My narrative rose to explain this existence
Amidst the harbor lights which remain in the distance
Through a historical perspective on black culture we can interpret rap music as the culmination of a century-long attempt to define, articulate, and express the consciousness of the Afro-diasporic community in the United States. On the long continuum which began with the blues in the rural South and expanded to urban America with jazz, R&B, rock ‘n’ roll, soul, and funk, rap is the most recent cultural destination of a politically and socially active ethnic community, ‘a direct extension of African-American oral, poetic and protest traditions’ . In a space characterized, both in the past and in the present, by racism, institutional discrimination, structural inequality, chronic poverty, police brutality, and ghettoization, rap artists urge us to listen and think about many things at once; why these things happen, how we can address them, how we can overcome the suffering they cause, and what is to be done in order to turn that suffering into something positive and inspiring.
The 1998 release of Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star concurred with a period, which revealed the senselessness and ugliness of violence in inner city America like never before. The deaths of Tupac and Biggie in 1996 and 1997 showed how the escalation of gang conflicts and rivalries could affect even the biggest and most beloved of artists. The stigma, which followed the killings, intensified the portrayal of young black men as threats to the social order. Unable to fight against the system on an equal footing, African-Americans turned to the weapon which Pac and Biggie believed in: music.
Along with The Roots’ Things Fall Apart, this record is the underground sound of a culture turning the spotlight on itself, critically re-evaluating its origins and its position in the wider world with a quiet, contemplative, almost grassroots spirituality. The two talented MCs, both at the beginning of their careers, are infused with a restrained but ultimately invigorating anger that condemns the hypocrisy, prejudices and injustices of white society, but also projects positivity, hope, and a desire for freedom. The duo’s name, Black Star, is a clever triple entendre: firstly, it relates to the shipping line of the same name created by Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey at the beginning of the 20th century; secondly, it makes reference to the emcees themselves as ‘stars’, as public figures who create counter-hegemonic discourses and empower their own people; lastly, the ‘black star’ is a beautiful metaphor for the whole community, an organic social body that shines and redeems itself with the help of its leading voices. All of these things add up to the image of African-Americans as strong, resilient and motivated to continue fighting for their rights in the name of a higher principle.
Against a backdrop of superb jazzy beats that subtly indicate the continuity between distinct aspects of black culture, Mos Def and Talib Kweli’s verbal technique and intellectual flair resulted in some of the finest rhymes ever committed to tape. On ‘Definition’, they fondly remember the slain rappers mentioned above, grimly reflecting on a cultural space stained by violence:
One, two, three
Mos Def and Talib Kweli
We came to rock it on to the tip-top
Best alliance in hip-hop, Y-O
I said one, two, three
It’s kind of dangerous to be an MC
They shot 2Pac and Biggie
Too much violence in hip-hop, Y-O
On ‘Respiration’, the tainted urban landscape of New York appears ruthless, immoral. Despite the lie of the American dream, people somehow manage to survive:
Thirsty criminals take pockets
Hard knuckles on the second hands of working class watches
Skyscrapers is colossus, the cost of living is preposterous
Stay alive, you play or die, no options, no Batman and Robin
Can’t tell between the cops and the robbers, they both partners, they all heartless
With no conscience, back streets stay darkened
Where unbeliever hearts stay hardened
Breathin’ in deep city breaths, sittin’ on shitty steps
We stoop to new lows, hell froze the night the city slept
Look in the skies for God, what you see besides the smog
Is broken dreams flying away on the wings of the obscene
Thoughts that people put in the air
Places where you could get murdered over a glare
But everything is fair
It’s a paradox we call reality
So keepin’ it real will make you a casualty of abnormal normality
At the same time, the album is about reclaiming the lost heritage of a community which is historically united by hardship and misery, but politically neutered and divided in a contemporary context by the structural constraints imposed by whites. This idea is exposed in ‘Thieves in the Night’:
Not strong, only aggressive cause the power ain’t directed
That’s why we are subjected to the will of the oppressive
Not free, we only licensed, not live, we just exciting
Cause the captors own the masters to what we writing
Not compassionate, only polite, we well trained
Our sincerity’s rehearsed in stage, it’s just a game
Not good, but well behaved cause the camera survey
Most of the things that we think, do or say
The complex history of racial oppression in the United States is ironically nearly always marked by the pervasive interest of whites in the aggressive insubordination of black culture, beginning with the appropriation of blues and rock and ending with the intense marketization and re-packaging of rap. In view of extensive corporate control over the content and distribution of music in the 21st century, it is increasingly difficult to find good rap music that continues to be critical of the sad realities of Western societies; yet now, more than ever, the disenfranchised and the desperate need voices that talk about the struggle against an overbearing establishment.
Throughout its long journey, rap has surmounted its local, ethnically-centred appeal, becoming a ubiquitous rallying call in favour of resistance against domination. As ‘The Man’ becomes more powerful, our will and ability to speak against him must grow accordingly. This 19-year-old gem, a work of authentic and impassioned street poetry, reminds us that the battle is not over; on the contrary, we should vigorously renew our commitment to equality, justice, human dignity, and a better future for everyone.
Ten Black Stars.
 Tricia Rose, Black noise: Rap music and black culture in contemporary America, p.25.
Text by Vlad Nicu
Picture research by Donna Darafshian; featured image taken from hiphopdx.com.