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Callaloo 29.3 (2006) 741-750

A Conversation with Yusef Komunyakaa
Kyle G. Dargan

This conversation took place August 24, 2005 during the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, Ripton, VT.

Back in the days when I was a teenager
Before I had status and before I had a pager
You could find the Abstract listening to hip-hop
My pops used to say it reminded him of be-bop
I said, "Well daddy don't you know that things go in cycles"
The way that Bobby Brown is just amping like Michael
It's all expected, things are for the looking
If you got the money, Quest is for the booking1

DARGAN: I was talking to Jericho Brown yesterday and he told me you two had already gotten started on this conversation.

KOMUNYAKAA: [laughing] Oh really?

DARGAN: He was telling me about how you saw hip-hop, and the negative effects it has, as linked to a larger structure—what seemed like possibly a larger plan, which was implemented on black communities. I am wondering if you could recount that for me or just give me a sense of how you see that web being woven.

KOMUNYAKAA: Well, I hate to attempt to align hip-hop with something that has been planned, a conspiracy theory or anything like that, but the effects seem so negative. Of course, most likely, a conspiracy happens within the heart and soul of the community itself. Our entire critical apparatus has been undermined. One reason is because we were always, or rather I have always, seen black Americans as caretakers of positive vision and a kind of music which linked us to the past, present, future. The music produced prior to hip-hop I see as the music of inclusion. It was a music that beckoned for people to come together and that's why the music has functioned as a choice of weapon against the larger problems of black existence.

DARGAN: I agree with you; and one thing I see is that the slave spiritual was negro in the sense that it took a Christian, European religious concept and infused it with an African [End Page 741] musical sensibility and created something new that ultimately was used to subvert the system. In a lot of ways, I see hip-hop as the same in the sense you had these urban communities where resources were being taken away from the people—you weren't getting music instruction, you weren't getting any introduction to the arts. What the kids did is say, "Alright, if you are not going to give me the opportunity to do this, then I am going to make my own instruments. I'm going to take a turntable and make that an instrument, I'm going to take a sampling machine and create some new music from it…"

Come on everybody, let's get with the fly modes
Still got room on the truck, load the back, boom
Listen to the rhyme to get a mental picture
Of this black man through black woman victim
Why do I say that, 'cause I gotta speak the truth man
Doing what we feel for the music is the proof and
Planted on the ground, the act is so together
Bona fide strong, you need leverage to sever
The unit, yes, the unit, yes, the unit called the jazz is
Deliberately cheered—LP filled with street goods
You can find it on the rack in your record store
If you get the record, then your thoughts are adored
And appreciated, cause we're ever so glad we made it
We work hard, so we gotta thank God
Dishing out the plastic, do the dance till you're spastic
If you dis, it gets drastic

KOMUNYAKAA: But at the same time, if we want to speak of the "us" / "them" syndrome, it still uses their technology to underscore our shortcomings. What I mean is that black Americans were playing music long before it was institutionalized in schools. Before the drums...


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