Culture: Hip-hop as the American Negro’s Pathos.

Nearly one hundred years ago today Harlem Renaissance author and poet James Weldon Johnson declared that Negro’s in Latin countries were responsible for producing the greatest poets up to the 1920s. In his Anthology of Negro Poetry, he argued that since racial prejudice in Latin countries was less intense than in its US counterpart, Negro poets did not have to be intensely racial in their writings.

Negro poets in Latin American countries were afforded far reaching artistic freedom because they weren’t confined to purely racial themes as in America. According to Johnson, blacks in the US had many limits that restricted their artistic range to either the singin’ and jivin “happy nigger” role or were portrayed as the pathetic figure in the fields.
They were often compelled to portray black life through slave dialect, stereotypical characters, and caricatured presentations of blackness. that were often confine to humorous buffoonery or sympathetic pity. The Harlem Renaissance forced every ethnic group to expand its idea of what blackness was and could be.
As Harlem Renaissance was in full swing, “mere mutilation of the English language” was no longer enough to be an accurate portrayal of ontological (all) black life. The limits of the dialect left no room for portrayal of blacks as doctors, lawyers, writers, or even poets in the American literary canon–even as these careers became far more realistic for blacks. Portrayals of blacks in poor, destitute environments suddenly was incompatible with with stylish blacks in zoot suits, pin stripes, and top hats.
Johnson’s observation about black poetry in Latin America is a keen one that can easily be applied to Hip-hop. Holding artists to Hip-hop archetypes of hyper-masculinity, debauchery, and hood life severely limits the heights that Hip-hop can achieve as well as the depths of its substance. For sometime, rappers had to fulfill two roles to survive in the rap world. They had to make entertaining party tracks or show that they had come from a desperate, painful past. This, too, limited the range, scope, and appeal of Hip-hop. Recent artists have advanced the culture and shattered those roles by challenging the traditional boundaries of Hip-hop. They insist that their music moves toward a more holistic approach that includes a whole host of feelings and emotions that reflect the diversity of life.
Just as “negro dialect” didn’t adequately express the new aspirations and hopes of blacks during the Harlem Renaissance, Hip-hop’s lack of artistic freedom severely stagnates the music’s ability to appeal to audiences beyond humor or tragedy (e.g a life of poverty, struggle, despair). It is for this reason that Hip-hop has entered an age where its artists can be fundamentally concerned with all aspects of life and humanity. There is room love, hurt, and insecurity, to be expressed alongside the violence, despair, and bravado that was a trademark of early Hip-hop.
A near-century later, Hip-hop has evolved into that medium Johnson prescribed for black poets in the 1920s. Hip-hop has become the Ameican Negro’s Pathos; it is a resourceful device that has enable all to understand, feel, and empathize with the experience of oppression, racism, and dispair like none other.
Johnson claimed that “colored poets need to find a form [of expression] expressing the imagery, the idioms, the peculiar turns of thought, and the distictive(spelling) humor and pathos, too, of the Negro, but which will also be capable of voicing the deepest and highest emotions and aspirations, and allow the widest scope of treatment…”

Johnson was concerned with the American negro being able to convey their story as a means to build support for anti-racist causes (and for good reason). However, he would be pleased to see the progression of Hip-hop and its ability to achieve this ends in such a short time period. The culture maintains its racial flavor, but its appeal to the greater public is an undeniable key. As Hip-hop is able to move beyond stereotypes and began to portray themselves in real (i.e. human) fashion, Hip-hop will continue to broaden its scope beyond racism and poverty which will allow the culture to achieve its true greatness. With a little agitation, Hip-hop poets will take their rightful place as the heir to black poets of the past. Thank God for Hip-hop.

*This is Hip-hop’s Word, govern your life accordingly.
Photo Source: 1, 2, 3.

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