Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Toward a Recent Intellectual History of Consciousness in Rap: The Case of Jay Electronica

After getting kicked out of his first-year of college, a young man named Timothy Thedford was back in his hometown of New Orleans by the fall of 1995. That's when he, like a large number of brothers across the country, was becoming aware of an upcoming rally of one million black men to take place in the nation’s capitol.

"I didn’t really know who Louis Farrakhan was," said Thedford. "I was raised in a Baptist church."

He would've remained disinterested, but then something happened. "All these pastors from the churches, whether they were black or white. On the radio they was saying [Farrakhan] was the Antichrist and he was the devil. I’m like, 'Who is this dude?'"

Long story short, Thedford became curious, and after coming in contact with a Muslim promoting the historic gathering, he purchased a ticket for the March and attended on October 16 in Washington, D.C. Inspired by what he saw that day, he later moved to Chicago to join the Nation of Islam (NOI).

He stayed in the NOI for a year or so before leaving the Midwest, but not before moving up to the ranks to lieutenant and learning quite a bit about the Koran and the group's teachings. To be fair, he had likely picked up quite a bit of religious learning by attending Catholic schools during his youth in New Orleans.

But the NOI influence gave him something else, a link to that brand of streetwise "consciousness" that has been circulating since the Panthers and Black Arts. Since Malcolm. Since Garvey. Since D. Walker was pushing that lil pamphlet and cats were encoding messages in those spirituals.

When Thedford, now widely known by his stage name Jay Electronica, released “Exhibit C” in late December 2009, the evidence of a new conscious rapper was on full display. The lyrical and storytelling dexterity were there. He was apparently versed in and capable of dropping rhymes about black history, Christian and Islamic ideas, and the knowledge of Five-Percenters.

The blend and display of Nation of Islam and Five-Percenter ideologies in conscious rap have been around since way back. Rakim. Big Dadddy Kane. Poor Righteous Teachers. Wu Tang. Nas. And so it is now with Jay Elect.

Just as the King James Bible provides (literary) poets with a broad body of symbols, narratives, names, and points of reference, the principles and sayings of Five-Percenter ideology have long offered rappers an expansive framework for “dropping science” in their music.


There's definitely more to say about the intellectualism of Jay Elect and more broadly, much to be said about the growth of consciousness among young black men at certain points in their lives.  So, I'll collect, think, and write more later.

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