July 14th of the Lincoln Center’s Festival 2005 may provide clues as to the origins as well as the future of hip-hop and rap music in particular. The theme that night was Africa: America, a hip-hop concert celebrating the link between America and Africa, and one of the headliners was Senagalese trio Daara J (which means School of Life). Lead MC of the group, Faada Freddy explains their idea of hip-hop and the title of their album, Boomerang:
Hip-hop was born in Africa and went around the world to come back to Africa, like a boomerang that has been thrown from the motherland and is back home.
The roots of rap music apparently lie in dramatic exchanges and rhyming of Africans from ages past. The Griots (pronounced gree- ohs) were a West African hereditary group of wandering poets/musicians, brilliant repositories of genealogies, clan histories and oral traditions throughout the countries of Mali, Gambia Guinea, and Senegal. (Daara J came about as three accountant students in Dakar of Senegal discovered their musical chemistry.) The Griots of old are said to have entertained with clever words, rhyming schemes, and even raunchy humorous competitions similar to the dozens (degrading opponents and family members). The ancient rhythmic songs of the Griots are called tasso.
Besides demonstrating hip-hop’s historic roots, Daara J may illustrate the global evolution of rap music and provide a clue as to its future. Here is what the Vancouver Folk Festival has to say about the group.
(Daara J) decries the stagnancy of globalism, the perils of a traditional society and the threatened environment, and toys with the musical formulae of hip-hop, reggae, R&B,and Cuban music by respecting the rules of each genre while escaping their boundaries.
As Western hip-hop turns more and more to shallow representations of materialistic value pimped to Western consumers by what Daara J calls “Babylone,: giving hip-hop a bad rep,… Daara J, with impassioned lyrics of philosophical and socially conscious overtones, keep the ethos of Senagalese hip-hop. “It’s hospitality, spirituality, smiling in spite of disease, corruption, war… is something the whole world needs,” they say.
Besides its origins in African tasso, the roots of rap must be traced through African American history to traditions such as the body music of slaves. There may also, and rather sadly, be a bit of minstrelsy in its performance. But most immediately and importantly, rap music is a part of an historic folk art-form which emerged in the predominantly African American South Bronx of the 1970s-rap is a part of hip-hop culture. Just as rap is just one aspect of hip-hop, rap itself has more than one component: deejaying or turntabling and scratching and MC or rhyming.
DJ Kool Herc, an 18-year-old Jamaican immigrant, is considered the first major DJ. Grand Wizard Theodore, Afrika Bombaataa and Grand Master Flash further pioneered rap’s sound. Needle dropping and scratching is attributed to Grand Master Flash. Names like Kurtis Blow, the Cold Crush Brothers, including Grandmaster Caz, should be added to the list of pioneers.
Sugarhill Gang’s “Rappers Delight” (1979) and Grand Master Flash & the Furious Five’s “The Message” (1982, with a powerful social study of the ghetto) brought rap into the mainstream. Run-D.M.C., three middle-class African Americans who fused rap with hard rock in the mid-1980s extended rap’s acceptability and popularity. LL Cool J was rap’s early romantic superstar. The Beastie Boys, a white trio, further popularized the genre. Then, it was Public Enemy who infused rap with a strident radical black political consciousness. De La Soul is one of the several underappreciated rap groups of its classic period (1979-1993).
Queen Latifah and Salt-n-Peppa were early female stars in a male-dominated, often misogynist industry. Lil Kim and Foxy Brown came along on the raunchy side. Eryka Badu and Lauryn Hill provided a positive counter-point.
By the late 1990s the Wu-Tang Clan (from Staten Island, NY), Sean (Puff Daddy) Combs, the Fugees, Jay-Z, Nass, were big names in the NorthEast. Common was putting Chicago on the map. But the East Coast’s main competition came from L.A. and the West Coast. Beginning with N.W.A.’s “Straight Out of Compton,” (Niggaz With Attitude, 1989), Ice Cube, Eazy E and Dr. Dre made the West Coast famous for rap.
The 1990s saw the rivalry not only of East’s Sean “P. Diddy” Combs’ Bad Boy Records and West’s Surge Knight’s Death Row Records (Tha Row Records) but of its stars: Notorious BIG aka Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur respectively. Tupcac was shot and killed in 1996; Biggie in 1997. Their lives and deaths reflected their lyrics.
Many thought rap was a fad that would quickly fade away; instead it took over the world. Most Americans took little notice as to how rap music spread to Paris, London, Eastern Europe, South Africa, Latin America and the Pacific Rim. Globality, the convergence of globalization and local culture and issues, is evident in rap from around the world. (See Patrick Neate (2003) Where We’re At: Notes From the Frontline of a Hip-Hop Planet describing the rap scenes of New York, Tokyo, Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Rio de Janiero.) According to Neate, hip-hop culture “is a world-wide cultural network with a flexible ethos that is global and local: glocal.” And some global hip-hop can be critical of U.S. rap. Blaze (28) from Cape Town, but living in Jo’burg for the past ten years says:
You can’t trust American hip-hop anymore. They know that seventy percent of the consumers are white suburbans so they’re just trying to make music that will intrigue them…. American hip-hop is clowned instead of being artistically developed. It’s all watered down…. I think American hip-hop’s played out. That’s why it’s our time toshine. Hip-hophas to be shaped in an African way. I want to see hip-hop cultures all over Africa improve situations for their people. (p.128-129)
Neate explains the the origin of kwaito.
Boom Shaka’s ’93 debut, It’s About Time, was a massive hit and kwaito was born. Within a couple of years, it was the sound of South Africa and had spawned several further superstars (Arthur, Bongo, Mafin, TKZee and the list goes on. The origins of the word “kwaito” are disputed: some claim it’s derived from the Afrikaans word kwai, meaning excellent, while others say the name was taken from the notorious township gangsters the Amakwaito.
Miriam Makeba, legendary Mama Makebas of South African music, explains:
Let’s begin with the basic ingredients: South African disco music, hip-hop, rhythm & blues, reggae and a megadose of American and British house music. Mix it all up, add loads of local spice and attitude and you’ve got Kwaito. Mostly, but not always, the lyrics are chanted or rapped-not sung-over a slowed-down bass heavy, electronically programmed beat. (She cites DJ Oscar “Warona” Mdlongwa as an original mixer in the late 1980s.)
As discussed under hip-hop, rap music has come into the church: Christian or “Holy” Rap. As with so much popular music, the use of current popular music can create generational and stylistic “wars” in congregations. Christian rap is worthy of its own study; it is improving in creativity and musical quality. Christian rap has not taken on geopolitical and social issues as much as it might, nor like much Christian music generally does it deal adequately with the deep pain and moral ambiguities of life. Others may criticize it for its lack of historical and theological perspective.
So what is the future of rap? It will, with hip-hop, continue to change and evolve. Like all art, it will reflect and shape reality. With all pop culture it will be consumerized, exploited, globalized and localized. It will continue to produce both positive and negative social functions.
In my opinion, Adam Sexton, Nelson George, Spike Lee and a few others are to be commended for taking on the rap industry for its gratuitous exploitation of violence, sex, women and “thugology.” (See our Overview of Hip-Hop.) Their work needs to be continued by thoughtful music and social critics from both secular and faith perspectives. Rap should stand as a means for transcending the oppression and disadvantages of social marginalization. It should not glory in negative responses, but offer hope to a rising generation (see Bakari Kitwana).
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
1. What is your opinion of rap, its music, values and messages?
2. What do you know (and should you know) of rap music in other parts of the world?
3. Was the article above adequate as an introduction to this vast and complex musical phenomenon? With what did you disagree, what was embarrassingly overlooked, what would you add or suggest to make it more effective?
4. How would you praise or explain the positive contributions of rap music?
5. How do you critique the negative aspects and impact of rap music?
6. Do you think there is a place for rap in worship? If not, why; and if so, how?
1. Rap music, its fusions and transformations is huge all over the world; it cannot be ignored. It’s impact on youth is very important.
2. To the extent that rap music can help young people lift themselves from depressing circumstances, express feelings that might lead to trouble, and aspire to a healthier life style-and where it is just good fun-it is to be applauded and encouraged.
3. Where rap music glories in dysfunctional attitudes and behaviors, where it contributes to a culture of complaint that hinders growth and productivity, where it denigrates true womanhood, manhood, family and healthy community, it should be criticized.