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Black Nationalism and Rap Music

Author(s): Errol A. Henderson


Source: Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 26, No. 3 (Jan., 1996), pp. 308-339
Published by: Sage Publications, Inc.
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2784825
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BLACK NATIONALISM
AND RAPMUSIC
ERROL A. HENDERSON
University
ofFlorida

To takepartin theAfricanrevolution it is notenoughto writea


revolutionarysong;youmustfashion therevolutionwiththepeople.
And if you fashionit withthepeople,the songs will come by
themselves,andofthemselves....In orderto achieverealaction,
youmustyourself be a livingpartofAfricaandofherthought; you
mustbe an elementofthatpopularenergy whichis entirely
called
forthefreeing,theprogress, andthehappinessofAfrica.Thereis
no place outsidethatfightfortheartistorfortheintellectual
who
is nothimself
concerned withandcompletely atonewiththepeople
inthegreatbattleofAfricaandofall suffering humanity.
SekouToure'

In thisarticle,I examinesomemajornationalist trendsinrapmusic


(or hip-hop),its development and theimplications of its future
growth. I arguethatrappersshouldreturn tothenationalistic focus
ofhip-hopiftheindustry is tobecomea base forAfrican centered
politico-economic andculturaldevelopment. ThisAfrocentric ren-
deringcouldhelppromote a nationalculture toreplacethepopular
(faddish)cultureof violenceand sexismand bothwed African
Americansto thebest in theircultureand allow themto more
directly fromtheircultural
profit product.
Additionally thepromotion ofAfrocentric nationalculture may
helpto createa standard of behaviorand a newritesof passage
away fromguns,dope, sexism,and violence,and towardmore
African-centered definitionsofmanhoodandwomanhood rooted
inrighteous behavior, support forliberationstruggles andpolitical
prisoners, Afrocentric community building,and good entertain-
ment.Asante(1993,p. 124)maintains that"itis onlyacenteredness
JOURNALOF BLACK STUDIES, Vol.26 No. 3, January
1996 308-339
? 1996 Sage Publications,
Inc.
308
/BLACK NATIONALISM AND RAP MUSIC
Henderson 309

bornofknowledge ofourhistory andconsciousness ofourpredica-


mentthatwillleadus outoftheabyssof violence."
Further,rapmustbe insulated fromWhitesupremacist criticism
fromoutsidethecommunity. Euro-Americans can notstandas the
moralauthority in thiscountry-their handsare too bloody.The
moralvanguard ofthiscountry hasalwaysbeentheBlack,Brown,
andRedcommunities. However, toomanyintheBlackcommunity,
theirWhitesupremacism simplyparrot
intact, theEuro-American
condemnation of hip-hop.Thisis baseless,and is reminiscent of
thefacilecriticismofbe-bop.ThisgroupofWhitesupremacists in
BlackfacesimplywaitforWhitesanctionofculture beforegiving
theirseal of approval.Theyadmonish, interalia, thatrap music
causes violence.Thatmakesaboutas muchsenseas arguingthat
"Love Child" by the Supremescaused teen pregnancy. These
senselessassertions arenotpursuedinthisarticle.
The largerpointis thattherealityof thebaselessnessof these
condemnations does not absolveAfricanAmericans, especially
Blacknationalistsfromcriticizinghip-hop.Karenga(1993)reminds
us thatrapmusicdoes nothavea martyrs immunity againstcriti-
cism.However,we do notcondemn hip-hop,butwe challengeitto
I arguethatitsnationalistic
risetothelevelofthebestofitspotential.
focuspointsthedirection toward, andencompasses, thebestofthis
whichis thefusionofBlackpopularandnationalculture.
potential,

THE ORIGINS OF HIP-HOP

Rap musichashada profound impacton theAfrican American


community in theUnitedStates.Its greatestsignificance,to my
mind,derivesfromthefactthatithas fostered a profoundnation-
alismintheyouthofBlackAmerica.Arguably, hip-hop hasbecome
a conduitforAfricanAmerican culture toa greaterextent
thaneven
jazz. Wherethelatter
could,through itspolyrhythmic syncopations,
embraceboththenuancesandjaggededgesofthecollectiveBlack
experience,it couldnotself-consciously energizethenationalist
ethosinquitethewaythemorelyrically focusedhip-hopdoes.To
presentthesejaggededges,jazz, orbe-bop,neededtheuncompro-
310 JOURNALOF BLACK STUDIES /JANUARY1996

misinglyricofthepoet.Also,poets,withtheir jaggededgesintact,
stillrequiredthetalkingdrumofinstrumentation to fullycapture
theBlackethosofstruggle, resistance,
righteousness,exploitation,
and creativity in Black America.Hip-hopfusedthetwo-poetry
andjazz-in sucha way as to renderitselfthemostconductive
sourceofthecurrent ofAfricanAmerican culture.
Hip-hop,or rap music,began in the early 1970s. The first
synthesis of self-conscious
poetryand musiccan be traced,most
directly,totheBlacknationalistLastPoets.TheiralbumsTheLast
Poets, Chastisement, Thisis Madness,and othershave become
classicsin theAfricanAmericancommunity. Whenone member
who separatedfromthegroup,withthestagename "Lightning
Rod," used a musicalscoreprovidedby Kool & The Gangas a
backdroptohislyricalnarrative ofa dayinthelifeoftwohustlers,
he hadno ideahe was layingthebasisforan entirely newmusical
genre.This album,Hustler'sConvention, was a mainstayin the
albumcollectionof a SouthBronxDJnamedKool Herc.Almost
toa person,itis agreedthathip-hopbeganwithKool Herc.
Herccredited LightningRod andJamesBrownwithproviding
thefoundation forhip-hop,butitwas Hercwhogave itlife.Herc
was deftat theearlyartof mixingandfadingone recordintothe
nextwithout missinga beatintheinterchange. He didthismostly
by ear.His vastrepertoireofmusic,including somereggaebeats
thatthoughloved in thestreetswereveryhardto find,and his
thundering speakersystemknownas "TheHerculords" madehis
musichighly danceable, andunavoidable.
rhythmical, Thethunder-
ingsoundsoftheHerculords remainslegendary.
an
Meanwhile, electronic geniusofa youngman,J.Saddler,had
developeda moreaccurateway of mixingmusicfromtwoturn-
tables.GrandMasterFlash,as he becameknown,originated the
"clockmethod," whereby DJsusedthefaceofthealbumas a sort
ofreckoning toolbywhichone couldremember one's place on a
recordmoreexactly.Thiswas necessary because-Flash wouldnot
simply"mix"therecords, buthe would"scratch"them:usingthe
needlein thegrooveas an instrument to makethegrating though
rhythmical soundforwhichraphas becomefamous.Althougha
hip-hopprodigy, GrandWizardTheodore;reportedly discovered
Henderson
/BLACK NATIONALISM AND RAP MUSIC 311

thistechniquewhileunderFlash's tutelage,it was Flash who


perfected it.Flashis creditedwithgivinghip-hopitsface-the deft,
smooth,and creativeDJ. The battlesbetweenFlash and Herc
becamelegendary. ButevenHercwouldhaveto admitthatnone
werefasterthan-the original"GrandMaster."
Thefaceofrapinitsearlydayswas definitely theDJ.Thebody
of rap was theurbanwastelandthatwas theSouthBronx.Here
gangsof New Yorkyouthwereencasedin whatcould onlybe
describedas a war zone. AftertheBlack powermovement, the
VietnamWar,andtheFBI COINTELPRO againstpositiveBlack
community organization,thegangswerealmostaloneas theone
institutionin theBlack community a cogentmessageto
offering
Blackyouth.Thatmessagewas,"Joinandsurvive." Thelargestof
theseNewYorkBlackgangswastheBlackSpades,anditsyouthful
leaderwouldrisephoenix-like fromtheashesoftheSouthBronx.
He transformed theBlack Spades intotheZulu Nation,and he
transformed himself intoa hip-hoplegend:Afrika Bambataa.With
thecomingofBambataathemindofhip-hopwas turned to Black
nationalism, positivecreativity,
vision,and healing.Some of his
messageswouldnottakerootuntilas lateas 1981whenhisearly
rival,Flash,convincedhisMC Melle Mel to coauthor"TheMes-
sage,"thefirstnationally recognized"progressive" rapstatement
onthecondition ofBlackAmerica.

HIPHOPAS A CONDUIT
FOR POLITICAL CULTURE

Hip-hopis muchmorethanthenamesandfacesofindividual
practitioners
of thegenre.Interalia, it has thepotentialto filla
voidofcross-generational
transitional culturaltransmissionwithin
Blackculturebyprovidinga newlyrictoan oldtune,insomecases
WhenPublicEnemydropped"BlackSteelintheHourof
literally.
Chaos,"theywerenotonlyproviding an anthemforincarcerated
Blackyouth, buttheyweredoingso inthecontext ofregurgitating
"Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedaelamistic,"a 1970sIsaac Hayestune
fromthealbumHot Buttered Soul. It is thesamplingaspectof
312 JOURNALOF BLACK STUDIES /JANUARY1996

hip-hopthatallowsforcreativesynthesis in thecontextofcross-
generational cultural transmission. Notonlywasthistying together
of generations important in theaestheticsense,butit was more
significant becausethenexuswas established betweena relatively
apoliticalgeneration of the 1970s and 1980s withthestaunch Black
nationalist AfricanAmericansubculture ofthe1960s.Kool Herc
madethemostof thispotential in hip-hopforcross-generational
cultural transmission. Inonesense,thiswasepitomized through his
earlyuse of JamesBrown("Say it Loud, I'm Black and I'm
Proud"),theBlacknationalist LastPoets,andRastafarian reggae.
Reggae,especiallyin the handsof Bob Marley,pickedup the
nationalisttorchlaid down withthe deathof jazz greatJohn
Coltrane.Black nationalism was incubatedin reggaebeforethe
comingofhip-hop, andtothisdaythebestofreggaemaintains its
Garveyite elements.
Becausetheearlyeraofhip-hop(1973-1979)wasdominated by
theDJ,thespunrecordshadtospeakforthemselves. DJslikeHerc
andlaterHollywood, justthrewsomecatchyphrasesoverthemix;
however, there wasn't muchtotheactual"rap"element ofhip-hop.
Melle Mel, Grandmaster Caz, The Treacherous Three,Lovebug
Starski,and Hollywoodwereimportant progenitorsof theera of
MC dominancein hip-hop.MCs demonstrated theirverbalacro-
baticsover "def' DJ mixes.This was epitomizedin "Rapper's
Delight,"theSugarhill Gang'sexpropriation ofsomeofGrandmas-
terCaz's oldraps,whichnonetheless maderapa nationalphenome-
non. The phrasingwas classic hip-hop,butsimplistic. Within2
years,Melle Mel letthe world know thatliving couldsometimes
be "like a jungle."This was "The Message." Althoughit was
different fromthehip-hopthenin vogue,itevokedthenationalist
rootsof rapbetterthananything before-orsince.It was cutting
edge. It was in the best tradition of whatKRS-ONE wouldlater
describeas "edutainment," butitwasnotas pretentiousas thelatter.
This brandof nationalism was rootedin thecommonality of op-
pression,and "The Message"madeitplain.Laterrapartistslike
PublicEnemyandX-Clanwouldattempt toprovidea moreexplic-
itlypoliticaland culturalanalysis of theBlack condition without
compromising thebasichip-hopaspectsoftheirraps.
/BLACK NATIONALISM AND RAP MUSIC
Henderson 313

THREE FOCI OF NATIONALISM

Karenga(1980,p. 15) definesBlacknationalism as thepolitical


beliefandpracticeofAfrican Americans as a distinct peoplewith
a distincthistoriPal personalitywho politicallyshoulddevelop
structures todefine,defend, anddeveloptheinterests ofBlacksas
a people.Thisentailsa redefinition ofreality inBlackimagesand
interests,providing a socialcorrectivebybuilding institutionaland
organizational structures thathouseBlack aspirations, and itpro-
videsa collectivevocationofnationbuildingamongBlackpeople
as a politicalend.BeyondKarenga'sdefinition liestheissueofthe
motivation, orjustification,fortheemergence ofBlacknationalism
within theAfrican American community. Thereappeartobe three
suchjustifications for theemergence of Black nationalism.
Firstis thatbrandofnationalism thatemerges from identification
rootedina perceived commonality ofoppression. Another emerges
froma recognition of a convergence of politicalpurpose,objec-
tives,andgoals.Thirdis thatbrandofnationalism thatrestson the
justification of a commonality of culture.The firsttype,though
superficially based,canbe quitelasting.In theBlackcommunity it
restson therecognition ofthecommoncasteidentity ofBlacksin
Whitesupremacist America.In itsvulgar, thoughpopular,aspect,
it promotesa formof skincolornationalism thatdisregards the
diversity withintheBlack community especiallyaroundissuesof
class,gender,andculturalidentification. In thissense,itis inher-
entlyreactive, rootedin thespeciousEurocentric conceptofrace
underwhichtheverypeoplewhopromote thisbrandofnationalism
havebeenrelegated.
In the secondvariant,nationalism emergesfroma common
agenda.Thisformis usuallyrepresentative ofa moresophisticated
analysisbeyondpurelyskincolorconsiderations. However,what
actuallyemergesis a collectiveagendaamongthosefiltered into
theprocessbyskincolorconsiderations. HerewhereBlackskinis
viewedas necessary, though notsufficient,a typeofinterest group
focusor specialization occurswherethenationalist grouporients
itselfarounda particular ideologyandpoliticalprogram andoffers
itselfas an appropriate vehiclefortherealization ofBlack aspira-
314 JOURNALOF BLACK STUDIES /JANUARY1996

tions.Thereis a widecontinuum ranging fromtheBlacknationalist


conservatism ofWashington through thebourgeoisnationalism of
theNationalAssociationfortheAdvancement ofColoredPeople
(NAACP) to therevolutionary Blacknationalism oftheRepublic
ofNew Afrika(RNA).
In thelastcase,wherenationalism emergesfromculture consid-
erations,the reactiveand purelyskin color considerations are
bypassed.Nationalismthatemergesfroma culturalperspective
takeson self-defining aspectsoftheculturegroupitselfand does
notderivefrom reactive definitions.
Becauseculture is aninclusive
concept,it incorporates gender,class, and otherdiversecompo-
nentsof societywithinitsconstruct. It does notrelyon theEuro-
of
centricconcept race;however, itrealizes thatpeopleofa com-
monAfricanculturein thissocietyare also primarily thosewe
considerBlackpeople.Also,thisnationalism suggests thatwhereas
AfricanAmericansconstitute a distinguishable culturegroup-a
people-thenthatpeopleshouldhavea commonagendabecause,
historically, peoplehavedevelopedas groupsand,presently, Afri-
can Americans have been as a
subjugated group into a in
caste the
UnitedStates.Noticeherethatthough a commonality ofoppression
is recognized inthisapproach, itis nottheprimary justificationfor
this,an African-centered nationalism. Onlythisjustification leads
to thesynthesis of nationalist thought and practicesuggestedby
Karenga's(1993) definition of Black nationalism. Much of the
earlynationalism inhip-hophadas itsjustification a commonality
of oppression.Therelateremergeda nationalism based in the
secondtype:a commonality of interests and agenda.It was only
later,especiallywiththeriseofX-Clanthatthethird typebeganto
develop.
It is clearthatnationalism, whatever itsjustification, has,inter
alia, political,cultural, psychic, and economic elements. Rappers
beganto articulate all theseperspectives in theirmusic.Entertain-
mentwas theraisond'etre,butentertainment couldbe couchedin
nationalismand could becomeAfrocentric and transformative.
Asante(1987) assertedtheconnection betweenBlack aesthetics,
fromorature todance,andAfrocentrism. ThisAfrocentrism could
theninfusethebestimageandinterests ofBlack peoplesintothe
/BLACK NATIONALISM AND RAP MUSIC
Henderson 315

popularcultureand allow it to fuse into a liberating national


culture.'Thiswas thecentral focusoftheBlackArtsMovement of
the1960s.3The potential forthedevelopment ofsucha liberating
processwas all themoreimportant becausehip-hopup tothetime
of Run DMC's "King of Rock" was strictly playingto a Black
audience.Of courseall hip-hopwas not nationalistic, or even
forthatmatter.
political, Manyrapartists wereas apoliticalas their
counterpartsin mainstream music.I wouldargue,however,that
fromitsinception thenationalistethoshasbeenpresent inhip-hop.
In fact,thisBlack nationalism has structuredhip-hopin thepast
andcontinues todo so. It is importantthatwe understandhowand
whythishas occurred.

A NATIONALIST CONDUIT: THE ZULU NATION

Nationalism in hip-hopdoes notemergeexclusivelyfromthe


lyricsofearlyrapmusic.In theearlydaysofhip-hopinthe1970s,
thisnationalism developedfromthecollectiveethosoftheBlack
community thatspawnedthisnewgenre.In thisrespect,thevery
framework of the hip-hopcommunity suggested,fostered, and
allowedtoflourish a collectivist
nationalist
praxis.Thisis because
hip-hopwas incubatedin theBlack community's houseparties,
publicparks,housingprojects,and localjams. These sitesin the
Blackcommunity wereoftenundertheimmediate influence ofthe
dominant territorial
gangsintheareas.The gangsmadesecurity a
chiefconcernforbothwould-berappers andthosecomingtojams.
Fortheirownbenefit, gangscouldinsurethesafeconduct ofa party,
atsomecost,functioning as traditional In thissomegangs
security.
couldfindtheirowncommercial success.
Thepresenceofgangsalso motivated performersto enlisttheir
owncrewsforsecurity, especiallywhentheyperformed outsideof
theirownhomebase,becausemuchofthehip-hopscenewas done
through houseparties.4One suchfamouscrewprovidedsecurity
forGrandMasterFlash.TheCassanovaCrew,as theywerecalled,
had a reputation; accordingto Grandmaster Caz: "They were
kickingnigger'sasses."5
316 JOURNALOF BLACK STUDIES /JANUARY1996

Themovement intodifferent territories thespread


alsofacilitated
ofhip-hop.6 Thisprocessalso movedgangsintomorecommercial
postures
andlessterritorial as theprospect forwealthbeyondnickel
and dimingoverturfpresented itselfin theformof commercial
securityenterprises.It also suggested thetransformation of crews
and gangsin a manner thatwouldreflect thecollectiveethos that
hip-hop,even withits famous"battles,"nonetheless promoted.7
This suggesteda linkagearoundcommonality insteadof differ-
ences.Themostobviouscommonality within theemergent hip-hop
community was thefact thatit was exclusively Black. Any com-
monality thatemergedwouldhaveto emergewithinthatcontext.
Theresultwas a reaffirmation ofthebasicaspectsofBlackcultural
nationalism framedinthecontext andaspirations ofa younggifted
andBlack core ofhip-hop talent. This was theZulu Nation.
Zuluis reallya youthful expression of cultural
unity. As suchit
doesnotgo inandoutofstyle.Peoplemay be down with particular
crewsor not,buttheunityassociatedwiththeculturalaspectsof
hip-hopoperateindependently offolksbeingdownwiththiscrew
ornot.Caz capturesthisnotionwhenhepointsoutthat"it's[Zulu's]
nota record,andit'snotsomething thatgetshotandnothot.You
might be up onitnowandnothearaboutitlater,buttopeoplethat's
downit'salwaysthere"(Eure& Spady,1991,p. xv). Zulu brought
culturalfocusto thehip-hopcommunity becauseitschiefleader
was himselfamong the earliestsources of hip-hop:AfrikaBam-
bataa.Although Bambataahademerged from theBlackSpades,one
ofthelargestBlackgangsinNew York,theethosthathe brought
forthwas inclusive.In responseto thequestion,"Did Zulu playa
in
part bringing abouttheunity[inhip-hop]?"Grandmaster Caz
responded:

becauseBambataa
Definitely, wasdownwithZulu,
. . . everybody
evenifyouwasn'tdownwiththecrew,evenifyouwasn'tdown
IslamandtheFunkMachine,
with[Afrika] andBambataa andthe
Soulsonic
Force,youwasstilldownwith Zulu.You wasdownwith
Bam,youknowwhatI'msaying. camefrom
So that just
everybody
beingdownwith Bam.Noneofthatshitwashappening whenBam
wasaround, kindofthing.
itwasa respect LikedownattheRoxy,
thatwas Bam's shit.I mean,Bam was thefirstmajorperson
/BLACK NATIONALISM AND RAP MUSIC
Henderson 317

talkingaboutunity, (Eure& Spady,1991,


orpeoplebeingtogether.
pp. xiv-xv)

Bambaatahad an organization, a legacyas one of the early


ofhip-hop,
progenitors andwhenhe andhisgroup,theSoul Sonic
Force,in 1982 scoreda majorhitrecordwith"PlanetRock,"the
Zuluethosbeganto inundatehip-hopnationally.

NATIONALISMANDTHE
NATIONALIZINGOF RIP-HOP'SAPPEAL:RUNDMC

Thenationalist ethosthatwas evidentinthemusicofFlashand


Bambataadidnotdominatehip-hop.The younggenredreweven
moreon thediverseaspectsof thecreativecommunity thathad
spawnedit.It was notuntilthemiddle1980sthatmegarap stars
RunDMC madean overtly Blacknationaliststatementinrapform
withthereleaseof "I'm Proudto Be Black." Interestingly this
recording appearedon an album,RaisingHell, wheretherappers
performed withWhiterockers, Aerosmith, ina rapandrollversion
of therockgroup's"WalkThisWay."Whathad occurredin the
interim is thathip-hopbegantomoreovertly incorporatetheflavor
ofNewWave,Techno,andHousemusic.Hip-hophadalwaysrelied
on R&B, jazz, funk, reggae,androcksamples.ButnotbeforeRun
DMC didhip-hophavebotha nationalWhiteaudienceanda hard
rocksampling face.RunDMC didnotbeginthisway.They,guided
by the managerialand marketing geniusof Russell Simmons,
parlayedtheB-boyimageof hip-hopintomillion-dollar record
sales. Theirnihilistic reflections
on the hardshipof ghettolife
captured theethosofurbanBlackyouth. Theirhit,"It'sLikeThat,"
becamean anthem ofBlackyouth, so muchofwhichwas isolated
in theinnercities.Isolatedfromthemorebourgeoiselementsof
emerging Black suburbiaas wellas theBlackmiddleclass whose
aspirationswere moreconsistentwiththeroles foundin theCosby
Show and themoodcapturedlaterin BobbyMcFerrin's, "Don't
WorryBe Happy,"DMC's messagereflected and legitimized
the
andtheFreshFesttoursthattheyheadlined
B-boylifestyle, showed
318 JOURNALOF BLACK STUDIES /JANUARY1996

majorlabels as well as theentirecountry thathip-hopwas and


wouldremaina powerful forcein music.
Run DMC's hardedge rap was coupledwithguitarriffsthat
wouldputthebestrockguitarists to shame.Butcoupledwiththe
uncompromising bass and talkingdrumof the R&B and funk
thismadeforan incredibly
traditions, rhythmical bouncingB-boy
style.This wasn'tLed Zeppelin.It was morelike Creammeets
P-funk meetstheLastPoets,withas muchofa mixture offrivolity,
humor, andconscience.Butatthestageof"KingofRock,"
fantasy,
itappearedthathip-hopwas playingto a Black (andincreasingly
Hispanic)audiencewhilebeginning Whites.It was not,
to attract
however,self-consciously crossingoverto insureWhiteappeal.
Thatappearedtobe,atbest,secondary. However,withtheunheard
ofcommercial success "King Rock,"thecrossover
of of appealwas
so greatthatRun DMC appearedto cross over and out of the
mainstream of hip-hop(AfricanAmerican), and theyhave never
reallybeenacceptedback,on a nationallevel,bytheirpreviously
loyalBlackrapfans.8

THE GERMINATINGCONTEXT
FOR AMORE FOCUSED NATIONALISM
Ifwe movebeyondhip-hop'sspatiallocus(urbancenters begin-
ning in New York) and turnto its temporal locus,we begin to
understand it's weddingtoBlacknationalism.
better The national
emergence ofhip-hop is contemporaneous withtheriseofreaction-
aryrepublicanism intheReagan-Bush yearsthatwouldpersistfor
The
no lessthan12years. multiple recessions ofthelate1970sand
early1980s weredepressionary forBlack peopleand especially
Black youth.From 1979 to 1981, theBlack community of the
UnitedStateswastransfixed ontheAtlantaChildMurders, andfew
wereconvincedorassuagedbytheconviction ofWayneWilliams.
In thelate1970s,LouisFarrakhan splitwithWarith Deen Muham-
mad'sAmerican MuslimMissionandreformed theNationofIslam
(NOI) undertheformer Blacksupremacist conceptsabandonedby
Henderson
/BLACK NATIONALISM AND RAP MUSIC 319

thesonofElijahMuhammad withthedeathoftheself-proclaimed
"messenger ofAllah"in1975.CoupledwiththeriseoftheFarrakhan
led NOI was thepoliticalriseofJesseJackson andhispresidential
runsin 1984 and 1988. AlthoughJacksonhas neverespoused
nationalismbeyonditsexpediency forrealizinghis integrationist
aims,theattackson Jacksonby theWhitemediaand his White
coaspirantsservedto galvanizeBlack nationalist supportaround
himandtoresultinpositivesentiment forhiscampaign evenamong
thosewhodidnotsupport hispopulistplatform.
WhenJacksonreceivedtheNOI's Fruitof Islam as his own
securityforce,theconvergence oftheintegrationistandnationalist
hearkened backto thedaysofKingandMalcolm.Atthisvolatile
point,onlyhip-hopspoketothetimes(withtheconstant exception
of Gil-ScottHeron).In thesetimes,hip-hop'ssociopolitical con-
sciousnesswasbaredproudly forall suckerstosee.Hip-hopspoke
totherealities,
perceptions, misperceptions, thatfor
andaspirations
toolonglaystillbornonghetto streetsorabortedbyconditions that
waylaidhopesthatevenindeathfoundno audienceoutsideofthe
tenement wallsortheunmarked boundaries thatseparatedwhere
youcouldgo inthecityandwherethesunbetnotsetonyou.George
(1988) observesthatinhislyrics,

Melle Mel could praiseJesseJackson'srunforthepresidency


("Jesse")whilemainstream Black actsavoidedsingingaboutthis
historicevent,make allusionsto Hitlerin discussingAmerica's
towardthepoor("BeatStreetBreakdown"),
attitude andanticipate
byseveralyearstheantidrugmovement ofthemid-eighties
("White
Lines").(p. 193)

Unfortunately,nationalism focusofthe
also tookthepatriarchal
1960sandtooka verymisogynist approachtoBlackwomanhood.
Although fromitsearliestdayship-hop hashaditsfemaleDJsand
MCs, itscenterstagewas mainlymaleoriented. By thetimeofthe
riseof Sugarhill,actslikeAngieB beganto emergethrough the
hip-hopranks.Forthemostpart,femaleswouldperform ancillary
rolesas dancers,andtheywererelegated, tonovelty
as performers,
rapssuchas in thecase oftheReal Roxanneor to responseraps
320 JOURNAL 1996
OF BLACKSTUDIES/JANUARY

suchas thosebyShante.Thetruemarketing andrecording potential


offemaleactswasunheralded untilthemonumental successofSalt
n Pepa's "PushIt." Beyondrepresentation, froma womanist per-
spective,whatwas as bad was andis thecontinued objectification
ofBlackwomenas bitchesandhoesorothertypesofproperty, as
male rapperspursueWhitesupremacist patriarchal visionsof
Stagolee.Thisis epitomized in thestraight up B-boylinesof LL
Cool Jas wellas inmostofthegangsta rapfrom earlyBoogieDown
Productions (BDP), Ice-T,NWA,The GetoBoys,Treach,Tupac,
andless successful would-begangstasup tothepimpdaddymack
appeals of Too Shortand his aspirants.Undoubtedly the most
notorious actsinthisveinhaveemergedfromthestablesofLuke
Productions.
But nationalism doesn'tsurvivesimplyon thearticulation of
sentiment. Itmustbe weddedtoatleasttwootherelements: image
andorganization. To a largeextent, RussellSimmonsprovidedan
organizational basisforBlackactsthrough hisDefJamProductions
andRushManagement. ButSimmonsas a businessman, alongwith
Rick Rubin, saw thepotentialofWhite actsas wellas Black. Infact
he producedthefirstWhiterap groupwithnationalappeal,The
Beastie Boys. Interestingly he signedand producedthisWhite
groupalthough itwouldbe morethan5 yearsbeforehe wouldsign
a Black femalerap act (NikkiD). So thenationalism thatSim-
mons'sactivities engendered weremore incidental to his overall
aim of movingrap musicintothemainstream of nationaland
international markets in termsof volumesold. However,he pro-
videdanorganizational focusforrap'sBlackbusinessinterests. The
emergent independent Blackraplabelsfound itdifficultto compete
withthehegemonicbudgetsof themajorlabels,and manywere
boughtoutoroptedtohookupwiththemajors.Although themajors
were late in seeingthe commercialpotentialof hip-hop,they
nonethelessdeveloped hip-hoparmswithintheirorganizationsto
sopuptheemergent talent. rapmovedaway
Undertheseinfluences,
fromthecall responsepairsepitomizedbyRUN DMC, incorporat-
inglivebands,andhugeMC Hammerstageshows.
Now theimageof hip-hophas goneon to encompassmuchof
theolderelementsbutnowincludestheconsummate of
producers
/BLACK NATIONALISM AND RAP MUSIC
Henderson 321

hip-hopwhohavefusedthebestofthegenrewithmoretraditional
elementsofBlack music.TheseincludebutarenotlimitedtoDr.
Dre and funk,PeteRockandjazz, theBombSquad androckand
R & B, andso on.Thecentral pointis thattheimageofhip-hophas
beentransformed to includerap'ssuperproducers andpromoters,
rapmovieandtelevision emergent
stars,raptivists, Blackwomanist
MexicanandCaribbeanAmerican
respected
artists, likeKid
artists
Frost,TheLatinAlliance,andCypressHill,"suckerducktricktype-
wannabe"actslikeSerch,HouseofPain,MarkyMark,VanillaIce,
as well as new geographicentrep6ts in the West,South,and
Midwest.

THE TRANSFORMATION
OF THE IMAGE OF HIP-HOP: BDP

Theimageofhip-hop waslargelytheB-boyandFlyGirlimages
ofurbanBlack youth.Theseimageswereperpetuated in thebur-
geoningmusicvideoindustry. Getting paid,drinking forties,roll-
ing,stupidsex,beepers, flygear, a dopesoundsystem inthe helluva
ride-all werepartoftheimpulseandimitation thatcontinued to
moveBlackyouththatflockedtohip-hopindroves.Thiswas the
imageof hip-hop.But therealityincludedmuchof thepostteen
Blackaudiencethatwas turned offbythepretensions ofR&B and
less inspirednouveautechnojazz oftheWynton Marsalisilk.For
them, hip-hop continuedthebestofthefunkandsoultraditions that
disco failedto projectbeyondthedancehalls and cabarets.The
hip-hopsampling, thedanceablebeats,andtheinfectious rhymes
made rap attractive, but the substantivecontent-itsfocus on
gangs, drugs,community involvement, and givingsomething
back-hit a nerveforpostteens emerging fromonetypeofdisillu-
sionment intheteenyearsandfacinga newkindinthe20s andthe
decreasedprospects forsuccess,notjustonanindividual level,but
as a people.Forthem,theimageofhip-hopwas notepitomized in
theB-boyimageso muchas itwas epitomized in thecommunity
interest.As theWhitemediaanditsBlacksurrogates begantopaint
hip-hop as inherently theunifying
violent, forceofa perceived alien
322 JOURNALOF BLACK STUDIES /JANUARY1996

enemygalvanizedtherapaudience.It seemedas thoughhip-hop


wouldbe attacked, thatconcerts,bookings,anddollarswouldbe
lostundertheguiseofpreventing theviolencethathip-hop"natu-
rally"spawned.Itseemedas if,inthefinalanalysis,itwas hip-hop
againsttheworld.AndthatmeantBlackfolksagainsttheworld.
On a nationallevel,KRS-ONE,therapperofmartyred DJScott
LaRock, who betweenthemformedBDP, promoteda different
hip-hop image.Theimagehepromoted remained, insomerespects,
inthecontext ofB-boys,butimportantly hebegantopushtheimage
of a politicallyconscious"underclass." Herewas a younggifted
rapper, formerly homeless,whoseDJwas murdered, promoting a
perspective akininsomewaystothatproffered bytheearlyBlack
Panther Party(BPP). In thissense,theBlackunderclass was seen
as a morelumpenproletariat class,in thesense of Fanon,theclass
withthemostpropitious prospectsfororganizing and producing
revolution outofcolonization.KRS-ONE's By All Means Neces-
sary is a self-consciously
MalcolmX inspired imagingofhip-hop
and its potentialas a forceforBlack self-determination. In this
album,he imploresBlacks,interalia,thatbecausemanyareedu-
cated,theymustopentheirmouthsand speak.LaterKRS-ONE
used someoftheAfrocentric perspectives ofYosefben-Jochanon
in his anthem"You MustLearn"and arguedfortheteachingof
Afrocentric historyandprovidedina videopositivedepictions of
Blacks,including Blackbiblicalfigures suchas Moses.
AfterimagingMinister Malcolmandinvoking theBlackPower
Movement, he thenralliedaroundhimsome of themostpotent
rappersinthebusinesstoattacktheviolentimageofrap.TheStop
theViolenceMovement drewyouthful Blackconsciousness tothe
impactof violenceon Blackpeopleandto a largeextentremade
theimageofhip-hopfromtheceaselessviolenceofcriminal gangs
and stick-up kidsto theresponsibilities
ofyoungBlack menand
womenintent onbreakingthemoffsomething ina societythathad
deniedthemso much.Importantly, whatwas gainingplaywas not
so mucha Black nationas a "hip-hopnation."Thatis to say,the
hip-hopnationinvokedBlacknationalism ina superficial
way,but
practicewas something different.Hip-hopresurrected some de-
/BLACK NATIONALISM AND RAP MUSIC
Henderson 323

ceased AfricanAmericanimages,particularly MalcolmX, butit


didn'tseemtoelevatethoseleaderspresent today.Politicswas too
oftenreducedto showingMalcolmX or MartinKingin a video
insteadofincorporatingtheirprecepts intopraxisonthepartofthe
rapperswhoevokedtheimagesoftheseAfrican American leaders.
Too many rappers didn'teven botherto make their much
lyrics, less
theiractions,consistentwiththephilosophies or eventhesound
bitesoftheseleadersandteachers.
Thereis a largerrequirement fortheBlack artistbecausethey
areasserting within
theircreativity thecontext oftheir peoplebeing
oppressed.Whatevertheypurportedly do in thecommunity, the
musicmustspeak to thisconsistently in thatit is the vehicle
wherebymuchof theirphilosophyor lack of philosophygets
Whatemerges
transmitted. from hip-hop shouldbe a muchdifferent
lyricand different musicthanthatwhichgerminates fromthe
nonoppressed elementsin thiscountry, and because legitimate
hip-hop emergesfromtheBlackcultural contextanditsconceptual
andgeographical landscape,andbecausethisis almostcompletely
foreigntoEuropeanAmericans, thentheseWhitefolksmaynotbe
abletoproducelegitimate hip-hop,totheextentthattheircultural,
caste,andclassfocispeakstoa different On theotherhand,
reality.
it maybe thatso-calledHispanicscan speakto a sentiment and
agencythatmoreconsistently parallelsthoseprocessesthatde-
volvedfromtheBlack experienceand ethos.Fromthisline of
reasoningit looks like NativeAmericanhip-hop"gonnabe a

The hip-hopnation,as opposedtotheBlacknation,promoted a


"myth ofaction"whereby knowledge,
politicalresponsibility, and
activitywas garnered
byproclamation andnotby demonstration.
Thiscreateda conditionwherepeoplecouldpracticeonethingand
preachanother.This createdthe prospectsfordisillusionment
amonghip-hop fanswhowitnessed oftheir"revolution-
thestifling
ary" performers when called to task by theirprimarily White
bosses.Thiswas perceivedas thecase withPublicEnemyon the
issueofProfessor Griff,and mostnoticeably in thecase ofIce-T
andtheCop Killerdispute.
324 JOURNALOF BLACK STUDIES /JANUARY1996

THE CENTRALITY OF PUBLIC


ENEMY TO "NATIONCONSCIOUSRAP"
It is impossibleto considertheBlack nationalist elementin
hip-hopwithout recognizing theseminalinfluence ofPublicEn-
emy.Planting nationalist
seedsintheirfirst albumintherighteous
piece "Rightstarter," theirsecondalbumexplodedthenationalist
imageas theystoodflanked bytheirsecurity forces,andinvoking
thereligiousandpoliticalBlacknationalism oftheFarrakhan led
NOI, theyprovided thestandard for"nationconsciousrap."Impor-
tantly,unlikeKRS-ONEwhopromoted disparatestrandsandstrains
ofnationalist sentiment without a community-grounded institution,
PublicEnemybrokeoutwithoneofthemostheralded andrespected
institutions intheBlackcommunity-the NOI. Thisfusionofrap
andBlacknationalist politicalorganization promoted a politically
grounded rapfocusthatcontinues todominate thegenre.ChuckD,
theleaderof thegroup,notonlypromoted through his lyricsthe
nationalist sentiment but also providedthrough his community
activity a distinguishablepractice ofcommunitarian responsibility.
As ralliesandpublicinterest focusedonthemurders ofHoward
Beach, thelynching of MichaelDonald,theattackson Eleanor
Bumpers, theTawannaBrawleycase,andthestudent uprisings at
ColumbiaandtheUniversity ofMichigan,PublicEnemyfocused
youthful Blackenergyandconsciousness in a waythatno rapact
everhad. Overtlypromoted by and promoting Louis Farrakhan,
Public Enemyhelpedbringthousandsof youngBlacks to the
politicalphilosophy ofBlacknationalism. Forexample,in "Party
foryourRighttoFight,"a sidefromtheirsecondalbum,It Takesa
NationofMillionstoHold us Back,PublicEnemytransforms the
titleofthepartyrapfromtheBeastieBoys ("FightforyourRight
to Party")intoa powerful, thoughcursory, exegesisof theBlack
Panther PartyforSelf-Defense (i.e.,thepartyforyourright tofight).
Here is evinceda movement away fromtheoppression-inspired
nationalism of "TheMessage"towarda moreself-determination-
focusednationalism.
No otherrap,thissideofthejoint,captured theethosofBlacks
incaptivity inquitethewayof"BlackSteelintheHourofChaos."9
Henderson
/BLACK NATIONALISM AND RAP MUSIC 325

Beyondthemessageto-those physically incarcerated,thelyricwas


reminiscent of MalcolmX's assertion thatsimplyto be Black in
America,whether onewas incarcerated ornot,wastobe inprison.
ChuckD pushedthislineofnationalism intotheheralded"Fight
thePower."But-the overallsentiment thatemergedfromthereli-
gious-basednationalism of theNOL contrasted withthelumpen
appeal of hip-hopfortheyounggeneration who,althoughthey
respectedtheso-calledBlack Muslims,had no intention of orga-
nizingwiththem.Principally, thismotivation, orlackthereof, may
be rootedinwhatKelley(1992) refers toas a "Ghettocentric" view
thatpredominates in manyinnercitycommunities.'0 Moreto the
point,it actuallyreflectsthe subcultural locus of intereststhat
emergefromthecastedynamicof U.S. societywhereinnercity
African Americans findthemselves castoutofmainstream national
cultureand are forcedto deriveforthemselvessome requisite
paradigm ofinterpreting a verydifferent worldthanthatcontained
intheparadigm ofthedominant culture(i.e.,itain'ttheAmerican
dream).
Whathas emergedamongthesmallcohortthatis thehip-hop
community intheseurbancenters(as opposedtothemorelasting
institutions
thatAfricanAmericanshave builtas life-giving and
life-sustaininginstitutions in thesesame communities since the
greatmigration) is a rathernihilistic and self-destructive set of
tenetsthatemergefrom thedriveforsurvivalism intheseinnercity
communities, whichareusuallynotgrounded in overtly
African-
centereddynamicsor in disciplinedreligiousformulations like
thosefoundin theNOLprogram. Also,at thesametime,priorto
theDopebusters Program andtheorganizing oftheNOLNational
Securityas a businessinstitution, theNOL was notpreparedto
organizewithgroupsotherthanBlackMuslims.FollowingMal-
colmmorethanMuhammad, Farrakhan is attempting toovercome
thisrigidity.
TheimageofMalcolmX,morea caricature attimes,holdinghis
carbinepeeringthrough a curtained windowcaptured thehip-hop
nationanddemandedless as a costoffollowership thantherigid
disciplineof theNOL. And withtheriffbetweenChuckD and
ProfessorGriff-whowas amongthemostvocaladherents ofNOL
326 JOURNALOF BLACK STUDIES / JANUARY1996

philosophy withinPublicEnemy-resulting in Griff'sdismissal


fromthegroup,hip-hopfollowers used thiscleavageto abrogate
anyresponsibility offollowership beyondproclamations ofbeing
"down."Further, themysticism ofNOI philosophy, thecentering
ofYacub'shistory, themakingofa messiah/god outofa non-Black
FaradMuhammad, countered themore cultural-basednationalism
and revolutionary Black nationalism of an emergent and philo-
sophically thirstyBlackyouth.
Whatwas missingin thePublicEnemyappeal was thesame
elementsmissingintheNOL:a cultural focusonAfricantradition
and practiceas opposedto a pseudo-Asiatic/Arab and/or Muslim
foci,as wellas a transformativephilosophy rootedinBlackagency,
action,and representation, and notawaitinga messiah.A group
centered on thestylings andflavorofthesonofa legendary Black
community activistorganized aroundtheseveryprecepts emerged
andhelpedchangethefaceofhip-hop.Thiswas X-Clan.
X-ClanfusedaspectsofKarenga's(1980) Kawaidaandaspects
ofrevolutionary Blacknationalism. X-Clangrounded theirBlack
nationalism inBlackculture andinprotest thatwaspresent dayand
notsimplyhearkening to
back dead heroes. The overtlyKemetic
(Egyptian)imageryandphilosophy weremuchmorestudiedand
apparent in X-Clanthanin theearliertreatment of KRS-ONE. In
factX-Clanchastisedthehollowhumanism ofKRS-ONE as a sort
of nouveauintegrationist selloutundertheguise of multicultur-
alism. X-Clan was forthright in theirBlack nationalism. They
coupledtheirrapwiththeorganizational focusofTheBlackwatch
Movement,whichis a Black nationalist organization seeded in
severalcities.Withtheboycott ofKoreangrocers andtheexplosion
oftheBlackandWhitecommunities following themurder ofYusuf
Hawkinsin Bensonhurst, Blacksorganized"Days ofOutrage"as
a formofprotest. X-Clangaveexpression toboththesentiment and
theactivitiesthatbothfostered andresulted fromcontinued attacks
on Blackself-determination.
X-Clan notonlypositionedBlack nationalism in its political
aspectat the centerof hip-hop,it pushednationalist rap stars,
including PublicEnemy,backto a morepolitical,as opposedto a
religious,Black nationalism followingwhatsome considereda
Henderson
/BLACK NATIONALISM AND RAP MUSIC 327

weakeralmostintegrationist sentimentalizing in PublicEnemy's


thirdalbum,Fear ofa BlackPlanet.Inthisalbum,although thefirst
release,"Welcometo theTerrordome" was vintagePE (Public
Enemy),Chuckappearedtobe responding moretoattackson him
from Whites,patticularly
European-Jewish Americans,andwasnot
so muchpushingthenationalist position.The nextalbum,Apoca-
lypse91: TheEmpireStrikes Black,resurrectedthepolitically
based
nationalistpositionofPE, especiallyin whatI considerto be the
album'sthreecorecuts"Can't TrussIt," "By theTimeI Get to
Arizona,"andtheexceptional "ShutEm Down."
Theimagery thatwasportrayed inthevideosofthesethreecuts
was exceptional.In thefirst,present-day conditionsof African
Americans, especiallyfollowing theattackson RodneyKing,are
juxtaposedagainsttheeraoftheHolocaustofEnslavement: slave
auctionsanalogizedto employment lines,agricultural
plantations
analogizedto industrial plants,rape on theplantation to sexual
harassment intheworkplace, andfinally lynchingtothebeatingof
RodneyKing.Thevideo'seffect is heightened bythefactthatitis
filmed inBlackandWhite."BytheTimeI GettoArizona"provides
narrativefora concertedattempt to assassinatethe legislative
leadershipofa statethatfailsto officiallysanctionandrecognize
theMartinLutherKingholiday.
Here PE takestheprototypic symbolof nonviolence, Martin
LutherKing,anddepictsretribution forthesufferingsvisitedupon
African Americans before,
during, andafter themovements thathe
helpedtolead.In so doing,PE assertsall African Americans'right
toputhistory inourownimageandinterests. Theyarenotforced
to onlyinvokewhatMartinKinginvoked.Theyarenotforcedto
only"dream"thewaythattheWhitemediaas well as theBlack
integrationist
"leadership"attempts toconstrain thought,analysis,
orinterpretationsofMartinKing.Although Kingwenttohisdeath
as an apostleof nonviolence, thatdoes notmeanthatall we can
learnfromKingis nonviolence. Thisis therelevanceof PE. We
have a dutyand obligation as heirsand custodiansof a powerful
legacytobothremember andinterpret buttoalso castitin
history,
a liberating
lightso thatwe mayconstruct vehiclesandinstitutions
toperpetuate thebestofus as a people.
328 JOURNALOF BLACK STUDIES /JANUARY1996

Fornationalists, we canacceptaspectsofKing'sleadership and


hisphilosophy, buteveninouranalysisofhim,andmuchmoreof
the movement, we are not limitedby this.Whitesupremacists,
Black and White,have greatdifficulty withthisaspectof self-
determination, primarily becauseit attackstheirauthority as the
definersoftruth, righteousness,
historical
accuracy,
andmorality. The
paradeofintegrationist NegroesthatchastisedPE's videostandas
testamenttotheprevalence andenduring natureofWhitesupremacy.
Finally,"ShutEm Down" movedtheimagery ofBlacknation-
alismbeyondthesimplycaricaturing ofMalcolmX. In thisvideo,
also done in Black and White,PE depictssome of thegreatest
heroesoftheBlackpowermovement overa pulsingbass lineand
ChuckD's hailingbaritone invoking theBlackmassestoshutdown
thoseelements andinstitutionsthatdo notprovideforandpromote
Black community development. To mymind,in all threevideos,
PE attempts to redefineand repositionBlack nationalism around
demystified andresponsible historical Thisis most
interpretation.
evidentin"Can'tTrussIt"and"BytheTimeI GettoArizona."PE
also showsrespectandhomagefortheheroesofBlacknationalism
whileacknowledging responsiblecommunity praxis.Implicitin
"ShutEm Down" is PE's admonition torapperstojoin in struggle
withtheircommunities. Thiswasas muchtheresult, I wouldargue,
fromthe push of X-Clan as it was fromtheevolvingpolitical
maturityofPublicEnemy.

A CHALLENGETO THOSE
WHO ASSUME A NATIONALIST POSTURE

Thislongertreatment ofPE overotheractsis nottosuggestthat


as goes PE, so goes Black nationalisthip-hop.PE's centrality
insofaras promoting Black nationalism,however,is widelyre-
spectedevenamongthosewhoarenotrecognized forbeingpoliti-
callyconscious."Whatis important in thedevelopment of PE is
thatitparallelsmuchof thedevelopment ofBlacknationalism in
hip-hop-goodandbad.Muchofthepositivesidehasbeenstated,
buton theotherside,PE hasalso beenresponsibleforpromoting a
/BLACK NATIONALISM AND RAP MUSIC
Henderson 329

"politicsas theater"approachto nationalism. This aspectof the


melodramatizing ofpoliticalactionwas takenup bytheWhiterap
group3rdBass, whomadea parodyoftheprecisionfancydrillof
PE's security forcesintheirrap"Gas Face." Moreover, PE helped
topromote another ratherdeleterious aspectofnationalisthip-hop:
the mythof action.The mythof action,a termborrowedfrom
Maulana Karenga,promotesproclamation over demonstration.
That is, real community organizing and politicalgrounding are
forsaken, orneverundertaken. Pursuedinsteadis a sortoffantasiz-
ing or abstracting of actionthatusuallyis no morethanhollow
melodramathatnonetheless passes,in somecircles,forpositive
politicalaction.
Interestingly itwasPE prot6gee SisterSouljahwho,after earning
a reputation as a community organizer especiallyof community
oriented hip-hopconcerts, promoted the"raptivist" imageof rap
starand activist.She gainednationalattention, notfromherraps,
orfromherappearancesin PE's as wellas herownvideos,butas
thebruntofBill Clinton'sattackon theRainbowCoalitionin his
attempt to further distancehimselfand in manywaysrenounce
JesseJackson'sRainbowCoalitionandhisperceivedleftist popu-
lism,toensureClintonthe"Bubba"voteamongtheWhitemiddle-
incomegroupsin thecountry. Souljahusedthisnationalattention
andresponded inconcertwithmuchofthenationalist audiencein
repudiation ofbothClintonandhis rightto positionhimselfas a
moralteacherforherpersonally andforBlackpeopleas a whole.
Butthenationalist community's lastnationalimagesofPE wereits
video withWhiteheavymetalrockgroupAnthraxperforming
"BringTheNoise."SomehowI don'tthink thenationalist
audience
assumedthatthenoisePE wastalking aboutbringing wasperform-
ingwitha Whitemetalband.
Butthisis thesamecoursethatLos Angelesgangstarapper Ice-T
pursued.Goingevenfurther, he puttogether a metalband,known
as BodyCount,andperformed atmetalsitessuchas CBGB's and
thenperformed on theLollapolluzatour.Ice-T has at one timeor
another promoted animageofa pimpdaddymack,a dopepeddler,
a businessman, a politicalteacher, a gangsta,anda revolutionary.
RealitycastsIce-T in a muchdifferent lightthananyofthese:He
330 JOURNALOF BLACK STUDIES /JANUARY1996

is a professional
performer, an entertainer,andas suchhe is quite
interestingandevengood.However,fora revolutionary, orevena
reformer, he makesfora goodrapper. Ice-Tis notso muchnation-
alistbutgangsterish.Ice-T's nationalism mayhaveemergedfrom
hisproducer AfrikaIslamwhois also downwiththeZulu Nation
andwhowentoutwesttoproduceIce-T.
The gangstaposturetooksomeof thefocusofftheemergent
nationalism epitomizedin KRS-ONE and PE in theEast. It also
was thebreadandbutter ofwestcoasthip-hop. Thiswas duetothe
factthattheterritorialgangelementin theWest,especiallyinLos
Angeles,is moredefining thanthatsameelementin theNortheast
homeofhip-hop.LiketheirEast Coastpredecessors beforethem,
theWestCoast"allstars"cametogether witha concerted nationalist
focusaroundtheissue of violencein hip-hopand in theBlack
community. Thiswasundertaken inthetrackentitled "We'reAll in
theSame Gang.""2 Earlier,Ice-Thadmadea verylucidpointabout
theuse andabuseofthetermviolencewhenitcametohip-hop. He
pointedoutin "Squeeze theTrigger," in hisRhymePays thatrap
musicdidnotcauseviolenceanymorethansoccermatches, hockey
games,or nuclearpeace rallies-all the sitesof some formof
violence.The largerand important pointwas thatyouthlive in a
violentsociety,and at itsbest,themusicthatcapturedthisethos
wouldevokeviolentimages.Therefore it is foolishto assume,as
manypolicymakersdid,thatrapmusicwas causingviolenceas
opposedtoreflecting theviolencewithin manyurbancommunities.
Ice-T movedfromwhatcouldbe considered thepettygangster-
ism thatwas evocativeof the originalHustler'sConvention to
Power,whichthoughgood musically, showedmorethatpeople
who operateat themarginsofpowerunderstand verylittleabout
realpower.Although attempting topromote boththegangstaand
intelligent hoodlumimage,as well as a nationalist one, Ice-T
insteadputhimselfin a positionto publiclyadmonishLL Cool J
formuchofwhathe himself proclaimed in hisfirstalbum,andin
manywaysinall ofhisalbums.LL Cool Jwas thebiggesthip-hop
actgoingat thetime.He responded to Ice-T's dis powerfully and
humorously andGrandmaster Caz andprobably AfrikaIslamand
theZuluNationmediated thedispute(Eure-&Spady,1991,p. xv).
/BLACK NATIONALISM AND RAP MUSIC
Henderson 331

But the real significance of the Ice-T episode in regardsto


nationalism and activism is the responsehe chosefortheactivity
of thepolicedepartments againsthis "Cop Killer"album.For all
hisproclamation, Ice-Tsimplysuccumbed topublicpressure. Not
onlythat, he wenfdown proclaiming hisdefense ofWarner Brothers,
a multibilliondollarenterprise.As MaulanaKarenga(1993)pointed
out,Whenhasa multibillion dollarindustry neededa Blackmanto
defendit?Othersproclaimed thatIce-Twentoutlikea sucker. After
promoting themythof cop killerandpeelingsuckers'caps back
andtakingoutcopsindefenseofrighteous Blackpeoples,he stood
up to "defend"one ofthesamecompaniesthathas beenaccused
ofrippingoffBlacktalent, destroying Black competition in inde-
pendent recordcompanies, andstifling Blackcommercial develop-
mentin distribution and othernonperformance aspectsof the
recording industry. Ice
He,like Cube, laterwould proclaim all sorts
ofactivismfromthesafetyofnicehomesormoviesets.
Ice Cube,who,after leadingthegangstarapgroupNWA,hooked
upwiththeNOI, losthisjhericurl,andfoundhimself inBlackness,
andwhosatalmosttearyeyedon nationaltelevisionspeakingout
on theviolenceoftheLos Angelesrevoltandhis personalworry
abouthispersonallossandhispersonalfriends, promoted himself
months laterandfoundno remorse inproclaiming himself andhis
crewas the"prideofAfrica"and "Guerillasin da Midst"and as
"wicked"revolutionaries all oversouthcentral during theburning.
It's incrediblethe selectiveamnesiathatsome of these rappers
would wantus to have. Like Souljah and her armedbands of
"revolutionaries,"Ice Cube's "LenchMob" aretheurbanguerillas
intent on hastening the"revolution" thatis sureto come.Souljah,
one of the mostcommunity groundedamongthe "raptivists,"
nonetheless, irresponsibly (vis-a-visourBlack liberation history)
evokesimagesof herselfleadingarmedrevolutionaries in urban
centers becausetheBlacknationis,byheraccount, "atwar,"though
she stillfindstimefromthebattlefield to makemusicvideosand
promote herownimageoverthoseofpeoplewhodidandaredoing
theactualfighting, suchas sisterAssata,JalilMuntaquin, Sekou
Odinga,FannieLou Hamer,Ella Baker,andnamelessotherswho
struggle determinedly, persistently. SomehowI don'tthinkthisis
332 JOURNALOF BLACK STUDIES /JANUARY1996

whatGeronimo Prattorevenbrother NatandsisterQueenMother


Mooreenvisioned.
A corollaryto the above is the major pretensionof many
rappers-nationalist and otherwise-whoproclaimtheirdepic-
tionsof wantonviolenceand sexismare nonetheless appropriate
becausetheyarespeakingtherealitythattheysee everyday. This
rationalization is vacuouson twolevels.First,despitenotionsof
being"trueto thegame,"manyof theserappersare speakinga
"reality" thatis nottheirs-though itmaybe "real"andprevalent
to others-andis constantly exaggerated, glamorized, andhyped.
Thereis no betterexamplethantheDetroitbornrapper"Boss,"
LichelleLaws,whohas to be one ofthemosthypocritical "voices
of thestreet."She reportedly grewup in a middle-class Detroit
neighborhood wheresheattended balletandpianoclassandprivate
schoolsthrough highschool.Nonetheless, the 24-year-old was
makinga handsomelivingspewingsomeofthemostvirulent and
violent"gangsta"rap.Eitherballetclassesaremuchmoreviolent
todaythaninthepastormanyrapperssimplyparrot andparleythe
racistimage of Black thuggery to misled Black youths andeager
Whiteaudiencesreadytoconsumethismodernminstrel.
Anotherand probablydeeperpointis thatraisedby Karenga
(1993). He attacksthenotionthatrappersarejustinterpreting their
reality. Notwithstanding theearlierpointconcerning whosereality
it is, rappershave,accordingto Karenga,a responsibility beyond
simplymirroring He analogizesthesituation
"reality." oftheBlack
community andrapperstothatofa drowning manwhois showna
mirror. He arguesthatthepersonshowingthedrowning manthe
mirror is showingthemanreality. However,Karengamaintains,
thatpersonholdingthemirror has a greaterresponsibility to the
drowning manthanthatof "interpreting" Thereis the
hisreality.
addedresponsibility ofchanging thatreality,inthiscase givinghim
a handorthrowing a rope.Rappers,whoaremakingtheirpockets
fatter helpingthemselves, arenot,forthemostpart,transforming
reality, orevenunderstanding tochangeit.And
theirresponsibility
totheextent thattheBlackcommunity isdrowning, therequirement
forchange is not formirrorholders with sagging pants, whotout
guns,floutresponsibility, and disrespectwomen, all the while
/BLACK NATIONALISM AND RAP MUSIC
Henderson 333

invokinghollowphrasesof beingpro-Blackand downwiththe


people.Further,thenihilisminmuchofraponlyglamorizes further
violenceandsexisminsteadofa socialpractice ofAfrican-centered
liberationto transformBlack communities. Thisis theminimum
requirement forwould-beliberation, thosewhoinvokeimagesof
Malcolm,theBPP,andKing.Thisis farbeyondtheemptyrhetoric
of "byanymeansnecessary." Andforthosewhoarguethattheir
effortsare righteousbecausetheygetpaid,we mustcounterthat
theremustbe somethingsthatwe willnotdo formoney.People
werepaid fortheholocaustofenslavement, butthatdidnotmake
were
Infiltrators
itcorrect. paid to betray liberationstruggles.It is
a nihilismborderingon inhumanity thatallowsboththemanufac-
turingofmisogynist products anda celebration ofpeopledancing
totheirowndegradation. Muchofthenihilistic imaging,inreality,
if
is promoted,notcreated, by White industry executivesas wellas
bymiseducated Blacksmasquerading as chroniclers ofthe"Black
experience."
The realshameofthisis thatinall theirhollowtheatrics is lost
thelessonthattherehavebeeninourBlackcommunity thosewho
haverighteously, whentheyfounditnecessary, takenup armsto
fightagainsttheinhumanity andinjustice thatWhitesupremacists
havevisiteduponus. Theseare amongourgreatest heroesin this
country.Theygo backas faras theSeminoleandmaroonwarriors,
NatTurner, GabrielProsser,DenmarkVesey,LucyParsons,Ida B.
Wells Barnett,HarrietTubman,and SojournerTruth,and they
includebutarenotlimitedto thoseamongus todayin theperson
of QueenMotherMoore,ChrisAlston,MumiaAbu-Jamal, Dho-
rubaBin Wahad,Geronimo Pratt,AssataShakur,SundiataAcoli,
Albert"Nuh"Washington, AhmedRahman,CiceroLove, Safiya
Bukhari-Alston, JalilMuntaquin, RuchellMagee, SharifWillis,
Falaka Fattah,MarianNzinga Stammps,JamilAmin,Kwame
Toure, Aneb Kgotsile,Akua Njeri, Imari Obadele, Maulana
Karenga,ChokweLumumba,GeneralBaker,theBPP, RNA, Us
(as opposedto them),NOI, New AfricanPeople's Organization
(NAPO), Black Liberation Army(BLA), andall thosewhohave
takenup armsinrevoltandotherwise riskedtheirlivesinthename
oftheirpeople.The hollowimagingof theseBlack rapactsdoes
334 JOURNALOF BLACK STUDIES /JANUARY1996

notresurrect theimagesof thebestof ourBlack community, it


bastardizesit.It spitson thegraveofBoyd,Brown,andBethune,
MarxEssex,FredHampton, TwymanMyers,ZaydShakur,Mark
Clark,JakeWinters,and a litanyof others.These actionsare
self-serving andself-aggrandizingandas suchshouldbe severely
criticizedif not condemned.The truepotentialin rap is to be
discoveredin thefactthatevenwiththeseshortcomings, rappers
as entertainers have remainedfarmorecentraland focusedthan
theircontemporaries in R&B. Comparisons ofrapperswithother
entertainersis appropriate;
however,thepresentattempttocompare
theirhollowtheatrics withpoliticalorganization
does a greatdis-
servicetothelegacyofthosewhostruggled forourliberation.

A FUTURE FOR NATIONALISM IN HIP-HOP

Theserappers shouldbe appreciated as entertainersbutcriticized


as politicalleadersorspokespersons. Themediaitselfpromotes in
theman auraofleadership mostofthemdo notwarrant andhave
notcultivated; however, whatis promising is thatmanyhavelinked
up to thepositivenationalist organizational elements in theBlack
community and have becomemoregroundedin theirpolitical
exegeses.The futureis promising in thisregard.Youngrappers
needtolearn,notonlyfromtheolderrapcounterparts andcommu-
nityorganizers butalso fromtheoldjazz actslikeBillieHolliday,
JohnColtrane,Dinah Washington, Nina Simone,McCoy Tyner,
EarlVanDyke,andMilesDavis,Gil ScottHeron,Bilal SunniAli,
tonamejusta few.Theyalso mustgroundwiththecommunity and
organizewithsomeofourveterans suchas thosementioned above,
as well as thosein themovements aroundAfrocentrism, repara-
and
tions, peace. Such grounding ensures politicalsophistication
andproscribes thisfantasy islandtypenationalism surrounded by
a mythofaction.Rappersmustcontinually confront thequestions
Fanon(1968) posedto us as thefundamental questionsthatAfri-
cansmustdealwitheveryday:(a) WhoamI? (b) AmI whoI think
I am?and(c) AmI all thatI oughttobe? Therealanswerstothese
questionsmaysurprise them.
Henderson
/BLACK NATIONALISM AND RAP MUSIC 335

It is mypositionthatit'sgoingto be local notthenationalacts


thatresupply thenationalistic
vigorthatmanyhaveeitherforsaken
or givenlip serviceto. This is due to thedemandson big-time
groupsto overfantasize and overlyindulgethemselves and their
reputationswhilkedecreasingtheiraccessibility tothelocalcommu-
nity.Theresultis thattheyareno longergrounded inanything but
the superficialand faddishconcernsof their(now abandoned)
community. Moreover, theeffective nationalistorganizersaremore
oftengrassroots members whoareintheverycommunities thatthe
rapstarshave sinceleftor becomeoutof touchwith.Remember
evenwhenactsstayincommunities, itis possibletono longerbe
abletorelatetothatcommunity becausesuccessandmoneymany
timesblindpeopletoanything buttheir ownmyopicmisperceptions
of reality.For nationalism to remainin hip-hopand become a
grounding fora moreeffective expressionof AfricanAmerican
nationalcultureandinstitution building, local actswiththisfocus
shouldbe promoted andnationalactsshouldbothlegitimize extant
nationalist organizationsandournationalist leadersand also pro-
motenewnationalist andAfrican-centered institutionsamongthe
hip-hopcommunity itself.
Finally,itshouldbe understood thatthenihilism inhip-hopand
theglamorization ofhip-hop "culture"reallyrepresents theabsence
ofnationalculture(African-centered culture)amongthoseclaim-
ants.It also promotes thelumpenimage,orthecriminal imageas
theimageofAfricanAmericans. Minister Malcolmis instructive
inthisregard. He pointed outononeoccasionthatitwasnota shame
tohavebeena criminal, butitis a shametoremaina criminal. This
glamorization ofnegativeimagingis all themoretellinginlightof
thefactthatmuchofrap,especiallyso-calledgangstarap,increas-
inglyplaysto a Whiteaudience(Samuels,1991) and is widely
consumedbyWhiteyouthswhofindlittledifficulty acceptingthe
stereotypical criminalityof Black youthand thedegeneration of
Blackwomen.
ManyAfricanAmericanyouthare struggling aroundissuesof
manhoodandwomanhood. Thesedefinitions arerootedinidentity.
Identities are derivedfromculture.Definitions of manhoodand
womanhood (morespecificidentities) arederivedfromculture. If,
336 JOURNALOF BLACK STUDIES /JANUARY1996

as intheAfricanAmerican community, youhavepeoplewhohave


beendeniedtheircultureby Whitesupremacism, and youthwho
believetheyhavenoculture, theAfrican American community will
deviseone forthemselves. Therefore, you willhave a "hip-hop"
culturefullofyouthwithdefinitions oftheiridentity andtherites
ofpassageintomanhood/womanhood definedbyEuro-American
guns,drugretailing, foreignmade gymshoes,Whitedistributed
music,40s, sexism,andmisguided pronouncements ofrighteous-
ness.Moreover, youwillhavetheglamorization of thekillingof
otherAfricanAmericans.Youthwill know Tupac Shakurand
glamorizeorrationalize hisself-destructive "thuglife"butremain
ignorant ofMutuluandAfeniShakur.'3 It is nothip-hop'srespon-
sibilityto changeall ofthis;thatburdenfallsuponus all. It is the
responsibilityofall artists
ofoppressedgroupsto speakmeaning-
fullyin theirart,sometime, someplace,to theliberation of their
people.
In thefinalanalysis,it's up to us to educateouryouthand to
demandofouryouthan appropriate respectfortheirtrueheritage,
legacy,andtheresponsibility thataccompaniesboth.We mustbe
theexample.Andthatexampleis bestdemonstrated byourevery-
daypractice andgrounding withtheminourowncommunities first,
andin everysituation thatwe mayfindourselves.

NOTES

1. CitedinFanon(1968,p. 206).
2. Ontherelationship betweennational andpopularculture,
culture Cabral(1973) argued
thatwithin cultureis foundtheseedofoppositionthatleadstothefashioningoftheliberation
movement. Asante(1993,p. 120) suggeststheprospectin Afrocentrism is to recenterthe
"decentered, dislocated,anddisorientedyouth."Karenga(1993,p. 414) maintains thatpart
oftherelevanceofrapmusicis itspromotion ofa senseofcommunity amongBlackyouth
centeredon a nationalist consciousnessraising.Unfortunately
rap's mixedmessagesof
positiveconsciousnessare oftenmutedby its sexism,lumpenglorification, and at times
hypocriticalpronouncements ofBlackactivism.
3. See Madhubuti (1973, 1978).
4. However,forperformers, havinga homebase didnotprecludetheneedforsecurity.
Hercwas amongthefirst tohavehisownhomebasewhereasothers wereprimarily restricted
to houseparties.He hadtheHevaloonJerome Avenueduring1974beforemovingaround
/BLACK NATIONALISM AND RAP MUSIC
Henderson 337

theblocktotheExecutivePlayhouse, whichsincechangeditsnameto Sparkle.Even with


a homebase,inoneinfamous incident,Hercwas attacked
andknifedat a performance.
5. See interview
withGrandmaster Caz inEureandSpady's(1991) NationConscious
Rap. CharlesHenry's(1992,p. 34) CultureandAfrican
American Politicsmakesthepoint
that

Rap musicdevelopedoutoflocal blockpartiesin theBlack ghetto.Theseparties,


oftenin housingprojects,wereassociatedwithgangswhooccupiedtheirturf.To
protectthemselvesand keep thepeace at theirparties,all well-knownrap crews
becameaffiliatedwith"securityforces."Membership in security forcecrewslike
theCasanovaCrew,theNineCrew,andtheZuluNationrangedfromsixhundred to
thousands.Most rapperswereforcedto findsecurity fromlocal "stickup kids."
Securityforcesthemselveswerelargelycomposedof hoodlums,althoughtheir
energieswerechanneled intorapcompetition.
Blackgangwarfare declineddramati-
callyduringthisperiod(1978-81).

Henry,liketoo manyothers,offerslittleempiricalevidenceforhis assertionsaboutthe


"hoodlums"involvedin security that"all" rappersemployed.Suchirresponsible assertions
feedthehypethathip-hopandviolenceorcriminality aresynonymous; however, itis clear
thattherewas and remainsan associationbetweenhip-hopand gangs,buttheseare not
criminal
strictly gangs.
6. Caz makesthepointthatearlyontherewasn'tmuchunityinhip-hop, butthen"We
broughtBrooklynto Manhattan. Cause you would neversee anybodyfromBrooklyn
nowhere butinBrooklyn. Youwouldneversee toomanypeoplego toBrooklyn either,cause
theywas . . . everybody stuckto theirshit.But thehip-hopmovement got everybody
travelling"(Eure& Spady,1991,p. xiv).
7. Herewe meanthespirited andhypedcompetition betweenrappersandDJs.
8. Theirrecentmarriage withPeteRockandCL Smoothseemedto haveallowedfor
renewedacceptanceoftheformer kings.Additionally, itcouldbe arguedthatRunDMC's
crossoverambivalence was evidentinthechoiceoftitiefortheiranthem:"KingofRock,"
insteadofwhatmayhavebeenthemoreapropostitleof"KingofRap."Although theformer,
itcouldbe argued,rightly appropriates forAfrican Americanartists themantleofrockand
rollmusic,whichwas spawnedbyBlack legendsdatingbackto Big Mama Thornton, we
couldalsomakethepointthattherapartists shouldhavepromoted their
owngenre,explicitly,
as an authenticandculturallygrounded articulation
ofAfrican American musicandworthy
ofitsown,atleastfiguratively, sire.
9. As opposedto incarceration, captivity denotesimprisonment thatis primarily the
resultof politicalactivity
and notexplicitly criminalactivity. Or,closerto thetruth, it is
incarcerationthatis theresultofthecriminalization ofself-determination underconditions
of oppression:Therefore, GeronimoPratt,AhmedRahman,Dhorubabin-Wahad, Assata
Shakur, JalilMuntaquin, GeorgeJackson, HueyNewton,MaulanaKarenga,ImariObadele,
Panther 21,Wilmington 10,RNA 11,andmanyotherswereorareincaptivity.
10.Kelley(1992,p.38) defines Ghettocentric as "theidentity inwhichthespecificclass,
race and genderedexperiencesin late capitalisturbancenterscoalesce to cratea new
identity-'Nigga.'" Further, he statesthat"Niggais notmerelyanother wordforBlack;it
encompassesa specificclass,spatial,andto a largedegree,gendered subjectposition."He
goes on to maketheobviouspointthat"theexperiences ofyoungBlackmenin theinner
cityare notuniversalto all Black people,and in fact,theyrecognizethatsome African-
Americans playa roleinperpetuating theiroppression" (p. 40). Kelleymissesthepointthat
338 JOURNALOF BLACK STUDIES / JANUARY1996

whathe calls "Ghettocentric" is onlypartofthefocusthatemergesfromtheperceptions of


manyyouthintheinnercitythatcomesfromtheirdisillusionment withthenationalculture
thathas designated themoutcastesbutappealsto them,nonetheless, through Whitesupre-
macismas a constituent, though denatured partoftheAmerican whole.Itis within thiscaste
relationship thattheAfricancenteredness oftheAfricanAmerican has beenincubated and
throughwhichit persists.This is not simplyan urbanphenomenon but is a diasporic
phenomenon (Henderson, 1995).
Nigga is nothingmorethana variantof niggerwiththe same Whitesupremacist
connotations, itis notdeeperthanthat.To attempt toderiveothermeanings is aboutas useful
as sayingthata "bitch"is notintended tobe degrading butonlyimplies"beautiful intelligent
teachersofcultural heritage." RappersBytchesWithProblemsnonsensically maintain the
assertive"positive"characteristic of theterm.This is no morenonsensicalthanTupac's
assertion thatniggarepresents "NeverIgnorant, Getting GoalsAccomplished." It is notthat
niggahas to have any positiveconnotation at all. It obviouslydoes notinvokea racial
responseamongmanyBlacksas betweenBlacksandWhites, butthisis becauseithas,most
notably, beenusedas a Whitesupremacist statement. However,whenusedbymembers of
thesamerace,thatracistmotivation is notas apparent andis inmanycases ignored.What
is important to understand is thatthisidentification is rootedinthedominance oftheWhite
supremacist culture anditsinfusion intoall thecaptured nationalgroupsintheUnitedStates
(Obadele,1986).The"Ghettocentric" hip-hopsters arenotimmune tothisprocess,andthey
aresimilarly ingrained withmuchoftheWhitesupremacism thatis thedriving forceofthe
dominant culture inthiscountry, theirproclamations tothecontrary notwithstanding.
11.On theiralbum,Can'tHold Us Back,theself-style ghetto gangsters, theGetoBoys,
present PE an apocryphal awardforbeingso "dam"Black.
12. WhereastheEast CoasttrackendedwithChuckD's shrilllyricthatcalledforunity
andlove,theWestCoastversion,although theatrically moreengaging, endedwiththelate
Eazy-E's warningto stayoffthestreetsas well as his characterization of himselfas "the
violenthero."
13. It is ironicthatTupac Shakur,presently servinga prisonsentencefora rape
conviction, hasonlywiththatconviction beguntopromote favorable imagesofhismother's
Black PantherPartylegacyin hismusicvideos.Additionally, he has repudiated his "thug
life"style.Thismaynotsuggestanytransformation onthepartoftherapper butonlyindicate
thegreatdifficulty inportraying thatimageina prisonamongserious"thugs"as opposedto
portraying itinthemedia.Worse,though, hasbeenthefailure ofmanyinthe"hip-hop nation"
to holdhimaccountableforthetotality of his destructive message.Onlywithhisrecent
attempt to character assassinateassociatespresent, at theincidentwherehe was shot(see
Freddy, 1995)haverappers andsomefansbeguntoadmonish, andrighteously
criticize, hold
accountable thiswould-be, andself-proclaimed, thug/revolutionary/family man/spokesman
fora generation.. . andso on.

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(1993)fromtheUniversity
ErrolA. Hendersonreceivedhisdoctorate ofMichigan,
of
AnnArborHe is an assistantprofessorofpoliticalscienceat the University
Florida.

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