Everyone knows the origin story of jazz, right? The only “true” American musical art form, according to those who presume more than us, simply because they play the trumpet really good.
And that it’s from New Orleans.
Well I’ve got another origin story for you, one that upends everything you ever thought you knew about modern American music, and it goes like this: Forget what you’ve ever heard about South Central L.A. or the outer boroughs of New York City; New Orleans is also the birthplace of rap.
And I’m not talking about bounce and twerking and all the other modern attributes New Orleans has been accorded in recent decades as contributions to the American hip-hop canon.
I am talking about rap. The real and original rap, the scariest music white folks ever heard since the Rolling Stones.
Crazy? Maybe so, but hear me out.
Come back with me 200, even 300 years – centuries years before NWA came straight outta Compton. Consider the existing laws of the time, particularly the Code Noir – the Black Code – a set of guidelines for how white folks were to treat black folks.
Yeah, we needed laws to do that back then.
Due the overwhelming Catholicism of the state legislature, among its tenants of the Code Noir was the prohibition of forcing slaves into the fields of servitude and perdition on any Sunday between noon and sundown.
Thank you, Jesus.
And everyone knows what happened, right? In a little corner of what’s now Armstrong Park, for those six hours of the Sabbath the slaves of our imperfect union would gather and experience the closest notion of freedom most of them would ever know in their lives.
Under tight supervision; make no mistake about that.
They would bring their drums and percussive instruments and they would begin to play repetitive, syncopated rhythms, a mesmerizing and sometimes trance-like backbeat.
And young angry men would strip to their shirtsleeves and begin to make a form of music unfamiliar to anything anyone had at that point ever heard on North American soil.
It was a call and response. They would take to the center of the crowds and would speak, sing and call out to the heavens and the crowd. In a world that held them down and denied their humanity they would speak, sing and chant of their virility, their sexual prowess, their personal power and their social worth.
They would passionately decry the oppressive forces that kept them down, that prevented them from becoming the men in full they deserved to be. And more than anything else, they would claim for themselves what society deprived them of: Dignity, self-value, self-worth and equality of citizenship.
Outside the gates of the park, the suspicious white gentry would witness these frenetic gatherings with a mix of confusion and doubt. On one hand they found the music and its performers to be menacing at least, perhaps dangerous at worst. And they didn’t understand a word of it.
And so we all know the origin story of jazz and its connection to New Orleans. But does anybody know this? That rap music – the birther of hip-hop and bounce and modern soul – was happening on the streets of New Orleans three centuries before Kanye West would tell us that he made it all up?
What is rap music? And where did it come from?
It is the angst- and anger-filled street poetry of young black men stripped to their shirtsleeves accompanied by repetitive, syncopated beats; trance-inducing, in which the performers boast of their sexual prowess and virility, decrying the forces of oppression that keep them down and demanding the manifestation of a society that affords them full dignity, value and worth as human beings.
Sound familiar? It ought to. They have been playing this song in Congo Square for 300 years. And all these years later the white folks are still sitting on the outside with a mix of confusion and doubt.
They find the music to be menacing at least, dangerous at worst. And they still don’t understand a word of it.
But things and people – and music – are so rarely what they seem to be, and more rarely what we believe them to be.
So welcome to New Orleans. The birthplace of jazz. And rap. And so much more.
Baby, can you dig it?