All posts by Alisha Hines

Distant Relatives: Antiphony and the Original Call

By Alisha Hines

The problems of representation, authenticity, and legitimacy have always posed challenges for the producers and consumers of black culture and continue to do so. For example, Gilroy’s discussion of the disagreement between W.E.B. Du Bois and Zora Neale Hurston over the ‘authenticity’ of the Fisk Jubilee Singers is neither surprising nor unfamiliar if one considers the persistent and ongoing discourse around hip hop artists’ authenticity and legitimacy as practitioners of the art from. I would argue that this has even been institutionalized in the form of free-style battles and the sub-genre of diss-records. The dismay over contemporary black culture, though, seems to be the result of an unprecedented and widespread crisis of profitable mis-representation, illegitimacy, and inauthenticity.

It is important, though, to try to historicize these conflicts by trying to access the prevailing and dominant ethos in operation as a standard of authenticity. There are arguably many ways to arrive at a series of elements that seem to govern who gets to claim legitimacy in the hip-hop world. Yet, we would quickly run into the problematics Gilroy set forth. Legitimate to whom? And who are these terms modified in the complex global processes of production, distribution, and consumption?

If one looks closely at contemporary hip-hop music, it is apparent that Gilroy is right—the terms that define a black Atlantic diasporic cultural community has become increasingly problematic for “scholarly contemplation” as a result of complex global patterns of production and consumption.

As a result, one course to pursue these questions would be to reconsider those enduring tropes, such as the Black Atlantic as a historical or ancestral legacy. a viable basis for a contemporary political argument deployed via black musicians through musical production?

The guiding question of our exploration of the black Atlantic is what does the black Atlantic sound like? Hopefully my contributions will help illuminate the “syncretic complexity of black expressive culture” by examining the variations in the meaning of the black Atlantic depicted through sound and lyricism by black American artists.


In 1998, Hype Williams released the movie Belly, in which Nasir Jones, premier rap/hip hop artist, starred as Sincere—an enlightened street criminal who fosters dreams of moving with girlfriend and newborn to Africa. The audience learns that he realized this goal by the end as the movie closes with Sincere describing the peace, contentment, and harmony he had found there. In 2010, Nas and Damien Marley released the album Distant Relatives. Themes and imagery of Africa abound in its lyrics and musical arrangement. Although slightly less vague and indistinct as representations of Africa in the movie Belly, I’d like to consider here how exactly Nas and Damien Marley have conceived of Africa and the black Atlantic more broadly in this collaborative album. Many themes I have discussed converge with the production of this album. Although Nas has not reached the heights of fame and wealth of Jay Z, the two artists are highly comparable as they share a decades long history of conflict/collaboration. Nas is considered by many one of the greatest [if not the greatest] lyricists of all time. His accolades are endless; he is currently celebrating the 20th anniversary of his landmark debut album Illmatic, and was honored by Harvard University with a fellowship in his name.


As mentioned earlier, in the past few years Nas has openly criticized the state and quality of contemporary hip hop music. Teaming up with Damien Marley, reggae artist and one of reggae legend Bob Marley’s children, to create an album of such content, then, seemed ripe material for my inquiry. The album debuted at No. 5 on the U.S. billboard chart and sold 57,000 copies in its first week. However, it didn’t receive nearly the attention any of Jay Z’s most recent albums have. I know, musical trends are seriously mysterious things, and Jay Z’s audience almost certainly spans beyond the “black Atlantic diaspora” as I am defining it here—a geographically widespread cultural community that shares or believes itself to share a distinctly traumatic racial past and present. Or to use Gilroy’s words, “those residually inherited from Africa, and those generated from the special bitterness of new world racial slavery.”[2] However, the questions still stand: Where does one locate and how does one define “authentic black culture?” More specifically, what exactly does the black Atlantic mean for these artists and how do they conceive of its functionality as a concept in their cultural production?


In the same vein as my previous essays, I want to consider just a few songs from the album in order to arrive at another set of political imaginaries for the black Atlantic and hopefully make some broader conclusions about contemporary black culture and the real and imagined history of the black Atlantic. During Nas and Marley’s interview with Tim Westwood, Nas describes the content of the album as “African history,” or more accurately, “world history.”

He claims that a major theme of the piece is telling stories that haven’t been told. Things that he and Marley know, and perhaps a certain faction of their audience may know, but that the rest of the world must be informed about. When asked about their connection to Africa as African-American and Jamaican, Marley interjects with the insight that what is more important is that “we are all human.” The point of the album for Marley, the point of relaying African history, or constructing a narrative of the black Atlantic, is to demonstrate that that past constitutes an “all-inclusive” and equal human community. Nas adds that this narrative has an emancipatory effect in the sense that he believes they have captured through the album the political ideologies of those who have risen in protest throughout the world.  In The Black Atlantic, Gilroy poses the critique that contemporary black cultural production is guilty of ignoring the very place in which it locates its origins; the “problems of contemporary Africa” are almost completely absent from its concerns. He goes on to argue that this is precisely the problem that results from the conceptualization of a diasporic cultural community: “the idea of a diaspora composed of communities that are both similar and different tends to disappear somewhere between the invocations of an African motherland and the powerful critical commentaries on the immediate, local conditions in which a particular performance of a piece of music originates.”[3]

While “Africa Must Wake Up” is explicitly concerned with conditions on the African continent, conditions of poverty and disease, civil war, it is a message of uplift and empowerment directed at inhabitants of Africa.

“African Must Wake Up”

[Intro: Jr. Gong]
Morning to you man
Morning to you love
Hey, I say I say

[Chorus 2x]
Africa must wake up
The sleeping sons of Jacob
For what tomorrow may bring
May a better day come
Yesterday we were Kings
Can you tell me young ones
Who are we today

[Nas: Verse 1]
The black oasis
Ancient Africa the sacred
Awaken the sleeping giant
Science, Art is your creation
I dreamt that we could visit Old Kemet
Your history is too complex and rigid
For some western critics
They want the whole subject diminished
But Africa’s the origin of all the world’s religions
We praised bridges that carried us over
The battle front of Sudanic soldiers
The task put before us

[Chorus 2x]

[Nas: Verse 2]
Who are we today?
The slums, diseases, AIDS
We need all that to fade
We cannot be afraid
So who are we today?
We are the morning after
The make shift youth
The slave ship captured
Our Diaspora, is the final chapter
The ancestral lineage built pyramids
Americas first immigrant
The Kings sons and daughters from Nile waters
The first architect, the first philosophers, astronomers
The first prophets and doctors was

[Bridge: Jr.Gong]
Now can we all pray
Each in his own way
Teaching and Learning
And we can work it out
We’ll have a warm bed
We’ll have some warm bread
And shelter from the storm dread
And we can work it out
Mother Nature feeds all
In famine and drought
Tell those selfish in ways
Not to share us out
What’s a tree without root
Lion without tooth
A lie without truth
you hear me out

Africa must wake up
The sleeping sons of Jacob
For what tomorrow may bring
May a better day come
Yesterday we were Kings
Can you tell me young ones
Who are we today
Ye lord
Africa must wake up
The sleeping sons of Jacob
For what tomorrow may bring
May some more love come
Yesterday we were Kings
I’ll tell you young blood
This world is yours today

[Somali] Dadyahow daali waayey, nabada diideen
Oo ninkii doortay dinta, waadinka dillee
Oo dal markii ladhiso, waadinka dunshee
Oo daacad ninkii damcay, waadinka dooxee
Dadyahow daali waayey, nabada diideen
Oo ninkii doortay dinta, waadinka dillee
Oo dal markii ladhiso, waadinka dunshee
Oo daacad ninkii damcay, waadinka dooxee
Oh ye people restless in the refusal of peace
and when a man chooses religion, aren’t you the one’s to kill him?
and when a country is built, aren’t you the one’s to tear it down?
and when one attempts to tell the truth, aren’t you the one’s to cut him down?
Who are we today?
Morning to you
Morning to you man
Morning to you love
“Land of Promise” carries a similar tone of empowerment but a very different set of images. The song begins with a striking juxtaposition of African countries to major cities in the United States. Nas elaborates on this theme in the second verse by deploying familiar tropes of a royal African past (“Imagine a contraption that could take us back when the world was run by black men”), and considers what a restoration of that status in the contemporary world would look like. A 21st century African-descended royalty would be marked by access to finer things. In this way, the U.S. is posed, relatively uncritically, as distinct from the downtrodden black Atlantic world and is representative of something to be aspired toward by the people of Africa.

“Land of Promise”

Imagine Ghana like California with Sunset Boulevard
Johannesburg would be Miami
Somalia like New York
With the most pretty light
The nuffest pretty car
Ever New Year the African Times Square lock-off
Imagine Lagos like Las Vegas
The Ballers dem a Ball
Angola like Atlanta
A pure plane take off
Bush Gardens inna Mali
Chicago inna Chad
Magic Kingdom inna Egypt
Philadelphia like Sudan
The Congo like Colorado
Fort Knox inna Gabon
People living in Morocco like the state of Oregon
Algeria warmer than Arizona bring your sun lotion
Early morning class of Yoga on the beach in Senegal
Ethiopia the capitol of fi di Congression
A deh so I belong
A deh di The King come from
I can see us all in limos
Jaguars and B’mos

[Dennis Brown]
Riding on the King’s Highway

Promised Land I picture Porsches
Basquiat Portraits
Pinky Rings realistic princesses
Heiresses bunch a Kings and Queens
Plus I picture fortunes for kids out in Port-Au-Prince
Powerless they not allowed to fit
But not about to slip
Vision Promised Land with fashion like
Madison Ave Manhattan
Saks 5th Ave and
Relaxing popping labels
Promise Land no fables
This where the truth’s told
Use them two holes
Above your nose
To see the proof yo!
Imagine a contraption that could take us back when
The world was run by black men
Back to the future
Anything can happen
If these are the last days
And 100-food waves come crashing down
I get some hash and pounds
Pass around the bud then watch the flood
Can’t stop apocalypse
My synopsis is catastrophic
If satellites is causing earthquakes
Will we survive it
Honestly man it’s the sign of the times
And the times at hand

[Dennis Brown]
There’s alot of work to be done, O gosh
In the Promised Land

Both songs demonstrate that the directionality of the album is eastward across the Atlantic Ocean. Unlike much of Nas’s work, poverty, drugs, violence and disparity in urban America aren’t extensively critiqued or even referenced. The artists’ conceptualization of “distant relatives,” per their comments about the content of the album, boasts an expansive and all-inclusive audience. Yet the messages offered in the lyrical content are heavily directed toward poorer African locales and especially those suffering from unrest. Although the past, namely “ancient” African history and the experience of the middle passage, is believed by the artists to be shared vastly among world’s human community, the contemporary black Atlantic diasporic experience is quite uneven. This problematic is illustrative of one of Gilroy’s conclusions in The Black Atlantic. He stated, “the globalization of vernacular forms means that our understanding of antiphony will have to change…the calls and responses converge in the tidy patterns of secret, ethnically coded dialogue…the original call is becoming harder to locate.”[4]

Follow the link to learn more about how the Black Atlantic is musically represented through the album Distant Relatives.

For full track listing:

To cite this article:

> Exploring the Black Atlantic Through Sound 

> The Political Imaginaries of Black Atlantic Cultural Creation

> Jay Z’s Oceans

[2] Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1993. 81.

[3] Ibid., 87.

[4] Ibid., 110.

“I know the mid-Atlantic slave trade fascinates me:” On romanticizing the Black Atlantic

By Alisha Hines

Where is romance in remembrances of the Black Atlantic?

I am no literary critic or theorist, I am merely a gracious and humble consumer of those fine art forms that are capable of relaying the deep emotional preoccupations embedded in historical narrative. Derek Walcott’s alloy of literary traditions in Omeros, which offers within the structure of a revitalized form of epic poem an interiority of the narrative’s protagonists that is characteristic of its successor, the novel form, opened, for me, new intellectual possibilities proffered by a Black Atlantic past.[1]

It is tempting and seems almost requisite to emphasize the painful and violent legacy of the Middle Passage and its lasting consequences for a Black Atlantic diaspora. Walcott’s Omeros seems aligned with but also liberated from this obligatory mourning. Beauty, romance, and even nostalgia are available for readers to experience through Walcott’s narrative and use of language.

This led to me consider where else I might find similar representations or remembrances, and whether there might be a politics of romanticizing the Black Atlantic past.

I was watching some performances of poet/activist Aja Monet, who recently performed during Duke University’s MLK commemoration, and I began to think more about the references in her work to the Black Atlantic and the Middle Passage. Monet is of Cuban-Jamaican heritage and was born in Brooklyn, NY. Her poetry draws on a range of experiences, memory, and emotion but a recurring theme in her poetry is identity and her sense of culture and heritage. In these moments of reflection and expression, she references the Middle Passage in literary context that is interestingly not explicitly painful or sorrowful. In her poem, “Is that All You Got,” for example, she describes the black female’s ability to love as a direct result of the slave experience [2:58]:


…she knows how to love like

we survived slave ships like

thrown overboard babies…


In another poem, included below, she expresses “fascination” with the Mid-Atlantic slave trade, and remembers fantasizing about Ghoree Island.

A clearer example of this kind of turn from tragedy or mourning to peace or contentedness in Walcott’s poetry can be read in Sea Canes[2]:

Half my friends are dead.
I will make you new ones, said earth.
No, give me them back, as they were, instead,
with faults and all, I cried.

Tonight I can snatch their talk
from the faint surf’s drone
through the canes, but I cannot walk

on the moonlit leaves of ocean
down that white road alone,
or float with the dreaming motion

of owls leaving earth’s load.
O earth, the number of friends you keep
exceeds those left to be loved.

The sea canes by the cliff flash green and silver;
they were the seraph lances of my faith,
but out of what is lost grows something stronger

that has the rational radiance of stone,
enduring moonlight, further than despair,
strong as the wind, that through dividing canes

brings those we love before us, as they were,
with faults and all, not nobler, just there.

I included the above for explanatory purposes, to demonstrate what I consider to be distinct about Monet’s engagement with the Black Atlantic as historical narrative. Like Walcott’s renewed strength after losing loved ones, “something stronger” comes of tragedy for Monet, something to be valued and cherished, and not simply mourned.

Monet embodies certain tropes of a Black Atlantic legacy in that she exudes a creole sensibility–she is both an awe-ful observer of her own past and the human vestige of mixed bloodlines. In her poem “What I’ve Learned” she traces what seems to be her personal heritage merged with the equally formative cultural knowledge and practices she bears witness to in her hometown [3:55]:


…I know there are guardians protecting me

I am certain one of them is Native American

I know santeras clean people from negative energy

And light tall glass cylinder candles they buy from botanicas or Ctown or Trade Fair or Met Foods

as an offering to the saints

I know La Caridad…

Having recently watched the The Stuart Hall Project (2013) and also the documentary on Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (1996), I was interested in how Monet constructed and articulated her identity through her poetry. Both Fanon and Hall individually forged landscapes of the Black Atlantic at different historical moments, and their experiences of encounter with the colonial metropole had extreme consequences in the shaping of their racial identities, their political lives, and their scholarship.

Similarly, although a few generations removed from a colonial past and with the US as her pivot point, Monet’s encounter with Europe is formative for both her identity and artistic expression. I think her poetry expands the concept of “multiple Atlantics” that is also present in Walcott’s Omeros in the sense that she represents a specific Atlantic racial heritage, and also acknowledges, engages with, and claims what could be considered a more contemporary Black Atlantic literary tradition.

After Monet graduated from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, she traveled to Paris to live and work with the poet Saul Williams. In an interview with the creators if, she explains that her decision to move to Paris was inspired in part by her knowledge of James Baldwin’s sojourn to France in 1948 at the age of 23.

She describes her experience as emancipatory in the sense that she was not bound by the demands of an American work ethic, which encourages production and is in many ways stifling to creativity. She drew, then, on a new Black Atlantic landscape that had been shaped by those Black American artists and poets.

Monet also places herself in opposition to Europe by identifying herself as American, more specifically a New Yorker. She explains that her trip abroad was additionally significant in the sense that her bloodline had never been to Europe: “There is something unique about bringing my bloodline places they had never been before;” Monet, in this contemporary moment, then, is also generating a new, deeply personal Black Atlantic landscape and heritage.

Overall Monet’s poetry, like Walcott’s Omeros in some cases, locates beauty, power, and possibility in the Black Atlantic past and I remain curious about its latent political potential. The very tangible and enduring political implications of this past, though, are not lost on Monet. She has used her poetry to raise thousands of dollars for victims of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and is committed to educating a new, politically engaged generation of poets.




[1] Derek Walcott, Omeros, 1990.


Jay Z’s Oceans: Cultural Production, Historical Imaginaries, and Collective Identity

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.