On Jay-Z, Rakim, and Black Mythmaking in America
Two New Books That Trace Their Storytelling Legacies
For over three decades, William Griffin Jr. and Shawn Corey Carter—better known as Rakim the God MC and Jay-Z, respectively—have claimed their spots as some of America’s most intuitive storytellers. No topic has been off limits in their expansive careers; depression and self-loathing, hustling and unemployment, love and self-harm, or bold ambition at war with seemingly insurmountable odds. Their characters have narrated with conviction, delivering literature at its most accessible and rooted in real world experiences. With upcoming books focusing on their legacies, Griffin and Carter now find their work privy to exploration, broken down from lyrical stanzas to engaging analyzes on the politics of race, economic disenfranchisement, and the elusive American Dream.
In his book, Sweat the Technique: Revelations on Creativity from The Lyrical Genius, Rakim and music journalist Bakari Kitwana offer a road map guiding readers to the source of his inspiration and the reason behind his career longevity: his unmatched skills on the mic. Along that same vein, Jay-Z: Made In America by Georgetown professor and sociologist Michael Eric Dyson lays out Hov’s work for fans and those unfamiliar with the Brooklyn rapper’s miles-long discography. Both books look beyond the musical releases and record-breaking appearances on music charts, placing the musicians in a larger context that addresses social relevance and influence. Their work is given the respect of critical engagement via a literary lens that reflects hip-hop’s role as an innovative conduit of Black experiences; a reclaiming of a genre whose content has been labelled suspicious, inherently criminal, and is constantly surveilled by state officials even as it rules the music charts.
Black writers and musicians have a long and treasured history of jointly expressing the cognitive dissonance of living as a Black human by simultaneously using different artistic forms. Toni Morrison wedded music and literature in her novel Jazz, which is as much about the genre as it is about those who birthed it. Gil Scott-Heron’s take on the Jean Toomer novel Cane, off his album “Secrets,” gave a somber soundtrack to a very American story. Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah’s longform essay on hip hop group The Roots solidly placed their music in a canon of other storytellers whose words explicitly draw from their realities in an almost autobiographical manner, with a lens that knows to “watch the streets and not the throne.”
The symbiotic connection between Black music and literature in America reaches as far back as Phyllis Wheatley, whose 17th-century poetry lent itself to hymnals and spirituals. With Black self-expression, words and music are one and the same. Hip hop stands alongside literature as an obvious fraternal twin, though its creation is uniquely collective; artists rely on cyphers, spaces to test out their material where they can take direction from the cheers, boos or silences that come from the crowds. This process is about communities, looking at your singular life to find ways of examining the bigger picture, and no one has seen this better than the writers who’ve listened to hip hop and discovered the candor layered in its double entendres. It’s an honesty that author and interdisciplinary scholar Imani Perry acknowledged in her book Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in the Hood, which outlines hip hop as something that knew to, “exploit the stereotypes while simultaneously expressing literary skill.”
On the DJ Premier single, “Classic,” featuring Nas, KRS-One and Rakim, the latter starts off his verse with a reminder that he’s been doing this since ‘86 and time hasn’t dampened any of the fire he spits. “Ask the teenagers, O’Gs and Ask the kids/What the definition of Classic is/Timeless, cause age don’t count in the booth/ When your flow stays submerged in the fountain of youth.” Listening to Rakim from his early days with his partner Eric B to his last solo album, 2009’s “The Seventh Seal,” the evolution from confident rapper to social commentator is apparent and seems inevitable. Growing up in Long Island, New York, Rakim came of age during a time when hip hop was molding the young, black and poor and opening avenues to lay bare the effects of Nixon’s Draconian war on drugs, systemic inequality embedded in Reaganomics, and increased police surveillance in black and brown neighborhoods.
In the same way that the Harlem Renaissance saw the emergence of writers and poets galvanized into documenting American racism through literature, music offered artists like Rakim a similar path. The difference between these mediums was their accessibility. For many, literature remains an exclusionary and intimidating arena with set rules, expectations, and boundaries to follow. Social media has made its democratization much more viable, yet in the 1980s, such ready access didn’t exist. Sheer necessity led those with a flair for wordplay to create their own arena featuring characters who looked like them, lived like them, and could be understood beyond the scope of book pages. Artists like Rakim took the political tenets of Claude McKay works—black autonomy, rage and resistance—and transferred them to music with his lyrics on “Casualties of War,” a song on the Iraq War and its effects on an African-American Muslim soldier, embodying the prescience and discontent of the Jamaican writer. The contradictions of American patriotism, which filled the writings of authors such as Richard Wright and Langston Hughes, found new audiences when remixed as multisyllabic rhythms highlighting the experiences of those living on the margins.
Very few hip hop artists embody the genre’s literary and activist storytelling as fully as Rakim; in Sweat the Technique, he seems to be in conversation with his own work, looking back at his legacy through literature. In an interview with hip-hop magazine The Source, he talked about how writing the book was a process of responding to the question he’s asked most often, How do you do it? “It made sense to put a little focus on the craft and where I, and hopefully, the readers, can search for inspiration,” he said. “After over three decades of being an artist who mostly speaks through his music, the time felt right to pull back the curtain.” To be able to expand on the narrative of his own music in ways rarely afforded to other hip hop artists gives him room to critique it and reframe it in the context of history
The book also helps to offer greater insight into the mind of a man who is famously fastidious and purposeful about both the structural composition of his verses and word choice. On hits like “Paid In Full,” “Eric B for President” and “When I Be on The Mic,” Rakim deftly transitions from metaphors and allegories to rhymes and made-on-the-spot proverbs, moving steadily and lightly in his quest to not only prove he’s the best MC, but remind listeners he always will be.
Almost a decade ago, Jay-Z published his autobiography Decoded, co-written with filmmaker and author dream hampton. Much Like Sweat the Technique, the book looked back at a successful career, promising to pull the curtain on Jay-Z’s artistry and musical vision. It was the rapper’s life in his words, and even though critics found it lacking in personal reflections, it did give a fuller view of an artist determined to shape his legacy, one where he laid out his childhood growing up in Brooklyn’s Marcy Projects and the circumstances which led him to dealing drugs.
What Dyson attempts to do with Made In America is frame Jay-Z as a covert political mind, skilled at putting the medicine in the food and serving it as unforgettable hit tracks. Dyson also illustrates Jay-Z’s constant references to notable names in American history—from Andy Warhol to Al Capone and others—as symbolic of the specificity of his reality and the society that built him. Jay-Z could not have been Jay-Z anywhere else but America, and he is who is because of where he was. The rapper cum business mogul takes up a singular space in American pop culture as a man who practices the business of being Jay-Z while running multiple other entities. Like he said on the “Diamonds From Sierra Leone,” remix, “I’m not a businessman/ I’m a business, man!”
In 2011, Dyson taught a class on the rapper at Georgetown focusing on the power of his lyrics and his position in American society. Dyson has long believed that Jay-Z, like other hip-hop artists (namely, Tupac and Nas), should be treated as literary minds with particular attention to the ways they address race, wealth, and generational trauma. In his book, Know What I mean? Reflections on Hip Hop, Dyson wrote, “hip-hop music is important precisely because it sheds light on contemporary politics, history, and race. At its best, hip hop gives voice to marginal black youth we are not used to hearing from on such topics.”
Dyson’s analysis of Jay-Z’s work, from the early releases of “Can’t Knock the Hustle” to “Death of Autotune,” traces the political growth of a man who came from America’s ghettos to become a billionaire, and the depth of his literary analysis complicates Jay-Z’s legacy beyond pop culture. It’s an expanded political evolution that draws ire when one sees his new relationship with the NFL post Colin Kaepernick. On his 2003 single “Moment Of Clarity,” Jay-Z hit listeners with a defense of capitalism that foreshadowed his eventual relationship with an organization that chose to sideline a player who brought the uncomfortable reality of race and privilege to Saturday Night Football. “Since I know what I’m up against/We as rappers must decide what’s most important/And I can’t help the poor if I’m one of them/So I got rich and gave back, to me that’s the win.” Dyson places statements that could be understood solely as hip hop braggadocio within the context of a prosperity gospel, one whose doctrine attaches Black survival to capitalistic economic success. It’s one that would have found believers in leaders such as Booker T. Washington and Madame C.J. Walker, whose own beliefs on Black self-determination were rooted in economic autonomy. It’s a point of view that’s in conflict with a radical disassembling of uneven power structures, but it’s one Jay-Z ascribes to: the ends justify the questionable means.Even as it becomes the background music to American civil society, hip hop is being used to criminalize blackness.
It’s small wonder that the names of jazz greats John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie have made an appearance when describing Rakim and Jay-Z. Much like jazz—which gave a face and melody to the literary figurative—hip hop is a most American creation, organically created by displaced African descendants in search of their own tools of expression. Both took heavy literary elements and gave them texture with improvisation that embedded jokes and sombre notes on Black realities. And both have attracted writers to trace the universal and individual black experiences highlighted in verses, hidden in unexpected pitch changes, and echoing from polyphonic ensembles.
Early last year, a Nielsen end of year report found that for the first time ever, R&B/hip hop had overtaken rock’n’roll to become the most listened-to genre in America. These two genres of reinvention, once inspirational outliers, are now the soundtrack of American life. For those who love the genre, live and breathe it, the shift is a pyrrhic victory.
Even as hip hop has become undoubtedly dominant, it remains a widely misunderstood creation. This year alone, several up-and-coming hip hop musicians have been targeted by law enforcement for crimes ranging from gun posession to murder, with the latter charge reliant on alleged confessions in hip hop lyrics. In July, 17-year-old Elijah Al-Amin was stabbed to death by a white man who’d felt “threatened by the rap music” Al-Amin had been listening to, a case similar to the 2012 murder of Jordan Davis, also 17, who was shot in his car by a man who’d feared for his life afte hearing the sound of “hip hop music coming from the car radio and felt unsafe.” Even as it becomes the background music to American civil society, hip hop is being used to criminalize blackness, and stereotypes fueled by white supremacy are leading to its censorship.
At this point, hip hop in conversation with literature is a much needed cypher to ease the rampant disfigurement—not to explain the genre to those who demonize it, but to map its alignment with historical tools of self-expression that were crafted from African-American resistance; gospel, blues, jazz, African-American literature. By deliberately looking at the work, an understanding occurs and it’s one that’s only possible when the gaze isn’t of casual amusement but pronounced respect and care. Writers such as Hanif Abdurraqib, Kiana Fitzgerald, Lakin Starling, Michael A. Gonzales, Imani Perry, Dyson and Kitwana are doing this act of preservation and continuing to uphold the intrinsic and undeniable relationship between Black writers and musicians. They respect the art form, acknowledge its legitimacy and safeguard its pillars of self-expression and musical craftsmanship. It’s a mission Rakim sums up on “I Ain’t No Joke”: “When I’m gone, no one gets on ‘cause I won’t let/Nobody press up and mess up the scene I set.”