WEBEXCLUSIVE

10 Divinations on Hip Hop As Sacred Medicine
Blood Time, Sex Rituals & Ancestral Communion of the Mother Tongue

1. AESTHETIC OF COOL

Sol Sax, "Sol'Saint Jus A Feind Baker,"ÃÂ Medicine from Heaven exhibition. Image courtesy the artist.

Robert Farris Thompson, a strong proponent of the traditional nature of hiphop, has made his life’s work translating African cool into terms acceptable to the ivory tower canon. His conclusions—that African cool entails the high sense of balance and transcendence, and is a sign of positive transition to ideal worlds, leads us to African Art as the ritual marriage of sensuous pleasure and moral responsibility. Essentially, an African image of divinity entails a chilling fusion of formal power and moral astonishment. Artist Sol’Sax explains that in the Congo, music, language, and dance are considered medicine brought down from heaven by an ancestral soul. 

 

2. BLOOD TIME

Blood time, a common expression in the Congo, is certainly a bedfellow of hip-hop. Blood time is latent in the tongue, ultimately released as a song or chant. The mind is considered a core instrument, a player of patterns. A healthy mind is always unlocking new modes of linguistic expression. A good rapper can rhyme syphilis with Tiffany’s. Another phrase common to Congo people is Dikita, which means “a strong heart, a strong mind, beating.” A blood beat is dikita, where the heart and mind synchronize to create art. For African and African American people, art is participatory. As in hip-hop, it entails call and response and its energy moves through the whole clan. The passive state of spectatorship art in the West has come to entail a practice where we mostly fetishize, rather than ritualize, our divine origins—the opposite of blood time and dikita. When one doesn’t participate, but merely receives passively the beat in the ear or eye, the inner pulse of the heart is lacking. Hence Technotronic’s classic rap hook “Pump, pump, pump it up!”

 

3. RAPPER AS CONTEMPORARY GRIOT

Rap is rooted in the West African Griotic tradition, whereby, with biting wit and political commentary, a fleet of praise singers of a socially marginal position control the ebb and flow of the moral boundaries of society. A griot is the repository of the oral tradition of the culture and he pays for his freedom by a marginalization that follows him to the grave, his burial with the regular crust of society being forbidden. In the U.S. hip-hop serves up a similarly metaphysically-inclined insurrectionary knowledge about the status quo of the hood, one that fearlessly pushes its way through music into the consciousness of society whilst barred from other outlets of public circulation such as the news. In Basquiat’s painting Gold Griot, his griot gestures left hand up, right hand down to call on God in a manner which integrates the body, mind, and spirit. The same gesture, one hand up (for lightness, goodness) and one hand down (for darkness, and the underworld) is commonly made by Buddhist and Hindu deities—as above so below is the message. In both hip and hop and Tantric practices, sexuality & violence serve as metaphors in poetic, psycho-spiritual mantras which act quick as lightening on consciousness. These metaphors openly imply a sense of the holiness of everything: ecstasy, libations, prostitutes, prayer, garbage, corpses. Hand gestures, or mudras, are a common feature of most spiritual practices, including hip-hop. Mudras please the deities, tell stories, express emotions, and formalize the identity of the clan.  For the rebel god tribe of rappers known as the Illuzion, their hand symbol in the shape of V// is for mastery, and has become a gesture the squad makes as a sign of their shared commitment to self-discovery and God-consciousness.

 

4. ECSTATIC PERCUSSION AS REBIRTH OF ANCESTRAL POWER

The break beat is the mother pearl of ecstatic communion in hip-hop. Break dancing as combat, dare devil Baroque, a psychosomatic purging acted out in mythologically inclined flashes of spirit. Transcendental drumming on futuristic bombastic jizzuice birthed hip-hop one day in the Bronx of the 1970s when DJ Kool Herc took a conga drum break and extended it across two copies of the same record on two turntables. As one break ended, Herc deftly switched to its beginning on the second record, so that the beat maintained its hypnotic power. Says Afrika Bambaataa, Break music is that certain part of the record that you just be waiting for to come up and when that certain part comes, that percussion part with all those drums, congas, it makes you dance real wild […] That break is so short in the record, you get mad, because the break was not long enough for you to really get down to your thing.” According to Fu-Kiau Bunseki, “Every time there is a break in pattern, that is the rebirth of (ancestral) power. Break patterning suggests spirit-possession. Break drumming directly occasions it.” A dramatic crystallization of transcultural break musics in the Bronx fire-sparked the birth of hip-hop. The break had partially come from the Congo, where ecstatic healers, dancing in trance, were famed for “sending waves” (fila minika).These sharp, sudden pulsations of the shoulder blades, indicating that God was within the dancer, very much resembled the robotic movements of b-boys. In Haiti it was called cassé (break), which described the deliberate disruption of the drumbeat used to throw the dancers into ecstasy. In Cuba, rumba abierta described the point when melodic instrumentation dropped out and conga drums took over. A group dance called the Ring Shout (which like the drum, was banned in the U.S. during slavery for being the major context in which transplanted Africans recognized values common to them) was a major carrier of the sacred medicine still alive and well in today’s hip-hop. The ring shout, like hip-hop, was a distinctive cultural ritual in which music and dance fused again and again. Certain poses of ecstasy, for instance hands raised on high and fingers widespread, were commonly seen in the ring shout dancers of the 19th century and certainly pervade amongst the rap and sports Gods of today. Those in the service of rap fly in and out of worlds, experiencing the immortality of the archetypal realm of gods and goddesses (Gods here serving as powerful personifications of the forces of nature) in the flesh. And lastly, just as shamans are known to use mirrors and shiny objects to attract spirits and lure their audience deep into a mystical, healing experience, in the rap world performers commonly adorn themselves with glittering accoutrements known as bling and ice.

 

5. GENDER BLENDERS, SHAPE-SHIFTERS & TRICKSTER$

Sex-based trance and the healing use of vital sexual energy in dance cohere in shamanic activity, as in hip-hop. In early mythology, male and female divinity were manifest side by side. Man and woman complemented one another, which caused their individual powers to amplify. In most ancient indigenous traditions, divine bisexuality equates to absolute power. These pre-Biblical creation stories, which still saturate our culture on a visual level but were never formally written down, bred societies in which all aspects of human nature, feminine and masculine, were in full creative force. Esu-Elegba, the African Orisha considered “guardian of the crossroads,” “master of style,” and connector of “the grammar of divination with its rhetorical structures,” is the deity most often associated with rappers and has been used to personify both Kanye West and Nicki Minaj. Known to have both male and female incantations, the Trickster is a great teacher and exemplifies the act of borrowing power that crossing gender as a spiritual medium entails. As with what is termed in the West African “possession dance,” during a shamanic journey the shaman is often mounted (sexually) by God or a spirit animal, emerging as the opposite gender or a twin-spirited avatar. With contemporary neo-hip-hop emerging now as a multiracial, queer, and pansexual underground space integrating a kaleidoscope of world views anchored around the ghetto as the locus of rugged anti-authoritarian power and sensuous spiritual pleasure, gender-blending is being better integrated into mainstream discourse around rap with more gay, female, queer, and transgender rappers leading the way. Aesthetic queering of gender boundaries has clearly been a part of hip-hop since its inception. From pretty muthafuckas in cornrows, to Cam’ron’s fleet of fury pink thugglettes, to female MCs adopting hyper-masculine personas in order to enter the male-domain of rap, cultural role reversal remains a hallmark of hip-hop’s subversive style.

 

6. HEART MATH HEALING & THE CYPHER

Sol Sax, Sol'Saint Bob Merrily," Medicine from Heaven exhibition. Image courtesy the artist.

Human beings have been circling up for ritual purposes since the beginning of time. In sacredly geometric circle formations, we drink in the energies of an otherworldly healing vortex, our combined intentions ignited by ritual usher in.  According to heart math, our thoughts and emotions affect the heart’s magnetic field, which ripples out and energetically affects all those beings present in our environment. This echoes the field effect in Quantum Physics whereby a shared energetic field is experienced through resonance in a circle. Embedded into the 5 Percenter religion, which played a major role in early-’90s hip-hop-shaping acts like Nas, rapping in a cipher takes on a practical, spiritual component. For each participant of the cipher, rhyming to the beat is a method used to lay down the path by which one will obtain their Godhead here on earth. In a related Germanic ritual, drinking a horn filled with alcohol is passed around as each person recites a poem, song, or prayer. This European drinking game referred to as “boasting and bragging,” mirrors the African tradition of the same name, black scholars associate with the cultural roots of hip-hop. Bragging, cosigning the psychic storehouse of oral wisdom of the ancestors, was considered yet another link to one’s hereditary line in both Africa and Europe. As rapper Salomon Faye spits on the track Self Reflection, “Word to the wisdom of the Ancients.” Along those same lines Divine ScienZe, another Brooklyn-based act, rhymes, “Man plans, God laughs … We Celebratin’, elevatin’ … This music is ancient.”  For a certain sect of yogis in India and certainly Rastafarianism, wearing dreadlocks (which serve as heavenly antennae inviting “creative game” into the head) and engaging in evolutionary dope smoking rituals guided by the power of the drum and rhythmic speech is a qualifier of the cipher. The ritual lighting of fire, as acknowledged by indigenous cultures throughout the globe that smoke as prayer, results in smoke rising up toward heaven and is considered a major route by which deities received offerings made to them on earth.

 

7. THE GODDESS WAS A BIG BOOTY HOE

The Goddess has always been the inspiration of songs and poetry cross-culturally. Fertility cults, Goddess religions, and peaceful agrarian societies covered the globe for nearly 30,000 years. Women’s bodies are the poetry of the earth—from the booty clapping of orgiastic dance as worship to the ambrosial twat carved into thousands of small idols of cult worship spanning continents. When funk and hip-hop music talk about “getting down,” they mean down to the Africanizing level of the ground, the Mother Earth, our Goddess. A holy trinity was forged in these early earth-based societies where women were the cultivators of grain, to grain as the bounty of the goddess, and to bread as the staff of life. Cakes baked by priestesses were offered to the Goddess during harvest. The hills, rivers, and mountains of a landscape consecrated as sacred were seen as the Great Earth Mother’s Body. When Rockie Fresh raps “We got bitchez, We got cake, Wake up Everyday ‘n’ say, GOD IS GREAT!” he verbally co-signs a primordial folk mythology carried through to this day in the glorified body of the chant. Cake is a ubiquitous qualifier of the female buttocks in black music from James Brown to Cakes da Killa. In today’s hip-hop, cake means both ass and money. In the U.S., it’s no coincidence that sex and money share a metaphor. In the words of Birdman, who put on Lil Wayne, “We grind for the shine nigga getting’ big money. Got a fleet tossin’ chicken nigga get cake.” As Samuel A. Floyd articulates, in agrarian societies like Africa where the whole community was needed to accomplish labor in intense heat, music and the female body in visual orbit “encourag[ed] and eroticiz[ed] participation by all present.” When ThePartyNextDoor sings, “Girl your ass is so instrumental,” his words venerate the female body as erotic stimuli fueling the workday as primordial ritual. Despite its erasure from most Christianized European lore, food-sex-earth is a prevalent triple metaphor of Black music that harkens back to the creation stories of all humanity. Hip-hop serves female divinity on a silver platter through its marriage of rap and stripper culture in the South. As visual artist Marcia Jones has articulated in her “Displaced Oshun” theory, the way rappers worship the female body in strip clubs resembles the way men of the Vodun religion pray at the foot of an altar. Literally putting money down, says Marcia, “they ma[ke] it rain on these muthafuckin altars.” In Europe, the Black Madonna, one iteration of the Earth Goddess, continued to be worshipped in secret by the initiates of mystery schools well after idols of her likeness were banned by the Ten Commandments. European sites of worship of the Black Madonna to this day are still associated with political unrest. In “Looking Ass Nigga,” Nicki Minaj channels Black Creator/Destroyer Goddess Kali, a Hindu expression of the Earth Goddess, whose pendulous breasts, garlands of skulls, and blood-thirsty ways characterize her as the Mother of all Humanity in India. Kali was likewise epitomized as a symbol of sex, destruction, and darkness by early British Colonists who coined the term “Thug” to describe her worshippers. For her album Anaconda, Nicki poses in “birthing mother” position characteristic of idols used in ancient fertility cults. A classic stance of African dance, what we call in yoga Goddess Pose, and in hip-hop twerking, idols of this figuration have been found in abundance in Native American, African, Mexican, Central, South American, and Pacific Island cultures. The power of these idols and this pre-Biblical time was that religion was personal. When ancients held small idols of worship, they became one with the astral form of the Earth Goddess keyed into the statuette.

 

8. WORDS WEAVE THE WORLD

Illuzion V//. Photo: Ki Smith. Courtesy: Illuzion Ent.

The nation language of hip-hop, an earth-based wisdom vernacular, has many links to shamanic dialects from around the world. Hip-hop now being a global phenomenon, indigenous people from far reaches of the globe are blending their traditional forms of praise dance and sacred speech with contemporary hip-hop swagger. The mimicking of animal sounds such as growls or bird calls (fused now with sounds of the concrete jungle and galactic high notes) still factors prominently into the call-and-response, cross-rhythmic, and poly-rhythmic flows of rap. Logos, creation by word, is considered a prominent part of most religions in existence to this day. In Egypt we have Words on Power, and in Yoruban society, the term Emperor translates loosely to “Living Word.” The linguistic root of Tantra “tan,” means “to weave or stretch.” Tan describes the “weaving” of words by visionary poets who composed the sacred texts known as the Vedas with threads of words as if on a loom. In yoga we say Mantrayana (mantra vehicle), and consider chanting and mantra meditation the fastest way to open the heart center and connect to all that is. Singing brings chi into the belly. Om, considered “the supreme syllable, the mother of all sound” was the Great Hindu Goddess’s tool of creation. She invented the Sanskrit alphabet letters, which were called matrika “mothers.” Om is the mantra-matrika, the Mother of Mantras, the first of all creative spells spoken by the Goddess to bring the world into being. The meaning of Om was something like “pregnant belly,” and equated the female body and the earth as the temple of life. In hip-hop we might see this expressed as: WORD, WORD UP, WORD TO THE MOTHER. Or as Kanye West puts it, who, like Drake, is known for his mama anthems, “Your love is my scripture.”

 

9. SPIRITUAL HEDONISM PREDATES RELIGIOUS MORALITY

Just as fertility and sexual prowess are central values of African life, sexual metaphor and ritual was the backbone of all ancient agrarian societies. Sex-based religion, in which sex rituals were performed by the high priests and priestesses of the community throughout the ancient world, integrated male and female, earth and sky, and human and animal energies. To this day, spiritual leaders—from rappers to religious initiates of the highest ranks—speak in sexual metaphors igniting the mythopoesia synaesthesia of our earliest cultural roots. When we delve into neo-shamanic subcultures like hip-hop or tantra, we assume that our animal drive to experience pleasure isn’t a barrier to our spiritual growth, but is essential to it. In a postmodern landscape, these contemporary forms bind sex and spirituality, hedonism and transcendence, the sacred and profane, consumer capitalism and mystical ecstasy. Mother Mary, despite having been fully neutered and white-washed, has carried the torch of the divine feminine within Christian patriarchal religion. The ubiquity of her image, whose likeness comes from Isis, Queen Goddess of Egypt, far surpasses that of any male divinity including Christ. Mother Mary’s cult following suggests that latent Goddess worship still factors heavily into our Christianized, colonialized psyches. Like female images, male images of the sacred have been severely distorted by patriarchal culture. Isis had a male consort, Osiris, whom she deeply loved and embodied at times. Male wildness, exuberance, eroticism, and animal energy have been distorted to be identified with the Devil. The color black, now associated with death or evil in Christian iconography, was the color of fertility and the soil in old Europe. White was the color of bones and death. Just as hip-hop is traced back to ancient African agrarian societies that honored sexual prowess as holy, the indigenous of India, the Americas, Egypt, and many parts of the globe anchored their religious practices around the reproductive powers of nature. Worship of the Earth, imagined in female form and always dancing with the masculine, was tied to the powers of sexuality, of yin and yang as eternal life balance.

 

10. VERNACULAR SPEECH AS UNIVERSAL MOTHER TONGUE

Katie Cercone, "Uttanapad." 650CE goddess idol, India v. Nicki Minaj. Anaconda cover art. Image: Katie Cercone.

African life and community use ritual to preserve, naturalize, and nurture what we in the Western world know as art. Cultural rituals integrating dance, drum, and song symbolize intercourse between the material and spiritual realms. Most white Americans lack a culture that is still tied to the earth and its rhythms. Often, whites turn to people of color whose seemingly more preserved or more “vital” traditions offer oceanic and ecstatic experiences for the taking. Essentially, alienated Europeans search for a displaced part of themselves that has been culturally projected onto the “Other” by the colonial imaginary. Blacks, Latinos, East Asians, and other minorities engaged in the same process of seeking out their roots go through the reverse. Drawn to Voodoo, Santeria, Yoga, Candomblé, and Yoruban religion—they find that everywhere, these practices are mixed heavily with Roman Catholicism, Christianity, and the ideologies of colonial oppression. Hip-hop, a folk art of the United States, has likewise been twisted, perverted to serve motives of profit and greed. Shamanism, hip-hop, and Tantra have become considerably fluid categories shaped by post-colonial dialogue, spoon-fed to the masses and always hyped up by the threat of moral contagion. Tantra in vernacular languages normally conjures up associations with black magic, immorality, and illicit sexuality. Tantrics are low-brow, “the folk” within the context of their Indian social milieu. At the margins of Hindu and Buddhist traditions, Tantric spirituality is a non-elite “mother tongue” expressed in the crudest vernacular when compared to the elitist and patriarchal Sanskrit. To mention Tantra to many Indian people causes responses such as “oooph!” and “Ma go!” (literally, “Oh mother!). Like rap’s use of slang and black vernaculars, Tantric languages are considered profane, and find their power in that shock value. From the margins of society these sacred folk arts serve as a renegade mirror to the status quo. Today when we address the governing myths and symbols of popular culture—titts and ass, bad bitches and low down dirty dawgs, cougars and lambs, pimps and hoez, mammies and madonnas, thugs, warriors, vixens, kings, and queens—we must consider them in relationship to both ancient, life-giving God and Goddess archetypes as well as to living, historically situated human beings. Human beings have survived the onslaught of racial science, sexism, colonial-imperialism, rape, and genocide as well as the consciousness industries of late-capitalism. Now more than ever, we need rituals that harness and focus the energies of the people so we can act as a transcontinental community. Music and dance connect us to our right brain, what Starhawk calls the holistic, intuitive “starlight” mode of unconscious knowing. Through hip-hop we experience living myths that have been harnessed by mediums, seers, and poets. Their words and symbols serve as springboards into oceanic experience for the masses, today’s rappers are avatars engaged in the deep work of universalizing vision.



BIBLIOGRAPHY

“Medicine from Heaven,” Sol’Sax in conversation with Danny Simmons, July 19, 2014, Bedford Stuyvesent Restoration, Bedstuy, Brooklyn, NY.

The Power of Black Music Samuel A. Floyd, Jr. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Aesthetic of Cool: Afro-Atlantic Art and Music  Robert Farris Thompson, New York: Periscope Publishing, 2011.

In the Realm of the Diamond Queen, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Displaced Oshun Theory,” Maria Jones, Artist talk, posted by the MEKtext Network on Vimeo.com, October 17, 2013.

“Bring it to the Cypher: Hip Hop Nation Language,” Kamua Brathwaite quoted in H. Samy Alim, THAT’S THE JOINT: The Hip Hop Studies Reader Murray Forman & Mark Anthony Neal, Eds., New York: Routledge, 2011.

TANTRA: Sex, Secrecy, Politics, and Power in the Study of Religion Hugh B. Urban, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

The Once and Future Goddess: A Sweeping Visual Chronicle of the Sacred Female and Her Reemergence in the Cultural Mythology of Our Time Elinor W. Gadon, New York: HarperCollins, 1989.

Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America Today Margot Adler, Boston: Beacon Press, 1979.

The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess, StarHawk, San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1979.

The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects, Barbara G. Walker, San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1988.

The Woman in the Shaman’s Body, Barbara Tedlock, Ph.D. New York: Bantam Books, 2005.

The Language of the Goddess, Marija Gimbutas, New York: Thames and Hudson, 1989.

Contributor

Katie Cercone

KATIE CERCONE is a visual artist, critical writer, yogi and co-leader of the transnational, queer feminist collective Go! Push Pops. Find her at KatieCercone.com and on twitter @KatieCercone

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