Ta-Nehisi Coates, the preeminent black intellectual of our time, is a scholar whose work engages in many registers. I say this not only because of his wide profile—from the MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” to the James Baldwin-esque Between the World and Me—but also because his work is inflected by the great themes and epistemological orientations of contemporary race work. It thinks across historical contexts, ably refiguring the Reconstruction-era lament of a black congressman (We Were Eight Years in Power) as the title of his new essay collection. It conceives systemically, connecting his animating theme of plunder to slavery, housing discrimination, and the carceral state all at once. It engages in multiple mediums, from his acclaimed Black Panther comics to blogposts, longform features, and books.
As our colleagues at the Center for Africana Studies at our home base at the University of Pennsylvania prepare for Coates’s visit on Wednesday, November 1, to deliver The Honorable A. Leon Higginbotham Memorial Lecture in front of a sold-out Irvine Auditorium, we at MusiQology thought we’d add our own study to an under-recognized layer of Coates’s oeuvre: the place of music in his personal story and the stories of his subjects.
Below, we have quoted at length some passages from We Were Eight Years in Power that deal explicitly with music. We’ve also added our own analysis where appropriate. Coates is an important figure: A black intellectual possibly at the peak of his creative output whose work is impacting our media and discursive cultures. His rhythms and cadences sing. Listen.
From American Girl, an Atlantic feature on Michelle Obama in 2009 reprinted in We Were Eight Years in Power:
“The essential Americanness of Michelle Obama is rooted in her home, the South Side of Chicago. What I originally knew of the South Side I had gleaned from my college years at Howard University. It was the mid-‘90s, and all of us sported some measure of black pride—be it Afrocentric or ghettocentric. Often it was a mix of the two. But the South Side kids didn’t boast about rep or whose ‘hood was harder. They did not make a scene like the dudes from New York. Instead, they played the South Side rapper Common’s Resurrection until the CD skipped, and walked around campus with their chins in the air, as if they knew something we didn’t. The girls from Chicago were intoxicating—maybe it was the cadences of the South that still clung to their words, or their appreciation for Sam Cooke and Al Green.”
“Increasingly, as we move into the mainstream, black folks are taking a third road—being ourselves. Implicit in the notion of code-switching is a belief in the illegitimacy of blacks as Americans, as well as a disbelief in the ability of our white peers to understand us. But if you see black identity as you see southern identity, or Irish identity, or Italian identity—not as a separate trunk, but as a branch of the American tree, with roots in the broader experience—then you understand that the particulars of black culture are inseparable from the particulars of the country. Pop culture has laid the groundwork for that recognition. Barack Obama’s coalition—the young, the black, the urban, the hip—was originally assembled by hip-hop. Jay-Z and Nas may be problematic ambassadors, but their ilk are why those who thought Barack and Michelle were giving each other a ‘terrorist fist jab’ were laughed off the stage. We are physically segregated as ever, yet the changes in media have drawn black idiom into the broader American narrative. In 2002, the rapper Ice Cube produced and starred in Barbershop. The movie was a surprise hit, spawning a sequel, a spin-off, and a short-lived TV series. Its success shocked industry-watchers, because it took place exclusively in a black community and seemingly focused on ‘black issues.’ But you could find the same characters in any other ethnic community. Think of Michelle Obama’s sharp sense of humor and her insistence on viewing her husband as mortal, and how both traits were derided during the campaign as un-first-ladylike and fed the caricature of her as an Angry Black Woman. In reality, her summation of her husband as ‘a gifted man, but in the end…just a man’ could have come out of the mouth of any sitcom wife on TV.”
From “Notes from the Fourth Year,” a new essay:
“That is where I began as writer: In hip-hop. It was the first music I ever really knew, which is to say the first literature I ever knew, which is to say the first place where I consciously developed a sense that words, strung together, could be—and really should be—beautiful. In 1985, I unfolded a steel chair next to my parents’ stereo, popped in a tape, and then pulled out a pen and pad. For the next hour I played and rewound the first verse of LL Cool J’s “I Can’t Live without My Radio,” recording each word on the pad. I was convinced there was something worth discovering in the lyrics, something extraordinary and arcane. I had to have it. I had to trap it on paper, consume it, make it mine:
My radio, believe me, I like it loud
I’m the man with the box that can rock the crowd
This was beyond music and poetry. This was incantation. I was ten and filled with all the ignorance and angst of any child at that age. There was so much I did not know, so much I could not control. Why did I live as I did? Why did my father force us to fast on Thanksgiving? Why could I never pay attention in Mrs. Boone’s class? And what was that feeling, pushing out from the pit of me, drawing me toward certain brown-skinned girls in the same way I was drawn to cane syrup and molasses cookies? I felt ignorant and enfeebled before everything, a slave to my circumstance. And then I heard this MC, somewhere out there in some distant land called Queens, who lived not among television dreams but as I did among the concrete playground alleys and Saturday night specials, out here in the real. Perhaps he’d once been like me—a slave. But then he grabbed the mic like a cudgel, raised it to the sky, lightning struck, the cudgel was now a hammer, and the slave was transfigured into a god whose voice shivered the Earth. And that is the story hip-hop told me then. And for anyone who has felt, as I so often did, ignorant, enfeebled, enslaved to circumstance, this was myth and this was saga, awesome as any Aeneid, Iliad, or Odyssey.
From hip-hop, I drew my earliest sense of what writing should mean. Grammar was never the point. Grammar was for the school-men and their television dreams. Out here, in the concrete and real, sentences should be supernatural, words strung together until they compelled any listener to repeat them at odd hours, long after the bass line had died. And these sentences or bar, linked together into verses, should have a shading and mood that reflected their origins ins slavery and struggle. The sentence might be magical, but the magic was never sentimental. It was born from the want of all that exceeded the slave’s grasp and the exploration of all that divided that grasp from its desire.
That’s what I felt in the summer of 1993. I’d spent the entire season studying Nas’s ‘One Love’ in hopes that I’d understand his technique. The story is a story, and the scene is this: Nas and a twelve-year-old drug dealer are sitting on a bench smoking marijuana.
I sat back like The Mack, my army suit was in black
We was chillin’ on these benches where he pumped his loose cracks.
Nas attempts to advise the younger drug dealer, who routinely carries a gun, how to cope with the violence of the projects. His advice is beautiful, which is to say it is grounded in the concrete fact of slavery. This was how I wanted to write—with weight and clarity, without sanctimony and homily. I could not even articulate why. I guess if forced I would have mumbled something about ‘truth.’ What I know is that by then I had absorbed an essential message, an esthetic, from Nas and from the hip-hop of that era. Art was not an after-school special. Art was not motivation al speaking. Art was not sentimental. It had no responsibility to the hopeful or optimistic or make anyone feel better about the world. It must reflect the world in all its brutality and beauty, not in hopes of changing it but in the mean and selfish desire to not be enrolled in its lie, to not be coopted by the television dreams, to not ignore the great crimes all around us.
In the Obama years and in the time my work now afforded me to sit back and study, I found a natural marriage between the blue aesthetic of hip-hop and the history I was then consuming.
I wanted to make writing that flowed like Nas, Raekwon or Jay. In those early years at The Atlantic, I got my share of practice—the blog assured me of that. Even in those pieces that seemed to be casually tossed off, I was always searching for the right word, for the proper escape from the clichés that threatened every sentence, form truisms that threatened to steer me back into the sentimental dream. I was always trying to sharpen my language to become, as Ghostface put it, “the arsonist who burns with his pen, regardless.”
This was the voice in my head I was constantly trying to unlock, to get out and onto the page. I wanted to produce writing that was not just correct on its merits but, through its form and flow, emotionally engaged the receiver, writing that was felt as much as it was understood. I could hear what that voice sounded like in my head. It was a blues with a beat dirtier than anything I had ever heard anywhere in the world. I did not know then that the music is unattainable, of only because it is imagined an unreal, its own dream. And the music—the music in one’s head—is always changing.
Hip-hop, with its focus on the assertion of self, the freedom to be who you are, and entrepreneurship, is an obvious child of black consciousness. One of the most popular forms of music today, it is also the first form of pop music truly to bear the imprint of post-‘60s America, with a fan base that is young and integrated. Indeed, the coalition of youth that helped Barack Obama ride to the presidency was first assembled by hip-hop record execs. And the stars that the music has produced wear their hair however they please.101
From “Notes from the Fifth Year,” a new essay:
“If freedom has ever meant anything to me personally, it is defiance. I remember the first time I heard ‘Fight the Power,’ specifically the line where Chuck D assails Elvis and John Wayne as racist. It’s true that Elvis was not one, while John Wayne was, but this misses the point. This line evinced a total disrespect and ill regard for America’s hallowed heroes and insisted that the pop culture of plunderers be treated as the theft it was. Chuck insisted on treating the claims of our masters with all the contempt they’d earned. When I heard that line, I felt free. I wanted to scream.
From “Notes from the Seventh Year,” a new essay:
Black books were all over my childhood home. When I was a toddler, my dad would play the Last Poets to calm me. When I was a teenager, I played Rakim to calm myself. And when I was in college, I read Sonia Sanchez to keep myself sane. In every way, black writing saved me. The epigraphs from Wright, Baraka, and Sanchez in the book’s interior testified to that. The one endorsement affixed to Between the World and Me, from Toni Morrison, was the only one I wanted. This was borne not just out of appreciation for her actual work but for the consistency with which she represented the tradition.
Perhaps there is also something generational to this understanding of heritage. I think of hip-hop forged from an alloy of the funk and soul of one era and the lyrics of another. I think of the drum, so central to this music, and how that drum is a line stretching across an ocean to our ancient black selves. I think of how much I listened to Kendrick Lamar while writing Between the World and Me and marveled at his fusion of new and old. My chain of ancestry was different than these musicians’, though it stretched across the same plane. To join that chain, to join that lineage, to link up with Baldwin, I had to try to create something worthy of that tradition, something that would not ‘just shine,’ as Jay said, but ‘illuminate the whole show.”