"How Ya Livin'?": Notes on Rap Music and Social Transformation(1)

Article excerpt

Abstract

For African Americans, the presentation of life as a multi-leveled reality has often taken form through musical expression. Music chronicles and critiques developments regarding the complexities of life within the Black community, with spirituals responding to the hardships of slavery and the blues addressing the paradoxical situation of African Americans in the post-Civil War era. Those familiar with the Civil Rights movement will note the importance of Gospel songs and other musical forms for the expression of the goals and objectives of the movement for freedom. For example, the singing of "we shall over come" held tremendous epistemological and existential significance for civil rights workers.(2) And most recently, rap music provides a discussion of contemporary Black life which actively engages issues relevant to the civil rights struggle and its socio-political as well as economic aftermath.

Methodological Considerations

Within this essay I will explore the nature and content of rap music's lyrically expressed vision of social transformation. Attention is given to the two major categories of rap music--`gangsta' rap and progressive rap.(3) As a methodological note, this exploration is in part guided by Albert Camus' notion of `Absurd'(4) and African American models of response to oppression such as the Jeremiad tradition present within African American religious thought.(5) Concerning the latter methodological consideration, attention to the Jeremiad tradition points to my recognition of a link between the cultural tools used by rap artists and those used by past generations, the former's approach entailing contemporary manipulations of the Black oral tradition -- the Jeremiad, toasting, signifying, etc., for the purpose of social transformation.

Before moving into the major points of this essay, I would like to say a few words about absurdity as a way of denoting systemic oppression encountered by African Americans. Life for African Americans living in the United States is well captured by Camus' notion of absurdity. In the words of Camus:

A world that can be explained even with bad reasons is a familiar world. But, on the other hand, in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, humanity feels an alien, a stranger.... exile is without remedy since humanity is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between humanity and its life, the actor and his/her setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity.(6)

In the context of Black American life, this absurdity involves the manner in which the illusion of equality is contradicted by systemic oppression (e.g., racism/sexism as well as the by-product of a market-driven economy), and results in a triadic alienation from self, others, and nature.

With regards to alienation from self, racism within the United States provides an understanding of `blackness' -- related to physical bodies -- as inferior, soiled, and dangerous. Consequently, many African Americans are taught to prize certain European physical traits and to hate themselves for straying from these `normative' features. This condition connotes alienation from self, and leads to a collapse of self-esteem. The mental colonization effected when `standardized' notions of beauty and value are used against a particular group results in poor self-image and a dwarfed sense of self-worth for that group. The effort is made to alter one's self in order to fit the illusive model of perfection -- what Cornel West calls the "normative gaze."(7) Failure to embody this `ideal type' produces self-hatred and contempt for those resembling the tortured self. It produces internalized racism.

Those who have adopted this attitude find it difficult to maintain healthy relations with other African Americans because other African Americans remind them of what they dislike in themselves. The prevalence of Black-on-Black crime points to the sense of nihilism, uselessness, and hopelessness engendered by internalized racism and how it fosters alienation from others, especially others similarly oppressed. …