What is Hip Hop but poetry accompanied by an MPK? Among today’s most famous rappers exist some of the world’s premier linguistic minds presenting their prose over 808s and cut samples rather than bongos in a dimly lit coffeehouse. In essence, rap music is an evolution of the culture created by poets of past generations, specifically the work of writers from the Harlem Renaissance to the early 1980s.
Today [August 2] we celebrate the birth of a man who is considered to be a large poetic influence on Hip Hop culture, James Baldwin. Born in Harlem, New York in 1924, Baldwin’s work was concentrated mostly on issues of race, class and social equality in a way that made the inherently guilty come face to face with their transgressions. His boundary-pushing critiques of society during his time not only gained him international respect and acclaim, but also helped set the stage for writers of color to come forward and speak on their personal societal grievances.
Baldwin’s 17 published works are full of profound revelations about the world he lived in and how it affected his everyday life. Although he may have been “only” a writer for the majority of his career, during his last few years (with the help of David Linx) Baldwin put together his first and only musical work titled A Lover’s Question. This experimental jazz album was a pioneer of spoken word and set itself apart from anything existing at the time. It was Baldwin’s affinity for music and desire, like most writers, to be a musician that led him to harmonize his stanzas over Linx instrumentation. The album was first released in France, the country Baldwin had come to call home, in 1987 and again in 1999 with a 150 page book of poetry and pictures of Baldwin.
The critical response to this project came with nothing but praise and many classified it as a proto-Hip Hop album due to the way Baldwin’s verses rode the beat. Although the validity of that statement is up for debate, the evidence is there and influence on Hip Hop can be felt. Artists like Nas, Most Def and Talib Kweli have by name stated Baldwin’s influence on their writing and career. Today, as Hip Hop expands, more artists are leaning towards jazz and funk inspired instrumentation. Most recently, Kendrick Lamar has pushed the envelope for poetic jazz rap with his To Pimp a Butterfly and untitled.unmastered albums, once again bringing the connection between jazz, poetry and Hip Hop to the forefront of pop culture.
Although James Baldwin’s influence on Hip Hop is one that would go unnoticed by the majority of his supports as well as fans of rap music, it does not mean that it is not there. Most would not go as far as to say without him Hip Hop would not be the same, but it is impossible to say where the genre would be if he were to never existed. Today, we remember the life of one of mankind’s most talented literary minds and celebrate all he has done to change this world. May his soul rest in peace.
For every great moment, there’s a song that goes with it. We believe this is the SOUNDTRACK OF YOUR LIFE – SOL REPUBLIC.