Hip Hop and Africa, Letter to Hugo Burnham 3/29/2015

Hugo, I’ve been thinking about the issue you’ve brought up, and I have to admit; because I can’t play music, I really don’t know anything about compositional or technical motifs common to African music and hip hop. Considering the beat’s essential role in the genre tho, I suppose I would ask a drummer about that aspect… ūüôā

From what I can recall, and my recollection isn’t crystal clear, hip hop scholarship emphasizes three currents running through the music which have their origins in African culture(s); the drum, favoring spontaneous improvisation on form, and communal participation in cultural expressions. Amiri Baraka (as Leroi Jones) discusses the centrality of the drum in Africa at length in his great “Blues People“. A lesser-known but still good book is Joe Schloss’s “Making Beats“, which goes into all these aspects in specific relation to hip hop (I think the introduction is best on this). And I am sure Tricia Rose, whom Schloss (and everyone else) cites reverently, goes deep on these themes.

So, in a thumbnail, the hip hop/African culture through-line is evidenced in the rhyme cypher and the dance circle in which everybody takes a turn, the musics which favored taking on a recognized format or standard as a starting point and taking flight within (or from) it on the spot, and ways in which, in many expressions, style stood as a verb, a victory, and an end unto itself.

That’s what I got for overt links — sorry wish I could be more concrete and complete!

This may be a bit far afield of your interest, but I wonder if it might be interesting at all to look at the fascination with¬†Afrocentrism¬†that overtook hip hop in the late ’80s and early ’90s. (Interestingly, I hear that era referred to as “the Golden Age” by hip hop heads a lot younger than myself).

Basically, the idea is that the links from Africa to hip hop are fascinating, but so also are the links to Africa made by African Americans, the forms they took and devotions performed in recognition of what young Black men and women believed was inherently African about their culture, and cultural expressions.

That late-’80s/early ’90s era wasn’t always worried about delineating the direct links between Africa and African American art forms, but if Black Power is hip hop’s ideological parent, then I suppose it makes sense that this music reaches back toward Africa both culturally and politically, in the pan-African sense.

I guess what I really mean is, that Afrocentric era is the one I get most nerdy about, and so I think you should, too. ¬† ūüėõ

I mean, I’ve no doubt you know all this, but the Black nationalist fervor that seemed like it was everywhere at that time (including many¬†unlikely places) produced some amazing music, but I’m fascinated by the ways that rap artists attempted to link hip hop culture directly to Africa. I would never argue against that connection of course, but it made for some interesting manifestations and creative ideologies.

One of them produced a weirdly conservative streak, evident in East Coast hip hop’s moving under influence of the Five Percent Nation of Gods and Earths (basically an ultra Orthodox branch of the Nation of Islam’s already-deep-end Islam — on that subject, Brand Nubian’s virtuosic “Reprise in the Sunshine” is worth a listen, especially beside Felicia Miyakawa’s exposition on the song, from her¬†book¬†on the Five Percent Nation) that fostered a lot of poisonous bile (misogyny, anti-Jewish cant, boring-ass lazy gender essentialism, general paranoiac narrowness and contempt). Brand Nubian’s record All For One,¬†from 1992, and Ice Cube’s staggeringly angry, eloquent records with the Lench Mob from the early ’90s are a (albeit, NoI, not 5%) case in point (“Send me a subpoena/ Cause I’m killing more crackers than Bosnia/Herzegovina”! Tune!).

If Pubic Enemy is the canonical righteous hip hop godhead, the apotheosis of high camp Afrocentrism was surely X Clan, a group whose whole presentation (leather kufis to 19th century race theory) shows how the effort to link hip hop culturally with African folkways could get quite strenuous. Even Mr. West, our current Esperanto epithet for Asshole, has made some overtures to that look.

(Another nugget of head-nod-able seriousness from this era is the final track on the 1992 debut record of Zimbabwe Legit, the first rap group I’m aware of whose members were actually raised in Africa, “Doin’ Damage in My Native Language (Shadow’s Legitimate Mix)“, an all-sample tone poem of African allusions put together by my abiding darling, DJ Shadow — a white guy!)

But the connections were (and are) deeply felt, and if the overtures toward a pan-African aesthetic matrix were flawed, they were also beautiful, vital, both difficult and necessary, and (IMHO) made hip hop one of the most important cultural expressions in the world for a while.

The scholars of the form discuss sampling as a form of cultural adaptation and rejuvenation, evident also in jazz’s re-working of standards, Jamaican “versioning”, the blues’ infinitely adaptable 12 bars, and so on, and cite as all characteristically African. But for me, the jury’s still out on that.

I mean, all sorts of cultures re-work their fundamentals, and their most refined products, all the time — in good faith, through parody, through mind-bogglingly bold adaptations, and sometimes by accident (i.e. the myriad variations on “Louie Louie“).

At the time, we heard a lot about how rappers were actually griots, the Roland 808 was merely a digital talking drum, the freestyle cypher was that old African American insult-trading game called the dozens, now broader in subject matter and hypertrophied in hyperbole. I’m sure there’s a lot of truth to those derivations, but the number and power of the exceptions challenge those rules, if that’s what we’re going to call them. Chuck D, Queen Latifah (yeah I said that), Rakim, Nas, Kendrick Lamar, Jay Electronica? Griots, no doubt. E40, Jay Z, Snoop Dogg, Drake, Nicki Minaj? Not really a bunch of griots, I’d say (I wonder if they might even agree!). Nevertheless, all of them are devoted experts¬†of the form, widely respected by hip hop heads — non-griot status doesn’t make them less legit.

The 808 is capable of making music so numbingly unfunky (Run-DMC’s first couple records, anyone?) that I think you’d be hard-pressed to get Africa to take any credit for it. And rapping itself has shown itself under such a wild array of forms and styles that it’s hard to believe it all developed out of tall tales and shit-talkin’ (tho I’ve got plenty reverence for shittalkin’).

Seems to me there’s some technological determinism at work in hip hop’s origins (the old saw about Reagan’s budget cuts eliminating school music pgm.s, so the youth resort to using Dad’s stereo as a musical instrument — see Chang’s “Can’t Stop” for a balanced take on that).

But probably¬†also a bit of folks adapting to a post-modern, culturally flat world in which all forms and eras rest on the same¬†level, ready to be appropriated, by we alienated modernaires. Sort of like the blues sped up and turned into R&B when it left the farm for the city, etc, I reckon hip hop’s development had as much to do with zeitgeist as ancient cultural tropes.

The other open secret about hip hop, of course, (and I feel like in this respect, in the UK, you were WAY ahead of us here) is its very, very deep roots in Jamaican sound system culture and toasting. It’s a whole other vast subject, and the sociology of the Caribbean is way past my ken, but truly — there’s an awful lot there.

Anyways, I could not and would never try to make the argument that hip hop’s origins are anything but African, or that there’s anything like hip hop without African American cultural forms and adaptations,¬†or that African American people realize those forms to their highest levels (Shadow, Eminem, and the striking prevalence of Filipino scratch DJ champions notwithstanding).

That said, I think some of the three essential characteristics ascribed to African culture in re: hip hop are found in many other places. Adapting and refining and parodying the standards, citing via sample, signifyin(g), communal participation, styling and profiling as an end in itself — you see that around for sure. In very specific expressions, you see how these are manifested, and they’re glorious. But they are, of course, present elsewhere.

Just saying, may be wise to give a little bit of measured regard for direct cause-and-effect with the three characteristic and the vaunted 4 and/or 5 Elements of Hip Hop. Tricky territory, but it does give me an opportunity to shoehorn this¬†in, which I would add to the list of things that really mess with the purity of hip hop’s origin story (also on the list; Blossom Dearie, “Johnny B. Goode”, prog rock album cover illustrative type, and¬†these guys)

I’m sorry I can’t send along evidence of undeniable links between Africa and hip hop, but maybe this endless note will be helpful for finding sources. I shouldn’t have left HL Gates for last, I think his thesis in “Signifying Monkey” is pretty crucial.

On another note, I own Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, Blues People, and Rap Attack, you’re free to borrow any and all, just say the word.

Apologies for length — I was not gifted with brevity (hey, who said “fucking blowhard”? I heard that! ūüôā ¬†)




About Mienda

Somerville, Brooklyn/Manhattan, Chicago, Glasgow, Cambridge, Philadelphia, here right now.
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