A conversation that turned into an argument on Facebook today, which was about the lyrical prowess of US rapper Jay-Z really got me thinking about Black aesthetics in a general sense. The debate was sparked by someone who said that they were alarmed at how much praise that Jay-Z gets for displaying a skill that he neither invented nor is he superior in it. Since rap music is part of the highly competetive segment of Hip Hop culture, many die-hard fans are quite picky about who really is the best at a specific aspect of rhyming. It was Mos Def aka Yasin Bey who once rapped, “This thing called rhyming/ is no different from coal mining/ We’re all on assignment / to un-earth the diamond …”
You see, the whole argument was really about the use of something called ‘the double entendre’; it’s just a fancy way of descibing an ambiguous turn of phrase or saying something with a double or triple meaning. In the art of storytelling called Rap, there are so many gimmicks and stylish ways that the artists use to stand-out, be unique and basically become ahead of their peers. It is a great feat that after more than 40 years of its existence, despite commercialisation and so many practitioners pandering to capitalist/materialist interests, Hip Hop artists can still be distinguished through their work ethic, skills and excellence. Jay-Z happens to be one of the most successful artist/entrepreneur in the game at present. I do not wish to get into the merits of demerits of whether he is The master of the double entendre or not, suffice to say that there are hundreds if not thousands of less commercially successful MC’s/rappers out there in various languages, who can boast of being the masters or even geniuses in the same game. Someone in the Facebook debate even mentioned Aesop Rock and I later mentioned the recently belated MF DOOM. The rapper Mos Def whom I quoted above can also be mentioned among the top experts in the art of story-telling, but we can mention many others beyond the shores of the USA. The late Ben Sharpa as well as The Hymphatic Thabs and Supa Mpondo are some of the South Afrikan luminaries that come to mind and so does Yugen Blakrok.
|When Blakrok rhymes, “immaculate entanglement …chromosomes have relapsed the hidden element/ chosen matriarch walks with the ghosts of elephants …” – ( Metamorphosis), it may require someone who either understands her mieliu or simply has a grasp of the semiotics of Afrikan cosmology to decipher her meaning. On Morbid Abakus, she raps quite succinctly , “A Neo moving counter-clockwise, til this cipher is complete/ False prophets are the first to seek the shelter of cocoons /Like a newborn retreating back into its mothers womb/ out of this world I search space like quantum physicists/ scaling the mountain like Moses only to find out where the lizard lives/ I crash imbecilles and elevate seers/ My order is psychics that levitate above fear…”
The music is not particularly designed for the clubs or for mainstream audiences entertainment, it is like some forms of what is called jazz, only for ‘Heads’, or those among us who enjoy art-music. It is a proverbial and actual music of the spheres. Of course, not all music can be described as art. Some of it is specifically created with the profit motive in mind, and a vast amount is made for the sole purpose of mind-less entertainment. For those who art fans, the lines are clearly drawn and heated debates have always ensued between purists and hedonists. The latter being part of the mass population. It is no surprise at all that less discerning listeneres who are mostly spoonfed their art, would attribute mastery to artists who are either mediocre or predictably over-rated. The music of the spheres is not found on radio stations and the television broadcasting is owned and controlled by people who have no interest in cultivating a culture of provocative or regenerative thought.
The purpose of this essay though is really to engage with how many of the cultural aesthetics found the the art of Hip Hop are not only traceable to earlier expressions from jazz to Mbhaqanga to the Blues as well as more traditional Indigenous performative arts, but that the intellectual property really does not belong to persons but to the entire Afrikan community as well as other members of humanity who are eble to embrace it and therefore reproduce it. It is during this stage of reproduction that the complex socio-political and economic dimensions manifest fully.
It is very important that as Afrikans engaged in the preservation of our creative economic production, we remain aware that there have always been forces that thrive on distorting and destroying what we create. We may enjoy some moments of frivolous entertainment and even self degradation/humiliation now and then, but there are still spaces of sacredness and conservation. Traditions in musical history as well as cultural life are establish for a reason, they are the stuff that guides us and restores our confidence that our lives have more meaning than the stuff that can be bought or sold. Our resistance to erasure is not a resistance against natural progression of change, we know that culture is dynamic and that traditions must adapt to contextual realities, yet we also are aware that without institutions there will be no systemic or functional best practices.
Note this passage from Frank Tirro’s book Jazz, A History: ” Jazz became a symbol of crime, feeble-mindedness, insanity and sex, and was under constant attack from the press from the early 1920’s on …. it is ironic that we preserve, study and enjoy a music today that was felt to be insidious and lascivious only yesterday.”
Perhaps the obvious question from this statement is who exactly considered Black music in those terms? What was the contextual or even pychological background of the critics at that particular time? It would emerge that the so called taste-makers or opinion makers of that era were the same ones who later began reproducing the music albeit a poorer version of it and constructed a whole new branding of it complete with their own prefered stars as well as the very identity of the sound. Somehow someway, Afrikan people are still able to withstand all this negative onslaught against our creativity and emerge shining forth with boundless expressions of pure Soulful, Spiritual genius. Perhaps the best and only way to preserve our creations is to find ways to remain our authentic selves, undilited by the whims of trends, brands and opinions. We are not just here to create content and cater for the gullible masses, we are here to make life and art rhyme so eloquenly that no one can dare to copy or fake it without sounding inauthentic. The same agents who have created a Hip Hop industry that lacks Soulfulness and spiritual harmony are the same descendents of the people who attempted to stifle the organic grouwth of what they called jazz. There is an undeniable Afrocentricity to the art-forms in question here and they cannot be alienated or removed from the very politics or sociological being of the Mother continent. Note what David Tame writes albeit simplistically in his book The Secret Power of Music, in the chapter Jazz and The Blues:
“On the physical level the rhythms of jazz, like their parent sounds of Africa, literally forced the listeners to do something rhythmic with their limbs. The faster the tempo, the more the emotional tension created. . . -When pulsation and syncopation are the rhythmic foundations of the music at a dance hall, the movements of the dancers can invariably be seen to become very sensual and oriented around the loins. Such rhythms actually posses the capacity to force the subtle energies of the body downward into the region of the anatomy, therefore increasing the outpouring into the bloodstream of sexual hormones. Once such biochemic and more subtle forces have been concentrated on the loins , they must find some manner of expression.”
In part 2 of this essay, I will explain through a Fanonian and Cesairean approach just how racist these statements are. Racism camouflages itself within the cloaks of anthropology and white pathological paternalism. This is the sense of cultural delusion of supremacy that thrives on making sweeping judgements on matters that white intellectuals and even colonised Black writers know very little about. In prepaation for part 2 I woulod advise the reader to seek out Aime Cesaire’s Discourse on Colonialism, Notebook of A Return To The Native Land as well as Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin White Masks.