In NYC and its outlying areas during the 70s, 80s, and 90s, youth-centered organizations like The Nation of Gods and Earths1 and the Almighty Universal Zulu Nation placed varying degrees of emphasis on individual betterment. It was assumed that the adoption of healthier eating habits and the pursuit of spiritual enlightenment and intellectual stimulation could undo the damage inflicted on the individual by educational and legal institutions and the mass media. NYC-based rappers borrowed more than colloquial and stylistic elements from these groups. The notion that rapping could be ameliorative, therapeutic, or simply represent a legal form of recreation and/or commerce is partly an attempt to apply core teachings to everyday life.
An even grander notion — that participation in creative activities could reverse the defamation of inner city youths in academic journals, feature films, and hysterical news reports— sprouted from this seed, and certain rappers took it upon themselves to defend and revise the collective’s tarnished image, to testify to a greater self buried under cross-cultural misunderstanding and policies derived from essentialist theories.
Heltah Skeltah’s “Therapy”2 and “Diary of A Madman” by the Gravediggaz3Â both operate under the Fanonian assumption that blacks and their fellow caste minorities are traumatized by the violence of colonialism and racism and that their response to this predicament is typically irrational and self-destructive. Both songs take place in institutional settings that have come to represent gateways to the prison-industrial system for black and Latino males. “Therapy” places its narrator in the office of a menacing psychiatrist who presumes inner-city dysfunction to stem from intrinsic depravity. “Diary Of A Madman” has its narrators Â sending up Christian concepts of sin and punishment and the American legal system, pleading insanity in a courthouse helmed by a judge whose unreflective verdict reveals similarly entrenched racist notions.
In both songs, allegorical narratives of individual suffering illuminate a larger historical plight, provide rationales for antisocial behaviors, and draw attention to a need for programmatic reforms. Heltah Skeltah’s patient (voiced by Rock) quickly catches on to his therapist’s bias and selectively reveals personal information as a kind of calming, healing ritual for his embattled self. The Gravediggaz indulge in unbridled theatrics to depict the horrors of slavery and expose modern institutions that function like plantations and cling to the superstition of white supremacy. In both cases, the underlying message is one that champions subversive thought as a ritualized form of empowerment for the individual entangled in the briar patch4 of urban life. — Thun
- Known colloquially as the Five Percenters. [↩]
- From their 1996 album Nocturnal. [↩]
- From their 1994 album Six Feet Deep. [↩]
- Read more on the symbolic meaning of the briar patch in African-American folklore and in rap music at OhWord. [↩]