A Black Literary Tradition

On June 15, 2017, Jay-Z became the first rapper inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. For this momentous occasion, former President Barack Obama provided a video tribute congratulating all of the inductees and giving special praise to the Brooklyn-born rapper. In the video, the 44th president drew comparisons between himself and the rapper, explaining, “Nobody who met us as younger men would have expected us to be where we are today.”

Beyond the similarities mentioned, perhaps one of the most critical overlaps rests in their respective memoirs—Dreams from my Father and Decoded. In their memoirs, each spends a considerable amount of time discussing literacy—in Jay-Z’s case that involved writing rhymes, and in Obama’s case, that involved reading books about black men in America. 

In Dreams from my Father, Obama, struggling to understand his place as a black boy in a predominantly white school, turns to classic African American literary texts to come to terms with his identity. He recounts his experiences “wrestling with words” in Richard Wright’s Native Son and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and also other texts by W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes, and James Baldwin. 

In his memoir, Decoded, Jay-Z describes his boyhood fascination with writing rap rhymes: “Everywhere I went I’d write. If I was crossing the street with my friends and a rhyme came to me, I’d break out my binder, spread it on a mailbox or lamppost and write the rhyme before I crossed the street.” According to the rapper, “I didn’t care if my friends left me at the light, I had to get it out.” Even though Jay-Z is famous for reciting his rhymes from memory, as a young boy he deliberately wrote down lyrics, exercising his creative abilities.

These important knowledge-building experiences in Jay-Z’s and President Obama’s lives are reminiscent of scenes in narratives by black men that link literacy with social agency. Frederick Douglass and Richard Wright, for instance, write about remarkable challenges and opportunities in their childhood, and they highlight how specific learning opportunities helped to spur their social mobility.

As a boy, Jay-Z did not envision having a career as a rapper. He started rapping as a hobby, and in the process cultivated his intellectual abilities by working on technical features associated with rapping and storytelling in general. A consideration of Jay-Z as a writer situates him in a broader category of cultural figures, not only his fellow musical artists. Moreover, a view of rappers as writers means thinking of their skills as composers, not just performers. 

By honoring the rapper’s contributions, the Songwriters Hall of Fame prompts us to view Jay-Z and his lyrics beyond the field of rap. He was more than a cultural hero for young people in the hood. Rather, he was also an inspiration for a state senator who became president.

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