People of the Light: On Inspiration

It’s a weird to say that I “grew up” in Braam. Back then, we called it regular Braamfontein and it was just a small, comparatively quiet CBD unlike its much louder and busier sister downtown. Having attended the best high school in the city, Braam was also our backyard, our neighbourhood and the big stretch of terrain I frequently journeyed across on foot on my way to my beloved, Newtown. Newtown used to be colossal; a place of great minds, art and energy before it became the sad little excuse of a money-driven capitalist art hub that it is now. In thinking about my own Hip Hop Herstory, in my beginning as wide-eyes and wandering, I can safely say that it was there where I met and made some of my favourite parts of myself.

After school, my friend and I would hurry to our boarding rooms, get changed and dash across town, across the Mandela Bridge and walk around Newtown, finding interesting people and listening to their stories. Outside the Market Theatre was where the Rastas hung out, the Photo Workshop had some of the most striking photographic exhibitions where I first encountered Zanele Muholi’s work, there would always be rap cyphers near the Worker’s Library and I recall one amazing afternoon when Mac Manaka was blasting Mos Def’s Umi Says, it my first time hearing both the song and him freestyling. On Friday and Saturday nights, I was in between Bassline and Songwriter’s Club for spoken word poetry shows. There I was 15 years old (with ) and wide-eyed, hanging onto every word recited by greats such as Afurakan, PO from Kwani Experience (Kwani Experience as a whole!), Natalia Molebatsi, Mac Manaka to name a few. I never got to see Lebo Mashile then but that’s what L’Attitude was for, right? Those were the days! I found such easy inspiration among Newtown’s many storied buildings and people.

This is where I became obsessed with poetry and Hip Hop. To my mind, there was absolutely no difference between them. I mean, even Dr Uhuru Phalafala’s doctoral scholarship on Prof. Keorapetse Kgositsile agrees. To write well and deliver poetry beautifully was Hip Hop. Tumi Molekane was living proof of my conviction being sound and I am still slightly sore that his collaboration with 340ml was way before I even knew what Bassline or Newtown was. I began to write dutifully. I began to care deeply about the construction of verses and how the perfect line could both be a work of technical brilliance and a teachable moment. I understand how you most likely feel about The Miseducation, but I’m saying that my life was never the same after listening to Lauryn Hill on The Score. She held the world perfectly in her mouth; each line delivered with the kind of precision that would make me screw my face up and pace around the room a little at the sheer perfection! I sought to embody that same spirit in my own work. I sought to make people feel me.

Writing became a giant block of marble and with every complete poem, I lovingly chiseled away at it slowly to reveal parts of myself that I was incredibly grateful to meet. I began to experience, in the laborious work of building sentences, a satisfaction in hearing my words moving in and out of my mouth and a resounding joy in being awarded with people’s applause, too. My life’s sculpture began to take on many forms over the years and at times what I thought it was shaping up to be would change, over what felt like a moment’s notice. With my beloved Lauryn Hill having faded from the spotlight and my own reckoning with the socio-political meaning of my femininity, I realised that Hip Hop did not have much for me. For years, I could overlook, nod my head and dance around every derogatory phrase and instance of violence that found home so easily inside and outside the music. One day, I just couldn’t do it any more.

While falling in love with all of the beautiful sounds that coloured my life, I also began to fall in love with Jazz music, which is foundational to so many great Hip Hop songs, anyway. There was something so soothing about the silence of the voice and the many ways that musicians made their instruments stand up and speak. Jazz is my comfort and sanctuary. Although my relationship with Hip Hop goes through changes, I find it admirable that there are women who can exist within the system and choose to nurture their craft, regardless of the misogyny they may face. I chose poetry and even so, it is looking like I may choose something else soon and I always welcome it. Whether I am writing an academic chapter or a children’s book, the magic of The Score and every braggadocio bar that Jay Z has ever dropped continue to light my path.

***

 

The Syllabus: An Introduction to Essential Hip Hop Scholarship

Quiet as it’s kept, Hip Hop has had an immeasurable impact on my personhood. I’ve always been fascinated with the powerful self-affirmations that constitute rapper’s braggadocio bars. From Notorious BIG to The Score era’s Lauryn Hill and Rah Digga, my queen Lil Kim and even Jay Z, growing up while hearing how “I’m the best/ baddest/ hottest/ freshest/ dopest/ illest” on repeat has done some amazing things for my confidence and my insistence that I can make my dream life an everyday possibility. Through Hip Hop, this masterful tradition of weaving words, I continue to build and believe in the best ideas about myself.

As a baby Anthropologist, my life involves the deepest appreciation for knowledge production, particularly the scholars who respectfully theorise Black people’s vernaculars and art into the archive. Through the fruits of their intellectual labour in writing our herstories and stories, it is our collective hope that future generations will not have to endure the racist and existential drama that claims that we “didn’t have texts or science or complex political structures or knowledge”. For women and queer people especially, we hope to counter the lies of erasure that claim that “women made little contribution to Hip Hop” or that “there are no queer people in Hip Hop”.

Over the next few weeks, I will explore what Hip Hop means to me and, of course, I will use my words. To start, I’ve compiled some critical texts in Hip Hop scholarship to highlight women as producers, consumers, scholars, political agents and critical thinkers of the culture. I hope you read and engage with this work as we all open our minds and learn more about how difference has played such an important role in making the culture what it is.

1. Hip Hop Feminism

Read this because it is a discussion of the political sensibility that emerges from a generation that grew up with Hip Hop, an art form that has been simultaneously affirming yet marginalising, especially for women and queer people. Hip Hop Feminism aims to go beyond the gains of feminism’s second wave by doing the additional work of interrogating norms and the intersecting ways that representations and images are constructed in order to empower women to participate, critique, counter, enjoy and claim full ownership of the culture.

Peoples, Whitney A. (2008) “Under construction’: Identifying foundations of hip-hop feminism and exploring bridges between Black second-wave and hip-hop feminisms.” Meridians 8:1, 19-52. Read it here.

2. The Role of South Africa in the Origin of Hip Hop.

Read this because the work and life of South Africa’s Poet Laureate, the late Professor Keorapetse Kgositsile is examined to illuminate the golden, diasporic thread that runs between Hip Hop’s founding, through The Last Poets engagement with Prof. Kgositsile’s poetry as a freedom fighter exiled to the United States. Of course, Prof. Kgositsile was not just a brilliant intellectual and writer, he is also the father of Earl Sweatshirt. I have had the pleasure of reading and listening to Dr Phalafala, who is also his biographer. I love that she has taken it upon herself to document his immense contributions to scholarship and Hip Hop music.
Uhuru Portia Phalafala (2017)Black music and pan-African solidarity in Keorapetse Kgositsile’s poetry“, The Journal of South African and American Studies, 18:4, pp. 307-326. Read it here.

3. The Aesthetics of Black Women’s Sexuality

Read this because one of the most contentious debates is whether the misogyny inherent within Hip Hop is responsible for the hyper-sexualisation of women and the extents to which women’s agency in our own sexualised representations contribute to aspects ranging from the full ownership of our bodies, commercial viability and further marginalisation.

White, Theresa Renee. (2013) “Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott and Nicki Minaj: Fashionistin ’Black Female Sexuality in Hip-Hop Culture—Girl Power or Overpowered?.” Journal of Black Studies 44.6, pp. 607-626.

Read it here.

4. Queering Hip Hop

Read it because in the same way that supposedly straight women have an equal stake in Hip Hop, it is necessary to know that queer people have contributed to this culture too. We know that Hip Hop is dynamic and multidimensional, so it cannot only emerge from black heteromasculinity with straight women as its relational figures. Hip Hop is comprised of many fluid and intersecting sexualities. According to Rinaldo Walcott (2013),

…a case could be made plausibly that hip hop is queer, always has been, and always will be... I would argue that it is precisely in the context of a straightened out hip hop that a queer sociality and definitely a homosociality animates some of hip hop’s most excited moments as the soundtrack of contemporary urban life and beyond.

Walcott, Rinaldo. (2013) “Boyfriends with Clits and Girlfriends with Dicks: Hip Hop’s Queer Future.” Palimpsest: A Journal on Women, Gender, and the Black International, 2:2, vol. 2 pp. 168 – 173. Read it here.

5. Representations of Women in South African Hip Hop Videos

Read this because it is a comparative analysis of how women are represented in a selection of music videos by Hip Hop Pantsula, Slikour and Zuluboy – artists who have been recognised as making music that acknowledges the disparities in society and would therefore be assumed to portray women in a progressive manner.

Nyirenda, Zgagula (2014) “Analysis of gender construction in South African hip-hop music and videos”. MA Thesis. Read it here.

Please note that some of these articles may be difficult to access. Please try to log in to your institution of higher education or consider signing up to the sites to read the work.

* * *