By Kenton Rambsy
In “Public Service Announcement” Jay-Z raps, “Check out my hat yo, peep the way I wear it/Check out my swag' yo, I walk like a ballplayer.”
Jay-Z’s reference to “Swag” has deeper cultural roots for African Americans. Even though the word “swag” has been made wildly popular by rappers in recent years, back in 1934, Zora Neale Hurston was already theorizing about this concept in her essay “Characteristics of Negro Expression.” In Hurston’s essay, she explains the distinct ways that black people have come to articulate and dramatize their lives through storytelling and other artistic practices such as negro folklore, imitation, and dialect.
Similar to Jay-Z telling his listening audiences to “check out my swag’ yo,” Hurston noted the importance of a presence and persona as she explained:
Who has not observed a robust young Negro chap posing upon a street corner, possessed of nothing but his clothing, his strength and his youth? Does he bear himself like a pauper? No, Louis XIV could be no more insolent in his assurance. His eyes say plainly “Female, halt!” His posture exults “Ah, female, I am the eternal male, the giver of life. Behold in my hot flesh all the delights of this world. Salute me, I am strength.” All this with a languid posture, there is no mistaking his meaning.Here, Hurston provides a description of what we know as “Swag.” Swag is defined by the clothes a person wears, the way a person walks, the words a person uses to express him or herself, as well as the respect other people attribute to them. Despite 78 years between their birthdates, Jay-Z and Zora Neale Hurston, in terms of artistry, may not be so different. Hurston’s 1934 essay has significance even in today’s culture as her work demonstrates how the space between black writers of the Harlem Renaissance and present-day popular culture may actually not be so far.
Because of the importance of Hurston’s essay in helping to make crucial connections across generations of black writing and performance culture, I invite readers to help me annotate Hurston’s essay on RapGenius.
Kenton Rambsy is a graduate student at the University of Kansas. He writes about African American artistic culture and digital humanities.
• A Notebook on RapGenius