Academic journal article The Journal of African American History

In Search of the "Revolutionary Generation": (En)gendering the Golden Age of Rap Nationalism

Academic journal article The Journal of African American History

In Search of the "Revolutionary Generation": (En)gendering the Golden Age of Rap Nationalism

Article excerpt

In the 1988 Public Enemy release "Party for Your Right to Fight" rap nationalist and lead lyricist Chuck D ushered in a new moment in Hip Hop history when he defiantly stated: "Power, equality and we're out to get it, I know some of you ain't with it. This party started right in '66, with a pro-black radical mix ..." (1) As a trailblazer of the consciousness movement within rap music, Chuck D claimed his legacy as the political progeny of the Black Panther Party. The Black Panthers, remembered by the Hip Hop generation as righteous revolutionaries, are deified and belong to an elite class of politicized "prophets of rage." They are black nationalists whose standard for black manhood is preserved and emulated. In fact, Chuck D told a Toronto Sun reporter in May 1998 that when he and his friends from Adelphi University entered the "rap game," they did so in a deliberate manner. "We wanted to be known as the Black Panthers of Rap, we wanted our music to be dissonant." (2) With songs like "Party for Your Right to Fight," "Fight the Power," and "Power to the People," these pioneers of rap nationalism purposefully invoked the rhetorical and political styling of the Black Panther Party and the Black Power Movement of the late 1960s, complete with its envisioning of black nationalism as a politics of masculine protest. Like their idols, Chuck D and his crew believed that they were the representatives of a "revolutionary generation," a group of endangered young black males considered by the state to be "Public Enemy #1." And as Public Enemy, Chuck D argued that it was black men's responsibility to "get mad, revolt, revise, realize" for black liberation; (3) for, as he stated on their 1990 album Fear of a Black Planet, "it takes a man to take a stand." (4)

So began the "Golden Age of Rap Nationalism," a period in rap music history bracketed by the release of two Hip Hop classics: Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back in 1988, which staged the debut of the "Prophets of Rage" and Ice Cube's Lethal Injection in 1993, which signified an end to the profits of rage. Although the use of rap music as a form of cultural expression was not a revolutionary idea (young blacks and Latinos had begun to rediscover poetry in musical motion over ten years prior to the introduction of rap nationalism), the use of rap music as a site for political expression was radical--both because of and despite its lyrical content. This was especially true prior to the mass commodification of rap music (instigated by the popularity of "gangsta rap" music), when artists like Public Enemy, KRS-One and Boogie Down Productions, X-Clan, Poor Righteous Teachers, Ice Cube, and Paris appropriated black nationalist rhetoric to critique the historical development of racial hierarchies and their legacy in contemporary social, political, and economic institutions. (5) The political positions assumed by black neo-nationalist rap group X-Clan is a case in point. On their 1992 release Xodus, lead lyricist Brother J not only rejected bourgeois humanism, but also exposed the hypocrisy of American democracy and refuted white claims to moral superiority:

    Revolution, evolution the solution; No amendments so burn the
    Constitution. You check the authors a bunch of old Whiggers, who
    strategized extinction of the pro-black niggas. Know why? 'Cause I'm
    that nigga that they can't stand. Teach the African how to say
    'Black Man.' And I'm that nigga they can plainly see, with the
    nationalist colors of the red, black, green.

According to Brother J's lyrical thesis, black nationalism is the culmination of a collectivist ethic that is both the legacy of a cultural tradition defined by Africans and a byproduct of the oppressive conditions that defined African America. It is the latter determinant that fuels his black nationalist "politicking." Racial terrorism is at the center of X-Clan's historical memory and at the core of their contemporary social commentary. …

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