Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Aaron McGruder & the Kitchen Sink; or notes on Hip Hop Aesthetics

If you ever get the time and energy to read through all of Aaron McGruder's comic strips and Ta-Nehisi Coates's entries at The Atlantic (and even just 1/4 of the comments sections), you'll encounter references to dozens of political figures (current and historical), black studies principles, popular culture, the Civil War, Star Wars, Trayvon Martin, Diddy, the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, MF Doom, DuBois, Peanuts, CTE, you name it. In short, taken together, McGruder and Coates have thrown in just about everything but the kitchen sink.

There are likely multiple ways to account for their tendency to cover such a wide range of topics. I propose that one way to read them, though, is as practitioners as hip hop aesthetics, which in this case includes more than just references to the music. In the case of Coates and McGruder, hip hop provided a model for engaging and at the same time mixing and matching all kinds of source materials.

McGruder, born in 1974, and Coates, born in 1975, both of whom grew up in Maryland, were in their teens listening to rap during hop hop's golden age. In The Boondocks, McGruder often critiqued contemporary rap, and more specifically, he regularly ridiculed and parodied rappers for falling away from the principles of conscious hip hop. Coates often reflects on the positive lessons he gained from the music. There's this one moment in his memoir The Beautiful Struggle where Coates notes that "I was twelve, but when I heard 'Lyrics of Fury' ... I put away childish things, went to the notebook, and caged myself between the blue lines."             

Beyond the musical references however, McGruder's and Coates's works displayed hip hop aesthetics based on their fondness for digging in the crates, so to speak, of popular culture, historical, and African American discourses as they weaved together a multitude of relatively short takes. Like most artists and perhaps like most people,  Coates and McGruder had various childhood interests. As Coates noted in an article on McGruder published in July of 1999, The Boondocks creator is "a cat who was in love with Dungeons & Dragons" and "a fan of Marvel comic books" who "calls Star Wars his earliest creative influence."

Taking a cue from hip hop artists, McGruder and Coates found creative ways to incorporate their many interests, critiques, and influences, including rap music, into their writings. Given the serialized nature of their work and their prolific production, they created two of the largest, most eclectic bodies of works by African Americans produced in high profile venues during these early years of the 21st century.

A Golden Age of Inspiration for Black Men Writers, 1977 - 1997

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