A Blues Ecology Gospel of Black American History?–Chapter 7: A Hip Hop Hybridity Autumn?

The hip-hop social movement emerged in response to an external situation so problematic (literally building highways through struggling communities of color in the South Bronx) that many urban neighborhoods literally began to resemble war zones (Bowser 2012: Kindle locations 338-84). In 1973, the late Gil Scott-Heron, who might be thought of as the progenitor of hip hop, described this time as “Winter in America.” I’ve embedded a YouTube link to a recording of Scott-Heron performing this piece in 2010. In terms of a musical narrative of Blackamerican religious religious experience, his voice seems powerfully prophetic.

Embedded from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dza75447VDc

Youth gangs in such profoundly traumatized neighborhoods actually formed to provide desperately needed protection and order. Their communities had been devastated by everything from loss of employment opportunities and school funding to disastrous public works projects and drug addiction, before they were also deserted by police, fire, and other city services. Hip hop as a social institution essentially took on the role of the invisible institution from antebellum times that brought diverse people together to bring the rain for a new river of community. Benjamin Bowser wrote that:

Hip hop remained open and flexible for another local reason. Apart from its poverty, the South Bronx was characterized by extraordinary ethnic diversity compared to most U.S. ghettos. Neighbors could be from Nigeria, India, China, Vietnam, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Haiti, Jamaica, and 20 other islands in the Caribbean, each with distinct histories and cultures. 

(Bowser 2012: 338-84)

The label “hip hip hybridity” in the clouds of the figure above comes from the closing chapter of a 2004 monograph by Guthrie P. Ramsey. Ramsey introduces the term and suggests that the hybridity that hip-hop brings to Blackamerican sacred music is removing the need for Du Boisian double consciousness as a “master trope” (Ramsey 2004: 192-213). Ramsey wrote,

Policing the boundaries of black religious expression in the West is an activity that reaches back centuries. The historical record documents negative reactions to black religious practices from a range of detractors that includes both black and white critics. A self-conscious hybridity has marked the development of African American religious practices since their appearance in the New World. Scholars trace many of these tendencies back to the ring shout of slave culture. Accounts describing the ring shout abound in the literature of missionaries, travelers, and abolitionists, among others. A typical report describes religious services that combine elements of dance, storytelling, singing, and shouting from the African heritage within the context of a Christian worship service spoken in English. From the beginning, the syncretism that characterized the ring shout was condemned as heathenish, barbaric, and profane in much the same spirit as miscegenation was.

Most scholarly explanations of the ring shout highlight the collision of European and African practices embedded in the ritual. But another mixture is just as important. Practices like the ring shout together with other expressive practices of early African American culture resulted from the blending of many ethnic groups among the enslaved Africans. Moreover, the continual flow of blacks from the Caribbean to North America during the years of the slave trade brought another dimension of cultural negotiation to the process of African American culture. Hybridity, in other words, has always been a part of the background and pedigree of African American culture.

Hybridity has clearly shaped the religious realm. Thomas Dorsey’s mix of blues and gospel in the 1920s and 1930s; Rosetta Tharpe’s blend of jazz and gospel during the 1940s; Edwin Hawkins’s and Andre Crouch’s pop-gospel of the late 1960s; and the Winanses’ smooth-soul gospel of the 1980s were all seen as hybrid—and quite controversial—expressions in their day. Few social or musical boundaries have been considered too contentious to cross in black religious music’s quest for expressive resources. This tendency for hybridity links gospel to the larger world of black diasporic religious practices to which it belongs. This system… existed as permeable and additive with respect to its relationship to other cultures.

(Ramsey 2004: 190-1)

The MC-ing of hip hop, which became the rap “music” of modern Western culture started out simply as a way of bringing people together to create community. The words of the MC were initially just spoken words to encourage and inspire the dancing people. This improvisational poetry focused specifically on addressing the immediate and present community is what I describe–noting “God Hop” as a religious example–in the rain position of the figure above.

God Hop, a term that Five Percenter and Nation of Islam artists have used for their music (Miyakwa 2005: 21), directly confronts the globally commodifying social structure. It and other “conscious” rap music inspired by it provided what I have characterized as a feeling of pentecostal “rushing wind” and “tongues of fire”. Such characteristics also enabled what others have described as the “hardness” of conscious “rap” music in general to crossover to white audiences, and also to inspire people in other cultures who would respond with conscious rap of their own (Bowser 2012: Kindle locations 891-1051).

A significant problem arises, however, concerning God Hop in particular and much of rap music in general. It might be best imagined as acid rain. Miyakawa points out that God Hop’s message is often so coded and complex that casual and uninitiated listeners may often end up hearing messages that do not seem all of that different from Gangsta Rap (Miyakawa 2005: 71-2), which Bowser and other scholars characterize as contemporary minstrelsy (Bowser 2012: Kindle locations 891-1251). Gangsta Rap emerged as not only a commodification selling false authenticity, but also as a tragically effective vehicle for essentially recruiting Blackamericans and other young people into the hungry massive incarceration nets of the “New Jim Crow” for-profit prison system (Andrews 2014 and Alexander 2010).

I have characterized the resulting river as resisting global commodification, and the musical generations resisting global commodification appear to be flowing into an ocean called “war on youth,” in which Blackamerican youth are once again disproportionately targeted. The term “war on youth” comes from Jeff Chang’s history of the hip-hop generation, in which Chang powerfully portrays the opposition by globalized forces of commodification to the young people’s globalized assertion of human community (Chang 2005: 328, 381, 455-6).

I’ve embeded a YouTube video below to a video presentation of “No Way As The Way” by Dead Prez. It seems to powerfully capture and present the essence of C. Eric Lincoln’s “Black Religion” as it relates to the present moment in society. In addition, its hip hop “hybridity” that moves beyond racial commodification to reach for and a balanced human ecology, in spite of what Chang described as the “war on youth.”

Embedded from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IHyLiZTMmqg
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