To hear what South Africans call ‘praise-singing is to recognize immediately two things: first, that hip-hop’s musical roots lie quite a bit farther east than the Bronx, and secondly, to quote Jay-Z, “you are who you are before you’re born, playa.”
That the only art forms to spring from North American soil–jazz and hip-hop–are actually African emigres should surprise no one with a sense of history. What is surprising, however–indeed almost jarring–is hip-hop’s enduring and expansive influence, and it’s evolution from simple entertainment to something more transcendent, almost ethereal.
Twenty years ago this month I was sitting down to Sunday brunch in Washington DC when a friend asked: “Did you hear about Biggie?” I had not, and quickly lost my appetite for food when I was told of his murder only six months after 2Pac’s. I also lost my appetite for hip-hop thinking the genre could never survive the loss of its two greatest auteurs.
From time-to-time, I was reminded of its possibilities–the African villagers who bickered, loudly, over 2pac and Biggie, the evangelical zeal the music generated from Romania to Reykjavik, Gaza to Guam, or any of a dozen Common lyrics before he went Hollywood.
I start thinking how many souls hip-hop has affected
How many dead folks this art resurrected
How many nations this culture connected
But I mostly tuned it out for the decade that followed Biggie’s death, like the music playing in the dentist’s office.
I started to drift back gradually at first, then picking up intensity about a decade ago when I moved to Brooklyn and discovered that I couldn’t have been more wrong; Hip-hop could not replace 2Pac or Biggie, but it has flourished artistically at the grassroots level even as the industry’s commercial overseers have shorn it of its tallest branches, like an exotic parasite that rots a treetop while oddly strengthening its trunk.
Hip-hop music, overall, has never been so gorgeous as it is now. And perhaps the reason is simple: we have never needed to reconnect with our humanity so much as we do now, with the American Empire in freefall.
As part of my re-immersion into hip-hop I stumbled upon the young woman below just a week ago, and while I like her, that’s not really the point: what I truly love is the idea of her, a young Latina finding her voice–asserting her velocity – in a music that was born in Africa, crossed the Atlantic Ocean, and washed ashore, like a message in a bottle, to tell us a story, and guide us home.