If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.
What did that most verbose of all musical art forms have to say about the defining event of the last decade? Many rappers said a little, while one rapper said a lot. Juelz Santana, unknown on Sept. 11, 2001, has proved for better or worse to be its chief memorializer in hip-hop.
More so than the work of his fellow rappers, Juelz Santana’s raps fit into an old tradition, peppering sincere musical memorials of tragedy with humor. Making songs, rhymes, or ditties about national tragedies has a long history in African American folk expression. In the landmark study Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom (1977), the late Lawrence W. Levine surveys the many songs made about events current at the turn of the 20th century. He surmises about the proliferation:
The fact that song could be utilized to expunge difficulties may well help to account for the strong tradition of disaster songs in black music. The prolific body of song describing natural and man-made calamities was one of the few types of Afro-American song that came close to being a historical record.
For years following the Panic of 1907, according to Levine, the folk memory of the hard times that liquidity crisis induced reverberated in song.
A nickel worth of meal and a dime of lard
Will do while the panic’s on.
Save up yo money,
Don’ you buy no corn
Cause de panic’s on.
I wear shoes made of all kinds of leather,
I wear clothes made for all kinds of weather
Cause de panic’s on.
The bad macro-economic advice to “save up yo money” in the above folk ditty was countered by Billy Paul’s 1970s Keynesian anthem “Let The Dollar Circulate,” which was sampled by rapper Young Jeezy for his song “Circulate” in early 2009 in response to the 2008 liquidity crisis. The two basic responses to credit crunches are advocated and reflected in the African American musical archive.
The ‘60s and ‘70s saw many songs about current events by black artists (e.g. “Smiling Faces”, “What’s Going On”) but in the early days of rap, there was little direct reference to specific current events. Rappers in the early ‘80s mentioned the perilous crime, drugs, inflation and unemployment that plagued their neighborhoods, but largely ignored specific occurrences. By the late ‘80s, as rap became more politically engaged, current events involving race relations, from the U.S. to South Africa, became more routine topics. When Chuck D referred to rap as black America’s CNN, he did not mean that rappers are a general-interest news source but rather that rap is how black communities report on themselves to one another.
When it came to 9/11, almost everyone experienced it through television. Just because a rapper didn’t mention it on the mic does not mean he or she didn’t or doesn’t have deep feelings about it, it just seems like those mentions were few and far between. It’s somewhat surprising that since 9/11 was an attack on New York—the birthplace of hip-hop and its epicenter—and an event of a magnitude that had not been seen by anyone in the hip-hop generation, that there was not more of a response.
What response there was, was somewhat scatter-shot. Some rappers burst into surprisingly patriotic rhapsodies, while others emphasized the continued plight of black Americans. Rap’s reactions ranged from conspiracy theory-lite (Jadakiss, in a song composed entirely of rhetorical questions, asks “Why did Bush knock down the towers?”) to conspiracy theory-heavy (Immortal Technique’s “Bin Laden” (with Mos Def on a chorus that makes no sense to me … who blew up which projects?). There was the casually cynical (50 Cent: “If any planes hit the projects nobody would care, look around, ain’t nothing but black folks around here”) and the cryptically mysterious (Nas: “I’m the shaky hand that touched George Foreman in Zaire, the same hand that punched down devils that brought down the towers.”) Ghostface Killah, of the Wu Tang Clan, in a song released in early December 2001, came closest to expressing the anger that most people—especially New Yorkers—felt, furiously calling on Bin Laden to reveal himself, advocating American unity, and stating “Mr. Bush, sit down, I’m in charge of the war.” The scant general response (when measured against the vast output of rap lyrics over the past ten years) may reflect anything from personal reluctance to confront the topic, or perhaps even the reluctance of record labels, management teams, or marketing people to go there.
Immediately after 9/11, Petey Pablo transformed his hard-edged party anthem “North Carolina,” which had been a hit that summer, into the patriotic, other 49-state celebrating “U.S.A.” (and sort of ended up two syllables short on the chorus). Andre 3000 expressed solidarity with the workers hurt by the immediate airline industry contraction. Eminem briefly states “in remembrance of September 11th” on a track. Outside of music, KRS-ONE, leader of the “Stop the Violence” campaign in the 1980s, waded into hot water at the New Yorker Festival when he said that “we laughed” on 9/11. (A few years later, in an interesting appearance on Sean Hannity’s show, KRS distanced himself from the comment.) Lil Wayne did a song called “Ground Zero,” but if the lyrics reference 9/11, they only do so very obliquely.
On another song—also called “Ground Zero”—the most avid and moving chronicler on 9/11, Juelz Santana, invites listeners to “follow me through the debris of these towers.” To follow Santana’s lyrics is to hear vivid and heartfelt lamentation. There is no political commentary here, no cynical elision, no implication that anyone other than Al Qaeda was to blame.
Santana was among the least likely figures in rap to become its finest memorializer of 9/11. On the day of the attacks, his career had barely begun: at that point, he had only appeared, two years earlier, on a cut on his mentor Cam’ron’s previous album that had not done so well. He became widely known around late November of that year for his appearance on Cam’ron’s hit song— indeed, the song that initiated Cam’ron’s comeback and the second chapter of his career—“Oh Boy.” He then joined Cam’ron, and several other Harlem rappers in the group The Diplomats, who had a hit album in 2003 on which Santana was prominently featured; his concerns and remembrances of 9/11 getting the spotlight on a major release from Jay-Z’s Roc-a-Fella label. Santana’s style is clever and quirky, often memorable more for its strangeness and unexpected wordplay than its meaning. The bulk of the music he has put out is made up primarily of good-natured ostentatious bragging, delivered in an original, disjointed style that might not have been picked up by rap’s corporate marketing machine if not for the rapper’s voice and good looks.
Yet juxtaposed against Santana’s more or less standard brag fare is the loss of the World Trade Center, which figures prominently in his lyrics from late 2002 through 2004. One of his earliest appearances after “Oh Boy,” is on the chorus of the Jay-Z/Cam’ron duet “Welcome to New York City.” The chorus, judging from his later work (and against Jay and Cam’ron’s work), is clearly by Juelz: “It’s the home of 9/11, the place of the lost towers.” On his song on his debut album, “Okay, Okay,” he says “I’m hurtin’, working hard to re-provide the towers like, lift ’em back up, bring ’em back up!”
Levine notes that sometimes it seems as if lyrics about large-scale tragedy are like incantations meant to ward off the repetition of such an event. It’s fitting that as a native Manhattanite, Santana’s lyrics seem to almost be of that nature. They feel impassioned, despairing, and pleading.
Just prior to the lines cited above, he advances the claim that all Manhattanites are “9/11 survivors,” but also, that should the bridges and tunnels be blown up, they’d be cut off from the world. A cryptic allusion to Gilligan’s Island is made, and Gilligan’s Island, he says “reminds me of Harlem.” Santana notes that Manhattan is the only borough “built on an island” when in fact, the Bronx is the only borough “built” on the mainland. Unlike the hijackers, he didn’t take “plane lessons,” but rather “cocaine lessons.” It’s not every day that a rapper invents half-baked conspiracy theory beginning with the goofiest sitcom ever, then extrapolates and augments his theory with preposterously poor geographical knowledge and contrasts his drug dealing days with the what the hijackers were doing at that time. But as Levine writes, “As common as the elements of trouble, despair, and hopelessness were in black song, they were leavened by the element of humor that was such a powerful motif in black lore.” The above sample might seem weird, but I think it’s so weird that it can’t help but be funny.
And thus, just prior to his most searing 9/11-related lyrics, on the poorly-titled Diplomats song “I Love You,” Santana raps: “I worship the great prophet the late Muhammad Ali for the words he spoke, that stung like a bee.” Not only is Muhammad Ali still alive as of this writing, but he was alive then too. He’s certainly not talking about the historical Muhammad. In fact, rather alarmingly, this line was tweaked to remove reference to 9/11 hijacker Muhammad Atta. In an interview about the song Santana said the had originally written that he worshiped Muhmammad Atta’s courage, not Muhammad Ali’s wordplay. Atta’s “courage” on 9/11 reminded Santana of his own “courage” as a drug dealer (plane lessons/cocaine lessons). Clearly some grown ups, perhaps Jay-Z or Damon Dash (since the Diplomats were a Roc-a-Fella Records act) prevailed, because the horrendously offensive version is not the one that was released.
This reveals a problem that sometimes occurs in assessing rap lyrics. Rappers are a cross-section of society; good people and bad, educated and uneducated, smart and not-so-smart. Some rappers are as skilled and intelligent as the finest poets in the English language and some are not. While Santana’s lyrics have sociological and historical value, they are essentially the musings of an interesting but somewhat ignorant 20 year old who made a bad decision in his writing.
And yet, the Atta/Ali switcharoo strangeness is closely followed by this:
I still smell the rotting people that lay
down in Ground Zero forgotten, left there for days
probably left there to say, left to decay,
broken pieces of towers left as their graves,
I pray let them be saved,
until then, that’s just a suggestion I made,
you follow me, homey?
No rapper has said anything quite like that, accurately alluding to the gruesome imagery of the real situation at Ground Zero, while expressing his personal remorse. The earnestness of his delivery is beyond question, yet the lines are bracketed by silliness. They not only stand as the finest lyrics any rapper has offered on the national tragedy, but also appear to glance back at an earlier tradition. Yet their unfortunate history and the “phantom” lyrics that precede them reveal something less celebratory in the African American folk tradition—a violent sensibility found in the folktales of all cultures—expressed here as a joy taken in the misfortunes of a primarily white upper class (which of course had inflicted legalized violence on African Americans, among others, for hundreds of years).
The toast (which is a narrative poem in the African American vernacular tradition) “Shine and the Titanic”—a variation on the old trickster tale—quickly spread across the country after the 1912 sinking of the ship that had been billed as unsinkable. Shine is a laborer on the Titanic whose warnings are not heeded. In the end, his wit saves him. But blues icon Leadbelly had another, darker take on the Titanic tragedy, one expressing extreme and remorseless schadenfreude. As Levine notes, “the version [of a Titanic related toast] learned and perpetuated by Leadbelly derived pleasure from the fact that the disaster was an all-white affair.” Boxing champ Jack Johnson was supposedly not allowed on board and this inspired retrospective gloating. One of Leadbelly’s stanzas goes:
Black man oughta shout for joy,
Never lost a girl or either a boy
Cryin’, Fare thee, Titanic, fare thee well.
These lines appear to have been expurgated from various versions widely available on YouTube today, though Levine does give a citation. Built into the commemorations of events is not just humor, but also schadenfreude and sometimes, wish/fantasy of a brighter future. There was an old folk song (cited by Albert Murray in his first book, The Omni-Americans, in a negative review of William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner) that went:
Well you can be milk-white and just as rich as cream
And buy a solid gold carriage with a four-horse team
But you caint keep the world from movering round
Or stop old Nat Turner from gaining ground
Leadbelly and the other Titanic toasters seem to wish that whites will learn from their Jim Crow errors, insinuating that the Titanic was some sort of punishment for their treatment of black people. The unknown composer of the Nat Turner rhyme clearly has violent messianic fantasy built into his somewhat silly jingle that includes the “movering” world and a “solid gold carriage.” But of course, much of this work was created and recited for the purposes of having a laugh and/or blowing off steam, and it was not meant to be subjected to heavy-handed analysis. Juelz Santana, for his part, draws attention to the carnage, and in the unpublished version of “I Love You”, the deranged fearlessness of the attackers, perhaps also as warning and incantation.
Paul Devlin is a PhD student in the English Department at SUNY Stony Brook. He is the editor of Rifftide: The Life and Opinions of Papa Jo Jones as told to Albert Murray (University of Minnesota Press, Fall 2011). His writing has appeared in Slate, The Antioch Review, San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times Book Review, and The Brooklyn Rail, among other publications. He is a regular contributor to The Root.
If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.