If one were blind to the changes and evolutions of the past 30 years, one might take a look at the black community and ponder a few questions. Namely, “What has become of the Black Arts Movement?” and “What is this ‘Hip-Hop’ and how did it get here?” An examination of great black writers of the Black Arts Movement, as well as the great emcees of Hip-Hop would then reveal a single answer to both of each of these queries. The evolution of The Black Arts Movement into Hip-Hop is strikingly direct and one could even go so far as to say they are two pages of the same book.
Hip-hop heads are looking for essentially the same fix that beatniks got from beat poetry, futurists got from futurist literature, and linguists get from dictionaries - that is, the buzz of the written word. Combine that same literary fuel with performance and instrumentation, as well as the other elements of black lives in the 70s, 80s, 90s, and today which have come to be categorized as Hip-Hop – graffiti, break dancing, beat-boxing, freestyling, clothing, slang, etc. – and you have a musical genre which exists within the very culture it helped to create.
To say that an emcee is not a writer is to say that the Beats weren’t poets because of their Jazz influence, or that Socrates and his classic contemporaries were not philosophers, because of all the wine; it is to sever the literary link between content and setting. Every writer of every kind is, to some degree, a product of their influences and the times they lived in. Paul Celan’s intelligent mind, poetic soul, and individuality drove him to write and to express himself – but had he not been subjected to the horrors of the holocaust, there is no way to tell how these aspects of his personality would have manifested. For many of the icons of Hip-Hop, however, it seems natural that had they been born 20 or 30 years earlier, they’d have utilized their inherent talent and drive as figures in the Black Arts Movement. Lucky for Hip-Hop, they weren’t, and they didn’t. When they finally came up, they found themselves in an environment where the beat took the place of the page, and the microphone took the place of the pen.
It seems the widespread generalizations, misconceptions, and misunderstanding of Hip-Hop are greatly rooted in the foul taste and nebulous picture yielded by the uninformed, surface-level reading of the music by a white, middle or upper class audience that cannot distinguish between a violent reference and a violent endorsement. This is the same simplistic, temperamental, latently (or blatantly) racist part of the population that has always misunderstood art and lashed out against it in anger. (Piss Christ, Heavy Metal, South Park, Mark Twain, etc.)
When this is magnified by the overt simplification and commodification of the art, escorted straight to hell by major record labels with little or no interest in Hip-Hop, MTV and it’s bastard-children, and mainstream radio – not to mention the innumerous acts whose love, desire, and talent (or lack thereof) is overshadowed by their pursuit of the money guaranteed by such disingenuous vehicles – it is easy to see how one lacking a poetic culture, a knowledge of the Black Arts Movement, or rudimentary understanding of the African-American’s abject plight may find Hip-Hop objectionable or even disgusting.
This initial, distasteful impression can then result in an incorrect assessment of Hip-Hop as autonomous and without heritage in poetic and literary schools of thought more widely respected and accredited – at least by the writing community - like the Black Arts Movement.
Essential to the understanding of Hip-Hop’s place in avant-garde poetics is the recognition of the contrast from its crude, mass-market equivalent – rap. This contrast, while stark to the Hip-Hop head, can appear subtle to the layman. The posthumous legacy of Tupac Shakur is a prime example. The shameless recycling of his vocals and commodification of his memory are manifestations of both rap’s emphasis on money (selling records like nobody but Tupac can) and Hip-Hop’s emphasis on lyricism (writing songs and poems like nobody but Tupac can). Tupac remains a huge figure in the game – more than a decade after his death – due both to his avant-garde poetics (which moves people) as well as his uncontested legendary status (which moves units.)
However, it is worth noting that this dilution of the music only potentiates the authentic, underground avant-garde, which must move quickly to evade categorization, commercialization, and assimilation into the very ideas it detests; this is true Hip-Hop’s lifeline in the 21st century. Similar to Dada, what is true Hip-Hop today may not be true Hip-Hop tomorrow – if only due to the hustle of outracing it’s corporate takeover. Emcee M1 of Dead Prez addresses the great stress of Hip-Hop’s compromised integrity in the wake of rap in the Dead Prez song “Radio Freq:”
“What's on the radio? Propaganda, mind control
And turnin it on is like puttin on a blind fold
Cause when you bringin it real you don't get rotation
Unless you take over the station
And yeah I know it's part of they plans
To make us think it's all about party and dance
And yo it might sound good when you spittin your rap
But in reality don't nobody live like that
You wanna know what kinda nigga I am?
let me tell you bit the nigga I'm not -
I don't fuck with the cops,
Platinum don't mean that it gotta be hot
I ain't gotta love it even if they play it a lot
You can hear it when you walk the streets
How many people they reach
How they use music to teach
A radio program ain't a figure of speech
Don't sleep - cause you could be a radio freq”
Even in its purest form, the synchronicity between Hip-Hop and the Black Arts Movement may at first glance appear scarce or thin. However, it is hard to ignore the frequency with which the two overlap. Bridging the gap are numerous Hip-Hop artists who have included Black Arts poetry on their albums, including Immortal Technique, OutKast, Fabolous, Lupe Fiasco, Pete Rock, Mickey Avalon, Masta Killa, Killah Priest, The Roots, Blackalicious, Common, and the late Tupac Shakur. Additionally, one can find many black poets representing or directly influenced by The Black Arts Movement experimenting with hip-hop, such as Saul Williams, Black Ice, Sarah Jones, Big Rube, and Gil Scott-Heron, who not only appears frequently in the Hip-Hop community but also wrote a poem in 1993 called “Message to the Messengers,” addressed directly to Hip-Hop artists of the day. In it, he represents a clear understanding of the genealogy:
“…I appreciate the respect you give to me and what you've got to say.
I'm sayin' ‘Protect your community and spread that respect around.’
Tell brothers and sisters they gotta calm that bullshit down,
Cuz we terrorizin' our old folks, and we've brought fear into our homes,
And they ain't gotta hang out with the senior citizens,
Just tell 'em, ‘Dammit, leave the old folks alone!!!’
And we know who rippin' off the neighborhoods
Tell 'em that B.S. has gotsta stop
Tell 'em you sorry that they can't handle it out there, but they gotta
take the crime off the block!!!
And if they look at you like they think you insane,
Or start calling you ‘Scarecrow,’ thinkin' you ain't got no brain,
Or...start tellin' folks that you've suddenly gone lame,
Or that...white folks have suddenly co-opted your game,
Or worst yet, sayin' that you really don't know,
That's the same thang they said 'bout me a long time ago…”
If one looks deeper, one can frequently find two writers, separated by time and apparatus, using poetry to express similar or identical ideas. In “Words Of Wisdom,” Tupac opens his song with a poem.
“Killing us one by one
In one way or another
American will find a way to eliminate the problem
One by one
The problem is
the troubles in the black youth of the ghettos
And one by one
we are being wiped off the face of this earth
At an extremely alarming rate
And even more alarming is the fact
that we are not fighting back
Brothers, sistas, niggas
When I say niggas it is not the nigga we are grown to fear
It is not the nigga we say as if it has no meaning
But to me, it means
Never Ignorant Getting Goals Acomplished, N.I.G.G.A.
Niggas, what are we going to do?
Walk blind into a line
Fight and die if we must
This poem - as well as the song that followed, and the album it appears on – exhibits the same urgency, both in content and performance, that the Black Arts writers displayed in their attempt to expand their solidarity beyond their respective arts and to all blacks. Amiri Baraka, widely credited as the founder of the Black Arts Movement, had sent with his poem, “Ka’Ba.”
“A closed window looks down
on a dirty courtyard, and black people
call across or scream or walk across
defying physics in the stream of their will
We are beautiful people
with african imaginations
full of masks and dances and swelling chants
with african eyes, and noses, and arms,
though we sprawl in grey chains in a place
full of winters, when what we want is sun.
We have been captured,
brothers. And we labor
to make our getaway, into
the ancient image, into a new
correspondence with ourselves
and our black family. We read magic
now we need the spells, to rise up
return, destroy, and create. What will be
the sacred words?”
While the music has changed, the messages have remained the same.
According to author Marvin J. Gladney, “(Black Art’s) purpose is to assist black people to survive in an environment that is hostile to them.” Yehudi Menuhin once said, “Music creates order out of chaos: for rhythm imposes unanimity upon the divergent, melody imposes continuity upon the disjointed, and harmony imposes compatibility upon the incongruous.” By this measure, Hip-Hop has built upon the ideas first introduced by the Black Arts Movement. As Gil Scott-Heron said in a recent interview, “We came along at a time when there was a transition going on in terms of poetry and music, and we were one of the first groups to combine the two…we brought music and poetry together.” The Black Arts Poets knew they could use music to empower and intensify their ideas. Black Arts poet Larry Neal once wrote, “Music can be one of the strongest cohesives towards consolidating a black nation.” Today’s society is much different than the one the Black Arts Movement affected, and music like Hip-Hop is an exponentially greater tool than literature or poetry in terms of spreading a message, being heard, and reaching the masses.
Literature is a mainstay in society – but society is always changing. Just as some of the greatest writers of the coming generation are sure to be primarily known as bloggers or podcasters, writers of subsequent generations will likely thrive in scenarios and environments we cannot comprehend just yet. Similarly, for as long as there is Hip-Hop, the music will have its fingerprints all over literature, as so many of the great urban writers of the past 25 years have utilized it as their venue of choice. Hip-Hop has crossed boundaries of countless demographics because of its ability to fuse literature and music. What it shares with The Black Arts Movement, having been handed down directly, is a stern refusal to overlook black indigence.
In the wake of the rampant negativity in Hip-Hop - which is often intensified in its radio-friendly counterpart - one must have the insight to realize that Hip-Hop is not a threat to society – it is a reflection of society. One of the Black Arts Movements chief aims was to voice social frustrations of the Black Community, reflecting what was at that time a lesser known culture. While Hip-Hop today is for everybody (or, in some cases, whoever has the $16), works of the Black Arts Community were sometimes created not only to get black people writing, but to give Blacks something autonomous and separate from the world of popular literature, which was largely dominated by whites. However, regardless of the intended audience, both the Black Arts Movement and Hip-Hop have served as mouthpieces for the same impoverished Black community. Chuck D of Public Enemy once called Hip-Hop “The CNN of Black America.” This is a familiar role originally played by the Black Arts Movement.
One could make the case that the ideas of the Black Arts Movement are more prevalent today than ever. Pop-rap has strayed so far from Hip-Hop in pursuit of crossover success that it is barely recognizable, opening the door for true Hip-Hop to strengthen it’s solidarity and grab a huge audience, including all the new fans who crave it, if only as an antidote to the sickness of mainstream rap and it’s increasingly exhausted and hopelessly shallow pool of club-beats, ringtone melodies, cliché lyricism, and glorification of a bourgeoisie lifestyle that grows harder and harder to relate to. Underground Hip-Hop’s emphasis remains on writing depth and praising the emcee’s status as lyricist, first and foremost. This is of direct descent from Black Arts poets, who often included backing music, never letting it overshadow the words. Hip-Hop originated in emcee battles for lyrical supremacy; true Hip-Hop never forgets these roots.
While it could be said that the Black Arts Movement lost momentum and died out in the late 70’s, the Black Community still had a need for affirmation and art in their separate struggle and separate lifestyle, and it still needed a voice in mass media. It needed freedom from the feigning assimilation represented in mainstream culture, which ignored or downplayed the continuous struggle for civil rights. Hip-Hop, despite its criticism, has filled that void for generations now, and the criticism it has received can be attributed to its musical value which makes it marketable to a white and/or ignorant audience in ways the Black Arts Movement never dreamt of.
Like the Black Arts poets, conscious Hip-Hop emcees demand deviation from escapism and avoidance of daily realities. Like the Black Arts Movement, Hip-Hop gives Blacks an arena for political critique. Like the Black Arts Movement, Hip-Hop means more than just writing: it means rhythm, dance, politics, and music. Like Hip-Hop, the Black Arts Movement was mired in controversy. And like The Black Arts Movement, Hip-Hop has brought the destitution of Black America to the attention of millions who’d have otherwise been left to ignorance by the insidious white media. Beyond any trend, literary gimmick, or fleeting ideas of the avant-garde, The Black Arts Movement met a need. As we inch our way toward racial equality, that need will continue to be met, one way or the other. Thanks to Hip-Hop, this undeniable energy and artistic expression has a venue that has become as epochal and widespread as the need itself.