In The Creative Process, James Baldwin writes that artists are “enjoined to conquer the great wilderness of [themselves]” and they explore the human soul in order to “blaze roads through that vast forest”. An artist’s exploration of themselves is to society’s benefit, for their productions of human expression may be universally interpreted and received. An artist’s goal is to express how they feel into a form or medium that others can understand. A work of art communicates emotion without explanation, “to make vivid” the perspective and experiences of the artist. It communicates with and connects an artist to other people for the artist’s “state [is] the state of everyone”. Artists create from a place everyone experiences, from emotions everyone feels, “birth, suffering, love, and death are…extreme, universal, and inescapable [states]”. These extreme emotional states are found in the vast, mysterious forest that is the human soul.
Artists force their audience to reflect on themselves. They tell truths not through explanation but emotion, and sometimes that truth is ugly. Baldwin communicates his truth, his cultural perspective and experiences in his stories. His short story Going to Meet the Man is about a police officer in a southern town during a summer of the Civil Rights movement. The story revolves around themes of racism, violence, and sexual repression, and the horrendous damage caused by these things being normalized. It is a stern and grotesque reality Baldwin is illustrating through fiction, but a cultural truth he has seen and experienced.
From Blood, Bread, and Poetry Adrienne Rich writes,
Perhaps many white North Americans fear an overtly political art because it might persuade us emotionally of what we think we are ‘rationally’ against; it might get us on a level we have lost touch with, undermine the safety we have built for ourselves, remind us of what is better left forgotten.
This is how effective art can be; it can overcome explanations with emotion. In the same vein of Rich, Baldwin writes that “The entire purpose of society to create a bulwark against the inner and outer chaos, in order to make life bearable”. Art then not only bursts our personal bubbles of limited perception and stimuli, but works away at the societal blinders intended to maintain the illusion of stability. It is up to the artist to not teach, but to remind, “that there is nothing stable under heaven”.
So what does this have to do with hip hop? Well, hip hop too shows us that there is nothing stable under heaven. That the dominant, more-visible reality hides a deeper one. That actions and achievements in that dominant view take some things for granted that the other reality cannot. Hip hop, and I emphasize it’s music, illuminates the tragic, regrettable, darker moments that have been “modified or suppressed and lied about … in our history”.
In his song “Mathematics“, Yasiin Bey expresses his belief that social institutions, especially the justice system, work against Black Americans and that economic structure puts the working poor at severe disadvantage, making their communities more susceptible to criminal activity. Bey raps,
Hip-Hop passed all your tall social hurdles
Like the nationwide project-prison-industry complex
Working-class poor: better keep your alarm set
Streets too loud to ever hear freedom ring
Say evacuate your sleep, it’s dangerous to dream
For ch-ching, cats get the “cha-pow!” You dead now
Killing fields need blood to graze the cash cow
It’s a numbers game, but shit don’t add up somehow
And since I can’t and won’t settle with just one quote from this song
The white unemployment rate? It’s nearly more than triple for black
Some front-liners got their gun in your back
Bubbling crack, jewel theft and robbery to combat poverty
And end up in the global jail economy
Stiffer stipulations attached to each sentence
Budget cutbacks but increased police presence
And even if you get out of prison still living
Join the other 5 million under state supervision
This is business: no faces, just lines and statistics
From your phone, your zip code to S-S-I digits
The system break man, child, and women into figures
2 columns for “who is” and “who ain’t niggas”
Bey’s lyrics reflect a very palpable social reality, what author and law professor Michelle Alexander calls The New Jim Crow .
Below are few more songs and lyrics that show perspective and experiences in art that reflects culture or society at large.
We ’bout to change the mentality
Of old world savagery into a new reality
One where teachers and lawyers will trade salaries
And liquor stores are razed to make way for art galleries
With one common thread we weave a global tapestry
Peace will be your motto when you follow the analogy
Down from the mountains to echo throughout the valley
It’s the shouts of the soldiers in my cavalry
We don’t really like to talk about the race thing
The whole grandparents used to own slaves thing
Pat ourselves on the back in February
Looking at pictures of Abe Lincoln and the great King
But the real picture’s much more embarrassing
We’re still not even close to really sharing things
The situation of oppressed people
Shows what we feel it means to be a human being
What does it mean to be American?
I think the struggle to be free is our inheritance
And if we say it how it really is
We know our lily skin still give us privilege
These examples show how the art form of rap (Rhythm And Poetry) may be employed to express dissatisfaction with mainstream culture. Through music they can garner a broad audience for their message. However a work of art has unlimited functions it can serve, and being a reflection of societal and cultural shortcoming is but one. Rap is also a powerful medium for a more personal, self reflective expression that taps into Baldwin’s extreme, universal states.
Man, I promise, I’m so self-conscious
That’s why you always see me
With at least one of my watches
Rollie’s and Pasha’s done drove me crazy
I can’t even pronounce nothin’, pass that Ver-say-see!
Then I spent four hundred bucks on this
Just to be like, “Nigga, you ain’t up on this.”
And I can’t even go to the grocery store
Without some Ones that’s clean and a shirt with a team
It seem we livin’ the American Dream
But the people highest up got the lowest self-esteem
The prettiest people do the ugliest things
You preached in front of 100,000 but never reached her
I fuckin’ tell you, you fuckin’ failure—you ain’t no leader!
I never liked you, forever despise you—I don’t need you!
The world don’t need you, don’t let them deceive you
Numbers lie too, fuck your pride too, that’s for dedication
Thought money would change you
Made you more complacent
I fuckin’ hate you, I hope you embrace it
Yesterday, was that you? Looked just like you
Strange things my imagination might do
Take a breath, reflect on what we’ve been through
Or am I just going crazy ‘cause I miss you?
Alright so rappers are artists…so what? What does this have to do with democracy? John Dewey wrote in Democracy is Radical that “The fundamental principle of democracy is that the ends of freedom and individuality for all can be attained only be means that accord with those ends”. Only by people being given the right to speak, to vote, to create art are they truly free to participate in a democratic culture. James Baldwin wrote that venturing through the “great wilderness” that is the human soul is to not “lose sight of its purpose…to make the world a more human dwelling place”. Humans create and seek art to connect, to empathize with, to entertain, to profit, to start conversations, to do any number of things. Through art people are better able to understand each other, their experiences and their perspective. By understanding each other better we make this world a more human dwelling, or as Brother Ali said,
If we’re going to change we got to step up our relations Got to see our own selves in each other’s faces
Share each other’s spaces give each other room
And hear each other’s pain bare witness to the truth