“I AM ~ SOMEBODY!” – Graffiti as Cultural Text

"I Am - Somebody!"“I Am – Somebody!” is a praise poem to African-Americans written in the 1950s by Reverend William H. Borders, Sr., Wheat Street Baptist Church pastor and civil rights activist. The poem is most often associated with the Reverend Jesse Jackson because of his memorable call-response invocation of it during a concert organized by Stax Records that took place at the Los Angeles coliseum on August 20th, 1972. Wattstax, the concert, was organized to commemorate the 7th anniversary of one of the largest urban rebellions of the Civil Rights era that broke out in Watts, a deeply impoverished neighborhood in South Central Los Angeles. The arrest of a young African-American motorist was the spark to the simmering tinderbox of Watts which, like other predominantly African-American neighborhoods, suffered greatly from high unemployment and substandard socio-economic conditions.

This week as I travel to present a paper at a media and communications conference on hip-hop as a manifestation of African oral culture, it is fitting that ‘creative destruction’ is the central theme. ‘Creative destruction’ is an economic term that is used to describe how the development of capitalism requires the destruction and reconfiguration of previous economic orders and the ceaseless devaluation of existing wealth. A concern that runs through the core of all my writing is that African culture is the “existing wealth” that has ceaselessly been devalued through a history of slavery and the development of modern capitalism. Slave-masters disrupted indigenous channels of communication when they destroyed African drums during the horrendous Middle Passage. Minstrelsy – the pop entertainment for white consumer audiences from the 1830s on – was essentially white actors in blackface lampooning songs and dances appropriated from African communities on the slave plantations. Appropriation and commoditization – the ‘creative destruction’ or ceaseless devaluation of Africa’s orally-based way of life (culture) – yet disenfranchises the very community that culture (existing wealth) is primarily in place to serve.

The oral-aesthetic perspective is my way of recognizing and re-valuing African cultural expression and its contributions to humanity and the world on its own terms, rather than the often marginalizing Euro-patriarchal academic terms of music appreciation. My case in point for the conference is when hip-hop came into being in the Bronx neighborhood of 1970s New York.

grafIn 1971, a New York Times reporter assigned to research the meaning of the mysterious message “TAKI 183” turned an unemployed 17-year old who’d been spray-painting his name onto New York’s public walls into something of a folk hero. By spring 1972, the rise of graffiti writing caused city council president Sanford Garelik to rally New Yorkers and urge them to wage “an all-out war on graffiti” which he characterized as “one of the worst forms of pollution we have to combat” because it “pollutes the eye and mind.” However, this “pollution” turned out to be one of the four critical elements – DJing; MCing; BBoying/Girling; Graffiti – that were taking shape largely in the Bronx borough to define what became hip-hop, a manifestation of African culture in an American media capital – New York. According to Doze Green (graffiti artist and B-boy with Rock Steady Crew since age 14), hip-hop is the “life blood” that merges the audio with the visual elements of his graffiti art.

Mojo and kinetic orality are the motifs I assign in recognition of African communication flows which are both organic and communally-conscious, as evidenced in orally-based musical practice and expression. In hip-hop culture the organic flow of inner-city energy from the seminal elements of DJing and MCing manifests visually in the dance (BBoy/Girling) and in graffiti. Tags, the most prevalent type of graffiti, stylized signatures of the artist’s nom de plume (e.g. “TAKI 183”) also filled the sketchbook pages of the homeless youth populations in Los Angeles I co-interviewed in recent years while on staff with the UCLA School of Nursing. Doubtless, the aim was to give these tags life on some public surface, the more risky the better.

An important category of nommo (the generative power of the word) in Africa, a person’s name forever reflects the circumstances surrounding their birth each time it is invoked, thereby contextualizing his or her significance within the larger universe of forces. With this nommo (or name) graffiti artists can aspire to signify and immortalize themselves within their inner-city universe by for instance tagging the “heavens” (highest spots), hitting the trains (movie spots), or adding a third-dimension to a piece in an effort to achieve maximum eye-gain, presence and status within a community that the socio-economic situation has rendered invisible, voiceless and often homeless – in and on either side of the 1970s.

The de-facing of public surfaces through graffiti is a way of non-celebritized youth in a marginalized community turning that environment into a multifaceted medium to make a creative and self-affirmative declaration that says, “I AM ~ SOMEBODY!”

In Africa it is said that each person has a rhythm to which they alone dance. Women of certain groups will gather around an expectant mother to pray and meditate until they hear “the song of the child.” Abbreviated in the name that child will be given, this song is chanted in the village to begin their education after they are born.The song may again be sung during their initiation into adulthood and marriage, at times throughout their life when they need to be reminded of their song (or true identity), and then at their eventual transition into the next life. In societies with strong drumming traditions, it is the master drummer’s role to know and become conversant with each person’s song, rhythm and place in the communal dance. In hip-hop culture, where DJ’s have assumed the traditional African drummer’s role, DJ Kool Herc carries the distinct mantle of being the “Father” or master drummer whose rhythmic ingenuity with turntables is recognized as creating the genesis of hip-hop culture in the “new world” inner city community of the Bronx. And the rest, as they say, is [cultural] history…

"It takes more than a horrifying trans-Atlantic voyage chained in the filthy hold of a slave ship to erase someone's culture" ~ Maya Angelou

“It takes more than a horrifying trans-Atlantic voyage chained in the filthy hold of a slave ship to erase someone’s culture” ~ Maya Angelou

Recognize. Value. African culture = existing wealth.

In Honor: African-American Music Appreciation month, 2013

In Memoriam: June 25th, 2009

Peace & Power… M

Malaika Mutere, Ph.D. is author of Towards an Africa-centered and pan-African theory of communication: Ubuntu and the Oral Aesthetic perspective  Communicatio 38 (2) 2012: 147-163

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: