The Lyrics of Identity

This is the second installment of the Wheelock Community Read Summer Blog Series. Each week, we will be posting a blog written by Wheelock faculty or staff that deals with a theme from this years’ community read; “The Beautiful Struggle” by Ta-Nehisi Coates. This week, please welcome guest blogger Gillian Devereux, Director of the Writing Center and Instructor in Humanities and Writing.

The Lyrics of Identity

By Gillian Devereux

Born in 1972, I was an only child until 1980, the only kid in my neighborhood who went to my Catholic school, the only person in my family distressed by the fact that we had a black and white television without cable for the first 12 years of my life. My parents encouraged me to entertain myself with books, music, and as little television as possible. I spent decades curled on my bed, stopping and rewinding cassette tapes so I could transcribe lyrics. Later I scribbled my own lyrics which would eventually become poems, or stories, or impassioned passages in half-empty diaries.

I will admit a lack of discrimination in my earliest years, a tendency to doodle Chicago and Journey lyrics on my notebooks, a weakness for Lionel Richie, a belief that “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” had taught us all a critical lesson about desire and fulfillment. But I was a lonely child, bad at making friends and easily depressed. As I entered adolescence, I felt more isolated at home and at school, and this isolation made me anxious and angry, lazy and ambitious, aloof and needy. I still found solace in books, but few I understood addressed the feelings I needed to process. Pop music offered no solace whatsoever, and so I turned, desperate and confused, to punk and new wave.

I buried myself in music, barricaded myself in my room, blasting Tinderbox, Billy Idol, Los Angeles, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Black Celebration, Never Mind the Bollocks …, and London Calling through the flimsy foam headphones of my Sony Walkman. These songs both reflected and revealed — mirroring the emotions my body could barely contain and unearthing other emotions I had not yet been able to acknowledge. This music, this style of lyrics, this raw expression of inequity and injustice shaped the girl I was and the woman I would become. I returned to these songs again and again, letting them guide me through my earliest attempts at feminism and social justice. I can trace their influence on the map of my life, seeing where those artists’ words intersect with my own writing, my own choices, my own beliefs about the world.

When I began reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Beautiful Struggle, I was immediately drawn to the points in the narrative where he discusses his own relationship with music and lyrics. As early as page 5, he references “KRS” while discussing the love he and his older brother Big Bill had for professional wrestling, and only a few pages later, he describes the summer of 1986 as the one when “KRS-One laid siege to Queensbridge” (pg. 11).

KRS-One – Sound of da Police

Coates juxtaposes KRS-One’s booming challenges to the legacy of black slavery — “You can’t stand where I stand / you can’t walk where I walk” — with words from LL Cool J’s Todd Smith persona, sharing an image of his 10 year old self “throwing up [his] hands, reciting” lyrics (pg. 11). He continues to equate the language of rap and hip-hop with reflection, revelation, and revolution throughout his memoir, frequently invoking the metaphor of music or song when examining how he developed a sense of identity. He describes his first day at Lemmel as one where “[e]veryone moved as though the same song were playing in their heads,” adding “[i]t was a song I’d never heard” (pg. 37). He explains how hearing “Lyrics of Fury” at age 12 showed him the path to manhood, to full participation in the battle for Consciousness, proclaiming “I put away childish things, went to the notebook, and caged myself between the blue lines. In the evenings, that summer, I would close the door, lay across the bed, and put pen to pad” (pg. 111)

Just as his father’s identity evolved and coalesced through his work running Black Classic Press, Coates’ immersion in rap and hip-hop culture altered his sense of self and his understanding of his place in the world. Although Coates believed “[e]ach black boy must find his own way to this understanding,” he also recognized that “under the aegis of hip-hop, you never lived alone, you never walked alone” (pg. 61; 111). In 1988, when “all the world’s boom boxes were transformed into pulpits for Public Enemy,” Coates became a “reluctant convert” to the music of Chuck D and Flavor Flav, falling captive to “the many layers, the hints at revelation, and a sound that I did not so much enjoy as I felt compelled to understand” (pg. 104-105).

Public Enemy – Don’t Believe The Hype


Public Enemy’s second album, aptly named It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, tapped into the “collective memory” of Coates and his peers, reminding them how injustice, corruption, and the Reagan era itself manipulated them, herded them into stereotypical roles (drug dealer, basketball player, thug, failure), and disempowered them (pg. 105). At the same time, Public Enemy’s lyrics resonated with fathers and mothers, linking generations through powerful imagery, insightful social commentary, and references to influential black activists like Dr. Khalid Muhammad, whose words became the introduction to “Night of the Living Baseheads:”

Have you forgotten that once we were brought here, we were robbed of our name, robbed of our language. We lost our religion, our culture, our god … and many of us, by the way we act, we even lost our minds.

Coates takes the time to depict his father, a man who eschewed popular culture, who “watched very little TV, because once Conscious, every commercial, every program must be strip-mined for its deeper meaning, until it lays bare its role in this sinister American plot,” making an authentic connection to Public Enemy, showing his readers how “She Watches Channel Zero?!” reminded his father of his mother (pg. 54; 104). Chuck D had the same fears and ambitions as Coates’ father and mother, but unlike them and their writers, Chuck D “spoke beautifully in the lingua franca of [Coates’] time” (pg. 104).

In the late 80s, Coates begins to realize “the claws of rage digging into” him would never disappear, that “[h]istory would be altered, not in the swoop but with the long slow awakening” (pg. 58; 91). In the penultimate chapter of his narrative, Coates submits his college applications and reaches the turning point of his senior year. This is the climax of his story; a college acceptance will forever separate him from the comfortable routine of Woodlawn, the powerful camaraderie of drumming, the familiar confines of home. As his identity shifts from child to man, his musical preferences, influenced, as always, by Big Bill, also shift.

Coates writes about Big Bill introducing him to the reggae legends of the time: Steel Pulse, Burning Spear, and Bob Marley, artists who, like the activists whose words filled the shelves of Black Classic Press, rejected the language and conventions of racial oppression through their names, words, and beliefs. Coates calls these men prophets, explaining how their music foretold his fate: “I did not know where I was headed, but I knew I was mortgaged to the grand ideal—the end of mental slavery and the fulfillment of the book” (pg. 200).

Here, Coates references not only the lyrics to Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” but also Marley’s inspiration and source text, Marcus Garvey’s 1937 speech “The Work That Must Be Done.” Garvey had been invited by the mayor of Sydney, Nova Scotia to speak about his work with the Universal Negro Improvement Association, and his speech focuses on the precarious position of people of color abroad and the means by which they might empower themselves:

We are going to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery because whilst others might free the body, none but ourselves can free the mind. Mind is your only ruler, sovereign. The man who is not able to develop and use his mind is bound to be the slave of the other man who uses his mind, because man is related to man under all circumstances for good or for ill. If a man is not able to protect himself from the other man he should use his mind to good advantage. The fool will always pay the price. The fool will always carry the heavy burden.

Music critics, scholars, and Marley’s biographers have all observed that “Redemption Song,” more than any other track on Marley’s final album, represents a major departure from the musician’s earlier work. Garvey’s life, work, and death had a significant impact on Marley, just as it did on Coates, who references the activist multiple times throughout The Beautiful Struggle, referring to the Bob Marley and Marcus Garvey buttons on his tie-dyed book bag as “the totems of my champions” (pg. 127). And a young man such as Coates, whose father had risen through the ranks of the Black Panthers, whose playmates included Afeni Shakur’s son Tupac, who would search “liner notes for clues, play back lyrics until they were memory, and then play back memory until [he] gleaned messages imagined and real” must have quickly understood the implications of the line “How long shall they kill our prophets / while we stand aside and look?” (pg. 102).

“Redemption Song” became a prophecy for Coates, just as Marcus Garvey’s words had become a prophecy for his father. Like his father, Coates “took up that call, the charge to make Garvey’s kingdom real” (pg. 55). He brought the resources he had at hand — “an hour, a pen, a pad” — and the structure and rhythm of hip-hop to the fight (pg. 147). He transformed his talent as an MC into a talent for prose, fulfilling the book in the most literal, and lyrical, sense. And like the activists and lyricists before him, he used his words to show the world that “[n]one of us ever want to fail. None of us want to be unworthy, to not measure up” (pg. 170).

Bob Marley – Redemption Song (Official Music Video)


Author’s Note: While reading and reflecting on The Beautiful Struggle, I created a Spotify playlist that contains all the available songs named in the book. Periodically, Coates will either reference lyrics to a song or mention an artist without identifying a specific album or track. In these cases, I added songs hip-hop scholars have identified as the most influential to the playlist, which you can stream here.

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