By Chris Murray
ABOVE PHOTO: Celebrated poet and author Nikki Giovanni chats with a fan during Art Sanctuary’s Annual Celebration of Black Writer’s Festival. Ms. Giovanni was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Festival.
Photo by William T. Wade Jr.
In an age of loud-mouthed pundits and snappy sound bites lacking context and substance, the musical and artistic genre known as “Hip-Hop” has been used as a “boogeyman” — the root of the all evil facing urban youth today.
It is as visceral a buzzword as “communism” was often used by conservative Southern politicians to vilify Civil Rights protesters and anti-Vietnam war activists .
But you won’t hear such vitriol from award-winning poet and author Nikki Giovanni.
As someone whose poetry was one of the many voices of the Black Arts Movement, the 66-year-old Giovanni said the negative criticism of hip-hop comes from people who don’t know or understand the genre.
“They demonize hip-hop like they demonized gospel music, like they demonized rock and roll. Anything that the people have done to make them absolutely better,” Giovanni said shortly after her recent presentation, “Hip-Hop Speaks to Children,” to a group of junior and senior high school students at the Church of the Advocate in North Philadelphia.
“A lot of it is jealously of young people. A lot of it is also they didn’t do it. And so anything they don’t think of, then all of a sudden, it’s not right and they’re crazy. I like the kids. I always have. I really hope that I don’t reach a point where I become one of those people like ‘eww I don’t know what they’re doing’ because that’s your job, go out there and find out what they’re doing.”
Giovanni has the words, “Thug Life” tatooed on her left arm as a tribute to the late rapper Tupac Shakur. She said she edited her 2008 New York Times best-selling book, “Hip-Hop Speaks to Children,” because she was upset with how the genre has been vilified in the mainstream media.
“I got tired of people bitching about hip-hop because they obviously didn’t know what they were talking about and usually if you don’t know what you’re talking about, you should probably shut up,” Giovanni told her audience. “It’s amazing how a lot of people who don’t know what they’re talking about continue to yabber on.”
During her presentation, which was a part of the (Philadelphia) Art Sanctuary’s 26th Annual Celebration of Black Writer’s Festival, Giovanni said Hip-Hop is part of a tradition of art that spoke for the masses of people who didn’t traditionally have a forum from which to speak.
“Hip-Hop is in line with a long tradition of the people having a voice,” Giovanni said. “They found a way to express themselves. Now, of course, nobody liked that because nobody likes to be told that they’re wrong. These people are wrong. Our government is wrong, our business leaders are wrong. They’re greedy and crazy and so the people had to find a voice and they found a voice through Hip-Hop.
“It is a vernacular that speaks to the conditions of the people. If we don’t like it, we need to change, not the people, but the conditions the people live under.”
Giovanni was in her 20s during the Black Arts Movement and the like artist from the Hip-Hop era, the Sonia Sanchez’s and Amiri Barakas got more than their share of criticism from the mainstream literary establishment. One of those critics was Ralph Ellison, who wrote the epic novel, “The Invisible Man, who chided them for not wanting to be a part of the American mainstream.
“(Ellison) was like, ‘oh these people use bad language. Ralph, you wrote one book, you’re not God,” Giovanni recalled.
Giovanni said the difference between the activists of the Black Arts Movement and the artists of the Hip-Hop era was that her generation wanted to America to be in their image while the young people of the hip-hop want to be a part of the American mainstream.
“We were not Americans,” she said referring to the Civil Rights generations. “These kids are. They want to be rich, they want to dress well, they want to have big cars, they want to have lovely houses. . . They want to be Americans. My generation wanted America to be us and the Hip-Hop generation wants to be Americans. They are constantly being apart of America, so they pick up the gun, they sell drugs. They do what they have to do because that’s America.”
While it is easy for many successful artists to rest on the laurels of their past success and accomplishments, Giovanni said she refuses to stand on the ceremony of her many great works in poetry. She said she is always looking to challenge herself to come up with fresh ideas and different ways of looking at things.
“You have to look at things differently,” Giovanni said. “I can’t re-write ‘Ego Tripping, I’m not even thinking to, or I can’t re-write ‘Nikki-Rosa’. It’s done, it was well-done.
“You have to keep challenging yourself or you’ll become a politician. … You become somebody who’s done something for 38 years or 40 years and now it’s rote, you’re not interesting and you can do it in your sleep. Then what’s the point of me coming to hear you.”