James Haile is a doctoral student in philosophy at Duquesne University. His research focuses on the relation of philosophy to literature and sociology. His edited collection, Philosophical Meditations on Richard Wright (Lexington Books) is forthcoming this fall.
One of the trenchant criticisms of the hip-hop generation—generally, those born after the Civil Rights Era, coming of age between 1970 and 1980—and post hip-hop generation—those born after 1980, coming of age in an era in which hip-hop has become a world wide phenomena—has been that these generations lack the attention span of the previous generations as well as the dedication and work ethic to hone the details of craft. This lack of attention to detail and work ethic is most pronounced in the music that these generations produced. Hip-hop as a musical form encompasses, for many, all that is wrong with these generations: the desire for immediate gratification, a crumbling morality that is reflected in its materialism. What is often misunderstood, though, is that this generation and its music offer a deep ethics, one that is tied to and reflective of the paradigmatic shift that occurred in the mid to late 1970s and is experienced contemporaneously. Beneath what appears to be gross materialism is a seated ethical impulse, one that is often typified as swag, but that I will articulate as ekstasis: to be or stand out or off of, apart, from external/exogenous forces.
Lil’ Wayne, a rapper who exemplifies both hip-hop and post hip-hop ethics, notes the constitutive elements of ethics of swag, or ekstatis in his song, “Dr. Carter” (from the album, The Carter III). In this song Wayne connects the ethical impulse of hard work (the basic normative claim of “self-discipline” and “sacrifice”) directly to the aesthetic impulse of ekstasis: standing out, standing apart from—more will be said of this later—when he rhymes,
but the kids do watch/gotta watch what we say/gotta work everyday/gotta not be cliché/gotta stand out like Andre 3K/gotta kick it, kick it like a sensei/you gotta have faith you gotta, gotta…
Here Wayne is emphasizing not only the importance of dedication and hard work in honing a craft, but also (and importantly) the necessity of aesthetic representation and the concomitant faith with the process itself. In addition to this ethical impulse to “work everyday”, he emphasizes the necessity of doing so within the purvey of kids. What he is teaching kids is not only hard work, dedication, and faith, but the importance of style, of standing out “like Andre 3K” (one of two members of the rap group Outkast known for his expressive and innovating rapping matched only by his flare for fashion and aural dramatics): that is not only important what you do but also how you do it. What is significant about this song overall is that Wayne is speaking to a hip-hop and post hip-hop audience, offering guidance and insight to what properly constitutes hip-hop and post hip-hop ethics: swag or ekstasis. And, while the significance of linking ethics to style is not new within black aesthetics (one can think of boxer Jack Johnson or bandleader Duke Ellington), the manner of its expressed is.
In another song on Wayne’s album Jay-Z, also an exemplar of the post 1970s shift, notes, “Young Carter, go farther, go further, go harder/Is that not why we came? And, if not, then why bother?” Jay-Z echoes this same sentiment in a remix of Talib Kweli’s “Get By” where he notes,
And your folks think Hov’ just wrote stuff to rhyme/Nah, I’ma poster for what happened seein’ your moms/Doin’ five dollars worth to work just to get a dime/So pardon my disposition/Why should I listen to a system that never listened to me?/Picture me working McDonald’s (uh uh)/I’d rather pull a mac on you/Sorry Ms. Jackson but I’m packin’”
What Wayne and Jay-Z are telling us is that it is not that black youth lack a strong work ethic, don’t value work or refuse to labor; rather, they have a different ethic, a different relation to labor and to product, and, thus, a different idea of what constitutes work. For both Wayne and Jay-Z, work is deeply ethical, but the ethical imperative is not for exploitative work; rather it is tied to personal identity and self-affirmation in the changing world of globalization. Swag as an ethical discourse is concerned with a determination to not be exploited, to standout over and against external oppressive forces that continue to preach exploitative work as the only sort of work possible for a human being.
Hip-hop, thus, signifies both an ethical impulse as well as a racialized authenticity wherein how one deals with an object (material wealth) or a condition (poverty) is reflected how they understand their own navigation throughout the world. It is both an expression of self over and against a world that has denied and subjugated them, and an affirmation of the intimate relatedness to space and place which has brought them into self-consciousness. What this tells us is that “swag” as a concept is as much about the acquisition of “things” as it is about self-expression through those things. Rather than dominating the world vis-à-vis things, and making the world into things, what swag signifies is an engagement with the world vis-à-vis things.
When we challenge and critique hip-hop (and post hip-hop), and by proxy black youth generally for their lack of focus and lack of work ethic, we must stop and challenge our own ethical notions and our own assumptions of what constitutes work and the value of labor. And, it is this that is my parting shot on black writing: the nature, and future, of black writing/literature hinges on the ethics of writing generally: self-expression as an ekstatic ethical principle. Ralph Ellison’s haunting words are indeed, here, apropos: “men cannot live in revolt…It will take a deeper science…to analyze what is happening among these masses of Negroes.” There is a certain similarity between the criticism that has historically surrounded (and continues to surround) black literature and that of hip-hop music, a criticism that is centered on the issue of immediacy. Ironically, on the one hand black literature has been assigned the task of dealing with the immediacies of life, while hip-hop is often criticized for not having enough insight to see beyond the immediacies of experience. And, yet in each case, the criticism rarely reaches the level of artistry, at least from outside the traditions, while from within these traditions, the ethics of ekstasis (artistry) dominates much of the competition, tension, and outright criticisms between artists. Understanding that the ethical impulse of art is the artful impulse of ethical life illuminates the ethics of ekstasis.