When It All Falls Down: Hiphop’s Postcolonial Echo

In his 2005 tome Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, Jeff Chang traces the roots of hip hop to the fires of the Bronx and Jamaica. And when the boroughs burned, he suggested, “the third world was only a subway ride away” (x). Near the end of the semester in my freshman writing course, we read Chinua Achebe’s wonderful essay, “The African Writer and the English Language” (1968). He writes,

Let us give the devil his due: colonialism in Africa disrupted many things, but it did create big political units where there were small, scattered ones before….[Colonialism] did bring together many peoples that had hith­erto gone their several ways. And it gave them a language with which to talk to one another. If it failed to give them a song, it at least gave them a tongue, for sighing. There are not many countries in Africa today where you could abolish the language of the erstwhile colonial powers and still retain the facility for mutual communication. Therefore those African writers who have chosen to write in English or French are not unpatriotic smart alecks with an eye on the main chance—outside their own countries. They are by-products of the same process that made the new nation-states of Africa.

…. Those of us who have inherited the English language may not be in a position to appreciate the value of the inheritance. Or we may go on resenting it because it came as part of a package deal which included many other items of doubtful value and the pos­itive atrocity of racial arrogance and prejudice, which may yet set the world on fire. But let us not in rejecting the evil throw out the good with it.

Like me, many of my students read Achebe’s masterpiece Things Fall Apart in high school. And like me, they remembered vaguely and distastefully the story of a sexist African tribal chief who loses everything. This novel is dragged into our literature curriculum to bring a voice from the margins to the center–but without sensitive treatment, it ends up reifying our notions of non-Western literature as less. Better to remind students explicitly that the rupture of colonialism happened, and is still happening. At the end of his speech, Achebe quotes James Baldwin, who (from our vantage point) brings the conversation home to the U.S.A.

My quarrel with the English language has been that the lan­guage reflected none of my experience. But now I began to see the matter another way…. Perhaps the language was not my own because I had never attempted to use it, had only learned to imitate it. If this were so, then it might be made to bear the burden of my experience if I could find the stamina to challenge it, and me, to such a test.

What does it mean, I ask my students, for a writer to ask English to “bear the burden of my experience”? I think hiphop holds one answer.

In her live performance of “The Mysteries of Iniquity,” Lauryn Hill sings,

Oh when it all, it all falls down

I’m telling you all, it all falls down. (MTV Unplugged, 2002)

Two years later, an interpolation of the same chorus appeared in Kanye West’s “All Falls Down,” featuring Syleena Johnson belting a gilded warning.

(The studio version video with Stacey Dash: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8kyWDhB_QeI&ob=av3e )

Every year, the first assignment I ask my freshmen students to complete is a comparison of two versions of Kanye’s song–the studio version with Syleena, and a live version with John Legend on piano and chorus vocals–with an eye towards the meaning of these songs.

(John Legend takes the torch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=Y1Z9r4KHgxY )

My students always do a remarkable job cataloguing the most miniscule differences between these two versions, from Kanye’s ad-libs to Legend’s minstrely piano playing. Instead, it’s the elusive meaning of this track that often passes students by, the notion that after centuries of white supremacy, black materialism is a failed attempt at self-recovery.

It seems we livin’ the American dream,

But the people highest up got the lowest self esteem

The prettiest people do the ugliest things

For the road to riches and diamond rings.

We shine because they hate us, floss ’cause they degrade us–

We tryna buy back our forty acres–

And for that paper, look how low we a’stoop:

Even if you in a Benz, you still a nigga, in a coupe/coop.

My favorite part about Kanye’s self-implicating treatise on insecurity is that in the liner notes to The College Dropout, he spells out his puns: “She so precious, with the peer pressure/Couldn’t afford a car so she named her daughter Alexus/a Lexus.” Precious, indeed.

Digital Humanities Fantasy #1: The Afterlife of Eric B. and Rakim’s classic Paid in Full

Eric B. and Rakim's Paid in Full (1987)

First off, since this is my first installment of what I hope will be many “Digital Humanities Fantasies,” let’s rewind a sec. What are the digital humanities (and why do I fantasize about them)? While it’s a contested term, many agree that the digital humanities denotes “a nexus of fields within which scholars use computing technologies to investigate the kinds of questions that are traditional to the humanities” (Forster), and also includes new media studies (that is, the study of the new media environment like the blogosphere, twittersphere, wikis etc.) and also a field with which I’m particularly invested, new media pedagogy. (This treatment is not exhaustive; also see CUNY’s Defining the Digital Humanities and Svensson’s “The Landscape of Digital Humanities” in DHQ.)

So why am I fantasizing about the digital humanities? Well, besides because I’m a big dork, I’m fantasizing about this new field of study because I’m excited by the way new media models allow us to share and create information as citizens, students and teachers. In the field of hiphop studies in particular, I’m convinced that hiphop, as a fundamentally new-media art form whose origins and reinventions are rooted in technological progress and whose style and meaning are fundamentally referential and intertextual,  that hiphop studies is, in some sense, an important subcategory of the digital humanities. Which brings me to Eric B. and Rakim’s Paid in Full.

The fantasy is this: I wish I had the skills to use computational technology to chart musical and textual references to Paid in Full by subsequent recording artists. They are many and myriad, and I want to go to there.

Eric B. and Rakim’s track “I Know You Got Soul” has obvious references by folks at the POLES of the hiphop-R&B spectrum: Mos Def in his “Love” (Black on Both Sides, 1999) , and Aaliya + Timbaland on their “Try Again” (Romeo Must Die Soundtrack, 2000).


With that kind of spread, you know there have to be more. Have y’all noticed any?

How do you spell #Hiphop?

from "How Black People Use Twitter," Slate, 8.10.2010

Teaching a composition course on hiphop studies, the question arose among my students as to what the “correct spelling” of hiphop was. Is it HipHop, hip-hop, Hip-hop, Hip Hop, what? Uncertainties of hyphen and capitalization left us with about ten different choices. My major message to my students was that they ought to pick one spelling and stick with it, especially within a given paper. But, I added, my preferred spelling is “hiphop”–one word, no hyphen, no caps–just like the hashtag.

Because, hiphop, HipHop, Hiphop, or HIPHOP, the search query all comes out the same.

Before all our information went online, research meant using your brain to sort through a card catalog and the indexes of various books and publications. As a human, it was easy to see that if you were searching for “hip-hop,” “Hip Hop” probably contained some relevant information. But it’s a new world. Webtexts like wikis and blogs are increasingly trusted sources of information, and older publications, from books to back issues of newspapers, are finding their ways online and into the purview of Google Search.

For me, spelling our favorite cultural phenomenon “hiphop” is political, albeit in a dorky digital humanities sort of way. It’s organizing: not our community, but our information. (Heck, it’s the information age.) One-word #hiphop means those pesky little hips and hops won’t get lost on the interwebs; it strengthens our ability to seek out other hiphop heads, whether they’re blogging in Spanish or Arabic or Japanese. It creates a digital correspondence between previously searchable web databases and, now, the enormous conversation on #hiphop that’s taken hold on Twitter.

Call it a linguistic unity movement. Call it a language nerd’s rallying cry. Just, please, call it hiphop.

…Why, how do you spell it?

(from “Puns not Guns”)

Welcome to the hiphopocracy

Welcome to my new blog, hiphopocracy. I hope to use this space to reflect on my experience teaching and learning hiphop studies, and ideally to publish excerpts of work students are writing for other courses in hiphop studies.

The word “hiphopocracy”  was invented by one of my students in the first First Year Writing course I teach at the University of Michigan. We were discussing a possible paper extension when I explained, “This isn’t a democracy, but I’m interested in your opinion.” “It’s a hiphopocracy!” one of my students yelled. What a resonant word. Its connotations swing from hip-hip-hooray to hypocrisy, from the four pillars of hiphop to the gangster mentality 50 Cent and W. have in common. I’m excited to begin chronicling and am looking forward to sharing this space with others committed, as I am, to the production of knowledge in this field.