Art Encounters | And the Nobel Prize for Literature goes to…

“If Rakim was rap’s Woody Guthrie, Nas was the Dylan figure expanding the possibilities and complexity of the form, twisting old fables to match contemporary failings, faithful to tradition but unwilling to submit to orthodoxy.”

– Jeff Weiss

When news broke that Bob Dylan had just won the Nobel Prize for Literature I felt a weird sense of indifference. Not because Dylan isn’t a great writer or that giving the award is off point (just read his lyrics. And if still not sure, then pick up a copy of The Chronicles Vol. 1). I know he’s a great writer but I still felt indifferent, as if to bestow the award on an ageing established artist who also happened to be white with Dylan’s levels of success and recognition was too much of a safe bet. Deep down I wanted the award to go to a rapper. And the rapper I wanted the award to go to is Nas. 

This has been, until now, a debate largely with myself. But it’s one that won’t go away. Even last Friday, when driving into the city to collect my son from school I got to the second last song ‘Represent’ on Nas’s 1994 debut album Illmatic, and found myself welling up with tears. I was so moved by the power of Nas’s eloquent brilliance – the spitfire delivery, the ‘flow’ as they call it in hip-hop circles – that I was overwhelmed with emotion. And then, as I was driving through traffic lights I must have passed through a thousand times, a sense of joyfulness came over me. I wanted to tell everyone how brilliant this album is. I have never felt this strongly before, even though I have been listening to Illmatic for years now. Although I missed out on it for the first fifteen years after its release, I have been utterly enthralled by its beats and rhymes since. The stories that are contained in these mere ten songs, which are first-hand accounts of Nas’s rise from poverty and crime in the ‘hood, are delivered with such a poetic punch that the sonic delivery seems the perfect accompaniment to their content. The beats seem so perfectly attuned to the rhymes.

And although I’m often in a state of awe listening to Illmatic, transfixed by internal rhyming patterns locked into a pulsating groove, and often to dizzying affect, I have never felt such a sense of emotion before listening to the album. That day, after such a blast of emotion I began rehearsing the Dylan/Nas debate again. And again.

So, given my attraction to all things Illmatic, how did this outburst happen? And why on that Friday afternoon? Why did I have ‘this’ moment at that point? And ‘why,’ having listened to nearly all the album en route into town, did it happen just as ‘Represent’ came on the car stereo, when I was arriving at the gates of my workplace?

Answers aren’t easily gathered. Seeking them out involves some detective work on my part. The detective, however, is the self and in order to begin detection work I need to spend some time in that part of my mind called memory (we’re back in that place again). It’s the year of 2002, and I’ve received a research grant as a form of payment for work I was doing at the University of Limerick, a requirement of which is to use the money in order to get the grant (an institutional potlatch). I eventually decide to travel to Chicago to attend a postgraduate seminar being run by a well-known film scholar at the University of Chicago. I inquired as to whether I could sit in on the seminar for two weeks, and was granted permission. At the same time, I planned visiting an old friend who I had gone to secondary school and university with, who now lived and worked in the windy city. The University of Chicago is situated in the south of the city and is surrounded by some of the most impoverished inner cities projects in the US. I remember drinking a few pints with my friend and his US buddies the night after I arrived and being told that the University of Chicago was in ‘cowboy country,’ and to avoid getting off at the wrong bus stop for risk of a mugging. I was – not surprisingly – terrified the next day, as I walked south on Michigan Avenue to my bus stop and noticed the darkening in colour of the people that surrounded me. Of course, hung-over and naïve, I got off at the wrong stop.

The contrast in experience over the next four hours would have a profound impact on me: the very stuff we call ‘life experience.’ Not only did I pass the most impoverished of project towers, over which helicopters swarmed and police cars roamed, but I remember being offered crack by a kid as young as seven or eight. I looked at my clothing and felt incredibly stupid: I was wearing a white gortex sailing jack I had borrowed from my Dad, and looked like someone who had just jumped off a yacht in Kinsale. Given what I had been told, I was, to all extents and purposes, a sitting duck.

I nonetheless navigated my way towards the gates of the university, which, considering what I’d been told the evening before, was probably a stroke of luck akin to having backed the winner in the Grand National. I spent the rest of the day with a group of mainly white students on the grounds of the campus, and learned about the extortionate fees they were paying to attend this very exclusive college. Walking around the grounds of a university Barack Obama was teaching in, having passed through the projects of impoverished blacks who would herald him to power, I couldn’t help but wonder where I’d be if born into that other world outside the gates. It’s a world that subsequently came to life with such realism in the TV series The Wire, and a world Nas was born into in the Queensbridge Projects of New York, the largest social housing project in the US. During Nas’s early years in the projects, crack took on the status of an epidemic, destroying whole communities. Nas watched his best friend, Ill Will, die in a drug-related ruckus, a figure he name checks as an inspiration on numerous occasions during Illmatic, and often with some degree of emotion. ‘Ill’ even makes his way into the title of this Nas’s very first album.

Queensbridge is everywhere on Illmatic, as both a symbol of the once utopian pretensions of modernist architecture, and a real-life dystopia full of ‘black rats trapped’ as Nas calls his peers on the opener ‘New York State of Mind.’ A baby-faced Nas appears on the album cover with the Projects looming in the background. It’s an image that suggests Nas is both the product of and representative of Queensbridge. This grounding in place gives the album real gravitas but I’m drawn to Illmatic for other reasons. I’m attracted to the album for the same reason I’m attracted to the great American coming-of-age novels, and the way they channel change in a young man. Whether it’s the first of these to truly wow me, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, or the one I avoided because it was recommended to me by so many people, and then loved, Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, or the one that left me speechless and in awe of its brilliance: William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom, Illmatic is – no doubt – part of black America’s contribution to this tradition. It’s just that it takes the form of rhymes about a young kid from NYC. Illmatic tells the story of Nas, street urchin turned hip-hop artist, rejecting crime to take up the pen. In the face of danger, he writes.

But the writing he undertakes isn’t that easy to classify. This is not straight literary fiction or memoir. It’s memoir in the creative sense of the term, like a Borstal Boy or a Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; it’s drama in union with the truth. Its goal, however, stated by Nas in the very first song of the album, is to represent the struggle to survive in the dog eat dog world of Queensbridge. To represent this same struggle, as he sees it, is also ‘illmatic’; ‘sick,’ but worthwhile, on point because it’s necessary, and now more than ever. It should be noted then that Nas would later be accused, by Jay-Z (most famously), of purposefully dramatizing his ghetto upbringing, ‘faking it’ as a result, in the years following the release of Illmatic. The accusation concerns his ability to ‘keep it real,’ to speak truth, the most important criterion of authenticity as perceived within the community Jay-Z is part of.  Whether or not Nas’s rhymes are true in the sense Jay-Z demands of them, there is no doubt that Nas’s life was shaped by the sudden tragic death of his best friend and collaborator Ill Will Graham, and that he left school at the age of thirteen to enter a life of delinquency and petty crime.

Ill Will was Nas’s DJ when he first started to rap under the alias of Kid Wave. The lyrics he writes about that time in his life, considered in response to Jay-Z’s accusation, may well be enhanced dramatically, but they are best understood as a kind of parrhesia in the sense of the term as Michel Foucault uses it (in a lesser-known text of his, Fearless Speech). To practice parrhesia is to speak without fear; that is, to speak truth to a power that wants to oppress it. Speaking fearlessly involves speaking on behalf of an oppressed people. As such, it is not about one’s own story alone: but the story of oppression as one experiences it generally. Parrhesia, in this sense, as Foucault notes, is a ‘verbal activity where the speaker has a specific relation to truth through frankness, a certain relationship to his own life through danger, a certain type of relation to himself or other people through criticism (self-criticism or criticism of other people), and a specific relation to moral law through freedom and duty.’ The crucial emphasis is the relation, that there is a relation to truth in and of itself. 

During Nas’ early years in the projects, crack took on the status of an epidemic, destroying whole communities. Nas watched his best friend, Ill Will, die in a drug-related ruckus, a figure he name checks as an inspiration on numerous occasions during Illmatic, and often with some degree of emotion. ‘Ill’ even makes his way into the title of this Nas’ very first album.

Whether or not Nas’s rhymes are true in the sense Jay-Z demands of them, there is no doubt that Nas’s life was shaped by the sudden tragic death of his best friend and collaborator Ill Will Graham, and that he left school at the age of thirteen to enter a life of delinquency and petty crime.

Ill Will was Nas’s DJ when he first started to rap under the alias of Kid Wave. The lyrics he writes about that time in his life, considered in response to Jay-Z’s accusation, may well be enhanced dramatically, but they are best understood as a kind of parrhesia in the sense of the term as Michel Foucault uses it (in a lesser-known text of his, Fearless Speech). To practice parrhesia is to speak without fear; that is, to speak truth to a power that wants to oppress it. Speaking fearlessly involves speaking on behalf of an oppressed people. As such, it is not about one’s own story alone: but the story of oppression as one experiences it generally. Parrhesia, in this sense, as Foucault notes, is a ‘verbal activity where the speaker has a specific relation to truth through frankness, a certain relationship to his own life through danger, a certain type of relation to himself or other people through criticism (self-criticism or criticism of other people), and a specific relation to moral law through freedom and duty.’ The crucial emphasis is the relation, that there is a relation to truth in and of itself. 

Foucault’s analysis gives some indication as to why I felt like I did driving that day. By the time ‘Represent’ came on it was if I was in Queensbridge running from cops, and all the powers of the state that oppress. I could feel the power of representation in me. The struggle to ‘represent’ is the struggle to speak truth in the face of power, and to do so frankly, critically, and most importantly, morally. ‘Represent’ is a moment when Nas wrenches the moral authority from the forces of power who wield it, and who label his people as a ‘this’ or ‘that’: the moment when the moral impetus of an album made in the wake of Will’s death sparkles like a diamond in the sun. It’s also a powerful moment because Nas takes on the job of representing the oppressed, and assumes the moral authority to do so. The lines that open the song ‘straight up shit is real and any day could be your last in the jungle, get murdered on the humble, guns’ll blast, niggas tumble, the corners is the hot spot, full of mad criminals, who don’t care, guzzling beers, we all stare, At the out-of-towners (Ay, yo, yo, who that?)’ reawakens, in me, that time I passed the Chicago projects en route to the University of Chicago, a young naïve red headed Irishman. The kid that offered me crack cocaine could have been Nas, born into a life he never chose, staring at an out-of-towner. But the kid could also have been me, staring out at someone from another country passing by.

But this doesn’t fully explain why I was so overwhelmed that Friday afternoon in the car, with an emotion I now recognise as joy. It’s doesn’t fully explain why I thought of a Nobel Prize for Literature that Nas might have won. The joy came, I can now see, from appreciating something simple: the beauty in truth (Beauty is truth, truth Beauty). But the truth came from my own experience, as much as the beauty I found Nas extolling. And if Tolstoy’s suggestion that art comes from suffering is true, then maybe we access truth, practice parreshia in response to some injustice. I can’t say for certain. What I can say, however, is that when I listened to ‘Represent’ that day, the power of literature considered as a way of responding to injustice, surged forth in this late twentieth century form. I pulled in as the sun shone from behind the clouds. I wanted to pull down the window, put my head out and scream, along with Nas ‘represent, represent.’ In that moment it I felt as if I was Nas, and in a weird role reversal, Nas was me.

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