The Dallas Examiner
At this year’s Academy Awards, Morehouse graduate and legendary filmmaker Spike Lee took to the stage to accept his first Oscar.
“The year 2019; the year 1619. His story, her story. 1619 to 2019; 400 years. 400 years – our ancestors were stolen from Mother Africa and brought to Jamestown, Virginia,” Lee said. “Enslaved, our ancestors worked the land from can’t see in the morning to can’t see at night. … I give praise to our ancestors who helped build this country to what it is today.”
In the book, Black American History, From Plantations to Rap Culture, Guadeloupean author Pascal Archimède sought to encapsulate this 400-year history through the lens and evolution of Black music – from the fields to the charts.
Archimède juxtaposed the contributions of Black leaders and icons, from Booker T. to Spike Lee, with the progression of musical resistance, to support his central thesis, “At each step of their integration on American soil, Black people created the type of music that reflected their economic and social evolution, as well as their state of mind.”
Rooted in influences and instruments of the Motherland, slave-era hollers and spirituals morphed into gospel, gospel into blues and jazz, blues and jazz into funk and soul, and vestiges of all these genres became hip-hop. American music owes its sound to African American song.
By covering the important social movements and economic conditions that lead to the phenomenon of hip-hop, Archimède asked a larger question of the reader: Is rap simply a musical form or has it reached the “dimension of a culture”?
Rap has not only become a defining part of American pop culture and street-style aesthetic, but has also been exported internationally, copied and praised worldwide. Beyond just entertainment, rap is a mirror, reflective of four centuries of progress and pitfalls of the Black experience.
In an attempt to trace the journey from Jamestown to Jay-Z, the first chapter of Part 1 offered a broad overview of African American history, transitioning from the “Peculiar Institution,” the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation and Reconstruction to the Harlem Renaissance, the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Panthers and the 1992 Los Angeles riots.
Black intellectuals Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois, and civil rights icons Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, were briefly spotlighted and skillfully illustrated – as were other figures throughout the book, like Barack Obama and Tupac Shakur – by artist Hamed Pryslay Koutawa.
In the second chapter, the author argued that “the Black community, as a result of rejection, has gone through three main steps with regard to their history.
“The first step is Servitude. This is when they were slaves living on plantations. Then came Segregation when they got freed but sidetracked from the economic, political and cultural life because of the numerous Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation. … The last phase refers to what many African Americans are experiencing today, in other words, Confinement in ghettos.”
Rap music, Archimède argued, emerged out of the ghettos as a means to combat the inequalities and racist attitudes African Americans faced on a daily basis. Rap is not just a way for people to enjoy themselves, but is also a “verbal weapon.”
“Thus, the rapper becomes a verbal shaman who exorcises the demons of cultural amnesia,” he wrote.
“Conceived in and for the Black American ghettos … it has been a social phenomenon which symbolizes a quest for identity, political and economic autonomy.”
Seen by some as inflammatory or a fashion trend, rap has prevailed “as the chief mode of expression of African American youth.”
Contributing to this social phenomenon, Archimède credited Lee’s Do the Right Thing, John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood, and television shows like The Fresh Prince, for giving rap music and rappers themselves a central role in shaping the aesthetics and themes presented to the mainstream.
In Part lll of the book, Archimède answers his own question about whether rap music has transcended from a musical form to a cultural movement, arguing that the arrival of rap represented the simultaneous emergence of a “new Black culture.” He defined culture as being “made of myths, notions, images and cultural models that are spread through the means of transmission, such as television, radio, cinema, magazines and ads.”
As rap proliferated, it became increasingly co-opted by the White entertainment establishment. Mirroring what happened with jazz, “extensive White participation in Black culture has always involved White appropriation and attempts at ideological recuperation of Black cultural resistance,” wrote Tricia Rose in Black Noise, as quoted in Archimède’s book.
The genre has experienced “internal exportation,” meaning the “appropriation of rap by White and other minorities in the United States,” as well as “external exportation,” meaning that “rap is worldly known and present in almost every country.”
While now a global force, rap music will always have its roots in Black America. The main themes of rap are identified as being: life in the ghetto, religiosity, sex, Afrocentricity, politics and the American Dream.
Archimède wrote in an article for Nofi, titled Black Music History: From Plantations to the White House, that he never thought that one day “Barack Obama, an African American, would become president of the United States and that rappers would be received with full honors in the White House.”
In recent years, we’ve witnessed Kanye West in the Oval Office with President Trump, Kendrick Lamar receive the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for music, and Cardi B’s political commentary on the government shutdown go viral. Today, Black rappers have extraordinary influence on not just what we listen to and what we wear, but also what we believe in and who we vote for.
It is fitting that Archimède begins the book when “Negroes first set foot in the New World as explorers, servants and slaves,” and ends with the global cultural contribution of Black musicians and rappers, now invited “to the table of decision-makers by acting in the political sphere.”
Although it has an insightful, albeit unoriginal, premise, the book was not without its issues. The many grammar errors and oversights detract from the book’s appeal, and it would have greatly benefited from additional editing. The chapters feel disjointed, and it is clear that the content is more academic study than lived experience for the author, who is not American and English is his second language.
Additionally, the lack of women voices and contributions seems negligent, because how could you talk about the history of blues and jazz without mentioning Bessie Smith, Big Mama Thornton or Billie Holiday? And why praise Biggie but not Lil’ Kim? There’s not one mention of a Black female politician, yet somehow there was room for Ben Carson. Also, despite being published in 2018, there are few 21st century references.
This book would be most appreciated by young-adult readers seeking an introduction into movements and figures of the African American experience that may not have been covered in their middle or high school curricula. For more seasoned historians of hip-hop, however, the book doesn’t have much to offer.
All in all, as the back of the book states, “This story is a saga, and each note of this music is the best evidence that Black people have never given up.”
The book is currently available on Amazon in both English and the original French.