Have you ever randomly started spitting lyrics? I mean just break out into a verse in the middle of a conversation because a phrase sparked the memory of the song? Usually, its one of the classics. For instance, “One, two, three, and to the four…,” or “In my younger days, I used to sport a shag…,” and “When we was young, me and my mama had beef, 17 years old, kicked out on the street…” Don’t lie, of course you have!
We all remember them because they are the most unforgettable lyrics of our time. Part of what makes them classic Hip Hop songs is the fusing of three elements–passion, creativity, and delivery. These elements, or the essence of storytelling, are the reason why these lyrics are ingrained onto our minds and what makes us bump them at 90 decibels from our vehicles. We love them so much that we feel them pulsating through our body while we’re driving.
The art of storytelling is not something we learned from Slick Rick in the ’80s, although he remains one of the masters with the smoothest delivery. Rap is an extension of the oral tradition, which began in West Africa over 200 years ago. In Ghanian culture, lessons, virtues, and folktales are passed down from generation to generation orally. Many times, an elder of the community will convene the family and begin to tell them a story. Sometimes the story was a fictional account and other times the story depicted an actual set of events. The elder’s ability to deliver the story with passion, creativity, and intellect determined how the community remembered it and whether they remembered it at all.
To increase participation, many orator’s would employ a call and response technique to their story. The call and response interaction between the elder and the community can be witnessed today anytime an emcee asks the audience a question or gives a command while performing. For example, when an emcee says, “When I say hey, you say ho,” and the audience responds “ho,” they are participating in the oral tradition hundreds of years ago. Enslaved Africans retained this tradition and carried it to the colonies where they were placed. Their cultural retention of this tradition created the avenue for musical genres like Hip Hop, jazz, bebop, rock n’ roll, and R&B, just to name a few.
The elder’s ability to deliver the story with passion, creativity, and intellect determined how the community remembered it and whether they remembered it at all.
If you think about it, the process of employing the oral tradition to move a people, a culture, a nation is evident within American cultural movements such as the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. The most memorable figures of the time–Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., Angela Davis, and JFK–all employed eloquence in their speech, and an unmatched oral ability that made people pay attention to them.
Regardless of if your view was similar to theirs, they made you listen to them. The same is true of today’s Emcees. Nas, Jay-Z, Kanye, T. I., Ludacris, Lil Wayne, Lil Kim, Talib Qweli, Mos Def, Will.I.Am, Lupe Fiasco, Drake, Eminem, 50 Cent, and several other artists; they all have the ability to captivate an audience with their words. These rappers used their lyrical skills to set themselves apart from the rest of the pack.
They are following in the oral tradition that originated amongst African peoples, that was cultivated throughout the Enslavement Period and pioneered centuries later. From their cadence, down to their stylish word play and innovative lyrical content, emcees of today continue the tradition that Civil Rights leaders used to inspire a nation that had been emotionally, physically, and psychologically beaten by hostile and oppressive social conditions. Enslaved African Americans practiced in the sweltering heat, picking cotton, and cleaned homes and nursed children that did not belong to them; that Africans used to convey proverbs, rear children, and entertain family.
The oral tradition is the essence of storytelling. Its how we learn how to express ourselves and how we teach younger generations about our successes and challenges so that they can build on the foundation we set for them. Unfortunately, the tradition, with respect to Hip Hop, has been tainted and lost some of the magic that made us come to love it in the first place, but as long as we recite our favorite lyrics, bump the classics, old and new, and push emcees to create new lyrical content, the magic will never die