Speech Is My Hammer, It's Time to Build: Hip Hop, Cultural Semiosis and the Africana Intellectual Heritage

By Livingston, Samuel T. | The Journal of Hip Hop Studies, Spring 2014 | Go to article overview

Speech Is My Hammer, It's Time to Build: Hip Hop, Cultural Semiosis and the Africana Intellectual Heritage


Livingston, Samuel T., The Journal of Hip Hop Studies


Tracing a Du Boisean cultural-racial line, Tricia Rose posits in Black Noise: Rap music and Black Culture in Contemporary America that it is the "dynamic and often contentious relationship between... larger social and political forces and (B)lack cultural priorities- that centrally shape and define hip hop."1 This paper explores the "African" side of Du Bois and Rose's dialectic and challenges Western approaches to the study of Hip Hop (HH) signification and semeiotics by offering a cultural history that synthesizes Africana cultural texts as crucial components lacking in HH cultural studies. I share Harry Allen's desire to know HH's origins; a query he articulates in his essay, "Dreams of a Final Theory," which examines the dawn of the HH cultural universe when its core elements "were united in one never-to-reappear 'superforce.'"2 The present article pursues the cultural and historical dialectic that programmed HH's impulse toward originality and systems of sign-making. This is a challenge to the Western cultural studies canon, yet I do not seek to dismiss any voices. Instead, I argue for bringing pre-colonial African cultural voices to the table of discussion to enrich the dialog.

The paper synthesizes pre-colonial Africana cultural texts and artistic traditions, which should inform Hip Hop cultural studies, as the artistic culture exhumes, reinvents, and presents its own provocative challenge to semeiotic tradition by claiming that it is among the newest and oldest of signifying art forms. In some regards the present work follows the sociologist Mark Gottdiener as he argues for a historical approach to the study of mass culture:

Finally, the study of mass culture as signification involves the identification of those codes that, in structuring the behavior of producers and consumers, thereby explain the meaningful relation of human subjects to objects and, in turn, to each other. Basically, therefore, the semeiotic approach often involves a historical sociological study of codes that have been discovered and identified by the analyst.3

Taking up Gottdiener's challenge to uncover mass culture's codes of communication, calls for a framework and context for the study of HH iconography, lyricism, and musical artistry as a part of a suppressed artistic culture of meaning making that resists dismissals of HH cultural agency.

Raising the question of cultural semiosis addresses what are the African sources of HH's oral and aural hieroglyphic traditions that often serve as hidden allegories within hidden transcripts. My objectives in this study are: 1) demonstrating African origins of cultural semiosis, 2) connecting texts, cultural power and the sociology of African oral artists, 3) relating Afro-Kemetic orality to Afro-diasporic culture, 4) suggesting an African-centered interdisciplinary model of HH cultural semiosis.

Africa matters: Hip Hop studies and the missing classical African cultural matrix

What Cheryl Keyes calls "Rap music and its African Nexus" evident in the cultural heritage indicated by Nation-conscious rappers is of particular interest for several reasons. First, it signifies the experiences of African Diasporic cultures that converged in the 1970s Bronx to create HH culture. Second, it indicates resistance by people of color, generally, and African-descended people in particular to Western cultural othering. Third, it draws attention to two significant HH cultural institutions, the Universal Zulu Nation founded by Afrika Bambaattaa and the Five Percent Nation. Both institutions base their core beliefs around African-centered themes. Fourth, significant though latent aesthetic practices inspired by the African Nexus suggest the appropriateness of an Africana Studies, if not African-centered cultural philosophy and methodology. That an African-centered semeiotic context pertains to HH culture is consistent with scholarship that argues that Black culture and language are extensions of African agency,4 especially Hurston's instinct and research as she suggested the agency of African cultural continuity in establishing African American oral culture. …

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