Defying Double Consciousness through Musical Expression

The United States is composed of an eclectic group of cultures, each thriving in its own way. One of the most influential cultures in America is black culture. Black culture dates back to slavery when slaves would sing songs while they worked in the fields. Since then, black culture has grown and shaped America in various ways such as language, fashion and music.

Music particularly has influenced black culture. From the days of the slaves, to blues and soul in the early 1900s, to modern hip-hop, music has been a form of expression for the black community. Du Bois emphasizes the importance of the songs the slaves sang for “these songs [were] the articulate message of the slave world”(Du Bois, 207). Without these songs, the slaves would not have been able to preserve their culture and express their values due to the oppressive conditions society imposed upon them. Additionally, in the early 1900s, Billie Holiday used her music to express her dismay during a time when blacks were mistreated. In her song, “Strange Fruit”, Holiday sings about African Americans that were lynched on trees, specifically in the South. Her line “black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze” draws attention to the brutality blacks were facing at the time (Holiday). “Strange Fruit” received substantial amounts of attention because it openly expressed the horrors of society blacks were experiencing at the time, which were unfortunately some issues black culture had to face.

Due to the issues faced in black culture, there exists a feeling of what Du Bois refers to as “double consciousness”. Double consciousness is “the sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others” (Du Bois, 5). In other words, double consciousness is allowing others, or society, to define who you are as an individual. It is not uncommon to be consumed by social norms and lose sight of one’s individual personality. Successful hip-hop dancer Duane Holland uses music to inspire his dance moves. Through his dances, he is able to express himself as an individual, defying double consciousness and push his boundaries instead of taking what society has given him. Through his ability to choreograph his own dance moves, he is expressing his individuality, therefore defying double consciousness. Not only does music help Holland with expression, but it is also a way in which the community can come together (Holland). The issue of double consciousness is present in the slave song, “Strange Fruit”, and Holland’s dances because of the poor, violent conditions blacks constantly face and these artists ability to defy it by expressing their individuality. With the help of music, it is easier to preserve individuality through the art of expression.

Black culture is also expressed in the music produced today. Wiz Khalifa embodies the idea of double consciousness in his song “Medicated” through his personal experience and how he eventually defied it. Artists who have grown up in a more difficult environment, such as poverty or violence, take the opportunity of turning their experiences into music as Khlifa does. Although music has changed over the centuries, Khalifa’s song “Medicated” conveys the same struggles blacks face and express in their music because while some struggles have changed, others have not over the years.

Khalifa was born into a military family in the city of Minot, North Dakota. His parents divorced when he was three years old. Because of the military life style, his family moved often until finally settling in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania where he attended high school. At the early age of nine, Khalifa discovered his love for music and began writing his own lyrics (Mead).

Khalifa’s song “Medicated”, tells the story of a black boy growing up in a rough environment, dreams of eventually becoming successful. The song starts with the lyric “back when I was young, I had dreams of getting richer” then progresses into a bitter tone in saying “cause most n***** never make it they standing where I’m from”(Khalifa). The innocence Khalifa experiences as a child allows him to have big dreams, but once he is introduced to the stereotypes of society, it becomes harder for him to envision himself achieving these dreams. Stereotypes are part of what double consciousness is, in that it is how other people view you as an individual. It is clear that the environment in which Khalifa grew up in was not ideal and because of the influence of society, he was pressured to believe that he might not achieve his dream. Through out the song Khalifa raps about the effect his surroundings had on him such as “ain’t no conversation all they understand is get a gun”(Khalifa), they meaning the black people, which illustrates the violence he grew up in and experienced. He also repeats the line “I’m from straight up off the corner”(Khalifa), which calls forth an image of someone living in poor conditions. This line is particularly striking because of the repetition and the subtle, but sends the powerful message of success, as he is “straight up off the corner”, but now is a successful rapper. By the end of the song this lyric allows the listener to truly understand his success in contrast to where he came from originally.

He also sings of the importance of family and community, which is valued in black culture. Toward the end of the song, Khalifa raps about when his cousin dies and how he wishes he could “bring [him] off the street”(Khalifa). This line not lonely indicates the violence he suffered, but also the love he felt for his cousin and the community aspect of black culture. It is often perceived by present day Americans, that the majority of Africa Americans live in this violent type of setting and have a more difficult time finding their way out (of the neighborhood). Often times African Americans will express their desire to get off the streets. However, Khalifa’s lyrics suggest that he felt as though society imposed these particular living conditions on him. Because he was able to recognize that society was imposing upon his own individuality, he was able to overcome double consciousness and see his own potential. Khalifa indicates that those who do not approve of him, otherwise known as haters, have little effect on his life.

Khalifa’s song “Medicated” illustrates how he was able to overcome his own double consciousness imposed on him by society and view himself as an individual and become the artist he wanted to be. He is simply expressing himself and the experience of many other African Americans through his music. The song ends with the lines “ridin’ down the street way I’m grinding is unique”(Khalifa), demonstrating how Khalifa is able to stay true to his own personal identity and not view himself through the eyes of others. Khalifa’s lyrics indicate his pride in the positive situation he has achieved over the years. He was able to over come the stereotypes of society and remain who he wanted to be, feeding his individuality through his music.

In addition, the progression of the song embodies double consciousness in that Khalifa in his younger years was in fact influenced by the ideas of society. He mentions how difficult it is to make it off the streets, which are the common view of those in higher classes in society, on the black population. For a while he is blinded by the way other people look at him and lives in the stereotypical way society expects. The initial lyrics to the song embody double consciousness; however, by the end of the song he makes it clear he was able to begin to see himself through his own eyes and not allow social norms to influence him. This is Khalifa’s way of overcoming double consciousness and remaining his own individual. Khalifa knew he had a passion for music, but it took him time before he was able to discover his individuality.

Similar to the Sorrow Songs and “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday, Wiz Khalifa sings of the struggles he had to face in his life. The challenges he was presented with are similar to the challenges other blacks must face. Like the slaves and Holiday, Khalifa uses music to express himself and send the message of the black community into society. In each generation a new type of music is used to express the same message of struggle in black culture. In Ta-Neshisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me, he mentions that struggles, despite reforms, have not changed. He talks about how his son suffers from the same challenges he suffered as a child and teenager, regardless of all the changes that have been made to improve them (Coates 21). The challenges society has imposed on the black community continue to impact their lives. Music can be considered as a kind of coping strategy for dealing with these issues. Many of the different conflicts the black community faces are illustrated in the music they produce and perform. It is a way in which they can defy double consciousness and identify with themselves as both individuals and a community. Music provides a chance for expression, with this it is easier to see through double consciousness and see personal individuality through the eyes of the individual and not through the eyes of society.

Music is a key aspect in culture that shapes the ways in which the black community can express themselves. However, in society today it is difficult to over come the way others see you and remain an individual. Wiz Khalifa’s song “Medicated” illustrates his own personal struggle with double consciousness, but how he was eventually able to over come it. Through the use of music, the black community is able to express their culture.

 

 

 

Works Cited

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. New York, New York: Spiegal & Grau, 2015. Print.

Wiz Khalifa. Medicated. , 2012.

Mead, Wendy. “Wiz Khalifa Biography.” The Biography.com website. Web. <http://www.biography.com/people/wiz-khalifa-012916&gt;.

The Souls of Black Folk. Chicago: A. C. McClurg & Co., 1903. Print.

Billie Holiday. Strange Fruit. , 1939.

 

Duane Dancing Reel. Anonymous Prod. Holland Duane Lee. 2008.

 

 

 

Advertisements

Freedom in Dance

Duane Lee Holland is not only passionate about dance; he is passionate about the message behind it as well. Performing in front of students at Colgate University, he emphasizes major points regarding the freedoms of dance and individual. His brief history pertaining to hip-hop provides insight to its African roots. In the language used in West Africa, “hippy” means “knowledgeable” or “conscience” and “hop” literally means dance. This is very telling and can relate directly to some of W.E.B. Du Bois’ writing in Souls of Black Folk. In his writing, Du Bois emphasizes the importance of great success. For example, in the chapter “Of The Training of Black Men”, Du Bois supports that if a white man has access to a higher education so too should a black man. Education should be made available to those who work for it, regardless of race. The meaning behind the word “hip hop” does a good job encompassing this. Since it means knowledgeable dance, those who dance clearly have the ability to understand how the movement works. According to Holland hip-hop “is a universal thing.” Du bois argues that education should be viewed in the same way. Hip-hop is not restricted to one race and neither should education. Additionally, Holland emphasizes the importance of not allowing others to define who you are as a person. Du Bois talks a lot about a veil being placed over black people. This veil is a symbol of the view society had on the African Americans and possibly even some African Americans themselves. Some may have let society define them, especially in the oppressive time they lived in. In a sense, Holland was encouraging the students of Colgate to refuse to allow the veil to cover them. Holland also highlighted how important it is to not be satisfied with what we are given. It is important to strive for great things and always push for the next best thing, which is exactly what Du Bois was pushing for in his writing. One thing that was interesting about Holland’s performance is he mentioned a few times that there were some words in the hip-hop culture that were misused. This made me personally realize that not everything is what people make it seem. Some labels are misused, for example, “break-dancing” is not actually called “break-dancing”, but rather “breaking”. This is important because it shows that society can use a label that is not accurate, and often times it does. In this video, throughout it is seen that when Holland is dancing, there are always people around, helping him in his moves and supporting him.

During his performances he reiterated the importance of support from both the audience and the dancers.  This support in true in society as well.  Du Bois single handedly could not gain equal rights for all African Americans, he needed support from those who would help.  Social support is important in defining who an individual is to give them strength to be who they want.  After reading Du Bois and viewing Holland’s performance, it is clear the importance of being able to think for oneself and not allow anyone/anything to define you.

Work Cited