11 Compelling Hip-Hop Lyrics That Give Props to Africa

Nas

Nas

If you were to look to rap music to see how American attitudes about Africa have evolved, here is what you’d find.

By Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele

This article was published at The Root on June 19, 2014.

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

Lil Wayne

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.

2. Nas

Nas

Nas

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.

3. Drake

Drake

Drake

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 (pdf), 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.

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5 Years Later: Obama-mania from the 2008 Presidential Election

On its fifth anniversary, here’s a photo essay describing that historic day.

On its fifth anniversary, here’s a photo essay describing that historic day.

On its fifth anniversary, here’s a photo essay describing that historic day.

By Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele

A version of this article was published at The Root on Nov. 4, 2013.

(The Root): Five years ago, The Root launched to deliver news and analysis focused on the issues of black Americans and the greater Diaspora. However, we’d be remiss if we didn’t put our conception into context. The creation of our site in January 2008 was in large part because of the success of Barack Obama’s campaign during the presidential primary elections.

Black Twitter didn’t exist then, but black folks were always discussing and parsing issues, and it reached an even heightened pitch when the Obama family came into the nation’s periphery. We wanted to collect those compelling voices into once space so that we might pay homage to a political force that would forever change the trajectory of politics, black culture and the nation.

The 2007-2008 primaries, and subsequent general election, was an interesting political cycle filled with lots of twists and turns. There were those heated exchanges between a then Sen. Barack Obama and his opponent Hillary Clinton. In the end, Obama etched his way onto the general ticket as the Democratic candidate, and went head to head with Sen. John McCain, a seasoned politico and Vietnam veteran. The selection of his running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin, was also an historic one for the nation. 2008 was the year for black America, but it was also the year for women. Race and gender are forever sitting at an intersection. The Root aspired to be a space where folks could come and engage in those complex conversations as well.

As The Root celebrates our fifth birthday with a refreshing new look, we commemorate the fifth anniversary of Obama’s 2008 election win, by rounding up photos that capture the magic that engulfed that day. 

The Obama’s Vote

Then Sen. Barack Obama and Michelle Obama

That Tuesday morning, the Obamas cast their votes at an elementary school in Chicago. Barack Obama joked that Michelle took so long to fill out her ballot he wanted to check to see if she had actually voted for him.A cute 10-year old Malia Obama watches her parents from the side.

Observers in Kenya

kenyan observers_election night

Kenyan onlookers, who shared an intimate connection with President Obama, who is half-Kenyan, gathered to watch the election results come in on a small television set in town.

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Jay-Z Yearns to Reunite Hip-hop and the Arts

His HBO documentary explains why hip-hop and the arts broke up years ago, and why he’s on a mission to get these two love birds back together.

jay-z_basquiat_2

Jay-Z; Jean-Michel Basquiat

By: Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele

This article was published at The Root on August 2, 2013.

(The Root) – When Jay-Z performed “Picasso Baby” in a swanky New York City art gallery last month, he looked polished in a crisp white button-up and wore one of hip-hop’s most iconic symbols: a gold chain. Just one week prior, exhibits ranging in price from $10,000 to half a million dollars filled the same Chelsea ground-floor space that hosted his six-hour rap performance.

It’s a nice juxtaposition given the history of hip-hop and art. The rapper-turned-business mogul is featured in a new HBO documentary aptly titled Picasso Baby on August 2 that chronicles his performance at the Pace Gallery. HBO is calling it a “performance-arts film” – which is fitting since the project seems to represent a watershed moment for hip-hop and the art’s reemergence as paralleling artforms. In a voiceover for the film’s trailer, Jay-Z said as such: “Rap is painting out loud; concerts are pretty much performance art.”

In recent years, music artists like Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Kanye West and Swizz Beatz have made explicit attempts to bridge the gap between urban music and the art world. They are all prominent art collectors and whenever they make grandiose purchases, it makes news. The late, great Jean-Michel Basquiat (who rose to fame as an acclaimed artist in the 1980s before his untimely death) is becoming a more familiar name to young black audiences because Jay-Z brags about his Basquiat purchases in his verses.  

Hat-tipping the art world is extending beyond the lyrics. Just take a look at Jay-Z’s avant-garde rap performance at the Pace Gallery, Kanye West projecting his New Slaves music video on buildings across the globe in May, and how Solange Knowles recently performed inside a laundry mat in Brooklyn. It is becoming increasingly clear that the leading artists in urban music view their craft as performance art. They are taking clear steps to blur the lines between these two mediums, that are sometimes perceived to be on opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum.

During a recent interview on his Life+Times website, Jay-Z talked about how he was sort of disappointed that hip-hop and the arts became estranged. Especially since rappers and artists back in the 1980s had a close relationship and lived parallel lives. “When art and music were one,” Jay-Z reminisced, “When Basquiat was hanging out with Madonna and Fab 5 Freddy and all those worlds were colliding.” The rappers rapped, he described, and their artist friends worked right alongside them with spray bottles in hand to create the most elaborate graffiti displays in our inner-cities.

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Episode 3: “Revolutionary Pop”

What does M.I.A. mean when she says “I got more records than the K.G.B.” in her hit song Paper Planes? And who is the man on the back of Jay-Z’s jacket in his Run this Town video? This episode examines these sly political messages and the artists’ efforts to drum up awareness–or revolution?

By Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele


Experts Featured:


Ellen L. Gorman is an adjunct professor in Georgetown University’s English Department where she teaches courses such as “War and Terrorism in Popular Culture” and “Introduction to Cultural Studies.” She is co-editor of and contributor to is an adjunct professor in Georgetown University’s English Department. She is co-editor of and contributor to The Hummer: Myths and Consumer Culture published in March 2007 by Rowman & Littlefield, and has published articles on social labor and critical theory. Professor Gorman has also coordinated an annual symposium on visual culture at George Mason University and taught courses in the School of Art at GMU and the Corcoran School of Art + Design.