Alyssa B. – Watch the Throne: Framing Black Artistic Success in America (Essay)

Posted on August 27, 2012 by


As our site’s motto suggests, we believe that hip hop is more than music.  It incorporates a genre of music but further stems out to almost every facet of life to represent a culture within its self. With that in mind, we try to promote more than music at Da-What and want to include anything that contribute’s to hip hop’s culture, the discussion and its practice. My girlfriend Alyssa wrote an interesting essay that I feel very lucky to share with everyone.  It is both entertaining and, more importantly, educating; something I hope can spark a real discussion. The topic includes Kanye and Jay-Z’s latest album Watch the Throne and how it lives up to and contradicts the many viewpoints set out during the Harlem Renaissance.  She argues that the poets, scholars and artists set forth many mindsets that can still be found today in framing how African-Americans strive for and achieve success.  I won’t say too much though, you guys NEED to read this and let us know what you think!  It would be great if we could get a discussion going!!

The term “Harlem Renaissance” refers to the explosion of Negro art, in the form of literature, poetry, music, and visual art born of the simultaneously intellectual and basally indulgent black community of Harlem, NY in the 1920’s and 30’s. As the works of black artists gained notoriety among both Negro and white communities, intellectual debate from Renaissance leaders ensued as to just how blacks should approach their induction to artistic and scholarly realms while living amongst a predominately white society that regarded them exotic at best, usually inferior, and abominable at worst.  Unlike some artistic episodes, whose fuzzy forms only become sharp in history’s retrospect, the actors of the Harlem Renaissance were acutely conscious of the trajectory and implications of the movement in which they participated.  Indeed, the writings of Langston Hughes, George Schuyler, W.E.B. Du Bois and others necessarily discussed the emergence of Negro art in relation to the white hegemony their race struggled to most effectively engage with (or disengage from, in some cases).

            Today, nearly a century later, several forms of African-American art have found decided success, as measured by their cultural pervasion and popularity.  Hip-hop is an obvious example, and has particularly inherited the Harlem Renaissance’s legacy of self-awareness.  Hip-hop houses several concerted approaches to its advancement as a black art, some of which evince the “vernacular” and the stereotypical lifestyles of poor, urban black communities, while others, self-labeled as “conscious,” often try to disassociate blackness from crime, drugs, poverty, and other stereotypical negative qualities.  In this way, hip-hop demonstrates that African-American artists still intentionally frame their creations in relation to a real or perceived white hegemony, continuing to actively engage with the same themes as Negro artists during the Harlem Renaissance.  Jay-Z and Kanye West’s 2011 seminal hip-hop album Watch the Throne (hereafter, WTT) serves as a lens through which to view African Americans’ contemporary examination of the persistent questions addressed by Harlem Renaissance intellectuals of the 1920’s and 30’s.

Rappers, producers, and entrepreneurs Jay-Z and Kanye have inarguably achieved economic success, whether by white or black criteria, and most would place them at or near the apex of the hip-hop community (“Rolling Stone”).  Both artists have been featured on more than one Fortune 500 list, both have earned their wealth legally, and no evidence foresees their downfall.  Last August, the two released WTT, a collaborative and introspective album that depicts their coming to terms with such undisputed success.  That these top black artists chose to set aside their booming solo careers in order to work together is unprecedented, and indicates their belief in the importance of what the album would discuss. Throughout the project, the artists still frame their achievements in relation to white Americans.  In “Otis,” WTT’s fourth track, Jay-Z raps, “Drivin’ Benz’s, wit no benefits/Not bad, huh? For some immigrants/Build your fences, we diggin’ tunnels/Can’t you see we gettin’ money up under you?”  Though Jay-Z and Kanye have come to artistic success largely independent from any immediate white control, they still feel their achievements have been made in spite of some greater infrastructure meant to work against them.  “Diggin’ tunnels” alludes to the Underground Railroad, likening their journey to fame and fortune to the African-Americans’ journey from slavery.  Thus their assertion of success is a defensive one, evidencing that black artists still grapple with their relationship to whites.

In fact, one of the main questions addressed by essays on Negro art from the Harlem Renaissance is whether or not such art necessarily be recognized as “black” art, rather than as white or anonymous art.  In a chapter of his 1940 autobiography entitled “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” Langston Hughes responds to an up-an-coming young writer who bemoans, “I want to be a poet—not a Negro poet” (Levering Lewis, 91). According to Hughes’ explication, the poet’s statement epitomizes the African-American’s desire to be indistinguishable from his white counterparts, both in the artistic works he produces and even further, as a human individual.  This, he says, is because middle to high-class Negroes have been taught from a young age that whiteness represents all that is good, desirable and successful, where blackness represents the opposite.  Indeed, in Hughes’ era the most likely and frictionless method for an African-American to achieve success and acceptance was by eschewing his own culture and instead mimicking that of Caucasians.  Hughes, however, strongly objected to this avenue of advancement, and advised that Negro artists must be taught to embrace, cultivate, and proudly claim their own unique beauty, regardless of whether it was appreciated by white or even black audiences.  He prophesized that true, great, and unashamed Negro art would most probably come from the poorer classes, whose members lacked fear or apology for their heritage (Levering Lewis, 91-92).  In Hughes’ words, “An artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must also never be afraid to do what he might choose” (Levering Lewis, 95).  Hughes thought that a black artist should create as he pleased, without respect to any audience’s wishes, but that truly great Negro art would proudly assert its blackness.

In seeming accordance with Hughes’ philosophy, WTT unabashedly and intentionally labels itself as a “black” product.  While the album is thickly threaded with references to blackness both as a color and a race, Jay-Z displays particular ownership of and pride in his skin color during the track “Murder to Excellence.”  He raps, “It’s a celebration of black excellence/black tie, black Maybachs/Black excellence, opulence, decadence/Tuxes next to the President, I’m present,” and later, “All black, I love us” (Track 10).  The rapper describes the quality of blackness as deserving of even the most excessive riches.  Jay-Z also places his own success within the larger context of America’s recent election of its first black president, an overarching landmark in the scheme of African-American progress.  With the statement, “I love us,” Jay-Z embraces all those who are black, by virtue only of their skin color, implying that blackness alone is a valuable quality.

Kanye, who outside of WTT is notorious for his brazen and racially charged comments in favor of black people, addresses the subject more cynically[1].  During the track “New Day,” in which both artists speak to and about their respective unborn sons, Kanye raps, “And I’ll never let my son have a ego/He’ll be nice to everyone wherever we go/I might just make him be Republican/So everybody know he love white people/Just want him to have a easy life, not like Yeezy life” (Track 6).  Initially these lines appear to be in opposition to Hughes’ approach, as they depict a future child who will be taught to cater to Caucasian preferences.  However, they are said with a certain degree of sarcasm, and are meant to recognize that Kanye’s history of outspoken and prideful blackness has been met with considerable controversy from both white and black onlookers.  Kanye insinuates that he is a black individual with an ego, a sense of self-esteem, and as such has not been able to stop himself from defending his fellow African-Americans, in somewhat sideways displays of black pride.

Kanye’s lines also hint at Hughes’ opinions on racial audiences and their receptivity to black art, a theme amply addressed by WTT.  Hughes contends that Negro artists should not be concerned with how blacks or whites respond to their products (Levering Lewis, 95), and while Kanye and Jay-Z seem not to care in the slightest about white audiences, they do seem invested in what black listeners make of their success.  In the song “Gotta Have It” both artists trade off lines in a conversational rap that reads,

K: Last party we had they shut down Prive.

J: Ain’t that where The Heat play?

K: Yep.

J: Niggas hate ballers these days.

K: Ain’t that like LeBron James?

J: Ain’t that just like D Wade? (Track 5)

 With these lines the two musicians reference and liken themselves to Miami’s NBA team, The Heat, who in the off-season of 2010 secured All Star players Chris Bosh, LeBron James, and Dwayne Wade (all of whom are black) amidst an administrative and fan uproar that the team would be unfairly “stacked.”  The lines describe a common phenomenon in which black audiences tend to be resentful of copious success and wealth, even when it falls into the hands of other blacks.  Kanye and Jay-Z express exasperation at this response to their achievements.

At times, Jay-Z attempts to win over a spiteful black audience, by inviting them to share in his success.  In the track “Murder to Excellence” he raps,

            This is to the memory of Danroy Henry[2]

            Too much enemy fire to catch a friendly

            Strays from the same shade, Nigga we on the same team

            Giving you respect, I expect the same thing

            All black everything, Nigga you know my fresh code

            I’m out here fightin’ for you, don’t increase my stressload

            Niggas watchin’ the throne, very happy to be here

            Power to the people, when you see me, see you. (Track 10)

Here Jay-Z reminds his fellow African-Americans that they are too importantly pitted against white people to also be pitted against one another.  He offers respect and camaraderie to all blacks, and sees them as shareholders in his success.  He hopes that his stature will translate to those blacks that listen to him.

Other Harlem Renaissance intellectuals, like George Schuyler, stood in opposition to Hughes’ belief that Negro artists should proudly recognize their uniqueness from white artists, and would have rejected WTT’s overt ownership of blackness.  In his essay The Negro Art Hokum,” written and published in 1926, Schuyler argued that because the differences in skin color used as the basis for race are strictly superficial, black art is in no way innately different from that produced by whites—if white people had been put in a similar situation, involving forced immigration, slavery and oppression, according to Schuyler, they too would have produced identical or at least similar art forms.  Furthermore, he believed that if art produced by Negroes continued to be identified as specifically “black,” it would continue to be perceived by whites as “folksy.”  This term was, more often than not, a euphemism for inferiority.  Whites, in turn, would be cajoled by a paradigm that rendered Negro art as subordinate to their own (Levering Lewis, 97-99).  Instead, Schuyler contended that behind black skin, Negroes were “just plain American” (Levering Lewis 97), and their art should be advanced as such; anything else would only exacerbate current race relations.

Part of Schuyler’s justification for this assertion was his conviction that whites and blacks share a comparable experience in America.  He says, “Again, the Africamerican is subject to the same economic and social forces that mold the actions and thoughts of the white Americans. He is not living in a different world as some whites and a few Negroes would have us believe.” (Levering Lewis, 97-98)  Schuyler failed to acknowledge that blacks face any greater barriers to success, economic or otherwise, than do white people.  And even disregarding matters of equality, he didn’t believe that the Negro’s life experience was importantly different from that of white people either.

Such a perspective contradicts not only the opinions of other Renaissance writers, but also that of Jay-Z and Kanye in WTT.  Jay-Z and Kanye acknowledge the existence of racially affiliated barriers, especially those economic, in a manner reminiscent of W.E.B. Du Bois in his 1926 essay, The Criteria of Negro Art.  Du Bois argues that all individuals must overcome challenges to their success, but that those for black individuals living in America are greatly compounded by especial social and economic hindrances (Levering Lewis, 102).  Du Bois illustrates his argument via the depiction of a young black girl in possession of exceptional artistic talent, but who is barred from any reputable art school.  The girl could very well succeed by forcing her way through a system that rejects her, but the likelihood that a black girl has exceptional artistic talent as well as the tenacity needed to “beat through doors” is all the more slim, thus narrowing the threshold through which Negroes in particular must pass on to success or notoriety (Levering Lewis, 101).  Furthermore, Du Bois holds that for those few Negroes who do manage to reach artistic success, their art should best be a “propaganda to those who believe black blood human, lovable, and inspired with new ideals for the world” (Levering Lewis, 103).  According to Du Bois, the top-tier of lucky and skilled Negroes who do beat down the doors in their way (sometimes called the Talented Tenth) are meant to blaze a trail for more Negro artists to follow by producing works that prove black merit to society.

Like Du Bois, Jay-Z and Kanye in WTT make readily apparent their belief that black Americans face extra barriers to upward mobility when compared to their white counterparts.  In the track “Murder to Excellence” both artists acknowledge that exponentially fewer blacks than whites are able to penetrate society’s uppermost echelons.  Kanye raps, “In the past if you picture events like a black tie/What’s the last thing you expect to see? Black guys,” alluding to blacks’ historical exclusion from the upper classes, as evidenced by their less formal or expensive attire (Track 10).  In a similar vein, Jay-Z raps, “Now please, domino, domino/Only spot a few blacks the higher I go/What’s up to Will, Shout-out to O/That ain’t enough, we gon’ need a million more”[3] (Track 10). Jay-Z acknowledges a couple notable African-Americans who have achieved his level of success, presumably Will Smith and either Oprah Winfrey or Barack Obama.  “Domino” is a double entendre, conjuring an image of a white tile with few black spots, and also expressing the desire that his success create a domino effect for more African-Americans to follow.

Jay-Z, who grew up selling crack-cocaine in Brooklyn’s Marcy Projects (“Rolling Stone”), describes his unlikely ascension to musical stardom in a track titled, “Made in America.”  He raps, “Built a republic, that still stands/I’m trying to lead a nation, to leave to my little mans/Or my daughter, so I’m boiling this water/The scales was lopsided, I’m just restoring order” (Track 11).  The use and sale of crack-cocaine in America has been historically characterized as a black problem, and statistically affects more black Americans than white.  By referring to the “scales” as “lopsided” Jay-Z uses a crack selling reference to imply that American infrastructure sets the odds unfairly against blacks.  The preceding two lines imply that Jay-Z is purposefully dedicating his hard-fought success as a black individual to the construction of a legacy for future generations of black, American offspring, in a manner congruent with Du Bois’ notion of successful black art as propaganda.

That black artists such as Jay-Z and Kanye West acknowledge their instrumentalism in the lives of African-Americans who may follow them, places hip-hop in league with the intellectuals of the Harlem Renaissance’s artistic movement, who also hoped their scholarly and artistic creations would pave the way for future Negro progress.  Questions like whether African-American art should be intentionally “black,” whether African-American artists should tailor their works toward a specific racial audience, and the notion that American blacks face greater challenges than whites, are all topics addressed by Harlem Renaissance writers as well as black artists today.  With WTT, Jay-Z and Kanye created an intentional product that sought to assess the state of African-American success and strategically move it in the direction of progress.

[1] For example, in 2005, amidst the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Kanye declared that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” during NBC’s live telethon broadcast seeking relief funds for New Orleans (“Rolling Stone”).

[2] 20 year old Pace University football player Danroy Henry was fatally shot by white police officers during a nonviolent, noncriminal incident in Westchester County, NY, October 17th, 2010.

[3] This verse continues to read, “Kick in the door, Biggie flow/I’m all dressed up with nowhere to go.” “Kick in the door” references an earlier song by the Notorious B.I.G., Jay-Z’s former schoolmate and role model who, like Jay-Z, achieved rap success after selling crack in New York City Projects. However, the phrase also mirrors Du Bois’ analogy of the talented young black girl “beating down the doors” that stand in her way..


Jay-Z and Kanye West. Watch the Throne. Def Jam, 2011.

“Jay-Z; Artist Page.” Rolling Stone. Rolling Stone, 2012. Web. 20 Mar 2012.


“Kanye West; Artist Page.” Rolling Stone. Rolling Stone, 2012. Web. 20 Mar 2012.


Levering Lewis, David. The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader. New York: Penguin Books, 1995. 91-105. Print.