“Your Blues Ain’t Mine:” Why African Americans Dismiss Hip Hop Activists

In most cases, a certain segment of African Americans simply feel that Hip Hop artists have not “earned” the right to speak as African Americans for African Americans.

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Downloaded from the Clarion Ledger

Each generation faces its challenges. Sometimes, natural disasters strike us with a ferocity that leaves us speechless in their wake. They come through without much warning, ripping and tearing with an almost personal touch. From hurricanes to tornados to wildfires, they break us down to that lowest common existential denominator of ourselves until we realize that those who play God were only playing — and we somehow always knew it. For that moment, black, white, rich, poor, man, woman, and child face the same fate. We humble ourselves and we know within the very fiber of our beings that we control nothing. There is a force out there somewhere larger than ourselves and that force is running things — not us. And every generation experiences this. None of us are immune to weather. The annals of history are full of epic floods, catastrophic hurricanes, tornadoes so powerful that bark was stripped from trees, floods that leave homes covered in mud, muck, and snakes when they receded and fires that leave townships looking like atomic bombs have been dropped.

Down through the generations, pandemics have decreased and thinned entire populations. The bubonic plague, smallpox, syphilis, influenza, tuberculosis, polio, AIDS, SARS, and now COVID-19 have devastated entire generations through the years. Syphilis was so devastating that a survey class in Restoration Era British literature finds it being mentioned in most of the theatre and poetry produced during that time. It was so powerful, that one writer said it changed the phenotypical traits of the British people! Syphilis was so powerful that one of the first comic books (what we think of as a comic book, anyway) produced by Hogarth, featured it prominently.

And as the years pass, oppression changes to meet the times. When African Americans walked off the plantations, they were met with Black Code Laws and the extralegal American Holocaust that perpetrated a brand of violence that the world had never seen before. This state-sanctioned, nationwide movement, lynching, which targeted mainly Black men, but affected the entire Black community, birth the Ku Klux Klan and was domestic terrorism at its finest. It came with smiling onlookers and postcards. Collector James Allen gathered these heinous momentos as one publication.

It would take the revolutionary scholarship of the second sister soldier (the first one being Sojourner Truth), Ida B. Wells-Barnett, to bring about national awareness and a slow end to the lynching with her carefully tabulated statistics and her lectures on the international circuit.

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And as soon as this began to wane, the Great Depression came crashing down. To this day, many of our lawmakers shake hands with conservative, evangelical Christians, but worship the economic writings of a godless writer who believes every man and every woman is his/her own God. America finds that it cannot extricate itself from a cruel and heartless economic philosophy that rewards those at the top for selfish and ruthless behavior and punishes those in the middle and the bottom for daring to live out childhood dreams of being more than what somebody somewhere assigned to them. Though we all pay lip-service to the lessons in our respective Sunday school books, we have taken the words of a fictional character and bound them to our economic hearts, “Greed is good” in America. And that’s the real tragedy of our economic lives. We are individuals, tax-payers, healthcare consumers, and insurance consumers. We are everything but members of families, citizens, patients, and human beings.

Then when the Great Depression began to wane, here came World War II. And for the first time in our collective history, African Americans became “urban.” African Americans moved from the plantations of the South to what they thought was better. But here’s the challenge that I give to ALL of my college students: if you move from the plantation of Shelby, Mississippi to the projects of Chicago, Illinois, did you do better of did you just move? From “Whites-only” to redlining…is that better or different?

I can find plenty of these signs of racism in the South for my students in any given class.

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But very few of my students, if any of them (even those from Chicago) have ever seen these kinds of maps.

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This map, downloaded from Chicago Magazine, is a map of all of the redlined areas of Chicago. These areas were the only areas where Black folk could rent. They were relegated to these areas and could get housing nowhere else. To this day, Chicago was and is the world’s most segregated city. Now, while some of my students become highly inflamed, some of them even accuse me of calling their mothers and grandmothers liars, some have even cussed me out and needed to be escorted from my Mississippi classroom because they have been taught that Mississippi is the most backward, racist state in America (but they never stop and ask why their parents send them to college here), many of them begin to understand their lives a little better and thank me for this map.

Inevitably, this lesson leads me to Hip Hop activism. Since we have been so thoroughly taught that “North means better,” we have a problem on our hands in Black America: many people dismiss Hip Hop activists because they feel that Hip Hop activists simply have not earned a right to speak to Black America for Black America. Period. If suffering were a badge, those in Hip Hop culture have not earned it. Having never seen a “whites only sign” or been made to sit in the back of a bus or picked cotton for $2 a day, we simply have not earned a right to speak.

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Isn’t this the real thinking behind Ice Cube’s rejection? And the Trump children are no dummies. They grew up with a father who at least knows how to market to people’s feelings and psychology. This is why Eric Trump felt so comfortable doctoring that photo with Cube and 50. He knew that would ruffle some feathers, because he knew that’s where we are psychological. We are already prone to dismiss Hip Hop activists as chaps who can’t tell us nothing, because Hip Hop activists haven’t paid for the privilege of speaking to our suffering. Hip Hop blues ain’t the right kind of blues. Hell, it ain’t really blues at all, if you ask a certain segment of black folk. And that kind of thinking is nihilistic and self-defeating. Every generation has its own crosses to bear, and what are we going to do if our own people keep invalidating our testimonies?

I chose that picture at the top of this blog, because racism is the same old racism. We are fighting the same old battles across new mediums. The “whites only” signs are gone. Malcolm is gone. Martin is gone. Fannie is gone. John Lewis is gone. Medgar is gone. But our fight hasn’t gone anywhere. We are not “lost.” That picture shows you that we are right on the path. And I am quite tired of being dismissed as if what we have to say is nothing and what we are doing is not worth a hill of beans. What if the generation that had seen slavery dismissed the activism of the generation that went through the American Holocaust? What sense would that have made? The kind of thinking that we are now experiencing in Black America is nihilistic, narcissistic, and self-defeating. And for the life of me, I can’t even find a purpose for it. Criticism is welcome, but only when it is constructive.

LaToya Jefferson-James has a Ph.D. in literature. She specializes in literature of the African Diaspora and cultural criticism.

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