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Jay-Z, Zora Neale Hurston, and Rap Genius: African American Expressive Culture and “Swag”

[By Kenton Rambsy]

***Help Me Annotate on RapGenius. Read Post to find out how***
Jay-Z’s reference to “Swag” has deeper cultural roots for
African Americans. Even though the word “swag” has been made wildly popular by
rappers in recent years, back in 1934 Zora Neale Hurston was already theorizing
about this concept in her essay “Characteristics of Negro Expression.” In
Hurston’s essay, she explains the distinct ways that Black people have come to
articulate and dramatize their lives through storytelling and other artistic
practices such as negro folklore, imitation, and dialect. Similar to Jay-Z telling
his listening audiences to “check out my swag’ yo,” Hurston noted the
importance of a presence and persona as she explained: 

Who has not observed a robust young Negro chap posing upon a
street corner, possessed of nothing but his clothing, his strength and his
youth? Does he bear himself like a pauper? No, Louis XIV could be no more
insolent in his assurance. His eyes say plainly “Female, halt!” His posture
exults “Ah, female, I am the eternal male, the giver of life. Behold in my hot
flesh all the delights of this world. Salute me, I am strength.” All this with
a languid posture, there is no mistaking his meaning.
Here Hurston provides a description of what we know as
“Swag.” Swag is defined by the clothes a person wears, the way a person walks,
the words a person uses to express him or herself, as well as the respect other
people attribute to them. Despite 78 years between their birthdates, Jay-Z and
Zora Neale Hurston, in terms of artistry, may not be so different. Hurston’s
1934 essay has significance even in today’s culture as her work demonstrates
how the space between black writers of the Harlem Renaissance and present day
popular culture may actually not be so far.
Because of the importance of Hurston’s essay in helping to
make crucial connections across generations of black writing and performance
culture, I invite readers to help me annotate Hurston’s essay on RapGenius. The
crowd-sourced platform allows for me to collaborate with online users and think
more critically about how hallmark’s of African American literary culture have
a bearing on present day expression.
1) Sign up for a RapGenius account
2) Read up on their contributor guidelines,
3) And join the online community of scholars of black literature
already on the site.