A History of Conflict: Entry #4

by Dax-Devlon Ross

Nas, Jay-Z and the Ties that Bind them to African-American History: Part I


Note: If you have not been following the History of Conflict series the segment below may be confusing.


Summer 1996. I’m twenty-one. Living on my own around a bunch of rowdy, horny twenty-one and twenty-two year olds. I spend a week in Martha’s Vineyard, the week of the Fourth of July that year, in a Cadillac tooling around the island, listening to It Was Written. It felt like we’d been waiting forever for Nas to drop his second album. Back then two years was the standard time span between albums. Now, in order to remain relevant, an artist has to produce and release a steady stream of music throughout the year. This is something Jay-Z afforded himself by being part-owner and primary cash cow for a fledgling record company (Roc-a-fela). He could constantly release albums not to mention singles just for the mix tape circuit—almost an entire industry not to mention The taste-making intelligentsia in and of itself. More on that later, though. For now let’s stick with the summer of ’96 because Jay-Z’s first album, Reasonable Doubt, was also released that same summer with far less fanfare. On Hard Knock Life two years later he would confess that he was “luke warm” at that point. Reasonable Doubt, now considered a hip-hop classic, hadn’t caught on yet, and no one suspected Jay-Z would emerge into a mega star. By the same token, Nas was not an anomaly of the times either. East Coast rap was catching its second wind with the likes of Wu Tang and Notorious B.I.G. The “Wu” was an incredibly important enterprise both artistically and commercially. But that, too, is for another time. The important point here is that Jay-Z was only a minor constellation in the galaxy of East Coast hip-hop, let alone hip-hop in general. This is a pattern that follows the careers of Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey, two socio-political giants/folk heroes who through a combination of talent, fortitude and fortuity also eventually rose out of the unceasing intraracial squabble for power. What worked in their favor, and this includes Jay-Z, is that African-American thought has also been molded around two competing responses to the problems of slavery and segregation: nationalism and integrationism.

Historically, whichever two figures best represents these oppositional forces within the context of that particular moment, has garnered the most attention from historians. In his time Frederick Douglass represented the integrationist strain. He believed in the American moral ethos and in the complete assimilation of black people into mainstream America. Alexander Crummel and Martin Delaney believed blacks should return to Africa. After the war and emancipation the debate shifted slightly. No longer was it about abolition vs. colonization, but about what was to be done about black culture and life here in America. Were blacks to remain a separate people within a people or were they to become an amalgum of a homogenized America. The debate is further altered by Du Bois and Booker T. Washington and, later, Du Bois and Garvey. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X are the emblematic figures of an entire era, one in which television and modern media coverage was becoming globalized. Their platforms couldn’t have been any wider. In life and in death they were the spokesmen for a people and it was their ideologies between which the rest of the race modulated. Their own lives were conflicted by the same ailments that affect everyone else’s, but their followers elected not to see them. In his day Dr. King’s faithful affectionately dubbed him the “De Lawd” or “the movement.” Among Jay-Z’s true believers he is known as “Jay-Hova the God.”

The patterns that outline the lives of black “leaders” are fascinatingly similar. In fact, it is that similarity that ties them together. Booker T. Washington writes Up From Slavery just about a hundred years before Jay-Z pens Hard Knock Life and yet both are the same story told to different ages but for the same purpose: to replicate and disseminate the rhetoric of an American odyssey from the bottom to the top of society. It is the story of the ambitious pragmatist’s road to fulfillment. Washington ridiculed educated black men who knew the classics but not how to survive in the world. On a later album Jay-Z raps about choosing not to be an intricate rhymer in favor of making the money he now uses to help the poor.

At its core the intellectual conflict that has persisted in black America for nearly two centuries has been between pragmatism and idealism; however, it has manifested, whether as colonization vs. abolitionism or nationalism (separatism) vs. integrationism, the argument has always been about the common-sense realities of the situation black folks are dealing with in America and a romantic notion of freedom born out of disillusion and longing. What’s interesting is that those two concepts are always in flux and are very much dependent on ‘what’s happening’ at that particular moment. For example, at one point it did seem more practical for blacks to be shipped back to Africa than to emancipate them. At a later point the idea of a mass black exodus seemed absurd. The same can be said of integration. At one point it seemed impossible that blacks would ever be wholly accepted into American society. Now the nation is at point where, on the surface at least (and even a few layers below), droves of blacks are enjoying the fruits of American prosperity. The debate is ever-shifting, but it is ever-present in black intellectual history. When it dies the “we” that black America has always known itself to be will die as well and new symbols will have to be discovered and evolved in order to maintain a semblance of a community. Some might even argue that the process is well under way.

It Was Written opens with a re-creation of the slave revolt. One slave, played by Nas, resolves to break free of his chains and return to the Promised Land. By the end of the intro, he is beating his slave master senseless, shouting “You ain’t my master, man.” Hearing this and knowing the legendary tale of Frederick Douglass’s revolt and escape to the North where he went on to achieve international fame as a freedom fighter, author, orator and publisher, it is little wonder why Nas’s abbreviated rendition of the revolt made people uncomfortable. It was unexpected. Nas was supposed to be a poet, but suddenly he was aligning himself with resistance figures like Douglass and Nat Turner and Gabriel Prosser and Denmark Vessey – men who defied the slave institution – only to cede the floor for most of the album to his Nas Escobar alter-ego. Rather than follow through with the revolutionary promise of the album’s opening, It Was Written settles into a series of street psalms narrated by a rapper who fluctuates between being a street veteran (“What Them Niggas”), the ruthless gangsta (“Street Dreams” and “The Set Up”), the moralist (“Black Girl Lost”), the idealist (“If I Ruled the World”) and the hedonist (“Take it in Blood”).

As commercially successful as the album was (it debuted at #1), It Was Written received mixed reviews primarily because of its confusion, and its lack of focus and coherency. Was Nas a prophet or a wise guy? A “Back to Africa” fanatic or a conspicuous consumer? A moral guardian of black women or an exploiter of black women’s bodies, something Jay-Z would point out five years later Jay-Z on “The Takeover.” But the same reasons critics raked it over the coals explained its wide popularity. The album was a reflection of a generation’s moral ambiguities and its unyielding hubris, both of which were little more than reflections of American popular culture. In short, Nas we could related to Nas. We loved our sisters and mothers, but at the same time we treated women with contempt. We all knew where the road of excess led and yet it was still too alluring to ignore. The feeling I had riding around Martha’s Vineyard in a Cadillac at twenty-one was intoxicating. Even though it did not live up to the prophetic hype of slavery-inspired introduction, It Was Written nonetheless mirrored a generation’s conflicted relationship with history and its ambivalence about being a part of a sick society. No song on the album better illustrates this conflict than “If I Ruled the World.” Part self-indulgent homily, part culturally enlightened prophecy, part thug poetry, it is a masterpiece of the mid-90s.  It straddles the line so many artists have failed to walk let alone express in their work, a line so many of us were walking ourselves. To have been young and relatively aware of the atrocities of slavery, the struggle for civil justice, the duplicity of the legal system; to have grown up in the shadow of oppression and inequity and yet to be human and desirous of the creature comforts that surround and entice us, created a tremendous burden. And while Nas hadn’t worked it all out for himself, he was at least able to articulate it the only way it could be, which was in itself a type of validation. The speed that he jumped from one thought to the next – from making “Coretta Scott King mayor” to imagining every girl he meets going to downtown – mirrored the speed the world around us seemed to be changing.

As we begin to look back on the 90’s we have to think of it as an age when time sped up. Cell phones started appearing in mass, the tech start ups started making millionaires overnight, the internet was bringing the world to everyone’s fingertips. It was the dawn of the information overload age and Nas, like ‘Pac, though to a far lesser degree, epitomized the frenetic, hyper-kinetic uncertainty spurred on by a lack of mainstream moral guidance or, more pointedly, a generational chasm. In his biography of Tupac, Michaeal Eric Dyson writes that ‘Pac is so “deeply attractive to millions of young people because articulated the contradictory poses of maturing black identity.” I would offer that Tupac’s attraction has proven to be more representative of him than of his art. Artistically, Nas’s contributions, I believe, more readily fit the “contradictory pose,” hence his enduring popularity for nearly a decade and a half.