the good old U-S-A / Before I pushed rhymes like weight, I used to wanna play for the NBA.” Signifying on the black male’s limited access to social mobility, Ab-Soul stakes his claim resolutely, like the black drifters of McKay’s Banjo, in the institution of music at America’s back door. In this vein, Ab-Soul later raps with revolutionary intent, “Pee on your PhD or your AA.”

Likening America to the disdained Babylon of the Rastafari, Ab-Soul claims his agency in this wasteland of failed welfare reform where the destitute sell water to make a buck. He does this through the power of Nommo (a West-African concept) which he uses to rise above a socioeconomic condition likened to chattel slavery—a common trope, as Gilroy makes clear, in rap’s anti-capitalist critique.

This leads to an iteration of the hook followed by Ab-Soul’s second verse, which is an inventory of his arsenal of marijuana strains, sacramental elements of the Rastafarian Movement that sees smoking weed as a spiritual practice, and the rapper’s weapons of choice in the “War on Terror.” Punning on the figurations of gunnery used to label the pot he smokes, Ab-Soul frames his revolutionary aspirations to “link up every gang” and reclaim the American government (read: “put out the White House lights today / We mobbin’ like the black KKK). His references to such strains meanwhile sacramentalize an open letter to President Barak Obama in which he simultaneously commends the President, as black male, for securing such a position of political power, while at the same time calling Mr. Obama’s bluff: “I know you just a puppet.”

The video meanwhile replays disturbing footage of the toppling World Trade Centers to the recitation of: “I see an image of Hitler in the picture / When the Twin Towers dropped.” A conspiratorial gesture, the line intimates a subtle critique of the ways in which the 9/11 attacks were used as propaganda to dupe America into supporting military conquests abroad as Ab-Soul raps: “Peep the concept / You’ve got progress, you’ve got congress / We protest in hopes they confess / Just proceed on your conquest.” In this, Ab-Soul calls the United States to account for the ways in which it wrought such destruction upon itself, if not at the same time suggesting that 9/11 could very well be an inside job.

Thus enters Detroit rapper Danny Brown who rails against the situation of homelessness and poverty in the United States. No stranger to post-industrial decay, he rationalizes, if not justifies, domestic drug-trafficking in light of a seemingly desperate socioeconomic situation at home where society’s most disenfranchised are not being provided for: “Cause I ain’t got shit but an EBT card from a fiend / That owe me and it’s in her daughter’s name / How the fuck is they pose to eat? / How the fuck am I pose to eat?”

Brown, following Ab-Soul’s lead, paints a lyrical picture of a depraved Babylon—seemingly hopeless—where a 400 year-old peculiar institutional legacy continues to manifest in a system of wage slavery (read: “global austerity economy”) with little to no governmental accountability to “the wretched of the earth.” Brown thus raps: “Got a nigga in the streets, no health care / Tryna slang weed just to put shoes on his feet / So fuck you, you don’t give a fuck about me / Can’t get a job if they drug test me / Got a nigga stressed depressed / Got a feeling in his chest / And the world’s stripped of happiness.”

The video meanwhile foregrounds the underlying message of revolt with images of an inverted American flag, the Washington Capital building, President Obama speaking in public, President Reagan (so often and righteously demonized in hip-hop performance), police brutality, and footage of the American military. The phrases “wake up” and “control system” flash across the screen at various points following the song’s midway point as kind of Orwellian injunction to become aware of the ways in which the media disciplines its viewers to view reality. Also interpolated throughout is the visage of Haile Salassie to whom the three rappers, as the “Powerful Trinity” his name represents, stand in salute with the chorus: “Wish I could see out Haile Selassie’ eye / Maybe my sovereignty would still be mine.”

Lastly, most striking is the repeated image of Ab-Soul burning one dollar bills, his ultimate claim on his own freedom, and a staunch inversion of the economics of slavery and commercial deportation that ushered in the capitalist era of modernity on the black backs of slaves.

In their joint proclamation, “I just wanna be free,” Ab-Soul and company both “[mock and deform] pretensions of a civilization that ‘had uprooted, enchained, transported, and transformed’ peoples of African descent ‘to labor under its laws, and yet lacked the spirit to tolerate them within its walls.’”[6]  Music, then, is the “only place where the black boys [and girl] stand—there is no other ‘plot,’ no other ground or foundation, whether nation or narrative, engine or economy, that contains them.”[7]

They seek only their own personal sovereignty without gavel, without fighting anyone else’s battle (particularly that of the U.S. military which would have those least-serviced by their country in service to their country), and without being reduced to commodity in a capitalist system that they successfully  evade, like the vagabonds of Claude McKay’s Banjo, through expressive culture. And Ab-Soul does this, to use Hayes Edwards words in reference to McKay’s text “without grounding [his vision] in any alternative universalism (an internationalism of the ‘human’ or an internationalism of the ‘proletariat,’ for instance). This is an internationalism of the defective: the unregistered, the undocumented, the untracked [and I would add homeless]—a [nationalism], as it were, of all the ‘Doubtful.’”[8] claude-mckey

Ab-Soul’s vagabond aesthetic of racial solidarity is a practice of diaspora that calls on the memory of an Ethiopian revolutionary to create a black American, or “Aframerican,” imaginary which translates across difference as a desire for personal sovereignty against the threat of racist dehumanization. He and his cohorts cannot position themselves in such a provocative stance without the aid of rap music which, to echo James Weldon Johnson’s take on ragtime, “possesses the vital spark, the power to appeal universally, without which any artistic production, no matter how approved its form may be, is dead.”[9]

Ab-Soul’s rapping is a diasporic practice, his way of reading the past of black internationalism to find “relations of ‘difference-within-unity’”[10]  that speak to present circumstances in a spirit of social critique. In saying this, I wish to stress, with Hayes Edwards, that discourses of black internationalism are not limited by class or reserved to black, elitist intelligentsia. This is evidenced by the force of black expressive culture’s hold on the public imagination, particularly today in our hip-hop infused global environment.

In many ways the contemporary rap artist, at least ones of Ab-Soul and company’s caliber, answer Johnson’s injunction to the “colored poet of the United States” to develop, without essentializing,

[a] form that is freer and larger than dialect, but which will still hold the racial flavor; a form expressing the imagery, the idioms, the peculiar turns of thought, and the distinctive humor and pathos, too, of the Negro, but which will also be capable of voicing the deepest and highest emotions and aspirations, and allow the widest range of subjects and the widest scope of treatment.[11]

It is my contention that Ab-Soul proffers us a glimpse of how this might look, feel, sound with his rap-inflected vernacular of cultural criticism and hip-hop ideology, or politics, of form that ultimately “sucks up the national spirit”of American democracy “from the soil and creates something artistic and original” by way of a transnational linkage with the revolutionary, black nationalist spirit of Haile Sallasie I.[12]

In The Wretched of the Earth the Martinique-born Algerian psychiatrist and member of the Algerian Liberation Front (ALF) Frantz Fanon stresses the importance of rooting the anti-colonial struggle for independence in the experience of society’s most underrepresented, giving particular emphasis to the inclusion of the lumpenproletariat in the rebellion.[13] By the same token, he warns that the revolution cannot be reduced to the unchecked spontaneity of revolutionary urges for the brutal reestablishment of nationhood, which has the adverse and ironic effect of turning into chauvinism—an “ultra-nationalism,” as Fanon calls it, that leads to territorialism, inter-tribal warfare, and a more deeply entrenched racism.[14]

He therefore upholds the role of the cultural worker, or what 20th century Marxist social philosopher  Antonio Gramsci dubbed the “organic intellectual,” to help provide a framework for social change that functions to enlighten the consciousness of the masses while staying true to deeply democratic principle of cooperation and socialist principle of redistribution.[15] The nationalist agenda therefore stays from transforming into a dictatorship, the native intellectual stays from turning into a mouthpiece for the colonial bourgeoisie, and the concept of nationhood stays from morphing into a new kind of colonial regime.

A humanist intellectual in his own right, Ab-Soul, and the Afrodiasporic wielders of Nommo (i.e. “the power of the word”) like him, speak from the perspective of the lumpen—the world’s so-called vagabonds and social outcasts who have been severed from ownership over the  means of production by a capitalist system geared specifically for the maintenance of a social order demarcated along lines of class, gender, and race—those identified as racially other (than white) constituting the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic world order.

To use Harlem Renaissance-era black intellectual Alain Locke’s words in reference to the “negro,” Ab-Soul is one of “America’s Troubadour’s”—a “songster of the western world”[16]—with the “utopian aspirations” of one deeply invested in both a “politics of fulfillment” and “transfiguration” inasmuch as he addresses social and political promises that have gone unfilled while implicating the black American struggle in the memory of Ethiopia’s anti-colonial revolution.

Using Ab-Soul’s “Terrorist Threats” as a case in point, hip-hop embodies a deep potential for intercultural exchange—an exercise of “black internationalism” that represents Robin Cohen’s notion of a “deterritorialized diaspora”: a concept of human dispersal, or movement, without a fixed adherence to the idea of exile from and return to an originary homeland, and which stresses how communities of identification develop across transnational boundaries. For his own purposes, Ab-Soul is engaging in a practice of “deterritorialized diaspora” in the context of the black Atlantic–a term used to refer to the formation of black communities on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean rooted/routed in transnational cultural ties as expressed, for example, in art and music.

c6e3a31400953999c030862e0f9b7a3aAs the foregoing discussion posits, hip-hop opens up space for the cultivation of critical consciousness imbued with a cosmopolitan sensibility that is rooted (or “routed”) in an aesthetics and politics of Afrodiasporic solidarity—a shared sense of belonging that signifies on the African diaspora as a kind of unity within difference (and vice versa) through music.

In the context of black America, diaspora signals an experience of dislocation associated with post-industrial urban decay deeply resonant with the anti-colonial struggles of black and, more generally, marginal peoples abroad. As American civil rights leaders Kwame Ture (né Stokely Carmichael) and Charles Hamilton argue, Black Power “means that black people see themselves as part of a new force, sometimes called the ‘Third World’; that we see our struggle as closely related to liberation struggles around the world. We must hook up with these struggles.”[17]

This entails understanding how colonialism operates in a supposedly “free world” such as America. Ab-Soul and a lineage of hip-hop’s rap practitioners with whom he stands convey such an understanding by way of the internationalist stance they embody, establishing cross-Atlantic ties with other diasporic populations.

[1] Brent Hayes Edwards, The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 14-15.

[2] Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), 38.

[3] A term I take from Hayes Edwards that he uses to describe the political stance of the protagonist Ray in Claude McKay’s Banjo:  “‘the vagabond lover of life’” who “‘finds individuals and things to love in many places and not in any one nation’” (quoted in Hayes Edwards, 239). In this way, Hayes Edwards argues, “McKay insists on locating internationalism against the grain of nationalism without grounding it in any alternative universalism (an internationalism of the ‘human’ or an internationalism of the ‘proletariat,’ for instance). This is an internationalism of the defective: the unregistered, the undocumented, the untracked—an ab-nationalism, as it were, of all the ‘Doubtful’” (ibid.).

[4] According to black literary theorist Houston Baker, the trope “signifies the social system of the Old [American] South that determined what, how, and for whom goods were produced to satisfy human wants. As a function of the European slave trade, the economy of the Old South was an exploitative mode of production embodied in the plantation system and spirited by a myth of aristocratic patriarchalism. […] While the ‘economics of slavery’ promoted the dehumanizing plunder of African labor, it also produced a corollary southern mythology of the ruling class. The primary features of this mythology were ‘patriarchy’ and ‘economic paternalism.’” See Blues, Ideology and Afro American Literature: A Vernacular Theory (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1984), 26-27.

[5] The term designates a fascination with “waste” that black culture represents to the civilizing machine which looks down upon it as primitive (see Hayes Edwards, op. cit., 224).

[6] Quoted in Hayes Edwards, ibid., 240.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 239.

[9] James Weldon Johnson, “Preface,” The Book of American Negro Poetry (Book Jungle, 2008), 11.

[10] See Hayes Edwards, op. cit., 11.

[11] Johnson, op. cit., 32.

[12] To borrow Johnson’s terminology, ibid., 15.

[13] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1963), 129-31.

[14] Ibid., 156-58.

[15] Ibid., 180.

[16] Referenced in Paul Gilroy, “Troubadors, Warriors, and Diplomats,” in Darker than Blue: On the Moral Economies of Black Atlantic Culture (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2011), 120.

[17] Kwame Ture and Charles Hamilton, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation (New York: Vintage, 1992), xix.


To conclude this three-part series  which lays out my own framework for interpreting rap music as a form of prophetic criticism, I offer a synthesis of what prominent thinkers in the field of culture studies have to say about hip-hop’s politics and its potential for effecting societal transformation in a global capitalist economy characterized by exploitation and stratification along lines of class, ethnicity, gender, race and sexual orientation. In this, I understand hip-hop as a “world historic culture of freedom” (Gilroy: 2011), and it is on this premise that rapmatrix is ultimately constructed.

Having established a vocabulary by which to “read” rap music with this three-part series,  I intend to engage critically with the lyrical content and performance of songs and albums by influential artists within the genre, including the likes of Jay-Z, Nas, Tupac, and Kanye West among many others in the coming weeks.

So stay tuned, and don’t touch that radio dial!

Hip-Hop’s Politics and the ‘black Atlantic’

In The Black Atlantic (1993), his landmark work of literary theory pertaining to black cultural expression as it is practiced on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, British cultural critic Paul Gilroy foregrounds the moral aspects of black expressive culture in which rap music is situated. Highlighting its “utopian aspirations,” Gilroy implicates it in a “politics of fulfillment,” which is premised on the notion that the future society will be able to realize the “social and political promise that the present society has left unaccomplished.”[1]  This utopian vision also references what Gilroy calls a “politics of transfiguration” that is premised on a “basic desire to conjure up and enact new modes of friendship, happiness, and solidarity”[2] against the threat of racial oppression, existential fragmentation, social alienation, and geographic displacement in our global capitalist economy.

Cover Page, Paul Gilroy's influential "The Black Atlantic" (1993)

Cover, Paul Gilroy’s influential “The Black Atlantic” (1993)

Indeed, as a medium of both identity formation and street-level politics aimed at societal transformation, rap music enables strategies of black self-fashioning in response to “globally conditioned” structures of racism and racialization.[3] In his comparative study of the way hip-hop has informed, fashioned, and stylized the political resistance of minority subjects in their respective struggles against systemic forms of racialized violence in Brazil, Cuba and South Africa, cultural theorist Marc Perry notes how rap groups in each country have employed the art form as a means to create black diasporic identifications that signify on experiences of displacement within a broader, transnational framework of black antiracism.[4] For instance, young artists reference and appropriate signifiers of the African-American freedom struggle, invoking the memory of Malcolm X, the political philosophy of Black Power Poet Amiri Baraka, and the style and sound of socially conscious rap groups such as Public Enemy to voice experiences of displacement associated with diasporic longing in the context of political oppression.

Such are the dynamics of what theorist Halifu Osumare calls the “cultural matrix circulating between Africa and its diaspora”[5] by way of the interaction that comes out of the global exchange of hip-hop commodities. As Gilroy notes, black expressive cultural commodities in the form of books, records, (and, nowadays, digital downloads) have created a “new structure of cultural exchange […] built up across the imperial networks which once played host to the triangular trade of sugar, slaves, and capital. Instead of three nodal points there are now four—the Caribbean, the US, Europe and Africa.”[6] At these points of intersection, black expressive cultural practices have created space, from dancehall to city block, for the cultivation of diasporic consciousness that functions to resist racial/racist exploitation and domination within a global capitalist system.

Tracing the development of black expressive culture in the social milieu of Great Britain, Gilroy writes in ‘There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack’ (1991) that “Afro-America” and the Caribbean have provided the cultural “raw material” in the form of both political ideologies (Rastafarianism, Civil Rights, Black Power) and music (dancehall, reggae, soul, and rap) for the identity formation of black Britain. Speaking of hip-hop’s influence as an African-American cultural export to the UK, he writes that the “rappers and breakdancers who once again established America as the primary source of material for the cultural syncretisms of black Britain, articulated a clear political line which was well received here.”[7] From the perspective of their own sense of social dislocation in a predicament of post-industrial urban blight, hip-hop’s forefathers in The Sugar Hill Gang, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, and Afrika Bambaataa all gave voice to black Britain’s own experience of structural unemployment, police brutality, and drug addiction.[8] American and British black youth have together rediscovered the message of the Black Power, the Civil Rights, and Pan-African movements and thereby come to “define themselves politically and philosophically as an oppressed ‘nation’ bound together in the framework of diaspora by language and history.”[9]

In this, key themes emerge that articulate a spirit of anti-capitalism which abounds in black expressive culture. Gilroy lists them as follows:

1)      A critique of productivisim: work, the labour (sic) process and the division of labour under capitalism;

2)      A critique of the state revolving around a plea for the disassociation of law from domination, which denounces state brutality, militarism, and [extermination];

3)      A passionate belief in the importance of history and the historical process.[10]

The motif of slavery remains a central metaphor in such a critique[11] as it highlights the dehumanizing effects of labor in a global capitalist economy that isolates the worker from the fruits of his or her labor—often times with minimal compensation—and reduces him/her into an object enslaved to the spectacular[12] forces of production and consumption. Rap music therefore functions to articulate a spirit of anti-capitalist resistance in the context of what cultural theorist George Lipsitz calls an “international austerity economy” which is “imposed on urban areas by transnational corporations and their concentrated control over capital.”[13] As a cultural commodity, rap music serves as an avenue by which the historically dispossessed can claim ownership over the means of production and rightly enjoy the fruits of their labor.

Critiques of the state are meanwhile expressed in rappers’ commentaries on “policing, law, imprisonment and criminal justice which have a well-established presence in both Afro-Caribbean and Afro-American cultures.”[14] The Rastafarian symbol of Babylon meanwhile figures in both reggae and hip-hop culture as it signifies on a society repressed by the “coercive violence of police and the military which, though legally legitimate, is often presented as an extension of the slave judicature.”[15] Lastly, the reclamation of history plays a prominent part in the black expressive performance as its recovery, through the cultivation of historical knowledge in song, counters the threat of erasure which originates in the slave experience of what Orlando Patterson has called, ‘social death’—a figurative state of namelessness and invisibility.[16]

Inasmuch as s/he takes on this responsibility of social criticism, the rap artist has a big role to play and does so, as indicated in last week’s discussion of Nommo, by invoking the power of the word to detail an unheard history of struggle. Though unique to the particularity of one’s local culture, the articulation of this struggle has global resonance in terms of the shared experience of marginality it cultivates and the Afrodiasporic aesthetics of the word and the rhythm it draws on to vivify said history. In this way hip-hop creates an “interpretive community”—that is, a community of people who create a new epistemology (read: way of knowing) around shared texts, beliefs, and interpretations of the world that function to communicate across cultural difference.[17]  

Against Paul Gilroy’s more recently pessimistic inventory of the present state of hip-hop,[18] I hold that the expressive medium remains deeply invested in the “world-historic culture of freedom” with which the black Atlantic theorist believes it has lost touch in light of the genre’s seeming preoccupation with consumerism.[19] Indeed, as noted in last week’s post, I see a genre indebted to a folk tradition of signifyin(g) that comes out of the African diaspora and capitalizes on a facility with language that functions to rewrite history from the perspective of “slum dwellers” around the globe suffering from the “imperatives of global capital and its attendant oppression.”[20] Giving voice to such experiences, hip-hop (i.e. rap music) provides, as Lipsitz notes, what Frederic Jameson would call a medium of “global cognitive mapping” whereby the African diaspora “functions throughout the world as a crucial force for opening up cultural, social, and political space for struggles over identity, autonomy, and power.”[21]

Using Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” and Queen Latifah’s “Ladies First” as examples, Lipsitz writes that hip-hop testifies “to the vitaliy of what [Gilroy] calls ‘diasporic intimacy’ in the Black Atlantic world” [22]. A form of “post-colonial art,” the music of hip-hop re-imagines the African diaspora as a kind of black internationalism that is “based in the experiences of peoples and communities rather than in master narratives of a nation state.”[23]  Lipsitz adds:

By virtue of a shared skepticism about the nation state, an identification with the lived experiences of ordinary people, and an imaginative, supple, and strategic reworking of identities and cultures, post-colonial culture holds great significance as a potential site for creating conditions to pose alternatives to the discredited maxims of conservative free-market capitalism.[24]

In its internationalist dimensions, hip-hop ultimately provides its practitioners–to again echo Lipsitz–with a counter-culture invested in and shaped by a “war of position” geared toward the construction of non-violent political coalitions rather than efforts to simply seize state power.[25]

Hip-Hop, Prophetic Criticism, and the ‘New Cultural Politics of Difference’

Cultural work that achieves or aspires to this is grounded in a commitment to what Cornel West calls “prophetic criticism,” a key element of a sturdy cultural criticism. In this West espouses what he dubs a “New Cultural Politics of Difference” in which he defines the role of the cultural worker as one who aligns him or herself with the dispossessed “so as to enable and empower social action for the expansion of freedom, democracy and individuality.”[26]  West writes thus:

To put it bluntly, the new cultural politics of difference consists of creative responses to the precise circumstances of our present moment—especially those of the marginalized. First World agents who shun degraded self-representations, articulating instead their sense of the flow of history in light of the contemporary terrors, anxieties, and fears of highly commercialized North Atlantic capitalist cultures (with their escalating xenophobias against people of color, Jews, women, gays, lesbians and the elderly).[27]

He offers the model of “critical organic catalyst” as the most viable option for meeting the existential, intellectual and political challenges of the New Cultural Politics of Difference.  Derivative of Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci’s notion of the humanist intellectual, the critical organic catalyst is at once artist and critic—a “bricoleur” (one who creates a work from a diverse range of resources) with “improvisational and flexibile sensibilities”[28]—who keeps an eye on the historical contexts of social issues and engages them through the dual lens of individuality and democracy.

As a critical organic catalyst in his or her own right, the rap artist is invested with the power to investigate root causes of social misery for the purposes of, to riff on West, “repoliticizing the working poor” and “forging meaningful alliances with marginalized ‘others.’”[29]  Inasmuch as the rap artist works to this end, s/she operates from a place of displacement, taking a critical stance from a position on the margins and identifying with the plight of the historically dispossessed as a strategy for self-determination.

As noted at the outset of this three part series, rap music has the prophetic potential to negotiate displacement and cultivate in its practitioners a degree of self-consciousness, self-realization, and self-respect that is crucial to an effective cultural criticism. A central component of hip-hop music and culture, rap, in its more prophetic dimensions, communicates narratives of displacement and social dislocation that are part of the Afrodiasporic landscape of post-industrial urban decay which the art form vivified in its beginnings and continues to vivify today.

It is to an exploration of these narratives that rapmatrix is committed…

[1] Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), 37.

[2] Ibid., 38.

[3] Marc D. Perry, “Hip Hop’s Diasporic Landscapes of Blackness,” in From Toussaint to Tupac: the Black International Since the Age of Revolution, edited by Michael O. West, William G. Merton, and Fanon Che Wilkins (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 255. Racialization here defined as the social processes by which a population group is categorized as a, or according to, race.

[4] Ibid., 241.

[5] Halifu Osumare, The Africanist Aesthetic in Global Hip-Hop: Power Moves (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 30.

[6] Paul Gilroy, ‘There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack’: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1991), 157.

[7] Ibid., 182.

[8] Ibid., 183-84.

[9] Ibid., 184 ff.

[10] Ibid., 199.

[11] Ibid., 201.

[12] See Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (Detroit, MI: Black and Red, 2000).

[13] George Lipsitz, “Diasporic Noise: History, Hip Hop, and the Post-colonial Politics of Sound,” in Dangerous Crossroads: Popular Music, Postmodernism and the Poetics of Place (New York: Verso, 1994), 27.

[14] Gilroy, op. cit., 203.

[15] Ibid., 204.

[16] See ibid., 207.

[17] A term coined by American literary theorist Stanley Fish that has been appropriated subsequently by various diaspora theorists.

[18] See Paul Gilroy, “Troubadors, Warriors, and Diplomats,” in Darker than Blue: On the Moral Economies of Black Atlantic Culture (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2011).

[19] See Gilroy, Ain’t No Black, op. cit., 176.

[20] Lipsitz, op. cit., 27.

[21] Ibid., 28.

[22] Ibid., 27.

[23] Ibid., 31.

[24] Ibid., 33-34.

[25] Ibid., 35.

[26] Cornel West, Keeping Faith: Philosophy and Race in America (New York: Routledge, 1993), 4.

[27] Ibid., 4-5.

[28] Ibid., 32.

[29] Ibid., 288.

In last week’s post I further situated my approach to rap music as a kind of prophetic criticism by detailing its history and place on a “continuum of African consciousness in America.” I did so as a means of grounding rap in a cultural apparatus that has relied on music as a form of political resistance. In this, the spoken word plays a key role in articulating resistance and giving voice to experiences of displacement that are part and parcel of the African diaspora—a term which refers to the forced and, more recently, voluntary, movement (read: displacement) of peoples of African descent that began with the European slave trade.

As I note in Part One of this series, rap music finds its home in the cultural practices of the African diaspora, particularly as it pertains to the rhythmic use of language for the purposes of communicating a prophetic message. In what follows, I treat rap as a variation on the art of signifyin(g) and emphasize the Africanist (or African-derived) aesthetic of orality in rap music as a means to self-fashion. Moreover, I emphasize rap as a means to profess an oppositional stance from a place of displacement that constitutes the ongoing history of the African diaspora. It is a history burdened with the memory of the slave trade as it persists in experiences of post-industrial urban decay in a society still stratified along lines of race, class, and gender. By situating hip-hop in this history of displacement that is African diaspora, I  foreground the transformative power of rap’s orality[1], and its role in navigating the “diasporic” terrain of the U.S. urbanscape as well as in negotiating the terms of African-American identity through the power of the written word–what in West African parlance is called, “Nommo.”

The Signifyin(g) Power of the Word: Rap’s Nommo

With roots in African bardic traditions and linguistic elements derived from a style of African-American vernacular—“properly called black street speech”—rap makes use of African-dervied (or “Africanist”) linguistic features such as tonal semantics (i.e. a rhythmic style of speech that characterized by syllabic stress and melodic vocal inflection) as well as signification.[2] Also punned on as “signifyin(g),” signification is a rhetorical strategy that finds its inspiration in the folk tradition of the West African (Yoruba) trickster Esu-Elegbara and his derivative, New World equivalent the Signifying Monkey. The trickster is an enigmatic figure who stands between two worlds as the mediator of divine and human will, and factors prominently in African and African-American folk wisdom as a kind of wise fool and prophet, sought out for insight on matters of ultimate importance in light of its ability to interpret the world of everyday experience through a facility with figurative language, including, but not limited to, such devices as metaphor, irony, parody, satire, and wit.

In his seminal treatment of signifyin(g), literary theorist Henry Louis Gates Jr. defines it as an Afrodiasporic[3] style of discourse that plays on standard English through the filter of African-American (or “black”) vernacular. As he calls it, signifyin(g) is a “trope of tropes” that makes use of figurative language to persuade, insult, praise, repeat, revise, encode, and ultimately self-preserve, particularly in the context of political oppression.[4] In its readiness to relay images that offer an interpretation of the world of everyday experience in an emotionally evocative manner, particularly through the use of figurative language, rap is rife with signifyin(g) power.

Cover, The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism (1988)

Cover, The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism (1988)

In this way, it invokes Nommo, or “the power of the word.”[5]  A West African concept, Nommo is a primary component of the Africanist aesthetic which underlies rap. First introduced to Western letters in cultural anthropologist Marcel Griaule’s Conversations with Ogotomeli (1948), it reflects the human potential to direct life force in light of human power over, or facility with, language.[6] Ethnomusicologist Cheryl Keyes notes that Nommo permeates orality throughout the African diaspora and, according to Ceola Baber, “‘generates the energy needed to deal with life’s twists and turns; sustains our spirits in the face of insurmountable odds [and] transforms psychological suffering into external denouncements…and verbal recognition of self-worth and personal attributes.’”[7]

Nommo, like signifyin(g), is also indicative of the connection between the human and spiritual worlds, invoking an image of the “crossroads.”  A key trope in West and Central African and African-American folk culture, it represents “‘the juncture of the spiritual realm and the phenomenal world.’”[8] As cultural anthropologist and Black Studies scholar Halifu Osumare notes, “this ability to wield Nommo, viewed as a gift from God, charges humankind with the vitality of cocreation with each invocation of word power.”[9] She adds, “each human has an attendant responsibility to the power invoked through verbal pronunciation (orality and singing) and physical gesture (embodiment and dance).”[10] With its rootedness in African orality, rap is one medium for fulfilling this responsibility that Nommo entails.

Moreover, rap is resonant with alamo, a rhythmic speech form found in the oral tradition of West Africa.[11] Part of a “well-documented general category of oriki (praise-poetry) of the Yoruba,” alamo is characterized by a combination of singing and talking in rhythm that the Yoruba believe to be the speech of a deity talking through the poet, or, in context of this discussion, the rapper.[12] Speaking to the African presence in hip-hop orality, cultural historian Brenda Dixon Gottschild writes: “‘[r]ap’s form—the rhythmic base, together with the characteristic signifying, or making ironic, double-edged social and personal commentary through rhymed stanzas or couplets—is African. The concept of Nommo, the power of the word, is alive and well in hip-hop.’”[13] Undoubtedly, rap is an Afrodiasporic practice that, according to Osumare, has “direct and persisting resonances with specific African ethnic groups, such as the Yorubua, Bakongo, and Wolof.”[14]

Yet, as hip-hop studies scholar Tricia Rose makes clear, rap is a specific style black orality that cannot be separated from the cultural movement of hip-hop and the historical forces from which hip-hop emerged. With roots in Africa, it served, and still serves, as a creative response to truncated educational opportunities, poor housing standards, unemployment and other aspects of social dislocation that are part of the postindustrial urban predicament in America. In the way of urban “storying,”[15] the rap artist—as postmodern embodiment of the traditional West African griot, archetypal trickster and prophet—maps, manages and navigates a social terrain pock-marked by violence, relying on figurative language to speak truth to power.[16] For sure, rap provides its practitioners with an “ontological [read: existential] stance”[17] by which to create the self through oral performance[18] and, as African-American cultural critic Michael Eric Dyson puts it, expresses an “ongoing preoccupation with literacy and orality that has characterized Afriacn-American communities since the inception of legally coerced illiteracy during slavery.”[19]

Through indirection, circumlocution, metaphor (with images rooted in the everyday “real” world), humor, irony, moral lessons, punning, and the unexpected, rap invokes Nommo to portray scenes of a ghetto landscape to create ‘lyrical movies.’[20] As early rap classics such as Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message”[21] and Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks”[22] indicate, rap music’s form as a kind of urban storytelling useful for the creation of “lyrical movies,” is a way to address the displacement African-Americans experienced in the midst of a desolate urbanscape.

From its inception in New York City, hip-hop has, in the words of Marc Perry, “assumed an increasingly significant role in shaping contemporary forms of black diasporic consciousness and subjectivity.”[23]  Though it is not an explicitly black cultural practice, it has become a medium of expression for experiences of urban marginality that signify on blackness as a dual symbol of displacement and political resistance for youth within and beyond the United States.[24] In this way it hearkens British cultural critic Paul Gilroy’s notion of the black Atlantic. As an interpretive device, the black Atlantic provides a conception of the African diaspora that gets beyond strict ties to nationhood and ethnicity as well as to an essentialist[25] notion of racial identity.

The black Atlantic is, ultimately, a kind of cultural community rooted in transnational affiliations between various cultures of African descent that result in cultural syncretism—or cultural blend and overlap—which contemporary theory labels “hybridity.” In his landmark attempt to restructure the methodologies of black cultural criticism in The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (1993) and his earlier effort of similar ilk, ‘There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack’: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation (1991), Gilroy foregrounds the inherent hybridity of rap music as an African-American art form that flaunts styles of Caribbean and Jamaican sound.

Indeed, the Bronx out of which hip-hop spawned was, and remains, a cosmopolitan center representative of the black Atlantic.[26] A site of diasporic social belonging in its own right, the borough brought together African-derived cultures including Jamaicans, Puerto Ricans, Barbadians, Cubans, and North American blacks that, “though discreetly different, all had music and dance diffusive factors that cross-referenced each other as African diasporic expressive cultures.”[27]  Osumare puts it this way:

From salsa break beats that first inspired African-American b-boys, to the funk thumps (first introduced by Sly and the Family Stone’s bassist Larry Graham) that replaced Jamaican dancehall rhythms in Kool Herc’s New York revisions, these cultures signified upon one another naturally, each being a part of an amalgam of diasporic cultures that continue to reflect U.S. urban life in New York [and, I would add, cities across the nation].[28]

In this regard, hip-hop is an innately diasporic practice—not only by retaining a distinctly Africanist aesthetic in its use of orality and rhythm, nor in the way it signifies on various black expressive cultural forms, but in its politics as well. In its political dimensions, rap transcends cultural absolutism—or strict ties to cultural identity—and thereby breaks down barriers constructed by the alienating forces of nationalism. It functions as a means to self-fashion in the context of a global community not bound strictly to borders and boundaries. Rather, rap opens up space to communicate across difference and celebrate it as a kind of unity in the context of the African diaspora where displaced individuals can share experiences of marginality associated with the disenfranchisement wrought by the social dislocation attendant to forced (and sometimes voluntary) movement.

It is to a further discussion on rap’s Afrodiasporic politics of social belonging and prophetic resistance that this thread will turn in Part Three of this series. There I will synthesize what scholars within the field of hip-hop and diaspora studies have to say about rap’s role in bringing about social change with key emphasis on common themes that emerge in its practice as a form of prophetic criticism.

[1] It is outside of the scope of this essay to offer an extensive treatment of rap’s other elements including its use of technology to enhance the power of rap as speech act.

[2] Cheryl L. Keyes, “At the Crossroads: Rap Music and Its African Nexus,” Ethnomusicology 40.2 (Spring-Summer 1996), 231-32.

[3] A term which refers to the cultural practices that emerge out of the African diaspora, which designates the history of the forced migration of millions of Africans to European colonies in America that began with the slave trade. The African diaspora today entails aspects of voluntary movement and resettlement not strictly bound to the “imposition of the economic and political rule of alien peoples in Africa” (See George Shepperson, “The African Abroad or the African Diaspora,” in Emerging Themes of African History, ed. T.O. Ranger [Nairobi, Kenya: East African Publishing House, 1968], 153). In this context, diaspora functions not only as a kind of geographical displacement that entails narratives of exile and return, but as a dynamic process of intersection by which cultural difference is negotiated through cultural practices such as hip-hop.

[4] See Henry Louis Gates, Jr., The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 67, in which Gates treats Frederick Douglass’ recollection of field hollers, or slave songs, as an invitation to discuss the function of signifyin(g) as coded language. Signifyin(g) was undoubtedly useful in a situation of slavery. For instance, the Negro spirituals “signified” on white Christianity by appropriating its language about the “promised land” to imagine a present and future of freedom, at once existential and political.[4] Singifyin(g), as a rhetorical strategy in which the language of the oppressor was used as a defense, or counter-oppressive force, thus functioned as a strategy for survival—a way to revise commonplace tropes and reinterpret them in coded language for the purposes of protest, and to create a world of meaning particular to African-American experience. For an extended treatment of the spirituals see John Lovell, Jr. Black Song: The Forge and the Flame—The Story of How the Afro-American Spiritual Was Hammered Out (New York: Paragon House Publishers, 1972).

[5] Keyes, op. cit., 234.

[6] Halifu Osumare, The Africanist Aesthetic in Global Hip-Hop: Power Moves (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 31.

[7] Quoted in Keyes, op. cit., 234.

[8] Ibid., 234.

[9] Osumare, op. cit., 32.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 34.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Quoted in ibid., 32.

[14] Ibid., 35.

[15] A term I borrow from literary theorist Kevin Young. See The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness (Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 2012).

[16] As Rose has it, this is achieved through a process of “flow, layering and ruptures in line”—terms she borrows from African-American cultural critic and cinematographer Arthur Jafa—which refer to the motion of lyrical and musical lines sustained by patterns of speech and rhythm that are punctuated by “sharp angular breaks” through the DJ techniques of “cutting” and “scratching” (Tricia Rose, Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America [Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press], 38). She argues that these “effects at the level of style and aesthetics suggest affirmative ways in which profound social dislocation and rupture can be managed and perhaps contested in the cultural arena” (Rose, 39).

[17] That is, a way to position oneself in the world in accordance with one’s sense of beinghood, or existence.  In this regard, “ontological” refers to the term “ontology,” which is a branch of a philosophy concerned with the nature of being or existence as such.

[18] Michael Eric Dyson, Reflecting Black: African-American Cultural Criticism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 276.

[19] Ibid., 12.

[20]Keyes, op. cit., 232-33.

[21] See “The Message,” The Message, Sugar Hill Records, CD, 1982.

[22] See “The Breaks,” Kurtis Blow, Mercury, CD, 1980.

[23] Marc D. Perry, “Hip Hop’s Diasporic Landscapes of Blackness,” in From Toussaint to Tupac: the Black International Since the Age of Revolution, edited by Michael O. West, William G. Merton, and Fanon Che Wilkins (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 233.

[24] Ibid., 232-33.

[25] By “essentialist” I mean an understanding of racial belonging which views race as a kind of biological “essence” and, in this, more than a social construct used to designate differences in skin color.

[26] See Osumare, op. cit., 30.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.