Jay-Z, Rakim, and Black Mythmaking in America

Two new books trace Jay-Z and Rakim’s storytelling legacies. Tarisai Ngangura reports for LitHub… Support our news coverage by subscribing to our Kindle Nation Daily Digest. Joining is free right now!

For over three decades, William Griffin Jr. and Shawn Corey Carter—better known as Rakim the God MC and Jay-Z, respectively—have claimed their spots as some of America’s most intuitive storytellers. No topic has been off limits in their expansive careers; depression and self-loathing, hustling and unemployment, love and self-harm, or bold ambition at war with seemingly insurmountable odds. Their characters have narrated with conviction, delivering literature at its most accessible and rooted in real world experiences. With upcoming books focusing on their legacies, Griffin and Carter now find their work privy to exploration, broken down from lyrical stanzas to engaging analyzes on the politics of race, economic disenfranchisement, and the elusive American Dream.

In his book, Sweat the Technique: Revelations on Creativity from The Lyrical Genius, Rakim and music journalist Bakari Kitwana offer a road map guiding readers to the source of his inspiration and the reason behind his career longevity: his unmatched skills on the mic. Along that same vein, Jay-Z: Made In America by Georgetown professor and sociologist Michael Eric Dyson lays out Hov’s work for fans and those unfamiliar with the Brooklyn rapper’s miles-long discography. Both books look beyond the musical releases and record-breaking appearances on music charts, placing the musicians in a larger context that addresses social relevance and influence. Their work is given the respect of critical engagement via a literary lens that reflects hip-hop’s role as an innovative conduit of Black experiences; a reclaiming of a genre whose content has been labelled suspicious, inherently criminal, and is constantly surveilled by state officials even as it rules the music charts.

Black writers and musicians have a long and treasured history of jointly expressing the cognitive dissonance of living as a Black human by simultaneously using different artistic forms. Toni Morrison wedded music and literature in her novel Jazz, which is as much about the genre as it is about those who birthed it. Gil Scott-Heron’s take on the Jean Toomer novel Cane, off his album “Secrets,” gave a somber soundtrack to a very American story. Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah’s longform essay on hip hop group The Roots solidly placed their music in a canon of other storytellers whose words explicitly draw from their realities in an almost autobiographical manner, with a lens that knows to “watch the streets and not the throne.”

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