Academic journal article Journal of Ethnic American Literature

"I Own My Own Masters": Rap Music and Slavery References

Academic journal article Journal of Ethnic American Literature

"I Own My Own Masters": Rap Music and Slavery References

Article excerpt

Despite many problematic shortcomings-including misogyny, materialism, and violence-rap music contains a fair amount of educational and inspiring qualities. And listeners do not even have to travel to the revered "underground" to encounter moments of enlightenment. Instead, empowering elements of hip hop sometimes appear hidden in plain sight. At one point in the remix to "We Made It," for instance, Jay Z boasts that "I own my own masters," a reference on the one hand to his ownership of the first recording rights of his music (also known as "masters") and at the same time a defiant statement about a descendant of slaves now owning the descendants of his owners. The "We Made It" remix, which also includes verses by Jay Electronica, contains several references to "our struggle" and "slavery" and in the process the song contributes to a rich yet under-examined body of references in rap music.

Allusions to enslavement, liberation, and ex-slaves such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Nat Turner permeate rap music. These allusions, or what we simply refer to as "slavery references,"1 emerged and persisted over the decades among several different rap artists interested in displaying their sense of political and cultural awareness, also known as black consciousness. As a result, slavery references constitute a vital component of rap. Ever interested in showcasing creativity, rap artists also participate in a wide array of wordplay. Thus, the subject of slavery operates as a historical point of reference and also as an enduring and productive artistic muse.

Scholars of African American literature have long devoted attention to considerations of enslavement and struggles for liberation in conventional literary texts such as novels, autobiographies, and volumes of poetry. Yet, little attention has been paid to the extents to which participants in a contemporary musical art form continuously engaged oppression and freedom. Recognition of slavery references in rap music makes it possible to understand how African American artists, especially black men, creatively employ historical matters. Furthermore, examinations of rappers utilizing slavery references highlight the convergence of black consciousness and wordplay.

Our essay first covers the ways that rappers display a sense of racial, political, and historical awareness by alluding to slavery. Next, we concentrate on the resonance of wordplay in discussions of slavery in rap. Our research uncovered more than 30 songs by rappers produced between 1987 and 2015.2 Our compilation of slavery references in rap music is hardly exhaustive. Yet, our identification of so many allusions to enslavement, liberation, and fugitive slaves in rap signals the pervasive nature of slavery references.

Slavery References and Black Consciousness

In rap music, there is an extended record of interest in making sense of the conditions and challenges confronting African Americans. Aspects of that interest in understanding and passing along ideas about a distinct sense of racial awareness are frequently conveyed by rappers. Public Enemy, Rakim, KRS-One, Tupac Shakur, Lauryn Hill, Mos Def, Common, Jay Electronica, Big K.R.I.T., and many others have all expressed interest in comprehending black history and politics, the illeffects of white supremacy, the value of black pride, the significance of struggle, and other concepts associated with what is broadly known as black consciousness. In the most basic terms, Ta-Nehisi Coates has explained, being conscious refers to "the state of mind in which you are politically aware and concerned with race in this country" (Garner). An understanding of slavery has always been integral to the histories of being conscious. Accordingly, rappers interested in black consciousness were inclined to reference enslavement, struggles for liberation, and notable ex-slaves in their music.

Early rappers like KRS-One, Chuck D of Public Enemy, and Big Daddy Kane have drawn on slavery in their lyrics to highlight consciousness. …

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