Posts Tagged ‘Hip-Hop’

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.


Sometimes it’s like I can see the future stretched out in front of me—just plain as day. The future, Mama. Hanging over there at the edge of my days. Just waiting for me—a big, looming blank space—full of nothing. Just waiting for me. But it don’t have to be. – Walter, A Raisin in the Sun, I.ii

Yes—just look at what the New World hath wrought!…Just look! There he is! Monsieur le petit bourgeois noir—himself! There he is—Symbol of a Rising Class! Entrepreneur! Titan of the system! Did you dream of yachts on Lake Michigan, Brother? Did you see yourself on that Great Day sitting down at the Conference Table, surrounded by all the might bald-headed men in America? All halted, waiting, breathless, waiting for your pronouncements on industry? Waiting for you—Chairman of the Board! I look at you and I see the final triumph of the stupidity of the world! – Beneatha, A Raisin in the Sun, III


On the album New Amerykah Part One (4th World War), neo-soul singer Erykah Badu offers a black female counter-narrative to what black radical feminist bell hooks calls the “imperialism of patriarchy,” re-imagining America as a site of universal humanity where, “as sure as All and All is one, we All shall grow before it’s done.”[1]  In this, Badu works to unveil the dystopian dimensions of the American Dream, breaking the chains of her own imprisonment to its seductive allure of bourgeois comfort through a hip-hop inflected feminist critique of the legacy and structure of male dominance on which the promise of the American project is premised.

At the outset of the album Badu satirizes American capitalist utopianism, implicating it an economics of slavery by which one’s entire being is exchanged for the falsely perceived security of money and sex. In “American Amerykahn Promise,” a male voice—presumably that of the corpse-like, gun-toting Uncle Sam pictured in the album sleeve—speaks for this illusion of economic and social stability. Backed up by female singers as if a game-show host, this troubling icon of American hegemony offers a deceptively warm welcome to his audience, advertising America as a beautiful place of true love and fulfilled desire.  In the background a choir repeats the refrain, “promise promise amerykahn promise,” and, is if brainwashed, sing:

Promise I’ll love you ‘til the day I die / Promise I’ll love you good and give you the sky / Promise I’ll never love another guy / Promise I’ll give you things that you can’t buy / I’ll give you my nose / I’ll give you my toes / I’ll give you my eyes / I’ll give you my ears / I’ll give you my hands / I’ll give you my lips / I’ll give you my tongue / I’ll give you my thighs / Damn near anything you want

In a manner of irony, the song signifies on modern conceptions of the New World, believed by the architects of modernity to be a land of figurative “milk and honey”—a land fashioned on the black backs of slaves who were forced to give “nose, toes, eyes, ears, hands, lips, tongue, thighs” for the purposes of realizing the American Dream.

Badu meanwhile critiques the process of socialization whereby subjects are conditioned to hand over their history in exchange for what the figure of Uncle Sam in the song calls “a modern mystery”—a dream of Utopia as it exists “across space and before time,” where there is “more action, more excitement, more everything” as long one “stays on the grind.” This is particularly the case for the female subject in America as intimated in the song when Uncle Sam admonishes a “young lady”—curious about the status of her “42 Laws” (read: human rights)—for “causing quite a disturbance over here.” He proclaims in the fashion of an Orwellian Big Brother, “I want everyone to see this. I think we’re gonna have to make an example of her. Rid me of her sight. But before you get rid of her, give me a brain tissue sample of her. We’re gonna have to use it. We might need that later.”

Through satire, “American Amerykahn Promise” references the way “American women have been socialized, even hooks_aint i a womanbrainwashed, to accept a version of American history that was created to uphold and maintain racial imperialism in the form of white supremacy and sexual imperialism in the form of patriarchy.”[2] As hooks writes, the success of such indoctrination depends upon the conscious and unconscious perpetuation of the very evils that oppress black women.[3] Badu implies this much toward the song’s end when we hear a woman’s voice giving the directive, “Ok, when he say a key word, everybody, everybody just shout.” Critiquing the way power is organized and consolidated through a process of double- or groupthink, Badu laments the loss of individual rights to a warped vision of democracy that has implanted in our psyches “a seed of the racial imperialism,” to quote hooks, which keeps the black female subject in bondage.[4]

This critique runs through the rest of the album, which functions as a collective “wake-up call” to those seduced like the characters of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun by an American Dream, the real dimensions of which are “white supremacy, black ‘inferiority,’ […] fascism and war.”[5] Understood this way, the American Dream is really a guise for an oppressive system of white male patriarchy that judges an individual’s worth—whether male or female—according to his or her productive capacity, and establishes a hierarchy of being according to normative codes of gender, class, race, and sexuality that place black women at the very bottom.

Badu’s rallying cry against patriarchal and racial imperialism is made explicitly clear in tracks such as “Soldier.” An anti-war, anti-fascist and Black Power protest song in its own right, “Soldier” finds Badu calling for an increase in critical consciousness through education, non-violence, and a deeper rootedness in individual and collective Black history:

BACK BLACK!!! / What am I talkin’ about / Everybody know what the songs about / They be trying to hide the history / But they know who we are / Do you want to see? / Everybody rise to the next degree / Raise your hands high if you agree / Just say YES SIR-REE….

Channeling the spirit of Harriet Tubman—with a “shot gun on ya’ back”—Badu stakes her claim in the cause of black radicalism as a female leader, thereby assuming a revolutionary role typically reserved to black men in the struggle for liberation.[6]

In so doing, Badu puts herself on equal footing with the likes of black male leaders such as Nation of Islam head Louis Farrakhan, invoked in the beautifully contemplative self-tribute, “Me,” when she sings, “I salute you Farrakhan…cause you are me…” Signifying on the Nation of Islam’s newspaper The Final Call, Badu reminds us that we “got the wake up call / when [we] saw the buildings fall.” Referring to the 9-11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centers, Badu implicates the Black Nationalist call for economic justice in the struggle against American racial imperialism that the razed buildings, monuments of American neo-colonialism, represent. She further protests American racial imperialism by alluding to the dispossession of a large percentage of New Orleans’ black community—“baptized,” as Badu sings, “when the levy broke”—in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Badu therefore sings to prevent black history’s erasure by the “powers that be.” Calling on black activists—“my folks”—not to stop “‘till you change they mind,” Badu takes her place in a lineage of black matriarchs such as Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Mary Church Terrell, Sojourner Truth, and Angela Davis who exercised a dogged strength in the causes of women’s suffrage, anti-lynching, abolition, and black power respectively. Most important to Badu, however, is the role of her own blood mother Kolleen Gibson Wright, “a girl from South Dallas, Texas,” who married William, gave birth to “Erkyah, then Chorea (sp?) under Erykah, and then […] finally delivered Evan Wood.” According to Badu, “[Kolleen] look like a model with those eyes. She was witty and beautiful.”

People were drawn to her smile. “Lovely, young and fresh,” sings Badu, “I could not think of a better soul that I’d rather be like or admire. Kolleen is tighter, smarter, quicker than the average bear. Even though, even though it was hard. You would never ever know it.” A testimony to the power of black womanhood, this sung homage to her mother, a coda to “Me,” portrays a message similar to that of Hansberry’s Raisin…, signifying the “strength and self-sacrificing nature of the single black mother working to ensure the survival of her family.”[7]

Through Badu’s description of Kolleen, we glimpse a portrait of an assertive, self-possessed and independent black woman whose role as mother functioned to embody a kind of black liberation specific to the female experience.

Indeed, in the liner notes she dedicates the project to her grandmothers, Thelma Louis Gipson and Mattie Viola Wilson, and “to their struggle as young women and their knowing as old women.” Badu adds, “Because of you I sing!!!” Punning on the words “matriarch” and “artist,” she writes, “We love you! Matriarts! Soldiers! Women! Creators! Life givers! Friends! Teachers! I owe you. I am you. I love you.”

This is coupled with shout-outs to fellow music-makers—male and female—in whom she finds peers, as well as a note of thanksgiving to God whose gender she queers, “I give thanks to the Most High Freaq. [a fusion of  “Freak” and “Frequency”]. The Original G [read: “Gangsta”]. The Author of The Story. The Time Keeper. The Mother/Father-rhythm duo. The All Knowing One of ONENESS of ONE.”

It is under this banner of divine unity in multiplicity that Badu implicates herself in a collective struggle that is the work of a uniquely black female subject in particular and a universal human subject in general. As such, Badu can tell her brothers and sisters in “My People” to “hold on / thru the thunder and lightning” for a love that conquers all division is “on the way.”

And who are these people? They are the Brendas of Badu’s testament to the reality of post-industrial urban blight in “The Cell,” who “done died with no name” as result of drug addiction—symptomatic of the greater social ill of racial imperialism. Diagnosing the problem as a social sickness, Badu sings, “we’re not well / we’re not well / we can tell,” before asking:

Will they ever find the vaccine? / Shitty-damn-damn-baby-bang / Rich man got the double barrel, / Po man got his back to the door…/ Code white, stand for trouble…/ Shots from the po-po

Echoing the likes of Tupac, Nas, Black Star, and Cornel West, Badu addresses the issue of black nihilism in America, which functions as a fatalistic response to white supremacist oppression along the lines of class, gender, race and sexuality. In this case, society is a figurative slave chamber, a holding cell to keep black bodies in check through a system of heightened surveillance, police brutality, and the prison industry itself. Moreover, it is market-driven, promising happiness through the attainment of material wealth—“shiny new things / (diamond gold chains diamond gold rings)” as the song goes— that is ultimately inaccessible to those, namely racial minorities, on the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder.

Furthermore, Badu indicts American society in the exploitation of black female bodies.  In this vein, Brenda’s “light-skinned body” signifies a history of miscegenation that often happened through rape to which black women were subjected at the hands of white slave masters. Such exploitation manifests today as prostitution, pornography, and sex trafficking.

Possibly a child of rape, the fictional Brenda finds herself reduced to the status of commodity, a dehumanized object splayed nude across a “center-fold spread.” A synecdoche for the exploited black female laborer, she is Badu’s frame of reference for protesting a broken social system that capitalizes on the black body as a source of national revenue. As the album art for the song suggests, the black body, symbolized by a blood-red thumbprint, is worth nothing more than the price assigned to it by a bar code.

Badu also problematizes the dual issue of materialism and black nihilism in “Twinkle.” Against the threat of fatalism, she sings:

They don’t know their language / They don’t know their god / They take what their (sic) given / Even when it feels Odd / They say their grandfathers and grandmothers work hard for nothing / And we still in this ghetto / So / They end up in prisons / They end up in blood

Echoing hooks’ contention that “wherever there exists a master/slave relationship, an oppressed/oppressor relationship, violence, mutiny, and hatred will permeate all elements of life,”[8] Badu adds:

They keep us uneducated sick & depressed / They end up in blood / Doctor I’m addicted now I’m under arrest / They end up in blood / We makin’ mo money than a mutha fugga / They end up in blood / With NO choices theres (sic) NO hope for us / They end up in blood

Situating the problem of black criminality in the context of urban decay, Badu hints at the white supremacist practice of class- and race-based exclusion that limits black access to education and other means of social mobility such as meaningful work. In this way, she further posits the intersection of classicism and racism while reminding her audience that people without options will make a virtue of violence, mutiny, and hatred if necessity demands it.

In so doing, Badu performs the part of critical realist. As Amiri Baraka says of Hansberry in his critical reevaluation of Raisin, Badu “analyzes and assesses reality and shapes her statement[s] as an aesthetically powerful and politically advanced work of art. Her statement[s] cannot be separated from the characters [such as Brenda] she creates to embody, in their totality, the life she observes.”[9] This is made more explicit in “That Hump” wherein Badu takes on the persona of a dope fiend who feeds a drug addiction as a means of escape from the struggles of the everyday and to numb the pain of its brutalities on her black body.

In light of this harsh underside of the American Dream as it manifests in the life of the archetypal Brenda, Badu professes to keep vigilant in “Master Teacher.” Lamenting the dearth of black leadership in society, she asks:

What if there was no niggas only master teachers? / I stay woke / Even if your baby don’t have no money to support you / I stay woke / Even when the preacher tell you some Lies and cheating on ya mama / I stay woke / Even though you go through struggle and stride (sic) to keep ahead in your life / I stay woke

Badu affirms her own search for “something new,” embodying the demeanor of an assertive and independent woman looking to find a “beautiful world,” as she sings, “searching inside me searching inside you.”

It is in this search that Badu comes to find within herself the “master teacher” for whom she is seeking. As such she appropriates the traditional American Dream and fashions a “New Amerykah” into being by reclaiming her own autonomy as black female subject who insists on staying “woke.” In this, she refuses to deny the reality of racial imperialism, holding herself accountable to revealing the underside of American history as one of genocide, slavery, apartheid, and colonial conquest. Reminding her listeners not to believe everything we think (see “The Healer”), Badu invokes the spirit of her African heritage as it lives through hip-hop, a movement “bigger than the government.”[10]

In the liner notes to Part Two of her New Amerykah album series, Return of the Ankh, Badu welcomes her listeners into the “mind of Amerykah.” Shorthand for “I am Erykah” as well as a pun on the word, “America,” the term signifies her struggle to reconcile with the American Dream-cum-Nightmare, as Malcom X would have it, and be wary of its many false promises of security and success.

A self-described “bundle of light energy,” according to her notes, Badu considers herself “a spiritual being first, man or woman second, Black or White 3rd, Jew or Gentile 4th, and pretty or ugly 5th.” It is from this queer positionality, simultaneously located between and on both sides of various binaries (of gender, phenotype, race, religion and appearance), that Badu the artist sings herself into a new existence as a figure of enlightenment, master teacher and soldier alike—engaged in the long, hard struggle to “stay woke” through the healing power of “fire, dance, sex, music, hip hop.”[11]

[1] See the lyrics for “Me,” Erykah Badu, New Amerykah Part One (4th World War), Universal Motown, 2008.

[2] bell hooks, Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism (Boston: South End Press, 1981), 120.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Riffing on hooks, ibid., 121.

[5] Amiri Baraka, “A Critical Reevaluation: A Raisin in the Sun’s Enduring Passion,” in Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 17

[6] See op. cit. 95.

[7] See hooks, ibid., 179.

[8] hooks, ibid., 117.

[9] Baraka, op. cit., 10.

[10] See lyrics to “The Healer,” New Amerykah (4th World War)

[11] Ibid.


The narrative which emerges from Lamar’s GKMC is implicated in the African-American freedom struggle insofar as it reflects a key principle of Afro-American revolutionary thought: “the self-realization of individuality within community.”[1] A hip-hop “secular spiritual” in its own right, GKMC muses on so-called secular themes—gang violence and sexuality—to present an image of life as it is in the experience of one black soul’s longing for the truth of his own personhood. In an interview with MTV, Lamar admits:

I wouldn’t say I’m the most religious person, neither were both of my parents. I always do quote-unquote religious songs or whatever you want to call them from the standpoint where I’m trying to find answers. That’s the space I speak from and a lot of people can relate because they feel the same way. [I’m] not a person that’s putting it in your head — “believe this, believe this, believe this.” I’m going through something, I’m a sinner and I’m trying to figure myself out. It never sounds preachy. It sounds like a person who’s really confused by what the world has put upon him.[2]

GKMC thus gives witness to the work Lamar does to sort out this confusion, which is part and parcel of a deeply spiritual struggle to achieve self-realization as an African-American man. Indeed, as African-American cultural critic Michael Eric Dyson says of Michael Jackson, the rapper’s “own moral perspective is informed by an understanding of human nature that acknowledges that all human beings embody the potential for wrongdoing.”[3]

As such, GKMC represents an expression of soul, and a definitive move toward the will to love over and against the alluring will to power. Using his stance as artist to enter into and deconstruct his demons from within, Lamar finds the resources to make meaning in a context that challenges him to confront “existential anxiety, political oppression, economic exploitation, and social deportation.”[4]

Describing the album himself, Lamar says in one interview:

It’s really just a self-portrait. I feel I need to make this album in order to move on with my life, and I had negative vibes and demons haunting me. It’s that real. I had to come from somewhere, I had to come from a place — it could have been negative, it could have been positive but for the majority of it, it was negative place. I needed to vent and put this message out in order for me to grow as a person. I’m glad I did, because it was a venting process, you know, to tell these stories I never told.[5]

In coming to grips with the demons of his past and offering the lessons learned to the community from which he hails, Lamar accomplishes two crucial tasks central to Afro-American revolutionary theory and practice. He “confronts candidly the tragic character of human history (and the hope for ultimate historical triumph) [and takes] more seriously the existential anxiety, political oppression, economic exploitation, and social degradation of actual human beings” (as in members of the Compton community) and “elevates the notion of struggle (against the odds!)—personal and collective struggle regulated by the norms of individuality and democracy—to the highest priority.”[6]

For Lamar this is a mission that calls on faith in the human family. Standing on the shoulders of Martin Luther King, Jr., Lamar recognizes (in songs such as “Sing About Me”) that “shattering blows on the Negro family have made it fragile, deprived and often psychopathic [read ‘m.A.A.d.’]” and sees that “nothing is so much needed as a secure family life for a people seeking to rise out of poverty and backwardness.”[7] This is especially true in light of poverty’s connection to juvenile delinquency in a postindustrial age such as Lamar’s.

Playing the role of the Gramscian organic intellectual, Lamar uses the album, as a form of hip-hop discourse, to relate popular culture and religion to structural social change.[8] In the context of GKMC religion serves as signifier for personal transformation (the redemption of sin) which in turn leads to societal transformation through the cultural work of  “storying” (i.e. rapping).  It is through his role as rap artist that Lamar can “look at the weak and cry,” “pray one day you’ll be strong,” and fight “for your rights, even when you’re wrong.” It is his way of affirming individuality in the creation of a new human community.

Speaking to the role of cultural worker in his concept of the New Politics of Difference, West notes that the cultural critic calls for “‘new forms of intellectual consciousness’ that will advance the struggle for individuality and democracy”:

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).[9]

Lamar is one such agent who signifies on the dominant (read white) society’s fears of the postindustrial ghettos, such as Compton, it has helped create. Consider this verse of “Compton”:

Now we can all celebrate, we can all harvest the rap artist of NWA
America target a rap market, it’s controversy and hate
Harsh realities we in, made our music translate
To the coke dealers, the hood rich and the broke niggas that play
With them gorillas that know killers that know where you stay
Roll that kush, crack that case, 10 bottles of Rose
This was brought to you by Dre
Now every muthafucka in here say
Look who responsible for taking Compton international

Lamar here celebrates his city as the birthplace that harvested the likes of legendary rap group N.W.A. At the same time he recognizes how it has been commodified by a rap market and, through the media, made the subject of controversy and hate. Regardless, the “harsh realities we in” speak directly to the real life experiences of urban dwellers which dominant society at once ignores and fetishizes.

Lamar’s work as hip-hop cultural worker meanwhile extends beyond his efforts on the album as evidenced by his leadership of the “HiiiPoWeR Movement.” The purpose of the HiiiPoWeR movement is to encourage social awareness among young people living in a self-destructive society through the cultivation of the mind. The three “i’s” in the movement’s name stand for heart, honor and respect—the basic tenets of the movement’s quasi-religious credo, inspired by the example of freedom fighters such as Martin Luther King, Malcom X, Marcus Garvey, Fred Hampton, Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, and rapper Tupac Shakur. It is Lamar’s way of professing King’s unenforceable law of love “written on the heart.”[10]

With Lamar’s album as its twelve-track anthem, the HiiiPoWeR Movement is a cultural thrust toward “realness” understood as freedom in love. For King, as for Lamar, such freedom expresses itself in “the capacity to deliberate or to weigh alternatives” (reflected in the lyrics of “m.A.A.d. City”); a decision to cut off other alternatives (reflected in “I’m Tired of Running”); and responsibility (reflected in the recording of the father’s reproach at the end of “Real”: “Real is responsibility!”). Ultimately a constructive engagement with existential freedom, the creation of GKMC and the HiiiPoWeR Movement reflects an important step in the African-American freedom struggle: “to work passionately for group identity.”[11]

This kind of cultural work is tied up in the challenge of self-determination against what W.E.B. Du Bois would call the temptations to self-doubt, despair and hatred in a society that has systematically rendered the African-American invisible. Lamar is no stranger to these temptations, as evidenced by the track, “I’m Dying of Thirst.” Furthermore, he is no stranger to Du Boisian “double consciousness” as indicated by the meaning of the acronym, “m.A.A.d.”: “my angry adolescence divided.” The album details his reconciliation of the seemingly irreconcilable “two-ness” within himself—a  psychic parlay between innocence and guilt; self-love and self-loathing; good and bad; self-empowered, black subject and exploited, black object—that he transcends through positive self-assertion as a “good kid” in the context of a “beloved community” (read Compton).

In this, we find Lamar composing a sonic self-portrait that reveals the psychic turmoil of one whose “religious sensibilities are expressed in his wrestling with religiously informed, morally shaped, and culturally conditioned themes” which include:

an [examination] of the nature of good and evil; an [exploration] of the potentialities for transformation of the self, human nature, and society; a probing of the true nature of manhood in American culture; a [confrontation with] the material lures and sexual seductions of everyday life in post-modern American culture; a [proclamation] of the place of peace and love in transforming the world; and a surveying of the politics of American racial identity and awareness.[12]

Just as W.E.B. Du Bois did in The Souls of Black Folk, Lamar asserts himself as one seeking to live life above the “Veil,” to live into the authenticity of his own personhood, as in the opening bars of “Real”:

I do what I wanna do
I say what I wanna say
When I feel, and I…
Look in the mirror and know I’m there
With my hands in the air
I’m proud to say yea
I’m real, I’m real, I’m really really real.

Du Bois_SoulsA figurative Alexander Crummell[13] of whom Du Bois speaks in Souls, Lamar is one who has passed through the “Lonesome Valley of Death”[14] (read Compton / m.A.A.d. city) and lived to tell a moral tale about successfully negotiating the tension between despair and hope through self-love. An exemplar of a Du Boisian soul who has successfully “walked within” and  transcended “the Veil,” Lamar, like Crummell, has “bent to all the gibes and prejudices, to all hatred and discrimination, with that rare courtesy which is the armor of pure souls.”[15] Moreover, he is the archetypal Du Boisian “Teacher,” embodying the ideals of the “Black World” in its “strife for another and a juster world, the vague dream of righteousness, the mystery of knowing.”[16]

And, lastly, like the classic bluesman, that tragi-comic spokesman of the “secular spiritual,” Lamar embodies paradox. He is at once sinner and saint. The space he creates for himself within the album’s narrative contours lets him affirm his own self-worth in the midst of navigating the pressures of day-to-day existence in a postindustrial world.

“Look inside of my soul and you can find gold and maybe get rich,” Lamar raps in “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” suggesting that he has come to a place of self-knowledge through a process not unlike that of the alchemist turning base metal into gold. Yet he doesn’t keep that alchemical gold for himself. Rather, he shares it as wisdom with the world so that others may become rich in soul and self-worth. Lamar admits that his own identity-formation has been a painful process, riddled with mistakes that he wears like scars. Yet these scars, like the “secular spiritual” songs he sings, are constant reminders of what he has learned in order to become who he proclaims himself to be: a self-realized “good kid” in a (self-)critically examined “m.A.A.d. city.”

[1] Cornel West, Prophesy Deliverance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity (Philadelphia: Westminster, Press, 1982) 16.

[2] See, (accessed December 2012)

[3] Michael Eric Dyson, Reflecting Black: African-American Cultural Criticism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 53.

[4] Riffing on Terrance Wiley’s conception of black blight in America, Class Lecture, Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, CA, Fall 2013.

[5] See, (accessed December 2012)

[6] West, Prophesy!…, op. cit., 19.

[7] See Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go From Here?Chaos or Community (Boston: Beacon Press, 2010), 114.

[8] See Cornel West, “Black Theology and Marxist Thought,” in Black Theology: A Documentary History, 1966-1979, edited by Gayraud S. Wilmore and James H. Cone: 552-567.

[9] Cornel West, “The New Cultural Politics of Difference,” in Keeping Faith: Philosophy and Race in America (New York: Routledge, 1993), 4.

[10] See King, op. cit., 106.

[11] Ibid., 131.

[12] Dyson, op. cit.

[13] The Episcopal priest and leading figure of the Pan-African Movement.

[14] See W.E.B. Du Bois, “Of Alexander Crummell, The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Dover, 1994), 139.

[15] Ibid.

[16] “Of the Wings of Atalanta, ibid., 50.


Lamar’s self-proclaimed “film in three acts” is a “secular spiritual” which takes place on the streets of Compton, a neighborhood in South Central L.A. that is emblematic of the postindustrial urban space from which hip-hop, as a cultural movement and form of critical discourse, emerged. GKMC is a consummate new-school appropriation of an old-school hip-hop form: the narrative. A veritable hip-hop bildungsroman, it tells in twelve tracks the tale of a young man, who navigates the rugged territory of an urbanscape riddled with violence. Throughout Lamar engages in conversation with his own psyche to strategically remap the American landscape[1] and thereby offer insight into an experience specific to life in a postindustrial city.

Lamar’s is a confessional narrative that begins with the musty recording of male voices offering a prayer of supplication: “Lord God, I come to you a sinner and I humbly repent for my sins. I believe that Jesus is Lord. […] I receive Jesus to take control of my life and that I may live for him from this day forth. Thank you Lord Jesus for saving me with your precious blood. In Jesus name, Amen.” It is with this invocation of God’s mercy that Lamar tells “a true mothafuckin’ story” full of sexual intrigue (e.g., “Sherane, a.k.a. Master Splinter’s Daughter” and “Poetic Justice”); hedonist fantasy (e.g., “Backseat Freestyle”); criminal activity (“The Art of Peer Pressure” and “Money Trees”); teenage antics (“Swimming Pool [Drank]”); social commentary on the nature of L.A. gang violence (“Good Kid” and “m.A.A.d. City”); hood representin(g) (“Compton”); hip-hop bravado (“Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe”) and existential self-reflection (“Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” and “Real”).

Songs that bear close attention within the scope of this blog series and in light of what they bring to bear on the stated topic are “Good Kid,” “m.A.A.d. City,” and “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst.” They are culled from the second half of the album, which, as the full, artist-verified annotations of the LP reveal at—indispensable to the interpretive work I do below, where I sample insights offered through the website, and to which I am indebted for aiding me in deciphering some of Lamar’s more coded language and in establishing the LP’s narrative context—deals explicitly with the “secular spiritual” theme of self-realization and the difficulties of negotiating life in a violent culture.

The Good Kid in a Mad City

In “Good Kid” Lamar speaks to the sense of being trapped, bound in by gang violence on one side and police brutality on the other. The hood is a pressure cooker and suicide, the safety valve: “I got animosity building / It’s probably big as a building / Me jumping off the roof is me just playing it safe.” Alluding to the colors of the L.A. gangs, the Bloods and the Crips, as well as to police car strobe lights, he asks in the first verse: “But what am I supposed to do / When the topic is red or blue?” Lamar then recalls an instance of being jumped by some gang members:

Just a couple that look for trouble
And live in the street with rank
No better picture to paint than me walking from bible study
And called his homies because he had said he noticed my face
From a function that tooken place
They was wondering if I bang
Step on my neck and get blood on your Nike checks

Despite being trapped inside a figurative prison and against the temptation to kill himself or run away, he turns to hip-hop as a source of empowerment, claiming that one day these “homies” will “respect.”

If Lamar was jumped for being innocent in the previous account (verse one), then he is jumped for being guilty in the second (verse two) in which he describes an instance of being profiled by the police.  While recognizing the importance of police in light of the gang violence on the streets, he engages them in their contradictions:

I can never pick out the difference and grade a cop on the bill / Every time you clock in the morning, I feel you just want to kill / All my innocence while ignoring my purpose to persevere as a better person / I know you heard this and probably in fear / But what am I supposed to do with the blinking of red and blue / Flash from the top of your roof and your dog has to say woof / And you ask, “Lift up your shirt” cause you wonder if a tattoo / Of affiliation can make it a pleasure to put me through / Gang files, but that don’t matter because the matter is racial profile

Blinded by fear, the police cannot see past their own prejudice. As a result of their racism, Lamar’s body is objectified, automatically assumed to be branded with a mark of gang affiliation. In light of this, Lamar can’t “pick out the difference” between good or bad cop. And unlike the gang members who jumped him in the first verse, these officers will only ever see him as a “black thug” and “never respect the good kid, m.A.A.d. city.”

Rapping from the margins of a society tripped out on paranoid hallucinations that stem from an experience of being systematically dispossessed, Lamar concludes his rap by admitting “it’s entirely stressful upon my brain.” Quietly hoping for change, he confesses to the temptation of numbing the existential hurt with “grown-up candy for pain”: the oft-overused antidepressant Xanax and psilocybin “magic” (mu)shrooms. He then closes on a note of triumph: “The streets sure to release the worst side of my best / Don’t mind, cause now you ever in debt to good kid, m.A.A.d. city.”

This segues into a song of dramatic self-assertion, “m.A.A.d. City,” that recalls memories of witnessing brutal violence as a means of protesting gang lifestyle. The song is prefaced by the intro: “If Pirus and Crips all got along / They’d probably gun me down by the end of this song / Seem like the whole city go against me.”

He thus indicates to his listeners that the message he’s soon to deliver renders, or will render, him a common enemy of the Crips and the Bloods. In this way, he plays the role of scapegoat and an ironic sort of peacemaker. “Compton’s human sacrifice,” he reconciles differences by dint of his heroic willingness to refuse participation in gang life.

With the Schoolboy Q-intoned onomatopoeia of gunshot blasts, “YAWK! YAWK! YAWK!,” Lamar sets the tenor for a “trip down memory lane” with the help of guest rapper MC Eiht, who appropriates gang-speak in order to claim ownership of the city: “Man down / Where you from, nigga? / Fuck who you know, where you from, my nigga? / This m.a.a.d. city I run my nigga.”

From there Lamar narrates a story about riding down Rosecrans Avenue—one of the major through-streets of Compton and a signifier of gang territory, as well as the “memory lane” to which he refers in the first bar of the verse. Using his memory as his figurative vehicle for navigation, he takes his listener through a dystopian wasteland where pictures of a traumatic past pass by like scenery outside of car windows. He thus recalls witnessing “a light-skinned nigga with his brains blown out” at the tender age of nine. He also speaks to the death of his cousin in 1994 as the result of a broken truce between the Bloods and the Crips. Lamar admits that with “Pakistan on every porch,” the inhabitants of Compton adapt to crime by becoming criminals themselves: “Pickin’ up the fuckin’ pump / Pickin’ off you suckers, suck a dick or die a sucker punch.”

Lamar thus lives in a “dog-eat-dog” world caught up in a vicious cycle of violence and drug-trafficking. There is no peace, as Lamar says, “just pieces” (read guns) and disposable “bodies on top of bodies” about which those with political power could care less. Lamenting the government’s failure to provide assistance to disenfranchised urban communities such as Compton, Lamar raps: “They say the governor collect, all our taxes except / When we in traffic and tragic happens, that shit ain’t no threat / You movin’ backwards if you suggest that you sleep with a Tec / Go buy a chopper and have a doctor on speed dial, I guess / m.a.a.d. City.”

In saying that “You movin’ backwards” if you sleep with a Tec (read gun), Lamar is essentially offering the moral adage:  “He who lives by the sword (read gun), dies by the sword.”

MC Eiht intones the second verse, readying the listener for “some lessons about the street” that are specific to growing up in Compton: “It ain’t nothin’ but a Compton thang.” This leads to an account in which Lamar raps about being fired from a job as a result of succumbing to pressure from his peers to stage a robbery. He did so in a drug-induced haze wrought by smoking a blunt laced with cocaine that had him “foaming at the mouth.” MC Eiht further contextualizes the account with signifiers of hood-life and metonyms of hyper-masculine manhood—“IV’s” (i.e. handguns), “bird” (i.e. crack cocaine), “whip” (i.e. car) and “a strap in the hand” (i.e. handgun)—that call attention to the dangers of living life in Compton, and the ease with which one can slip into a criminal lifestyle: “The hood took me under so I follow the rules.”

In the final verse, Lamar challenges his audience with the question, “If I killed a nigga at the age of 16, would you believe me?” Implying that he is no innocent bystander to the violence he has heretofore described, Lamar poses the question as a means of absolving the sins of his past—of “mashing all my skeletons”—so that others may learn from his mistakes and thereby fulfill “dreams of being a lawyer or doctor / Instead of a boy with a chopper [i.e. gun] that hold the cul de sac [i.e. neighborhood or, more symbolically, a “dead-end” life] hostage.” By telling his story and thus confessing his sins, Lamar is making an agency claim and an expression of freedom to be a somebody where he was once a nobody.

As though the biblical prophet Jonah once swallowed by a whale before delivering his prophetic message to Nineveh, Lamar delivers his own message of sin and redemption live and direct from the “belly of the rough Compton, U.S.A.”  A self-proclaimed “Angel on Angel Dust,” Lamar is one who has gained a hard-earned wisdom through his experience; he is one who has learned what it means to live righteously by dint of his own flirtations with unrighteous behavior, and life as it’s lived on the streets of a “m.a.a.d. city.”

Lamar further explores the complexity of life on the streets in a two-part composition, “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst.” In the first verse of “Sing About Me,” Lamar takes on the persona of a Piru Blood gang member mourning the loss of his brother to a gunfight. Addressing Lamar as though a friend, he thanks the rapper for cradling his brother during his dying moments. In this way, Lamar enters empathically into the thug’s psyche as a means to reveal that even “thugs” have heart. Not only that, but they are acutely aware of their own predicament. A child of his environment, the gang member admits:

I’m behind on what’s really important
My mind is really distorted
I find nothing but trouble in my life
I’m fortunate you believe in a dream
This orphanage we call a ghetto is quite a routine

Everybody’s a victim in my eyes
When I ride it’s a murderous rhythm
And outside became pitch black
A demon glued to my back whispering, “Get em”
I got ‘em, and I ain’t give a fuck

A self-proclaimed “dumb nigga” who will never prosper, this thug diagnoses himself as a “problem child,” asserts his loyalty to his Piru crew in the absence of an actual family, and then asks Lamar to tell his story should he die before the album “drop.” By way of empathy, Lamar explores the psychology of ghetto fatalism (what Cornel West in Race Matters [1994] would call “black nihilism”), internalized racism, and gang violence to suggest that these social diseases are symptomatic of a deeper ill: the break-up of the community and the family in light of racialized oppression. Hence: “This orphanage we call a ghetto is quite routine.” In this kind of shiftless environment, membership in a gang provides access to group-identity in the absence of family. Even without family, however, love finds a way, as in the last bar of verse one in which the gangbanger confesses to Lamar: “I love you cause you love my brother like you did.”

In verse two Lamar adopts the persona of a female prostitute, who is upset with Lamar for rapping about her sister in “Keisha’s Song,” off of his first album, Section .80. Inspired  by Tupac Shakur’s “Brenda’s Got a Baby” off of 2Pacalypse Now, “Keisha’s Song” tells a story of a young prostitute who was raped and slain. The female subject of “Sing About Me” reproaches Lamar on the charge that he unfairly judged her slain sister on the Section .80 track. She then goes on to describe the lifestyle of a prostitute through her own eyes. In the same manner of self-awareness as that of the male gangbanger in the first verse, she tells Lamar:

This is the life of another girl damaged by the system
These foster homes, I run away and never do miss ‘em
See, my hormones just run away and if I can get ‘em back
To where they used to be then I’ll probably be in the denim
Of a family gene that show women how to be woman, or better yet a leader
You need her to learn something, then you probably need to beat her
That’s how I was taught

Three niggas in one room, first time I was tossed
And I’m exhausted

Having grown up an orphan who lost her virginity to three gangbangers, she longs for the chance to relive a childhood in a family situation free from the domestic abuse on which she was reared. Again, Lamar plays on the trope of family, suggesting that the “system”—i.e. the government or, perhaps, the welfare system—has been set up only to tear families apart. It signifies a social structure rendered ineffective in the lives of society’s most disenfranchised, in no small part due to their status as racial minorities, who have to hustle just to get by. The verse closes with her threat that Lamar better not make a song about her because there is no story to tell. She feels physically great and if Lamar wants to help her, then he should “sell her pussy.” Locked into a system of economic exchange based on the exploitation of her body and her sexuality, she fatalistically resigns herself to her lot as a sexual escort: “I’m on the grind for this cake.”

Lamar comes back into his own voice in the third verse to offer a “lesson before dying”[2] in which he speculates on his life’s purpose: to tell the aforementioned stories and others like them. Hip-hop is his reason for being alive and his most available resource for engaging with the reality of death and life on the streets. There is no time to sleep when there are lessons to learn and teach. Addressing the two subjects of the previous verses, he raps:

And you’re right, your brother was a brother to me
And your sister’s situation was the one that put me
In a direction to speak of something that’s realer than the TV screen
By any means, wasn’t trying to offend or come between
Her personal life, I was like “it need to be told
Cursing the life of 20 generations after her” so
Exactly what would have happened if I hadn’t continued rappin’
Or steady being distracted by money drugs and four
Fives, I count lives all on these songs
Look at the weak and cry, pray one day you’ll be strong
Fighting for your rights, even when you’re wrong
And hope that at least one of you sing about me when I’m gone
Now am I worth it?
Did I put enough work in?

These are existential questions par excellence, and they inform the underlying motivation for Lamar’s album: to make something worthy of his life through the cultural work of hip-hop. His work as a rap artist is a way not only to immortalize himself, but to affirm himself as a gifted storyteller who has something important to offer the world. Moreover, his “mighty powerful” tongue allows him to “fight for your rights, even when you’re wrong.” It also enables him to reorder reality and deconstruct the Debordian “spectacle” and thereby “speak of something that’s realer than the TV screen.” Indeed, it is his way of confronting reality, of no longer running from it by resorting to illicit activity.

On that note, “Sing About Me” transitions into “I’m Dying of Thirst,” which plays on the trope of spiritual dehydration that runs like a stream through the entire album. Implying that his community of peers is attempting to satisfy its desire for wealth and security in all the wrong ways, he asks:

What are we doing?
Who are we fooling?
Hell is hot, fire is proven
To burn for eternity, return of the student
That never learned how to live right just by how to shoot it
It’s no discussion, hereditary
All of my cousins
Dying of thirst
Dying of thirst
Dying of thirst

Lamar here equates the culture of violence to a figurative hell while also reminding his listeners that those who play with fire are sure to be burned. He also signifies on the hell of religious imagination to which all those who have not reconciled for their sins are banished for eternity. Those living a life of violence are thus doomed to a hell of their own making. Lamar then admits that violence is in his blood: “It’s no discussion, hereditary / All of my cousins / Dying of thirst.” A product of his environment like his cousins, he is just as liable as they are to a doomed fate.

The track ends with the voice of an older woman (played by Maya Angelou), who is taken to be one of Lamar’s neighbors. She rebukes him and his friends for carrying a handgun: “I know that’s not what I think that is! Why are you so angry?! You young men are dying of thirst! Do you know what that means? That means, you need water, holy water! You need to be baptized with the spirit of the Lord!” She then leads them in the same confessional prayer that opens the entire album, bringing GKMC to near close in the manner of a spiritual.

With this act of contrition, Lamar effectively achieves his transformation into realness, a sense of spiritual wholeness initiated by the figurative baptism he undergoes at the end of “I’m Tired of Running.” It is this re-birth that completes the narrative arc of the “short film” and leads him into “Real”—a testimony to the fact that love saves. Not, echoing music critic Jayson Greene, love of money, power, respect, or the block—as “none of that shit make me real”—but love of Self. That is the only kind of love which will satiate the hunger and quench the thirst that had him running aimlessly toward a doomed fate. It is a disarming love, one that can help the world take off the masks “we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.”[3] It is as though Lamar is positing to the human community the same message Baldwin proffers to his nephew in The Fire Next Time: “Well, you were born, here you came […]: to be loved. To be loved, baby, hard, at once, and forever, to strengthen you against the loveless world.”[4]

The song ends in a similar vein as Baldwin’s familial address with a recording of two separate voicemails—one from his father, one from his mother—that bring the narrative to a triumphant end. His father, offering his consolation to Lamar in light of his friend’s death by a bullet wound, exclaims: “Any nigga can kill a man, that don’t make you a real nigga. Real is responsibility. Real is taking care of your motherfucking family.” As for his mother’s sage wisdom: “If I don’t hear from you by tomorrow, I hope you come back and learn from your mistakes. Come back a man… Tell your story to these black and brown kids in Compton… When you do make it, give back with your words of encouragement. And that’s the best way to give back to your city. And I love you, Kendrick.” As Greene notes, Lamar foregrounds the themes of faith and family that not only tie the album’s songs together, but function as the “fraying tethers holding Lamar back from the chasm of gang violence that threatens to consume him.”[5] In the end, again sampling Greene, the album gives witness to Lamar’s love for his family[6] and serves as an achievement of what his mother encouraged him to do: give back.

The album closes with a tribute to his hood in, “Compton,” which begins with the triumphal bar: “Now everybody serenade the new faith of Kendrick Lamar.” A self-proclaimed philosopher-king, Lamar has transitioned from rags to royalty in attaining the riches of freedom understood as self-respect, self-realization, and self-consciousness. Lamar does so through the art of “secular spiritual” storytelling, so central to black expressive culture and a means by which he rapper/minister/street prophet engages the African-American struggle for existential and social freedom.

[1] Here, I am riffing on Kevin Young in his discussion of the spirituals in The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness (Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 2012), 81.

[2] A reference I make intentionally to a novel of similar import as Lamar’s LP: Ernest J. Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying (New York: Vintage, 1993).

[3] James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (New York: Dell, 1963), 128.

[4] Ibid., 17.

[5] Jayson Greene, review of good kid, m.A.A.d. City: A Short Film by Kendrick Lamar, by Kendrick Lamar, Pitchfork Media, October 23, 2012, (accessed December 2012).

[6] Made more apparent by the album art, full of old family photos.

In The Spirituals and the Blues: An Interpretation theologian James Cone speaks of the blues as “secular spirituals”: “They are secular in the sense that they confine their attention solely to the immediate and affirm the bodily expression of black soul, including its sexual manifestations. They are spirituals because they are impelled by the same search for the truth of black experience.”[1] The trope of the “secular spiritual” provides a useful lens through which to interpret Compton-bred rapper Kendrick Lamar’s second album, good kid, m.A.A.d. city: A Short Film by Kendrick Lamar.[2] A critically-acclaimed future hip-hop classic, it is the masterful expression of one African-American male’s quest for selfhood which not only affirms the bodily expression of a black soul, but narrates that soul’s search for the truth of black experience in the midst of postindustrial urban decay. It is a search for existential and social freedom that is implicated in the African-American struggle for liberation.


In order to ground the analysis of GKMC as “secular spiritual” implicated in the African-American freedom struggle, it will be helpful to first situate GKMC at the nexus of postindustrialism and hip-hop discourse, paying particular attention to hip-hop’s role as a cultural expression of opposition and source of prophetic resistance to the status quo. This three part blog series then examines the link between the secular and the sacred as it pertains to black expressive culture in the form of spirituals, the blues and hip-hop, looking at how the freedom of self-expression in these fields of cultural production is an act of resistance that bridges the perceived gap between the sacred and secular. Having established a context for analysis, this series picks up in part two with a reading of Lamar’s album, allowing it to speak for itself while at the same time offering interpretive insight. The series then concludes by considering the ways in which the album, as “secular spiritual,” and Lamar’s own role as cultural worker, are implicated in the African-American freedom struggle.

The m.A.A.d. city: Postindustrialism and Hip-Hop Discourse

Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city is a hip-hop album that was created in a postindustrial space. In order to explore that space, it is useful to put it in historical context of postindustrialism and the emergence of hip-hop therein.

In “Postindustrial Soul: Black Popular Music at the Crossroads,” Marc Anthony Neal notes that the late 1970s and 1980s ushered in an era of “intense poverty, economic collapse and the erosion of viable public space” that became “part and parcel of the new urban terrain that African-Americans confronted.”[3] The replacement of a strong manufacturing sector with a service economy as a result of automation, globalization, and the outsourcing of industry devalued the importance of blue-color and unionized work, including manual labor—much of which was supplied by a black working class. With the decline of this industrial base came the rise of professional workers—those such as scientists, IT professionals and creative-industry professionals who produce ideas rather than goods. Neal sums up the situation thus:

Many working-class communities and their inhabitants were deemed as peripheral to the mechanisms of the postindustrial city as high finance and the consumerist desires of a growing managerial class influenced municipal development, including well-publicized tax breaks to corporate entities that remained within certain municipalities without any specific commitment to their lower-tier workers. […] Under the banner of “urban renewal,” the black working class and working poor were marginalized and isolated from the engines of the postindustrial city—the privatization of public space in downtown areas being emblematic—and instead exposed to intense poverty and rampant unemployment, which subsequently challenged traditional desires to maintain community.[4]

“Low-income” housing was the federal government’s answer to the problem of economic disenfranchisement, which further exacerbated the problem of social isolation and urban communal decay as the dispossessed were crammed into over-crowded neighborhoods without the needed public and institutional space to build community.[5]

Neal notes that without a sustainable economy and as a result of poverty and unemployment, “an illicit economy” of drug-dealing, hustling, prostitution, petty thievery, and numbers running “emerged as a primary conduit for economic survival.”[6] Most prominent was the crack cocaine trade that served as a means of escape from the misery of living in a veritable postindustrial wasteland.[7] Los Angeles became a hub for such illicit activity in light of Japanese imports that displaced the industrial plant economy and left the black working class effectively disenfranchised, ousted from the service industries that were developing in the region.[8]

mark anthony neal

Mark Anthony Neal

Neal also speaks of the ‘juvenization of poverty’ in terms of minority youth turning to the crack cocaine industry as a source of income in light of their own destitution: “In Los Angeles County, for instance, more than 40 percent of children lived below or just above the official poverty line. This mirrored a doubling of children in poverty across the state of California in just a generation.”[9] These trends were reflected across the nation as well. This phenomenon was marked by a militarization of the black urban landscape with the increase of gang violence and turf wars—as between the Crips and Bloods in L.A.—marked by drive-by shootings.

And yet that was not all that emerged from the postindustrial reorganization of urban space. Black expressive culture in the form of hip-hop became a stylistic means to transform the landscape into something more livable through narrative. Though not an exclusively or essentially “black” phenomenon as hip-hop was also the byproduct of cross-racial interaction between African-Americans and those from the Caribbean, parts of Latin America and, not much later, white people, Neal follows a more formative, or strict, reading of hip-hop history which contends that the youth who spawned hip-hop came from the core of African-American communities in particular, wherein “resistance against oppression and movements for equality have included physical protests as well as critical narratives, political movements, creative art movements, verbal genres and more.”[10]

Integral to this culture of resistance, hip-hop functioned, and still functions, as a counter-hegemonic discourse that offered/s a medium for ideology critique and the construction of new models of and for reality centered in community. Like its predecessors in the form of blues, jazz, funk, and soul, hip-hop proffered/s an artistic resource for creating social space in which marginal individuals could/can articulate a broader definition of community that embraces difference as a strength rather than weakness.[11] It embodies what Neal calls a “post-soul aesthetic”—a concept that arises out of postmodern theory and which concerns the construction of (black) self-identity in light of postindustrialism, globalization, cybernization, the general commodification of black expressive culture as well as the political, social and cultural experiences of blackness following the Civil Rights era and Black Power movement.[12]

Hip-hop culture in all of its manifestations—from graffiti, to DJing, to beatboxing, breakdancing, and rapping—is inherently oppositional and transgressive of the status quo. As Theresa Martinez notes, it shifts America’s attention to the systemic problems of poverty, discrimination, and neglect.[13] In this way, specific to the African-Americanness of hip-hop, it inverts black invisibility. Like the blues before it, hip-hop exists at the crossroads of desire and absence. It emerges from “the deindustrialized meltdown where social alienation, prophetic imagination, and yearning intersect” while negotiating “the experiences of marginalization, brutally truncated opportunity, and oppression within the cultural imperatives of African American and Caribbean history, identity, and community.”[14]

The highly charged cultural space of Compton is one nucleus where such negotiating happens. Considered the birthplace of so-called “gangsta rap,” which recreates life on the streets in narrative accounts of illicit activity, Compton is an epicenter of counter-hegemonic imagining. Indeed, Lamar is no small part of a lineage of MCs such as Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Ice T, Eazy-E, and MC Ren (members of crew N.W.A.), as well as Snoop Dog and the legendary Tupac Shakur (Lamar’s idol), who have claimed the generally low-income neighborhood as a site of oppositional culture, and who were undoubtedly influential in Lamar’s identity-formation as hip-hop artist and cultural critic.

Hip-hop scholars such as Robin Kelley see in gangsta rap a contradiction of form—at once “urban storytelling” and “misogynist nihilism”—which yet offers a “vocal critique of a blighted inner city Los Angeles whose poverty rate and joblessness deeply affected communities like Compton and Watts.”[15] Brian Cross asserts that its message lies somewhere along a “continuum of resistance” that engages in the political struggle by dint of what it discloses to the world: poverty, police brutality, and frustrated hope.[16]


An areal view of Compton, CA.

In this way, it is not only political but also prophetic inasmuch as it gives voice to the otherwise voiceless. As Cornel West notes in Democracy Matters, hip-hop that is prophetic “remains true to the righteous indignation and political resistance of deep democratic energies.”[17] This is not ignore the complexities of hip-hop or the subgenre of gangsta rap. Indeed, as Imani Perry recognizes, hip-hop discourse is inflected with a “tension-filled dynamic of [Du Boisian] double consciousness” wherein there lies a “meeting and conflict of Americanness and blackness, where MCs and DJs are commodified, make commodities, and are both objects and subjects of capitalism as they produce improvisational and oppositional music.”[18] Moreover, this is not to deny hip-hop culture’s homophobia as well as its problematic treatment of women.[19] Rather, it is to suggest that even in that complexity there lies, to use West’s words, the “precious soil in which the seeds of democratic individuality, community and society can sprout.”[20]

            Hip-Hop Discourse at the Crossroads of Secular and Spiritual

There is a distinct spiritual dimension to the oppositional stance that takes shape within hip-hop discourse insofar as it affirms black self-identity against the threat of institutionalized racism and the social evil of poverty. To riff on Cone’s insight above with regard to blues, hip-hop exists at the crossroads of the sacred and the secular. Indeed, hip-hop discourse could very well be seen as a combination of the spirituals and the blues in light of the “soul” it shares with them. As Perry states, “Soul is important to hip-hop also. By soul I mean that which has some spiritual depth and deep cultural and historical resonances to be felt through the kind of music and sounds made by the vocalists.”[21]766868

Looking at the spirituals, Cone offers an interpretation of them from an historical perspective, proclaiming, “Black history is a spiritual![22] He essentially sees them as historical documents: “The spirituals are the story of black people’s historical striving for earthly freedom, rather than otherworldly projections of hopeless Africans who forgot about their homeland.”[23] Brought to America by way of the terrific Middle Passage, the slaves remained tied to their past despite the threat of dislocation through the art of storytelling. Through song, they were able to piece together a severed past. In so doing, they reflected a different heritage than that from which emerged white American Christianity.[24] Moreover, Cone sees the spiritual as “an expression of the slaves’ determination to be in a society that seeks to eliminate their being,” and an affirmation of the “somebodiness (sic) of black selves.”[25] By affirming their right to self-determine through song, slaves glimpsed freedom and found hope, even in bondage.

The Spirituals and the Dance of Personhood

The spirituals emerged in the clandestine clearings—also known as “hush harbors” or brush arbors—of the wooded landscape on the master’s estate during the slave days of the antebellum South. A hybrid of European and African American folk song, they were fashioned as religious music, drawing from the Christian Bible, Protestant hymns, sermons and African styles of song and dance as a means of free self-expression.  Sonically, the spirituals were an original creation, characterized by “the rhythmic syncopation, polyphony, and shifted accents, as well as the altered and timbral qualities and diverse vibrato effects of African music.”[26] In light of such a distinct sound—made more unique by the flattening of chords and notes in the pentatonic scale of the Protestant hymn—the spirituals served to transform any tracings of Anglo-American music into a veritable African American composition.[27]


In order to understand them fully, historian Albert Raboteau contends, one must imagine them as performed. The spirituals were accompanied by a “certain ecstasy of motion”—”moments of religious excitement” embodied by foot-stomping, hand-clapping, head-nodding, moaning and other manifestations of “religious fervor.”[28] Not simply sung, then, the spirituals were danced in the circular space of the “ring shout.” In the style of call and response, adapted from African ritual music, the leader of a ring of dancers would issue a verse of a spiritual to which those outside the ring would sing the chorus. The singers also provided a rhythm for the ring dancers with hand-clapping and foot-tapping, thus “basing” the ring band in a choir of percussive beats and shouts. The spontaneity and freedom of movement elicited by the songs were an essential characteristic of the spirituals, spawned in reaction to the bodily and psychological constrictions of life “under the stress of law and whip” (SB 161).

Black theologian Gayraud Wilmore notes the significance of movement for affirming African American personhood. To sing and to dance was to acknowledge the providence of God and the indwelling of the Spirit in human flesh. Wilmore writes thus:

To give oneself up with shouts of joy and ‘singing feet’ to this wholeness of being, to the ecstatic celebration of one’s creaturehood, and to experience that creaturehood taken up and possessed by God in a new state of consciousness, was to imbibe the most restorative medicine available to the slave.[29]

Thus the spirituals endowed the corporeal African American existence with sacrality. They gave religious sanction to song and dance, and the freedom of self-expression that such movement occasioned. As performed, the spirituals opened up space not only to imagine freedom, but to experience it in kinship with other believers, who could share in one person’s joy or sorrow as though it was the community’s own pleasure or pain.[30]

The Spirituals and the Slave’s Religious Imaginary: A Vision of ‘Freedomland’

Scholars agree that the meaning derived of spirituals for those in bondage was multivalent. Now coded protest song, now passive submission to an oppressive situation, sometimes neither. Regardless of how they were experienced or interpreted by those enmeshed in the slave institution, the spirituals undoubtedly evoked an experience of freedom. The specific understanding of freedom—whether as spiritual, psychological-existential, or physical-social liberation—was relative to the slave singing the song.

Literary critic and poet Kevin Young asserts that the spirituals had the effect of opening up space to imagine life as it could be lived in an “Elsewhere”—often invoking the exiled Jews’ entry into the Promised Land of Canaan as a trope for mapping the terrain of freedom.[31] In this way they were useful as an agency claim—a means of “crafting a state of mind to remake reality”[32] so that the Elsewhere of freedom could be experienced from within, if not without. [33] As Young writes, the spirituals were thus reflective of the slave’s “inner compass,” allowing them to remap and chart the “black art of escape.”[34] The slaves found kinship with the spiritual-political struggle of persecuted Jews of the Old Testament. Spirituals that reflect an identification with the Jews include “Go Down Moses,” “I’m Marching to Zion,” and “Walk into Jerusalem Just Like John.”[35] Through them, the slaves appropriated the Judeo-Christian narrative as their own for the purpose of proposing a “metaphysical resolution” to their natural desires for freedom, making life easier to bear.[36]

swing low sweet chariot

A common trope was that of journey, an archetypal symbol for the spiritual passage from sin to redemption, as well as that of slavery to freedom. Consider the passage of the Jews from the bonds of slavery in Egypt to the freedom of life in the Promised Land of Israel as evoked in “I Am Bound for the Land of Canaan”:

O Canaan, sweet Canaan, / I am bound for the land of Canaan, / I thought I heard them say / There were lions in the way; / I don’t expect to stay / Much longer here. / Run to Jesus, shun the danger. / I don’t expect to stay / Much longer here…[37]

Young notes the power Canaan held in the life of the slave. It was part of the “powerful liberational rereading of the Bible the slaves performed (sic),” and “strategic remapping of the American landscape.”[38] The spirituals were in this way subversive, providing “a powerful exegesis of the biblical story of Moses and Pharoah, Israel and bondage, in order to identify with, and aspire to, freedom.”[39]

Hymns such as “The Heavenly Road,” “Down in the Valley,” “Rassal Jacob,” and “Ole Captain Satan,” imagined the search for freedom as passage, spiritual warfare, a trek through the wilderness, or descent down into the “Lonesome Valley.” Of course the journey always had an end that entailed ascent, a move toward something new and different from the present state of affairs. Literary theorist Henry Louis Gates, Jr., sees the journey as primarily a symbolic one in which the descent down “‘implies the not-so-mythic (but mythically recalled) land from which black people were severed, the Africa of their fathers where people were people and people were free.’”[40] In this way, the spirituals suggest a quest for individual and collective selfhood.[41]

More simply, they were a journal-like reflection of day-to-day existence in slavery, allowing slaves freedom to confront the inner turmoil of the ‘trebbled spirit’[42] and artfully transfigure the pain into something expressive of the human spirit’s inherent beauty. Spirituals like “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen!” capture the vicissitudes of life in slavery: “Sometimes I’m up, sometimes I’m down.” In so doing, they stood at the crossroads of despair and hope. Yet the songs were ultimately affirmations of faith in the intercession of God through the spirit of Jesus with whose sufferings the slaves could readily identify. With him as the archetypal savior, the harbinger of freedom and guarantor of life after death, the slaves could sing resolutely: ‘In de mornin’ when I rise, / Tell my Jesus huddy [howdy] oh;  / I wash my hands in de mornin’ glory, / Tell my Jesus huddy, oh.’[43] With Jesus as their guide, the slaves could approach death in a spirit of hope and joy. In fact, death was considered a blessing, an invitation to ‘diel like-a Jesus die…wid a free good will.’[44]

The Spirituals and the Social: Slave Songs as Political Resistance

Playing off of Ferdinand Jones’ analysis of the psychological dynamics of jazz improvisation, psychologist Arthur Jones sees embedded in the spirituals a “challenge attitude” that inverts white superiority and a system of white domination through the affirmation of African American worth, dignity, and positive self-identity. He cites “Heaven, Heaven” (a.k.a. “I Got Shoes”) as an example of such an orientation: “In singing the song, the slave singer not only claims shoes (because ‘all God’s children got shoes!’) but also boldly asserts plans for walking (read strutting) ‘all over God’s Heaven.’ Furthermore, a disguised reference to the hypocritical slaveholder, the singer reminds everyone within hearing that ‘everybody’s talkin’ ‘bout Heaven ain’t going there.’”[45]

black song_lovell

That the spirituals could be read as such a form of resistance is not new. Literary critic John Lovell, Jr. was vehement in his claim that the spirituals were “rooted in themes of radical transformation in the existing order of things.”[46] He makes the bold statement: “These songs stress the outcomes of the poetic experience in such revelations as justifications for a sense of well being, the power of fortitude, commitment to freedom and democracy, awareness of a just universe, and appreciation of the many realisms and romanticisms connected with the word ‘Heave’n.’”[47] Lovell thus rejects any notion that the spirituals were escapist in function. Rather, they were inherently political, communicating the slave’s deepest aspirations for deliverance and “‘a desire for justice in the judgment upon his betrayers which some might call revenge.’”[48] In laying hold upon this world, the slave envisioned a more just universe through the lens of the spiritual. Consider “You Shall Reap (Brother, Sister, Sinner) Jes’ What You Sow’:

You can weep like a willow, / You can mourn like a dove, / But you can’t get to heaven / Without Christian love. […] / You may be a white man, / White as the drifting snow, / If your soul ain’t been converted, / To Hell you’re sure to go. [49]

A means of conveying physical and metaphysical resistance to slavery, the spirituals were a strategy for survival that saw heaven not only as an Elsewhere, but as an essentially social experience of earthly freedom.[50]

The Blues and Black “Sombodyness”

Speaking to the blues, Cone contends that “the blues and spirituals flow from the same bedrock of experience, and neither is an adequate interpretation of black life without the commentary of the other.” [51] They both deal with suffering, but through a different lens. Though derivative of the spiritual, the blues were especially useful for those who could not accept a God-centered vision of the universe that offered a promise of salvation as answer to the problem of black suffering.[52] With slavery as the historical background out of which the blues were birthed, they “are about black life and the sheer earth and gut capacity to survive in an extreme situation of oppression.”[53]

The blues, like the spirituals before them, come from an experience of dislocation and function as an attempt to make sense of historical suffering:

Taking form sometime after the Emancipation and Reconstruction, they invited black people to embrace the reality and truth of black experience. They express the ‘laments of folk Negroes over hard luck, ‘careless’ or unrequited love, broken family life, or general dissatisfaction with a cold and trouble-filled world.’ And implied in the blues is a stubborn refusal to go beyond the existential problem and substitute other-worldly answer. It is not that the blues reject God; rather they ignore him by embracing the joys and sorrows of life, such as those of a man’s relationship to his woman, a woman with her man. What makes the blues sacred, according to Cone, is their affirmation of the “somebodyness” of black selfhood.[54]

Kendrick_Lamar_section 80

Cover art, Kendrick Lamar, “Section.80” (2011, Top Dawg Entertainment)

Thus it is in their inherent affirmation of black self-identity, self-consciousness, and black experience that the blues and the spiritual, the secular and the sacred intersect.

Hip-hop discourse is no less concerned with affirming self-consciousness and in this way finds itself at the crossroads of the sacred and the secular. Though it is not restricted to black experience, hip-hop is grounded in African-American expressive culture which includes the blues and the spirituals. In this way, it also “flows from the same bedrock of [black] experience” as the spirituals and the blues, and speaks to the joys and sorrows of human experience through the MC.

Often a documentarian of urban life, the MC “usually occupies a self-proclaimed location as representative of his or her community or group—the everyman or everywoman of his or her hood.”[53] The undying debate over authenticity and realness in hip-hop discourse is testimony to this blues-tinged fascination with documenting life experience as it exists in the world—whether historically real or realistically imagined. Aimed at the goal of self-realization, rappers don what Perry calls an “identity-based teleological stance” toward experience that often invokes theological imagery to suggest that the rapping “subject” is “both divine and divinely inspired.”[55] As we shall see, Lamar is one such everyman whose own search for selfhood is predicated on this teleological stance.

[1] James H. Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues: An Interpretation (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1972), 112.

[2] Kendrick Lamar, good kid, m.A.A.d. city, Interscope, CD, 2012. Hereafter referred to as GKMC in the essay. The acronym m.A.A.d. stands for “my Angry Adolescence divided” or “my Angel’s on Angel Dust” (see:

[3] Mark Anthony Neal, “Postindustrial Soul: Black Popular Music at the Crossroads,” in That’s the Joint! The Hip-Hop Studies Reader 2n ed., edited by Murray Forman and Mark Anthony Neal: 477-502 (New York: Routledge, 2004), 477.

[4] Ibid., 481.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 482.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 483.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Marcyliena Morgan, The Real Hiphop: Battling for Knowledge, Power and Respect in the LA Underground (Durham: North Carolina, 2009), 47.

[11] Mark Anthony Neal, Soul Babies: Black Popular Culture and the Post-Soul Aesthetic (New York: Routledge, ), 7.

[12] Ibid., 3.

[13] Theresa Martinez, “Popular Culture as Oppositional Culture: Rap as Resistance,” Sociological Perspectives, vol. 40, no. 2 (1997), 268.

[14] Quoted in Neal, “Postindustrial Soul…,” op. cit., 477.

[15] See Martinez, op. cit., 274.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Cornel West, Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism (New York: The Penguin Press, 2004), 182. Quoted in Joshua Hostetter, “Prophetic Hip Hop Discourse in the New Cultural Politics of Difference: Moving Toward a Reconception of Culture, Community, and Commodity,” Senior Thesis, Central Catholic High School, Pittsburgh, PA, 2005, 17-18.

[18] Imani Perry, Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004), 43.

[19] For an in-depth treatment of  rap and capitalism, rap and misogyny/sexism, and rap and homophobia see: “B-boys, Players, and Preachers: Reading Masculinity,” “The Venus Hip Hop and the Pink Ghetto: Negotiating Spaces for Women,” and “Bling Bling… and Going Pop: Consumerism and Co-optation in Hip Hop” in ibid. See also all of Part V of That’s the Joint! The Hip Hop Studies Reader, op. cit.

[20] West in Hostetter, op. cit.

[21] Ibid., 52.

[22] Cone, op. cit., 33.

[23] Ibid., 15.

[24] Leroi Jones, Blues People: Negro Music in White America (New York: Quill, 1963), 42.

[25] See ibid., 47.

[26] See Albert Raboteau, Slave Religion: The ‘Invisible Institution’ in the Antebellum South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 244.

[27] Gayraud Wilmore, Black Religion and Black Radicalism: An Interpretation of the Religious History of Afro-American People (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1983), 12.

[28] Raboteau, op. cit., 246. Indeed, Raboteau records one instance where a freedman spoke to what the spirituals afforded him: ‘I’ll tell you; it’s dis way. My master call me up and order me a short peck of corn and hundred lash. My friends see it and is sorry for me. When dey come to de praise meetin’ dat night dey sing about it. Some’s very good singers and know how’ and dey work it in you know; till dey git it right; and dat’s de way’ (ibid.).

[29] See Kevin Young, The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness (Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 2012), 81-83.

[30] Ibid., 82.

[31] See also ibid., 21-22.

[32] Ibid., 22.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid., 39.

[35] In Raboteau, op. cit., 247.

[36] Young, op. cit., 81.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Quoted in Young, ibid., 22.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Raboteau, op. cit., 258.

[41] Quoted in ibid., 259.

[42] Quoted in ibid., 261.

[43] Arthur C. Jones, “The Foundational Influence of Spirituals in African-American Culture: A Psychological Perspective,” Black Music Research Journal, vol. 24, no. 2 (Autumn, 2004), 259.Cf. Wade in the Water: The Wisdom of the Spirituals (Boulder, CO: Leave a Little Room Foundation, 2005), 8.

[44] John Lovell, Jr., “Reflections on the Origins of the Negro Spiritual,” Negro American Literature Forum, vol. 3, no. 3, Folklore (Autumn, 1969), 64.

[45] Ibid., 95.

[46] John Lovell, Jr., “The Social Implications of the Negro Spiritual,” in John White, “Veiled Testimony: Negro Spirituals and Slave Experience,” Journal of American Studies, vol. 17, no. 2 (August 1983), 256.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Cone, op. cit.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Cone, op. cit., 111.

[52] Ibid., 108.

[53] Ibid.

[55] Perry, op. cit., 39.

On the Chuck Anderson-designed cover of Lupe Fiasco’s Grammy winning Food and Liquor (2006), the Chicago-based rapper is pictured hovering in what appears to be outer space—a black sky dotted with stars. Light at once emanates from and passes through his seemingly celestial body, which refracts the shine into a rainbow as if a diamond prism. With his head tilted forward, he stares intently in the direction of the viewer, transfixing us in a return gaze. The rapper’s eyes are mesmerizing, set in sharp relief by dark outlines and eyebrows that, by play of light and shadow, seem to lift at the outer tips. Just above his forehead floats a pair of glasses that call to mind Superman’s disguise as the bespectacled Clark Kent. Hanging about his body in this space of anti-gravity are various commodities including DVDs, a cell phone, a Nintendo DS, a windup toy mouse, a sketch of a super hero, some books (including what may be the Koran), and of course the shining metallic boombox, which he grasps firmly with his right hand like Radio Raheem of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing.


Chuck Anderson, Cover Art, Food and Liquor (2006)

The rapper’s body is meanwhile clothed in rather modest hip-hop street wear—a tan retro chic track jacket, unzipped and worn over a white tee-shirt depicting a scantily-clad woman whose body lies mostly hidden behind the stereo. His baggy blue jeans are tucked into open-lipped black high-top Puma sneakers with the brand’s signature stripe, in red, lining each side. Beneath his body on the lower right hand side of the cover read the words Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor in an Anglicized variation on Arabic calligraphy. Reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s famed cover art for Dark Side of the Moon, movie posters advertising futuristic odysseys released in the 1980s such as Back to the Future, as well as extra-terrestrial and ultra-human tropes of Afro-futurism, the comic bookesque album art for Food & Liquor makes use of surfacism[1] to fashion black (hyper)visibility[2] and personhood. Through a more down-played variation on the “bling”[3] hip-hop aesthetic, Anderson’s art capitalizes on the concept and practice of “shine” to represent black male power and, ultimately, exceed the perceptual boundaries of normal vision.

Not unlike the work of contemporary artists such as Kehinde Wiley, Luis Gispert, and Hype Williams, who have experimented with hip-hop’s “vernacular forms of visual culture”[4] as a means to unveil and signify on canonized modes of artistic production from the Renaissance and Baroque periods, Anderson’s portrait depicts a black male subject bathed in the sparkle of a light as if the otherworldly subject of a Renaissance religious painting. It is a light so bright that it threatens to obfuscate the central figure from the field of vision. As cultural critic Krista Thompson says of Williams’ productions, Anderson thus “pinpoints an aspect of bling and the surface effect of late hip-hop more broadly: it calls attention to the failure of vision, to how vision obscures from view what it purports to reveal.”[5] In this way, Anderson plays on the paradox of hip-hop surfacism, negotiating the tension between hypervisibility and invisibility that the “bling” aesthetic conveys.[6]

Bronx-born and Golden era rapper Slick Rock, with classic pirate eye-patch, donning his blinged-out booty.

Bronx-born and Golden era rapper Slick Rock, with classic pirate eye-patch, donning his blinged-out booty.

An example of that shimmering "sonic light," New Orleans-bred and Cash Money rapper B.G. (a.k.a. "Baby Gangsta") sports large in this blingified cover art for his 1999 major label (Universal) debut, Chopper City in the Ghetto.

Another example of that shimmering “sonic light” and the blinged black body, New Orleans-bred and Cash Money rapper B.G. (a.k.a. “Baby Gangsta”) sports large in this blingified cover art for his 1999 major label (Universal) debut, Chopper City in the Ghetto.

In this case, the black male body is the site of hypervisibility whereby we are enticed to see it in a light that almost blinds. Anderson capitalizes on the use of what French cultural theorist Roland Barthes would call “sheen” or “shine”—that is, the “visual production of light” which reflects off the “polished surface” of an object or passes through translucent glass, “to emphasize the materiality and haptic [read: palpable] quality of objects.”[7] Looking at the album art for Food & Liquor, we see that Lupe Fiasco’s body is both polished surface and translucent glass the shine of which, like the “shellac” of Renaissance Dutch still life paintings and human portraiture, suggests a value intrinsic to the subject on display.[8]

Of course this value could easily be mistaken as simply “commercial,” denoting nothing more than the rapper’s status as a highly desired commodity for public consumption—not unlike the various goodies that surround his aura’s luminous glow. Yet, as Thompson says of the “bling” aesthetic in hip-hop visual culture, the “shine” is valued for its own sake, irrespective of the black body’s potential commoditization or fetishization through the exploitation of its visibility. Thus “bling” is a means of “being seen being seen,”[9] and functions as a method of self-fashioning that allows for an assertion of black humanity implicitly subversive of the “visual production” of slave bodies when the master shellacked them to secure retail on the auction block.[10] Moreover, echoing Thompson, it is a signification on the “glare of blackness” in the prevailing scopic regimes of art history, particularly as manifest in the baroque style of Renaissance painters whose subjects were predominately white royalty.[11]

Johannes Cornelisz Verspronck, Andries Stilte as a Standard Bearer, 1640.

Johannes Cornelisz Verspronck, Andries Stilte as a Standard Bearer, 1640.

That Lupe Fiasco’s body is essentially unadorned and that the objects surrounding him are relatively inexpensive items suggests a further signification on the “bling” aesthetic itself. This rapper’s power is innate. His material possessions are less important to the construction of his self-identity than that which comes from within, imaged by the shining light emanating from and towards his glowing frame. In this, he embodies and conveys a kind of “organic ‘bling’” that maintains shine without the glitter of ostentation and unnecessary accoutrement of more stereotypical displays of hypervisible black self-representation. His is an imagined existence sustained by bare necessities—instruments of intellectual development and spiritual wisdom (eg., the books); of play (eg., the video game console, video games and toy figurines); of entertainment (eg., the DVDs); of clear sightedness in all sense of the term (eg., the glasses); of creative imagination and day-dreaming (eg., the sketch of the super hero) and, most importantly, of music-making, symbolized by the archetypal boombox.

A signifier of “sonic light,” as Thompson would have it, this hip-hop commodity symbolizes the conflation of sight and sound, aurality and visuality that “bling” by definition evokes. Indeed, the boombox is foregrounded in the portrait, taking “center stage,” as it were, in the picture plane as if to give sound to the light that ushers forth from this rapper’s super-human body. Indeed, it is not the rapper who communicates, but the light coming through him. It is a “sonic light” amplified by the boombox, a sacramental instrument signaling the soul force that bursts through the shining surface of the rapper’s black-brown skin. In this way, Lupe Fiasco’s body manifests in the picture plane not as commodity but as a testament to its own corporeal value,[12] as well as a statement about who he purports himself to be: a street-level everyman sustained by food and liquor—perhaps a metaphor for the hip-hop culture that created and sustains him—who carries a latent super-power which manifests as the “sonic light” of rapping. His shine is a creative surge that his body, though seemingly ultra-human, can barely contain and which is emblematized by the boombox that vessels the voices of his internal “bling.”

His status as an ultra-human figure of blackness is further exaggerated by his suspension in space. The image, as Thompson says of Luis Gispert’s Untitled (Single Floating Cheerleader, a.k.a. Hoochy Goddess), “recalls the many scenes of heavenly ascension, typically toward or within light, that animate Renaissance and

Luis Gispert, Untitled (Single Floating Cheerleader, a.k.a. Hoochy Goddess), 2000.

Luis Gispert, Untitled (Single Floating Cheerleader, a.k.a. Hoochy Goddess), 2000.

Baroque paintings.”[13] As such, the album cover brings heavenly figures down to earth, evidenced by Lupe Fiasco’s self-offering as a “sacred embodiment of hip-hop’s secular culture.”[14] Through the use of light and the background of outer space, Anderson focuses on the illusion of gravity in much the same way Gispert does in his Cheerleader exhibition, creating, like the Renaissance and Baroque painters before him, an “optical effect […] central to the representation of otherworldly power” and which inspires “deference” and “devotion.”[15]

Furthermore, by placing Lupe Fiasco against the unearthly backdrop, he, as Thompson says of Gispert’s portraiture, “literally pulls the ground from the representation”[16] to highlight the illusion of Godliness. It is an otherworldliness brought to earth, an incarnation of the divine, enfleshed in the adorned embodiment of hip-hop hipsterism that Fiasco’s body signifies as it simultaneously undergoes a kind of apotheosis by way of a neo-old school hip-hop spiritualism. Indeed, Lupe Fiasco’s self-image in this portrait embodies what cultural theorist Nicole Fleetwood calls in reference to rapper-designer Pharrell Williams, an “urbane self-fashioning,” by which “hip-hop’s past is rendered palatable and even somewhat kitsch” through a “throw-back” aesthetic that replaces the flashiness of “bling” with a more hybridized fashion of skateboarding style and science fiction.[17] As noted above, this rapper’s power is not predicated on ostentation, but on a certain kind of humility—a deference of his ego to an inner “bling” [read: “being”], a signification of the deep Self, symbolized by the light radiating in and through him as well as by the boombox itself, as sacred tabernacle for hip-hop’s rhythm, to which he bows his head.

Kenhinde Wiley, Portrait of Andries Stilte, 2005. As Thompson makes clear, L.A.-born African-American here deploys a deconstructive move in his artistic flirtation with the representations of black masculinity in much of hip-hop culture, attempting to "possess and depose hip-hop's visual construction of it." He does so by creating visual variations on what within normative discourse would be seen as today as the feminized self-portraiture of the European, white male who sported his own version of "bling." As Thomspon notes, "That his subjects often assume the poses of female figures or take female names- that they, in effect, cross-dress by taking on personas in art history- further destabilizes the cool pose of hip-hop's masculinity."  (Thompson, 494-95)
Kenhinde Wiley, Portrait of Andries Stilte, 2005. As Thompson makes clear, the L.A.-born African-American here deploys a deconstructive move in his artistic flirtation with the representations of black masculinity in much of hip-hop culture, attempting to “possess and depose hip-hop’s visual construction of it.” He does so by creating visual variations on what would, within today’s normative codes of masculinity and femininity, be seen as the feminized self-portraiture of the European, white male who sported his own version of “bling” in painters’ constructions of an exaggerated European self-image. As Thomspon notes, “That his subjects often assume the poses of female figures or take female names- that they, in effect, cross-dress by taking on personas in art history- further destabilizes the cool pose of hip-hop’s masculinity” (Thompson, 494-95). By the same token, however, it also signifies on the status and wealth  of those who fashioned the black body through slavery. In this way, it functions as a transgressive reclamation of black royalty denied those rendered slaves by the dictates of European imperialism. See also “Race and Hip Hop: The Theoretical Status of the Concept of Race,”

While the album art signals easy commoditization with its sleek visual appeal and markers of urban style, and could well have been used to “sell millions” as noted by one critic,[18] Anderson’s more tempered “bling” aesthetic keeps Lupe’s body from reaching a level of hypervisibility that would only serve to spectacularize his blackness. Indeed, implicit in Anderson’s depiction of Lupe Fiasco could very well be the same critique of black hypervisibility, and even masculinity, that artists such as Wiley and Gispert are offering in their significations on the hip-hop visual culture (see pictures and captions above).

In this way, Lupe “stands in”  as a black male subject whose shine is not so much determined by what he owns as what he embodies—a self that disregards the stereotypical signifiers of black hypermasculinity, commodity, and economic buying power in exchange for a more self-conscious sensibility of “bling” as the “sonic light” of soul power that vibrates like the bass trembling of a figurative boombox from within. Thus Anderson’s art reflects a surface shine with deep substance that is made only more apparent by the rapper’s disavowal of typical “bling” in favor of a shimmer that glows like his “blinging” body somewhere between “hypervisibility and disappearance”[19] as well as between the value of his blackness in and of itself and its use value as exploited commodity. He negoitates this terrain well, ultimately celebrating his blackness as the embodied apex of a force greater than himself, a sonic frequency that vibrates from a source somewhere deep inside the “sonic light” of the blinged-out break-beat.

[1] An aesthetic technique in visual art—particularly oil painting—that emerged as early as the 16th century in Europe and which refers to “a concentration on the materiality or visual texture of objects within or of the picture plane.” See Krista Thompson, “The Sound of Light: Reflections on Art History in the Visual Culture of Hip-Hop,” Art Bulletin 91, no. 4 (December 2009), 485.

[2] As black cultural theorist Nicole Fleetwood makes clear in Troubling Vision, “Hypervisibility [sic], used often in black cultural studies, is an interventionist term to describe processes that produce the overrepresentation of certain images of blacks and the visual currency of these images in public culture. It simultaneously announces the continual invisibility of black as ethical and enfleshed subjects in various realms of polity, economies, and discourse, so that blackness remains aligned with negation and decay.” See Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, and Blackness (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2011), 16.

[3] An expression that represents ‘the visual effect of light being reflected on stones and metals.’ Ibid., 483. Cf. Oxford English Dictionary. The term was coined by Southern rapper B.G. (Baby Gangsta) in 1998, it also refers to flashy jewelry and the ostentations ‘accoutrement that glorifies conspicuous consumption.’ Quoted in Thompson, op. cit.

[4] Ibid., 482.

[5] Ibid., 490.

[6] Ibid., 483.

[7] See ibid., 485.

[8] See ibid., 486.

[9] See ibid., 481, 493.

[10] See ibid., 488.

[11] See ibid., 489.

[12] See ibid., 496.

[13] Ibid., 497.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., 498.

[17] See Fleetwood, op. cit., 173.

[18] See

[19] Riffing off Thompson, op. cit., 501.

When it boils to steam, it comes to it
We all fiends, gotta do it, even righteous minds go through this
True, this the streets school us to spend our money foolish
Bond with jewelers and watch for intruders
I stepped it up another level, meditated like a Buddhist
Recruited lieutenants with ludicrous dreams of
Gettin’ cream, ‘let’s do this!’

–          Jay-Z, “Can I Live,” Reasonable Doubt

Cover, "Reasonable Doubt" (1996)

Cover, “Reasonable Doubt” (1996)

Straight out the “dungeons” of “Brooknam,” rapper Sean “Jay-Z” Carter is no stranger to the post-industrial urban predicament that William Julius Wilson maps out in The Truly Disadvantaged, a groundbreaking study of the American city in a post-civil-rights era. A streets-bred ethnographer in his own right, Jay-Z provides an engaging account of the decay that Wilson locates in ghetto neighborhoods not unlike the various pockets of Brooklyn that the rapper references throughout his debut album Reasonable Doubt (RD).

A product of a socio-economically depressed and neglected environment, the native New Yorker Jay-Z (a.k.a. The HOV, a.k.a. Jiggaman) chronicles his own negotiation with the urban context and structures that have shaped him through what French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu would call the habitus[1] of hip-hop—a “field”[2] rife with its own ordering principles and “internal laws” that, though problematic, have provided Jay-Z a means by which to disengage from the necessity of hustling that he so masterfully poeticizes throughout RD. Speaking from a context of urban blight, the rapper paints a lyrical portrait of life as its lived by a community of individuals on the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. In so doing, he plays the role of street storyteller (read: “urban griot”) and ethnographer alike, giving us a glimpse into what cultural critic Mark Anthony Neal calls the “juvenization of poverty” through the medium of hip-hop.

A form of Afrodiasporic cultural production that emerged on the gang-riddled streets of New York, hip-hop was just becoming a popular means of self-expression in the late 1970s and early 1980s—an era not unlike our own of intense poverty, economic collapse and the erosion of viable public space in American cities which became “part and parcel of the new urban terrain” that minority communities have had to confront.[3] The replacement of a strong manufacturing sector with a service economy as a result of automation, globalization, and the outsourcing of industry devalued the importance of blue-color and unionized work, including manual labor—much of which was supplied by a black working class. With the decline of this industrial base came the rise of professional workers—those such as scientists, IT professionals and creative-industry professionals who produce ideas rather than goods. “Low-income” housing was the federal government’s answer to the problem of economic disenfranchisement, which further exacerbated the problem of social isolation and urban communal decay as the dispossessed were crammed into over-crowded neighborhoods without the needed public and institutional space to build community.[4]

Without a sustainable economy and as a result of poverty and unemployment, “an illicit economy” of drug-dealing, hustling, prostitution, petty thievery, and numbers running “emerged as a primary conduit for economic survival.”[5] Most prominent was the crack cocaine trade that served as a means of escape from the misery of living in a veritable postindustrial wasteland.[6]  This saw the rise of what Neal calls the ‘juvenization of poverty,’ which references the phenomenon of minority populations turning to the crack cocaine industry as a source of income in a socio-economic milieu that provides them little access to more “socially acceptable” means of economic mobility. This trend was/is marked by a militarization of the urban landscape through gang violence and turf wars—as between the Crips and Bloods in L.A.—that rappers like Jay-Z do well to document on albums such as RD.

Indeed, the ingenuity of the HOV’s critically-acclaimed RD lies not only in Jay-Z’s lyrical finesse and the bigness of its sound—a sonic grandiosity that the rapper has mastered perhaps more than any MC in history, thanks to producers such as Premier—but in the rapper’s ability to engage so contemplatively with the “game” (i.e. the structure of drug-trading street life) that has in part made him. Yet it is not wholly determinative of who he is as a person. Rather, it is by way of the cultural resources, or as Bourdieu would have it, the “cultural capital,”[7] of hip-hop—another kind of “game” (or “field”)—that Jay-Z observes himself from the critical distance of a social theorist in his own right.

As such, Jiggaman offers his listeners a glimpse into his own psyche as he manages what Bourdieu would call the “objective structures”[8] (pimping, hustling, etc.) of ghetto life. A world which, as Marc Perry makes clear in his Chronicle of Higher Education survey of sociological literature on the issue of American urban poverty, is deeply shaped by, as noted above, the loss of a strong manufacturing sector, “black flight,” the introduction of hard drugs into the urban community, poverty, and the consequent sense of social isolation that pervades ghetto neighborhoods. In this, Jay-Z operates from a place of “reasonable doubt” in terms of his own survival.[9] His positionality as urban storyteller is rooted in a kind of existential doubt that has a motivating effect, functioning as a source of the rapper’s own drive toward the success he embodies with such well-earned bravado and communicates with a braggadocio flare par excellence on RD.

Nowhere is Jay-Z’s struggle to negotiate the terms of the “game” more evident than on tracks such the Premier-produced banger “D’Evils.” Copping a line from Snoop Dogg’s oft-sampled classic “Muder Was the Case;” a piano flourish from Allen Toussaint’s Jazz-Blues classic, “Go Back Home;” and a bar rapped by Prodigy on a remix of LL Cool J’s hardcore head-nodder “I Shot Ya,” the song explores the psychic terrain of the rapper’s Faustian lust for money and the power it garners him. A Gospel-inflected sermon in its own right, “D’Evils” finds Jay-Z donning the persona of a hustler so possessed by the demon lust for money that he abducts a missing friend’s wife as a means of extortion.

In this he offers the following insight:

Whoever said illegal was the easy way out

Couldn’t understand the mechanics
And the workings of the underworld, granted
Nine to five is how to survive, I ain’t trying to survive
I’m trying to live it to the limit and love it a lot
Life ills, poison my body
I used to say ‘fuck mic skills,’ and never prayed to God,

I prayed to Gotti
That’s right it’s wicked, that’s life I live it
Ain’t asking for forgiveness for my sins, endz
I break bread with the late heads, picking their brains for angles on
all the evils that the game’ll do
It gets dangerous, money and power is changing us
And now we’re lethal, infected with D’Evils…

It is as if Jay-Z is channeling Karl Marx who, speaking from his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, notes that money possesses a “distorting [sic] power both against the individual and against the bonds of society, etc., which claim to be entities in themselves.”[10] As “D’Evils” makes clear, money, again in Marx’s terms, “transforms fidelity into infidelity, love into hate, hate into love, virtue into vice, vice into virtue, servant into master, master into servant, idiocy into intelligence, and intelligence into idiocy.”[11]

Rapper Big Jaz embodies this unfortunate distorting effect on the track “Bring it On”[12] when he spits:

Money is power
I’m energetic with facial credit
Pure platinum fetish for cheddars


Jewels for Pop Duke fulfill your dreams
Never put the pure brown sugar before the dirty green cream.

As the verse indicates, love for its own sake, symbolized by the gendered and racialized imagery of “pure brown sugar,” is replaced by a seeming necessity for “stacking cheddar”—a task of which the hip-hop habitus, conditioned as it is by material destitution, makes a virtue. In this money translates to power. This is particularly the case for those subjects who have so often been shunned from participation in/ownership of the means of production and the attendant capability to thrive in a democratic citizenry. In this sense, “capability” is understood as the freedom, or capacity, to function in the world with a sense of worth and dignity that comes with having the internal and external resources (eg. financial capital, employment, education, housing, psychological well-being, cultural capital, community, political agency, desire) necessary to be fully human. This against the dual threat of exploitation and exclusion in a market-driven society that delimits the possibilities of choice for those, such as minorities, on the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder.

It is in this context that lyricist Sauce Money raps on the same track:

Said we was garbage, so fuck college
Street knowledge amazin’ to scholars when we coin phrases for dollars

Such “street knowledge” is the cultural capital of hip-hop’s urban practitioners such as Jay-Z who have signified—or capitalized—on their despised social locations by mastering cultural capacities such as the fine art of poetry, repositioning themselves as “scholars” of the rap game’s various “verbal products”—i.e. “proverbs, sayings, maxims, songs, riddles”[13]—and rituals of initiation, such as freestylng, beatboxing, graffiti tagging, and hustling for that “cheese” (see/hear the playfully “bromantic” track, “Coming of Age” feat. Memphis Bleek). The bourgeois ideal of higher education, essentially unavailable to ghetto youth, is therefore scoffed at in favor of maneuvering a market that rappers like Jay-Z and his Roc-A-Fella compatriots have helped map. In this, Jay-Z has taken ownership of the means of production through the distribution of a cultural artifact (the rap album) that garners him the freedom to extricate himself from the game he at once lauds and decries.

And so it is that Jay-Z offers us a series of anthems—“Feelin’ It,” “Dead Presidents II,” “Can I Live,” “Cashmere Thoughts,” etc.—that both glorify and critically (re)examine the “politics as usual” of the streets. Jay-Z raps about all this with the aplomb of a high priest (of hustling) and, in a bluesy intro to the track “Can I Live”, sermonizes a bit:

Yeah, hah, yeah Roc-A-Fella
We invite you to, somethin epic y’all know?
Well we hustle out of a sense of hopelessness
Sort of a desperation
Through that desperation, we ‘come addicted
Sorta like the fiends we accustomed to servin’
But we feel we have nothin’ to lose
so we offer you, well, we offer our lives, right
What do you bring to the table?

Jay-Z thus intimates an underlying complexity—the issue of urban poverty—that structures the very system of dispositions (read: “the game”) within ghetto life. He discloses a shared tendency with other drug-runners toward hustling out of a deeply-felt desperation which complicates an easy dismissal of his lyrical content as shallow.

On the track, “Regrets,” for instance, the rapper explores the conflicted psyche of a drug dealer to capture the sense of urgency out of which hustlers operate to make a living:

As sure as this, Earth is turning, souls burning
In search of higher learning, turning in every direction seeking direction
My moms crying because her insides are dying
Her son trying her patience, keep her heart racing
A million beats a minute, I know I push you to your limit
But it’s this game love, I’m caught up all in it
They make it so you can’t prevent it
Never give it, you gotta take it
Can’t fake it, I keep it authentic

In order to “keep it real” in this regard, the rapper then acknowledges that the “number one rule for your set” is to learn to live with regrets—a psychic trick of the figurative trade that ensures, at least as far as one’s place in the field of hustling is concerned, a means of socioeconomic survival and psychological stability. Read in this light, “Regrets” does not necessarily offer an excuse for illegal activity nor a celebration of cut-throat street ethics. Rather, it opens up space for the rapper, as community spokesperson, to confess his ambivalence toward hustling and process a pang of conscience in relation to the game that both runs, and is run by, its players—himself included.

Such ambivalence is made plain on the aforementioned track, “Can I Live,” when he raps:

My pain, wish it was quick to see, from selling ‘caine
’til brains was fried to a fricassee, can’t lie
At the time it never bothered me, at the bar
Getting my thug on properly, my squad and me
Lack of respect for authority, laughing hard
Happy to be escaping poverty, however brief
I know this game got valleys and peaks, expectation
For dips, for precipitation we stack chips, hardly


My mind is infested with sick thoughts that circle
Like a Lexus, if driven wrong it’s sure to hurt you
Dual level like duplexes, in unity
My crew and me commit atrocities like we got immunity

A now-famous rapper who has found success in the rap game, Jay-Z reminisces about his days as a disturbed youth with a conscious regard for the ways in which his involvement in the drug trade has contributed to a situation of social decay. Again, this is not to excuse the “atrocities” of which he claims to have been a part, but to highlight the rapper’s subtle self-reflexivity in re-examining the efficacy of his (mis)deeds.

Admittedly, however, Jay-Z does engage a field of interactions (read: the game) by which personal relationships are easily reduced to mobsteresque business transactions, typified by the various allusions to Italian Mafiosos throughout RD. This becomes especially problematic when he engages rather unself-reflexively with the heteronormative and homophobic gender biases and structures of sexual difference that have come to be an “Achilles heel” of hip-hop’s potential as prophetic social critique. Tracks such as “Ain’t No Nigga”—whereby a then, merely 16-year-old Foxy Brown objectifies herself as the “wifee” and “pussy” responsible for her man’s social mobility—perpetuate tropes of sexual difference that view the man as bread-winner and the woman as devoted housewife whose desires are sated and sublimated through the lavish material possessions strewn upon her by the “man of the house.”[14]

Yet despite, or perhaps because of, these inconsistencies, Jay-Z’s effort is ultimately laudable for the nuanced ways it examines the difficulties of negotiating a militarized public space. Moreover, it is commendable for what it brings to bear on the issue of urban desolation and hopelessness, accomplishing more than what some ethnographers are capable of in even the most detailed of investigations into complex dynamics of ghetto experience and the “juvenization of poverty” therein.

In this way, the rapper reminds us, as does one sociologist quoted in Perry’s overview, that ‘neighborhoods profoundly matter.’[15] This is to say that Jay-Z “invites us to something epic,” cluing us into a reality that is so often ignored, or misunderstood, in assessments of the post-industrial decay that underlies the urban predicament in North America. It is in this act of participant observation that the HOV plays well the role of street-bred ethnographer. He does so with a dramatic zeal which gives his audience, especially those of us subsisting outside the bounds of “street life,” a descriptive tour of “the ‘hood” that doesn’t so much glorify the violence of the streets as it does reveal the risks of living them through the rap-inflected filter of narrative (re)telling.

[1] That is, a “system of dispositions” which produce individual and collective practices “in accordance with the schemes engendered by history.” In other words, the term refers to the collection of habits which shape us as social beings in particular contexts. For the purposes of this discussion, I treat hip-hop as a kind of habitus in light of its function as a social group with its own ordering principles, rules, and structures that shape it as a community of shared habits of social belonging. See Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 79.

[2] Or “sub-space of society in which individuals occupy positions in relation to one another in a struggle over the production, control and consumption of forms of capital [read: ‘any form of socially produced possession or resource, either material or symbolic, that amounts to power to maintain or improve one’s status in society’].”See Terry Rey, “Concise Glossary of Terms,” in Bourdieu on Religion: Imposing Faith and Legitimacy (Oakville, CT: Equinox, 2007), 154.

[3] Mark Anthony Neal, “Postindustrial Soul: Black Popular Music at the Crossroads,” in That’s the Joint! The Hip-Hop Studies Reader 2n ed., edited by Murray Forman and Mark Anthony Neal: 477-502 (New York: Routledge, 2004), 477.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 482.

[6] Ibid.

[7] “Any form of culturally produced possession (possession understood here to mean either as an object belonging to or an acquired trait or authority residing in) or resource, either material or symbolic [such as money], that respresents power to distinguish oneself as ‘sophisticated’ or ‘cultured’, such as rarified articulation [read: verbal skill], designer clothing, or knowledge of [rap] history.” See Rey, ibid.

[8] Here understood as any kind of principle or value system by which one orders, or structures, his/her life in objective reality.

[9] As per commentary on the album according to sources at

[10] See Karl Marx, “The Power of Money,” Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, path:

[11] Ibid.

[12] Which was originally supposed to feature Nas, dammit!

[13] Riffing on Bourdieu, op. cit., 88.

[14] Bourdieu of course offers insightful commentary into this habitus of sexual difference and social organization in ibid., 87-95.

[15] See Marc Perry, “The Neighborhood Effect,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, path: (November 5, 2012)