To the Break of Dawn: A Freestyle on the Hip Hop Aesthetic

By William Jelani Cobb | Go to book overview

3
Word of Mouth

Rapper grips mic tight
Drums explode in throat's barrel
Lyrics leap from lips

—Joel Dias-Porter


STEP IN THE ARENA

Hemingway defined courage as grace under pressure. In the black tradition, though, grace under pressure is the definition of coolwhich leads us to the understanding that coolness is a form of individual courage. No wonder, then, that in Yoruba art, the quality of mystic coolness (itutu) is often represented by the color blue—suggesting that existential calmness, and therefore courage, is at the heart of the blues tradition. In the hip hop arena, the battle, the ritual exchange of freestyle barbs, requires mental poise, grace under verbal fire, and composure—literally. Here we witness the rapid-fire calculation of speed chess combined with the language virtuosity of a poetry recital.

The concept of the hip hop battle is the obvious extension of “the dozens,” snapping, riffing, breaking, jonin', dissin': the ritual insults of the black vernacular tradition. The folklorist Roger D. Abrahams pointed out that

the practice of mother-rhyming (the dozens) has been observed in var-
ious Afro-American communities as well as in a number of groups in
Africa, including the Yoruba, Efik, Dogon, and some Bantu tribes.

And inside this sphere of formalized disrespect, coolness is the ultimate virtue because he who loses his temper loses face, the contest of

-77-

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