In the 1970s, I lived in what some enlightened people called “government-subsidised housing”, but what we – the dirt-clad, uneducated rabble that lived there – called “The Projects”.
The Projects were a tough place to live in. There was never enough food, never enough money, never enough work. The only thing we had enough of was trouble.
And words. We had a lot of words. Sometimes, it seemed that all we had were words.
A revolutionary act
Honestly, it did not always seem so bad at the time. Life in The Projects was the only life I knew; it was my normal.
Consequently, a “difficult life” in The Projects is something I sometimes remember quite positively.
My memories are mostly of doing the same thing as so many other poor, inner-city youth were doing in the 1970s: going to school, playing at family barbecues, and standing on street corners with friends, reciting poetry.
For many of us who grew up in the American inner-city in the 1970s, poetry was our pastime. Language was a game. It was what we did when we were not getting in trouble. We were not old enough to grasp the historical context of the game we played. We did not understand that it was, in fact, a revolutionary practice we participated in.
Decades passed before I really thought back to those times and understood that I was part of something that was many thousands of years old, and, at the same time, absolutely new. Not until I finally went to college did I begin to appreciate how important words were to a black child in urban poverty.
But to really impart how important they were to me, I need to tell you about something that happened to those words much, much earlier.
The words of William the Conqueror
It was almost 1,000 years ago, when ships from northern France landed at the tiny hamlet of Pevensey on the southern tip of what we now know as the British Isles.
When they reached land, the French passengers built a wooden castle and used it as a base from which to raid the surrounding area.
The leader of these Frenchmen, William the Conqueror, was trying to pick a fight with his cousin. Eventually, that cousin, the reigning king of the Anglo-Saxon island, Harold Godwinson, gave him the fight he sought.
Not far from the village of Hastings, William defeated Harold and took the English crown.
What followed, if Sir Walter Scott is to be believed, was three generations of oppression of the Anglo-Saxon people.
Those “Northmen” of France, or Normans, spoke a different language from the Anglo-Saxons.
As the victors, they were determined that their culture was the right and proper one. The language of the vanquished Anglo-Saxons was seen as rude, vulgar, and in some cases it was even outlawed.
Norman French became the language of the ruling class, of law, and often of trade. To succeed in England after William’s arrival, one had to speak Norman French.
This was despite the fact that Anglo-Saxon was a remarkably rich language with beautiful and complex linguistic forms. It was filled with illusionary poetic references known as kennings.
The Anglo-Saxon literary world was, though different, no less rich and beautiful than the French, and their governmental systems were actually somewhat more sophisticated than those of their Norman cousins.
Despite this, Anglo-Saxon was denigrated and denounced as “barbaric”.
The history that defines us
This may seem like ancient history, but history defines us all.
Today, roughly one-third of our words in English are a consequence of the Norman conquest of England. In nearly all cases, we still think of these Norman words as “better” than their English cognates.
“Register” is a linguistic term meaning the “level” of a language used for a particular social setting. The higher the register, the more formal – and respected – the language.
For instance, one would be more likely to say “father” than “daddy” at a formal dinner setting. Most of the English words that come from Norman French are still considered to be of a higher register.
Far from mere history, 1,000 years after the Normans subjugated the Anglo-Saxons, we still think of a word like “beverage” as more proper than “drink”, and a word like “dine” as more formal than “eat”.
Ten centuries, 50 generations, and we still believe that Anglo-Saxon is a more vulgar language than Norman French.
All this for no other reason than that some guy picked a fight with his cousin – and won.
Singing our history
About 500 years after William the Conqueror invaded England, the sons of his people landed on the west coast of Africa. There, they found a culture and a people vastly different from their own – but one no less rich, complex, and historied.
And, like William’s people and so many visitors before and since, they subjugated those people and considered their language and culture vulgar and barbaric.
Yet, just like the Anglo-Saxons, those vulgar and barbaric people of West Africa had some amazing traditions and a linguistic complexity that was little understood, let alone appreciated, by the European invaders.
The peoples of West Africa at the time maintained an oral linguistic tradition. Their history was not stored on paper, but in the formidable memory of the griots, or jali, who were historians and social leaders who memorised vast swaths of history and lineage by casting them in the form of song.
They used many instruments to play these songs, but all were rhythmic. And this is important because, much like European music is melodic yet always has a rhythm, West African music is often rhythmic, yet with a melody.
One of the instruments commonly used by griots in Yoruba was called the molo. The molo is a hollow gourd across which is stretched an animal skin, making a drum. A stick is fastened to this gourd drum and strings are attached. The result is a stringed instrument like a lute, but with a drum for a body. In other words: a rhythmic instrument that can play a melody.
There is an 18th-century painting called The Old Plantation in which we see slaves holding a molo. This painting is probably the first representation in American art of what we now know as the banjo.
As a black child in The Projects, I had grown up thinking of the banjo as an instrument that belonged to white people. I only learned during a college course on black history that the banjo was possibly the first incidence in a long line of cultural appropriation. It is considered an artifact of white Americana now, but it was first a West African instrument, a black instrument.
Today, some people liken the griots to the troubadours of Europe, but that would devalue both their importance and their brilliance.
The griots were not merely singing poets, they were the very continuity of a civilisation. Often spiritual and social leaders and political advisers, the griots were the weft of the fabric of West African society.
Leaders changed, but the songs of the griots remained, woven into the fabric of their culture, singing the words of their history and culture against a rhythmic musical backdrop.
Children of the griots
Of course, when I was nine and living in The Projects, I was not aware of any of that history. My friends and I did not think about cultural foundations any more than we thought about cleaning our rooms. We were just “layin’ rhymes”, often as our friends would “lay a beat” – creating a rhythmic backdrop by clapping their hands and making drum sounds with their mouths.
I remember well the nervousness and anxiety of standing in a circle, waiting for my turn to “rap”. When it came, it came with responsibilities: You had to continue the thoughts of the person before you and you had to make good rhymes. But the most important rule of all was that you absolutely could not break the rhythm. Nothing would get you kicked out of a circle faster.
Making good rhymes and protecting the rhythm was the only thing on my mind as a child in The Projects. I had no idea that, just as white Americans carry the culture of William, I carried the culture of the griot. I certainly had no understanding of the fact that, speaking English, I built my rhymes on the prejudices of some ancient Frenchmen.
Nor did I have any idea that I was an unwitting participant in a new musical form. That form, of course, is rap – the lyrical foundation of hip-hop, which was recently called by an unnamed, upper-class, white friend of mine “the worst music ever created”.
How ironic, I thought, that a person who hates hip-hop comes from the same demographic that effectively caused its creation.
You see, poor inner-city children do not have access to some of the educational opportunities available to others – unlike in predominantly white, upper-class areas, there are few well-funded art and music programmes.
But while we may not have had music programmes, we did have access to a linguistic and cultural history every bit as rich and important as that of the white descendants of William the Conqueror’s England. It was a culture not 1,000 years but mere generations removed that was founded on a tradition of oral storytelling, a deep appreciation of language and an often natural lyrical understanding.
And we had a need to express ourselves.
Black people created nearly every American musical art form. The few we didn’t create, we influenced (I’m looking at you, Country).
We have created or modified a musical form in pretty much every generation. Would we suddenly sit in silence?
Perhaps we would have expressed ourselves differently if we’d had well-funded music programmes or schools with instruments, but we didn’t, so we turned to our cheap tape recorders, looping other people’s music where melody was desired.
50 Cent and Johnny Cash
Some thought this was nonsense. Some still think of it as “the worst music ever made”. But 40 years on, no single song has shifted my perspective on who I am as much as Afrika Bambaataa’s Planet Rock.
Hip-hop does not conform to European musical expectations; it doesn’t have to. In fact, hip-hop may be the furthest removed the black community has ever been from European musical forms. Hip-hop is almost entirely African. It is the blackest of the black, the most African of the African-American musical canon.
And it is for that – for its blackness – rather than any aspect of the music itself, that it is sometimes considered “the worst music ever made”. This is evident when, like rock and roll before it, hip-hop finds acceptance when white artists adopt it.
When people reject hip-hop, I think of the interesting juxtaposition between artists like 50 Cent and Johnny Cash. Black artists are denounced for talking about guns, while Johnny Cash is a hero for singing about shooting a man “just to watch him die”.
Discarded black history
This is the importance of history to our words. We unknowingly hold on to linguistic prejudices from 1,000 years ago while simultaneously arguing that slavery cannot have any bearing on our thinking today. Was slavery so long ago? The Civil Rights Movement is, for me, one generation past. That was my father marching in those streets. Is our black history so easily discarded while white history is to be held on to for so long?
And how long will the linguistic history of slavery last? Will we live another 900 years subtly devaluing black forms of communication, rejecting black aspects of beauty, criticising black depictions of violence, while lauding white ones?
It is not unrealistic to assume so, considering that we continue, as William the Conqueror would have preferred, “to dine”.
Hip-hop is a rejection of European cultural dominance.
Hip-hop is a manifestation of black culture as vital, valuable, strong and self-determining.
Without access to Euro-centric musical education, the sons and daughters of the griots carried on their tradition in the streets. We stood on inner-city corners reciting poetry.
Hip-hop is a statement that European history is not black history and is not necessary for black artistic expression.
Banjos, appropriated and eventually forgotten, were not our instruments. Guitars and pianos, which our predecessors used to create rock and blues music, were not our instruments.
Our instruments were our minds, our love of language, and our cultural memory of rhythm. With those, we created yet another artistic form that revolutionised the world of musical expression – in the way that every one of our previous generations has ever since our diaspora began.
As that music – that culture – is appropriated by white society, as all of our other creations have been, I look to my children and grandchildren with expectation.
They will continue; they will innovate. I wonder what magic they will create.
John Metta has worked as a cook, groundskeeper, store clerk, park ranger, navy submariner, army wartime medic, hydrologist, schoolteacher, software developer, mathematical modeller, and underwater archeologist. Before any of these jobs, and during them all, he was writing. Always writing.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.