Rap Music and Street Consciousness

Article excerpt

Rap Music and Street Consciousness. By Cheryl Keyes. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002. Pp. xxv + 303, preface, acknowledgments, introduction, photographs, musical notation, glossary, notes, discography, bibliography, indices. $34.95 cloth)

As a reader whose commitment to the study of folklore is rooted in a fascination with African American oral folk poetry-from toasts to rap to hip hop-I have been alert to Cheryl Keyes' previous writings on this subject (1993, 1996, 2000). Here, in her first full-length treatment of rap, published as part of the distinguished Music in American Life series of the University of Illinois Press, Keyes succeeds in comprehensively approaching rap "from the perspectives of ethnomusicology, folklore, and cultural studies" (ix). The book covers rap from its beginnings until 2000. Written for a general audience, Rap Music and Street Consciousness details the geographic, cultural, and economic settings from which this music emerged, in addition to providing a thorough analysis of the music itself, and it is a pleasure to read. The author situates herself-student outsider, musician not in the industry, African American, woman-and discusses the problematics of these multiple identities in her role as participant-observer. Of many subjects covered in this wideranging work, especially noteworthy are the origins and present social location of rap, the current public controversy over rap language and culture, and the role of women in rap.

Keyes' historical overview begins, of course, in Africa. African poetic speech and performance (including antecedents of jive) are shown to have provided an artistic and cultural matrix for formal and stylistic developments in America black performance. Bringing the subject into the present, the author covers new versions of the rap genre that have developed over the past decade and generally entwines recent musical and social developments in an interesting and relevant way. Gang culture, a major context for rap performance, grew out of poverty worsened by the flight of wealth to the suburbs and resultant inner-city decay. The forced migration and involuntary isolation of African American community segments amid gentrification caused by the construction of superhighways such as the Cross Bronx Expressway in New York are further example of social dislocation whose effects are expressed in rap. Generalized apprehension about the oppressor, often expressed in widespread conspiracy rumors-for instance, that African Americans have been the target of intentional spreading of AIDS and crack-cocaine addiction (Turner 1993)-is also expressed in rap poetry and music.

In the face of oppressive conditions, however, many rappers have become mainstream, achieving a high degree of commercial success, some artists starting their own labels and becoming moguls. Rap music videos, another popular format, display visually as well as musically the cultural messaging so intrinsic to rap, though the entry of many rap music videos into mainstream television venues remains problematic. …