“the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group.”
The above is the given definition for culture. In practical terms, it is the lived experience and norms of a people. Culture is what grows from the heart of its people. It thrives from its people’s success and failures, pain and struggle, progress and fight, love and anger, hope and vision, creativity, and natural gifts. Culture is what lives in the soul of its people.
Be that as it may, there is far too much agreement that “Black Americans” have no culture. Weaponized against Black Americans is our forced separation from our origins. Even more damaging, this weapon is then constantly used to dismiss Black Americans’ legacy and argue that the Black American has no long-standing tradition to honor, no roots to pull from, no customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements.
However, the people who tend to believe this are people who selectively forget about Hip-Hop.
Let me start with my forewarning: My analysis of many topics, including this one, is a broad consideration of factors. My observations do not come from my 30-40 odd credits earned from a community college but from the unique process of my understanding, which admittedly might work quite differently than the norm. I do not claim to be some double-degree-holding genius, but I am no fool. As a regular, everyday Black woman, I know how to observe and process. Again, this is merely my long-winded analysis of Hip-Hop.
So let's begin.
Hip-Hop today has become so watered down, so widespread, so unprotected, so part of the culture of others that people refuse to acknowledge Hip-Hop as Black American culture.
To put it as simply as possible, Hip-Hop started in Black America, by Black Americans, for Black Americans. However, this gift to the world was such a powerhouse that it proved impossible to contain Hip-Hop to one borough, one coast, or even one country.
To be as truthful to history as possible, we must acknowledge that “The Holy Trinity,” the labeled creators of Hip-Hop, is of Caribbean descent. Usually, first presented as the master and creator of Hip-Hop is Kool Herc, a Jamaican-American who immigrated with his family at 12. Next, some proclamations offer creation rights to Afrika Bambaataa, the American-born child of Jamaican and Barbadian immigrants. Finally, to complete “The Holy Trinity” is Grandmaster Flash, born in Barbados and raised in New York. These three innovative men are the Caribbean roots of Hip-Hop, and while this is not something to gloss over, I find it irrelevant. The lives and backgrounds of these men matter, for sure. However, what groomed Hip-Hop and gave Hip-Hop the soil to grow is the “Black American” experience these young men lived.
So, what is the Black American experience? One can even question if I assign the “Black American experience” only to those who fit under such a label of ADOS (American Descendants of Slaves).
My sidebar here, I choose not to use the title “slave” when writing about Black American history because of the stigma. In this instance, I prefer the term DOICA (Descendants of Inhumanly Classed Americans).
Further to the point and settling the “Black American experience” ambiguity, it is obvious the term “Black” does not only include DOICA when phenotypes are in question. “Black” is merely a blanketing racial identifier we all have in common. However, Caribbean people identify with a nation to their credit, while “Black Americans” usually feel inclined to identify with color first. Regardless of country, Caribbean culture is separate from the more specific DOICA’s culture. As Caribbean people will attest to themselves, they carry themselves culturally different than the DOICA community. So, when we think of the culture that inspired and built Hip-Hop, we can clearly say it wasn’t the “Caribbean-American experience.” Points for this argument are established further in this piece.
Moving further now, when we think of the circumstances that birthed Hip-Hop as well as the voice of Hip-Hop, I find it disrespectful to hear people attempting to define Hip-Hop as merely a personal feeling. Hip-Hop is not a feeling of “cool,” “swag,” or even “of self.” Hip-Hop is not simply an attitude of rebellion or toughness. Hip-Hop doesn’t boil down to a mindset. Hip-Hop is not the “opposite of mainstream just for the sake of being opposite.” Hip-Hop is not a blanket collection of the “Black people section” of a dance competition, award show, or any such category. And most assuredly, Hip-Hop is more than just a genre of music.
When we leave Hip-Hop at any of these attributes, Hip-Hop becomes this fascinating thing that makes many people and cultures desire a connection claim. Hip-Hop quickly gets shelved as entertainment for all to be socially adapted to fit any culture or lifestyle. Hip-Hop becomes whatever anybody wants to make it, and eventually, the Black American is stripped away as some insignificant piece to the inception of this “global art.” Hip-Hop becomes a cultural gift for the taking that’s entitled to no one, especially not the creators lacking Caribbean ancestry.
Proof of this mindset is Akala, a passionate and intelligent UK rapper turned speaker/activist who explains Hip-Hop as something created by his “continental cousins.” There’s an attempt to prove Hip-Hop is not solely a Black American art when he describes how he, while in the UK, received tapes of music blowing up in New York even before west coast Americans did. Most likely, Akala’s ease in obtaining Eastcoast music before the Westcoast was due to the Eastcoast vs. Westcoast mentality in rap at the time. Neither coast readily sought after the other’s music. Nonetheless, this is his proof that some Hip-Hop was a part of the Caribbean descendants of the UK even before the Westcoast Black Americans.
To further cloud the “true” creation of Hip-Hop, Akala will also explain the history of the African griot. The griot, who I’ve dubbed the Ancient Rapper, was charged with memorizing poems, some that could last for up to 3-5 hours. Akala also went just a bit into the history of rhythmic speaking over music and the beautiful and challenging skill of scatting, perfected by people such as Ella Fitzgerald and Cab Calloway. He even mentions Muhammad Ali, all to prove Hip-Hop wasn’t some unique invention that popped up out of nowhere from Black Americans in the 1970s. Even more, he delivers the realest verse about the genetic memory of rhythm and rhyme encoded in melanated people around the world. In conclusion to his thoughts on Hip-Hop and its Emcees, Akala will detail and attribute the generations of rhyming to our ancestors yet remind us the supposed creators of Hip-Hop are like him and from the Caribbean. However, it seems supercilious that he would give little to no credit to DOICA, specifically, creating Hip-Hop in the 1970s.
Nevertheless, I will again acknowledge the Caribbean bloodline of “The Holy Trinity.” I will recognize the musical legends Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton—who rapped the “Dirty Dozen” in 1938. I will acknowledge the Golden Gate Quartet and the Jubalaires, who were gospel quartets who rapped, performing since 1934 and 1940. I will also acknowledge Muhammad Ali’s quick wit and self-confidence, which greatly influenced emcees. It was also Pigmeat Markham—who rapped “Here Comes the Judge” in 1968 and Frankie “Hollywood” Crocker, whose wit, rhyming, and tone not only influenced emcees but radio DJs as well. Nevermind the fact that every one of these influencing legends still fit under the “Black American” label, by the way.
Further still, I will acknowledge the genetic code of rhythm. Most importantly, I will acknowledge the Black Americans of the 1970s. What I will not do is agree to the diminishing of what Black Americans created. The Black Americans of the 1970s evolved our music the same as our forefathers did before them. It is a fact that Hip-Hop was inspired and influenced by past genres and artists, but Hip-Hop’s origin story does not take away its independence. If anything, it legitimizes the standing and growth of Black Americans’ musical timeline.
For a closer example in regards to Akala, I will go so far as to liken Hip-Hop’s evolution to the inception of Grime in the early 2000s. What was once a genre of music referred to as Eskibeats soon grew into a culture for the underground of London, so says the Grime culture. To differentiate Grime from “American Hip-Hop,” Grime emcees and Grime fans will list things such as the garage beat and quick-paced flow it has to protect the legitimacy and independence of the Grime culture. Howbeit, those same people will agree that Hip-Hop isn’t independently “Black American” because it did not start with the “Black Americans” of the 1970s. Instead, they put forth that Hip-Hop was “merely” existing music remixed by the Caribbean immigrants, who then passed it on to their UK continental cousins. That makes no sense to me other than showing a need for inclusion in Hip-Hop’s creation as well as a requirement for acclaimed separation for Grime. I do not say this to delegitimize any offspring of Hip-Hop, but it is incredibly arrogant to say Grime is the musical and cultural evolution of London, but American Hip-Hop is mere “Black American” music seasoned by the Caribbean.
How is it possible to only acknowledge Hip-Hop’s independence from the African Griot when the credit of Hip-Hop’s creation is given to the Caribbean immigrants? Can it be explained what Caribbean cultural influence on Hip-Hop was so powerful that it justifies the minimization of Black Americans to the inception of Hip-Hop? Let’s not forget the Holy Trinity was not the end all be all of Hip-Hop, even if we leave the narrative that they were an integral piece to an already building legacy. It should also not be ignored that the Caribbean immigrants were groomed by Black American living. They were inspired by Black American culture. It was Black America that gave them their musical foundation. It was the legacy of Black America which they became a part of, a legacy of Black America which Black Americans were still building ourselves. Believing Hip-Hop is not bound to “Black Americans,” DOICA, because of who Hip-Hop’s musical parents are is absurd, especially when Hip-Hop’s parents are still genres created by Black Americans.
However, the battle of who holds Hip-Hop’s birthright doesn’t stop with an argument of legitimizing the origins. There is also the argument that Hip-Hop is so majestic that it cannot belong simply to Black America regardless of its roots, and this argument is better explained and championed by the Hip-Hop Historian himself, KRS-ONE.
As the very knowledgeable being that he is, KRS-ONE sees things in a way most people do not or cannot. I would even say he speaks in the manner of “Knowledge Reigns Supreme Over Nearly Everyone” except him. For a moment, I’m going to focus on KRS-ONE because I will admit that I agree with some things he has said, but there is also so much that he has put out that I reject. I honestly feel this could be an essay all on its own, mainly because I am so long-winded. Still, I’ll keep to what he says about Hip-Hop.
When I got the idea for this piece, it never crossed my mind to read any book or watch any lecture by a “rap artist” speaking about Hip-Hop culture. For one, I didn’t think I’d find such a thing. The only thing on my mind was Akala’s bid to make Hip-Hop international, so goes my opinion about his statements. Still, it was Akala’s videos alone that struck me. Added was the constant universal denial of Black American culture while at the same time experiencing a universal addiction to mimicking “Black American trends,” which inspired my first draft of this piece.
When I laid out my argument, I was thoughtful, going as far back as I assumed was appropriate, farther back than I believed people would even follow me. I looked at a few different angles and eras, knowing judgment was a likely outcome, with some concluding my analysis as overthinking things and reaching for connections that weren’t there. Even still, I felt something was missing. So wanting more input, I kept digging until I saw my first video of KRS-ONE explaining Hip-Hop to a mass of people. For the most part, KRS-ONE began near the same starting point that I’d used. Black American history groomed Hip-Hop.
There was, however, a point where he took things back to the grunts of the caveman being part of Hip-Hop’s birth. This caveman concept bothers me on so many levels, mainly because the link between Homo sapiens sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis (aka - Neanderthal) is only a theory in the sense that we, as Black people, come from the caveman. Evolution from the caveman is a “scientific theory,” sure, and is considered as close to a factual theory as possible. Regardless, the idea insinuates modern humans came from Neanderthals, but Neanderthals have no historical evidence in Africa. Africa is where modern humans originated separately from Homo neanderthalensis. Further to contradict KRS-ONE’s point, the form of communication for Homo sapiens before the contemporary knowledge of language has no current popular theories, as the commonly known grunting sounds are only ever associated with cavemen. With this theory of communication formed, we cannot assume the European Neanderthal taught the African Homo sapiens how to talk. KRS-ONE may believe otherwise, but I don’t understand how the grunts of the caveman gave genetic rise to Hip-Hop. But anyway…
Listening to KRS-ONE showed me that I had to go even farther to bring things into perspective, at least in my view.
KRS-ONE typically began with the Civil Rights Movement, and like I said, so did I. However, there is another instance where he again gives Hip-Hop away and says Bruce Lee created Hip-Hop because of emotions which Lee's works inspired throughout the “hood,” and I deny that stanchly. The majority of Lee’s work which resonated with the “hood,” showed Lee battling against oppressive forces and winning. Lee provided entertaining escapes with movies showing himself and Black heroes defeat racism, but that did not create Hip-Hop. Black Americans were fighting racism long before Enter the Dragon, and as Hip-Hop grew, dojos were not suddenly opening around local “hoods.” Now before even knowing KRS-ONE said this, and further into this current piece, I mention the societal positioning and psyche of Black America, which I now believe helped groom the love for Bruce Lee.
Now for the basis of what KRS-ONE teaches, he teaches Hip-Hop is the dream spoken about in Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have A Dream” speech. KRS-ONE says it is the only culture in which people of all races can join together in unity. It is the culture that blankets modern cultures worldwide; therefore, it is a culture that belongs to the world. Once you are “Hip-Hop,” you are no longer bound by the labels of society. KRS-ONE even touts the signing of the Declaration of Peace, which declares Hip-Hop as an international culture, so says the UN, and it goes on to explain the 18 principles given to Hip-Hop.
Now while I think this is a generous sentiment, and I can follow his line of thinking, I refuse to see Hip-Hop as an inclusive, international culture for all people. Real Hip-Hop is a voice for a specific group of people. Hip-Hop's journey vocalized the circumstances of a particular group of people, be it fantasy, truth, pain, or party. Regardless if some conditioned Black Americans thought poorly of it, or non-Black Americans were able to relate to it, it was still the circumstances of the Black American. In truth, Hip-Hop is the continuation and evolution of Black American musical culture. The popularizing of the Hip-Hop culture should not gut it of its true identity or the people it represents. If we continue to allow this to happen, it will eventually lead us to the same result we see with Country, Rock-N-Roll, and Salsa. Regardless that it was “Black” people who created those three genres of music, the question is, who are now the gatekeepers of those expressions of culture? Who determines who can and cannot be a part of “their” expression of culture or a part-time participant? Take Lil’ Nas X as an example, who had his name removed from his song, Old Town Road, so that Country stations would push the remix. This remixed song was the only version the Country stations played, and they gave all credit to the featured Country music artist. Also, R&B singer K. Michelle attempted to record a Country music album, but music executives refused her vision. Beyoncé even found herself the subject of rejection to the category of Country music for her song “Daddy Lessons” at the Grammys. However, a select group of people feels so inclined and generous to sign over Hip-Hop as an international culture because they say Hip-Hop belongs to all who “are Hip-Hop?”
What then is Hip-Hop?
To begin with, I want to put Black America in context as it led up to Hip-Hop. Twenty years prior, in 1954, the Vietnam War began. Now you may say this is inconsequential to Hip-Hop, but we must understand the Black psyche. (This is an example of where my process of understanding may differ from the norm.) During the Vietnam War, 67% of eligible Black men were drafted versus 31% of eligible white men, and only made up 12% of the soldiers but accounted for 25% of the casualties. These numbers speak to the recruitment of Black men as a task of merely replacing dead bodies as their recruited numbers never matched their active soldier numbers. As such, there was much public condemnation of the Vietnam War from Black leaders. Malcolm X was the first to criticize the war in 1954. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “Beyond the Vietnam” speech in New York on April 4, 1967, calling for an end to war. Hollywood blackballed Eartha Kitt in 1968 after she related the country’s juvenile delinquency issue to the Vietnam War at a luncheon with the First Lady. This country jailed Muhammad Ali in 1971 for refusing the draft. All in all, the dark cloud of the Vietnam War didn’t end until 1973, once the draft ended.
Until then, the Black American experience included young Black men at risk of being drafted to fight in a war for a country in which Black people faced assassination for fighting for equality at home. That list includes Medgar Evers in 1963, Malcolm X in 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, Fred Hampton in 1969, and so many others—including four young girls in a church—because of the resistance to Black elevation. There was no “Reality TV” or “Netflix and Chill” to distract Black America from our societal positioning. Every day was the Vietnam War, Civil Rights fight, and the burn of assassinations from civil rights resistance strikes.
Again, this recap of history paints the picture of the circumstances and psyche that led to Hip-Hop's creative and cultural art.
To add full context to the inception of Hip-Hop, however, I must shift focus to a few things with the Caribbean experience. In 1965 the National Immigration Act was passed, which eliminated the cap on how many people each country could have immigrated to America. At this same time, Europe had also restricted the flow of immigrants, so that left only North and South America as options for a better life for the Caribbean immigrant. The Act also specifically began to search for and recruit skilled foreign workers—who American companies would hire, claiming there were no Americans skilled enough or willing to accept the pay for the job. The conclusion of these policies could lead one to see how the Caribbean immigrants weren’t the battered souls of American oppression that birthed and nurtured Hip-Hop. More so, the Caribbean immigrants were coming to a new country for a better life and finding employment that “DOICA” people were still fighting to obtain. Nonetheless, the Caribbean immigrant was not immune to the “Black Struggle,” evident with the many prominent Civil Rights Leaders of Caribbean descent. One person of Caribbean descent, in particular, is Shirley Chisholm, who was the first Black woman in Congress and the first woman to run for President of the United States.
Along with the Vietnam War, however, there was still domestic issues the Black American was facing. To be more localized with events, I will mention the 1964 Harlem Riot that occurred right after an off-duty, white cop killed 15-year-old James Powell. The riot lasted for six days, leaving one dead, more than 100 injured, and over 450 arrested. Graphic photos of this event can still be searched, freeze-framing the raw emotion and pain which Black America felt sweeping across the nation due to police brutality.
Only a few years later, from 1969 until 1971, there was the political attack on the Panther 21, where 21 members of the New York chapter of the Black Panther Party faced accusations of multiple bombings and conspiracies before being acquitted of all 156 charges due to lack of evidence. Though it is unfair, the BPP is now often described as a violent and terroristic group. However, the BPP mission was to fight for Black liberation and continue to loosen the dominant society's chokehold on the Black community. As time has shown, the government was heavily against this idea of Black liberation and used extreme measures, such as COINTELPRO, to prevent upward and organized movement of this organization. The Panther 21 was one of COINTELPRO’s projects, which failed at permanent incarcerations, but succeeded at breaking the foundation of the NY Chapter. Before the acquittals, many of the members had spent months in Rikers as COINTELPRO continued to dismantle the entire Black Panther Party, a party merely dismantled because it fought for the liberation of Black people.
On further and nearly ten years after James Powell and the Harlem Riot, a 10-year-old, Clifford Glover, would be shot in the back and killed by police on April 28, 1973. He and his stepfather were fleeing due to fear of an impending robbery after plain clothed officers jumped out of a car and gave chase. As it was the custom with charges filed against police, the trial ended in an acquittal in June 1974. Post acquittal, not only did the accused murdering cop and his lawyer celebrate at a local restaurant, but a few of the jurors joined the joyous occasion as well. It was a toast to celebrate no wrongdoing when gunning down an unarmed child for the officer and a jury of his peers. Meanwhile, Black America, more directly Black New York, endured another slap in the face to further damage our psyche.
How do you cope in a world with constant reminders of your second-class citizenship? Ignoring damage to the psyche is impossible with a continuous and conditioned fear of who’s next to be the example? How do you find a way to feel necessary and good enough in a world that teaches everyone you’re worthless? Where could Black Americans look for Black success and upward movement of Blackness? If there was no favorable image of Blackness to be seen, what were the means of escaping the idea of the unworthiness of Blackness? The average “Black” person experienced a relentless challenge from reality, a society governed by Anti-Blackness. The only escape from this Anti-Black society was fantasy recreation, i.e. parties, drugs, alcohol, idolization of entertainers and athletes, music, etc. ( i.e. The love for Bruce Lee fighting and winning against racism and other oppressive forces).
This analysis is not to paint some bleak, self-destructive picture of life in the Black American community. This analysis is also not to say misery was all Black Americans knew at this time. The Black Panther Party was very significant in promoting the beauty and worthiness of Blackness. The Black Liberation Army was also making its presence known in New York. Black Power and Black Love was the movement that was uniting the collective community. Regardless, Black Americans were fighting the war that civilized this country and built what I often refer to as the first social pyramid with a correlation between the greatness and importance of the Pyramids of Giza. We started the first social pyramid, and it was a bitter, hard-fought, frightening war, which cost us more than effort. It cost blood and lives. However, the Civil Rights Movement still influenced the world and became a blueprint of how to fight for change. (Though I must mention that many of the strategies we used to fight for change are not readily known. Read up on the Deacons for Defense and Justice and Robert Williams to get a larger picture of the Civil Rights Movement.)
Despite chalking up yet another global achievement, the war which civilized America left Black Americans with a need to destress, vent, and express themselves. The result was Black Americans expanding our arts, skills, and talents beyond our cultural origins ripped away from us. From the start of Black Americans' enslavement on this land, we began forging a new culture—the same as the Aboriginals did after a voluntary migration from The Motherland to American soil. Point blank, Hip-Hop is specifically the product of the evolution of Black American culture.
February 12, 1959, Motown hit, and until listening to KRS-ONE, this is where I would have begun to scale things down, but I want to go further. I now feel it essential to go as far back as Negro Spirituals to show the authenticity, growth, and similarities of Hip-Hop.
To officially begin with, Negro Spirituals are songs that told the stories of life in the field, gave a rhythm to work to, and developed into a coded medium of communication. As it’s now more commonly referred to, Field Holler was a "freestyled" Call-and-Response medium representing our music and voice. It was that collective voice that kept the souls from wandering too far alone in misery while still shaping the tempo to move to. Lyrics were often improvised or “freestyled” to different syncopated rhythms, as words reflected each group’s unique experiences. One of the more notable field songs is “Hoe Emma Hoe.” The call would start, “…Emma, help me to pull these weeds!” and the response would follow, “Hoe Emma! Hoe!” The next caller would again lead, “Emma works harder than two grown men!” and the response would follow on and on, “Hoe Emma! Hoe!”
Negro Spirituals were also prayers of a better tomorrow and sometimes even vocal maps to aid an escape or even indicate an escape. Historians do battle with this truth as some of the more well-known songs often labeled as “*slave* inhumanely classed songs” have a traceable history that does not lead to “inhumanely classed origins.” Pieces such as “Precious Lord,” pinned by Thomas Dorsey in 1932, claims to be sung by the inhumanely classed people to express their sorrow and longed for escape through death. Also, the song “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” discovered and allegedly confirmed by H.B. Parks in 1928, claims to be a coded map using the Big Dipper as a guide to freedom in Illinois. And though H.B. Parks established a strong connection with the happenings of the Underground Railroad, he is often dismissed by certain narratives as a folklorist who “liked to talk” because he craved an audience. Despite his connection to the Underground Railroad, this supposed “love of an audience” opinion permits those who control the narrative to delegitimize his account of a coded map. Added to the list is “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” composed by Uncle Wallace and Aunt Minerva, two Africans owned by a Choctaw tribe member. Though truly having “inhumanely classed roots,” this spiritual has claims of being used to alert others to be ready to run because Harriet Tubman would soon be on the move. However, doubt that a large percentage of inhumanely classed peopled had ever heard the song sparks a debate. It’s argued that popularity for “Swing Low” didn’t arise until after Uncle Wallace and Aunt Minerva performed it at the Spencer Academy. Then the Fisk Jubilee Singers went on to perform “Swing Low” for entertainment purposes.
Regardless of these debated songs, however, there is still one well-known song not combated, “Wade in the Water,” which has the claim of being instructions from Harriet Tubman to walk through the river to hide the trail of escape’s scent from the bloodhounds.
As mentioned before, freestyled field songs were tailored to fit certain groups, activities, areas, and regions. As proclaimed with Hip-Hop, it linked a specific group of people because it expressed the soul of their unique day-to-day. Repeated attempts to deny the sophistication and intellectual capability of inhumanely classed people using songs to map out escape because there is no common knowledge of such things does not invalidate the history, especially when there is evidence that speaks to the contrary. There are currently over 6000 spirituals locked in the Library of Congress, a majority of which this country would certainly be comfortable with letting the public forget. On the other hand, Calvin Earl persuaded one congressman to introduce legislation to recognize “African American Spirituals” as a National Treasure, and on February 7, 2007, House Resolution 120 passed. However, it now seems more of a symbolic gesture that allows the context and meat of our history to be locked away and not taught and passed down in exchange for a collective title of “National Treasure.” More to the evidence, however, of our history of coded music is Frederick Douglas speaking of this practice in his book My Bondage and My Freedom (1855),
We were, at times, remarkably buoyant, singing hymns and making joyous exclamations, almost as triumphant in their tone as if we had reached a land of freedom and safety. A keen observer might have detected in our repeated singing of "O Canaan, sweet Canaan, I am bound for the land of Canaan," something more than a hope of reaching heaven. We meant to reach the north—and the north was our Canaan "I thought I heard them say, There were lions in the way, I don't expect to stay, Much longer here.”
Negro Spirituals was one of our only forms of expression at the time. We were forbidden from using our native tongue, using our native instruments, and routinely forced to sit in the back of white churches and listen to their teachings of obedience to monsters. With the nature of who we are, we survived by hiding our ways and traditions. A concept comparable to our ancestors from Cuba, who disguised Yorùbá Orishas such as Oya and Vodun practices under the banner of Santeria. In North America, with the religious-cultural shift, we attempted to keep parts of our tradition of spiritual practice with “Ring Shout.” The Ring Shout was a religious dance often done after “service.” The participants gathered in a circle, rhythmically shuffling their feet, clapping, and incorporating their entire body while moving counterclockwise. Usually, one or two people would be in the center routinely using Call-and-Response. This dance also has Yorùbá origins, and this is also what some say inspired the horrid performers of blackface minstrel shows to perform the walkaround. However, brought here in smaller numbers, keeping much of our traditions and beliefs was more difficult than those in Brazil and the islands, who now see Santeria as a respected and remembered part of their culture. Despite our inability to recall our historical timeline, however, we still created a foundation of culture and music that still influences the world.
Before going too far into recreational and commercial music, I must first mention chain gangs to round out the forms of music. We used music in all aspects of our lives, recreation, work, worship, and punishment. Typically, narratives passively described chain gangs as a tool used for massive road development projects and a tool used in the general rebuilding of the decimated south due to the lost in the war. Though the harsh conditions of the chain gangs may find an infrequent mention, never discussed are the sinister motives and familiar desires behind the country’s sudden need for “cheap” labor for the massive rebuilding of infrastructure in 1890. Those sinister motives and familiar desires are what produced the 13th Amendment:
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
It was slavery by another name, and Field Holler quickly become Chain Gang Songs, taking the same role by providing a cadence for the pounding of a pickaxe. Parchman Farm in Mississippi is where some of the most known songs, such as “Early in the Morning” and “Old Alabama,” were recorded, but not until 1947. However, the most notable Chain Gang Song is probably “Rosie,” but only because David Guetta sampled it for his song, “Hey Mama,” released in 2014. Honestly, that’s not unlike how these songs first came to the masses. A non-oppressed person went to the prisons to record the songs prisoners sung on the chain gang, and then this non-oppressed person earned acclaimed and royalties that eventually allowed David Guetta to profit from as well.
Moving further into post-Civil War in the south, more around 1870, the way we musically expressed ourselves, away from the chain gang, could imperfectly be described as a sort of celebration of needed unwinding. Forced and controlled movement and misery created the traumatized, sorrowful, hopeful, working, and God pleading emotions. Post-Civil War, and though still traumatized, the feeling that was buzzing was of celebration. What musically came from these mixed feelings of reveling in the supposed freedom to move without restrictions was Boogie-Woogie music played in the “Juke Joints.” The fast pace got you to dance and move with energy, in a sense jumping, spinning, and stomping away from the rules to only move when told to move. However, this genre of music didn’t become commercially popular until the 1920s with notable musicians of this genre such as Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons, and Pinetop Smith, who gave us “Pinetop’s Boogie-Woogie.”
Developed just a bit later, around 1895, was Ragtime, which is said to be born in St. Louis, but the “King of Ragtime,” Scott Joplin, was also from the south. While the south influenced ragtime, it blended more with European melodies. Scott Joplin, after all, wanted his music to be seen as “sophisticated.” He wanted his music taken seriously and not looked down on like Boogie-Woogie coming from the Juke Joints at the time. Two of his most famous compositions are “Maple Leaf Rag” and “The Entertainer.” This style of music did find its commercial success much sooner than Boogie Woogie, as its popularity was between 1895-1919. Indeed, in my state of opinion, I’d say because he sought acceptance with his music, it opened the door for approval of the music that inspired his style, Boogie-Woogie.
Still, our music continued to evolve with the times. Boogie-Woogie’s popularity came along with the inception of Jazz. And Jazz, as quoted by Duke Ellington, was “The music of my race is something more than the ‘American Idiom’…” This music is, “the result of our transportation to American soil, and was our reaction in the plantation days to the tyranny we endured. What we could not say openly we expressed in music, and what we know as ‘jazz’ is something more than just dance music.”
Performers such as Jelly Roll Morton and Cab Calloway, noted influencers of Hip-Hop, were evolving the Black American musical timeline. The atmosphere was glamour with flapper dresses and zoot suits. The dancing was creative and acrobatic. The energy was upbeat and free, but as Duke Ellington ushered in the Swing genre, he was still fighting with and for his people. Within the power of his platform, he held benefit concerts for the Scottsboro Boys and refused to play in such places where he had to enter through the back door. (For reference, in 1931 the Scottsboro Boys were nine young men accused, convicted, and sentenced to death for raping two white women on a train after a group of white teenagers had harassed the black passengers before being forced off themselves. After many appeals and more guilty verdicts, these nine victims of white revenge either served time and was released or escaped and went into hiding in 1946. One of the victims, Clarence Norris, wrote an autobiography, “The Last of the Scottsboro Boys.”)
While these three up-tempo, piano-driven music forms thrived, there was yet another form of music developing in the south. That would be the Blues, which started as a piano-based genre but soon became heavily guitar-driven. Blues was birthed from Negro Spirituals, as Boogie Woogie was the rowdy cousin who birthed Ragtime. The Blues continued the foundation of speaking truthfully and being real about daily life issues, only adding storytelling. The “Father of Blues,” is William Christopher Handy, but Bessie Smith, who was dubbed the “Empress of Blues,” became the first star of this genre. With such hits as “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” “Down Hearted Blues,” and “Gulf Coast Blues,” Bessie Smith cornered a market that she, of course, was ushered into herself by Ma Raney. However, with songs such as “Washwoman’s Blues” and “Poor Man’s Blues,”
“…While you living in your mansion. You don’t know what hard times mean. A working man wife is starving. Your wife is living like a queen. Listen to my pleading. Can’t stand these hard times long…They’ll make a honest man do things you know is wrong. Old man fought a good battle. Old man’ll fight again today…He’ll do anything in the name of the USA. Now the war is over. Old Man must live the same as you…If it wasn’t for the poor man, rich man what would you do?”
Bessie Smith spoke for a collective that had no voice. Bessie Smith also sang songs that gave the women of the 1930s a sense of power, especially darker skin Black women. Lyrics from “Put it Right Here,
“…The rooster gets the worm, and brings it to the hen. That ought to be a tip, to all you no-good men. The groundhog even brings it, and puts it in his hole. So my man has got to bring it, dog-on his soul! He’s got to get it, bring it, and put it right here. Or else he’s going to keep it out there,”
and a story of a wife using her bolo knife to deal with her husband talking to a “trifling Jane” sung about in “Send Me to the Electric Chair,” all came nearly 40 years before the second wave of the woman’s rights movement.
That’s not too far off what Hip-Hop used to be, correct? Keeping it real with the music and speaking what others couldn’t.
At the roots, Blues music was an escape that came from places where groups gathered to drink moonshine, dance, and listen to their burdens expressed through song. However, the rawness of it made it impossible to ignore, so it became commercialized and played in glitz-covered segregation. The Chitlin Circuit was the entertainment with musical gigs rolling in and out of both Juke Joints and theaters. Still, the money was in the glamourous showcase. Of course, Blues ultimately became big business, and so many talents began to vie to be discovered by talent agents. The dream was to find a way out of the sharecropping life and the false narrative of freedom. Once again, that’s not unlike the Hip-Hop culture today. Our people are using our talents to be discovered by white executives in hopes of making it out of the hood and securing a “better” life—securing the bag.
As the legacy of Black American music went on, there were many who played and began to influence the Blues legacy, such as Sun House—the passionate preacher of the blues who also spent some time on the Parchman Farm. Still, no one left a legend quite like Robert Johnson. Folklore is repeated that Robert Johnson was so exceptional with the guitar because he sold his soul to the devil. So the legend goes, Johnson was at first so bad on the guitar that when he’d pick up Sun House’s guitar in between sets, people would beg House to take the guitar from Johnson to stop the racket. However, one night just before midnight, Johnson went to a crossroad to sell his soul for the ability to play like no other. That myth, however, depends on which religion you believe in and who your devil is. Still, the musical genius this Black American possessed in his short life span was so striking that his legend declared his skill supernatural. Johnson was able to record 29 songs within two years before his untimely death at 27, but with songs such as “Crossroad,” “Hellhound on my Trail,” and “Me and the Devil,” it only helped feed the tales to explain his “overnight” development in skill. Unfortunately, in his day, Robert saw no real recognition. It wasn’t until 20 years later, in the 1960s, that Johnson’s legend solidified itself; however, Johnson remains one of the most impactful and legendary Blues pioneers.
That being said, there was also such Blues artists like J.B. Lenoir who wrote pieces as "Alabama Blues," "Alabama March," and "Shot on James Meredith." Lenoir was a man before his time when speaking of commercial success, but he used his talents and gifts to tell the story of his people. Lenoir sung about the Selma to Montgomery marches and the James Meredith shooting; he even sung about defending himself from the humiliation white people routinely attempted to force on Black men by forcing them to allow their heads to be rubbed for supposed “good luck.” Lenoir also sang about the Vietnam war with the songs “Korean Blues” and “Everybody Crying About Vietnam,” He directly called out the Civil Rights Act and Lyndon B. Johnson in his music. Now while social issues weren’t all Lenoir sung about, he pushed the issues enough that he was forced to move his career overseas. Still, his boldness not only speaks to his greatness, but his words remain eerily relevant and chronicling the history and raw emotion that should never be forgotten. With songs of his such as “Born Dead,” you can see his words just can’t seem to be dismissed.
“When he came into the world, The doctor spank him, the black baby cry. Everybody thought he had a life, and that's why the black baby died. He will never speak his language. The poor baby will never speak his mind. Lord he will never speak his language. The poor baby will never speak his mind…Lord why was I born in Mississippi, when it's so hard to get ahead? Every black child born in Mississippi, you know the poor child was born dead.”
Blues, however, wasn’t just sadness and pain. It was life lessons, venting things which a collective felt couldn’t be said, and it was even jokes at times. Blues was Black American life experiences through harmony. Black American music, regardless of genre, has always been tied to our Black American existence. The fact is, once we stopped merely singing, we began to find and use avenues of action.
Blues, Jazz, and Gospel produced Soul music and Motown around the Civil Rights Movement. Such people as Nina Simone, Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, and even Ray Charles all gave us soul while speaking for our people through their music. It’s true, every song was not a political message, but our life experiences involved politics. The Supremes song "You’re Gone (But Always in My Heart)" was a song played to a marching beat, alluding to a woman missing her man killed in the war, which would have been the Vietnam War. The Monitors were very clear with "Greetings (This is Uncle Sam)." Martha and the Vandellas even spoke about a potentially unfaithful woman waiting for her man to come home from the war with "Jimmy Mack." That was a song talking about a situation in everyday Black America, just as The Temptations did with "Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone." Sam Cooke gave us the first Black-owned record label and publishing company before posthumously giving us “A Change Is Gonna Come.” As for Nina Simone, she was always unapologetically Black and never quiet, as with songs like "Mississippi Gotdamn" which was inspired by the four young girls who were burned in their church, and "Young, Gifted, and Black," and "Four Women" again spoke for a collective that was being stifled. Stevie Wonder gave us classics such as "Living For the City," "Pastime Paradise," and "Happy Birthday," all as a stamp in time for our culture.
Our music has always been our voice, even a weapon of sorts. Though activism was not the primary goal of our music, our circumstances of existence have always echoed throughout every genre. Our determination to express ourselves and our creative genius poured out through our musical timeline. Genres created long ago weren’t made in the time of the internet to be so globally commercialized. However, when the British Invasion happened, nothing of our legacy was off-limits. Our history was brought back, covered, repackaged, stolen, and then loved by the masses. Our voices and representations of our culture, old and new, were taken from us to entertain the world even before Hip-Hop’s so-called Declaration of Peace. The difference is our forefathers didn’t sign our cultural innovation away under the guise of international acceptance. It diminishes our identity and connection to Hip-Hop the more some in “our community” search for global and international acceptance.
The British Invasion is expressly said to have been what led America to appreciate and give worthiness to “Black music.” Even today, with the hope Black artists have of “crossing over” and “becoming mainstream,” it’s tied to acceptance from the dominant society. This, however, is still ignoring the fact that up until the British Invasion, Black artists routinely had their music stolen and performed by white American artists. The Country music stations nearly went back to this practice with “Old Town Road.”
Just consider that thought. International groups “covering” Black music is what gave part of our culture worthiness? The question of, “How does international theft equalling validation help to frame the idea that Hip-Hop shouldn’t and doesn’t belong to Black Americans?” can only be answered using critical thinking. With this historical practice, it’s baked into the history that our art isn’t “worthy” until the masses take what they want and called it their own.
When we think critically about our psyche, we should question, “Did we see what we created as unworthy?” Did we see our contributions to not only our culture but to world culture as something we should protect, just as every other group of people does with pride for their culture? Why do we think we are so uncultured, so unworthy, that even the things we create that reach “international appreciation” should not be claimed by us? How and why did even we see ourselves, our image, as so unworthy?
Towards the end of the Civil Rights Movement in the late 1960s, the president of CBS, Frank Stanton, wanted broadcasters to start a "mighty and continuing editorial crusade" supporting civil rights. This idea gave a platform to a handful of shows that began to show Black American actors as more than domestic help, and we began to see Black actors in more prominent roles. It wasn’t until this time that effort was put towards improving the Black American image. Those in control of our national image gave the notion that they wanted to help push a positive image of Black Americans. While this translated as a win to some, one could also argue this was a ploy to indoctrinate Black Americans to strive to be excellent entertainers, be it athletes, musicians, or actors. After all, it’s 2021, and we’re still striving for fame while fighting a battle with Hollywood for better Black American representation a mere three years after losing our minds because Black Panther finally gave us something. RIP Chadwick.
Back to the music, though, in the late 1960s came the rise in Funk music. James Brown and company gave us dancing soul and war cries of "I'm Black, and I'm Proud!" that were unmatched. Then by the early 70s, Disco hit the scene, which most are unaware that Disco is a Black musical genre. Disco was the complete fantasy, glitz, glamour, sex, party, and all-around excitement. The imagery of Disco was the pinnacle of escape from the everyday reality of the Black struggle. I make the comparison to Boogie Woogie’s inception right on the heels of emancipation. The Disco era was the time on the heels of seeing so many Black leaders and activists murdered; Medgar Evers, Sam Cooke, Malcolm X, MLK Jr, Fred Hampton, and the Black Panther Party destruction was underway. There needed to be an escape from constant death, and for a while, it was Disco.
However, just a short while later, Clive Campbell, aka DJ Kool Herc, finally made his mark on history.
The very first “Hip-Hop” party to ever be thrown went down as Kool Herc’s Back to School Jam at 1520 Sedgwick Ave on August 11, 1973. By this time, it is mere months after the shooting of Clifford Glover in the back. It is just a little over a year before his murderer is acquitted and celebrating with the jurors of that pointless trial, and DJ Kool Herc is laying the groundwork for a movement that will sweep the nation. As the legend goes, the 16-year-old had been hired by his younger sister to DJ a party so she could earn money for new clothes. Herc went against the typical disco party scene and played an innovated mix of Funk that was very James Brown influenced. As the parties rolled on, Herc began to stand out due to his style of playing the isolated percussion breaks of records because, as he says, this was the part of records the dancers loved.
That is a very intricate piece to the inception of Hip-Hop. Black American music and the dancers inspired Herc at these parties, dancers that are now known as Breakers/B-Boy, B-Girl. This combination of dance and music is reminiscent of the Jazz culture with its flapper dresses and zoot suits. The dancers and Herc, along with Coke La Rock, planted the seeds of Hip-Hop and expanded our culture.
A vital piece of the birth of Hip-Hop often overlooked is Coke La Rock, despite him paving the way for emcees by using his wordplay to hype the crowds. The Caribbean DJs are now the sole pioneers of Hip-Hop. Herc isolated the parts of the records the Breakers preferred to dance to, while Bambaataa merely continued the cultural legacy of community organization and activism around the ideal of Black pride with a musical outlet. Flash was incredible with his skill, but it was with the help of the Furious Five that cemented his greatness. The Furious Five spearheaded groups such as The Soulsonic Force, Fantastic 5, The Funky Four Plus One, The Fearless Four, Treacherous Three, Cold Crush Brothers, Crash Crew, and multiple other groups of young men and a few unmentioned young women who all found common ground and unity through expressing our culture. It wasn’t just the DJs legitimizing Hip-Hop.
Hip-Hop was a movement for the youth, an unquestionable addition to our historical timeline. The Civil Rights Movement had been over, and the most prominent leaders of it long assassinated. Left for Black America was the arts, namely for this written piece, the art of Hip-Hop. Hip-Hop was art so seriously considered and respected it was battle rap that began to determine your worth. Battle raps took place on street corners, in theaters, were made into showcases, but by all accounts, battle rap was such a cherished art it became a blueprint for musical cultures that would soon cross the ocean.
However, with all of its glory, we can't leave out the most common defamatory narrative used against the culture, which is the lifestyle Hip-Hop glorifies. Still, the sordid "lifestyle" many connect to Hip-Hop can't ignore the taint of continued police brutality nationwide, importing drugs from the CIA, and the same government control that allowed such programs as the war on drugs, redlining, and the long-standing "negro conditioning." Hip-Hop is not the glorification of circumstances. Hip-Hop is the lovechild of Black American expression, creativity, struggle, and life. Hip-Hop’s blueprint of speaking on everyday occurrences came from Field Holler, Chain Gang Songs, and Blues. (I'll refrain from speaking on what the lackluster gatekeepers have allowed Hip-Hop to become.)
Once you begin to paint the picture, adding in strokes of circumstance, civil unrest, activism, war, a communal fight for equality, and existing Black American art forms, you begin to see that the foundation of Hip-Hop is built from the soul of Black America. The story started with the DJs, who controlled the parties and provided new mediums of escape and/or expression. The origins, however, include Breakers, Emcees, Beatboxing, Graffiti Art, and Rhyme. Rhyme is the element of the culture that has reached the farthest across the world, more than any other piece of any culture has. But the mere talent of rhyming is not Hip-Hop. A dope beat is not Hip-Hop. The sheer feeling of you wanting to buck the system is not Hip-Hop. Hip-Hop comes with a history. There is a purpose and a story to be told about every era of Hip-Hop in Black America, from New York to California to Andre 3000 proclaiming the South had something to say.
While I cannot pretend to be a Hip-Hop historian where I can give full details about everything, I can pass on a few critical points of the story of Hip-Hop. I can begin with The Last Poets, who expressed our history and self-awareness, with such pieces as “Before the White Men Came,” “Wake up, Niggers,” and “Understand What Black Is.” I will remember the Zulu Nation being born to combat the gang violence going on at the time, organizing to teach the people the “5th Element of Knowledge” and encouraging us to love and embrace our African heritage. I’ll give respect to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five when Melle Mel spoke to the masses with “The Message,” delivering not only an iconic beat and phrase, but he ushered in a voice for the people. And I could never leave out Queen Latifah’s U.N.I.T.Y, a timeless call to the community that’s needed now more than ever.
From there, Hip-Hop continuously spoke for people with the most stifled voice, for people with some of the harshest stories to tell. Many of the stories involved the gang violence and the crack epidemic, but those two plights were not and have never been the sole story or even part of every “Black American” neighborhood. However, the weight and persecution of that perception have always been the reality of Black America. Groups such as Public Enemy and N.W.A. used their platforms to express the emotions of the people of Black America. On further with artists such as Uncle Luke, who is the very reason there needs to be a “Parental Advisory” warning. Regardless of his raunchy lyrics, he faced a war against his freedom of speech, a war to censor Hip-Hop. His victory in the story of Hip-Hop kept freedom of speech alive. That judicial fight was essential, and not simply to have the right to use vulgar language. In the past, his career would have been forced overseas or suppressed until after his death, simply because those in charge didn’t like what he had to say. Examples of that tactic are J.B. Lenoir, Eartha Kit, James Baldwin, and the list could go on.
The culture was built around the music, the style of dress, from the graph jean jackets to Kangol hats and Adidas, to baggy clothes, bling, and labels, all expresses the culture. The culture was also built around the dance, from Breaking, Roboting, Locking, Dance Battles to Superman, Nae Nae, Dab, Milly Rock, the Quan, the Woah, etcetera. All those “trending” dancing express the culture. The voice of Black activism, Black pain, Black celebration, Black knowledge, and Black life express the culture. The since-forgotten dedication young emcees had to be a lyrical genius expressed the culture. Time was spent battling, honing the craft of a lyrical mastermind to prove oneself to the culture; that is before this art was given to the masses and became pure entertainment.
Hip-Hop was once a powerful voice of grit and truth, a truth that refused to be cornered and censored. Now it’s this cool “Black Category” to try on and be styled as needed. It’s a surface blanket of unity that forgets its foundation because of the impression it leaves. It’s an impression so grand that it must be shared. It must be adapted. And because of that, however, it most certainly cannot be labeled as Black American Culture.
But I’m going to say it.
Hip-Hop is Black America. Period.
Regardless of what Black America is allowing Hip-Hop to turn into with our own—but industry-controlled—talents, Hip-Hop will always and indeed only ever be Black America. It is our art that touched the world. It is our voice that touched the world. It is our legacy that touched the world. Our culture cannot be up for grabs when we are still searching for our foundation. Our identity belongs to us, and we have the right to claim it and to protect it. This does not mean we isolate or criticize those who want to appreciate the culture. However, just as we appreciate the multiple cultures of Africa, Caribbean culture, Asian culture, Latin culture, others must learn first to accept Black Americans have a culture to understand our culture versus adapt what they like and condemn or deny what’s left.