Rap – tracing a history of the musical phenomenon


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“Out on bail, fresh out of jail, California dreaming..”

….The song is quite literally stuck in your head…like a slug in your chest! Recorded straight after Tu Pac’s release from jail, this song very predictably rocked the music charts, showing everyone that “California knows how to party”, but moreover, glorifying the “gangsta” image in an all-new chizz. He had it all, a troubled background to inspire the lyricist in him, the “X” factor to make him a star, and the notoriety to win him the unsavoury publicity from an entire generation…all three ingredients to make him the “Hip Hop Legend”; Welcome to the world of Gangsta Rap…

Yes, this is what makes the million dollar industry of Rap music what it is today. From the demeanour of most of the songs to the mores of Hip Hop artists, to even the nature of concerts, there is one factor that can be deduced as the common denominator- the sense of deviation, of breaking loose! While this social truancy has come to define the very nature of rap culture, it is its historical circumstance that has given it the image it has assumed. Yet, rap looks nothing like what its African forefather was.

Rap and Hip Hop music had their genesis in the African soil, in their traditional music of “Griots”. It was a simple way of story-telling performed skilfully by this class of bards whose job was to memorise poems, stories, and songs. They were, in one sense genealogists, in another, they were political devices. They were often members of the Royal Courts, playing the role of advisors to kings and emperors, to confirm the notorious traveller with an unparalleled wanderlust, Ibn Battuta. What lent them their own brand of charm was the fact that their rendition was accompanied with instrumentation of different sorts. And yet, it was the indigenous art produced by this group that was to revolutionise the world music industry, once and for all!

The Griots of Africa
The Griots of Africa

The Rap traces its roots from this African tradition of narration…” the hip-hop message and protest rappers have an ancestory in the savanna griots”, says David Toop. To fashion it in the African sense, Smitherman gave them the term “post-modern African Griots”. There was definitely a kind of “kinship” to be found in the Rap narratives of today and the archaic Griot rhetorics in the “oral literature” that flowed out of it, the latter embodying more of “urban poetry”. Apparently, the iconic Rap and R & B artiste, Akon too belongs to this proud lineage of the Griots; his father Mor Thiam was in fact a Senegalese griot percussionist.

Rap in the American Continent:

With the advent of the 17th Century, a “Black Holocaust” was ushered by the African slave trade that exploited them into indescribably hard labour in the plantation fields. Detached from their homelands and thrusted with the yoke of slavery, these Africans, subsequently known as African-Americans, relived their homeland-memories through their indigenous music. Drums were, of course, the most besotted instrument used to convey a wide vocabulary of communicative language. Megan Sullivan notes that drums could be used to orchestrate revolts on the fields and slave ships in a manner not decipherable by the Whites, which induced the White owners to impose a ban on drums.

Now that the drums were banned, the slaves started looking for other ways to replenish the music of their roots and hence started the system of producing the drum rhythm in whichever way it was possible- sometimes using European instruments, or sometimes household utensils and at other times even their own bodies and voices! Thus we see the roots of beat-boxing where the bodies act as percussive surfaces. What is noteworthy is, how significant music was in the experience of their lifestyles- in the narration of their experiences of subjugation as well as empowering themselves against the never-ending atrocities they were bound to.

Another important part of the slave songs was “Entrendee” wherefore a lot of metaphors were used to depict a situation or a person, usually the White-owner, who would be covertly slandered in the songs. In the modern rap narrative, the entrendee shows up again in the usage of several imageries or objects that mean something on the surface but imply yet another meaning which is of course very sexualised.

“The big bee flies high…

The little bee makes the honey


…..The black folks make the cotton

And the white folks get the money…”

The legendary character of "Jim Crow" that minstrels enacted. Jim Crow was the personification of a naive, dim-witted, cheerful Black Man, that acted as an instrument of comedy for the White Americans
The legendary character of “Jim Crow” that minstrels enacted. Jim Crow was the personification of a naive, dim-witted, cheerful Black Man that acted as an instrument of comedy for the White Americans

With the coming of the 19th CE, the Black music artists were finally allowed to perform in public, which started off as deriding their own kind but which from the 1880s onwards began to be vocal of their experiences and appealing to a humanity that was universal, regardless of race or colour. These were the way of the minstrels, who soon thereafter developed a music style that synchronised the African ragtime and the European Piano and this came to be known as the Blues, depicting the emotional drainage inflicted by the Civil War, yet inducing sense of hope. The century rolled by as the Nation undulated in its cycle of “Boom” and “Crash”, another World War. The situation reached its zenith in the immediate post-war phase when the Blacks were confronted with the familiar demons of discrimination which had sobered during the War period.

A simultaneity of such unforgiving social conditions accompanied by the disappointment following the hopeful climate of the Civil Rights Movement the frustration only grew as the crisis deepened- unemployment reached a sky-rocketing limit, more of the Afro-American people were falling below the poverty line, and there was a mushrooming of the drug-trade that again made the Black youth the vulnerable scapegoats of police encounters. The musical narrative too underwent a change- the melody of the Jazz gave way to the boisterous RAP! It was loud; it was volatile and unprecedented in a sense. It was a musical response to the covert vandalism directed against this community, and Rap was born out of such environs of brutality. Just as Blues served to voice the melancholy of the Reconstruction period, Rap music served to showcase the exasperation, the inner-city plight and their criticism of political figures and was thus, a form of “political, economic and ideological empowerment”, something akin to that of the Griots’ music. A strong link to the African oral tradition is found in rapid wordplay, rhyming, and acoustic patterns.

The area of origin was the Bronx area of New York City. As William Julius Wilson said, it was more of a “hyper ghetto” where the de-pacification of everyday life produced very violent tendencies, which indeed have been glamorised in recent times. And yet, it is in such conditions of despair that musical effervescence that bound a whole community previously ravaged by Gang wars, is sheer genius. The atmosphere was moreover a vibrant one inundated with random parties in the neighbourhood and it is in one such party on 11th August, 1973 that DJ Kool Herc while spinning records extended break beats that mesmerised his audience and launched the movement. It is he who had coined the term “Hip-Hop” which went on to developing into a culture of his own that comprised of Rap, break dancing and graffiti. He started the episode of punctuating the record music with rhythmic rhyming often inundated with slang phrases.

DJ Cool Herc
DJ Cool Herc

The gang and street wars were a huge impact on this music trend and this has been a huge influence in the music of the next great name, Afrika Bambaataa. Himself a former member of a ruthless gang, he started his music career as an escape from the same; he created the organisation of Zulu Nation and attempted to dissuade the teenage gangs from violence through artistic battles like engaging in break dance. He also combined the elements of Black Nationalism and Radicalism that imbued his music with a social significance. Thereafter, Rap music could no longer remain the besotted of the party-goers; it became an instrument. By then, the Black artists had broken the barriers of racism in the music industry, and the band Sugar Hill Gangs hit their first records. With the end of the ’80s, the most controversial group  Public Enemy rewrote the rules of Rap by allowing it to be chaotic and invigorating acoustically while making it socially relevant by encouraging revolutionary tactics and social activism.

Africa Bambata and the Zulu nation
Africa Bambata and the Zulu nation

By now, Rap music has haunted all the corners of America and is gearing up to spread further. The prime factor was that it became a provided means of free expression that, of course, offered several boundaries.  With this music genre reaching Los Angeles, the phase of “gangster rap” starts that was outright “heretical”; The N.W.A. was a notorious group and their agenda of rebellion as presented in their infamous song “Fuck the Police” got them a warning note from the F.B.I.

Rap continues its journey of mesmerizing more and more people from different worlds, now adapted into the traditional linguistic varieties of different countries. That really is the power of a ghetto-born violence-struck slang-imbued genre of music that has not only helped a severely underprivileged community to break certain barriers but has also managed to seep into the cultural frameworks of different parts of the world.

Niggaz With Attitudes; a notorious hip-hop group
Niggaz With Attitudes; a notorious hip-hop                                 group

Today with the burgeoning commercialization, the Rap has become thoroughly commoditised with elements of misogyny and overt violence, glorifying crime and the “gangsta image”, a feature that has destroyed its functional value, as claims Davey D. Yet when looked at from the other’s perspective, this too is a reflection of the daily life of community within or outside the ghetto-sphere.

Dwelling further on the question, Michael Saunders says, life for a typical Afro-American Community in the impoverished conditions becomes “a race to get paid and get laid, before a bullet stops the party.” Even today, it is a Black youth that is a potential target of unemployment, homicide, racial slurring, “war on drugs” encounters, AIDS and the list indeed continues… Yet beyond the sphere of their imminent lives, what is said to have influenced the women’s objectification is the commercial labeling that has emanated; the various forms of vilification- “bitches”, “niggahs”, “hoes” is what sells! Thus reveals a Rap artist in an interview, “The industry don’t accept that shit when we speak righteously” for me, it thus extends to the larger questions of gender that has perpetuated in our social cultures, for it is this kind of Rap music that is being bought across the continents.

Further, it upholds the historical image of masculinity that is virile, insensitive and adrenaline-infused, which is a perpetuated social trend. May be it is us, the consumers who are calling for such stereotypes of ghetto-centric narratives”; perhaps it is the sense of adventurism that this genre of Rap presents that appeals to the deviant instinct of the listeners.

What, however, emerges as truly remarkable is the triumph that Rap represents, the triumph of a society enslaved for centuries discriminated against for decades. Rap has transgressed into the musical narratives across continents- from Latin-American to Punjabi to Bengali is a tale of ascending to the center by the fringing margins of society and the saga of a people who have won over all conditions of extremity.

Replete with poetry, interluded with sentiments and woven by a great socio-historical narrative, Rap deserves just as much the status of a Fine Art.rap music

The Birth Place of Hip-Hop; today it is celebrated as the pilgrimage of die-hard Hip-Hop lovers
The Birth Place of Hip-Hop; today, it is celebrated as the pilgrimage of die-hard Hip-Hop lovers.


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