Hip Hop Illiterate

Image result for deejayingWhat does it mean to be hip hop illiterate? If literacy is about reading and writing, and hip-hop is an orally produced & aurally received expressive form, then what benefit is there to introducing illiteracy as a problematic of understanding hip-hop music? What positions hip-hop uniquely as a mode of self-expression, African-American or otherwise? Is there a place for the study of hip-hop within the academy? And if so, how should that scholarship be tailored and who does such a scholarship aim to benefit?

These are just a few of the questions I hope to address in creating this new blog space: www.hiphopilliterate.blogspot.com. I would like this space to serve as a bridge and introduction to ways of thinking about hip-hop theoretically (i.e. from within the academy) and to ways of thinking about academia and through academic discourse via the aesthetic and philosophical practices of hip-hop music. Without getting too bogged down from the beginning, I would like first to begin with a few definitions.

The Oxford English Dictionary (Online) defines the following terms as such:
hip, a.: slang (orig. U.S.)= HEP a. Hence hip-cat = HEP-CAT; hipness, the condition or quality of being ‘hip’.
hip-hop, n. (and a.): orig. U.S. = a. A youth subculture,
originating amongst the Black and Hispanic populations of
New York City, which comprises elements such as rap music,
graffiti art, and break-dancing, as well as distinctive codes
of dress. b.The music associated with this subculture,
characterized by freq. politically inspired or motivated raps,
delivered above spare, electronic backing, and harsh rhythm
tracks. Also attrib. or as adj. Cf. *RAP
v. intr., to dance to or perform hip-hop; {sm}hip-hopper n., a member
of the hip-hop culture; {sm}hip-hopping ppl. a. and vbl. n.
and finally,
illiterate, a. (n.) = 1. a. Of persons: Ignorant of letters or
literature; without book-learning or education; unlettered,
unlearned; unable to read, i.e. totally illiterate. Also,
more generally, characterized by ignorance or lack of learning
or subtlety (in any sphere of activity). Cf. ILLITERACY.
2. In sense of L. illïtter{amac}tus: Unfurnished with letters,
not written upon; not expressed in words; unwritten;
inarticulate. rare.
Image result for black noise Part of my purpose in beginning this blog is to address concerns I have had since beginning my graduate work on African-American literature and cultural theory. There seems to be a wealth of scholarship developing and dedicated to the music and culture of hip-hop that sets it apart from the work done on African-American literature and literary theory. And while there is some overlap of hip-hop theory in the fields of black popular culture studies, media & communication studies, and musicology, the absence of an in-depth treatment of hip-hop's lyricism, narrative capabilities, performance and politics have led me to begin my own preliminary assessment. Part of my purpose in creating this blog, then, is to help those within the walls of academia come to ground and grips with the world that hip-hop music made (and is making), to help some remove their hip-hop "illiteracy" and to furnish their world of articles, letters, and publications with a treatment of the unlettered, unwritten illiteracy that hip-hop has to offer (yes, this is a positive offering). 

Image result for rap in the academy
On the flip-side of this coin, there has been a lack of highly critical assessment of hip-hop as a political and philosophical means of expression and human articulation. And as such, part of my purposes in this blog also will be to help bridge the gap between hip-hop as entertainment and hip-hop as highly critical of dominant society and normative culture. At the base of all hip-hop lyricism is an active resistance to social normativity that discriminates, disadvantages, and disenfranchises, even if at times the performances can serve to reproduce society's destructive ideologues. My hope in this blog is to establish a firm relationship between hip-hop's lyricism and cultural performances and a progressive politics of global activism, one that can be found in hip-hop's development into as pervasive a tool for mass intellectual development, literary instruction, and global connection as the world has ever known, but also one that affirms a new foundation for philosophical investigations, in ways that challenge and expand upon the principles, methods, and conclusions of Western thought and Western thinkers insofar as their writings and ideas are made to proliferate throughout the planet.

Let's slow things down for a second with more definitions:

literate, a. and n. = 1. Acquainted with letters or literature; educated, instructed, learned. 2. a. Of or pertaining to letters, literary men, or literature; literary.

ill, a. and n. = 1. Morally evil; wicked, iniquitous, depraved, vicious, immoral, blameworthy, reprehensible. a. Of persons. Of conduct or actions. 2. a. Marked by evil intent, or by want of good feeling; malevolent, hostile, unfriendly, adverse, unkind, harsh, cruel. 3. a. Doing or tending to do harm; hurtful, injurious, pernicious, noxious, mischievous, prejudicial; dangerous. 4. Causing pain, discomfort, or inconvenience: offensive, painful, disagreeable, objectionable. 5. Of conditions, fortune, etc.: Miserable, wretched, unfortunate, unlucky; disastrous, unfavourable, untoward, unpropitious.
The combination of "ill" and "literate" might lead some to wonder how projecting oneself as a "hip-hop illiterate" might be seen as a progressive stance. Yet, for those more familiar with the word 'ill' and its hip-hop usages, it might be easier to recognize a progressivism in this terminology: 

slang (orig. U.S., in the language of rap and hip-hop)= a. Aggressive, irrational, crazy; unpleasant, bad. b. Excellent, attractive; fashionable.
1979 G. O'BRIEN et al. Rapper's Delight (song, perf. ‘Sugarhill Gang’) in L. A. Stanley Rap: the Lyrics (1992) 325 Now there's a time to laugh, a time to cry A time to live, and a time to die... To act civilized or act real ill. 1982 M. POND Valley Girls' Guide to Life 36 That is so ill. 1985 J. SIMMONS My Adidas (song, perf. ‘Run-DMC’) in L. A. Stanley Rap: the Lyrics (1992) 273 Now me and my Adidas do the illest thing We like to stamp out pimps with diamond rings. 1995 Grand Royal No. 2. 30/2, I threw some elbows and got in the dust but these girls were ill, so I grabbed each one by the back of the neck and shook 'em till they stopped. 1997 Touch May 30/2 If we hadn't come through, things would have kicked off. It could have gotten ill, but we just took control. 

Image result for signifying monkeyOften hip-hop transforms meaning in a process of signifying described in scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s book, The Signifying Monkey, in ways that sometimes reassign and even invert meanings. For me, then, being a hip hop ILLiterate involves a process of being both inside and outside any understanding of this discourse. To take on the meanings of "ill" from a hip-hop perspective or lexicon means that I am both exceptionally hip-hop literate or an Ill-literate (one capable of reading, recognizing, and deciphering hip-hop in its internal system of signs and signifiers) and always a hip-hop outsider or illiterate as well. The purpose of this blog is to understand both positionalities and attempt to develop a space for the two to come together in working towards some greater understanding.

Those practitioners of hip-hop might be both ill and literate to its workings as a medium of entertainment, but might be blind to any understanding of its more highly academic, critical, and theoretical implications for literature study, philosophical investigations and overall towards helping expose the ways in which humans exist. On the other hand, those within the academy might benefit from a move away from reason as the ultimate in knowledge-production and truth-seeking and look at the ways that hip-hop as a musical and performative mode of self-expression might help elucidate and fill in the gaps in their more theoretical domains of understanding. As scholars and participants, we are all hip-hop's children - taking on a new intellectual positionality as 'hip hop's illiterates.'


  1. OMG I must have you on my Radio show! That's My Word Radio Show is hosting a Week Long Hip Hop Revival! Please let me know if you would be interested in this my email is videofairy@gmail.com http://www.maritorres.com

  2. man this is inspiring to young artist like myself i am all about showing how the world could do better through music alot of things can be fixed with any music type there is im a young hip hop artist myself and i have heard people tell me that i have helped with me music please let me know if you want to read some of my lyrics watevaulyk13@yahoo.com



  3. I enjoy listening to hip hop and rap music from all over the world and I came across this blog by mistake to be honest, following an image link, but after reading this, I'll definetely bookmark the page and keep an eye on it.
    Can't wait to read more of your thoughts, keep them coming.


  4. I had no idea people were actually reading this blog. I've been away for awhile preparing for my dissertation exams, but am planning to contribute bits and pieces more regularly (a bi-weekly entry is my goal). Thanks so much for the love and inspiration.


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