Hip Hop music, like all contemporary music, is constructed by composers and some improvisers guided by own thoughts, convictions and commitments; it is a product of individualism. What happens in art is that a group of individuals might think alike and thus produces work that can be fit into one school or style. In today’s Hip Hop, there is a style, or perhaps school, of Hip Hop that is like European Symbolist poetry. I have termed those who produce such lyrics Hip Hop’s symbolists. Like the poet Symbolists, as poets.org puts it, they throw us symbols in a grand, in the end illogical, sequence, symbols that become very significant because of this sequence. Like the poet Symbolists, these rappers live what they themselves consider to be decadent lives in major cities. They use the same technique as the symbolists in their lyrics: symbols in grand sequence to give them importance. Both symbolisms are the art of producing scandal and with it points of exclamation.
I see bills everywhere
Our time’s Hip Hop songs are understood by most to be reflections; Narcissus at a private pond rapping about a party attended or the woman or man he or she has slept while contemplating his or her facial structure (Kanye West,) leaving behind a beautiful Narcissus plant (The Life of Pablo.) It’s the exact reason why the term trap, coined by rapper T.I., is so widely used. It sells us that that we’re listening and or dancing to the reflection of a trap, or a house where illegal drugs are produced, packaged, and or sold. The moniker is business genius but in two words: it’s absurd. It’s a trap. Jamila Woods’s poem “beverly, huh,” for better or for worse, gets the introspection in the thinking of black Americans, that of most rappers, more than most of our society does.
you must be
made of money.
must have grown
bet you’re black
tinged with green.
bet you sleep
on bags of it.
The Symbolists poets, the most well-known are Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire, and Stephane Mallarme, and today considered some of the greatest poets in human history. Their poems are infinitely beautiful (literally, it takes more than a lifetime to have felt all of what their poems offer.) Poets, from American poets to Japanese poets of the 20th and the 21st century, have all regarded their work as required reading.
ask what time it is and
wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you:”It is time to be
drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be
continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish.”
- Charles Baudelaire
The Symbolist poets publicize the grandeur of favored symbols through their poems. Symbolists were mostly French and lived in major cities. Their poems broke away from bourgeois Christian morals, of which poet French Paul Claudel is a great poet, that guided their culture. They were outlaws, the sons and daughters of bourgeois and petit-bourgeois French persons producing scandal, and it is their bohemian thinking that led to their Symbolist technique(s).
Symbolism is widely used in Hip Hop. Hip Hop’s symbolists are mostly, if not all, born poor. They are well known and they go by the names of Future, Young Thug, etc.… Most are Trap, Trill, or Drill, rappers, who publicize which cars they drive, the women they sleep with, even before they ever make it big i.e. on a mixtape. It is unlikely that they have read the poetry of Symbolists. They too are outlaws who live in major cities. Like in France, American cities (Jean Paul Sartre has a great essay on the fact in his book Situations 2) developed out of the basic needs of those in power: a church, streets for vendors, etc. These churches, primordial institutions in the shaping of American urban life, have for years dominated the lives in major cities and surely do in Atlanta’s or Chicago’s inner cities.
Hip Hop’s symbolists rebel against order: religious, moral; a civilization’s. The symbolism of their songs attempts to entertain momentary American decadence: crowds that will be fascinated by the grandeur of “any blunts that we smoke bigger than leaves” as Young Thug raps or Lil Wayne’s incessant “drinking lean,” with tales of drug use that would kill. Even dating someone, rapped as ‘that’s my bitch” by Kanye West is understood to some sort of grand statement of grandeur. The beats they rap to are kinetic backgrounds that help them symbolize, they are expressly made to sound like melancholy, or to paraphrase philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, the sound of grandeur.
Some of the themes in Hip Hop symbolism are the opposite of those in the Blues music of blacks who lived cities, that had to do with freedom from rural churches and surviving industrialization.
When I had my money it was hello sugar pie
Now I done broke it’s so long country guy
- Furry Lewis
Furry Lewis’s song is unlike much of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s. Blind Lemon Jefferson lived in Dallas, Texas, host to a massive oil boom and industrialization before moving on the Chicago. The first song is about a car. The second song is about sex. Keep in mind that he’s blind.
Ain’t nothing mama don’t get scared at all
It’s long distance well, and it’s running all its oil
- Blind Lemon Jefferson
Um-um, black snake (penis) crawling in my room
Yes, some pretty mama better get this black snake soon
- Blind Lemon Jefferson
Hip Hop’s symbolists rebel like some of the blues singers did, rapping the similar themes that some blues singers sang, only this time aggrandizing cars, sex, etc.
In 1926, Dr. W.E.B Dubois, after lengthy diagnosis, delivered the definite prescription: all art is propaganda and it will always be the case. The long history of black art music from Duke Ellington to today’s Robert Glasper, has matched his theory except for several exceptions. As great American art critic Harold Rosenberg once paraphrased some of the Marquis de Sade’s writing, “experiments in sensation, if deliberately repeated, presuppose a morality.” Symbolism may be the great turn in black art from propaganda, and from church-ish culture…
The day intellectuals, of all races and genders, like Jean Paul Sartre guided the singer Juliette Greco, participate in the production of Hip Hop (another name for Hip Hop as exemplified by the work of J.Dilla for example would the untranslatable Japanese word kodawari, or to devote one’s self to art by mixing the best elements) will be the art form’s spring. Hip Hop Symbolist were mostly left behind by this society as children. Workshops run by musicians but also scholars and or poets would do wonders for those who use the technique.