A Rap on Race and Return


New York City. August 2012. Photo: Lesley Butler

There are maps to the Door of No Return. The physical door. They are well worn, gone over by cartographer after cartographer, refined from Ptolemy’s Geographia to orbital photographs and magnetic field imaging satellites. But to the Door of No Return which is illuminated in the consciousness of Blacks in the Diaspora there are no maps. This door is not mere physicality. It is a spiritual location (Brand 2).

Since reading Dionne Brand’s A Map to the Door of No Return (2001) last month, I have found myself thinking more and more about rap music.

Sometimes people find it strange when they learn that I like rap. And I can understand it, I suppose. Maybe it is because I’m a feminist, and rap music is often accused of misogyny. Maybe it is because I am a white Canadian and rap is typically associated with Black Americans. Or maybe it is just my years of classical ballet training that has made me appear stiff and straight-laced, not exactly what you envision when you think of hip hop. Either way, I understand that my positioning as a rap fan is at least a little bit awkward.

Perhaps this is also why I feel a little strange writing a blog post on the topic. I am no ethnomusicologist, but while reading Dionne Brand’s book, rap lyrics kept popping into my head. It might seem like a strange pairing, but I think there are more connections between Brand’s writing and this musical genre than one might initially think. There are countless rap songs, and even entire albums, devoted to ideas of identity and belonging, both of which are central to A Map to the Door of No Return.

 If I can say it. Let me. I think that Blacks in the Diaspora feel captive despite the patent freedom we experience, despite the fact that we are several hundred years away from the Door of No Return, despite the fact that the door does not exist; despite the fact that we live in every state of self-agency, some exceedingly powerful, some less so of course but self-agency nonetheless. One might even argue for the sheer magnificence of our survival against history (Brand, 52).

When Brand speaks of the Door of No Return – in all of its complexities and incarnations – I realize that much of hip hop is an ode to that very door, whether it is explicit or not.

Is hip hop just a euphemism for a new religion

The soul music for the slaves that the youth is missing

(Kanye West, “Gorgeous”)

I will admit, before I became more familiar with rap, I always wondered why guns and money were such dominant themes. It was just so far removed from my way of life that I could not see the appeal.

Well, I later learned that it is not really about the guns, nor the money. It is about injustice and inequality, surveillance and oppression. It is about the circumstances that make crime a reality. About (re)claiming power, security, and a sense of self. A necessary evil, if you will. These things might still be far removed from my life, but that does not mean I should not listen to it. In fact, I think it gives me more reason to listen.

Many black rappers … contend that they are being unfairly singled out because their music reflects deep changes in society not being addressed anywhere else in the public forum. The white politicians, the artists complain, neither understand the music nor desire to hear what’s going on in the devastated communities that gave birth to the art form (Philips, “Los Angeles Times”).

If we don’t listen, how do we learn?

In the latter part of her book, Brand takes particular care in describing a scene at a juvenile courthouse. Even as an observer, Brand feels an “immediate loss of control and a sense of surveillance” when she steps into the courtroom (103). It’s a taste of incarceration, an unsettling appetizer. The juveniles are “diasporic children,” marked by the hybridity of their names (106-7). They are liminal in identity, in hybridity, and the courtroom is their “rite of passage” (107). If they must all pass through this rite of passage, what are they leaving behind? What are they becoming?

Thinking of these children going through the justice system so early in life, I can’t help but think about the imagery of mass incarceration and police surveillance in rap music.

Penitentiary chances, the devil dances

And eventually answers to the call of Autumn

All of them fallin’ for the love of ballin’

Got caught with 30 rocks, the cop look like Alec Baldwin

Inter century anthems based off inner city tantrums

Based off the way we was branded

Face it, Jerome get more time than Brandon

And at the airport they check all through my bag

And tell me that it’s random

(Kanye West, “Gorgeous”)

I don’t want to generalize an entire genre, but I think it’s fair to say that issues of racial and class justice are dominant themes. This is part of the reason why I find rap music so enlightening. It’s resistance. It’s rewriting history. It’s peeling back the layers of society, revealing the realities of inequality that are experienced by so many (and are ignored by so many, too).

When I think of the Door of No Return, I also think of Kendrick Lamar. His albums play like stories; vivid stories of violence and (loss of) innocence on vinyl.

While reading of desire, identity, resistance, and belonging in Brand’s work, I think, too, of Kendrick’s latest performance at the Grammys (see performance here).

He enters, shuffling, hands shackled, leading a line of prisoners onto the stage. A saxophone croons from a prison cage. Is this the embodiment of captivity (Brand 35)?

When unappreciated, the Black body is shown walking, single file or double chained … The many permutations and inversions of the original captivity leach into the contemporary popular discourse and the common sense (Brand, 37).

… Imprisonment comes to look like slavery in the 21st century.

I said they treat me like a slave, cah’ me black

Woi, we feel a whole heap of pain, cah’ we black

And man a say they put me in a chain, cah’ we black

Imagine now, big gold chain full of rocks

How you no see the whip, left scars pon’ me back

But now we have a big whip, parked pon’ the block

All them say we doomed from the start, cah’ we black

Remember this, every race start from the black, remember that

(Kendrick Lamar, “The Blacker the Berry”)

He trudges across the stage, looking lost and found at the same time. Spitting verses, surrounded by fire and African dancers. Is this a rebirth? A reclamation?

I’m African-American, I’m African

I’m black as the moon, heritage of a small village

Pardon my residence

Came from the bottom of mankind

(Kendrick Lamar, “The Blacker the Berry”)

He ends his performance standing in front of a map of Africa, simple in its black and white depiction, except for a small “Compton,” placed right in the heart of the continent. He’s playing with the paradoxes of home, of origins, of belonging, of the Diaspora, and … the Door of No Return?

The audience cheers. The lights dim.

But when the performance is over, what then is my relationship to this music? To this genre? Is it just a spectacle of social injustice for me? Am I just witness to the music, or am I still implicated in the histories that make these stories possible?

If there is one thing that I have taken away from Brand, it is the idea that the past is ever-present. History haunts us. It is not bound to history books; it lives in and through each and every one of us. History is complex, and it can be contested. That is why Brand writes. And why Kendrick raps. It is why I am listening … and still learning …


@therealelp. Tweet by rapper El-P on how rap music will become even more politically charged after Donald Trump’s election win. 9 November 2016.


Brand, Dionne. A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2001.

Kanye West. “Gorgeous.” My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Roc-A-Fella Records, 2010.

“Kendrick Lamar @ 2016 Grammy Awards.” Vimeo, uploaded by Sofia Payro, 21 Feb. 2016, https://vimeo.com/156180581.

Kendrick Lamar. “The Blacker the Berry.” To Pimp a Butterfly, Top Dawg Entertainment, 2015.

Philips, Chuck. “The Uncivil War: The battle between the Establishment and supporters of rap music reopens old wounds of race and class.” Los Angeles Times, 19 July 1992, pp.2, http://articles.latimes.com/1992-07-19/entertainment/ca-4391_1_uncivil-war/2.

@therealelp. “on the bright side rap music is about to be even more awesome in 2017 now.” Twitter, 9 Nov. 2016, 1:12am, https://twitter.com/therealelp/status/796211401513648128.


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