Middle America caught whiff of the tension brewing between the police and low-income black communities in the early 1990s because of the lyrics on N.W.A’s “Straight Outta Compton” album and Public Enemy’s call to “fight the power that be.”
People didn’t need to hear statistics about women entering the workforce in droves because Queen Latifah said so in “Ladies First.” She was no journalist, but she was reporting about a new generation of women who were taking charge at home and work. When Jay Z told folks to “change clothes” and to “throw on a suit [and] get it tapered up,” we knew hip-hop was growing up right before our very eyes.
Hip-hop has always served as a compass for showing the direction that urban culture has taken on a variety of issues, including Africa. Africa has shown up in some pretty interesting ways in hip-hop music, particularly in the profound lyrics and statements made by its artists.
But Africa has always been a tricky topic. Mainstream America was fed a steady diet of images featuring naked tribal men living alongside lions, tigers and elephants while bare-breasted women tended to emaciated children.
Disease, famine and refugee camps became synonymous with the continent because of those infomercials that begged Americans to donate a dollar a day to feed an African child. Just this week, Delta Air Lines experienced a social media faux pas when it put up an image of a giraffe as a way to represent the West African country Ghana. Twitter graciously took the airline to task for the error since giraffes are not indigenous to the country.
Through hip-hop, black American artists began educating the mainstream about Africa by singing praises about its people and its culture. At times, they’ve even self-identified as African – which is a pretty major feat since the continent is not always depicted in the best light. For African-American Music Appreciation Month, The Root decided to point its hip-hop compass at the artists and lyrics that provide a sense of how attitudes and perceptions about Africa have evolved.
1. Lil Wayne
When the natural-hair movement exploded a few years ago, the kinks and curls that Type 4 black girls once subdued with relaxers and texturizers were set free. YouTube instructional videos and articles in mainstream news outlets documented this phenomenon in great detail.
But caring for kinky hair is not for the faint of heart. It requires lots of moisturizing, gentle detangling and an understanding that each luscious strand can think and act independently from the rest, which is what New Orleans rapper Lil Wayne presumably meant when he called it “tough” in his 2008 release “A Milli.” His reference to one of the more popular countries on the continent, Nigeria – currently the richest and most populous country in Africa – is fitting, too.
Nas’ bars are chock-full of history lessons.
On a Thursday morning in 1971, approximately 1,000 inmates staged a rebellion and took over one of the most infamous maximum-security prisons in New York, the Attica Correctional Facility. While holding approximately 40 prison staff hostage, the inmates drafted a manifesto outlining the concerns they had about their living conditions. They protested the prison’s overcrowding, poor food quality, inadequate health care and harsh physical treatment the inmates endured at the hands of correctional officers.
After four days of negotiations, and casualties endured on both sides, the riot was quelled and authorities agreed to adopt more than two dozen of the inmates’ demands. The Attica prison uprising was a watershed moment in the prison-rights movement.
Africa is often thought of as an ideal destination for the enlightened black man in America, and so it is no surprise that the Afrocentric Nas described how if he ruled the world, in his 1996 duet with Lauryn Hill, he’d free the Attica inmates and send them on a well-deserved trip to the Motherland.
All the caramel-complexioned girls with parents from countries like Ethiopia, Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia, and names like Mekdes, Louam and Alitash, had to be feeling themselves just a little bit after hearing Canadian rapper Drake’s verse in “Poetic Justice.” He complained about how an East African girl swerved on his advances and instead chose to hang out with another guy.
It makes sense why East Africans are on Drake’s radar. Toronto, his hometown, has a sizable Ethiopian community and one of the largest Somalian populations outside of Africa. According to the 2000 census, the U.S. takes in a large number of immigrants from countries like Egypt, Ethiopia, Somalia, Eritrea and Kenya.
If I were Djiboutian and could convince my mom that Drake was one-quarter Afar, I’d take Drake up on his offer, or at least would keep him in the running as a potential suitor. Round-trip tickets to cities like Addis Ababa and Juba are costly, and we all know it means something when a guy offers
to meet your mom—and offers to foot the bill for her vacation back to Africa at that. Later on in the song, Drake gushes about their “natural hair and soft skin.”
East African girls, I’m no Cupid, but it sounds like Drake might be a keeper.
Wale drops some gems here that calls for a quick Nigeria 101 lesson: “Naija” is slang for Nigeria and to “doba’le” is to bow when you greet your elders, as a way to show your respect. His entire song, “My Sweetie” makes a boatload of references to his Nigerian heritage: the Yoruba ethnic group, yummy West African cuisine like jollof rice and fufu, and he also name-drops the abbreviations for popular Nigerian names like Bola, Dipo and Olu.
Wale does a great job of explaining the tradition of raining money down on people during special occasions and how that practice is not perceived in the same manner as it is done in strip clubs.
5. Cory Gunz
Up-and-coming Bronx lyricist Cory Gunz – son of “Love & Hip-Hop’s” Peter Gunz – hit the nail on the head when he gushed about the beauty of
Ghanaian women on Lil Wayne’s “6 Foot 7 Foot.” There is truly something regal about the sun-kissed, dark-chocolate complexions that blanket Ashanti women. Many young Ghanaian girls keep their hair cut low, revealing blemish-free skin textures that are usually accentuated by their pearly-white teeth and slender frames.
When Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o was named the most beautiful person in the world by People magazine and lauded as Hollywood’s newest “It” girl, it seemed like people were trying to atone for buying into the Western standard of beauty by showering the chocolate-complexioned Nyong’o with excessive compliments.
There was shock and awe cloaked underneath all that praise, which was a surprise given that the
“Lupita look” is fairly pervasive in many parts of Africa, particularly Ghana. That face is a dime a dozen in Accra.
Akon essentially sums up the motivations of many African immigrants in the song “Ghetto Story.” Much has been said about the successes of African immigrants and how well their children – first-generation black Americans – perform in school and in the workforce. Like Akon describes in these lyrics, there’s a fire that burns in the immigrant belly. They hit the ground running when they get to the United States, many of them fleeing educational instability, political corruption and high unemployment in their native countries.
When Akon raps about how Africans love to hunt, he’s speaking literally and metaphorically—in some remote areas of Africa, they still hunt for food, but Africans are also always hunting for a better life and better opportunities.
7. Chris Brown
When Chris Brown premiered a new video for his song “Fine China” last year, he demonstrated some of the choreography in the video and spoke about how it was inspired by the Azonto—one of the most popular dances to come out of Africa since Beyoncé resurrected the uh-oh dance.
There was one small problem: Chris Brown mistakenly insinuated that the dance originated in Nigeria since he learned it from a Nigerian artist named WizKid. Well, the Azonto came from the streets of Ghana, and when Ghanaian Twitter caught a whiff of his interview, they made sure to let the world—and Brown—know that the Ghanaian youth should be credited for the dance sensation.
Still, it was nice to see how enthusiastic and giddy Brown was about having learned something new from Africa and that he was able to introduce it to a wider American audience.
8. Jay Z
Jay Z suspects that the reason a district attorney would give him such an exorbitant bail price is because he’s African—a synonym he uses in lieu of the word “black.” It’s very interesting and almost jarring to hear Jay Z identify as an African—given the disgust that black Americans sometimes express toward the term.
It reminds me of a speech made by Jamaican activist Mutabaruka that’s circulating the Web: “We are African people, whether you accept it or not.
You don’t have to go to Africa to be African. If a cow is born in a pigpen, he is still a cow; the cow will always say ‘Moo’ even though he is amongst pigs.”
Don’t let the song’s uncouth title, “Pimpin’ All Over the World,” overshadow the beautiful recognition that Ludacris bestows to African women. For much of the song, he hat tips all of the globe’s beautiful women and describes the characteristics of the cultures they come from. He ends the song by saluting the eye candy he’s seen in the Motherland.
10. Styles P
Styles P suggests that his black credentials are all the way solid because his mother is from Africa—she’s Nigerian—and his pops is from the then-gritty Brooklyn, N.Y., neighborhood known as Bedford-Stuyvesant (gentrification took away its street cred).
That he makes references to his bi-ethnicity in his song titled “A Gangster and a Gentleman” makes you wonder how that experience shaped his dual identity.
11. Tupac Shakur
There was a trend in the black community in the 1960s and 1970s when some people sought to rid themselves of their American and European names and give themselves, and their children, African names. That’s how JoAnne Chesimard became Assata Shakur or how LeRoi Jones became Amiri Baraka.
In an interview, music icon Tupac Shakur argued that it is inconceivable for black Americans to live self-determined lives if they continue to use names that were passed on to them by their ancestors’ slave owners. He also advised black Americans to take the effort a step further and learn the values that come along with living and self-identifying as an African.
(Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele is a staff writer at The Root and the founder and executive producer of Lectures to Beats, a Web series that features expert advice for TV and film's most complex characters. Follow Lectures to Beats on Facebook and Twitter.)