I am a Poet. I am an African American Poet.
My son is a hip hop artist. He is eighteen years old.
Much of my meditation these days is on the course of my son's development. He just turned eighteen and produced what is arguably the best piece of hip-hop I've heard from him.
Peep the video above or you can check out the link here HOT yungshmoove
I imagine what he feels is similar to what I felt when I was a young poet in a house in Capital Heights, Md. (read rough neighborhood with gunshots and spotlights at night on the intersection between D.C. and Maryland-D.C. Maryland Line), before he was born. There the poem would sometimes come to me. Most times it was late at night. My older children and wife would be asleep. I would talk to a poet friend, and we would talk about language, the craft, beauty, rhythm, pace, density of it.
I would share cautiously. For the revelation at the core of art when it evolves could be greater than what resonates with the world.
The artist is alone in creation.
I would often stumble into the morning to share what I had received via the poem. It was then I understood the path.
I can sense that in him. I sensed that in him. He came home quickly and tightened up his schedule. He had to be at work at four and it was three thirty. His job just a few minutes from the house made it possible. Or maybe it stressed him out more.
He had been working on the piece. A draft, followed by edits. He had been working. He changed it up. A new beat from a dude he connected with on sound cloud.
I could understand.
The thing was done-spirit, flame, and get down; but the sharing would often have to wait.
So it is with him. I contemplate continuity.
It chills me and sometimes moves me to tears.
I sense the achievement to some strange range of black power.
I know that he is poet. I know he is not poet in the same way that I am.
I know that he does something different that is like what I do.
I know that he bleeds freedom. I know he works hard.
I find myself listening to his music the same way I have studied poems for years by many of the great poets I know and have been exposed to.
I mean you gotta have a job. You can't just be running round here talking about philosophy ideas, making up shit-even if that shit was made up. I mean you can just talk and it sound pretty and that be something empty. Though Hip-Hop just came in the late 70's that seems to be the way we would respond to it. Rapping. H. Rap Brown maybe-rap mixed with a dose of consciousness-or conscious rapper. The talk game.
And this blog is born in the limited hipness of the black pasted to the page, not really entertainment, not really news. Our utility can be questioned. And where utility is questioned-and especially for the black-it is best to keep folks attentive with entertainment.
The most serious folks command their attention-bear it down. They got awareness. They use their focus. Black intellectual workers need entertainment too. Shucks, they gotta focus on that thick soup of intellectual code folks manufacture and keep their jobs, swim and dive, stay relevant.
Recognize the ruse. Knowledge, especially cultural knowledge, is about authority and power. If knowledge is power, then some folks have harnessed the power like a horse. Like a mare.
No one changes nature. People harness nature, but never really control it. Understand the difference. Contemplate it, meditate upon it.
What is real is what is real and it gives it up. The it is what you seek and know and strive for. Some sense of union some sense of beautiful. It could be power. And though we don't say it often, there is beauty in power.
Visible power is only one form.
Some power is dark, deep, under radar.
To the powerless. We imagine we don't have the thing that shines.
Maybe we don't.
But we do have the power.
No one is powerless.
To suggest that hip-hop is poetry is obvious but strained with a series of challenges that reflect the way African American culture and literary culture work. The two have to be related; but the distance is hard to traverse. I am also a Professor who works at a University in the English Department. My son raps in English, but we don't study rap in my university. At some universities they do. A while back I heard Nas got an honorary degree from somewhere. There's TaNehisi Coates' Beautiful Struggle, which uses a hip-hop aesthetic as the glue for his memoir. Years ago, I half read Black Noise by Tricia Rose. There's plenty of scholarship out there, quite a few Professors doing work at universities, and a place that hip-hop is carving out in the academy.
Hip hop is obviously culture and currency. One of the things I have observed in my son is the mystical line between black literary work and hip-hop. High end literary writing demands reading, writing, and a knowledge of the English Canon. Hip-Hop at the least demands an immersion in African American culture, linguistic practice, a sense of black music, knowledge of the hip-hop tradition, and a sense of timing.
Black Academics don't really produce hip-hop artists. In another essay on Free Black Space, I talk about what it means for a child from a middle class family to engage in hip-hop. Indeed, one of the things I struggle with, with my son is the use of the profane, weed smoke, and some of the cultural tropes hip-hop brings to the table, that challenge some of my values and ideas. As an African-American poet it is even more complicated. In some ways the experience rattles my soul. For it becomes obvious that literature is the place where the standards of hip-hop the larger society might disagree with can easily be eliminated by the standards assigned to literature within the empire. One of the reasons, even the Academy respects hip-hop now, is its existence Whether we like or agree with it or not, African American culture has brought it into existence in the face of systems and ideas that would easily say it is subpar, folk art, or simply profane.
Slave culture has always been called profane, but what I am getting at here is our survival, resistance, and natural progression towards what sustains us. Control of the profane is an important part of control of the culture as a whole. Hip-Hop's defiance of the profane at the least stands side by side with the obvious nature of wars, and gun and drug culture that are part of the fabric of the country. We could also add, the ways in which some versions of gun culture, which cause many deaths in the country, are not profane; but part of the fabric of the country. Slavery itself has a certain profanity, as does the attempted genocide of Native Americans, the stealing of the land.
For many the discussion here seems to be inherently philosophical, while hip-hop will seem to be obviously not. In that regard, I thank my son for clarifying how absolutely profound hip-hop is as a developing artistry. Though I know quite a few hip-hop artists; as a father, I am given a different insight into its craft. Most challenging is the work he puts into his music. The hours of seeming isolation, the chanting to himself, the listening to himself and the distance are not unusual for the artist and are probably part of my reflection in the mirror. But he won't get an M.F.A. in hip-hop. He won't go to an artist colony. He won't win a Pultizer Prize.
Now I think about Macklemore winning a Grammy over Kendrick Lamar in the same age that Black folks are winning Pulitzer Prizes over a host of white authors. It is a strange inversion some might not even imagine as related. But Hip-Hop is black craft, and Kendrick is really dope. Really, really dope. There was something painful about that victory and prize going outside our community, especially in the rise of such a great artist who reflects a beautiful, new generation of the art.
The truth is that Hip-Hop has to produce commercial leverage with an audience in order to produce value as an art. To some degree that has changed, but in the realm of artistic endeavors the accomplishment must be given to nameless black folks who did something like Civil Rights in the world of artistic endeavors. Without the black audience that initially affirmed hip-hop, there would be no hip-hop. It is undeniable. The fact reveals how important art and culture are to people the artists come from.
So when I listen to my son now and think of all the skills he brings to the table, I have to see more of the training, discipline, art, and craft that hip-hop really comes out of. We imagine the training in this regard to be an extension of consumerism, because consumerism is the validity of hip-hop. Without the millions of hip-hop albums and ideas being consumed, there would be no hip-hop. Hip-hop is active in the culture, and not like the cultural arts marginalized by the empire in countries that become archeology, anthropology, and history lessons. It exists in the here and now, like black folks who survive from day to day by having a job. It is not the academy and brought into existence by the empire's sense of a need to preserve its cultural heritage.
All in all I wonder about my son's success in hip-hop and his trajectory. At times it is like the dream of a professional athlete. It is similar to the poet's quest for sustenance and relevance, but different because in the end; the poet must know how their craft relates to the empire. It is built into the job. The empire is still capable of blessing the poet for this reason if none other. But then again, the empire cannot do the same with hip-hop. The balance and potential is held by the black audience.
As for skills, the boy has got them; and it is a weird mixture of so many people he has heard, listened to, and studied with. There's the algorithm crew he hangs with that is the platform for his music. There's Brother Ah, Papa Aziz, Sylvia Soumah, Kwesi Brown, Baba Mehiri, Corcoran Holt, Antonio Parker( who blessed him the day he was born with his saxophone), the spirit of Fela (who he is named after, Franky Addison who has nurtured him.
Free Black Space