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Hip-Hop in Some of its Best Forms


W.E.B. Du Bois


Critics usually pop their heads up at certain times, and ideally they do so when different art forms have a kind of ripeness, or a maturity, or at least a suggestiveness of greatnesses to come, and if you're too early you might risk spoiling what William James called the "pregnant vagueness" of an early science, or endeavor, or adventure, or experiment, but if you're too late then there might be a confusion and a lack of clarity. No one ever mentions Harold Bloom's The American Canon: Literary Genius from Emerson to Pynchon, except in some customary short paragraph book review by a library association or periodical, where it is described as a coda, or swan song, or some such thing. But in reality the book is a kind of drawing with fire of a kind of boundary line. Meaning Bloom wrote the book because we needed clarity about what had come before us, so that we could know how to proceed, where to go. We don't know where to go if we don't have the best examples at our fingertips as forms of mastery to guide us, to give us clarify on the past so that we can venture more boldly into the future.


Hip-hop as a culture, and rap as music, is still a very young cultural phenomenon. And it is an important one for many reasons, from aesthetic to sociological to ethical to spiritual. Like Homer, it is a combination of oral and musical traditions, because the poem we know as The Odyssey was performed long before it was written down, and it was performed by people who memorized it and could recite it using various forms of mnemonics. This aspect of performance, as I imagine it, must have involved drama, speech, gesture, and a musicality in the delivery, or even perhaps music itself, via instruments, arrangements, and voice, because these aspects go into any recitation, and the poem itself is drenched in allusions to music and singing and performativity as theorized by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick as a form of action through language, meaning for the best performances to work, there has to be a tight fit between form and content, performance and material. Hip-hop is a great example of this, because of the manner in which it is spoken and sung, because of the way it yokes together rhythm with language and melody, and because it raises questions about the difference between lyrics and poetry, while harking back to the roots of both American music and complicated questions about the relationship between art and justice.


Two of the best hip-hop acts, to my mind, because of their hybridity, their power, and the way in which they combine art and religion in fascinating ways, are Outkast and Wu-Tang Clan. They do this in the most syncretic ways imaginable, mixing Samurai film clip sound bits with vocal and verbal performances that suggest a form of jazz, creativity and expression through the human voice. They also invent alternative worlds, like Octavia Butler or Sun Ra, both of whose work I do not know very well, but in doing so, in creating their own textures for Afrofuturistic panache, they literally invent new styles, new visions for what is possible not only in music but culture, and therefore for thinking about music and culture. Henry Louis Gates Jr. describes the work of W.E.B. Du Bois, in the opening section of his edited edition, along with Terri Hume Oliver, of The Souls of Black Folk, as deriving from "a culture born within the chaos of slavery, a richly splendid body of plots and stories now desperately in search of a master narrator, just as the vast collections of melodies, harmonies, and rhythms had searched to find their master composers in what Du Bois called 'The Sorrow Songs.'" Sorrow songs were songs that came from slavery, that held a sadness that could find expression through directness, suggesting need as the most vital aspect of art and, in this case, need finding an outlet through melody and lyric. It's interesting that Gates, in interpreting Du Bois and Du Bois's take on African American culture in 1900 would describe it through the usage of the terms "melodies, harmonies, and rhythms," since this is a point-by-point commentary on Aristotle's emphasis on "rhythm, language, and harmony" in the Poetics, and then the shift in emphasis in a later paragraph in Poetics on "rhythm, melody, and verse," because this suggests a shift in emphasis from language as a kind of prime datum of communicatory power, via art forms like poetry on the page, to language as a set of practices within larger spheres, such as orality, or performance, or even the notion of languages or vocabularies as different sign languages.


I like this shift for many reasons, one of which is that aural metaphors capture the strangeness of art better than ocular metaphors, but also because an emphasis on melody rather than language opens up different possibilities for communication while fighting back against literalist tendencies in our culture and questions the divide between what we consider in art, following the work of Elaine Scarry in an unhelpful way, the "sensuous" versus the "mimetic." In Dreaming by the book, Scarry proposes that we can think of the arts through the lens of the sensuous and mimetic, the former being arts that involve the senses, like painting, or music, and the latter involving more mental acts through language, like novels, or poetry. But this is a false distinction, because it is the mind that sees and experiences through the senses, and therefore all art is mimetic, because all art involves identification and remembrance as forms of mimesis. Representation is what art is, and representation is mimesis. If we want to begin to think about rap and hip-hop, I think we should begin by talking about the difference between representation and history, in Allen Grossman's terms, and trying to locate within rap the role it plays in channeling violence into art and catharsis without collapsing the distinction between violence in art and violence in life.





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