Rappin’, Riffin’, Resistin’: The Revolutionary Poetics of Underground Rap Music and Neo-Soul
Christopher S. Harris
Thesis DT 3.5 2004 H376
vi, 130 leaves; 29cm
Rap music is arguably the most influential musical innovation of the past thirty years. It affects the fashion, speech, posture, and the perspective of this generation of young Blacks. It also continues to have a tremendous impact on mainstream American youth culture. The immense popularity of contemporary rap music is due to its appropriation and redistribution by the American music industry as well as its ability to connect with marginalized peoples. Consequently the contemporary rap scene has branched into two subgenres: commercial rap music and underground rap music.
Commercial rap music is controlled by the corporate entities that dominate the American music industry. It is a subordinate culture that advocates the raw capitalist values of extreme individualism and crass consumption while also promoting a sensationalized image of Blackness. Conversely underground rap music is an oppositional culture that openly critiques the capitalist moralities, white supremacy, and patriarchy of contemporary American society. Artists belonging to this subgenre consistently address the issues of Black self-definition/determination, community cooperation, Black love, Black beauty, and spiritual growth.
This study focuses on the oppositional nature of contemporary underground rap music and its R&B equivalent neo-soul. Today’s neo-soul artists continue the traditions of singers like Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, and Curtis Mayfield by using their music to do more than merely entertain. These artists celebrate Blackness and Black people and critique the injustices and inhuman aspects of Western society.
As oppositional cultures these musics are full of radical expressions. This assertion is supported by the arguments of several hip hop scholars (Hashim A. Shomari and Tshombe Walker) who have conducted research on underground rap music. Seeking to complement and extend the arguments of previous scholars, this study is concerned with illustrating the revolutionary potential of underground rap music and neo-soul.
The conceptualization of the term revolutionary, employed by this study draws heavily from the Black radical tradition and the surrealist movement. The Black radical tradition is understood as the group of radical acts and articulations that have been and are aimed at collectively liberating Blacks from oppression. The surrealist movement is an international radical movement dedicated to the “emancipation of thought.” Surrealism is focused on individual liberation; on freeing people’s minds from the psychic repression that results from imposed social moralities. Based on the declarations of these radical traditions this study defines revolutionary as: that which is concerned with the affective and effective demolition and transcendence of the oppressive and repressive moralities, practices, and institutions of contemporary American society.
The oppositional sentiments voiced in the lyrics of underground rap music and neo-soul, have yet to catalyze a tangible revolutionary movement. Thus they cannot be accurately labeled revolutionary. Limited to the realm of the affective these radical poetic expressions are better understood as a liberatory poetics. This liberatory poetics challenges the repressive reign of American morals and values by imitating the possibility of alternative moralities. Also, these liberation minded lyrics, promote Black subjectivity, give voice to young Black outrage and denounce racist police tactics. They constitute an informal dialogue between radically minded young Blacks, offering glimpses of the current generations’ rediscovery and reinvention of Black radicalism.
This study hinges on a “psycho-poetical” reading of the lyrics of underground rap music and neo-soul. That is, it is concerned with the poetic expression of the socio-cultural stance of radical young Blacks. The psychological drives of Eros and aggression fall victim, especially for Blacks, to repressive moralities and oppressive practices. Due to this frustrating reality these drives are consistently treated in the lyrics of underground rap music and neo-soul. This “psycho-poetical” approach is complemented by Marxian modes of textual and contextual analysis that emphasize the social implications of the symbolic act. In other words this study recognizes and values the effect that cultural utterances (in this instance rap lyrics) have, and can potentially have, on the transformation of social reality. Bringing these analytical modes to bear on the lyrics of underground rap music and neo-soul illuminates the current of radical expression that courses through this genre. It is the central argument of this study that this current constitutes a liberatory poetics that possesses a revolutionary potential.