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  • When Disaster Strikes:On the Apocalyptic Tone of Hip Hop
  • Ford III James Edward (bio)

"They say Armageddon been in effect. But let me tell you how this business began."—Reginald Dwayne Betts, "The Countdown to Armageddon"1

A pocalypticism refers to discourses on the end of time, the end of a world, or the end of the world. Any study of apocalypticism must examine when such an end will occur, and what that timing says about its adherents and their perception of the world they inhabit. I begin this essay with three recent considerations of how 1990s hip-hop in the United States marks the end of the world. In his landmark 1993 essay "We Know What Time It Is," GEORGE LIPSITZ analyzes the Black and Brown cultural movements following the L.A. Rebellion and other revolts across the United States in the 1990s. Such rebellions, in LIPSITZ'S view, lashed back against the United States majority's racist reaction to the civil rights movement, its unjust redistribution of wealth away from working Americans to the elite classes, its purposeful shrinking of the public sphere through privatization in order to limit access to political institutions, and its punitive policies toward youth, especially youth of color. LIPSITZ calls [End Page 595] these effects "apocalypse on the installment plan."2 In the chapter "From Soul to Hip-Hop: The Rise of the Apocalypse" from In Search of Soul: Hip-Hop, Literature, and Religion (2017), ALEJANDRO NAVA offers the most thorough extension of LIPSITZ'S claim. For NAVA, apocalypticism emerges when prophecy fails. Just as Revelation's symbolism in the New Testament can be productively framed as the response of a "small, colonized group of people [that] is subjected to an infernal authority," so can hip-hop's aesthetics be framed as with America rejecting the prophecies and persecuting the prophets of the civil rights and Black Power movements.3 When NAVA writes of hip-hop lyricists "drawing from a deep well of rage and rebellion" against "persecution, violent murder, and exile," he also agrees with a wide array of scholarship, dating back to TRICIA ROSE'S Black Noise, that frames those lyricists as prophets of rage.4 Taken together, LIPSITZ'S phrase and NAVA'S elaboration of apocalypse urge scholars to reevaluate how hip-hop generations have artistically engaged with discourses of the end.

Despite their brilliant interventions, Lipsitz and Nava have yet to match poet Reginald Dwayne Betts's fascinating statement in his volume Bastards of the Reagan Era (2014): "They say/Armageddon been in effect. But let/Me tell you how this business began."5 Betts offers a first-person account of the punitive turn of the 1980s and 1990s, in which criminal penalties established by the Reagan Administration, alongside his economic and other political policies, attempted to punish away the nation's most pressing problems.6 Betts's poetic lines provide a heuristic for my response to Lipsitz's and Nava's arguments. I argue that an alternative temporality characterizes apocalypticism in 1990s hip-hop. In contrast to mainstream discourses that associate apocalypse with a future event that can be staved off by listening to the warning of prophets, 1990s hip-hop testifies to an apocalypse that is already here and still arriving. While the mainstream approach makes the privileged [End Page 596] subjects of American Empire the protagonists of its story, 1990s hip-hop highlights those who are victimized by America's imperial pursuits—those whom Betts calls the literal and figurative bastards of the era, those whose "energy was youth" but they were "all dead all dead all dead all dead/Already, lost and this is a voyage from/Death to death, from godforsaken cell/To godforsaken cell …" When Betts concludes the titular poem of his volume with a section called "Prophets of Rage," his work converges with the scholarship stretching from Nava back to Rose. However, I argue that this alternative apocalypticism transforms prophecy's function and turns hip-hop lyricists into more than prophets of rage; while rage is a most appropriate complement to any critical assessment of American imperialism's violence, it is the courage and joy that hip-hop lyricism cultivates that...