Fighting Oppression with Diamonds

The history of hip-hop suggests that it could one day lead to greater participation in capitalism by Black people—for the good of all.

jeff chang, the san francisco bay area author of can’t stop won’t stop a history of the hip hop generation, which won an american book award in 2005
Marissa Leshnov

Jeff Chang, the San Francisco Bay Area author of “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation,” which won an American Book Award in 2005.


In November, Scribner will publish the 50th-anniversary edition of my novel Mumbo Jumbo. My book features a force, which I dub Jes Grew, the phrase borrowed from author James Weldon Johnson. He describes some Black musical forms as having sprung up and gone viral. Jazz and rock and roll are easy examples of forms that took off and became infectious.

Yet there is also something so attractive about Black musical forms that outsiders jeopardize their safety to be in proximity to their life-affirming substance and freedom. Louis Armstrong noted the travelers who risked their lives by coming from behind the then–Iron Curtain to attend his concerts in West Berlin. Nam June Paik, the late video artist, said that rock and roll was one of our country’s most important exports. More recently, the impact of hip-hop on the world has been many times greater than that of film, sports, or fashion. Hip-hop has brought joy and a means of expression to youth the world over, but it also has a nasty side, one that springs from its history and has led to murder and other forms of criminal activity.

In structure and content, the early “toasts” are the ancestor of hip-hop. My study of Yoruba, the language that most Africans spoke when they arrived in North America, indicates a West African connection. No scholar has found why toasts are called toasts. The most famous of the early ones was “The Signifying Monkey,” in which a monkey eggs on a fight between his enemies, a lion and an elephant. The monkey survives his powerful predators by pitting them against each other.

Another proto-rap is “Stagolee,” in which a bad man, Stagolee, after being evicted by a woman for being a lousy lover, kills a bartender who disrespects him, part of an honor/homicide code introduced by Scots-Irish to the South. He then kills another bad man, Billy Lions.

NO LIFE RINGS

While blues musicians tend to survive, the homicide rate among rappers is staggering, a statistic ignored by East Coast academics and media nerds who quote every banal hip-hop line as though it were profound. Violence seems to be part of rap culture. Not to say that violence is specific to Black culture. One police captain described the Westies, an Irish American gang in New York City during the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, as the most vicious of all. Rapper Ice-T says that it’s more dangerous to be a rapper than a drug dealer. The 2005 book Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, by Jeff Chang, and its 2021 young adult edition, adapted by Chang and Dave “Davey D” Cook, document many truces between hip-hop antagonists that were later discarded.

The most famous feud was between two of the titans of hip-hop: Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur. (Shakur mentions me in one version of the song “Still I Rise.”) Both Smalls and Shakur were murdered. According to Chang, signifying—the exchange of insults and taunts—by the two in hip-hop magazines Vibe and the Source might have exacerbated the feud.

Shakur, who was shot five times in 1994, blamed the ambush on Smalls, who attracted suspicion with his song “Who Shot Ya?” At the time of that shooting, Shakur was wearing $40,000 worth of jewelry. He was eventually killed in 1996 after beating up a Crips gang member, whom he accused of stealing a diamond-encrusted pendant from an associate of Death Row Records. Stagolee, in one version of the toast, carries “a diamond-studded cane.”

This article appears in the Summer 2022 issue of Alta Journal.
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The hero of another well-known toast, “Shine Swam On,” has more in common with the monkey in “The Signifying Monkey” than with the main character of “Stagolee,” who is depicted as dressed to the nines—Anthony Squires suit, beaver hat, and so on. Both the Signifying Monkey and Shine use their wits to best those who are more powerful than them.

While “Shine Swam On,” like “The Signifying Monkey,” “Stagolee,” and Homer’s tales, has many versions, scholars agree that the hero is a fictional Black man. Shine works in the boiler room of the Titanic (read: America) and is the first to see that the boat is leaking. His role is that of a sentinel. The captain ignores him, so Shine dives into the Atlantic. Realizing that the ship is sinking, the passengers, including some of the wealthiest and most powerful families in New York, offer him rewards for their rescue. He tells them, “Get your ass in the water and swim like me.”

and how the banker’s daughter ran naked on the deck
with her pink tits trembling and her pants round her neck
screaming Shine Shine save poor me
and I’ll give you all the pussy a black boy needs—
how Shine said now pussy is good and that’s no jive
but you got to swim not fuck to stay alive—
And Shine swam on
Shine Swam on—

I’m quoting from the cleaned-up version.

Shine survives a shark attack (the predator doesn’t like dark meat) and ends his journey in a Harlem bar, where he regales his fellows with stories about his adventure. Verses by anonymous rappers about Shine spring up in 1912, following the Titanic’s sinking. A depiction of the Titanic was the only painting on the walls of my uncle’s house in Chattanooga in the early 1940s. A popular bandleader, Emmett “Chick” Coleman was in touch with the folklore of the streets.

Like its 20th-century rap versions, the Shine toast uses strategies like comic aggression, hyperbole, and unabashed vulgarity, a characteristic of the “street rap” of 50 Cent as opposed to the “bourgeois rap” of Kanye West.

RAP NATIONS

In the 1970s, a new generation in the Bronx breathed life into old art forms like graffiti and breakdance—the latter of which can be found in a 1930s short film called Caravan—and used new technologies to expand their audiences. For graffiti artists, it was access to spray paint. For breakdancers, it was sampling. Beginning humbly with DJs creating assemblages of music from the recordings of artists like James Brown, hip-hop was exported from the Bronx to downtown Manhattan. There, the music style influenced artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose paintings now sell for millions of dollars, and was embraced by the white avant-garde.

DJ Afrika Bambaataa was the Saint Paul of hip-hop’s international reach. Chang and Cook describe how Bambaataa was fascinated with the 1964 movie Zulu, which recounts the 1879 siege of Rorke’s Drift in South Africa’s Natal Province:

When the young Bambaataa saw it in the early ’60s, he was captivated by powerful images of Black solidarity. Before the attack on Rorke’s Drift, hundreds of Zulu warriors appear atop the ridge, leaving the imperial soldiers awestruck and fearful. They bang their spears on their shields, give a resounding war cry, and storm the garrison. Although many of them fall before the British muskets, they just don’t quit. Into the night, the Zulus continue their assaults and succeed in setting the outpost on fire.
“That just blew my mind,” Bambaataa says. “Because at that time we was coons, coloreds, negroes, everything degrading. We was busy watching Heckle and Jeckle, Tarzan—a white guy who is ‘king of the jungle.’ Then I see this movie come out showing Africans fighting for a land that was theirs against the British imperialists.”

From this experience, Bambaataa began Universal Zulu Nation, whose aim was to promote “the idea that hip-hop was created to sustain the ideals of ‘peace, love, unity and having fun’ for all pigment colours, races, religions, nations, and civilizations.”

In 2016, Bambaataa left Zulu Nation after an accusation of child sexual abuse was made against him. In 2021, a lawsuit was filed against Bambaataa for child sex trafficking. At press time, neither case had gone to trial, and Bambaataa says he is innocent.

“Bam probably had the most to do with [hip-hop] being internationalized as well as the dancers,” Cook says. “They went on tour. Then they went around the world. The Rock Steady Crew, a hip-hop group, established chapters in France and elsewhere. Grandmaster Flash and them were overseas. Film was also a factor in hip-hop becoming widespread. Flashdance and then Beat Street helped do that. The internationalization of hip-hop also came about through punk rock; groups like the Clash and Johnny Rotten [of the Sex Pistols] joined rap artists.”

Cook probably knows more about hip-hop than anybody else on the planet. As Davey D, he runs a popular hip-hop show on the Berkeley-based public radio station KPFA that comes on each weekday at 4 p.m. As a citizen journalist myself, one who has written articles about the skewed, asymmetrical representation of Black life by a corporate media that, in terms of diversity, is 50 years behind the South, I became interested in West Coast hip-hoppers, whom Chang and Cook describe as “street reporters” and who were responding to East Coast rappers who accused them of inserting violence into hip-hop. Often, West Coast rappers are members of families that migrated from Louisiana, Arkansas, and Texas, where weapons are considered family members, too. They reply to their critics that their lyrics only reflect their reality.

If hip-hoppers did have a TV network, it would probably resemble Davey D’s radio show. There’s nothing else like it, and with his vast network of hip-hop performers and street activists, he sounds like a foreign correspondent, providing information that network Blacks are forbidden from addressing. If rap is Black America’s CNN, then Davey D is its CEO.

I ask Chang how his collaboration with Cook came about. “My editor for the original Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, Monique Patterson, came to me several years back now and was like, ‘We should do a young adult version of this for the anniversary of the book,’ and I was really into it,” he says. “This was before things started jumping off in 2020. We were supposed to get it done the year before [the pandemic]. I told Monique that I wanted to deal with Davey D for many reasons. Among them, we’ve been friends since we went to Cal together.”

dave “davey d” cook runs a popular hip hop show on kpfa, a radio station in berkeley, and coauthored the young adult edition of can’t stop won’t stop
Dave “Davey D” Cook runs a popular hip-hop show on KPFA, a radio station in Berkeley, and coauthored the young adult edition of “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop.”
Marissa Leshnov

REVOLUTION ROCK

Chang and Cook make a good case about how hip-hop has become a tool for insurgencies, including the Arab Spring and the recent protests against the government of Cuba. Hip-hop artists have been subjected to retaliation by governments that they have subverted. Shakur agitated against the end of affirmative action and against anti-
immigration policies.

At the same time, there seems to be a yearning on the part of some for the diamonds that capitalist success can provide. Often, it means partnering with corporations. 50 Cent, who was shot nine times, made a film called Get Rich or Die Tryin’ that was distributed by Paramount Pictures. Compton AV licensed his “Money Dance” for use in advertisements by SoFi. Many commercials on television borrow from hip-hop culture. Chase Bank uses a hip-hop dance. Cadillac uses hip-hop music. Davey D often talks about how capitalism has absorbed hip-hop. Capitalism is like a shark moving through the waters, devouring everything it encounters.

One of the greatest tributes to a movement is its co-optation by capitalism, once profitability has been demonstrated, even when the movement is opposed to it, while communism and its promise of a proletarian dictatorship remain a theory. Of course, if everyone had access to a $125 million yacht and a $1.4 billion home like Comrade Putin’s, millions would request membership in the party.

But with streaming services like Spotify and Apple destroying hip-hop labels’ chances of selling records, thousands of mom-and-pop operations will go broke. Some, however, may survive, like the talented hip-hop performers at the Super Bowl 2022 halftime show. It was sponsored by PepsiCo, whose brand name is the very symbol of capitalism.

Did the National Football League hire Snoop Dogg, Eminem, and Mary J. Blige to distract from the league’s problems with race? That in legal settlements over concussion-related injuries, it has made compensation harder for Black players to attain than for whites, by claiming that the former have lower cognitive abilities—part of its so-called race-norming policies? That the league has only five head coaches of color and no Black team owners? Yet a majority of the players are—you guessed it—Black.

Chang says that the most prominent hip-hoppers today are women. “We’re not talking about Nicki Minaj anymore. We’re talking about Cardi B; we’re talking about Megan Thee Stallion. We’re talking about these kinds of artists who are setting both the artistic level and the content level. Queer artists like Lil Nas X and Cardi B are the two biggest stars. So it’s a fundamental shift from the ’90s, where people talked about how all the women rappers couldn’t get contracts.”

Chang is correct. Blige was celebrated on the cover of the New York Times Magazine in March. The issue’s title was “The Songs That Get Us Through It,” meaning the suffering of women at the hands of Black men, judging from the slant of her interview with Angela Flournoy, “Mary J. Blige on the Beauty of Vulnerability.” Blige’s stance is a departure from the attitudes of feminist icons Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston, in whose stories women can be just as awful as men.

At one point, Flournoy relates how Blige says she identifies with a character she plays on the Starz show Power Book II: Ghost, someone who will do what it takes to survive in “a ruthless male-dominated world.” If Blige can identify an institution dominated by Black men, I’d like to hear about it. They can’t even dominate the underground economy at which they’re supposed to be good, according to Hollywood films and television series. Members of so-called model-minority groups make most of the profits from vice in Oakland, the city I live in, and no Black pimp has risen to the financial heights of Jeffrey Epstein.

DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER

In 1874, emancipated Blacks lost $3 million in the Freedman’s Savings Bank because the federal government reneged on its promise to guarantee the bank’s loans. Frederick Douglass said of the bank, “[It] was the Black man’s cow but the white man’s milk.”

Since then, capitalism has been hostile to Blacks acquiring assets. The rise of hip-hop, from its origins in toasts to its resurgence in the Bronx to its emergence as a worldwide movement, suggests the possibilities for a reinvigorated form of capitalism. If Blacks are no longer denied social equity, and if they are given a chance to apply the skills that made hip-hop successful to other industries, they might run away with capitalism itself. Unlike the current system, which is based on greed, this new mode of capitalism could use profits for the general good. It’s what the president of Botswana did when he used proceeds from the country’s diamonds to build infrastructure and schools.•

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