ON THIS PAGE:
Hughes in the Beginning
The Beat Generation
The Black Arts Movement
Expanding Across the Globe
Pursuing rapper Mos Def’s tribute to Langston Hughes in his contemporary take on the poem “Harlem Sweeties,” this segment provides an overview of Langston Hughes’s artistic legacy, tracing his literary and social influence on the Beat Generation of the 1950s through Amiri Baraka’s Black Arts Movement to modern day rap and hip-hop. Following Hughes’s literary and social rebellion of the 1920s, the Beat Generation of the 1940s and 1950s further developed the jazz-poetry form in emulation of African-American culture. In the 1960s, Hughes’s association with the radicals of the Black Arts Movement influenced the poetry and social activism of young black artists, such Amiri Baraka, as they reappropriated Hughes’s style to express social issues affecting the African-Americans community in the 1960s, preserving Hughes’s vision for a distinctly African-American art form. The Black Arts Movement’s effort to sustain an African-American literary tradition based on a unique cultural experience helped strengthen the black community, which maintained socially conscious topics and evolved Hughes’s form and themes into what is now called rap and hip-hop.
HUGHES IN THE BEGINNING
In the 1920s, Langston Hughes began writing poetry reflecting the rhythmic patterns of African-American oration embedded in the tradition of folk, blues, hymns, and prayers. As Hughes’s poetry replicated musical patterns, he felt it fitting to read his poetry to music. With his first nationally recognized, blues-infused poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” Hughes established the socially conscious jazz-poetry form, in which communicated the roots of the African-American tradition , essentially preserving an ethnic tradition and establishing a distinctive literary tradition common to a unique cultural experience based on a shared cultural identity (Wallenstein 122). Hughes’s objective to create art “of, from, and for black people” not only preserved African-American traditions, but also created a lasting artistic legacy that extended beyond both his lifetime and ethnic boundaries—first with white Americans and expanding across the globe, including modern Arab poets and musicians (Smethhurst 1234).
THE BEAT GENERATION
In the 1940s and 1950s, Hughes’s poetry style extended into mainstream white American culture, diverging from socially conscious art, but keeping the form. During this time, young whites discontented with post-war American culture latched on to Hughes’s jazz poetry, appropriating it as a form of societal rebellion. The first known white poet to appropriate Hughes’s style was Kenneth Patchen. His first recording of jazz-poetry, on which he collaborated with Allyn Ferguson and his Chamber Jazz Sextet, included Patchen’s most popular piece titled, "Murder of Two Men by a Young Kid Wearing Lemon-Colored Gloves"; ironically, many in the white community hailed the recording’s mix of jazz and poetry as innovative (Wallenstein 123). Although Patchen’s work eventually slipped into obscurity, other white poets continued to follow Hughes’s jazz form.
Perhaps the most popular and influential of these poets was Jack Kerouac, who perceived jazz, African-Americans and their lifestyle as the antithesis to dull white American culture. Under Kerouac’s guidance, a counter-culture emerged among white youth—now known as the Beat Generation, or Beats—in rebellion against middle-class lifestyles and values ( Thomas 291). Although they mostly abandoned the element of ethnic unity intrinsic to jazz-poetry, the Beats began to create their own jazz-poetry in emulation their perceived notion of African-American culture; the Beats incorporated the dialect and the rhythmic patterns of Hughes’s jazz into their writings and performances (Wallenstein 122). However, Kerouac’s novel On the Road and his poems focus less on socially conscious topics contained in Hughes’s poetry, and more on images of street scenes and hipster hangouts, aggrandizing the hip lifestyle (Wallenstein 129). Consequently, critics of the Beat Generation often deride their artistic offerings as trite and trendy. Despite this, the popularity of Beat poetry based on Hughes’s jazz-poetry form is sustained through contemporary artists such as Tom Waits, who is admired by a wide audience, particularly among college students and the coffee-shop culture of the United States (Wallenstein 133).
In this video of "9th & Hennepin," contemporary jazz-poet Tom Waits describes a fictitious Minneapolis street scene full of prostitutes, pimps, and other lost souls. Though evocative of the darker side of human existence, Waits’s portrayal of seedy city life is reminiscent of Jack Kerouac’s meditations on the 1950s Beat lifestyle.
THE BLACK ARTS MOVEMENT
Although the majority of the Beats were whites emulating the African-American poetry of Langston Hughes, a handful of blacks participated in the movement. Perhaps the most directly influenced by Hughes and significant in maintaining his legacy within the black community was the poet and political activist Leroi Jones, now known as Amiri Baraka. Following the popularity of the Beats, black writers in the 1960s, including Baraka, sought to create art that specifically reflected the urban black experience, which came to be known as the Black Arts Movement (Wallenstein 131). Baraka, who grew up reading Hughes’s poetry, observed that Hughes’s work spoke directly to the black community, inspiring him to identify with, and further the goal of creating unique black art forms (Smethurst 1228). Hughes and Baraka eventually developed a camaraderie in which Hughes mentored the young poet and promoted his work (Ibid 1225).
Additionally, Hughes’s 1926 essay "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," which promoted a distinctive culture preserving the vibrant and unique roots of the African-American experience, held resonance with the participants of the Black Arts movement, advancing “African-American culture from Africa to the U.S. present, including folk, popular, and avant-garde elements” (Smethurst 1229). The contributors to the Black Arts Movement used jazz-poetry as a “significant social critique of an oppressive social structure” (Gladney 291). According to Lorenzo Thomas, Baraka’s poems, such as "Black Art" and "Black Dada Nihilismus," seek to raise awareness of the struggling African-Americans living in deteriorating urban conditions, and the necessity of urban renewal and cultural uplift through both anti-poverty activism and culturally and socially significant poetry (297).
In the 1970s, the socially conscious messages of the Black Arts Movement’s jazz-poetry went through a musical transition. New black artists abandoned jazz music in favor of a more inexpensive method of creating music by omitting pricey instruments. The pioneers of rap, such as Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, now recited their poetry to samples of other musicians’ compositions play over the beat from a drum machine (Adler, Franti, Reed 155). For example, in Grandmaster Flash’s 1982 piece “The Message,” which echoes the sentiment of Amiri Baraka’s poem “Black Art,” early hip-hip artists rapped poems that promoting awareness of a shared cultural experience of living in oppressive urban conditions (Stewart 219). Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message” highlights the urban decay and poverty blighting black communities, calling for community solidarity to restore the vitality and pride of African-American culture through the hip-hop art form.
Consequently, hip-hop developed as a continuation of the African-American tradition of reading socially conscious poetry over music, reflecting the same cultural pride promoted by Hughes and the Amiri Baraka’s Black Arts Movement. According to Marvin Gladney, “those who pioneered hip-hop were offering artistic expression designed to cope with urban frustrations and conditions” (292). Throughout the 1980s, other hip-hop artists, such as Public Enemy, continued to follow the lineage of Hughes and the Black Arts Movement’s social commentary and expressing a unique cultural experience based on a shared cultural identity. Accordingly, music historian Bruce Tucker praised Public Enemy’s 1988 album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back as “the most significant innovations in black music,” of the 1980s, owing its public outrage and anger over the oppression of the black community to Amiri Baraka’s jazz-poetry (489). Just as Langston Hughes and Amiri Baraka achieved, Public Enemy and other hip-hop artists continue to promote ethnic and communal pride of the African-American experience. Hip-hop is “is the cultural expression… of today's black youth,” as called for by Hughes, engaging the listeners in a dialogue concerning contemporary African-American life (Gladney 299).
In this video of "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos," rap group Public Enemy rail against racism and oppression of the American penal system, comparing it to slavery, which also serves to reflect the cruelty of bigotry in American society. Rapper Chuck D condemns the caging, both literally and figuratively, of African-Americans and calls for the black community to stand together for freedom.
EXPANDING ACROSS THE GLOBE
While hip-hop served to unite African-Americans during the late twentieth century, functioning as a form of art, communication, communal identity, and promoting community uplift, as the 21st century progresses, the hip-hop art form has been adapted for the same purpose by Arab culture in response to, and promotion of, the Arab Spring. After the 2010 Tunisian revolt and the uprising in Cairo’s Tahrir square, which led to the Egyptian Revolution, hip-hop emerged as a central means of communicating dissatisfaction with the extensive poverty and unemployment imposed by oppressive Arab governments (Hebblethwaite). Arab artists, such as El General, Deeb, and Omar Offendum view hip-hop as civil resistance against harsh living conditions. For Omar Offendum, hip-hop serves as the best method for transmitting feelings of frustration felt by many in the Arab world. In an interview with Al Jazeera, Offendum cites hip-hop as a direct way of getting his socially conscious message across to Arab youth, and that “rap is poetry at the end of the day…and that is something that Arab culture can definitely associate itself with” (Offendum). Just as Public Enemy’s comparison of hip-hop to CNN acknowledged the art form’s importance for broadcasting and connecting the socially concerned voices of the black community, ultimately hip-hop, too, provides an artistic platform to promote Arab solidarity based on their shared cultural and ethnic experience (Gladney 291).
In this video, Syrian rapper Omar Offendum pays homage to the roots of hip-hop by reciting Langston Hughes’s poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” and then rapping the poem in Arabic. The rivers of the past that united black culture for Hughes now provide unity and pride to Arab culture as “The Arab Speaks of Rivers.”