Ethnolyrical

making music, writing culture

Blues People, Mississippi Hip-Hop : A Book Excerpt

Blues, Hip Hop and Emergence at the Crossroads

(This is an excerpt from Ali Coleen Neff’s book, Let the World Listen Right: The Mississippi Delta Hip-Hop Story, released on University Press of Mississippi  available at Amazon.com).

East Tallahatchie Street and Martin Luther King Boulevard converge quietly among the crumbling ruins of the New World district of Clarksdale, Mississippi. They trace the faint spines of ancient Native American trade routes that first brought civilization to the land, intertwine with the Mississippi and Sunflower Rivers, and rest upon burial mounds that keep these ancient paths dry from yearly floods: these routes, once labeled Highways 61 and 49, quietly mark the crossroads of American music. The famed Blues Highways were filled with traveling, working, creating, and living blues people, and their legacy continues to resonate far beyond this patch of loamy soil. World-famous folklore claims that Delta bluesman Robert Johnson sealed his fate at this very location, selling his soul to the devil for a set of guitar licks in the 1920s.

This lost black downtown has been dwindling since the dawn of the automated cotton picker that—along with the crop-hungry boll weevil, Jim Crow, and the development of labor-hungry northern industry—sparked the Great Migration north in the first half of the twentieth century. Nearby lie the footprints and skeletons of some of the world’s earliest blues venues: the Savoy, the New Roxy, and the Dipsie Doodle collapse into the soft muddy soil. Yellow construction tape marks buildings ravaged by the elements; stripes of orange paint delineate those scheduled for demolition. Old hand-painted signs for haircuts and sno-cones fade from storefronts as the defunct chitlin circuit haunts of local players Ike Turner, John Lee Hooker, and Muddy Waters crumble. Apartment houses that once provided temporary shelter for legions of train and bus riders are pushed up against the narrow streets in long rows, reduced to foundations; a few tenacious shops and venues persist from the early days, decorated with bare light bulbs and chipped, hand-painted signs.

Young People continue to invent new styles at the site of the old Crossroads (Photo: A Kropa)

The old juke joints are nearly all gone, but Clarksdale’s blues community remains, generations after the hopes that fueled the mass movement to the Promised Land were wrecked on the streets of Chicago. The bulk of the city’s black population—about three-quarters of its twenty thousand or so residents—is annexed into a series of rental houses arranged into loose, poor neighborhoods south of the train tracks. These tracks, which once carried hopeful sharecropping families to the North, are defunct and overgrown. Today, the historic roads are outstripped by channels of fast grey pavement that claim the Blues Highways’ names—61 and 49—while bypassing the neighborhoods that built their legacy. These two-lane highways are lined with the occasional Wal-Mart, Western Sizzlin, and bright ad for a nearby second-rate casino. Although the location of the famed 61/49 crossroads has shifted a half-dozen times since Robert Johnson’s heyday, local tourism interests have chosen to label a contemporary junction of Highway 161 (the town’s commercial strip) and Yazoo Avenue (an interim version of 49) with three jigsawed blue guitars, facing anywhere, lofted above a cursive sign: “The Crossroads.”

Nearby barbeque joints and abandoned motels sit back from the roadway; corporate gas stations, a pawnshop, and a check-cashing office mark its boundaries. Here, in its neon desperation to create substance from nothing, Clarksdale resembles any American ghetto. But these constructed and controlled crossroads mark the heart of flourishing blues tourism. They serve as a beacon for the scores of blues travelers who drive Highway 61 from Memphis down to New Orleans, imagining contact with the blues conjuration. At midnight one might find a Japanese or Norwegian tourist clutching a guitar at this imagined landmark, glibly trampling the shrubs surrounding the proud sign in his desire for the world’s most substantial souvenir; he is waiting for the black trickster to approach, tune his instrument, and imbue him with blues virtuosity. Countless rock and blues revivalists have named groups, albums, and songs after landmarks at or near this spot, and their aim is true: they revere the blues and its practitioners. Their well-intended dollars have the potential to economically invigorate, if not transform, the region as they frequent juke joints, photograph gravestones, and erect museums. Some write books.

Today, catfish farms and vast beige casinos patch over the corners of many old Delta plantations. Wal-Mart is the new company store for the regional underclass, offering its revolving group of employees six dollars an hour and a place to spend it. But behind the concrete eggshell of economic modernity, the substance of sharecropping society remains: Delta infant mortality rates are among the highest in the nation; illiteracy, illness, and malnutrition are common; unemployment is phenomenally rampant. The economy is growing steadily more precarious as small businesses and factories abandon the Delta for cheaper foreign labor. Meanwhile, young people face stifling economic odds: piecemeal formal educations, a weak (and often inaccessible) social infrastructure, and a desperate job market. The few who manage to find a decent job are paid rock-bottom wages, a symptom of economic failure and labor surplus. A century and a half after Emancipation, the circumstances of day-to-day survival remain difficult for most black residents of the Mississippi Delta.

Some Juke Joints, such as Wade's Barber Shop, Remain Open for Business (Photo: A. Kropa)

Millennial U.S. Census data show that 45 percent of Coahoma County children live in poverty. Official unemployment figures hover around 14 percent after cotton-ginning season Scores of families live in boarded-up shotgun shacks without electricity or running water.1 The Brickyard, a neighborhood delineated by piles of abandoned industrial debris, and Riverton, a former sharecroppers’ encampment, are overpopulated with tenant families who cannot afford adequate housing and food. The town looks and feels like a war zone, desiccated by swamp rot and poverty, but it is also punctuated with quiet lots of whitewashed country churches, glowing with cellophane-pasted windows and hand-painted signs.

And then there is the blues. A handful of classic juke joints remain, clustered around the crossroads in the vestiges of the New World district. The most visible are spottily patronized by out-of-town tourists seeking the “authentic” blues experience, a souvenir from a place they heard might be the last juke joint standing. These weekend explorers clumsily jam with their shiny harmonicas and hunt the old, poor bluesman with whom they can snap uncomfortable photos.

The blues was not always withering with age. During its heyday in the early twentieth century, the blues was crafted by young black people as a soundtrack for dance, a music of sadness, a poetry of protest, an expression of love and sexuality and, most importantly, an assertion of black strength and power. It is precisely that dynamic power—the flash of its shifting and brilliant core—that has driven the blues into new eras, sounds, and styles. Today, from the corners of the New World district, a new Mississippi Delta blues is rising, one created by and for young people. On Saturday night, old Chevys with big rims bump beats from their trunks as young people gather on street corners, in clubs, and behind the barbeque stand to socialize. Here, members of the current generation of Delta music makers meet and rap. They improvise rhymes in greeting, in introduction, and in competition, referencing popular songs from the radio and sayings from around the way. Some work into a verbal duel that lasts until one participant fails to come up with a sufficiently witty rhyme in good time. The most accomplished rappers perform longer pieces that deal with their history, neighborhoods, current company, and the possibilities of the night at hand. They are experts at keeping the rhythm.

Clarksdale rasidents gather to celebrate in Clarksdale's clubs and lounges (Photo: A Kropa)

To the uninitiated, Delta hip-hop reflects, on its surface, the strains of popular hip-hop filtered through the waves of commercial radio or BET videos. But to those who live its language, who twist and push its styles into a realm of greater possibility by reconfiguring the popular and the traditional, hip-hop offers an unlimited expressive form with complex layers of creativity and meaning. For the young people of the contemporary Delta, freestyle hip-hop artists enjoy the prominent social role once reserved for blues musicians. These artists do not break with tradition; they live by it, bringing blues styles and techniques into conversation with the moment at hand. Musical talk has been the medium of expression in the Delta from the time enslaved and conscripted black people were forced to drain and clear its vast farmland. Freestyle rap, the contemporary iteration of this powerful expressive blend, draws deeply from these work songs, spirituals, folk proverbs, and blues.

The tradition is dynamic: styles shift, rhythms update themselves, and lyrics speak to contemporary circumstances, but tradition, history and the infinite  style of diasporic creativity are grounded in every beat. And although the verbal texts of the blues are themselves highly stylized, they are only one dimension of a larger, performative blues aesthetic that extends from the tone color of a slide guitar to the clothing and dance styles of its participating audience. Blues style is deceptively simple in form, especially when its text is flattened into its elements: twelve bars, three chords, and a repeated chorus. A deeper understanding of the musical life of the Mississippi Delta requires extended immersion, participation, and collaboration, through which the aesthetic fullness of the music can be recognized within the meaningful context of community.

The link below is a trailer for my 2006 documentary on the topics discussed here. Click here to stream the free half-hour film from Folkstreams.net.

Delta rap performance is also inextricably bound to the global hip-hop movement. Urban rap styles from RocaWear to Neptunes-produced hip-hop hits travel effortlessly over the waves of commercial radio and television. This cultural exchange ties the urban and agrarian ghettos in a thick aesthetic call and-response. During the great northern migration of black southerners in the World War II era, thousands of families left the Delta for Chicago’s South and West Sides, Detroit, East St. Louis, and Southern California’s Long Beach. Young people from these communities return to the Delta to spend summers with grandparents and cousins, other families collectively move back and forth from these areas as economic circumstances demand. Inner-city hip-hop draws from the agrarian traditions of musical rhyme—toasting, the dozens, the blues—that were developed in the generations before the Great Migration.

Through radio and television airwaves as well as the networks of live performance, urban rap remains deep in conversation with the contemporary southern corner of the African American diaspora. Nommo, according to scholar Molefi Kete Asante, is the “life-giving power of the word” upon which Afrodiasporic culture is structured.2 Essential to this power is the element of transformation, through which slavery, the central historical fact of African American existence, is transcended. By mastering nommo, a practitioner harnesses and directs this transformative power for the sake of his or her community, countering the effects of institutionalized racism. “What is clear is that the black leaders who articulated and articulate the grievances felt by the masses have always understood the power of the word in the Black community,” Asante states. The master of words, schooled in the art of nommo, holds an elevated position of leadership in black community life. For black residents of the Mississippi Delta, such transformation is essential to surviving the stifling conditions of everyday life. Missing paychecks are made, by community potluck, into plates of catfish, discarded junk is resurrected in the form of vivid folk art, and the institutionalized lack of “America’s Ethiopia” is converted, by the power of the word, into a vibrant universe of black cultural practice.

House manager "D" holds down a booth at Wade's Barber Shop and Juke Joint (Photo: Ali Neff)

The master of words has always held a central role in the black Delta community, and the strong voices the region has produced over the years continue to resonate globally. Sam Cooke, Muddy Waters, Memphis Minnie, Pops Staples, Fannie Lou Hamer, Reverend C. L. Franklin, and Robert Johnson all came from the Mississippi Delta. Each of these voices has reached from the region’s low flood plains to a global resonance. But the overwhelming international success of black orators and musical artists from the Delta was fostered in the local contexts of family and community. In the Mississippi Delta, the skills of oral and musical improvisation are highly valued and are carefully cultivated through everyday practices of creative challenge and hard work. The country preacher and the blues shouter are omnipresent in the Delta, as are the gospel singer and child playing rhyming games. Radio and club DJs rap over blues records, teens trade dozens, and cousins recite poetry at family reunions. Smooth contemporary southern soul singers inflect their modern sound with double entendres drawn from classic Delta blues. Young Delta rap artists combine the formal elements of popular hip-hop with their own regional cultural legacy to command the transformative power of the word. Like the singers and orators of previous generations, artists wield the rhythmic verse in order to create emergent conceptualizations, relationships, understandings, and representations.

Jerome “TopNotch the Villain” Williams, my collaborator and guide for this ethnography of the Delta hip-hop community, is recognized throughout the region as a gifted hip-hop practitioner. As the head of an increasingly popular rap group called DA F.A.M. (For All Mississippi), a youth mentor and self-styled activist, he has cultivated in himself, and duly achieved, the kind of leadership that matters to young people in the region today. His diligent work in creating, chronicling, and advocating through rhyme has earned him a privileged place in the community life of Clarksdale and its surroundings. TopNotch is also a master interlocutor who finds purpose in sharing his experience and that of his community with those far beyond the Delta. Like the bluesman, country preacher, orator, and gospel singer before him, TopNotch has earned a position of leadership and respect within his community by proving his talent with nommo. To young Clarksdalians who grew up with both the classic blues and the boom-box sounds of L.L. Cool J, the local hip-hop artist holds the ultimate, emergent expressive power. As citizens of a self-styled community they call Clarks Vegaz, these young people stand in two realms: the hip-hop nation and the contemporary American “Dirty South.” Southern hip-hop’s star has been steadily rising on the national pop music scene since the late 1980s, when Miami’s 2 Live Crew and Houston’s Geto Boys brought the concept of the “Dirty South” to an uninitiated MTV audience.

Jerome "TopNotch the Villain" Williams (with towel) and his neighbors (film still)

Today, Southern hip-hop tops the international charts. The crunk movement, which drew from agrarian gangsta and pimp tropes to create a new Southern vernacular of “hard,” drew a particularly potent brand of Southern hip-hop into the spotlight in the first years of the twenty-first century. In crunk’s wake, new iterations of the Southern sound continue to expand the possibilities of what hip-hop can be. But from its first days on the popular stage, Southern
hip-hop has been subjected to the distortions of partial representation and stereotype. The commercial hip-hop that filters through the airwaves, produced by major-label executives to appeal to dominant tastes, represents only the tip of African American musical creativity. The glib lyrics of popular Southern hiphop, processed down to the three-minute pop hook, are judged more harshly than other popular forms despite the complex aural aesthetic that surrounds the text. But for every vapid major-label crunk creation, a thousand MCs spit realities and dreams on the sidewalks of their ’hoods.

TopNotch the Villain allowed us access to his community and creative process in order to, in his words, “let the world listen right” to what young people in the Mississippi Delta are saying through their music. Through his willingness to share his story, we will come to understand that hip-hop in the Mississippi Delta is defined by the interaction of Black Atlantic aesthetic practice, local cultural tradition, and global networks. I have worked for five years in close collaboration with artists and community members in the Mississippi Delta to document and interpret the ways in which these forces influence the forms and functions of regional expressive culture.

In this light a more complicated picture emerges. The story of this community does not begin or end with the waning sound of the acoustic Delta bluesman—nor does the power of the blues community’s resistance to oppressive socioeconomic institutions and its ability to form alternative social structures of its own. Most importantly, these rural artists are engaged in a global call and response with the greater Black Atlantic diaspora, a network of cultural practitioners who draw from and, in turn, replenish the shared well of global creativity.

Because researchers have spent over a century chronicling the Delta blues, an ethnographic study of the contemporary musical life of the Mississippi Delta allows the elements of musical change and continuity to come to light. The process of identifying, documenting, and analyzing culture is the basis of ethnographic practice: the exercise of “writing culture.” Representations of the culture of the Delta have been written into being by a range of people and interests, including WPA photographers, rock musicians, documentarians, A&R reps, and urban journalists. But they are most importantly made and remade by members of the Delta community, whose creative work is interwoven with important declarations of “who you are and where you’re from.” Literary works about the Delta blues—the ethnographic form preferred by academics and journalists—often begin with an account of the brave blues traveler looking southward wistfully, boarding his vehicle, and sailing past Memphis deep into the earthy, moist Delta. These gendered narratives are patterned on Joseph Conrad’s carnal description of the European descent into the African Heart of Darkness: the anthropologist/journalist/explorer enters into this strange land and dips down into the earthly cultural well, omniscient, from his gliding vessel. He catalogues his encounters, strange and quaint.

Signs for Po' Monkey's Juke Joint in Merigold, MS (photo: A. Kropa)

My ride was not so easy. I approached the music of the Mississippi Delta from the outside. I could hear the sounds emanating from cracked bedroom windows, chapel doors, rattling trunks. By the time the cotton bolls dried on the stem the following summer, I would be wrapped in the richly textured juke joints and living rooms of the Mississippi Delta. In thirteen months’ residence in the Delta I learned the language of the blues through a series of teachings and trials: from the hard pews of a little white church house, on the front porch of a close friend, in the back seat of a police car. These are painful and guilty lessons, and ones not easily forgotten. In the years since, I have returned often to the Delta as an observer, collaborator, community member, writer, reveler, student, and friend. I had to understand these roles were not my right. To realize the Mississippi Delta is to encounter the blues on its own terms, to stand at the crossroads of the living and the dead, the known and the emergent. TopNotch and his community have allowed (and often collaborated with) me to document their creative world, the rich context in which contemporary expressive culturein the Delta developed.

It is important not to oversimplify the relationship between the blues and hip-hop. This is not linear progression in which hip-hop subsumes the blues. Rather, the stylistic innovations of yesterday and today remain in constant conversation, both in the local context and within global cultural networks. Delta hip-hop artists are not simply avatars of the blues tradition. Their skills are not the products of genetics or osmosis. These rappers are master oral/musical practitioners, skilled and schooled in the power of the word. The communities of the Mississippi Delta place an emphasis on this kind of artistry both in privileged spaces of performance—the church, the club—and in everyday interactions. The foregrounding of sophisticated modes of artistic expression fulfills a host of important functions in the Delta.

Many of these community needs arise from the indelible regional socioeconomic legacy. The consummate inhumanity of the Delta cotton plantation, and the surveillance that preserved its hierarchy, fostered a need on the part of black residents to create hidden transcripts, cautionary tales, and signified resistance. But the music is more than reactive; it is also a creative mode of expression that has been cultivated by the musicians, rappers, preachers, singers, mothers, schoolmates, leaders and workers of the Mississippi Delta. Hidden transcripts serve not only to obscure communication from unwanted listeners; they also provide the artist with new dimensions of expression, elaborate modes of meaning. Celebration, the collaboration that comes from performer-audience relationship, communitybuilding, and the challenge of individual mastery are also important functions of music-making in the Mississippi Delta. For many participants, transformation is the ultimate goal.

A dancer celebrates in red's Juke Joint as blues musician Robert Belfour plays along (Photo: A. Kropa)

Issues of difference have sharply arisen throughout the course of this research. Race, in particular, has threatened to slash borders through my relationships in the Delta. In a place James Cobb dubbed “The Most Southern Place on Earth,” where the plantation social structure has traditionally drawn a sharp distinction between black and white, it becomes easy to perceive identity in monochrome, a world of opposites. Like the Crossroads, however, it is the intersections that matter. The line between speaking and music-making blurs in a culture where speech is as rhythmic and melodic as music. Tradition and innovation join in the constant creation of emergent cultural meaning. The sacred and the secular intertwine in their mutual reach for transcendence. Dualistic racial identities, constructed in opposition here to reckon with plantation inhumanity, constantly shift and combine in the symbolic worlds of cultural practitioners. In the possibilities of practice, categories fall away and the creative experience begins to take shape. More than anything, I share with my consultants a deep love for music. In the spaces where music is made, I found (to use the words of Paul Gilroy) cultural routes, not musical roots. This is the story of music that reaches beyond difference, rhythms that pound out new networks of meaning, sounds engaged in an aesthetic and intellectual global call and response.

In an atmosphere of intense international curiosity surrounding “The Land Where Blues Began,” popular representation of the Delta holds the power to affect the course of tourism development. This representation is often contested by residents of the Mississippi Delta themselves. This study explores the possibility that the blues community preserves culture on its own terms; that instead of fading away, the blues defies the strains of time by updating and strengthening itself, remaining relevant to the community’s contemporary needs. The people of the Mississippi Delta not only recognize the value of their music; they center their lives on it. The dynamic nature of Black Atlantic music defies genre labels and historical definitions, which in turn frustrates a dominant market that relies on the branding of an “authentic” product. The market will not sell what it cannot define. If the blues cannot be labeled, then it cannot be packaged, priced or controlled. By design, black music slips the yokes of commodification and domination. Cultural practice in the Mississippi Delta resists, at its deepest levels, efforts to dictate the boundaries of its creativity according to the rhetoric of blues authenticity. It offers an alternative, community-centered script that begs surface interpretation by the mainstream while remaining under the control of its practitioners, deeply embedded in the context of community life.

This is an excerpt from Ali Colleen Neff's book, Let the World Listen Right: The Mississippi Delta Hip-Hop Story

Ethnographic work in the Mississippi Delta requires vulnerability, humility, and a good measure of self-effacing laughter. My many generous consultants—the DJs, preachers, singers, poets and rappers of the Mississippi Delta—celebrated, guided, and (often) corrected this work throughout its development. The process of interpreting the rich artistic practices of the Delta requires collaboration. When we surround a depiction of the complex work of Delta music makers with their own dense descriptions of their everyday lives and practices, when we stop simply looking at or listening to others long enough to give emotional witness to the creative practices of the Mississippi Delta, and when we remain accountable for the ethnographic missteps that line our path, the longstanding stereotypes of blues pathos, piteousness, and provincialism unravel.

Preservation is important; we strengthen our cultural understandings by remembering and celebrating the work of past masters. At the same time, the efforts of contemporary inheritors of the blues tradition deserve recognition and support. In listening to the blues, gospel, hip-hop, and other regional musics we are challenged to understand the language of the Mississippi Delta, to train our ears to a deeper rhythm. In doing so, I had to reckon with the boundaries of my own understandings. The fullness of the story of Delta music can be told only in partnership with practitioners of the living blues. Through their words, rhythm, and rhyme a world of meaning emerges.

Click Here to see this book at Amazon.com

Click Here to see the half-hour documentary that accompanies this book.

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