Forget Michael Jackson–the face of hip-hop
has changed more dramatically within the last three years than MJ’s reconstructed
front piece has in the last three decades. And kinda like Mike, the change hasn’t
been all for the better. Once upon a time, the only thing a Black kid from the
‘hood was able to successfully produce was a nervous flutter of locked
doors and clutched purses.
Now that the absorption of hip-hop culture into
the pulp mainstream has made Blackness a marketing goldmine, and the lucrative
franchise has upped America’s tolerance of Black people, record companies work
at break-neck pace to sustain a fresh lineup of ghetto superstars. And everything
hip-hop touches turns to platinum.
Our music has no doubt become one of corporate
America’s most profitable commodities and industry pimps, who come as close
to South Compton or South Jamaica as Wayne Brady does to being a soul brother,
have been eating well off of their assembly-line production of hip-hop hits.
Factor in the pop-locking passengers in car commercials, the beat-boxing restaurant
spokesmen and the hip-hopping kangaroo movie and it’s quite evident that our
music, our slang and our trends are being manipulated to everyone’s financial
glory but our own.
What may seem like a sudden invasion on hip-hop
culture, however, is really just a part of the same long-standing agenda to
retain control of all things economically profitable that has actualized industry
and politics in this country. And since African people have traditionally been
the victims of America’s commercial and cultural exploitation, it’s only logical
then that hip-hop become the next target in that sequence of legal robberies.
With expressions of race pride and concern for
the global struggle of African people harder to find than a Black girl in a
Fabulous video, it seems like only a small minority of artists and consumers
are conscious of the subtle agenda to send hip-hop the way of rock and jazz.
The present state of hip-hop weighs heavily on the shoulders of the proud mothers
and fathers who passed to us a divine inheritance of artistic and intellectual
genius. But take heart hip-hop, there is hope. The liberation of the art form–and
ultimately the people who create, support and adore it–lies in a throwback
to rap’s real roots and a reconnection with the West African elements that designed
the music and the culture in the first place. If we openly acknowledge and embrace
where we came from, we can challenge the temptation to sell out that heritage
for a buck and some bling-bling.
Contrary to a theory asserted by a self-proclaimed
authority at The Source magazine, hip-hop was not born to represent all ethnicities
and races. It’s a Black thang. It’s rooted in an epic memory of Africa, the
birthplace of all human civilization, all science, all art, all music and dance.
The captivating narrative and storytelling tradition-Africa. Poetic wordplay
and lyrical trickery-Africa. The drums that produce the pulsations that produce
the rhythms that produce the beats that produce the hit songs that move the
brown and white, yellow and red bodies–Africa, Africa, Africa, Africa.
So when we fail to trace the origin of hip-hop beyond the neighborhoods of New
York City, past our influential musical predecessors like the Last Poets and
James Brown to our awesome African heritage, we’re not only denying hip-hop
the history that it presently needs, we’re failing to identify with the soul
of our people.
But trying to convince the average emcee that
the real roots of their art are in Senegal or Sierra Leone and not the XYZ Housing
Projects is a real battle indeed. The disassociation of hip-hop from it’s cultural
roots has witnessed far too many contemporary emcees sacrificing themselves
as slaves to the industry when they’re really heirs to a greater musical legacy.
The motherless child syndrome is evident in hip-hop’s vulnerability against
corporate bloodhounds as well as it’s estrangement from it’s greater African
family. Painstaking steps have been ordered in an effort to isolate hip-hop
from an African origination so that our art can be better tailored to the tastes
and trends of multi-cultural audiences and spend-thrift consumers. But despite
all that, the influence of West Africanisms is still in effect, proving that
through the scheme for deculturalization–and even our own disappointment
of an ancestry a continent away–hip-hop remains intuitively, inherently
and intrinsically African.
As quiet as it’s kept, hip-hop speaks Africa
every time an emcee hypes a frenzied crowd to scream on cue, every time a little
liquor is poured out in a symbolic show of respect for brothers who have passed
on, every time a cipher is charged with lyrical freestyles and acapella choruses.
Although the pretentious hip-hop ego may like to fancy itself the end all be
all of the genre, it’s simple to trace our hip-hop mannerisms, our speech, even
our stage techniques, to the call and response, the improvisation, the repetition,
the communal creation of music– the musical traditions of the mother continent.
And lying the very heart of the art form, hip-hop’s
brand of West African oral tradition transcends the separation of Africans in
America every time an emcee rocks a mic. The lyrics that weave poetic tales
about the young Black experience, from the testimonies of ghetto strife and
survival to the social commentary of conscious hip-hop, recommit the emphasis
that West African people have traditionally placed on the spoken word in general
and the art of storytelling specifically. "Word is bond" ain’t just
slang–it’s the African way of life. Accordingly, those who are divinely
blessed with the ability to bend spoken word into enchanting tales have traditionally
been respected among craftsmen of the highest caliber.
In most West African communities that esteem
is reserved for the venerated griot– historian, musician, storyteller extraordinare.
In most Black neighborhoods a similar respect is reserved for the dopest emcees
and floetic lyricists. So it doesn’t take much stretching of the imagination
then to associate the present-day rapper as the grandchild of the celebrated
griot and their rhymes the offspring of the long-surviving West African narrative
tradition. With the exception of a small but prominent band of media darlings
able to mask a lack of real talent with their new millennium shuck and jive,
contemporary hip-hop artists have assumed the African griot’s traditional role
through their lyrical storytelling and music for the masses. Because it’s roots
run so deep, hip-hop should be celebrated as the evolution of African artistry,
not just the product of an existence in this country’s ghetto vaults.
Paying due respect to our African heritage is
so much more than rocking complicated head wraps, picky little red, black and
green wristbands and practicing armchair revolution, a phenomena which sees
otherwise useful people shooting off their mouths more than anything else. A
proverb among the Kinka people of Ghana reads, "My songs take root and
grow in the community, until they become a weapon which can topple even the
mighty and powerful." Hip-hop is that weapon. When emcees and consumers
alike realize that we are part of something greater than ourselves, and that
the successes and failures of one are the successes and failures of millions,
we will have hurdled one of the greatest obstacles to real Black unity. And
knowing that the music that inspires almost two whole generations of our people
is the product of African providence is the first step to real Black power.
When we come into an active consciousness of
our roots and history, when we can reject the temptation of corporate bribery
in the form of cash, cars and clout in favor of developing and investing in
our own empires, when can embrace where we came from in order to navigate where
we’re going, then the hip-hop nation can pride itself in it’s unprecedented
mass appeal. But no matter how crossed over hip-hop might unfortunately become,
the culture is not up for sale. If hip-hop hopefuls of a paler persuasion want
to rhyme, let them reinvent the Irish limerick or the English sonnet. If hip-hop
hustlers of a capitalistic agenda need a get rich scheme, let them pimp country
and western. Hip-hop is African. Isn’t only logical then that Africans regain
control of what has been descended from Africa? Our music is steeped too heavily
in the divine promise of an African legacy to be compromised. The takeover plot
slated against hip-hop is evident but please–don’t believe the hype.