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Thursday, July 12, 2018

July 12, 2018: Representing Race: Rap Representations

[On July 11th, 1960 Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird was first published. One of the most taught books in American classrooms, Mockingbird offers (among other things) a flawed but vital representation of race in American society and history. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of such complex racial representations, leading up to a weekend post on mystery fiction and race!]
On the distinct but complementary visions of race and America in three rap songs.
1)      Fight the Power” (1989): I’ve written elsewhere about Public Enemy’s ground-breaking and wonderful “Don’t Believe the Hype” (1988), but in many ways “Fight the Power” (originally released on the Do the Right Thing soundtrack and subsequently included on the group’s 1990 Fear of a Black Planet album) is Public Enemy’s most influential single track. That’s partly thanks to the particularly striking music video, and its use of both Civil Rights footage and representations of contemporary racial and social protest. But the song itself is plenty incendiary and important, as illustrated by the opening lines of its final verse: “Elvis was a hero to most/But he never meant shit to me you see/Straight up racist that sucker was/Simple and plain/Motherfuck him and John Wayne/Cause I’m black and I’m proud/I’m ready and hyped plus I’m amped/Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps.”
2)      Who We Be” (2001): The music video for DMX’s impassioned anthem uses a good deal of Civil Rights and protest footage as well, but despite that similarity I would argue that his song differs from Public Enemy’s track in a number of significant ways. For one thing, DMX’s verses focus at least as much on representing the darkest sides of African American life (in the early 21st century as well as throughout American history) as on an activist attempt to change the relationship between African Americans and their society (although his repeated titular phrase, “They don’t know/Who we be,” does reflect such an activist purpose for the song). And for another, there’s an emotional rawness and intimate personal honesty in DMX’s song (appropriately so, since it was part of an album entitled The Great Depression) that culminates in the stunning final lines: “Somebody stop me/Somebody come and get what me/Little did I know that the Lord was ridin’ with me/The dark, the light, my heart, the fight/The wrong, the right, it’s gone, aight.”
3)      A Tale of Two Citiez” (2014): J. Cole’s track, part of his magisterial 2014 Forest Hills Drive album, certainly features a powerful such emotional rawness and honesty as well, especially in the desperate and spiritual final verse, performed partly by a child singer and partly by Cole himself. But that’s only one of many stages and sides to this complex song, which in a number of interconnected ways contrasts Cole’s hometown of and impoverished upbringing in Fayetteville, North Carolina with the glittering dreams and shady realities of Los Angeles/Hollywood. Moreover, it does so within a dark and raw chronology: in the first verse the speaker is possibly the victim of a drive-by robbery and shooting, whereas in the second verse he and his friends are the ones perpetrating that crime. On its own terms, and even more when placed in conversation with songs like Public Enemy’s and DMX’s, “Tale” reminds us both of the vital role that rap can play in representing identity and community (African American and otherwise), and of the impossibility of reducing any part of those themes to one simplistic image or another.
Last representation tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other representations of race you’d highlight?

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