Mos Def (Yasiin) on Hip-Hop

A friend of mine once told me that art, rather than being an end unto itself, is actually a tool that works on the artist, that each work an artist creates shapes them much like a chisel shapes a statue. In this view, the actual work of art can be seen as almost inconsequential once it has been created, like the discarded skin of a snake, or the empty cocoon in which a caterpillar turned into a butterfly.

While this interesting view almost trivializes the art itself — at least from the perspective of the purely self-concerned artist — it also offers an interesting biographical perspective of the art as a snapshot of a moment in the artist’s personal development.

If, rather than considering the art attributed to one specific artist, you think of a hotly contested popular contemporary art form, such as hip-hop, you get a far broader, but also far messier view of the relationship between art and artist, not to mention the art’s audience.

This idea is put forth beautifully by Mos Def (now known as Yasiin) in the first two songs off of his 1999 almbum Black on Both Sides. The songs, titled “Fear Not of Man,” and “Hip Hop,” are best taken together. Give them a listen:

“Fear not of man” samples from a track of the same name by Mos Def’s muse, Fela Kuti, who you may remember from my earlier post on “Quiet Dog.” Most of the song is spoken word, wherein Def describes his unique outlook on hip-hop. And while the rest of the song is interesting in its own right, it is the spoken portion that is most applicable to the topic at hand:

People be asking me all the time, “Mos, what’s gonna happen with hip-hop?” I tell them, “you know what’s gonna happen with hip-hop? Whatever’s happening with us. If we smoked out, hip-hop is gonna be smoked out. If we doin’ alright, hip-hop is gonna be doin’ alright.” People talk about hip-hop like it’s some giant living in the hillside, coming down to visit the townspeople. We are hip-hop. Me, you, everybody. So hip-hop is goin’ where we goin’. So the next time you ask yourself where hip-hop is goin’, ask yourself, “where am I going? How am I doing?” Then you get a clear idea.

With this speech, he identifies hip-hop as the art form that it is, rather than — as many view it — mindless entertainment. In fact, with only minor revisions to the wording of this speech, it could be about art in general.

So, even in its most superficial moments, this art form is essentially inseparable from the people creating it and can be taken as symptomatic of the strengths and weaknesses of the people themselves. And if, as critics say, some of it is pointless, violent, misogynistic, and decadent, this can be taken as a reflection of the individual artist rather than the genre as a whole.

When one hears criticisms of hip-hop as a vacuous, purely superficial genre, it is hard to believe that the critics have listened to any songs other than those that easily confirm their bias.

Having introduced the idea of the art form as a barometer of the people, the second track, “Hip Hop,” goes on to define the genre itself, commenting on its myriad forms and situating them within the collective biography of black America.

With the first line, “Speech is my hammer, bang the world into shape,” Mos Def makes some intriguing claims. To him, this is not just a song, but a tool with which he plans to shape the world. If hip-hop can be seen as a reflection of the people who create it, then Mos Def’s work identifies him as one who seeks to be actively engaged in shaping the world that, in turn, shapes him.

With the rest of the song, he effectively defines hip-hop, but that definition is anything but simple. As in his speech from the previous song, he acknowledges that hip hop is shaped by the idiosyncrasies of the artist. But, far from cheapening much maligned genres such as “gangsta rap,” he acknowledges them, not as missteps to be ashamed of, but visceral records of particular aspects of a multi-generational struggle, to be learnt from and built upon.

If hip-hop is the people, then it is also the history that created them. It is a record of successes and failures as well as the voice that can learn from this collective experience and pass these lessons on. It is both a symptom of the disease and the vaccination that hopes to cure it.

Def overtly situates the genre historically when he says:

“We went from pickin’ cotton to chain-gang line choppin’ to beboppin’ to hip-hoppin’. Blues people got the blue-chip stock options. Invisible man got the whole world watchin.”

This quote loosely summarizes a rise from slavery and the simultaneous growth that the music went through during this shift. While the roots and origins of jazz, blues, and hip-hop are difficult to trace and constantly debated, it can be said that they were — among other things — born of a people’s attempt to maintain their identity through a period of horrific oppression.

Over time, as different aspects of this oppression were lifted (or at least lessened), the music grew into an instrument with which an artist could attain a measure of wealth and success. But, as with anything that becomes a commercial success, these things were quickly co-opted by a system that used them to further control the people who produced it.

The line, “The industry’s just a better built cell block,” is particularly indicative of Def’s opinion on this matter. In his career, he has always been outspoken on his disdain for the traditional music industry and the way in which corporate interests control and exploit artists in pursuit of profit.

Once hip-hop was commodified by the music industry, commercial success itself became the motivation of many artists rather than a pleasant side-effect of creating something genuine. Whereas the music was originally successful because it attracted listeners with its unique sound and message, this success inevitably displaced the music as the ultimate goal, a situation that Def describes aptly with the line, “Hip hop went from sellin’ crack to smokin’ it.”

The last minute of the song, from which this line was taken, is an elaborate description of the many faces of hip-hop. Having already overtly described the genre as a representation of the people, he reminds us of what this actually means by listing, at length, some of the many things that hip-hop is.

According to Def, this includes:

– Luxury tenements choking the skyline.
– Ad space for liquor.
– A backwater remedy.
– A class C felony.
– Stimulant.
– Sedative.
– Original.
– Repetitive.
– The working man’s jackpot.
– A two-dollar snack box sold beneath the crack spot.

I list some, but not all, of Def’s descriptions in order convey his point that the genre cannot be as easily compartmentalized as its critics seem to think. If the music is the people who create it, then it is made up of both their positive and negative traits. Hip-hop is not the source of these positive and negative aspects, but merely an expression of them.

This all leads into the final lines of the song, in which Def declares that “hip hop will simply amaze you, craze you, pay you, do whatever you say do, but black, it can’t save you.”

These final lines bring home the point he was trying to make when he declared that hip-hop was inseparably tied to the people. To view it as some mythical force, separate from the artist, is to deny the power that is in the people themselves.

Hip-hop can’t save you. You have to save yourself.

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