Black Music As Philosophy: We Invented the Remix, Part I

Hip-hop music is unique. It has been multiracial from the start, and it has been embraced and naturalized all over the globe, and yet it still retains a basic, unbreakable connection with its natal black American culture in a way that arguably has not been true for jazz, and certainly not for rock-and-roll.  It is a music of resistance, and it is a music of an economic underclass, and this explains, in many ways, both of those salient facts about it.  It has been embraced globally, because everywhere you go, there is an economic underclass in need of expressions of resistance, and yet it is still black American music (despite every attempt to deracinate and commercialize it) because black people in America are still largely poor and oppressed, and are still resisting.

But what is the philosophical foundation of hip-hop? In what way is it encoding these features?  The obvious place to look is in the lyrical content.  But while hip-hop songs are frequently philosophical, and have espoused any number of unique and interesting philosophies, there isn’t necessarily a unified lyrical throughline for the style. People can and have rapped about every different topic and from point of view. I would argue instead, that the philosophy of hip-hop arises out of the art of sampling, the way it developed, and the way it is deployed.  The lyrics may be the message, but the real philosophical content is here contained by the medium.

According to African musicologist JH Kwabena Nketia the essential quality of African art is polyrhythms, multiple distinct patterns overlapping and interacting with each other. You can see this both in the percussion and the dances of the African diaspora. European art tends to have one main idea (one melodic line, one dominant rhythm, one lead instrument, etcetera), and everything else is meant to support that one main idea. The development of European music is by forward progression –chord changes and structural motion. But the African aesthetic has many different ideas, and it progresses chiefly by addition and subtraction within a framework of repetition. If, for example, you were singing, and another singer in a European tradition wanted to join you, the general expectation is that they would place harmonies under your melody line, or maybe do oohs and ahhs to outline the chord progression.  In the African tradition, however, they might join you with something contrasting in rhythm, style or harmony.

Consider the following video.  A young white American singer is playing guitar outside a store.  A black American listener spontaneously adds a contrasting vocal line (African-style polyphony).  The original singer stops what he was originally singing, and adds harmonies to the new line (European style harmony).  Although this sounds pretty, but the new line was actually intended to play against the original line, as you can see later when the original singer takes up the original part again.  Then, a second black American listener picks up from the first, and ends up freestyling (improvising) a rap over top of the song.

At a superficial level, this is is an illustration of the African polyphonic roots of hip-hop.  But there are a lot more and deeper levels to it. We’ll explore those next time, in Part II.

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