Toasts, Signifyin(g), and the Roots of Rap

Shine surviving the sinking of the Titanic.

Content warning: explicit language.

Although the cradle of rap is generally acknowledged to be community-room parties in the South Bronx, the genre draws from multiple threads and locations, from Jamaica to Louisiana to the hobo poetry of the American west.

One of these threads is toasting, a form of orally-transmitted narrative African-American folk poetry recited in rhyme and in rhythm. Toasts, according to scholars of folklore, were traditionally performed in African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) by men for male audiences in typically male settings. As Bruce Jackson, who compiled the 1974 anthology of toasts Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me puts it:

Toasts can be told anywhere — at parties, lounging around bars and street corners, on a troopship crossing the boring ocean — but they seem to be told in county jails more than anywhere else. There is so much time to kill in county jails and so little to do with that time, and so great a portion of the population in county jails is lower-class black (they are the people without money to pay a bondsman for freedom before trial or who must serve jail time because they lack money to pay a fine) . . . As much evidence as there is for viewing toasts as the literature of the street or partying black man, there is evidence to consider it, along with the worksong of the black convict in the South, as his jailhouse testament . . . and it is just those street roles of badman, pimp, hustler, and junkie described in so many of the poems that [have landed] those jailhouse [storytellers] in jail in the first place.

In other words, the subject matter of jailhouse toasts was self-referential: tales of criminal exploits recited by men who had committed similar exploits. The toasters were performing authenticity, or, in other words, keeping it real.

You can read Get Your Ass in the Water online in its entirety here.

There are folk heroes who appear over and over in toasts across geographical areas from Louisiana to California to upstate New York: they include Pimping Sam, the gambler Stackolee, the legendary pimp Dolemite, and Shine, the boilerman who survives the sinking of the Titanic and becomes a proto-Black Power hero, outwitting the standard figure of the captain.

It was sad indeed, it was sad in mind
April the four was a hell of a time.
When the news reached a seaport town
that the great Titanic was a-sinking down.
Now up popped Shine, from the decks below
and said “Captain, captain, don’t you know.
there’s forty feet of water on the boiler room floor.”
But the captain said, “Never mind Shine, just do as you’re told,
and go back down in that deep black hold.”
Shine said, “That’s funny, that’s mighty fine,
But I’m gonna save this black ass of mine.
There’s fish in the ocean and crabs in the sea
this is one time when white folks ain’t gonna bullshit me.”
So Shine jumped overboard and start to swim
and all the people on the deck is lookin’ at him.

The actor and comedian Rudy Ray Moore recorded several albums of toasts recited some toasts concerning these characters in front of a live comedy audience in the 1970s:

The great George Clinton recorded a version of “Shine and the Great Titanic” in 1997:

Rudy Ray Moore also played Dolemite, another legendary figure in the toast repertoire, in a spoof blaxploitation film of the same name in 1975:

The poet and musician Jalaluddin Mansur Nuriddin (1944 – 2018) recorded Hustlers’ Convention, an album of spoken-word toasts against live musical background, in 1973; the album, which combined funk, jazz, and poetry, would later earn him the moniker “Grandfather of Rap.” Nuriddin had learned to toast — a practice he called “spoagraphics” or “spoken pictures” during a stint in prison. Listen to the complete album here.

Chuck D of Public Enemy produced a documentary about Nuriddin’s album in 2014:

Another frequent subject of toasts is the Signifying Monkey. As you know, “signifyin(g)” is the practice of saying something with two meanings: the obvious meaning of the words and the hidden meaning, which can only be understood by members of a shared cultural group. It is a longstanding verbal practice in African-American speech, especially when dealing with (white) authorities, and has its roots in slavery.

The Signifying Monkey is a trickster figure in African-American folklore, derived from Yoruba mythology. He often appears in toasts with his friends and adversaries Lion and Elephant. Rudy Ray Moore toasts about Signifying Monkey in a clip from the movie Dolemite:

Demonstrating the roots of rap in urban toasts, the character of Signifying Monkey appears in some early rap, like the 1980 “King Monkey Rapp” by King Monkey (Jimmy Thompson):

And the 1988 “Signifying Rapper” by Schoolly D, in which Signifying Monkey is transformed into the trickster-rapper.

The lyrics

You know your daddy and he’s a faggot
And your mother’s a whore
He said he seen you sellin asshole door to door . . .
He said, your granny, she’s a dyke
And your other brother, he’s a faggot
And your little sister Loo
She’s so low she sucked the dick of a little maggot

are a version of “the dozens,” the game of exchanged insults traditionally played by black children in urban areas, typically focused on “yo mama,” such as:

Yo mama’s so poor, someone threw a cigarette in her yard & she said, “Clap yr hands, stomp your feet, thank the lord, we got heat!”

Yo mama so ugly that not even goldfish crackers smile back.

Yo mama’s so fat, she jumped in the air and got stuck.

Of course, as children become adolescents, the taunts become raunchier:

Yo mama like cake, everybody get a piece.

Yo Mama so dirty I called her up for phone sex and she gave me an ear infection.

Etc.

The dozens morphs/migrates into rap battles.

For a comprehensive library of information on toasts, black folklore, rap, and urban culture, check out this site.

Rap ≠ Hip Hop

Trigger/content warning: racist language in sources, including the n-word.

Wynton Marsalis has said of hardcore rap:

I call it “ghetto minstrelsy” . . . Old school minstrels [i.e. whites in blackface] used to say they were “real darkies from the real plantation.” Hip-hop substitutes the plantation for the streets. Now you have to say that you’re from the streets, you shot some brothers, you went to jail. Rappers have to display the correct pathology. Rap has become a safari for [white] people who get their thrills from watching African-American people debase themselves, men dressing in gold, calling themselves stupid names like Ludacris or 50 Cent, spending money on expensive fluff, using language like ‘bitch’ and “ho” and “nigger” . . . Listen, I don’t have to attack hip-hop. Hip-hop attacks itself. It has no merit, rhythmically, musically, lyrically. What is there to discuss?

Does Marsalis make a legitimate argument?

He also asserts that hip hop disrespects the time-honored traditions of African-American music.

Sampling . . . just shows you that the drummer has been replaced by a loop. The drum – the central instrument in African-American music, the sound of freedom – has been replaced by a repetitive loop. What does that tell you about hip-hop’s respect for African-American tradition?

It’s an interesting point. As you will recall, drums were banned after the 1739 Stono Rebellion, leading to the emergence of patting juba.

Nevertheless, on his 2007 album From the Plantation to the Penitentiary, Marsalis raps.

The lyrics:

You got to speak the language the people
Are speakin’

Specially when you see the havoc it’s wreakin’
Even the rap game started out critiquin’
Now it’s all about killing and freakin’
All you ’60s radicals and world beaters
Righteous revolutionaries and Camus readers
Liberal students and equal rights pleaders
What’s goin’ on now that y’all are the leaders
Where y’all at? (That’s what I’m talkin’ about)
Where y’all at? (Where y’all at?)
Where y’all at?
Where y’all at? (Lord have mercy)
Don’t turn up your nose

It’s us that’s stinkin’
And it all can’t be blamed on the party
Of Lincoln
The left and the right got the country sinkin’
Knocked the scales from Justice hand and
Set her eyes a-blinkin’
All you patriots, compatriots, and true
Blue believers
Brilliant thinkers and overachievers
All you “when I was young
We were so naïve’ers
Y’all started like Eldridge [Cleaver] and now

You’re like Beaver
Where y’all at?
Where y’all at?
Where y’all at?
Where y’all at?
We supposed to symbolize freedom and pride
But we got scared after King and the
Kennedys died
We take corruption and graft in stride
Sittin’ around like owls talkin’ ’bout “WHO?
Who lied?”
All you po’ folks victims of rich folks game

All you rich folks gettin’ ripped off in the
Same name
All you gossips cacklin’ “It’s a dirty shame”
And whistle blowers cryin’ ’bout who’s to blameWhere y’all at?
Where y’all at?
Where y’all at?
Where y’all at?Well, it ain’t about black and it ain’t about
The white
They’ll get together to make your pocket light.
When you just keep on payin’ do your jaws
Get tight?
Taxes, that’s your real inalienable right
All you afro-wearers and barbershop experts
Cultists, sectarians, political disconcerts

Big baggy pants wearers with the long
White T-shirts
The good man that counter what the
Bad man asserts

Where y’all at?
Where y’all at?
Where y’all at?
Where y’all at?

After 9/11 the whole world
Was ready to love us
Now everybody can’t wait to rub us
We runnin’ all over the world with a blunderbuss
And the Constitution all but forgot in the fuss
All you feminists and mothers, fathers

And brothers
I guess you’d pimp your daughters if you
Had your druthers
All you “It’s not me” it’s always others
You watch the crimes, you close your shutters

Folks watchin’ Fox and CNN News
Seekin’ a cure for the Red, White, and Blues
Well, it won’t matter which side you choose
If we end up payin’ international dues
All you “In my day it used to be” frauds
All you “So what”s and “Leave it to the Lawd”s
All you “I’ll just deal with whatever cards”
All you extend adolescent American Bards
Where y’all at?
Where y’all at?
Where y’all at?
Where y’all at?

He explains: “It’s rapping, but it ain’t hip-hop.”

What do you think?

It’s worth noting also

What about this famous song from 1970 by Gil Scott-Heron, known as the “Godfather of Rap”? Is it rap if it lacks flow, scansion, or rhymes?

How do you define rap?

How would you describe the difference between rap and hip hop?

Fight the Power

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Still from Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989).

Chuck D of Public Enemy was inspired to write “Fight the Power,” the theme song for Do the Right Thing, by an Isley Brothers song of the same name.

Carlton Ridenhour was 15 years old, and a lifelong Isley Brothers fan, when that song changed his life.

Ridenhour would later take the stage name Chuck D, as the leader of the pioneering rap group Public Enemy. In 1989, he wrote his own “Fight the Power” for the film Do the Right Thing. The movie is set on the hottest day of the summer in a Brooklyn neighborhood, where the temperature leads long-simmering racial tensions to boil over in the street.

The Isley Brothers’ “Fight the Power Parts 1 & 2” obliquely references the policing of “boom cars”:

I can’t play my music
They say my music’s too loud
I kept talkin about it
I got the big run around
When I rolled with the punches
I got knocked on the ground
With all this bullshit going down 

The regulation of boom cars has also become a civilian effort, with groups such as Lower the Boom! addressing the following to the drivers of such vehicles:

Boys;

Most of you – not all of you – are mere boys, or have the mentality of a boy and thus exhibit much of the typical mind set of an adolescent.  . . (Those of you who carry this attribute into adulthood will have painful marriages and failed personal and professional relationships. At best, you will spawn yet another dysfunctional family for our society).  . . We know why you lash out, and you need to realize that it isn’t because you are a big man. You do whatever you think you can get by with, even when it’s counterproductive, morally lacking, damaging to others, or just plain stupid. . . we don’t expect this page to mean a great deal until you’ve become men; not just in the physical sense, but in your minds and souls as well. 

Public Enemy would later rap about the phenomenon of aurally profiling black drivers in “Get the F*** Outta Dodge” (1991):

I was wheelin’ 
Wit’ the boom in the back 
The treble was level 
I like it like that 
I was rolly roll a roll rollin’ 
5 o looked and said hold it 

Read an interview between Chuck D and Ernie Isley: “‘Fight The Power’: A Tale Of 2 Anthems (With The Same Name)” here.

Read “Afrofuturism, Public Enemy, and Fear of a Black Planet at 25.”

Another way of fighting the power during the government shutdown.

“Doing 55” Playlist

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Hoodie (David Hammons, 1993).

Trigger/Content Warning: Disturbing subject matter, police brutality, racism, profanity, racist language including the n-word.

Jennifer Lynn Stoever notes in her article “‘Doing Fifty-Five in a Fifty-Four’: Hip Hop, Cop Voice and the Cadence of White Supremacy in the United States”:

As African American theorists, writers, artists and musicians – from Frederick Douglass in the nineteenth century to Mendi + Keith Obadike in the present moment – have been reminding us for quite some time, the perceived inaudibility of whiteness does not mean that it has no sonic markers, that it is not heard loud and clear. . . . [Nevertheless] there is nothing essentially biologically “white” or “male” about the cadences of cop voice, and both [race and gender] are heard and sounded through ethnic and class identities.

We’ve talked about what it means to “sound black.” What does it mean to “sound white”?

As you listen to the music Stoever analyzes in her essay, do you hear what she calls “those aspirant ‘t’s and rounded, hyper-pronounced ‘r’s” when the rappers switch personas to voice the white cops?

Stoever compares the “cop voice” enacted by rappers with ventriloquism. Can we think of it as a racially-reversed, power-inverse form of minstrelsy — a kind of subversive minstrelsy performed by the disempowered?

KRS-One, “Sound of da Police” (1993):

Jay-Z, “99 Problems” (2003):

Main Source, “Just a Friendly Game of Baseball” (1991):

Public Enemy: “Get the F*** Outta Dodge” (1991):

Rebel Diaz, “Calma” (2009):

Prince Paul/Everlast, “The Men in Blue” (1999):

N.W.A., “F*** tha Police” (1988):

J Dilla, “F*** the Police” (1999):

Mos Def, “Mr. N*gga” (1999):

Jasiri X, “Crooked Cops” (2013):

G-Unit, “Ahhh Sh*t” (2014):

The Game, “Don’t Shoot” (2014):

Sammus, “Three Fifths” (2015):

Appendices:

  1. Poet Claudia Rankine reading from her collection of poems Citizen: An American Lyric, a meditation on race in America.

2. Jennifer Stoever’s playlist of black women artists singing/rapping about police violence:

 

 

3. Eric Garner’s siblings, “I Can’t Breathe” (2016):

 

4.. Read the African American Policy Forum’s report #SayHerName: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women, by Andrea Richie and Kimberlé Crenshaw, here.

5.. Listen to Rudy Francisco perform his poem “Adrenaline Rush” (h/t Anokye Bomani):

6. Read the “Lower the Boom” organization’s (racialized) open letter to those who, as Public Enemy  puts it, wheel with the boom in the back.

Boys;

Most of you – not all of you – are mere boys, or have the mentality of a boy and thus exhibit much of the typical mind set of an adolescent. . .  (Those of you who carry this attribute into adulthood will have painful marriages and failed personal and professional relationships. At best, you will spawn yet another dysfunctional family for our society). You lash out with vitriol, vituperance, and vile invalidations because you feel you are being personally attacked or have been caught being wrong. To the clear-headed and intelligent, you look quite insecure when you do that.

We know why you lash out, and you need to realize that it isn’t because you are a big man. You do whatever you think you can get by with, even when it’s counterproductive, morally lacking, damaging to others, or just plain stupid.

7. Read “It Took a Jury 9 Minutes to Decide A Man Could Legally Blast ‘F*ck Tha Police’ Near an Officer.”

8. Read “To Unprotect and Subserve: King Britt Samples the Sonic Archive of Police Violence.

Rap Battles

faso

Antonio Delgado and John Faso in debate.

One of the most contested races in the 2018 midterms is right here in New York State, in the 19th congressional district, where incumbent John Faso is using his Democratic opponent Antonio Delgado’s former career as a rap artist as a talking point.

A radio ad taken out by Faso alleges that:

Delgado’s raps were vile, a sonic blast of hateful rhetoric and anti-American views, his words weaponized to insult anyone who disagreed. 

Faso told the Times Herald-Record:

The tone and tenor of [Delgado’s] lyrics, as reported, are not consistent with the views of most people in our district, nor do they represent a true reflection of our nation. Mr. Delgado’s lyrics paint an ugly and false picture of America.

Delgado countered that Faso was taking his music  out of context.

“My decision to pursue a career in hip-hop was consistent with hip-hop’s long and rich history of addressing the social and racial injustices that plague America. . . If you listen to the content of the lyrics, my mission is clear,” he said via email.

The recent attention paid to the lyrics is an attack “right out of the political playbook of the right to play to stereotypes,” he said in a phone interview Monday.

“Any attempt to turn me into a right-wing caricature of a hip-hop artist is going to fail, because it’s not who I am, and the voters of NY-19 have shown that they know better.”

Indeed, Delgado’s song “Draped in Flags,” a protest against the U.S. war on Iraq, garnered the following comments on Youtube:

Screen Shot 2018-10-22 at 12.22.59 PM

What do you think?

“Crazy” Blues?

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In the book Seems Like Murder Here: Southern Violence and the Blues Tradition, Adam Gussow devotes a chapter to Mamie Smith’s 1920 blues hit “Crazy Blues.” The song is believed to be the first blues recording ever released, and was entered into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1994. Gussow’s concern, however, is not with the song’s history, but with its subversive subject matter — the wild grief of an abandoned woman, which makes her “crazy,” leads to suicidal ideation, and finally reaches its crescendo in her stated plan to kill a police officer.

I can’t sleep at night
        I can’t eat a bite
        ‘Cause the man I love
        He don’t treat me right.

        He makes me feel so blue
        I don’t know what to do
        Sometimes I’m sad inside
        And then begin to cry
        ‘Cause my best friend . . . said his last goodbye.

        There’s a change in the ocean
        Change in the deep blue sea . . . but baby
        I tell you folks there . . . ain’t no change in me
        My love for that man
        Will always be.

        Now I’ve got the crazy blues
        Since my baby went away
        I ain’t got no time to lose
        I must find him today
        Now the doctor’s gonna do all . . . that he can
        But what you gonna need is a undertaker man
        I ain’t had nothin’ but bad news
        Now I’ve got the crazy blues.

        Now I can read his letter
        I sure can’t read his mind
        I thought he’s lovin’ me . . .
        He’s leavin’ all the time
        Now I see . . .
        My poor love was Iyin’.

        I went to the railroad
        Hang my head on the track
        Thought about my daddy
        I gladly snatched it back
        Now my babe’s gone
        And gave me the sack.

        Now I’ve got the crazy blues
        Since my baby went away
        I ain’t had no time to lose
        I must find him today
        I’m gonna do like a Chinaman, go and get some hop
        Get myself a gun, and shoot myself a cop
        I ain’t had nothin’ but bad news
        Now I’ve got the crazy blues.

Gussow notes:

In 1920 these were remarkable words for an African American singer to shout from the rooftops . . . .they supply a partial genealogy for the emergence, decades later, of NWA (“F*ck the Police”), Ice-T (“Cop Killer,” “Squeeze the Trigger”), and other beer-and-blunts-stoked gangsta rappers of the 1980s . . . . the black male lover whose absence [Mamie Smith] bemoans is associated not simply with faithlessness but with death, an inscription of his social fate in a white-policed public sphere where countless forms of “bad news” — lynching, race riots, vagrancy laws, back-alley murder — threaten to take him away for good. 

“Crazy Blues” sold 75,000 copies in its first month alone, and its popularity was spread across the south when black Pullman porters set up a cottage industry of buying dozens of copies of the record for a dollar apiece in Harlem, and selling them for twice that much when their trains went down south.

Do you think “Crazy Blues” would have been so successful if it had been sung by a black man? Did Mamie Smith’s gender allowed her to express sentiments that would have been unacceptable if issued by a male singer?

It’s worth noting, too, that Smith’s threat to “do like a Chinaman . . . go and get some hop” is a drug reference — “hop” being slang for opium — as well as a racialized/racist one.

In 1924, the blues singer Josie Miles recorded another song about the urge to commit murder and mayhem, not specifically against the police, but perhaps against the violent injustice of society as a whole.

Wanna set the world on fire
That is my one mad desire
I’m a devil in disguise
Got murder in my eyes

Now I could see blood runnin’
Through the streets
Now I could see blood runnin’
Through the streets
Could be everybody
Layin’ dead right at my feet

Now man who invented war
Sure is my friend
The man invented war
Sure is my friend
Don’t believe that I’m sinkin’
Just look what a hole I am in

Give me gunpowder
Give me dynamite
Give me gunpowder
Give me dynamite
Yes I’d wreck the city
Wanna blow it up tonight

I took my big Winchester
Down off the shelf
I took my big Winchester
Down off the shelf
When I get through shootin’
There won’t be nobody left

Josie Miles’s “mad mama” is certainly “mad” in the sense of insanity, but she is also “mad” in the sense of an overwhelming, righteous anger.

Lest it seem like these early musical-homicidal intentions went underground until  gangsta rap, check out Gil Scott Heron’s 1981 cover of Marvin Gaye’s 1971 hit “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler).” While Gaye’s song is a despairing, if non-specific, cry against social injustice, Heron turns his spoken-word bridge into a tribute to the New Orleans cop-killer Mark Essex.

Heron’s spoken-word bridge:

Did you ever hear about Mark Essex and the things that made him choose to fight the inner city blues
Yeah, Essex took to the rooftops guerilla style and watched while all the crackers went wild
Brought in 600 troops, brand new I hear, to see them crushed with fear
Essex fought back with a thousand rounds and New Orleans was a changing town
Rat a tat tat tat was the only sound, yeah
Bring on the stone rifles to knock down walls
Bring on the elephant guns
Bring on the helicopters to block out the sun
Yeah, made the devil wanna holler cause 8 was dead and a dozen was down
Cries for freedom were a brand new sound
New York, Chicago, Frisco, LA
Justice was served and the unjust were afraid

Race, Class, Art, and Consumption

Trigger/content warnings: N-word in original source.

Marie-Guillemine_Benoist_-_portrait_d'une_negresse

Marie-Guillemine Benoist, Portrait d’une négresse 1800, Musée du Louvre.

New Zealand singer Lorde’s 2013 hit “Royals” appeared to be a critique of conspicuous consumption:

My friends and I – we’ve cracked the code.
We count our dollars on the train to the party.
And everyone who knows us knows that we’re fine with this,
We didn’t come from money.

But every song’s like gold teeth, Grey Goose, trippin’ in the bathroom.
Blood stains, ball gowns, trashin’ the hotel room,
We don’t care, we’re driving Cadillacs in our dreams.
But everybody’s like Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your time piece.
Jet planes, islands, tigers on a gold leash
We don’t care, we aren’t caught up in your love affair.

The New York Times’s pop music critic wrote:

[Lorde has] emerged from the far side of the planet with something smarter and deeper [than most pop music]: a class-conscious critique of pop-culture materialism that’s so irresistible it became a No. 1 pop single.

Other critics, however, heard racism in Lorde’s lyrics. Verónica Bayetti Flores wrote:

Holy. Shit. What did this white girl just say? . . . While I love a good critique of wealth accumulation and inequity, this song is not one; in fact, it is deeply racist. Because we all know who she’s thinking when we’re talking gold teethCristal and Maybachs. So why shit on black folks? Why shit on rappers? Why aren’t we critiquing wealth by taking hits at golf or polo or Central Park East? Why not take to task the bankers and old-money folks who actually have a hand in perpetuating and increasing wealth inequality? I’m gonna take a guess: racism.

Do you think “Royals” is racist?

How do you think Flores might respond to the new Beyoncé/Jay-Z song “Apeshit”? The lyrics can safely be called the exact opposite of a “critique of wealth accumulation.”

Gimme my check, put some respeck on my check
Or pay me in equity, pay me in equity
Or watch me reverse out the dick

He got a bad bitch, bad bitch
We live it lavish, lavish
I got expensive fabrics
I got expensive habits

On the other hand, the video introduces issues not present in the lyrics. While the song celebrates wealth and excess, the video explores the juxtaposition of black bodies and the traditions of European art-making, with black dancers in flesh-toned leotards performing in lines in the Louvre Museum and re-enacting some of the paintings, while Beyoncé and Jay-Z take in the art and rap about their success as artists. As Jason Fargo notes:

As so often, the couple here present themselves as both outsiders in an elite institution and as heirs to it; as people excluded from its narratives but now possessors of it by virtue of their talent, their taste and, well, their money.

The Carters also seem to be making an intentional reference to the iconic 1930 painting “American Gothic,” by Grant Wood.

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The song and the video raise the questions once again:

Who owns music?

Who owns art?

What does it mean to be an artist — specifically, a black artist?

What does it mean to be the audience for black art and music?

In the act of listening and/or viewing, does the audience participate in the work of art?

As well as the questions:

Are success and the ability to consume luxury goods and services the same things?

Is the pursuit of wealth an objectively good thing for an individual? For the community?

Is art that celebrates consumerism on the same artistic level as art that has a more explicit message of community/social engagement?

In the song “Boss,” when Beyoncé says, “My great-great-grandchildren already rich, that’s a lot of brown children on your Forbes list,” is she actually making a political statement?

Can such statements go beyond the personal circumstances of the artist and inspire change in the community?

Finally: SHOULD art have a higher message?

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The Caribbean poet and Nobel laureate Derek Walcott (1930-2017, above) grappled with similar issues in his book-length poem Omeros. In this section of the epic poem, he describes going to the Metropolitan Museum and seeing the painting The Gulf Stream by American artist Winslow Homer, which shows a black man in a foundering fishing boat in the Caribbean Sea. The Museum explains the painting’s subject as a “dramatic scene of imminent disaster.”

A man faces his demise on a dismasted, rudderless fishing boat, sustained by only a few stalks of sugarcane and threatened by sharks and a distant waterspout. He is oblivious to the schooner on the left horizon, which Homer later added to the canvas as a sign of hopeful rescue. Some art historians have read The Gulf Stream as symbolic, connecting it with the period’s heightened racial tensions. The painting has also been interpreted as an expression of Homer’s presumed sense of mortality and vulnerability following the death of his father.

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Walcott writes:

Art is immortal and weighs heavily on us,

and museums leave us at a loss for words.
Outside becomes a museum: its ornate frames
square off a dome, a few trees, a brace of sparrows;

till every view is a postcard signed by great names:
that sky Canaletto’s, that empty bench Van Gogh’s.
I ground out my butt and re-entered the dead air,

down the echoing marble with its waxed air
of a pharaonic feast. Then round a corridor
I caught the light on green water as salt and clear

as the island’s. Then I saw him. Achille! Bigger
than I remembered on the white sun-splintered deck
of the hot hull. Achille! my main man, my nigger!

circled by his chain-sawing sharks; the ropes in his neck
turned his head towards Africa in The Gulf Stream,
which luffed him there, forever, between our island

and the coast of Guinea, fixed in the tribal dream,
in the light that entered another Homer’s hand,
its breeze lifting the canvas from the museum.

What does it mean, as a black artist, to receive the legacy of Western culture? What position does the black artist assume in the history of art and culture?

From the “visual album” of Lemonade:

Grandmother, the alchemist, you spun gold out of this hard life, conjured beauty from the things left behind. Found healing where it did not live. Discovered the antidote in your own kit. Broke the curse with your own two hands. You passed these instructions down to your daughter who then passed it down to her daughter.