Preaching With Sacred Fire
An Anthology of African American Sermons, 1750 to the Present
W.W. Norton: 976 pp., $45
The Anthology of Rap
Edited by Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois
Yale University Press: 868 pp., $35
Could one build some sort of sturdy footbridge between, say, Frederick Douglass and Kanye West?
Two new books, "Preaching With Sacred Fire: An Anthology of African American Sermons, 1750 to the Present" and "The Anthology of Rap," look at two very different forms of African American oral tradition but take similar paths to their conclusions about the history and import of the black narrative tradition, the sacred and the profound.
For decades, large-scale stories told from an African American point of view were few and far between. Histories, family narratives, parables were passed through generations but were quietly held. Grabbing the mike, so to speak, and reclaiming their own narrative and the vast platform from which to tell it didn't happen until the mid-20th century.
What "Preaching With Sacred Fire" underscores is that though seldom was wider light cast upon it, this oral tradition has flourished for centuries from the pulpit: Men and women who have educated, uplifted and unified their flocks. Here are more than 100 sermons, from both Christian and Muslim traditions, that speak to the pressing issues — slavery, segregation, the war on drugs — of their day. It is a sonorous continuum of voices, prophetic and poetic: John Chavis, the country's first ordained African American Presbyterian preacher; Douglass; Martin Luther King Jr.; Malcolm X; C.L. Franklin; Peter Gomes; Jesse Jackson; Louis Farrakhan; T.D. Jakes and Renita Weems weave a narrative of struggle, resistance and resilience. As Weems tells her flock in her 2004 sermon "Not … Yet": "Right now, this race is not about me and you. It's about generations who are coming after us. It's about little girls and boys in our churches. It's about the little one with the little nappy hair whose mama is on drugs and whose daddy is in jail."
While "Preaching With Sacred Fire" follows the pulpit narrative from slavery to the ascendency of President Obama, there was another set of voices gaining momentum too. These were the voices telling stories of the streets, the stories of what was happening to those people who sat in the pews — or who once did. Some had wandered into something else, something that seemed to speak to their everyday, a resonant soundtrack of sorts. As Public Enemy's Richter-scale tripping Chuck D once put it: "Rap is CNN for black people."
That maxim was more than clever metaphor; it has helped clarify the weight, reach and import of the from-the-sidewalks genre that so many once dismissed as diversion — or worse.
From Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five to 2Pac and Jay-Z to Young Jeezy. Thirty years on, the longevity begs the question: What role has rap played in chronicling a slice of social history?
In its early iteration, rap indeed was a form of first-person reportage, a "story of the streets" passed from lips to ears on stoops, in backyards, on mix-tapes, over radio waves. Putting needle to the groove opened a door to a very particular time and place: Imagery, slang and situation. Rap was an extension of the American oral tradition. Its very durability forces deeper consideration.
"The Anthology of Rap," edited by Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois and with a foreword by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and afterwords by Chuck D and Common, is the first formal anthology of rap lyrics spanning 1978 to the present. More than 800 pages, the book not only carefully distinguishes between the long-tangled definitions of hip-hop and rap but also attempts to situate three decades of witness-bearing — with all of its bravado and blemishes — into historical and literary context. "Hip-hop," writes Gates, "… is an umbrella term to describe the multifaceted culture of which rap is but a part. MCs, hip-hop's master of ceremonies, are its literary artists. They are the poets and rap is the poetry of hip-hop culture." For a book that seeks to elevate the importance of rap lyrics by placing them between two covers, hip-hop heads — old and young — with ears keen to the chapter and verse of the rhymes are already calling foul, citing various errors in transcription. All of this was played out quite publicly earlier this fall both in the blogosphere and in a series of pieces in Slate by Paul Devlin, who enumerated some of the more egregious errors he'd encountered (backed up with audio). Bradley acknowledged the transcription errors and said he plans to correct them in future printings. Part of this, even the critics agree, is simply the nature of stories passed down and the trick of the ear, like a game of telephone. Seeing the lyrics on a page, once the errors are untangled, is a way to formally set down the lyric's intent.
While the objective of the book was not to be encyclopedic (this isn't a music form pressed behind glass, it's in motion), it was to be representative: The book's goal is to exhibit a diversity of content, poetry and language. That means you get the corny but contagious boasts of the Sugarhill Gang ("Rapper's Delight") and far down the road, the grainy, documentary insight of the Roots ("Act Two: [The Love of My Life]") and West's internal struggle with temptation ("Jesus Walks"). There is more than a taste of life's highs and lows crowding around the microphone. And this is where these two traditions intersect:
"So many of the debates about rap today miss the point," Common writes in his afterword. "… The myth [is] that MCs rhyme only about money, cars and women. Think I'm lying? Open up the book and see for yourself. Even open it at random and you'll find lyrics about love and comic books and bicycles, about God and nature and fatherhood. You'll find rhymes, in other words, about life and the art of living."
George is a Los Angeles-based journalist and an assistant professor of English and journalism at Loyola Marymount University.