Rap Music as an Extension of the Black Rhetorical Tradition: "Keepin' It Real"

Article excerpt

For rappers, "keepin it real" means being true to the rich legacy of rap. For me, "keepin it real" means being true to the rich legacy from which rap music emanates. It is a legacy that goes beyond the verbal volleys of Muhammad Ali, the pulsating poems of The Last Poets, and the Caribbean tradition of toasting. It is a legacy that may go as far back as the griots of West Africa and the ancient societies of Egypt. Rap music belongs to a rich Black tradition of reverence for rhetoric in its written and spoken form. Thus, discussions surrounding rap music must see this art form as part of the Black rhetorical continuum, both borrowing from and expanding this tradition in its creative use of language and rhetorical styles and strategies. Most specifically, rap was created and continues to exist primarily as a young, African American (predominantly male) rhetoric of resistance primarily to issues of race. Though rap artists' approaches differ to these issues, as an art form rap music uniformly draws on and expands the Black rhetorical tradition.

In the first chapter of Black Skin, White Masks, "The Negro and Language," Fanon (1967) supports the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic determinism and linguistic relativity when he writes that a "man who has a language consequently possesses the world expressed and implied by that language" (18; See Carroll, 1956). Asante (1987) echoes Fanon's words, for he maintains that "always the protester must use different symbol, myths, and sounds [my emphasis] than the established order.... The oppressed must gain attention and control by introducing another language, another sound [my emphasis]" (114-115). Similarly, Antonio Gramsci (1971) provides a theoretical framework that is relevant here.

Gramsci's concept of ideological hegemony posits that ruling class alliances maintain their power by developing consent among the subordinate class. Force is used only a "final solution." In other words, the best way to achieve control over a subordinate group is by means of cultural domination among all sectors in society. But efforts to maintain hegemony coincide with efforts to dismantle it, because cultural domination inevitably produces its opposite--cultural resistance--from the subordinate classes (Gramsci, 1971). Blacks in the African diaspora have used language and music as a form of cultural resistance. Specifically, this essay examines ways in which rap music was created and continues to be used as a form of cultural resistance. In doing so, Blacks have used sounds different from their oppressors and often tap into a Black rhetorical and cultural tradition to effectuate this resistance. American soil, however, is not the best place to gain an understanding of Black rhetoric.

Asante's (1986) "The Egyptian Origin of Rhetoric and Oratory" provides an understanding of rhetoric in general, Black rhetoric in particular. It was the Black Africans of ancient Egypt who expressed deep admiration and respect for the written and spoken word. In fact, as George G. M. James (1989/1956) documents in Stolen Legacy, the ancient Egyptians included rhetoric as part of the seven liberal arts of their curriculum, which formed the foundation for new learners. To be precise, grammar, arithmetic, rhetoric and dialectic (i.e., the quadrivium), and geometry, astronomy, and music (trivium) constituted the curriculum of ancient Egypt (135). The writing system of ancient Egypt was what the Greeks were later to call hieroglyphics, but was what the Egyptians referred to as Medew Netcher (Mdw ntr).

Jacob Carruthers (1995) informs us that Medew Netcher in the narrow sense denoted the formal written language of ancient Egyptians, whereas, in a more general sense, Medew Netcher referred to human speech. For the Egyptians, speech was divine in and of itself; in other words, speech was a "gift of the creator" (40). Carruthers further helps us to understand that the ancient Egyptians differentiated between Mdw ntr "Medew Netcher" (God speech) and mdw nfr, "Medew Nefer" (Good speech), which approximate the Greek terms theology (divine speech) and logos (reasoned speech), respectively (39). …