THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN AFRICAN AMERICAN IDENTITY AND RAP SONGS

A STUDY OF SELECTED RAP SONGS OF GRANDMASTER FLASH AND THE FURIOUS FIVE

ABSTRACT

Rap music as one of the elements of hip hop culture originated in New York’s South Bronx neighbourhood in the late 1970s. Its lyrics provide a powerful lens through which to view the many dimensions of the African American predicament. As a form, Rap music is for African Americans the means to pen down their history and social circumstances and forge their identities out of the white oriented and white dominated American society and culture. The dominant discourses have relegated African Americans to the margin and excluded them from the power, profits and privileges that Whites overtime have enjoyed in American society. By devaluing the blacks in every possible manner, Whites were able to hold in place the racial hierarchy of the American society. Thus, this dissertation explores rap songs as the medium through which African Americans reflect their predicaments and not only challenge dominant discourses but project their ethnic identities as well. The study deploys postcolonial theory in analysing the selected rap songs based on the relations between Whites and Blacks on American soil and how the songs are used in expressing identity related issues such as racism, marginalization, politics, legal and economic disparities. The study finds out that African American ethnic identity emerged from an identification that is rooted in perceived commonality of oppression, suppression and marginalization.

TABLE OF CONTENTS
Title Page ——————————————— i
Declaration —————————————- ii
Certification ——————————————- iii
Acknowledgement————————————- iv
Dedication—————————————- v
Abstract ——————————————- vi
Table of Content—————————- vii
CHAPTER ONE: GENERAL INTRODUCTION
1.0 Introduction———————————- 1
1.1 Generational History of African Americans——————– 3
1.2 African American Music———————————– 7
1.3 Examples of African American Musical Style—————————- 12
1.4 History and Development of Rap Music———————— 15
1.5 Rap as Poetry——————————————— 19
1.6 Statement of the Research Problem——————————– 20
1.7 Aim and Objectives of the Study—————————– 21
1.8 Justification of the Study———————— 21
1.9 Scope and Delimitation————————— 22
1.10 Methodology———————————– 22
1.11 Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five—————— 23
1.12 Definition of Concepts————————— 24
CHAPTER TWO: THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK AND LITERATURE REVIEW
2.0 Theoretical framework ——————————– 26
2.1 Postcolonial Theory as Theoretical Framework———————- 26
2.2 Tenets of Postcolonial Theory—————- 30

2.2.1 Centre or Margin——————— 30

2.2.2 Dislocation————————– 31

2.2.3 Cultural Differences———————– 32

2.2.4 Hybridity——————– 32

2.2.5 Language———————————– 33

2.3 The Colonial Status and Experience of African Americans—————— 34

2.4 Literature Review———————— 40

2.4.1 Rap Music- ——————————– 47

CHAPTER THREE: RAP AS AN EXPRESSION OF AFRICAN AMERICAN ETHNIC IDENTITY IN “THE MESSAGE”, “BEAT STREET”, “WHITE LINES”, “WHAT IF” AND “I AM SOMEBODY”.

3.0 Introduction ———————————————— 53

3.1 The African American Predicament in ―THE MESSAGE —————– 53

3.2 The Consequences of War in ―BEAT STREET ———————– 60

3.3 Legal and Economic Disparities in ― WHITE LINES —————— 63

3.4 Cultural Dialectic in ―What If —————————– 66

3.5 Identity Assertion in ―I AM SOMEBODY —————— 69

3.6 CONCLUSION- —————————-75

CHAPTER FOUR: AESTHETIC AND STYLISTIC FEATURES IN “NEW YORK

NEW YORK”, “SURVIVAL MESSAGE II” AND “ITS NASTY”.

4.0 Introduction—- ——————— 76

4.1 Call and Response Technique in ―New York New York ————- 77

4.2 Improvisation and Innovation in ―Survival Message II ——- 81

4.3 Braggadocio and Toast in ―It‘s Nasty — 86

4.4 Conclusion—————– 89

CHAPTER FIVE: CONCLUSION

5.1 Conclusion————————- 91

References———————- 94

Appendix—————— 101

CHAPTER ONE

GENERAL INTRODUCTION

1.0 INTRODUCTION

African Americans are citizens of the United States of America whose forefathers were forcefully removed from Africa during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Such Africans were forced into slavery and were stripped of their cultural affinities. Consequently, this forceful removal had an effect on the Africans who found themselves in an alien world and had to learn new ways in order to survive. In the process, Africans were caught up between two cultures; an African one on one hand and an American one on the other. It is important to note that American culture is not universal, as Africans taken into slavery found it different from the culture they were used to. The slaves had to adapt to an alien culture. Thus, it is this dual identity that gave rise to the term African American, a term that deliberately recognizes the African and American cultures that have moulded the African American personality.

One important area in which researchers interested in African American culture focus on is ―identity‖. The concept of identity has always been linked to the history of African Americans and their presence in what has now become the United States of America. For a long time, the image or view blacks had of themselves was largely defined by the way Whites in America described them in their writings, films and other forms of representation. In the past, in the course of domicile in the United States, African Americans have been called by such names as – Negros, Blacks, Coloured, but in the last thirty years, the term African American and Black American has been used. The mechanisms the Whites put in place to subjugate the blacks go a long way in making them think and feel inferior (Wikipedia). Slavery affected every aspect of their lives. The nearly 300 years of slavery have distorted and caused great pain such that African Americans have had to create a new culture and identity out of their experiences in the new world. This is because the white masters did not acknowledge the right of African American to an independent ethnic or cultural identity. As historian T, Vaughan (1995) has noted that the Europeans rarely identified African arrivals in the colonies with terms denoting either nation or ethnicity (Quoted in Hornsby, 2005). For instance, Africans were referred to as Negroes, a term referring to their skin colour.

Before the beginning of slavery, Africans lived in a society that was predicated upon a religious system and cultural practices (Hamlet, 2011). As such the people‘s beliefs, values, norms, history, were transmitted by griots and other members of the society who were the custodian of African culture from one generation to another. The transportation of blacks from Africa to the Americas for slavery stripped them of their culture, identity, family and possessions. Language was the first cultural trait the slave traders and holders tried to suppress. On the slave ship, members of the same community were deliberately separated from each other to prevent communication (ibid). This notwithstanding and given that the blacks came from different backgrounds, the similarities in the basic structure of their culture allowed them to be able to form a different form of communication that was partly African and American (Gay and Barber: 1989). Oral tradition was a major cultural vestige that blacks took to the new world. In African American culture, oral tradition has served as a fundamental vehicle for cultural expression and survival. This oral tradition also preserved the cultural heritage and reflected the collective spirit of the race. African American oral tradition can be traced to Africa.African American cultural expressions have been some of the ways of resisting racial oppression and also a way of expressing African American identity. Although the institution of slavery was out-lawed in 1865 in United States, African practices continued to evolve in to newer modes of expression that provided a foundation for African American cultural or ethnic identity. These include folktales, ritualised games such as the dozens, songs, spirituals, vernacular expression e.t.c. From the foregoing, rap can also be classified as a part of the African American cultural expressions as it is said to have developed from previous art forms such as the dozens and vernacular expression.

Overall, the goal of this study is to analyze the lyrics of the selected rap songs of Grandmaster Flash and Furious Five. The analysis of rap as an art form is to demonstrate how the form serves as a vehicle for promoting the identity of the African Americans as well as artistically articulating their diverse social and political experiences. Rap acts as a mechanism for retaining and disseminating African American cultural heritage. It is an avenue of speaking out about their predicament in America. The study also looks at the aesthetic features found in the lyrics of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five (such as repetition, call and response, language) and deploys postcolonial theory as its theoretical frame work.

1.1 GENERATIONAL HISTORY OF AFRICAN AMERICANS

The history of African Americans can be traced to the time of the middle passage when blacks were forcibly uprooted from Africa and were transported to a new and alien world. Blacks who were taken as slaves were stripped of their culture and language. This was important for the slave owners so that the blacks will forget who they were and accept a culture alien to them. For the enslaved blacks the new world and way of life created a new identity for them which was a result of the various mechanism put in place by their owners such as, religion, science and philosophy and also through the improvisation and adaptation that the enslaved came up with.

Therefore, stripped of their cultural vestiges, blacks brought with them a strong memory of rich cultural values; one of such is the importance of family. It is important to note that slave owners did their best in separating members of black families as children born by a slave were usually sold by his/her slave master/mistress to another master. But with all the measures put in place to separate slaves, they were still able to survive and form family ties amongst themselves. Family can be seen in the African sense as a large number of blood relatives who can trace their descent from a common ancestor and the family was held together by a sense of obligation, as such, each member of the family is brought up to think of himself in relationship to the group as a cohesive unit. It is this family ties that Africans or blacks brought with them to America. Gutman (1976) observes that ―African family resilience was transmitted to the Americas, and, thus, assisted in Africans‘ survival both during and after slavery (quoted in Hornsby et.al. 2005).

From the above, it is obvious that the African Americans did not forget their roots. They found strength in the memory of what their life used to be before being captured as slaves. The African slaves created a culture different from that of their masters, a culture they could call their own. Thus Gutman‘s argument can be compared to Howard Zinn‘s observation in A People‘s History of United States (1999). Zinn observed that ―in a society of complex controls, both crude and refined, secret thoughts can often be found in the arts, and so it was in black society‖. In this respect, one can surmise that the African American experience in America created a fertile ground for the development of cultural forms ranging from work songs, negro spiritual, slave narratives, poetry, jazz, blues, to mention but a few.

The Southern states in America were rich in fertile soil and this part of the country depended largely on slave labour to maintain its farms. Some Americans in the Northern states thought slavery should not be allowed in a free country. In this respect, the American Anti-Slavery movement was formed in 1833 in Philadelphia and had several branches established throughout the free states. The goal of this organisation was to abolish slavery. This did not go down well with the whites in the South and they attempted to prove and justify slavery, using scientific and biblical arguments to the effect that blacks were inferior to whites and were destined to be slaves (Race Timeline, 2003).

In 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected as the president of the United States. The southerners did not like the ideas of Lincoln because they feared he might free the slaves, which he did eventually (O‘Callaghan:1990). The following years after Lincoln‘s election as the president resulted into a civil war between the Southern states and the North. The Northern states won the war and American slaves were consequently set free.

As a result of the emancipation proclamation and the thirteenth amendment southern states in reaction passed laws known as Black Codes which stipulated the inferiority of the blacks. Such codes stipulate that blacks would remain without property, education and legal protection. Blacks were denied the rights to vote and could not give evidence against the whites or act as jury members. Thus, this caused the United States Congress in 1866 to pass a Civil Rights Act providing full rights for all people born in the United States (Davis: 2008). The legislation was not effective as the southern states rejected this legislation, and this made the North in 1867 to pass the Reconstruction Act. The South was placed under military rule. This action taken by the North only increased the hatred the Southern whites had against the blacks. Whites in the Southern states created an organization called the Ku Klux Klan. This organization devised ways of threatening, murdering and lynching of blacks (ibid). Another means they used in suppressing blacks was the Jim Crow laws. The laws preached separatism. There were consequently separate hospitals, schools, public transport, restaurants, and theatres for blacks and whites (ibid). The fate of blacks was sealed. Although they were freed and enslavement was abolished by law, to be black still meant being a second-class citizen and one who was limited in terms of basic human rights. Nor did the 15th Amendment passed on the 30th of March 1870, which forbade restricting of the right to vote due to race, colour or condition of former servitude able to improve the situation of blacks (ibid.).

The World War I and World War II created an avenue for the blacks to migrate from the South to the North. They moved to Northern states like Chicago, Michigan and New York City. This was because such places provided for African Americans a better access to education, economic opportunities and cultural institutions which they could not get in the rural areas of the South where blacks remained more isolated and uneducated. The movement of the blacks to the North allowed them to form a strong community with ingredients for the development of black culture (Stevens: 1991).

The Civil Rights Movement came to prominence during the mid-1950s in the United States and had its roots in the centuries-long efforts not only to abolish slavery but address the aberration of racism. It was a response to racial discrimination and was used to agitate for full civil liberties for blacks. In 1954 the Supreme Court decided that segregation in schools was against the constitution. In 1955 a black woman Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama because she refused to let a white passenger take her seat. This led the blacks to boycott the buses and the boycott was led by Martin Luther King who became the leader of the Civil Rights Movement. In 1964 the American Congress passed the Civil Rights Act which banned discriminations in schools, public places, jobs and in many other fields (Markova: 2008).

The Black Power movement and Black Arts Movement are movements that manifested during the Civil Rights Movement particularly in the 1960s. Black Power and Black Arts Movement were both related to the African American‘s desire to attain recognition as a full citizen of the U.S. Both concepts are nationalistic; Black Power Movement is concerned with politics and it also witnessed a period of cultural and artistic revival.

The Black Power Movement had been around since the 1950s, but it was Stokely Carmichael that popularised the term in 1966 (Coombs, 2004). He was the head of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The Black Power Movement instilled a sense of racial pride and self esteem in blacks. The movement encouraged African Americans to join or form political parties that could offer a foundation for real socio economic progress. The movement aspired for blacks to define the world in their own view.

The Black Arts Movement was an association of African American visual artists, writers, poets, playwrights and musicians. The movement took a definite shape around 1965 and lasted to the late 1970s. Blacks involved in this movement were united by a desire to cultivate a vital black aesthetic different from the standards of whites that reflected and addressed the particular experiences and sensibilities of African Americans. The movement set out to re-affirm the intrinsic beauty of blackness, an explicit challenge to centuries of racism (Neal: 1968). African Americans who contributed to this movement include; Gwendolyn Brooks, Nikki Giovanni, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) to mention but a few.

Today, issues of discrimination remain, though African Americans have made and are still making a significant contribution to every part of American society, be it business, science, politics, art and entertainment.

1.2 AFRICAN AMERICAN MUSIC

African American art forms such as poetry, narrative, music and songs are related to the society from which they emerged from. Scientific and biblical arguments which were used as weapons to justify slavery served ironically as the foundation for African American arts. Africans who were taken as slaves had to readjust in a world alien to them. Throughout history, people of African origin in the United States otherwise known as African Americans have developed several music genres, beginning with Negro Spirituals, Blues and Jazz music, to the most recent genre of Rap music. It is important to note that rap is one of the five elements of hip hop culture. Thus music is a vital component of the African American culture.

Music has always been a defining aspect of African American culture; ever since the passage of the slaves from both West and Central Africa to the New World. Through their music and songs, the first African Americans were able to keep a sense of their African identity. Music gave a sense of power, of control. If it did not improve the material being of its creators, it certainly did have an impact upon their psychic state and emotional health. It allowed them to assert themselves and their feelings and their values, to communicate continuously with themselves and their peers. They could partly drop their masks and the pretence and say what they felt, articulate what was brimming up within them and what they desperately needed to express (Daniel and Smitherman: 1976). Music along with other forms of the oral tradition allowed African Americans to express themselves, to derive pleasure and also to pass on these forms for posterity. In view of this, Franklin and Moss (1994:25-26) posit:

African Slaves came from a complex social and economic life, and were not overwhelmed or overawed by their New World experiences. Despite the heterogeneity characteristic of many aspects of African life, African people still had sufficient common experiences to enable them to cooperate in the New World in fashioning new customs and traditions which reflected their background.

Franklin and Moss both surmised that as Africans of different experiences were forced to live together, there was an interaction of various African cultures which resulted to a new culture of their own. The African American culture must be seen as the product of the African American experiences in America. Although the content of the African American culture grew out of the American scene, its style did have African roots. It is these African roots that the slave brought with him–a highly developed sense of rhythm which was passed from generation to generation, and an understanding of art which conceived of it as an integral part of the whole of life rather than as a beautiful object set apart from mundane experience. Song and dance, for example, were involved in the African’s daily experience of work, play, love, and worship. In sculpture, painting and pottery, the African used his art to decorate the objects of his daily life rather than to make art objects for their own sake (Coombs, 2004). Out of the African American experiences and memory from their past lives grew a new culture which was passed down to subsequent generations of African Americans. This buttresses Coombs‘ point when he further affirms that the Africans brought their feelings for art with them, the content of their art was actually changed as a result of their American slave experience. As such, the African American cultural spirit became emotional, exuberant, and sentimental (ibid). This is to say the African American characteristics which have been generally thought of as being African and primitive–his naivety, his exuberance and his spontaneity–are, in reality, his response to his American experience and not a part of his African heritage. They are to be understood as the African’s emotional reaction to his American ordeal of slavery. Out of this environment along with its suffering and deprivation, has evolved an African American culture (ibid).

The misrepresentation and marginalization of blacks in America created an avenue for African American culture to develop which is distinct from the culture of their oppressors. As such, African Americans attempted to reassert their identity instead of being represented by others by taking materials from African American culture and experiences in America. African American consciousness or nationalism became noticeable towards the end of the 19th century. A number of African Americans left the South to escape oppression and this led to the Great Migration. They moved to Northern cities like Chicago, Michigan, Philadelphia and New York to form strong black communities. The Great Migration expanded black communities which created a fertile environment for black culture to grow. The migration fostered African American nationalism which contributed to the emergence of a new type of African American who was becoming increasingly conscious of his value as a black person. For instance, Harlem, a neighbourhood in New York, turned into the largest metropolis of the black world. It is therefore no coincidence that Harlem with its newly found self-confidence and African orientated racial feeling stimulated rich literary activities (Berghahn, 1977).

The Northern black middle class in the early part of the 20th century began to set up a number of political movements that advocated for racial equality, inspired racial pride and confronted the prejudices or stereotypes that blacks were ignorant, servile and not intelligent. One of such political movement is the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Alain Locke a leading black intellectual edited a volume of critical essays and literature entitled The New Negro (1925). Like Marcus Garvey, Locke preached the political and cultural rebirth of the black race. It was manifested by a creative outburst of art, music and literature as well as by a new mood of self-confidence and self-consciousness within that community. The centre of this explosion was located in Harlem and the period became known as the Harlem Renaissance (Coombs,2004). According to Locke the most important task for the African Americans was to rehabilitate the black man throughout the world, and to demolish the prejudices which had been carried over from slavery (qtd in Berghahn, 1977).

The 1960s and 1970s saw the emergence of an artistic and cultural movement among African Americans in America. At this time African Americans were fascinated with the African continent. They studied African art, language, culture and history. Thus Africa, not America was regarded as the real home of the African Americans (Berghahn, 1977). African Americans became more aware of their position within American society and tried to give it a constructive meaning. As such black intellectuals feel that African Americans have a justified claim to demand equality with whites in America. It is important to note that the intellectuals of this period did not abandon the militant spirit which was reminiscent of the new Negro of the 1920s although some of the intellectuals‘ beliefs or ideas appear to be more cynical and disillusioned. This is because intellectuals of the 1920s like Garvey advocated for a return to Africa. The intellectuals of the 1960s and 1970s though fascinated with Africa realised that they are of Africa but do not feel at home there because they have been disconnected or forcefully uprooted. At the same time African Americans remained as outsiders and rootless in the American society. Their bitterness, undoubtedly, springs partly from the dashed hopes of blacks in an anti-black America.

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