“Misery is often the parent of the most affecting touches in poetry. —Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry. Love is the peculiar œstrum of the poet. Their love is ardent, but it kindles the senses only, not the imagination. Religion indeed has produced a Phyllis Whately [sic]; but it could not produce a poet. The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism.”
– Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia
“…And yet, this is precisely what Gordon argues is the value and insight of Fanon: he fully accepts the definition of himself as pathological as it is imposed by a world that knows itself through that imposition, rather than remaining in a reactive stance that insists on the (temporal, moral, etc.) heterogeneity between a self and an imago originating in culture. Though it may appear counterintuitive, or rather because it is counterintuitive, this acceptance or affirmation is active; it is a willing or willingness, in other words, to pay whatever social costs accrue to being black, to inhabiting blackness, to living a black social life under the shadow of social death. This is not an accommodation to the dictates of the antiblack world. The affirmation of blackness, which is to say an affirmation of pathological being, is a refusal to distance oneself from blackness in a valorization of minor differences that bring one closer to health, to life, or to sociality.“
Is Jefferson’s critique of Phyllis Wheatley really that far off from criticisms of Future? It is relatively recent that the drug addled, aggressive mess consumed by morally and fiscally bankrupt blacks known as Hip-Hop is acknowledged as an actual music category in the public imaginary. Is it possible to support the “best” of rap and the “worst” in the same breath without falling into the trap of respectability rhetoric? What purpose does the continuum of rap worthy of praise and the stuff below artistic merit serve?
I’m going to call it. 2pac will go down as one of the rap greats because he was a trained ballerina. He would have been accustomed to deliberate walking on tiptoe. Did he see the tightropes? I mean, we all know the balancing act, right? Do you make music too black to be music, or make music too formulaic to be honest? Realness or Recognition? Radio play or your soul?
Faced with those options, the best decision could be to deliberately drop from the rope. It’s like untying a knot by cutting it, to shatter a continuum by over identifying with one of the poles. I think that the thug life tattooed across 2Pac’s stomach is the realization of Jefferson’s criticism of Wheatley’s work and, at the same time, a bold statement that bucks Jefferson’s authority as critic. To painstakingly argue for Rap’s legitimacy as an art form by comparing it to the time signatures of Orchestral pieces or pointing to how easily it meshes with Rock, Country and other genres is to miss the point completely. 2Pac’s response was this: Sure, this might not be art, but fuck you. You never had enough clout for your opinion to matter anyway. It’s as if only God could judge him.
I’d like to turn to a brilliant artwork with this in mind, Bone Thugs and Harmony’s Thuggish Ruggish Bone. The song is a brilliant response to the voice of reason. The introduction is lifted from a 1993 sermon by Calvin O. Butts on gangster rap. He draws a clear line between the good blacks and those bad ones who make a bad name for the law abiding folks. What a convenient response, these musicians are responsible for the general associations of race and criminality, not the ongoing drug war, not housing practices and nothing structural: pure individual choice. When blacks are already criminal in the political imaginary, a defense of their work can be enough to be labeled as an accessory. Bone’s rebuttal is an argument by bypassing the very terms of engagement. There is no calculated move toward convincing Butts to change his opinion and become not against those thugs. They never try to prove Ice T or Easy E benefitted their communities. Instead, the song is a bold endorsement and praise of rap, rappers and those thugs who produce it, an embrace of pathology without pathos. Bipartisan reasoning for the right to be was not their style. This song is a polemic. And rightly so.
What are the stakes of this music? These aren’t just songs to nod your head to. These are fragments of life compressed into 3 minute tracks. Hip Hop is the disorder of black creativity, the aftermath of slavery and all its debris, ring shouts turned cyphers, plantation wailings and conspiratorial thoughts backed by murderous rhythm. Hand claps, chained artists jazzy at the auction block. To defend one’s heritage here is also to ask, what does it mean to say fuck policing, musically? Not fuck the police, that is a conversation for a different time. But policing, that subtle force that makes you wary of enjoying yourself too loudly for fear of criticism. What if they heard you enjoying that…trash? You wouldn’t want them to think you listen to that music…although you do. This is an invitation to refusal as an ethic. Refuse being deputized against yourself; there are enough external neighborhood watchmen quick to condemn rap for us or kill black teenagers for “being tired of being told what to do” too loudly in their cars. The party goers who live for the weekends they can blast XO Tour Llif3 with their friends and mourn the decline of lyricism on Monday. The selective badge flashers who quickly let Nas, Wu-Tang, and the other real rappers through but are quick to frisk Desiigner and 21 Savage because they fit the description: young, black, aggressive, and wanted for the murder of real rap.
And to the critics, this is in the spirit of Martin Luther King. Not the white washed ghost summoned to quell black dissatisfaction with white supremacy and systemic inequality, that kitschy Martin whose memorial in D.C. is an all lives matter display etched in stone. This is the hurt, disenchanted, jeremiadic post-Vietnam Martin blasting Public Enemy and SZA that when asked about rioters, hesitantly responded that a riot is the language of the unheard. The Martin who lost hope for himself and was ready to die.
And now, the thing I was waiting to do from the beginning.
Photo Source – A Day in Ladera
This is for my niggas. The tired. The shook ones. The ones who make time to create after the 9 to 5. The risk takers who had police called on them when they were just trying to make enough money to feed their daughters.
All the greats mentioned and forgotten: Big Pun, Kendrick, Young Thug, Run DMC, Rapsody, SoundCloud rappers, audience members who know the lyrics better than the artists, the dead homies, real ones behind bars who will die before betraying their friends, illegal immigrants, Pastors, that one guy in office before dude with the freshly husked corn toupee. Mom Dukes.
In short, my niggas.
We feel you, and we know.
Fuck their judgement, we will make our own seats at the table if we have to. We already have. We owe no explanations. We will dwell in our secrets. Let them have the scraps they steal as they ridicule us. We’ll just create and dance in ways they ‘appreciate’ abstractly because they can’t do it themselves. Most critics would get laughed out of a cypher anyway. Why leave deciphering value to them? It was never theirs to begin with. This shit is for us.
And a last word to Jefferson. It was never Wheatley. You’re the Nigger, baby.
Ol’ slave havin’ ass.