By Alisha Hines
Who gets to speak for or claim a history so long passed? Historical memory and the historian’s capacity to access the experiences, desires, and suffering of the dead are the subjects of much scholarly inquiry. Many analyses mobilize cultural expressions from the past to describe a collective that subscribes, or comes to subscribe, to a set of shared sensibilities that are subsequently operationalized to build community and negotiate power. It would be interesting to ruminate on how current, popular narratives of historical events that emanate from without the academy draw on subjective interpretations of a largely imagined past. Furthermore, I’d like to think about how times passed, in the most abstract sense, continue to live within and inform contemporary experience. The deployment of historical narrative in popular cultural expression is not a new phenomenon, however, I think these explicit articulations of a particular rationalization of the present through the past continue to offer opportunities to theorize about how history lives in and through cultural expression to reproduce subjectivities and group-consciousness.
I have included the audio of the song Oceans by Jay Z and Frank Ocean from Jay Z’s latest LP Magna Carta Holy Grail (2013):
The lyrics to the song’s hook are as follows:
See elephant tusk on the boar of a sailing lady
Docked on the Ivory Coast
Mercedes in a row winding down the road
I hope my black skin don’t dirt this white tuxedo
Before the Basquiat show and if so
Well fuck it, fuck it
Because this water drowned my family
This water mixed my blood
This water tells my story
This water knows it all
Go ahead and spill some champagne in the water
Go ahead and watch the sun blaze
On the waves
Of the ocean
Frank Ocean’s chorus clearly takes the Middle Passage as its principle referent, but the song taken as a whole indicates that the artists were not interested in simply recalling or lamenting a history, they offer a re-presentation of that past and make explicit connections between it and their current social position as successful and highly paid musicians. As Frank Ocean sings the hook, he seems an omniscient onlooker witnessing at once the slave ship docked on the coast and a row of luxury cars in what is not actually indicated as a wholly different time and space. “Because history comes to us not only as a flash of revelation but piling up. Because this is, not was. Because this is the Atlantic, now. Because all of it is now, it is always now, even for you who never was there” (Baucom, 2005).
We learn the ship represents violence and processes of commodification by the reference to the elephant tusk suspended on the ship’s boar. The apprehension and insecurity Ocean reveals in the next few lines I think reflects his acknowledgment of the transgressive nature of his social position as an African-American enjoying the luxuries of fine clothing and an art showing (albeit that of Basquiat, a Haitian-American artist whose work is severely political and subversive). But fuck it. Ocean reintroduces the tragedy of the Middle Passage and its consequences for black Americans: loss by literal death and social death—the destruction of kinship networks and the sullying of a purer heritage and ancestry by “mixing” blood—in a way justifies and legitimates Ocean’s participation in a hyper-commodified contemporary world. The final lines of the hook conjure the imagery of the legal transcript of the Zong case recounted by NourbeSe Philip: “Sixty Negroes died for want of water…and forty others…through thirst and frenzy threw themselves into the sea and were drowned; and the masters and mariners were obliged to throw overboard 150 other negroes” (Philip, 189). Ocean at once transcends and remains at the center of his narrative in the sense that he survived to avenge a tragic past, which is indicated by his consumption of luxurious commodities, and yet he is ever haunted by his story.
Below is a short interview in which Jay Z explains the inspiration behind some of his lyrics:
Jay Z’s lyrics elaborate on the theme of survival with a tone of arrogance meant to denote, again, a particular self-awareness, an acknowledgment that his success is an individual affront not only to the guiding principles of mainstream popular culture, but to a centuries long history of oppression. On those “troubled waters” of the Middle Passage, Jay Z “learned how to float” and the boat in Jay Z’s lyrical illustration is docked outside of a luxury-clothing store where he now “picks cotton.” Overall, the song is not politically radical in the sense that it doesn’t offer an explicit critique of those processes of commodification or the status quo. He sets forth an almost apolitical stance by stating “can’t believe they got a nigga to vote,” and quickly recalling his classed and raced experience selling drugs in the Marcy projects in Bed-Stuy, New York (“Democrat, nope, I sold dope”). This line also, though, summons in listeners the memory of Jay Z and his wife Beyonce at the presidential inauguration and the couples close friendship with the Obama’s.
The politics of hip hop and black American cultural expression more generally constitute a field of scholarly inquiry that I won’t recall here. Yet, as I hope the above ruminations on Jay Z’s Oceans have demonstrated, something unique can be gleaned from examining cultural expression that is rooted in historical imaginaries as operational in ways that shape subjectivity and reproduce narratives of a shared past that, in turn, can feed and sustain collective identities. Although Jay Z has achieved a level of wealth that arguably alienates him from many members of his listening audience such as those who still live in Marcy projects or those that have been imprisoned along with hundreds of thousands of other black men for selling crack cocaine as he did only a couple decades ago, a shared ancestral history located in Africa and the Atlantic, lodged in the depths of an abstracted historical memory can be deployed to reinforce a shared black American experience.