Creative Nonfiction: Hip-Hop Manifesto
“That’s Just What Niggers Do”
By Donald Vincent
“I think; therefore I am” is a phrase used by the French Philosopher, Rene Descartes, to prove that he did in fact exist as a being. This was crucial for Western thought because it laid down the basic notion of knowledge through questioning. The fact we as beings can doubt the presence of something proves that we do exist as thinking beings that can use reason and logic. However, in a postcolonial epoch, the definition of a thinking being began to come into question. What is the I that thinks? Overtime that I has been constructed through the use of language that arises from the societal ways of discourse and thinking or culture for this instance. It is during the colonization of Africa that society began to define themselves as being man while Blacks because of their darker skin tone became the other. Here, the body becomes a sign, a symbol, a social construct, and a definition. How does the Black male define himself? In this paper, I will demonstrate how the Black man, as a being, is defined by society as an ‘Other,’ opposing force in relation to his white counterpart using Frantz Fanon’s rhetoric and analysis, an understanding of Sigmund Freud’s pleasure principle, and how the Black male’s body as a social construct is understood today through the hip-hop music and culture.
I am a black man. I describe myself as having almond-brown or black skin depending on whom I am speaking to at that moment. Everything else I would say refers to being Black, for example my hair texture. It wouldn’t be defined as soft or curly hair, but as Black hair. We are scarred as a race by the concept of being subjected because of our appearance as blacks. According to Antony Easthope and Kate McGowan in A Critical and Cultural Theory Reader, “the human individual is conceived as a unified centre of control from which meaning emanates” (73). That meaning for Blacks comes from his counterpart. Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks says he would define himself saying, “I would say that I am one who waits; I investigate my surroundings, I interpret everything in terms of what I discover” (120). Langston Hughes, a revered poet (I disclosed African-American poet for the sake of this paper) described his own people as he defined them in his poem “Negro.” In each of his three-lined stanzas, Hughes begins to define Blacks starting with the obvious physical appearance and knowledge of blacks. He then works his way into the universal linking of humans through song, and finally ends the poem making a full circle of thought by repeating the opening stanza. Hughes writes:
I’ve been a slave:
Caesar told me to keep his door-steps clean.
I brushed the boots of Washington.
I’ve been a worker:
Under my hand the pyramids arose.
I made mortar for the Woolworth Building.
I’ve been a singer:
All the way from Africa to Georgia
I carried my sorrow songs.
I made ragtime. (4-13).
The black male was constructed as a savage, barbaric, and beast like being; but Hughes uses the power of language to educate his White, European male counterpart by telling them that Blacks were enslaved since the Pax Romana and the founding of the Americas. Hughes showed them that his people were responsible for the building of the pyramids and the building of the new Americas. Hughes also showed the White man that through the despair and suffering, Blacks have kept their motherland tune and made new genres of music that we all listen to today. However, the second to final stanza defines the white man from the perspective of the Negro when Hughes writes, “I’ve been a victim/ The Belgians cut off my hands in the Congo. / They lynch me still in Mississippi” (14-16). This stanza shows the white counterpart that Blacks were not colonized willfully, nor was there a willful migration away from their motherland. This stanza helps the Black man come to terms with his identity through mastery by education of defining himself on his own terms through the pleasure principle that I will now explore.
While defining pleasure principle in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Sigmund Freud says, “that there exists in the mind a strong tendency towards the pleasure principle, but that that tendency is opposed by certain other forces or circumstances, so that final outcome cannot always be in harmony” (6). In respects to the trauma that Blacks go through because of their constant self-evaluation in relation to their surroundings, it can be inferred that for Blacks to succeed in becoming equals would be their pleasure, but it is simultaneously opposed by how and who defines their being. Whites, the people who define the Blacks being, are by society forced to define Blacks as the other. Freud says, “Our views have from the very first been dualistic, and today they are even more definitely dualistic than before” (63). The mind that leans heavily towards the pleasure principle for blacks is in direct opposition of their defining other.
Freud goes a step beyond the pleasure and extends into the realm of reality; for example, he says, the principle “nevertheless demands and carries into effect the postponement of satisfaction, the abandonment of a number of a possibilities of gaining satisfaction and the temporary toleration of unpleasure” (7). For Freud, his concept of the reality principle emphasizes the structure of society and its construction. Judith Butler, in A Critical and Cultural Theory Reader says, “The domains of political and linguistic ‘representation’ set out in advance the criterion by which subjects themselves are formed” (192). While Blacks fight for their equality, as well as the female gender, they are still kept into place by the system that oppresses them. The reality principle mixed with the pleasure principle sheds light onto the Negro’s situation after colonization takes place. The Negro will always be in a constant struggle with not only his white counterpart, but also with himself because of that struggle.
In regards to the mastery concept that Freud discusses in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, it only be noted that he experimented in his studies with a 2-year-old child because Fanon explains how Blacks are spoken down to, in a condescending matter as if they were children by their counterparts. Emmanuel Hansen in Rethinking Fanon: The Continuing Dialogue, writes: “Fanon’s life and work provide us with a model of what the African intellectual ought to be: a man who reflects and yet does not allow reflection to inhibit him from social action (50). As Fanon engages in learning about as well as defining himself, he does not allow his findings define who he is in a negative light. He did not simply say the world defines me as this, so I’ll never amount to anything. He demanded that he be respected as an equal with all the work he’s done. He set the framework for anti-colonial thought as well as the civil rights movement. The Algerian/French philosopher’s black consciousness movement can be better understood by the voices of hip-hop.
Rapper Jay-Z finds himself subject to the constructs of what being black is on a constant basis. Ranked as Forbes’ second wealthiest Black entertainer with over $450 million, he still voices his opinion about it in his music. He comes to terms with his own situation as a black entertainer with his lyrics. While the other casts light on Jay-Z’s black side, the dirt that politicians and majority of the ‘Others’ partake in are kept in the dark. The ‘Others’ place blame on the musician to cover up their mishaps. Jay-Z in his song “Blueprint 2” raps:
They call me this misogynist, but they don’t call me the dude
To take his dollars to give gifts at the projects.
These dudes is all politics, depositing checks
they put in they pocket, all you get in return is a lot of lip.
And y’all buy the shit, caught up in the hype.
While Jay-Z may give back to the neighboring and needy neighborhoods, the others depict him as simply misogynistic in regards to his music and demeanor. This is an example of Kobena Mercer saying, “On the front page headlines black males become highly visible as a threat to white society, as muggers, rapists, terrorists and guerillas” (Critical and Cultural Theory 181). However, this is not a single example. For instance, on the song “America” raps:
The hypocrisy is all I can see.
White cop acquitted for murder,
Black cop cop a plea.
That type of shit make me stop and think.
We in chronic need of a second look of the law books
And the whole race dichotomy
Too many rappers, athletes, and actors
But not enough niggas in NASA.
America preaches freedom; nevertheless, freedom comes at a cost for minorites and ‘Others.’ The same charge for a murder doesn’t result in the same punishment depending on the color of a person skin. If the apparent racism isn’t enough to show the Black person’s plight, then it is unfathomable as to the reasoning behind the punishments. The law systems when it comes down to it does not represent nor present Blacks in a good fashion. While powder cocaine cost almost four times as much as crack cocaine, the judicial system has harsher consequences in place for crack cocaine even though it is cheaper. The obvious reasoning behind it is the color of the user. Blacks are more likely to use crack cocaine while whites are more likely to use powder cocaine. Color here becomes the deciding factor in respects to the punishment, and “In no way should my color be regarded as a flaw” (81) says Fanon. Nas in the aforementioned lyrics calls for a change in the way we as a society construct race. Nas’ mentioning of looking at the law books mirrors Fanon’s statement— what matters is to not know the world but to change it.
Patrick Ehlen in Frantz Fanon: A Spiritual Biography discusses the life of Fanon when he says, “His feelings in this period, the feelings that would soon be put to paper and published as his first book, call out in exasperated anguish, ‘How do I make them recognize me for what I am, for what I have to give?’” (89). This is echoed by rapper Nas in the song “You Can’t Stop Us Now” when the rapper raps, “Betsy Ross sewed the first American flag. Bet she had a nigga with her to help her old ass!” Blacks are not recognized outside of their entertainment domains such as sports, music, and fashion. Nas and Fanon touch on this through their respective discourses. While most Blacks aspire to get out of their situation by dribbling a basketball or crafting lyrics, it is the only way they see out because of the construction of their being through their counterparts. Sure, there are black doctors, teachers, scholars, lawyers, and so forth, but none of them are merited enough by the ‘Others’ to make them role models for the culture and communities in which these successful blacks represent.
Shortly after those few lines by Nas, Eban Thomas recites a James Joyce quote to educate the listeners on how to liberate themselves from enslavement by letting the ‘Other’ define their meaning and self-worth. “You can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world considers—a nigger”
“Cause any time we mention our condition, our history or existence, they calling it reverse racism” raps Nas in the song “N.I.G.G.E.R. (The Slave and the Master). Consequently with the election of our first black president, rather first mixed president excluding the Indian blood that Thomas Jefferson may have had, multiculturalism (better defined as white nationalism) in America has concluded the times in which we live “postracial.” This myth is a whitewashing of the social construct that is already designed for Blacks. Jay-Z has an interesting way at looking at the so-called post racial America when he raps, “My president is black in fact he’s half white, so even in a racist mind he’s half right. If u have a racist mind you’ll be aright. My president is black but his house is all white.” In a racist person’s mind, Obama will be half right because there is always that preconceived notion that the Blacks are wrong because they are the ‘Other’ or opposing race. According to Fanon, “the Negro is comparison. There is the first truth. He is comparison: that is, he is constantly preoccupied by self-evaluation” (211). Jay-Z is saying like Fanon that Obama’s being is contingent upon the presence and critique of the so-called ‘Other’ or racist.
It must be stated that Black and White are not the only opposing ‘Others;’ for example, in our society another constructed other would be male and female. They are both subject to the ideologies in which they are involved; however man is in charge of delegating and constructing the woman as an other. You can blame it on the patriarch, but on “America” again, Nas raps “Love to sit in on the Senate and tell the whole government, ‘Y’all don’t treat women fair.’ She read about herself in the bible believing she the reason sin is here. You played her, with an apron like, “Bring me my dinner, dear.” She the nigger here.” While Fanon’s message seems important to the Black consciousness movement, it is also important to all those who have been misrepresented or disenfranchised. Fanon’s philosophy sets the groundwork for most of the conscious rap that is heard today.
From the information presented thus far, Fanon lays down the groundwork for the subjectivity and oppression of being Black. However, along with Fanon’s work, the mastery principle of Freud is hard at work in the background. Fanon says the Negro will fight. “He will embark on this struggle, and he will pursue it” (224). That statement greatly echoes Freud. Although the Negro is oppressed, he will fight the ‘Other.’ Although the Negro may never fully liberate himself, he still fights illustrating the mastery concept Freud discusses. What does the Negro actually master? He masters how to self-validate himself through the ‘Other’ over and over again.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in a critical analysis of Fanon uses the words of Homi Bhabha saying, “Minority discourse is not simply the attempt to invert the balance of power within an unchanged order of discourse, but to redefine the symbolic process through which the social Imaginary—Nation, Culture, or Community—become “subjects” (Rethinking Fanon 255). This is why hip-hop music can be a great way to study the subjectivity of black culture. It is a discourse that tries to redefine how the image of blacks are shaped by the ‘Other’ whether politics, entertainment, or the media. Fanon even says, “Mastery of language affords great power” (18). While the blacks are seen such as “The Negro is an animal, the Negro is bad, the Negro is mean, the Negro is ugly; look, a nigger, it’s cold, the little boy is trembling because he is afraid of the “(113-114). The only other media that tries to portray Blacks in a positive light would be BET (Black Entertainment Television), but even they fail at educating the masses. The only all black network on cable television can arguably be the media that emphasizes the stereotype of the Negro. For that reason, I choose to focus on music rather than television in this essay.
Rap lyrics are responsible for or can be responsible for shaping our image as Black culture. Kanye West tries to redefine how the color black is looked at; for example, he raps, “Oh, my God is that a Black Card? I turned around and replied: Why yes, but I prefer the term African-American Express.” The most luxurious credit card available is defined as being if not a part of black culture; it is defined or redefined as black. Another instance that minority discourse or rap permeates white America is with Jay-Z’s song, “Minority Report.” This is a song regarding the country’s response to the victims of Hurricane Katrina. Jay-Z raps:
Wouldn’t you loot, if you didn’t have the loot?
Baby needed food and you stuck on the roof?
Helicopter swooped down just to get a scoop
Through his telescopic lens but he didn’t scoop you?
The next five days, no help ensued.
They called you a refugee because you seek refuge.
The white counterparts would go on to say that those people were looting and they looked like refugees because of the color of their skin. Had the victims of that hurricane been mostly white, not an other but like them, then the language used to describe them would not be as harsh, similar to the law system and their means of punishment. Moreover, Nas elevates the discourse of language as to not only redefine it, but attempts to restructure the way society thinks with the “N.I.G.G.E.R (The Slave and the Master)” song. He also echoes Fanon claim that he is “the slave not of the idea but of my own appearance” (116). He raps:
They say we N – I – Double G – E – R
We – are – much more,
Still we choose to ignore,
Man this history don’t acknowledge us,
We was scholars long before colleges.
They say we N – I – Double G – E – R
We – are – much more,
But still we choose to ignore,
We are the slave and the master,
What you looking for?
You the question and the answer.
After being held captive and sold to the United States, the history of the Negro has been forgotten. America’s story is not our story to tell, but one to hide. Nas is saying that Black scholars existed and even taught the ancient Romans and Greeks. However, because they are the inferior ‘Other’ that history does not get written down. Nas asserts that we are the question and the answer, which is reminiscent of Fanon’s claim to being a slave of his own appearance, yet his mind and ability to learn is free. While we fight for equality of race, we need to understand that we are equal in mind power.
How does the pleasure principle help Fanon’s understanding of the treatment of darker skinned people in postcolonial times? Jay-Z has the answer to that question; in fact, he raps:
With the same sword they knight you, they gon’ good night you with
Shit, that’s only half if they like you
That ain’t even the half what they might do
Don’t believe me, ask Michael
See Martin, see Malcolm
See Biggie, see Pac, see success and its outcome
See Jesus, see Judas
See Caesar, see Brutus, see success is like suicide
Suicide, it’s a suicide
If you succeed, prepare to be crucified
Media meddles, niggaz sue you, you settle
Every step you take, they remind you you’re ghetto
For Jay-Z as a black male in a society dominated by the ‘Other’ understands that those same people who idolize him to the point of envy can also be the same people that cause his downfall. He also tries to come to grips with being in the place that he is saying, “How could this nappy-headed boy from out the projects be the apple of America’s obsession? You telling me it’s connected with reality?” He ends it on a sarcastic note saying “Since when did black men become kings?” But he also lists the names of other successful Black entertainers or leaders to show what can become of you if you’re successful at whatever you do. Notice that Martin, Malcolm, Biggie, and Tupac were all assassinated with unresolved cases. But as a Black male, Jay-Z is ready for the media and the downfall that can come from the ‘Other.’ The most notable line is “Every step you take, they remind you you’re ghetto.” I’ve heard the saying it doesn’t matter where you’re from, but where you’re going. This does not necessarily apply to Blacks because we are our history. We are slavery. We are the ghetto. We are the barbaric. We are the implied. We are the inferred. We are the inferiors. We are our past. According to my understanding of Fanon, unless change happens, the white counterculture will write our futures for us.
“For twenty years they poured every effort into programs that would make the Negro a white man. In the end, they dropped him and told him, “You have an indisputable complex of dependence on the white man”” (Fanon 216). Jay-Z recognizes the logical disconnect of this sentence on his song “American Dreamin’” when he raps, “Seems as our plans to get a grant to go off to college to pan to even out.” Just the luck of the Negro I guess. Always depending on the ‘Other’ for an extra hand to help himself up by the bootstraps. Besides, you can’t teach a nigger how to think like the white man anyway. Once you do, he will begin to question the oppression of his culture and people.
In conclusion, hip-hop can be an interesting way to shed light on the subjectivity of the Black male’s social construct. Sigmund Freud’s principles work at the advantage of Blacks because while Blacks fight for what’s right, the philosophy that things will be the same can be challenged due to slight variations in laws that may change. Fanon says that in the US, the Negro battles and is battled. The changes in the laws come from the battles fought while the subjectivity of Black culture is constantly battled and beating by stereotypes and preconceived notions. Hip-hop can be a means to change those preconceived notions, knock down the barriers of those stereotypes, and can redefine what Black culture is, but like Langston Hughes once said, “But then there are the low-down folks, the so-called common element, and they are the majority.” This majority are the ones enslaved by not only the body, but the mind also. Since the white man ultimately has enslaved the word, I do not exist because I think. I am black; therefore I exist. I am a nigger; therefore, I must do the things that niggers do. Or at least in the eyes of those who judge me.