Unorthodox Paradox: Hiphop Poetics and the African Truth Beneath the Outer layer
A couple of years ago, I taught a sophomore module on Hip-hop and Urban Contemporary music “culture”. The aim of the module was to use Hiphop to illustrate the migration of ideas, images, and cultural influence in the world from the 16th century onwards. The module, in general, used Hiphop to demonstrate the dominant role migration of people and ideas played in the dynamics of the social and political forces that made inner cities possible. To my surprise, many of the students taking the module were quite ignorant of the real history and heritage of Hiphop. When I began to comb through the discussion forums of numerous websites supposedly devoted to “Hiphop”, I was astonished at the sort of views, the so called Hiphop “headz” were throwing about. Many of them reduced Hiphop to what Professor Renford Reese describes as the “thug model” in his book American Paradox (2004). A great number of the views expressed in those forums were so misinformed; there is hardly any way of countering them effectively. This is also true of the so called “underground” Hiphop “headz” who listen to “horror core” Hiphop or other localised or esoteric versions of the Hiphop art form.
In mainstream societies, spurious debates rage about the so called “Hip-hop” culture; about the “baggy” pants and “jail house” fashion style of the inner cities world wide – the “pull your pants up” campaigns in Texas and other states in the U.S are a good example. These debates are not simply happening in the U.S or Western industrial societies, they are happening in Iran, Pakistan, Japan, Tanzania, Ghana, and even Nigeria. In Africa especially, many of the youths laugh at the older generation accusing them of buying into “Western” influence. Yet, these older generations, “fried” and parted their hair like Europeans; wore wigs that made many of them look like “Coons” of the “Jim Crow” era; danced to James Brown, Geraldo Pino, Hendricks, and East African “Rhumba” and Jazz. The double standards of their parents are quite apparent to today’s youths.
During a recent trip to Africa, one of these youths told me in no uncertain term, that his parents are “hypocrites”; that they accept older “Western” influence like Christianity and Western education and then try to lecture their offspring on “African” culture that they neither practice or even respect. Igbo people say that whatever is obtained from the side of the pot always end up at the side of the month. The proverbial colonial “chicken boy” has simply come home to “roost”. Despite the merits of the latter argument, I countered by recycling the clichéd Nigerian parent’s colonial argument that says that Africans should “pick” the “best” from both cultures. The youths dismissed me by asking me to show them who amongst their parent’s generation “is practicing the real African culture even in the continent of Africa”. “All our parents want is Western things, they discourage us from speaking or doing local things, and then they accuse us of foreign influence”, they chorused. These were not just “middle class” kids that hang out in the numerous cosmopolitan “malls” or shopping centres across Africa listening to Kanye West and Jay Z, some of them were street vendors and “Rasta” selling paintings and art stuff in and around the West African coast.
In Muslim countries, and even in Kano, Nigeria, the old school morality police are going hysterical over the so called “American Hiphop culture” taking over the youths. One “rapper” is in prison and another had his record banned in Kano for adopting Hiphop as his mode of expression. Funny enough, the generation behind this moral hysteria was the same generation that normalised the “foreign” British Sabon Gari/Sabon Garuruwa colonial administrative system in Kano in particular, and in Nigeria in general. They were equally the enthusiastic tools of the “foreign” Turco-Islamic and Wahhabi Arab “culture” imposed on the various ethnic groups in Northern Nigeria. That is: “Turco-Islamic” and “Wahhabism” tweaked to save British interests as Lady Lugard told us in her book, A Tropical Dependency: An Outline of the Ancient History of the Western Soudan, with an Account of the Modern Settlement of Northern Nigeria (1902). According to Mrs Lugard, the “Lugardian system” in Nigeria is based on the pax Britannica principle of ruling “as far as possible, through the existing Fulani and Bornuese machinary, modified and controlled by the advice of British residents”.
The modified “Fulani and Bornuese machinary” that lady Lugard referred to in the statement above is not only the “machinary” of “rule” in the Nigerian state today, it is the basis of the Turco-Islamic and “Wahhhbi” moral compass in Kano not Islam. Bear in mind that Kano, as a geo-cultural entity, is at least 600 years older than Dan Fodio, Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab and the British “empire”. Also, this generation’s counterparts in the West invented “sex, drugs and rock and roll”. Many of them, including people like Bin Laden, G.W Bush, Tony Blair, Bill and Hilary Clinton, and Babangida wore and did outrageous things many of them will be too ashamed to admit to anybody today.
Have we all forgotten the “double Decker” shoes, “bongo” trousers, and “mini” dresses and gowns of those “boogie” people of the late 1970s and early 1980s. How can we forget the old school “Jerry Curls” and the “effeminate” tight trouser style of Hot Chocolates, the “BeeGees”, Prince, Michael Jackson and Rick James. I am sure some people from my generation can still recall when the girlie “Pastor” Chris Okotie used to do that silly “running man” dance on Nigerian TV with his “dripping” Jerry Curls. Remember those classical British “Top of the Pops” with all those glam rock dudes that “look like ladies” – Simon Lebon of Duran Duran etc? I saw that generation “boogie” to the “Brass Construction”, “Whispers”, “Shalamar” and “Kool and the Gang”. Some of them even had nicknames like “Disco Messiah” …how so wack! Now, they are all talking about “kids of nowadays”.
My point is simply that in Africa, the generation who are 50 and above today, lived exactly the same “foreign” influence contradiction they are accusing the youths of today of. What is even more insidious is that they are projecting the contradiction of their own generation on their own children basically blaming the moral decline they actively participated in on their own progeny. Who are the feudal “sugar daddies” in Nigeria/Africa today using their localised strangle hold on our collective resources to make whores out of the daughters of those they have pauperised?
However, two things struck me as odd in considering all of the above points: firstly the clandestine underpinnings of the use of “culture”, “tradition”, or history in intergenerational tension and politics; and secondly, how Hiphop as an art form encapsulates all those things. What do I mean by this? The real history and heritage of Hiphop tells us the real story behind the alienation and tension that characterise many generations of Africans including our genealogical extensions world wide. That real story highlights the way subsequent African generations have dealt with their lack of self knowledge and the colonial violence on their common ancestral culture. Since Hiphop is now a global phenomenon, the same question is creeping up globally, particularly, in those various spaces and places that was, and still is, dominated by the West. We must remember that intergenerational tension and conflict in Africa, since colonialism, is always based on an accusation and counter accusation that is firmly anchored on the degree of “foreign influence” not on the so called “ancestral heritage”. This bias clearly tells us which of those two “cultures” is aligned with the axis of power and influence in the minds of various African generations and ultimately, what that says about African historical and cultural amnesia.
The Side of the Moon you Can’t See
The autobiographical book on Fela Kuti by Carlos Moore entitled “ Fela Fela: this bitch of a life”, in many ways, sums up that same real story that Hiphop represents: which is the intergenerational story of how a people “alienated” from their own genealogy can wallow in endless misconceptions that divides them and, at the same time, symbolises that “alienation”. But like Hiphop and Fela Kuti shows, those same alienated people can find their way back through circumstances they least expect. For the great Fela Kuti for instance, that defining circumstance came in the form of a beautiful African American women, Sandra Smith who, as Fela said, “opened” his eyes. Before Sandra, Fela was the typical “colonial African”, attributing everything positive to the West and demonizing or belittling everything African. In Fela’s own words:
“On 15 October 1938, I was born a second time in a hospital somewhere in Abeokuta. Abeokuta? Terrible, man. A planless town. The only people you saw in the streets were tax collectors and soldiers. There was the reservation where the white man lived – called “Ibara” – and then the town. There were occasional Yoruba ceremonies, but we children were discouraged from being interested in such things. Our family was Christian and those things, we were taught were ‘pagan’…
Sandra gave me the education I wanted to know. She was the one who opened my eyes. I swear, man! She’s the one who spoke to me about…Africa! For the first time I heard things I’d never heard before about Africa, Sandra was my adviser… She taught me what she knew and what she knew was enough for me to start on…She blew my mind really…Sandra was the woman…I swear”
How can Fela, born and bred in Africa, learn something this fundamental about Africa from Sandra, an African American, whose ancestors left Africa hundreds of years before Fela was born? Even more fundamental than that, how come such defining information on Africa is absent in the mind of somebody born and bred in Africa; somebody who can speak an African language very well? It is true that Fela’s Father, Reverend I.O Ransome-Kuti, was a typical colonial puritan Christian who tried to inculcate Western values in his Children. Reverend Ransome-Kuti on the other hand was also the same person that was beaten up by the colonial
army for refusing to take his hat off for the British flag. Fela’s great grand father was also a staunch practitioner of Yoruba traditions. Fela knew about some of those traditions and oral histories but prior to meeting Sandra he was preoccupied, in his own words, with “Simon Templar – the fictitious man I‘d wanted to imitate”. For those too young, Simon Templar, is a hero of a classical British detective series called “The Saint”.
So, while in Africa, Fela’s mind was pretty occupied by the “fictitious” images of the colonial masters which, until Sandra’s rude awakening, were his dominant frame of reference. Could this also be the reason why many assume that Hiphop is American? Can this explain why Africans seem unable to recognise what is African? Too busy imitating today’s equivalent of Simon Templar - Tony Montana and “Godfather”? According to Fela, the defining awakening moment came one day while he was “sleeping”:
“Then one day I was in her (Sandra) house sleeping. We weren’t talking about politics then, just business. I don’t remember what happened exactly. I must have said something because she said, ‘Fela, don’t say that! Africans taught the white man. Look, the African’s have history!’ I (Fela) said, “They (Africans) don’t have shit, man. No history, man. We are slaves’.”
Notice how the then Afro-phobic Fela said “they” in relation to his own people and then move on to “we” while still emphasising the colonial notion that Africans are “none-entities”. This view that Fela had about Africa in the 1960s is still the dominant view about Africa by Africans today. Of course that sycophant Fela died that day Sandra introduced him to Malcolm X. Interestingly, Fela’s mother’s maiden name was Thomas and she was a descendant of the same transatlantic African diaspora as Sandra. It was Fela’s mom that instilled the “maroon” spirit in him Sandra rekindled in the U.S. Funny enough, Sandra and Fela’s mother got on quite well when they met during Sandra’s visit to Nigeria in the 1970s. Any how, what does Fela’s story tell us about “Hiphop”, intergenerational conflict and geneaological continuity? Before getting to that, let me first, talk about some common misconceptions about Hiphop and then, I will try to clarify some of the issues raised by those misconceptions. Finally, I will use the words of Hiphop artists themselves to ground the overall point the article is trying to make.
Beneath the Outer Layer
To many, Hiphop is quintessentially a product of inner city America. Hiphop artists themselves talk about the Bronx and then Brooklyn, New York. However, Hiphop is an African art form. There is a good book on the subject: James Haskins’ “The Story of Hip-Hop: From Africa to America, Sugarhill to Eminem”, London: Penguin (2000). Hiphop came to America/New York via African migrations from the agrarian South of the U.S and the later migrations from the “West Indies” to inner city America. Hiphoppers all know the story of how DJ Cool Herc brought the “sound system” format from Jamaica to the U.S before Grand Master Flash and Afrika Bambaataa.
That was before Ronald Reagan’s punitive policies helped to create the conditions that made the “thug”, “pimp”, “gangsta”, “hustler” and “hoes” the dominant models of self representation in the project housing “hoods”. The Reaganite/Thatcherite over emphasis on rugged individualism, showy acquisitiveness, and pseudo social Darwinism gave rise to the “hustler” or “ghetto” entrepreneur mentality ingrained in today’s “cash money” ghetto articulation of “Reaganomics”. Reagan also pioneered the shift in policy that contributed to the high incarceration rates of those “hustling” African Americans with his emphasis on plutocratic “law” and “order”. This was in many ways a continuation of his policies while he was the governor of California. Predictably, “crack” cocaine appeared on the scene at the same time and it is no mere coincidence that “gangsta” rap, NWA and “Master P” first appeared in Reagan’s former state. The dramatic increase in institutional confinement and incarceration of African American in the post-civil rights era was happening at a time government welfare programs were down sizing. This paved the way for the ghetto/prison symbiosis that produced the “speech impediment” thug model with “money” on his “mind”. The so called “thug” or “gangsta”, in the “black” or “Hispanic” incarnation, is actually a caricature of the Southern European ethnic formations designed to function beneath the Italian state’s realm of control. These Ethnic formations acquired the status of “organised crime” at some point during the Southern European migrations into the U.S and the economic down turn following the 1929 Wall street crash. The ghetto was, in many ways, an “organised crime” in the sense that economic conditions and governmental indifference combine to create the condition favourable for racketeering. What many people call the “Mafia” is largely a creation of the U.S government’s “prohibition” policies of 1920 to 1933. The “thug”, on the other hand, is the product of the “prohibition” policies of the late 1970s to the present that parallels the economic down turn of the post 1970s “oil crisis” era. Did Lil’ Kim not belong to a group called “Junior Mafia”?
Any how, what is relevant to the point I am trying to make in this article is that, despite its problems, the “ghetto” was a transnational ethnic enclave that was fertile with that same energy we identity with the migrations and social circumstances that produced the “Cosa Nostra”, “slave” cabin revolts or the “maroon” areas of Jamaica. Every one knows that for a small country, Jamaica is a power house of African music culture production. Even among the famous “American rappers”, first and second generation Jamaican migrants to the U.S are over represented in the Hiphop “game”. The question is why? Jamaica before “independence” was one of the only places in the Western colonies where Africans were able to carve out a relative autonomous space for themselves – the so called “maroons” enclaves. In the South of the U.S, enslaved Africans due largely to their relative isolation and population concentration were able to also replicate their ancestral music and contours of the oral culture they were taking away from.
The mass movements of Africans that happened “after” slavery or the “first reconstruction”; the subsequent migrations during the civil rights and Pan Africanism era brought together Africans hitherto scattered in different locations in contact with one another. The site of that meeting, in the post 1970s era, was the ghetto enclave, which like the “maroon” areas before it, became a collective space that hitherto scattered and diverse Africans were forced to live together. In spite of the conflicts and problems of such enclaves, the coming together of diverse Africans scattered by colonialism in different locations; whether in “Freetown”, “Jamaica” or the U.S inner city, rekindles that genealogical energy; the same energy Fela’s mother instilled in him; the same energy Sandra unconsciously provoked in Fela. In many ways, Hiphop is the culmination of the different trajectories and tributaries of the African cultural energy and consciousness coming together like Fela and Sandra Smith outside continental Africa.
Today, Hiphop is an art form “pimped” for Billions of dollars since for the ghetto Reaganites nothing is safe from commodification – including the virtues of wives, mothers and daughters. Ivy League Universities teach courses on Hiphop; Romanian Gipsies use Hiphop for their own Ethnic purposes. Many variants of Hiphop have appeared around the globe with some claiming to be “nationalistic” – like the Union Jack flag waving “Grime” in the U.K. In the thick of the Hiphop dollar rush, as it is often the case, nobody remembers Africa or the Africans whose “blood, sweat, and tears” transformed that art form into the incarnation we recognise it as today. Hiphop is not American; it originated in the African griot and bardic rhythm and oral tradition that still exist today. Hiphop cannot be wrapped in a national flag of those that perpetrated the “blood sweat and tears”. It has always been borderless and free like the Kuyatehs: the originators of the original griot Hiphop.
My good friend, Jalli Lamin Kuyateh’s ancestors were the original griots and Lamin continues to carry on the tradition today. But who knows about the Kuyateh’s or the emphasis on verbal dexterity and oral tradition that gave us Hiphop? Who cares about the transformation of African rhythm into the slave plantation “call and response” rendition that gave the world Blues, Jazz, Bebop, Rock n’ Roll, Soul and Gospel (now characterised as “Christian” music)? Who cares about a “none entity” without a history and tradition of its own? Ironically, the griots were the ancient historians of Africa and today “Hiphop” is stirring up debates about “foreign influence” and history. Think about it, Hiphop is playing a role its originators intended – to remind us of what is beneath the colonial outer layer. The Hiphop wordsmith, Brother Ali breaks it down for us here:
Beneath the outer layer, the train is black
You just don’t disrespect the people that laid the tracks
Cos this human expression they gave you that
So the least y’ll can do is try to pay ‘em back
You might ask: what is this “human expression” they gave you? What has Hiphop done for us Africans or even the world? Consider the following facts: In the U.S, Hiphop is perhaps the biggest saviour of those Africans without formal qualifications; those who are shuffled between the ghetto and the prison system; the “throw away” generations of the “crack wars” and “whores”. In Africa, Hiphop is pioneering the rehabilitation of African indigenous languages neglected by the African states and formal structures. The same youths who were taught to disrespect their ancestral tongues and dialects are utilizing those cultural capitals. Hiphop has helped to bridge the mentality gap between white suburbia and the inner cities everywhere. Kids share slang and phrases across vast territories. Hiphop is arguably, the biggest break Africans have had, even bigger than civil rights in the U.S. or “independence” in Africa. Dr. Dre is perhaps more aware than most, in terms of what Hiphop represents to Africans generally:
Imagine it never happened
Imagine no rappin\'
Imagine niggaz trapped
Imagine it havin\' action
Imagine how niggaz could be actin\'
If we never got this shit crackin
Imagine life\'s so hard
You can\'t imagine it\'s like livin\' in city of god
You feel me
Imagine life on the yard
tryin\' to get that dollar on some shitty ass job
Imagine Biggie with his son
Imagine Pac gettin\' called pop \'bout one
Imagine a mother struggling
Dealing with a system that don\'t give a fuck about who shot her son
Imagine life you can\'t win
When you get out of the ghetto and go right to the pen
When you get out to the pen you go right to the jenz
When you put back to the streets you get right back in
Imagine Russell still struggling
No Def Jam it\'s another nigga hustlin\'
And no rocks on them fellaz
Just rocks on them fellaz
Just try and keep it bubblin\'
Imagine niggaz just stopped
From the east to the west coast, everybody fucked up
I can\'t imagine no less
But it don\'t take imagination
To know niggaz been blessed with
I’d like to conclude this article not with a summary but with the griot “lyrical” of one of the best lyricist in Hiphop, Poetics (RIP) of the “Grave Diggaz” and the genius of RZA and the Gate Keeper. As the case of Fela and Sandra shows, sparks always happens when African “dangerous mindz” align to crystallize the “word” – the word in the Akan Adinkra symbol – “Sankofa” or the African truth beneath the outer layer that all Africans need to “go back and take”. Even more than Jazz and country Blues, Hiphop is the very incarnation of the Sankofa paradox that makes the “past” ever “present”. Making some thing so new, so old, and in the processes recreates the broken link between Africans and their geneaology.
Hiphop might be used to highlight the social conditions many deal with on a daily basis; it might be the voice of the oppressed, the banner that gives vent to injustices, inner consciousness or the triumphal banalities of Reaganite materialism. But Hiphop is much more than its uses and utility. More than any other thing, Hiphop is the very impulse of the African past pulsating in the veins of the present and the future. An ancient griot practice that is still resistant to the attempt to reduce it to mere contents and finite frailties.
\"Dangerous Mindz” lyrics by Grave Diggaz
Verse One by Poetics
Yo, hah yo, rahh, yo, yo
Yo, yo, yo...
Yo, I got stress on my brain that causes chest pains
inside the best frames ghetto blood clots is scored by slug shots
and drug spots, well if you\'re too poor to move out
or get a new house, it\'s like livin in a war walkin through shootouts
And you doubt God exists, when hard fists
be poundin on your head like jackhammers
You\'re trapped in the black drama, you hear the laughter
seconds after that you fade out, you\'re played out, you\'re laid out
Your heart nearly gave out, you\'re lucky that you made out
with just a few scars when the beating ends
The streets [sniff] let ya breathe again
But evil men, will soon be on the receiving end
of Universal Law, I\'m callin on the meek and the poor
To fight back and never forfeit the day you have to go to war
With forces that are armed upon the seven continental borders
A mental fortress is essentials to absorb this
My sword hits the human orb until it orbits
In the art of war kids see Grym Reap be morbid
Since pieces of the lost civilization in the past
Had my photographs etched inside of pyramids
To laugh at this revelation, without 365 days of concentration
and twenty-four hour meditation, would be foolishly pagan
I\'m ancient as \'amen\', see I stay Grim
Throwin fools in in a pit full of pit bulls to be shaken
Or strapped to the crossroads of Hell and inner sin
Which trap the sinners in, to sell such in Sing-Sing
I bring Grim tidings, tidal-ed/titled your wave all not exciting
Stop riding the dick, start writin your own shit
Cause I stick figures that think they phat and can\'t rap wind blast
I make em Slim Fast, lookin like stick figures
I\'m all that, I bag chips at concerts and shows
Get more panties than hoes that boost Victoria Secret clothes
Foes is tagged like ex-foes toes at the coroner\'s
Kids with cold feet rise and fall like the barometer
Grym will mentally chop your career
See shit is locked down here, like penitentiary blocks and tears
Escape outta your ducts every time you hear my name
you better duck fate, or catch a fuckin face full of duct tape
You get smacked like a trick that sniffed off her money
Then smoked like Rzarector with the blunts dipped in honey
Verse Two by Prince Rakeem/Rzarector/RZA
Rotate your head like a gyro, my hair grows in knotty spirals
Feet resembles Christ\'s description from the Bible
Water-walker, immune to all physical torture
Pull out fast in a Porsche, upon a double-crosser
My penis rise up in the morning like a Phoenix
And blast iron cells into a low blooded \'nemic
The imperial - material\'s venerial
MC\'s get murdered in serial, you can\'t fuck with the material
Unorthodox paradox, my shit is seen wide-screen Magnavox
Grabs thought like Doctor Octopus
Cause war like the grandson of Kush
I\'m hangin devil\'s heads on a evergreen bush
Sugar-frosted sorceresses bitches get exhausted
Pussy lips be drippin, like leaky faucets
Undercover C-Cyphers sprayed up like windshield wipers
While I\'m guzzlin Piper\'s, changin my son\'s shitty-ass diapers
Dime piece trapped in sync like many time piece
You get stampeded by the wildabeast
A rap dast\' plus tracks black like Chow Yun Fat
Oppositional forces get their eardrums flat
Common denominator, I swing the mic saber like Vader
He was fooled by the inter-pre-atation made from a traitor
MC\'s get their wigs blown, trounced off my fistbone
Choked from my death, every time they break a wishbone
Eventually, I knew the whole world would mention me
Potentially, I have the key to make G\'s
MC\'s breeze on my tracks, I rock the fruit with the trees
Killa bees spread rapid like diseases
See it\'s, like the second comin of Jesus, of Nazareth
be fabulous, raise the dead crowd up like Lazarus
Hazardous vocabulary attacks be beautiful
Acoustical notes we provoke, it comes out musically dope
Niggaz realize they just can\'t cope
The hair, bustin out the head resembles fire and smoke Loc
Verse Three by Frukwan/Gatekeeper
I blast watts in circuits like General Monk-Monk was Turkish
My science is divided deep into your central nervous
Pervert area codes peep this murder
I\'m boxed-in, suckin hologram tits, inhalin oxygen
Parallel world of crab niggas and sea shells mix
I pierce my dick and sword right through you pelvics
I\'m hell stricken bomb, wrapped in trees of palm
Physical existence is descendants of Allah
I travel at high rates, Weaker men are primates
That either migrate or get burnt to the stake
I feed off lyrical light beams of amphetimene
My terminology is panatomic like lobotomy
Crazy el loco, gas niggaz like Sunoco
Flush em like Presto, Blast in your chest bone
I raise from the shore, like Sodom and Gomorrah
with traction, flashin a 4-wheel drive Ford Explorer
While mucus lies within the center of the Rubik\'s
The roots of the wine induced the enzymes inside your nucleus
Turmoil boilin appointed, niggaz rubbin off my style like a ointment
Lost in the Sahara, From trial and error
Confused with 3 meals for Sister Sara
Rahh! Bearer, Digestin minerals in abundance
Because the dead is not known to return from the dungeons
You can watch GraveDiggaz “Dangerous Mindz” herehttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dqhb28UjTyw