The first interesting research paper I wrote in college was for a class called “African American Photographic Culture.” In it, we looked at the ways photography’s development helped to benefit (and damage) colloquial notions of the black body, as well as black identity, and how black photographers attempted to adopt and reconstitute the photographic apparatus to shift dialogue surrounding black identity into something revisionist, progressive, and revolutionary.
The class was my favorite of my freshman year. It gave me a chance to look at an artistic medium with which I strongly identify and helped contextualize my understanding of my identity into the broader strata of sociological concerns related to power and its expressions in new and interesting ways. This appreciation was cemented when we looked extensively at artist and photographer Romare Bearden, a bi-racial Harlem native who used the technique of photomontage to authenticate his understanding of post-colonial black identity. Without going into too much detail, Romare Bearden saw photo montage as a medium that allowed for an interdisciplinary and inter-medial reflection of a post-modern black identity, one which draws its influence from historically “western” schools of thought and artistry as inscribed through colonialsm—in Bearden’s case, Dadaism, cubism, and surrealism—and the black cultural traditions that root themselves on urban streets, Harlem, and the deep south. Bearden believed that the only way to authentically represent the black experience was to incorporate the different styles concomitant with their ideological underpinnings and their relation to the black man’s post-colonial situation into his artistic technique, and reframe them in a way that could inspire a new, positive framing of the black experience. After taking this class, and studying Bearden, I realized this artistic approach has been playing out in another scene, the beat-making scene.
After interning at New York’s 89.9 WKCR radio station for their weekly hip-hop show through Columbia, I learned about artists like Knxwledge, Elaquent, mndsgn, and Ohbliv who have been making serious grounds to redefine the way hip-hop and beat-making is understood. Essentially, this increasingly successful genre of music has sought to restructure the various elements of prototypically “urban” sounds—most notably, hip-hop—with a distinct homage and reinsertion of the genres which motivated its creation, jazz and R&B. Philadelphia-based Knxwledge is presumably the most prolific beat-maker today, and has created remixes ranging from an EP sampling Danny Brown’s “XXX”, to full-length releases sampling Amy Winehouse, Marvin Gaye, Erykah Badu, Drake, Lauryn Hill and R. Kelly. What makes Knxwledge’s music expressly post-modern and progressive in its scope is the way he’s able to reframe the artists he samples’ distinct sounds and genres in a way that pays respect to their individual creative licenses while simultaneously creating a genre and creative atmosphere distinctly his own. And so by pulling from, modifying, and breaking up these creative voice’s style, content, and general sound, and creating an aural collage that is expressly individual to himself and his relation to these genres, he’s not only creating a new context in which this characteristically nascent and post-modern urban voice is able to thrive and be understood, but also through that creation simultaneously creating a new language for understanding the urban experience.
This comes through clearly, with not just Knxwledge but artists mndsgn, Ohbliv and Swarvy as well, who make a pointed effort to title their songs and albums in a form of broken-English; toying with grammar, punctuation, capitalization and spelling to symbolize a rejection of the modernist formalities that require a rigid adherence to conventionalism, they are creating a new musical, as well as linguistic lexicon. The beat-making genre is inspired by the creation of both.
In a similar vein, these beat-makers’ music is characteristically distinct from typical hip-hop or rap artists in the way their music specializes structure over lyrics or hooks, challenging the way rhythm, tempo and time-signature are too often restricted to the “formal” constraints of genre. By mixing genre and sampling hooks from R&B, rap, jazz, and sometimes even folk (as in the case of the Joanna Newsom sample featured on “Between(Dreem)” featured on Knxwledge’s Old.Klouds.LP), these artists’ emphasis on the creative process underlying their work as opposed to the explicit, categorical niche it falls into attests to the way the beat-making genre, similarly to Romare Bearden’s photocollage, successfully attempts to resituate the black, urban experience into something more meaningful and genuine than its surface-level appeal.
For all of these reasons the beat-making genre is all I’ve found myself truly connected with in 2012. Trying to understand my identity and its relation to history, power and art—especially now in college as I continue to venture into the “Adult World”—is one that has been facilitated by the visual works of Bearden, and the musical works of beat-makers. It helps elucidate an aspect of the post-modern black experience—especially when complicated in cultures of affluence, wealth, and power (like my high school and like Columbia)—while holding firm the resolve to make peace between the often times contradicting fields of academia and “street-art”; a determination to move beyond the past while still acknowledging its present influence; to stop being creatively lazy in our approach to the world and in our understanding of it.
And so, and perhaps most importantly, appreciating these artists with and in relation to my peers across colors and cultures, shifting dialogue about race and its inclusion in art away from enervating, tiring, and often unhelpful dialectical framings of race as a matter of “black vs. white,” has helped create avenues through which we can understand art’s purpose in relation to race, culture, and history, and make the task of doing so a more unifying endeavor.