On Jay-Z, the Criteria for Negro Art, and “the Old Guard.”

With about two days notice, and on my birthday, my company asked me to get on a plane to help organize the first unionized luxury Hotel in Texas history a few years ago. As young as five, I remember envisioning myself living in Los Angeles and New York, but being explicit about never wanting to even visit Texas.  When I arrived in Houston, I found myself being consumed by work and writing. It was during these times that I was able to develop my skills as a writer and  eventually create The Word::Life Publication. This is a piece that I wrote as the editor for Revibe during those years of working on my craft. I asked The Word::Life Collective’s Taylor Hunter to write a literary response. Here it is.


Part 1.

Jay Z’s declaration of the “Death of Autotune” last summer sent a ripple effect throughout the Hip-hop community. The significance of one of the few true giants in our industry laying down the metaphorical gauntlet against the surge of T-Painer’s should not be overlooked. What it represents is a generational divide that will determine the direction of our culture. Hip-hop is too young to have ever had a generational gap because the culture hasn’t been around long enough to sample that great of a shift. Here you have a 40 year-old, albeit one of the greatest MCs of all time, seeking to dictate the ebb and flow of a culture that by definition has always been guided by the youth.

Whenever a reinterpretation of any beloved art form emerges, there is some sort of backlash from the “old guard.” This cultural dynamic is one that has been played out time and again. Jay-Z’s lyrics on “Death of Autotune” is a prime example of an “old guard” reaction: Jay-Z , now the statesmanlike figure of Hip-hop, uses his  power to exercise  his conservative, traditional agenda in lieu of younger Hip-hop artists who were taking the culture in a direction he didn’t approve of: using auto tuned vocals.

Hopefully the irony is not lost on the idea of Jay-Z, an artist who in his heyday took the culture by storm without concern for the disapproving eyes of  his parents or peers in brazenly unapologetic fashion, seen here positioning himself as a traditionalist so many years later: Jay argues, “my raps don’t have melodies/this shit make niggas wan’n commit felonies” in an effort to curb an inevitable transition occurring in Hip-hop. Jay’s main criticism, at-least on the surface is on the uninspired use of an auto-tune synthesizer as a way to make hit records in the most formulaic ways. Underling his attack against autotune, is his desire to tackle   “lack of aggression” in Hip-hop that has popped up in the advent of Kanye West.

The consequence of N.W.A.’s prominence in Hip-hop during its early development was that artists have had to fit a certain mold to survive in Hip-hop. The gangster/drug dealer/misogynist trifecta that N.W.A. glorified became the necessary persona to  survive in Hip-hop. As a result, MCs were boxed in because there were a whole range of emotions/personas that they could not access. Jay-Z wants to throw back to that time where Hip-hop was gutter and testosterone driven. But sadly, more than 20 years since N.W.A. took domain,  Hip-hop’s collective identity has been released from the codes that restrict individual expression and curbs innovation in our culture. Jay-Z may not like it, but that is the way of Hip-hop’s youthful culture.

Jay-Z is in danger of repeating the “old guard’s”‘ past mistakes. As patrons of their respective arts movements, they must trust that they have cultivated the psyche of artists that coming after them the resiliency to develop art that is original to their own specific generation.

Part 2.

Jay’s “DOA” moment is reminiscent of one other artistic icon –William Edward Burghardt Dubois– dealing with the changing tide of a literary black culture that he established and pioneered; but was no longer the central figure. The many aesthetic similarities between Jay-Z and activist, poet, and essayist, W. E.B. DuBois are striking when analyzed closely. Both are notorious for their smug, even arrogant, personas. Both have earned reputations for being aware of their own historical importance. Both have proven to be versatile in several different industries and disciplines. And lastly, both have attempted to exert their dominance in a time that belongs to their younger successors.

Dubois, considered the “father of black intellectualism” developed an affinity for the new arts movement when the Harlem Renaissance artists emerged in the 1920s…initially. But that quickly faded into resentment toward the new generation and their reincarnation of black intellectual and artistic expression. For example, he began to criticize his New Negro counterparts for being inauthentic representations of blackness. The ironic thing about his turnabout is that the younger literary movement, which  included the likes of Langston Hughes and Zora Neal Hurston, were both influenced by DuBois’s early and later writings. In essence, their differences weren’t substantive; they were differences of aesthetic values.

DuBois’s version of “D.O.A.” was titled “The Criteria for Negro Art” where he attempted to take the reigns of a movement that was certainly cultivated by him but belong to the emerging generation to decide the direction of their own art. The result was that DuBois began to lose respect among those who were inspired by him in the first place. Just as Jay-Z doesn’t understand why “you niggas jeans to tight/…/your voice too light/..” DuBois too, had trouble relating to the culture and style of dress that the Harlem Renaissance artists indulged in. DuBois viewed blues music as vulgar and jazz as unrefined in a time where the young literary artists were writing poems that expressed the exact opposite. To these stylish young folk , new forms of art that allowed them more range to express both their limitless aspirations and the stunting frustration of enduring racism.

This is not a complete break with the black exceptionalism found in DuBois’ writings; it is merely a widening of black portrayals to include those on the fringes in the community. For him, these new representations of black art that weren’t primarily concerned with portraying middle class blacks. DuBois was firm in his belief that black artists should spread propaganda about positive images of black life. The new artists aim was to give a more varied, intersectional portrayal of black life. Thank God for Hip-hop.


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