The famous Dr. Kenneth Warren believes that African-American literature is dead. In his essay, “Does African-American Literature Exist?”, Warren states that “African-American literature was a Jim Crow phenomenon, which is to say, speaking from the standpoint of a post-Jim Crow world, African-American literature is history.” Despite the fact that Dr. Warren is a very accomplished author, his statement is still just a matter of opinion. There are multiple outlets in which African-American literature still exists. One of these avenues is rap and hip-hop music. Below are 10 examples of how African-American literature still lives on through that specific genre of music.
“January 28th” by J. Cole: Rapper J.Cole talks about how today’s society does not value the average African American. In his second verse he raps, “What’s the price for a black man life? / I check the toe tag, not one zero in sight / I turn the TV on, not one hero in sight / Unless he dribble or he fiddle with mics.”
“What’s Free” by Meek Mill (ft. Rick Ross and Jay-Z): Meek Mill, Rick Ross and Jay-Z bring up the past by reflecting on the slavery of their ancestors. Jay-Z reminds people that he’s in a country that once devalued African-Americans despite being labeled as free. “In the land of the free, where the blacks enslaved / Three-fifths of a man, I believe’s the phrase.”
“DAMN” by Kendrick Lamar: In 2016, Kendrick Lamar’s fourth LP “DAMN” took home the Pulitzer Prize for music. The selection committee unanimously anointed Lamar the winner because they considered the album “a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life.”
Survey conducted by Rachel Sullivan: In a survey conducted by scholar Rachel Sullivan on hip-hop and rap, respondents registered in slight agreement that “rap is a truthful reflection of society.” The African-American literature Warren claimed to be dead discussed life at that time, just like hip-hop and rap does for this time period.
“Through the Wire” by Kanye West: On “Through the Wire,” Kanye alludes to his face looking like Emmett Till’s after his near death experience by saying, “And just imagine how my girl feel / On the plane scared as hell that her guy look like Emmett Till.” Despite the lack of meaning in his allusion to Till, it shows that Emmett Till’s legacy lives on in African-American literary traditions.
“They Reminisce Over You” by Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth: Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth sample the song, “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” by James Brown in their song, “They Reminisce Over You.” This allows Rock and Smooth to carry over the music from an older generation that also carried on the African-American literary tradition of speaking out against oppression through words.
“Salary Kaep” by Wale: This 2018 song titled after former NFL quarterback and activist Colin Kaepernick talks about African-American pride by saying, “Stop, black is never going out of style / . . . not a people person but I do be havin’ colored people pride.”
“ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$” by Joey Bada$$: Artist Joey Bada$$’s album, “ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$,” was created to help bring the struggles of people of color to light. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Bada$$ says that “My greatest power is my voice. . . it starts with me bringing (these topics) into the conversation and putting it in the music.”
“Best American” by Flatbush Zombies: The Flatbush Zombies rap group talk about the oppression faced in America all throughout this song. An example of this is seen in member Meechy Darko’s first verse (third in the song) in which he raps, “Say ‘God Bless America’ / To the red, white, blue noose on my neck, wylin’ for respect / Guess freedom ain’t free, huh?”
“Cave Bitch” by Ice Cube: “Soon as daddy found out you a j*****o / He’ll kill you like he did Emmett Till.” Ice Cube argues that African-American men in the 90s are living in a “facade” of interracial relationship, when less than 40 years ago, Emmett Till was being lynched for only looking at a white woman.
- Coscarelli, Joe. “Kendrick Lamar Wins Pulitzer in ‘Big Moment for Hip-Hop’.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 16 Apr. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/04/16/arts/music/kendrick-lamar-pulitzer-prize-damn.html
- Hyman, Dan. “Joey Bada$$ on Tackling Police Violence, Coming Into His Own on New LP.” Rolling Stone, 25 June 2018, www.rollingstone.com/music/music-features/joey-bada-talks-tackling-police-violence-coming-into-his-own-on-new-lp-126077/.
- “Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth’s ‘They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)’ – Discover the Sample Source.” WhoSampled, Pete Rock, 1 Jan. 1992, www.whosampled.com/sample/153700/Pete-Rock-%26-C.L.-Smooth-They-Reminisce-Over-You-(T.R.O.Y.)-James-Brown-Say-It-Loud,-I%27m-Black-and-I%27m-Proud/.
- Peterson, James Braxton. “The Revenge of Emmett Till: Impudent Aesthetics and the Swagger Narratives of Hip-Hop Culture.” African American Review, vol. 45, no. 4, 2012, pp. 617–631. JSTOR, UNH Library, doi:10.1353/afa.2012.0080.
- Sullivan, Rachel E. “Rap and Race: It’s Got a Nice Beat, but What about the Message?” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 33, no. 5, 1 May 2003, pp. 605–622. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/3180978?refreqid=search-gateway:1edfe62dcd73f3f0abfb3315eabd5e50.
- “Song Lyrics & Knowledge.” Genius, genius.com/.
- Warren, Kenneth W. “Does African-American Literature Exist?” The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 25 Feb. 2011, www.chronicle.com/article/Does-African-American/126483/.