James Baldwin's Vision & Love of Hip-Hop
I Am Not Your Negro
Since James Baldwin’s death, we have now entered a period of meta-understanding of the racism and the system built upon the massacre of the indigenous people of North America by European settlers. Furthermore, the use of human labour under conditions deemed slavery, provided the basis for expansion of the American Empire, lead to the induction of the “American Dream” lived by White-Americans in the 1950s. However, it was not until the 1960s that Black-Americans were deemed equal partners to their racially polarized counterparts through the Civil Rights act of 1964. Given these existing historical events, Baldwin suggests that instead of focusing on exterminating racism, rather, the identity of the African-American lies within their ability to gain freedom and reject the captivity imposed by the racism of the White American System, where hip-hop provides the avenue to freedom through education.
To identify as an African-American would be to acknowledge the struggle of the past and current youth that fought for their respective rights. In the past, James Baldwin recognizes the struggles of the late Martin Luther King Jr., Malik El-Shabazz, and Medgar Evars and outlines his own struggle as a writer, he focused on being “behind-the-scenes.” A 1961 article about James Baldwin’s first novel states:
“A young Negro writer named James Baldwin printed an impassioned essay… writing as a Negro rather than an individual artist, the pressures of experience have forced Baldwin to do his best work as an individual artist precisely when writing as a Negro.”
Fast-forward more than 50 years later and Baldwin’s posthumous response comes in the form of an autobiographical film, I Am Not Your Negro. In a lecture, Baldwin states, “It is terrible to watch people cling to their captivity and insist on their own destruction.” James Baldwin left Harlem for Paris with $40 in his pocket only to live on the street. He justified these hardships in France because, as a writer, he felt that any environment other than the captivity within the American system would set his art free. Baldwin speaks of “paying dues” and stresses that part of his reason for coming back to America. He has a vast understanding of the future that was to come for Americans of all races.
Baldwin spoke of gaining freedom from rejecting the common narrative twisted by American society, including their education and mass-media system. He begins by raising his concerns with the Golden Hero that being White brings and states, “When… any white man in the world says ‘give me liberty or give me death’, the whole world applauds. When a black man says exactly the same thing, word for word, he is judged a criminal and treated like one and anything possible is done… so there won’t be any more like him.” The common narrative comes with the mass incarceration of Black males from gun and drug violence, avenues chosen simply to rebel against the system set to destroy them and prevent them to excel. A$AP Twelvyy best reminisces stating, “I wouldn't really worry 'bout no raps/I was movin' straps/This is all facts/Me and Dame tried it to the max.” Twelvyy reflects on the environment having aversion to positive creation such as in hip-hop and forced Black males into a state of survival leading to loss to the prison system or homicide. Baldwin’s analysis exceeds the measures by Gandhi and Martin Luther King who promoted non-violence; in fact, he states that knowledge of self represents the highest key to co-exist within the American Empire and realize the world has potential for growth and grow outside the box:
“We are cruelly trapped between what we would like to be and what we actually are. And we cannot possible become what we would like to be until we are willing to ask ourselves just why the lives we lead on this continent are mainly so empty, so tame, and so ugly.”
The identity of the African-American faces constant bombardment with stereotypes that constantly place pressure in preventing true growth along with systematic racism that prevents any proper education, health, or employment to be fruitfully attained by the majority of African-Americans. Kendrick Lamar echoes the same need to reach an understanding of his, “And I can't take these feelings with me/So hopefully they disperse/Within fourteen tracks, carried out over wax/Searchin' for resolutions until somebody get back.”
The fallacy of the American Dream stated by Baldwin creates a strain on the balance between African and White-Americans. Baldwin puts his flag in the ground, announcing:
“The American way of life has failed—to make people happier or make them better. We do not want to admit this, and we do not admit it. We persist in believing that the empty and criminal among our children are the result of some miscalculation, in the formula that can be corrected… to be gregarious and democratic.”
The best response to these lines can be found from Ab-soul on Do What Thou Wilt. where on the track "INvocation" he alliterates, “This where the wealthy need welfare.” The captivity that White-American’s have perpetrated on African-Americans ends with the entire system being a failure to a people who helped found the country with their labour and efforts. The result is that neither the White-American’s see any benefit from living and require saving from their own toxic lifestyle, history and ignorance. In fact, Baldwin further states, “The industry is compelled, given the way it is built, to present to the American people a self-perpetuating fantasy of American life.” The fantasy finds those who follow artists that represent the true essence of hip-hop such as Ab-soul and Kendrick Lamar, where on their track “HiiiPower” off Section 80 by Kendrick Lamar, Kendrick asks, “What’s your life about enlighten me/Is you going to live on your knees or die on your feet?” He asks for his fellow Americans and also generation to fight against the apathy induced by the American history that forces respect for a system that only wants the rich to succeed. Off DAMN. his most commercially successful project, Kendrick states on “YAH,” “I'm not a politician, I'm not 'bout a religion/I'm a Israelite, don't call me Black no mo'/That word is only a color, it ain't facts no mo'.” The knowledge of self finds Kendrick looking at religion prior to slavery and in biblical times where African-Americans can find solace knowing that there is freedom from the mental slavery—through hip-hop.
The utilization of hip-hop as a tool for reflection and education for the youth allows them to fully understand the unnecessary racism created by the American system of living. Through the avenues of paying dues, Baldwin created a platform for writers to express themselves even in environments that suppress a needed voice. His legacy lives on through hip-hop and the many great writers, be it in hip-hop, poetry or literature.