Timothy Brennan


On his book Secular Devotion: Afro-Latin Music and Imperial Jazz

Cover Interview of December 04, 2008

A close-up

There are a number of individual moments in the book I would want a reader to find on first browsing, so it is hard to choose only one.  On balance, perhaps, it would be the opening pages of Chapter 4 on “Rap and American Business.”  Part of the fallout of segregating Latin and U.S. black musics is that almost no one comments on the fact that rap and salsa grew up in the same areas of New York, only miles apart, during exactly the same period (the late 1960s and 1970s).  The former was a retaliation against postmodern cynicism using the elements of urban consumer culture; the latter, a deliberately old-fashioned rural looking-back in hostile urban surroundings.  The tragic forms that African spirituality was forced to take in the United States are exemplified by rap’s ambiguous business ethic – the inseparability of its message from the desire to get rich.  Salsa, by contrast, carefully tried to hold on to naivety and humor.

The two genres represented very different approaches to dealing with the pressures of American business and its commercialization of art.  So here is a very concrete example of what I meant above about the need to see black music of the Americas as a unity.  For, what I show here is that hip-hop arose when it did in order to make up for a lack in U.S. neo-African music as compared with its Latin counterparts.  In Latin America, there were always a number of available musical forms like calypso and guaracha that had a strong verbal component – an element of political exposé, poetry, and dance all rolled into single form.  This is an essential component of African holism lost in the U.S., where jazz has become essentially a spectator sport and R&B an impoverished verbal idiom.  We like to think of hip-hop as a heroic creation of embattled black youth with their backs to the wall, and of course it is.  But it also had to be created in order to fill a void in African secular devotion.