Unveiling Rap

There isn’t a culture in the world that doesn’t accord the highest esteem to its
original music, just as individuals cherish their favorite music, regardless of
its origins.

Of the world’s many languages music alone resists translation. Its meaning is as
elusive as the wind we cannot clutch but always feel in our midst. It allows us
to indulge feelings we would feel ill at ease with if they were expressed in any
other language. Music is that friend outside ourselves who understands us as we
would like to be understood. No one would think of saying he can’t face the
literature (poetry), or he can’t face the painting. But we all have used the
expression: he can’t face the music. In the 1920s Irving Berlin wrote a song,
recently popularized by Diana Krall, entitled: “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.”
In both instances, music is substituted for truth.The music we create or love to listen to is our confession to the world. The
plaintive silences that estrange parents from their children and different
cultures from one another vibrate with music we choose to ignore. For every
feeling, inchoate or articulate, of anger, rage, unfulfilled longing,
insecurity, alienation, there is a musical counterpoint, and is the reason to
listen to music outside our personal preferences. And when new feelings arise
consequent to the world that is changing around us, new music forms come into
being through which we express how we feel about ourselves in the uncharted
waters of a perpetually unfolding present. Some of the music we think we don’t
like (rap, hip-hop, acid jazz, techno, house,) is perhaps music we haven’t
understood or don’t want to understand — about how people feel about themselves
in today’s world.

The least interesting thing anyone can say about new music, or any music for
that matter, is that he doesn’t like it. It takes no effort not to like any
number of musical genres, that like Spanish or Chinese are languages to be
learned; a painstaking process that requires time, patience and willingness to
meet what is there on its own terms.

So yes. For the record, I can only scratch the surface of, for example, Rap
music, that for a rapper is a way of being and transcending. But as someone’s
confession about how he feels about himself in a world that I am partly
responsible for, I am interested because I ‘choose’ to be.

In the history of music, Rap is the precursor of the visual arts equivalent of
minimalism. That art and music have found their ‘vital pulse’ in minimalism as
the 20th century comes to a close is not a coincidence. In the 15th and 16th
centuries, when both Renaissance and Baroque art and music offered the senses
the greatest variety of expression, it was in direct contrast to the monotony of
life, mostly lived in one town or village, where the days predictably blurred
into each other over a lifetime. Today, where frenetic change is the new
paradigm, we insist that the arts and music provide the simplicity and clarity
that is lacking in our daily life. [That literature has yet to discover its
equivalent of minimalism, may be the reason why it (as opposed to books) is
hardly read anymore].

In the words rapport, Rap Brown, beat the rap, trapped, dérapé (French for out
of control) we find the word Rap. Rap is reverse capitalism, reverse
colonialism. Rap is the reflux of Reagan economics. Rap is oblivion. Rap is
Prozac wrapped in rapt, based on a sustained, one-note harmonic, that is hardly
a melody, that repeats from the outset until the song ends. From America to the
Arab quarters in major French cities to Africa and Indonesia, it is listened to

Embedded in the ghetto origins of Rap is the founding principle that melody is a
bourgeois luxury rappers can’t afford. For the world’s millions that live on the
wrong side of the DOW Industrial, melody has nothing to do with the wail of
sirens, drug addiction, crime, poverty, despair, domestic violence. The
repetition in Rap might be the rap of someone banging his head against a wall
over and over again, protesting against the life he can’t get out of that he
doesn’t want to lead that doesn’t let him live, that doesn’t allow him dignity,
self-esteem, a place in a community. Rap (poised like a snap inside the words
crap and beat the rap) is someone’s confession about how it feels to be trapped
in a ‘no exit’ life.

Since none of us is genetically predisposed to create Rap, or to be trapped, or
dérapé (out of control), how many consecutive negative life experiences does it
take to grow a rapper? Is there a significant relationship between the tax law
that allows the Reichman family to dump billions of dollars into a tax-exempt,
off-shore account, and the millions of tax dollars Revenue Canada doesn’t have
that could be used to counter the ghetto conditions that spawn Rap? That Rap and
its derivations have become part of main stream popular culture that appeal to
have-nots everywhere should come as no surprise. We ignore the foreboding
rhythms of Rap, that sometimes sound eerily similar to the music of an assault
weapon, at our own peril.

At some point in the life of someone who is no one and nowhere, he’ll try
anything that promises to dull the brain. And why not? Why should he want to
know more about self-loathing that has no cure, about his life that has become
everyone’s embarrassment. Coming to his rescue, like the endless drones of baul,
or alar or sufi music that have lightened the burden of 100ds of millions of
India’s dispossessed, is Rap and its transcendental monotony. It would be
self-defeating if either music were complicated. Its function is as
straightforward as its structure; and every time it plays it asks: Do you have
enough mind or whatever it takes to catch up to that one single note, that one
magical vibration that hovers like carpet – and lift off and drift away and
leave that stinking world behind you – for as long as you can, for as long as
the music lasts? In the context of human suffering that most of us cannot begin
to fathom, a 3 minute pop tune is a joke, an insult, a non sequitor.

Despite the much ballyhooed recombinant high-tech revolutions in fiber-optics,
and unprecedented wealth the world is apparently generating, in both rich and
poor nations the conditions of life are such that millions upon millions of
people are drawn to the properties that inhere in a single note that repeats
over and over again until the mind goes numb, or slips into a trance or stupor.

Like an explosion scarred into metal, Rap has become one of the places where the
have-nots gather to register their high-octane confessions to the world. And
where prose and poetry fly off the sustained note like sparks in the night, the
words are the reason and justification for indulging the music. Through a
persistent, unvaried harmonic that connects the culture of unvaried days and
rappers to each other, rap culture is serving notice that there are people out
there who exist for numbness which is their death wish, that they don’t’ give a
damn about themselves – or us. And every time we don’t hear them the music plays
louder and longer. Eventually something has got to give. And what gives gets on
the 6 o’clock news.

[Photo 1: Cuban rap group Orishas, Photo 2: Senegalese rap band Daara J].

[Search our artist database for hip hop (or hip hop-influenced) artists, here

Hip Hop