X, UnNaming, and the Cowboy Blues

This song dropped just as school was ending last semester.

Of course, I loved it. But, because I’m old and grumpy, I started thinking about and analyzing the nom de rap chosen by Montero Lamar Hill.

“Lil” like Lil Wayne, or like so many other rap artists?

“Nas” like . . . Nas?

“X” like DMX?

Or even Malcolm X?

Apparently not.

Again, because I’m old and grumpy, I started grumbling (in my mind, anyway) about how Words (and especially Names) Mean Things.

Here, Malcolm X — the unintended namesake of Lil Nas X — explains the meaning of his adopted last name.

In other words, Malcolm Little chose “X” as a symbol of the unnaming of his ancestors, who were stolen into slavery. If words have meaning, letters do as well, and X, used in this context, is particularly powerful. So powerful, in fact, that even such luminaries as Spike Lee have attempted to profit from that letter of the alphabet.

As Larry Depte, the spokesman for the (short-lived) X-brand Potato Chips, explained in 1992:

“X is a concept.” On each bag of the chips is printed the legend: “X stands for the unknown. The unknown language, religion, ancestors and cultures of the African American. X is a replacement for the last name given to the slaves by the slave master. We dedicate this product to the concept of X.”

“We’re not trying to market anybody’s name or likeness,” Mr. Depte said. “Ninety-five percent of African-Americans don’t know their original names and cultures. Most people don’t know this. X remains unknown, even though it stands for the unknown.”

Indeed, Lee even sought to trademark the letter “X” (read the linked article, “Who Owns X?” for more).

I looked hard for a photo of those potato chips but couldn’t find one. They existed before smart phones. But this will give you some idea of what was going down back in the day.

In the meantime, on a summer road trip, my children and I listened to an audiobook of A Wind in the Door, the second book in the fantasy/scifi YA series by Madeleine L’Engle known as the “Time Quartet” (the first is A Wrinkle in Time). The theme of Naming is prominent in the book: The human protagonists are assisted by an angel, who is also responsible for naming all the stars in the universe. The bad guys in the novel are known as Echthroi, the plural of the Greek echthros, meaning “The Enemy” (Ἐχθρός). The Echthroi’s destructive power comes from unNaming — Xing out their victims, turning them into nothing.

Names have power, in other words.

Azie and Evelyn of Say It Loud delve into the fascinating history of “black-sounding” names.

In “Old Town Road,” Lil Nas X also draws on the symbolism of the black cowboy. It’s a little-known fact that roughly one out of every four cowboys in the late nineteenth century was black. As Irwin Silber notes, “Many an emancipated Negro decided to try his luck in the west.”

The music of the African-American cowboys had a lasting influence on cowboy ballads in general; in fact, “Home on the Range” was collected by John Lomax from a black trail cook.

Read “Cowboy Blues: Early Black Music in the West.”

Don Flemons, one of the founders of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, sings “Home on the Range” and other black cowboy songs on a recording he made in 2018 for the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture.

In John Lomax’s article “Sinful Songs of the Southern Negro,” in your course reading packet, the folklorist mentions collecting some “cowboy songs” from black informants in a South Carolina prison, including “Streets of Laredo”:

And “The Old Chisolm Trail”:

As sung by Don Flemons:

From Revolution to Rap

Bobby Seale, national chairman of the Black Panther Party (left)
and Huey Newton, party defense minister.

In 1966, as young blacks were beginning to drift away from from what they saw as the accommodationism of the Civil Rights movement and starting to embrace a more radical vision, two Oakland activists, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, founded the Black Panther Party. The BPP was founded on what Newton and Seale called the “Ten-Point Program”:

  1. We Want Freedom. We Want Power To Determine
    The Destiny Of Our Black Community.We believe that Black people will not be free until we are able to determine our destiny.
  2. We Want Full Employment For Our People.We believe that the federal government is responsible and obligated to give every man employment or a guaranteed income. We believe that if the White American businessmen will not give full employment, then the means of production should be taken from the businessmen and placed in the community so that the people of the community can organize and employ all of its people and give a high standard of living.
  3. We Want An End To The Robbery 
    By The Capitalists Of Our Black Community.We believe that this racist government has robbed us, and now we are demanding the overdue debt of forty acres and two mules. Forty acres and two mules were promised 100 years ago as restitution for slave labor and mass murder of Black people. We will accept the payment in currency which will be distributed to our many communities. The Germans are now aiding the Jews in Israel for the genocide of the Jewish people. The Germans murdered six million Jews. The American racist has taken part in the slaughter of over fifty million Black people; therefore, we feel that this is a modest demand that we make.
  4. We Want Decent Housing Fit For The Shelter Of Human Beings.We believe that if the White Landlords will not give decent housing to our Black community, then the housing and the land should be made into cooperatives so that our community, with government aid, can build and make decent housing for its people.
  5. We Want Education For Our People That Exposes
    The True Nature Of This Decadent American Society.
    We Want Education That Teaches Us Our True History 
    And Our Role In The Present-Day Society.We believe in an educational system that will give to our people a knowledge of self. If a man does not have knowledge of himself and his position in society and the world, then he has little chance to relate to anything else.
  6. We Want All Black Men To Be Exempt From Military Service.We believe that Black people should not be forced to fight in the military service to defend a racist government that does not protect us. We will not fight and kill other people of color in the world who, like Black people, are being victimized by the White racist government of America. We will protect ourselves from the force and violence of the racist police and the racist military, by whatever means necessary.
  7. We Want An Immediate End To 
    Police Brutality And Murder Of Black People.We believe we can end police brutality in our Black community by organizing Black self-defense groups that are dedicated to defending our Black community from racist police oppression and brutality. The Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States gives a right to bear arms. We therefore believe that all Black people should arm themselves for self- defense.
  8. We Want Freedom For All Black Men 
    Held In Federal, State, County And City Prisons And Jails.We believe that all Black people should be released from the many jails and prisons because they have not received a fair and impartial trial.
  9. We Want All Black People When Brought To Trial To Be Tried In 
    Court By A Jury Of Their Peer Group Or People From Their Black
    Communities, As Defined By The Constitution Of The United States.We believe that the courts should follow the United States Constitution so that Black people will receive fair trials. The Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution gives a man a right to be tried by his peer group. A peer is a person from a similar economic, social, religious, geographical, environmental, historical and racial background. To do this the court will be forced to select a jury from the Black community from which the Black defendant came. We have been, and are being, tried by all-White juries that have no understanding of the “average reasoning man” of the Black community.
  10. We Want Land, Bread, Housing, Education,
    Clothing, Justice And Peace.When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume, among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect of the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that, whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and, accordingly, all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But, when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.

You may know that Tupac Shakur’s mother, Afeni (above) was a prominent member of the New York City chapter of the Panthers, and that she gave birth to her son in 1971, just one month after being acquitted, along with 20 other Panthers, of a conspiracy to plant bombs in various locations around New York. In the years following his untimely death in 1996, Tupac has himself been studied and analyzed by scholars of popular music, black studies, and American history alike. Some commentators see him as the legitimate heir of the traditions of black nationalism, a “Homegrown Revolutionary.” Others view Tupac’s prioritizing of money, his calls for black-on-black violence, and his misuse of women (he did a prison sentence for rape in 1995 and was killed in a drive-by just a month after his release) as a squandering of the legacy of his mother’s generation.

What do you think?

Tupac’s godmother was Assata Shakur (above), a Panther who escaped from prison in 1979, where she was serving a life sentence for the murder of a New Jersey state trooper. She currently lives in Cuba, and she remains on the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list. Tupac dedicated the song “Words of Wisdom” off his 1991 album 2Pacalypse Now to Assata.

Another song off 2Pacalypse Now, “Trapped,” seems to rationalize violence as an appropriate response to systematic oppression, and even suggests that black-on-black violence has the transformative ability to earn respect for those who engage in it.

Tupac is, in a sense, a pivotal figure between the Black Power generation and the hip hop generation. His life and his work raise the questions:

  • Is it possible to be a conscious rapper and a gangsta rapper at the same time?
  • Have the politics of black liberation fizzled out in the general political apathy of the generations that came after the 1970s?
  • Did the radical social discourse of black revolutionary politics morph into the radical individualism of gangsta rap — from the uplift of the community to the glorification of the individual through money, violence, and sexual conquest?

And what about the aesthetics of black revolution? Take a look at the image above of Bobby Seale and Huey Newton in their black leather jackets and berets, outfitted with guns and bandoliers. As Angela Davis recalled about seeing an image of the Black Panthers in a German newspaper while a graduate student in Frankfurt:

The image of the leather-jacketed, black bereted warriors standing with guns . . . called me home. . . [to organize] in the streets of South Central Los Angeles.

In her halftime show in the 2016 Super Bowl, Beyoncé ignited a minor media firestorm for her use of Black Panther aesthetics: the leather jackets, black berets, bandoliers and afros.

What do you think Beyoncé was trying to convey with her use of this imagery?

Do you think she was successful at conveying it?

Do you think the criticism against her was justified?

Do you think that today’s black popular music across genres has taken the place of the activism of the 1960s and 1970s?

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

Shine surviving the sinking of the Titanic.

Content warning: explicit language and situations.

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 late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Oklahoma-born writer George Milburn, who spent time on the road as an itinerant laborer, wrote in the 1930s:

Tramps and hoboes are the last of the ballad makers. Not in the Tennessee Hills, or among the Sea Island Negroes, or in any other such [isolated] community is there a more vigorous balladry than that which has been flourishing for the past fifty years in America’s peripatetic underworld . . . To relieve the tedium of dreary waits in jungle camps [i.e. work camps for migratory laborers] and long spells of incarceration in country jails . . . many extemporaneous epics, as well as the hobo classics, are sung or recited.

Milburn traces “extemporaneous rhyming,” known in today’s parlance as freestyling, to eighteenth-century England, where reciting rhymed verse made up on the spot was a popular form of parlor entertainment.

A form of folk poetry that developed in the black community simultaneously with hobo balladry is toasting. Toasting is a genre of orally-transmitted narrative 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.

As clarinetist Mezz Mezzrow (above) put it, in an eloquent description of signifying:

Deny the Negro the culture of the land? O.K. He’ll brew his own culture — on the street corner. Lock him out from the seats of higher learning? He pays it no nevermind he’ll dream up his own professional double-talk, from the professions that are open to him, the professions of musician, entertainer, maid, butler, tap-dancer. . . .

The hipster stays conscious of the fraud of language. Where many ofays [whites] will hold forth pompously, like they had The Word, the Negro mimics them sarcastically. As a final subtle touch, his language is also a parody, a satire on the conventional ofay’s gift of gab and gibberish.

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 murderous gambler Stagolee, 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, with his group The Last Poets. 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.

UPDATE: In August 2019, Netflix is dropping a biopic about Rudy Ray Moore, Dolemite is My Name, starring Eddie Murphy (which seems pretty meta). Watch the trailer below.

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

hero_Do-the-Right-Thing-image

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

2016-04-27-hammons-e1461773771776

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:

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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.

One critic has said:

Considered purely in terms of the musical outpouring it led to, “Crazy Blues” was one of the most consequential records ever made, the first title in a regal succession of American song. Without Mamie Smith, no Bessie [Smith], no Billie [Holiday], no Ella [Fitzgerald], no Etta [James], no Diana [Ross], no Aretha [Franklin], no Whitney [Houston], no Mariah [Carey], no Janet [Jackson], no Missy [Elliot], no Beyoncé.

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.

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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.

Update, June 2019: the portrait of a black model that is featured in the video for “Apeshit” is also discussed in greater detail in this essay, about an exhibit at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, “Black Models: From Géricault to Matisse.”