“Certain idols of narrative have lost their explanatory power for American culture in general and for African American culture, in particular, if its contemporary music tells us anything, so that the key question for the black creative intellectual now is: How does one grasp her membership in, or relatedness to, a culture that defines itself by the very logics of the historical?” [92]

Spillers poses this query in her 1994 essay, which is a look back at Harold Cruse’s 1967 work, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual: From its Origin to its Present,[1] and situates the latter’s import on the moment in which the former is written. Spillers asks, in other words, “What is the work of the black creative intellectual, for all we know now?” [92] Her answer to her own question is that “the black creative intellectual must get busy where he/she is. There is no other work, if he/she has defined an essential aspect of his/her personhood as the commitment to reading, writing, and teaching” [92-3]. She goes on to encourage the Black creative intellectual to seize the “intellectual object of work in language” by embracing “the black musician and his music as the most desirable model/object” [93] She explains:

“While African American music, across long centuries, offers the single form of cultural production that the life-world can “read” through thick and thin, and while so consistent a genius glimmers through the music that it seems ordained by divine authority its very self, the intellectual rightly grasps the figure of the musician for the wrong reasons: not once do we get the impression that the musician performer promotes his own ego over the music, or that he prefers it to the requirements, conventions, and history of practices that converge on the music: if that were not so, then little in this arena of activity would exhibit the staying power that our arts of performance have shown over the long haul. In other words, though ego-consciousness is necessary, it is the performance that counts here, apparently, as we know black musicians and remember them by the instruments of performance, and performance marks exactly the standard of work and evaluation that has not changed….” [93-4]

Spillers calls for “performative excellence,” and states, “this is the page of music from which the black creative intellectual must learn to read” [94]. From there she [parenthetically] conjures the journey of Solomon Northup, referencing a story in his narrative from the 1850s in which bonded persons were made to dance for their masters. This historical connection is salient primarily because she is providing the foundations on which she bases her appeal to black creative intellectuals to model their work on the Black musician, “music in black culture achieved its superior degree of development, in part, because its ancestral forces were occasioned, allowed. The culture’s relationship to language is the radically different story too familiar to repeat” [94].

In the twenty-plus years since Spillers reflected on Cruse “Owning My Masters” is also a product of her challenge. What is the work of the creative black intellectual, for all we know now? This project, as an answer, is not much different than hers; this is Hip-Hop. The historical reference upon which Spillers bases her appeal appeals to the becoming creative intellectual because Solomon Northup’s story as she renders it, this “performative excellence” Spillers calls for, loops through Black creative intellectual life infinitely. As bonded persons danced for their masters, the Black creative intellectual’s performance is perpetual. The American Civil War began just two months after the first American PhD was awarded by Yale in 1861.[2] Edward Alexander Bouchet’s remarkable accomplishment of becoming the first “African American PhD” was assisted by one of the three in that first American PhD class, Arthur Wright, who was his “primary professor” [Web].[3] Even with his credentials, few other job prospects were available to Dr. Bouchet, so he eventually went on to work for his graduate educational benefactor who was on the board of managers at the Institute for Colored Youth, where Dr. Bouchet worked for 26 years until the school shifted its emphasis to industrial education, rendering the Good Doctor’s services unnecessary. Bouchet’s story, his career, too, follows the trajectory of Northup; it is modeled, however, as are so many of ours, on the white scholar. Impressive as Bouchet’s story is—being the first “African American PhD”—it leaves few interpretive options of the dance he did.

So, what is the work of the creative intellectual, for all we know now? It is the question that begs many of Harney and Moten’s responses. The performance is unavoidable. The question now is: How do we, if we decide we must, disrupt the loop? The aim isn’t to stop the story’s playing but to render it in such a way that the subject is no longer only an object of analysis, but also a lens through which the story can be experienced. We no longer just see Solomon, but we see as Solomon and we see through Solomon, the world of the black creative intellectual. It’s clear that Black cultural products, particularly popular music, are as fit for popular consumption as they are for academic [or fugitive or Black] study. Perhaps, following Spiller’s suggestion that “the work of the intellectual is to make her reader/hearer discomfitted, unoriented and, therefore, self-critical,” we should discomfit and unorient the academy, and make it self-critical [if the academy is the reader/hearer of the message deliver by this project] [83].

Some means of combining pathologized ob/sub-jects could assist in this discomfiting and unorienting. Avital Ronell, in Crack Wars: Literature Addiction Mania, describes ways in which cultures need drugs.[4] En route to describing the implications of this assertion, she illustrates how they are not, as we love to imagine, part of some subculture, but necessary components of culture itself. Ronell uses the literary lives of Baudelaire, Freud and Flaubert to support her claim. Ellison’s narrator could also be added to this list, as he is under the influence of reefer “some jokers gave” him when he “discovered” the “new analytical way of listening to music” described in the prologue to Invisible Man [which is remixed into this introduction][5]. One could very easily make the same assertion, and take it a step further, utilizing Hip-Hop. Where Ronell describes being[s] on drugs, Hip-Hop matches, and then one-ups, her. Hip-Hop’s aspirants aim to be the drug. More specifically, the artists desire to be dope. Ronell states,

“On generalizing the notion of addiction. Our “drugs” uncover an implicit structure that was thought to be one technological extension among others, one legal struggle, or one form of cultural aberration. Classifiable in the plural (drugs: a singular plural) they were nonetheless expected to take place within a restricted economy. What if “drugs” named a special mode of addiction, however, or the structure that is philosophically and metaphysically at the basis of our culture?” [13]

What if “dope scholars”—and what I mean by “dope” is simply those scholars in the generation after Baker and Rose, after Neal and Peterson, who, as Hip-Hop aspirants, strive to be what it is they study—named a special mode of scholarly engagement [addiction, perhaps] or the structure that is philosophically and metaphysically at the basis of [the perpetuation] of our [Hip-Hop/academic] culture? The methods of “traditional” successful Hip-Hop scholars have been used to work tirelessly to uncover an implicit structure [a way of doing Hip-Hop scholarship] that was, perhaps, thought to be one technological extension among others, one legal struggle, or one form of cultural aberration [among others]. They were expected to take place within a restricted economy.

Hip-Hop was supposed to be used alongside something else—to “cut” it; its potency would be too much for the [academic] body. Ronell writes,

“When the body seems destined to experimentation, things are no longer introjected but trashed: dejected. The body proper regains its corruptible, organic status. Exposed to this mutability, the body cannot preserve its identity, but has a chance of seeing this fall, or ejection, sublimated or revalorized. Nautilus vs. the addict. When some bodies introduce drugs as a response to the call of addiction, every body is on the line: tampering and engineering, rebuilding and demolition, self-medication and vitamins become the occupations of every singularity. Sometimes the state has a hand in it.” [7]

Hip-Hop’s popular influence is evident in its presence in music, film, television and education. It’s evident in the work of Christopher Emdin, author of Urban Science Education for the Hip-Hop Generation [2010], using Hip-Hop as the “A” in STEAM education[6] for his students, and the fellowship he was awarded from the W.E.B. DuBois Research Institute at Harvard University which houses the Nasir Jones Hiphop Fellowship. From Cornell to Houston University, both homes to Hip-Hop archives, it’s clear that Hip-Hop has been accepted—heralded, even, in some places—by the academy. If, as a response to this engagement [addiction] with Hip-Hop [studies], so-called “dope scholars” experiment with their product in its “pure” form, and they feel it is the duty of this generation of scholars to not just study Hip-Hop, but to be the dope they write about, to do the dope [work] in the academy, as their scholarship, they will, perhaps, be rejected by the [academic] body, dejected by their lack of success [It’s far less likely the experiment would result in overdose]. The “dopeboys” and “dopegirls” have little to lose. As a necessity of culture they’ll survive and find use inside or outside the academy. But what does the [academic] body stand to gain? In Ronell’s words, “Intoxication names a method of mental labor that is responsible for making phantoms appear. It was a manner of treating the phantom, either by making it emerge—or vanish” [5]. Talib Kweli raps, on the song, “Beautiful Struggle,” from the album of the same name released in 2004[7], “I speak at schools a lot ‘cause they say I’m intelligent. No. It’s ‘cause I’m dope. If I was wack I’d be irrelevant.” If, as Kweli implies, the opposite of “dope” is “wack,” perhaps what the body stands to gain is the same thing it stands to lose—relevance, at least as it relates to Hip-Hop studies. Perhaps Kweli provides a method of mental labor to deal with the phantoms to which Ronell alludes, and this is what makes him such an in-demand speaker at schools. Rather than relegate him, and others like him, to interloper status, visiting lecturers or artists in residence, on campuses, why not [also] allow for or attempt to understand scholarship and scholars produced by [inside] the academy as aspiring to “dopeness?”

In short, the dope is still as potent as it ever was. It still has its intoxicating properties that render it difficult to inject without a proper diluting agent [or discipline], and alone runs the risk of being flatly rejected, or accepted and entirely misunderstood or mis/ab-used. But we have trained ourselves and our system, and it’s high time we try it raw and uncut. It’s been used to analyze figures of speech, poetics, literary comparison/contrast, socioeconomics, politics, and on and on and on, but Hip-Hop, without assistance from the academy or academicians does all of these things, many of them simultaneously. While it’s true that the disciplines though and lenses through which the the musics/verbal arts of Hip-Hop, particularly rap and spoken word, help organize conversations around and about Hip-Hop, they often don’t afford much attention to the scholarship that is done through and by Hip-Hop, which amounts to an acknowledgment of the “knowing” third of Aristotle’s triad, but neglects the “making” and “doing” with regard to those particular forms. It must be additionally acknowledged that the latter tow can facilitate a more complex, comprehensive “knowing” of and about Hip-Hop and its rhetorical/theoretical functions, possibilities, potentialities and realities.

In my time as a student and as a teacher I’ve been engaging the questions raised in this project, which has significance far beyond Hip-Hop[8]. This is not justifying by disavowing Hip-Hop as important, rather it is highlighting the fact that through Hip-Hop we are raising questions that other genres of cultural production cannot avoid [by ghettoizing them].


[1] New York Review Books, 1967.

[2] Ralph P. Rosenberg. “The First American Doctor of Philosophy Degree: A Centennial Salute to Yale, 1861-1961”. The Journal of Higher Education, Vol. 32, No. 7 (Oct., 1961), pp. 387-394.

[3] Tretkoff, Ernie. “This Month in Physics History: June 1876: Edward Bouchet Becomes the First African American PhD in Physics”. APS News. https://www.aps.org/publications/apsnews/200706/history.cfm. Accessed: 3 July 2016.

[4] Ronell, Avital. Crack Wars: Literature Addiction Mania. University of Illinois Press, 2004.

Reference to Ronell connecting pathologies associated with drugs and race in Crack Wars: Literature Addiction Mania, writing: “Crack Wars. In an altogether uncanny manner, the polemics surrounding drugs historically became a War only when crack emerged. At this moment, drugs acquired the character of political question. Routinely associated with subversion, drugs, by means of crack, were escalated to the threat of revolution and a technological articulation of racial difference. Security was upped; civil liberties went down. Crack lost its specificity as merely one drug among others. As synecdoche of all drugs, crack illuminates an internal dimension of polemos—opening the apocalyptic horizon of the politics of drugs.

“Prior to the emergence of what we call crack, drugs posed questions of control, legalization, and containment. Their usage seemed to belong to the socio-juridical precincts of civil disobedience. Ever since its inception as legal category, this all-American crime has earned its dose of moral defensibility from a link to anti-war activities. But crack, when it brought the War to drugs, brought war unto the law. Civil disobedience split away from constitutionally sanctioned habits: this war, unlike others, permits no dissent. Destructuring a civil constitution based on difference, crack introduces narcopolemics as total war.” [19]

[5] Ellison, 8

[6] Emdin, Christopher. “In Teaching STEM Use Hip-Hop As A Bridge. New York Times. 10 December 2013. Web. Accessed 10 October 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2013/12/10/math-and-science-for-more-than-just-geeks/in-teaching-stem-use-hip-hop-as-a-bridge

[7] Green, Talib Kweli. “The Beautiful Struggle.” The Beautiful Struggle. Rawkus/Geffen Records, 2004.

[8] Alexander Weheliye opens up a similar discussion in Phonographies by way of Nahum Dimitri Chandler’s challenge in “Originary Displacement” [boundary 2, 27.3, 2000, 249-286] that “we should generalize and therefore radicalize W. E. B. Du Bois’s formulation of the African American sense of identity as “a kind of double consciousness,” experienced under the palpable force of the practice of racial distinction, to American identities” [249-50]. He considers Chandler’s invitation to consider that “all critical reflections must proceed by way of example” and provides such for our consideration of instances of thinkers such as Foucault and Freud using specific historical contexts and circumstances [“historical materials from late-eitheenth-cenetury France” and “case studies from Viennna at the turn of the twentieth century,” respectively (66)] as means of providing generalizable theoretical frameworks that have been widely applied and accepted. This, according to Weheliye, is his following Hortense Spillers’ “injunction for “the black creative intellectual to get busy where he/she is”” [67].