By Regina Bradley
Recently, John Legend tweeted that he was about to perform with the hip-hop group The Roots and threw out the term “hip hop soul.” Fascinated, I tried to think of some sexy, academic way to place this term in our current state of hip-hop culture. I got nothin’.
Well, almost nothing. Legend’s blending of rap and Soul music speaks to an attempt to bridge generations. It also seeks to address how memory is shaping contemporary black music and identity.
Black music has long been a gauge of the temperament and social trauma afflicting African Americans. Often it eased, uplifted, and re-enforced the African American spirit.
Here’s an abbreviated walk through:
Black music’s complex formula of intertwining agency and aesthetics is especially prevalent in its trajectory. Negro Spirituals, for example, reflected the fusion and critique of Anglo-Christian theology with slave culture. Using the Biblical Old Testament and, more specifically, the book of Exodus, slaves coded messages of escape and disdain through their communal singing.
Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues,” Curtis Mayfield’s “Freddie’s Dead,” and Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street” are only a sampling of the soundtrack that mirrored the struggle and frustration echoed by blacks in the turbulent 1960s and 1970s. Soul’s integration into mid 20th century black life is a fascinating journey. It gave voice to the grittier aspects of the African American experience that gospel music often attempted to ameliorate or overlook.
Soul music made space for hip-hop, reflecting a change in generational observations about similar social ills that afflicted their predecessors. Any suppressed anger left over from the Black Power and Civil Rights Movements extrapolated in rap narratives.
Performers from Melle Mel and Schoolly D to Public Enemy spoke on drug, gang and street culture, acknowledging the quickly deteriorating state of the African American working class.
While rap music and culture later branched out into more “pop-ish” and manufactured subcategories (which is a whole ‘notha essay), black consciousness continued to have a pulsating presence. Rap music’s interpretation of the black experience not only shaped the contemporary idea of Black music, but it also has defined today’s perception of what it means to be black. A prime example of this would be the music and life of Tupac Shakur.
Which leads me back to Legend’s usage of the expression “hip hop soul.” I can definitely see where these two genres intersect and how contemporary music that references both genres can be considered as such. Black culture, like our experience, is never a monolith. Look at the sampling of soul music in mainstream rap. And let’s not forget the industry’s need to repackage artists who exhibit heavy soul influence as “Neo-Soul.”
What is problematic about this latest trend in African American cultural expression is the nagging presence of the need to create something new without the acknowledgement of past contributions. This is indeed the remix era of popular black culture.
In his book Race Music, Gus Ramsey observes that “music and musical practices continue to play a crucial role in the creation, renegotiation, and critique” of what he calls the authenticity trope. Ramsey’s suggestion fits today’s cultural climate because of a constant search to reaffirm a realistic, lived black American experience. This need often frames African American expression.
In other words, what hip-hoppers consider authentic diverges from what blackness meant and looked like for Soul crooners in the 1960s.
Perhaps Legend was inadvertently issuing a call to arms for rekindling black conscious music. Or perhaps he just wanted to send out an artistic tweet. Either way, hip-hop Soul or hip-hop’s soul is being negotiated. Again.
Regina N. Bradley is a doctoral candidate in African American Literature and Culture at Florida State University. She blogs about identity politics, African-American humor, and popular culture at Red Clay Scholar (http://redclayscholar.blogspot.com).