By Mankh (Walter E. Harris III). Axis of Logic.
"Hip Hop and Rap your way to liberation"
- Lawrence Ferlinghetti,
Poetry As Insurgent Art
If necessity is the mother of invention, then tragedy oftentimes serves as a transformation point. It does not have to be that way, yet people often make a choice to change course or attitude when circumstances demand it.
Mostly born from New York City’s South Bronx, the rhythms and vocal intonations of hip-hop have their roots in Africa, the songs of slave-workers, the pulses of African American churches, the blues, jazz, R&B, soul, and more. Today’s hip-hop, rap, and spoken word provide a vocal framework that is being adopted or riffed on worldwide. Whether European, Near Eastern, or from Indigene and Tribal Peoples such as the Maori and American Indian these forms of expression help convey the concerns of global brothers and sisters. In the broad sense, hip-hop is defined as a popular subculture which includes rap music, break dancing, and graffiti art. For the purposes of this essay, hip-hop will mostly refer to the musical, lyrical aspect.
Much of hip-hop began with DJs spinning records at house parties; this working the music-machine as an instrument itself was highly innovative. As well, it was a far cry from the mainstream media's artless art of spin. After hip-hop became mega-successful, according to S. Craig Watkins, "Something had been lost in hip hop's journey from feisty subcultures of ghetto America to the lavish corridors of media conglomeration."1
There are many people cited as essential and influential with the original development of hip-hop. Here is mention of two of them: “Clive Campbell, also known as Kool Herc, DJ Kool Herc and Kool DJ Herc, is a Jamaican-born DJ who is credited with originating hip hop music, in the Bronx, New York City.”2
Afrika Bambaataa “is respectfully known as the "Grandfather" and "Godfather" and The Amen Ra of Universal Hip Hop Culture as well as The Father of The Electro Funk Sound.”3
Having sprung from the voices of the poverty-stricken, it can be said that hip-hop was born from tragedy, yet as well, it has emerged from the indefatigable creative spirit that transcends time and place.
What led this writer to learning more about hip-hop culture is a poet named Gerard Manley Hopkins. His innovative rhyming style and use of “sprung rhythm” have been one of the biggest influences on my poetry writing. One day I realized that, much of Hopkins' poetry, when read aloud, sounds a lot like hip-hop, rap, and spoken word. Seems Hopkins was onto something: “Sprung rhythm is a poetic rhythm designed to imitate the rhythm of natural speech. It is constructed from feet in which the first syllable is stressed and may be followed by a variable number of unstressed syllables. The British poet Gerard Manley Hopkins claimed to have discovered this previously-unnamed poetic rhythm in the natural patterns of English in folk songs, spoken poetry, Shakespeare, Milton, et al.”4 Conveying "poetic rhythm in the natural patterns" of a language seems a wonderful way to better connect with the real Ear of the People. The Beat poets, in breaking from Academia, strove to write about common everyday events in a common language, and boy did they succeed; Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Ferlinghetti are a few examples, and Beat poetry was a big influence on Bob Dylan, known for his poetic lyrics.
Gerard Manley Hopkins was a 19th century Jesuit priest. Having difficulty reconciling his deepest interests, Hopkins at one point "burned his poems and committed himself to literary silence, feeling that aesthetic pursuits were inappropriate to his vocation." But then a shipwreck in which five German Nuns (exiles by the Falk Law) drowned, moved Hopkins to break his artistic silence and pen the long poem, "The Wreck of the Deutschland." He eventually made peace with and blended his writing with his spiritual calling. He was virtually unheard of during his lifetime, but is now mentioned along with other English poets such as Tennyson, Browning, and Matthew Arnold.5
Hopkins' poem "Peace" conveys a message with hip-hop sounding rhythm.
When will you ever, Peace, wild wooddove, shy wings shut,
Your round me roaming end, and under be my boughs?
When, when Peace, will you, Peace? I’ll not play hypocrite
To my own heart: I yield you do come sometimes; but
That piecemeal peace is poor peace…
Such verbal play and “sprung rhythm” seems thoroughly unexpected from a 19th century Jesuit priest. So, this poet has nicknamed him Hip-Hop Hopkins, and he gets a big "thanks" for having gotten me to learn more about today's hip-hop expressive style and culture.
One of his best-known poems, “Pied Beauty,” begins:
Glory be to God for dappled things ―
For skies of couple-colour as brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings…
Even though you might not know exactly what he is saying, you can get the feel of it; is this not similar to much hip-hop, rap, and spoken word with its rapid delivery? You might need the Oxford Dictionary for Hip-Hop Hopkins, but for modern hip-hop the Hip Hoptionary would help you to be "all that" (stellar, as good as it gets) and "ball out" (have a good time).
TRANSFORMATIONS and ROLE MODELS
Imani Perry, in her book Prophets of the Hood, posits that hip-hop is an “art of innovation not deprivation.”6 Seems to me a combination of both, though I'm admittedly no hip-hop scholar.
While I can appreciate the need for survival, and of those in poverty to be financially rewarded, typically by the very system that has afflicted them, the question often arises to the artist as to whether to: sell out to corporate interests, or speak one’s truth.
Like Hopkins, others have been transformed by tragedy and then used their creativity to help carry them along. Here are a few examples of people who became successful by sticking to their truths, serving justice, and having their products sell well -- a rare combo!
After serving as a bombardier in World War II, Howard Zinn went on to become a lifelong dissident and peace activist.7
Zinn is best known for his book A People's History of the United States, which, as the title states, tells history from the People's perspective, rather than from that of the conquerors and oppressors. Zinn was a writer, history professor, and playwright; he networked with many artists and common folk.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti's "ideology coalesced soon after visiting the ruins of Nagasaki, just weeks after the devastation of the atomic bomb in 1945."8
He became a pacifist.
Ferlinghetti is best known as a poet and co-founder of City Lights Booksellers and Publishers. He published Allen Ginsberg's controversial poem Howl which helped put them both on the literary map, as well as helping forge a path for literary freedom of expression. If you doubt the title of his most recent book, Poetry As Insurgent Art, it is worth knowing that, "Rooted in anarchist thought and civil libertarianism, the political principals communicated in his poems are cited as one of the primary catalysts of the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia."9 City Lights “was founded in 1953, the first all-paperback bookstore in the U.S., stocking classics of modern literature and progressive politics.”10
While Zinn’s and Ferlinghetti’s life-changing experiences of war might seem a different tragedy than the ghettoes of hip-hop, they are connected. Many of the poor fight the government's expensive wars; many of the poor are poor because a pre-dominance of tax-dollars helps fund wars; the end result of wars are, too often, more poverty stricken areas. War breeds poverty.
ANOTHER TRANSFORMATIVE EXAMPLE
Some have disputed the story, but it is a worthwhile story in any case:
"In 1927, at the age of 32, R. Buckminster Fuller stood on the shores of Lake Michigan, prepared to throw himself into the freezing waters. His first child had died. He was bankrupt, discredited and jobless, and he had a wife and newborn daughter. On the verge of suicide, it suddenly struck him that his life belonged, not to himself, but to the universe. He chose at that moment to embark on what he called “an experiment to discover what the little, penniless, unknown individual might be able to do effectively on behalf of all humanity.” Over the next fifty-four years, he proved, time and again, that his most controversial ideas were practical and workable."11
Bucky Fuller is best known for the geodesic dome, the 1933 Dymaxion car, and he had blueprints for eco-friendly floating cities. He was a hit with the younger generation, giving talks to colleges and universities. Bucky “thought that human ingenuity and technology could be deployed to eliminate material deprivation and conserve natural resources for the benefit of all and for subsequent generations.”12
|Richard Buckminster Fuller at 79 years old
And he, too, was a writer, publishing more than 30 books; he often used the phrase "Spaceship Earth" to remind us that we are all together as one and floating through space. In a philosophically-scientific-poetic fashion, Bucky, too, bordered on hip-hop, as witnessed in this section from his book, And It Came to Pass – Not To Stay, written in a form he called "ventilated prose":
THYMINE–CYTOSINE/ GUANINE–ADENINE/That tetracouplet/ Won the Nobel Prize/ The Wilkins, Crick and Watson Waltz/ And that GC–TA
jazz/ All synced into/ The nonsimultaneous aggregate/ Of complex frequency integrated/ Multi-degrees-of-freedom permitted,/ Individualized sequences,/ Of experience evolutions,/ Which we wave-modulatingly identify,/ In the subconsciously formulated,/ Tongue and lips shaped,/ Omnidirectionally propagated,/ Air wave patterning–/ Sound/ WORLD/ – Whirled into the world/ Of positive and negative . . .
Compare Bucky's with the pacing of Lauryn Hill's lyrics, further on in the essay.
COOPERATIVE OR CORPORATE
This writer doesn’t care for the bling-booty-chauvinist side of hip-hop or what seems like a generic-ness to many songs, yet while doing research for this essay I gained a much deeper appreciation for the overall hip-hop movement that, at its cooperative best: helps youths, raises social and spiritual consciousness, and brings people together for positive common cause. Russell Simmons is probably the most well-known activist, spokesman, and successful businessman in the hip-hop world; his activities with the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network13 have helped sponsor numerous events.14
As for some of the roots of this artistic-activism: “Critic Jason Ankeny wrote, "With their politically charged raps, taut rhythms, and dedication to raising African-American consciousness, the Last Poets almost single-handedly laid the groundwork for the emergence of hip-hop." The British music magazine NME stated, "Serious spokesmen like Gil Scott-Heron, Gary Byrd, and the Last Poets paved the way for the many socially committed Black [emcees] a decade later."15
On the issue of corporate music business vs. socio-political causes, this article quote says a lot:
“ ‘Gangsta rap’ was a reaction of white journalism and never a description of the performers themselves,” says author and historian Cecil Brown. Noting that police brutality has long been a theme within hip-hop, he says, “This need to express one’s condition by using electronic technology is not different from using the medium of the work song to express slave oppression.”
“Meanwhile, the main profiteers from the genre’s enduring commercial success have been white record label executives. And as the economic viability of gangsta rap has increased, the amount of sociopolitical commentary in it conspicuously decreased.
“But the last truly socially-conscious hip-hop album to earn gold certification—500,000 units sold—may have been Mos Def’s “Black on Both Sides” in 2000, a far cry from the heady days of 1988 to 1991, when Public Enemy and BDP totaled three platinum and three gold albums cumulatively.“
"Still, even in an era of corporate thuggin’, activism among rap artists persists, quiet as it’s kept. There was Jay-Z’s endorsement of Barack Obama, David Banner’s response to Hurricane Katrina and Bun B’s involvement in Haitian earthquake relief and immigration issues. Master P, Big Boi and Xzibit were all outspoken about the BP oil spill. The important difference is that mainstream rappers who speak out nowadays do so outside of the recording studio. “
"Some smaller artists are defying industry and media indifference to the tragic reality of police violence. After Oscar Grant was killed by a BART police officer on New Year’s Day 2009, within a day, rapper Mistah F.A.B. and singer Jennifer Johns recorded an Internet-only tribute, entitled My Life.”16
Along with survival, triumphing over tragedy, and making a difference in the world a good artist must hone his or her craft. Whereas end rhyme used to provide the song quality of much traditional poetry, and then free verse's unrhymed randomness became popular, nowadays much modern poetry has gone flat, often constructed in sentence form but broken up to look like poetry. Yet, the song quality has migrated to hip-hop, rap, and spoken word which use a variety of internal rhyme, near rhyme, assonance, consonance, and more, often building to and maintaining a fever pitch. Hopkins, with this sprung rhythm, is a forerunner (however consciously or not) of today's free flowing, poetry jamming, cafe-calling spoken word artists hip-hop style.
Of today’s hip-hop artists, this writer is particularly impressed with a song sung by K'naan, also an activist, who calls himself the "dusty foot philosopher." He grew up, or out of, war-torn Somalia. Wavin' Flag has helped raised one-million dollars for Haiti relief:
Out of the darkness, I came the farthest
Among the hardest survival
Learn from these streets, it can be bleak
Accept no defeat, surrender, retreat
So we struggling, fighting to eat
And we wondering when we'll be free . . .17
Other lyrics of historical pertinence and personal encouragement come from 'i can' by Nas:
Be, be, 'fore we came to this country/ We were kings and queens, never porch monkeys/ It was empires in Africa called Kush Timbuktu, where every race came to get books/ To learn from black teachers who taught Greeks and Romans/ Asian Arabs and gave them gold when/ Gold was converted to money it all changed/ Money then became empowerment for Europeans/ The Persian military invaded/ They heard about the gold, the teachings, and everything sacred/ Africa was almost robbed naked/ Slavery was money, so they began making slave ships . . .
If the truth is told, the youth can grow/ Then learn to survive until they gain control/ Nobody says you have to be gangstas, hoes/ Read more learn more, change the globe/ Ghetto children, do your thing / Hold your head up, little man, you're a king
Save the music y'all, save the music y'all/ Save the music y'all, save the music y'all/ Save the music . . .
Some powerful lyrics by Lauryn Hill, from her song Mystery of Iniquity:
Do we expect the system made for the elect/ To possibly judge correct?/ Properly serve and protect?/ Materially corrupt/ Spiritually amuck/ Oblivious to the cause/ Prosperously bankrupt/ Blind leading the blind/ Guilty never defined/ Filthy as swine/ A generation pure in it's own mind/ Legal extortion/ Blown out of proportion/ In vain deceit/ The truth is obsolete/ Only two positions:/ Victimizer or Victim/ Both end up in destruction trusting this crooked system / Mafia with diplomas keeping us in a coma trying to own a piece/ of the "American Corona"/ The Revolving Door/ Insanity every floor/ Skyscraping, paper chasing/ What are we working for? . . .
Perhaps even more Hopkins-like, or at least pre-modern hip-hop, is the American songster-bard, Bob Dylan. From Mr. Tambourine Man:
Though you might hear laughin’, spinnin’, swingin’ madly across the sun
It’s not aimed at anyone, it’s just escapin' on the run
And but for the sky there are no fences facin’
And if you hear vague traces of skippin’ reels of rhyme
To your tambourine in time, it’s just a ragged clown behind
I wouldn’t pay it any mind
It’s just a shadow you’re seein’ that he’s chasing . . .
More currently there is Matisyahu, an American Hasidic Jewish reggae musician. The lyrics in his song One Day speak for the younger generation, as well as the world:
sometimes in my tears I drown/ but I never let it get me down/ so when negativity surrounds/ I know some day it'll all turn around because/ all my life I've been waiting for/ I've been praying for/ for the people to say/ that we don't wanna fight no more/ they'll be no more wars/ and our children will play/ one day . . .
Matisyahu reminds of some of his forebears, diamond-cutters following their European Jewish ancestors by singing Hebrew songs as they work.
SAVE THE SONGS
Whether out of pure joy like a bird, or to overcome oppression and discomfort-- you can't keep a good song down! Song, and the poetry that is song, transcends nations, skin colors, religions, and so on. One of my wishes is that Hip-Hop Hopkins' blend of spirituality and earthiness, immersed in rhythm and wordplay, be one of the guiding lights for the current and future hip-hop generations.
This age we live in is ripe for transformation, not only because there is enough tragedy to turn one's head, heart, and feet in another direction, but because there are so many tools to help with the turning. Whether those tools are the information and networking of the Internet and other technologies, or whether they are the simple songs from a variety of cultures around this One-World: they are all able to reflect communities whose voices deserve to be heard.
It is fitting to give Hip-Hop Hopkins the last words here. From his poem The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo:
How to kéep – is there ány any, is there none such, nowhere
known some, bow or brooch or braid or brace, láce, latch or
catch or key to keep
Back beauty, keep it, beauty, beauty, beauty, . . . from vanishing away?
Ó is there no frowning of these wrinkles, rankèd wrinkles deep,
Dówn? no waving off of these most mournful messengers, still
messengers, sad and stealing messengers of grey? . . .
Give beauty back, beauty, beauty, beauty, back to God, beauty’s self and beauty’s giver.
See; not a hair is, not an eyelash, not the least lash lost; every hair Is, hair of head, numbered.
Mankh (Walter E. Harris III) is a frequent guest poet and essayist on Axis of Logic. He is a writer, small press publisher, and Turtle Islander. You can contact him via his literary website.
READ MORE OF MANKH'S POEMS
AND ESSAYS ON AXIS OF LOGIC
Notes and References:
Hip Hop Matters: Politics, Pop Culture, and the Struggle for the Soul of a Movement, S. Craig Watkins, Beacon Press, Boston, 2005.
God’s Grandeur and Other Poems, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dover Publications, Inc., NY, 1995.
Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop, Imani Perry, Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2004.
Hip-Hop: A Short History, Rosa Waters, Mason Crest Publishers, Inc., 2008