Hip-Hop's Place in History

By Jabari Asim
Monday, March 6, 2006; 12:24 PM

WASHINGTON -- Evo Morales, the new president of Bolivia, has made those sweaters he wears so popular that I wouldn't be surprised to see a Phat Farm knock-off soon. Speaking of Phat Farm, Russell Simmons may have sold that hip-hop-inspired clothing line, but he could still look to Morales for other forms of inspiration. For instance, he could take heed of the Inca proverb that Morales has also introduced to a wider public: Ama shua, ama llulla, ama qella. Roughly translated, it means don't lie, don't steal and don't be lazy. I can't speak to Simmons' honesty or integrity, but his heavy-lidded comments at a New York news conference last month suggest that he's guilty of lazy thinking. Or maybe he was just sleepy.

Simmons, who made his fortune as a founder of the hugely successful Def Jam record label, joined other rap music heavyweights to announce the Smithsonian Institution's plans for an extensive hip-hop exhibition. Several of the genre's pioneers, including Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa and DJ Kool Herc, were on hand at a hotel in midtown Manhattan to introduce the project, "Hip-Hop Won't Stop: The Beat, the Rhymes, the Life."

During his remarks, Simmons reportedly credited hip-hop as "the only real description of the suffering of our people."

To borrow a phrase from Ida B. Wells, whose 1895 study of lynching, "A Red Record," remains one of the best descriptions of our suffering, "that is an expression without a thought."

Let's set aside for a moment the woefully limited notion that African-American history is solely defined by suffering. Let's also dispose of the idea that hip-hop focuses exclusively on that suffering. The best of the genre's music also speaks eloquently about our resilience (in "Keep Ya Head Up" by Tupac Shakur, for example); our devastating wit (anything by De La Soul or OutKast); our romantic yearnings (Pharcyde's "Passin' Me By"); and our capacity for raucous celebration ("Rapper's Delight" by Sugarhill Gang). Hip-hop notes our trials and tribulations as well as any other art form, but does it provide the only real description? That's one heck of a lazy notion.

Does anyone believe that those original 20 African captives brought to shore in 1619 didn't immediately begin to describe their condition and express their reactions to it, albeit in a foreign language? Not long after they arrived, their descendants mastered English and created the immortal Negro spirituals, famously described by W.E.B. DuBois as "sorrow songs." Their songs contained "bursts of wonderful melody," DuBois wrote, "full of the voices of my brothers and sisters, full of the voices of the past."

Sometimes I feel like a motherless child

A long ways from home

Couplets like that one perfectly describe -- in a single powerful metaphor, mind you -- the plight of early African-Americans. And that's to say nothing of the melody, which, unfortunately, I can't convey here.

Spirituals led to blues, jazz and brilliant lyricists such as Andy Razaf, who worked with Fats Waller and, in 1929, summed up the African-American tradition thusly: "What did I do, to be so Black And Blue?" It's a small leap from there to more contemporary gems such as Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come" (1964) and Marvin Gaye's "Inner City Blues" (1971). "The Message" by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five rightly belongs in this tradition, as do other hip-hop songs, but let us praise them as a worthy continuation of a long and righteous tradition, not as one-of-a-kind trailblazers. After all, barely a decade passed between Gaye's masterpiece and that wheels-of-steel classic.

The late Gwendolyn Brooks, not usually known as an observer of hip-hop, nonetheless astutely placed it in its proper historical context. In a 1990 essay in Ebony magazine, she pointed out the "delightfully visible, importantly thick line of development in quality, stretch and strength of black creativity" extending from black literature to more recent developments such as hip-hop. She wrote that rap at its best, like other mostly African-American art forms, offers "an intoxicating beat" and "varieties of tone" while expressing "love, light, loss, liberty, lunacy and laceration." Leave it to a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet to put it all in perspective.

Give hip-hop its due, but not at the expense of everything that has come before it. That would be sloppy. Lazy even.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company