As Q-Tip so eloquently put it, "If knowledge is the key, then show me the lock." Any fan of Hip-Hop can attest to the idea that the culture is primarily unpacked with music as its greatest organizing principal. However, there's a real beauty to really understanding the underpinnings of what is being said or referenced on songs and albums.
In honor of Black History Month, we've compiled 11 books we think any fan of classic Hip-Hop should read.
Assata: An Autobiography by Assata Shakur
What the publisher says: This intensely personal and political autobiography belies the fearsome image of JoAnne Chesimard long projected by the media and the state. With wit and candor, Assata Shakur recounts the experiences that led her to a life of activism and portrays the strengths, weaknesses, and eventual demise of Black and White revolutionary groups at the hand of government officials. The result is a signal contribution to the literature about growing up Black in America that has already taken its place alongside The Autobiography of Malcolm X and the works of Maya Angelou.
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
What the publisher says: The New Jim Crow is a stunning account of the rebirth of a caste-like system in the United States, one that has resulted in millions of African Americans locked behind bars and then relegated to a permanent second-class status—denied the very rights supposedly won in the Civil Rights Movement. Since its publication in 2010, the book has appeared on the New York Times bestseller list for more than a year; been dubbed the “secular bible of a new social movement” by numerous commentators, including Cornel West; and has led to consciousness-raising efforts in universities, churches, community centers, re-entry centers, and prisons nationwide. The New Jim Crow tells a truth our nation has been reluctant to face.
Chokehold: Policing Black Men by Paul Butler
What the publisher says: Chokehold powerfully demonstrates why current efforts to reform law enforcement will not create lasting change. Butler’s controversial recommendations about how to crash the system, and when it’s better for a black man to plead guilty—even if he’s innocent—are sure to be game-changers in the national debate about policing, criminal justice, and race relations.
Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest by Hanif Abdurraqib
What the publisher says: How does one pay homage to A Tribe Called Quest? The seminal rap group brought jazz into the genre, resurrecting timeless rhythms to create masterpieces such as The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders. Seventeen years after their last album, they resurrected themselves with an intense, socially conscious record, We Got It from Here . . . Thank You 4 Your Service, which arrived when fans needed it most, in the aftermath of the 2016 election. Poet and essayist Hanif Abdurraqib digs into the group’s history and draws from his own experience to reflect on how its distinctive sound resonated among fans like himself. The result is as ambitious and genre-bending as the rap group itself.
The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
What the publisher says: At once a powerful evocation of James Baldwin’s early life in Harlem and a disturbing examination of the consequences of racial injustice, the book is an intensely personal and provocative document from the iconic author of If Beale Street Could Talk and Go Tell It on the Mountain. It consists of two “letters,” written on the occasion of the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, that exhort Americans, both black and white, to attack the terrible legacy of racism. Described by The New York Times Book Review as “sermon, ultimatum, confession, deposition, testament, and chronicle…all presented in searing, brilliant prose,” The Fire Next Time stands as a classic of literature.
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
What the publisher says: In a profound work that pivots from the biggest questions about American history and ideals to the most intimate concerns of a father for his son, Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a powerful new framework for understanding our nation’s history and current crisis. Americans have built an empire on the idea of “race,” a falsehood that damages us all but falls most heavily on the bodies of black women and men—bodies exploited through slavery and segregation, and, today, threatened, locked up, and murdered out of all proportion. What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live within it? And how can we all honestly reckon with this fraught history and free ourselves from its burden?
Dapper Dan: Made in Harlem by Daniel R. Day
What the publisher says: Decade after decade, Dapper Dan discovered creative ways to flourish in a country designed to privilege certain Americans over others. He witnessed, profited from, and despised the rise of two drug epidemics. He invented stunningly bold credit card frauds that took him around the world. He paid neighborhood kids to jog with him in an effort to keep them out of the drug game. And when he turned his attention to fashion, he did so with the energy and curiosity with which he approaches all things: learning how to treat fur himself when no one would sell finished fur coats to a Black man; finding the best dressed hustler in the neighborhood and converting him into a customer; staying open twenty-four hours a day for nine years straight to meet demand; and, finally, emerging as a world-famous designer whose looks went on to define an era, dressing cultural icons including Eric B. and Rakim, Salt-N-Pepa, Big Daddy Kane, Mike Tyson, Alpo Martinez, LL Cool J, Jam Master Jay, Diddy, Naomi Campbell, and Jay-Z.
Goin' Off: The Story of the Juice Crew & Cold Chillin Records by Ben Merlis
What the publisher says: Goin’ Off chronicles the rise and fall of Cold Chillin’ and its partnership with Warner Bros. Records. It follows the careers of the label’s recording artists through first-hand accounts of industry players, producers, MCs, and DJs: Roxanne Shanté was a fourteen-year-old battle rapper who spawned the diss record; MC Shan engaged in a legendary cross-borough feud with KRS-One; Kool G Rap was a foundational participant in what the media dubbed “gangsta rap”; Big Daddy Kane’s quick-witted lyricism changed the way people rhyme; the collegiate Masta Ace sought to uplift his community during the height of the crack epidemic; The Genius (aka GZA) co-founded the rap dynasty Wu- Tang Clan; and the enigmatic Biz Markie had the world singing along to his hit anthem “Just a Friend.” Plagued by corporate censorship and a landmark sample-related lawsuit in the 1990s, Cold Chillin’ folded, leaving behind a legacy shrouded in controversy and a catalog that influenced multiple generations of rap artists.
Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation by Jeff Chang
What the publisher says: Based on original interviews with DJs, b-boys, rappers, graffiti writers, activists, and gang members, with unforgettable portraits of many of hip-hop's forebears, founders, and mavericks, including DJ Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, Chuck D, and Ice Cube, Can't Stop Won't Stop chronicles the events, the ideas, the music, and the art that marked the hip-hop generation's rise from the ashes of the 60's into the new millennium.
Remaking Black Power by Ashley D. Farmer
What the publisher says: In this comprehensive history, Ashley D. Farmer examines black women’s political, social, and cultural engagement with Black Power ideals and organizations. Complicating the assumption that sexism relegated black women to the margins of the movement, Farmer demonstrates how female activists fought for more inclusive understandings of Black Power and social justice by developing new ideas about black womanhood. This compelling book shows how the new tropes of womanhood that they created--the “Militant Black Domestic,” the “Revolutionary Black Woman,” and the “Third World Woman,” for instance--spurred debate among activists over the importance of women and gender to Black Power organizing, causing many of the era’s organizations and leaders to critique patriarchy and support gender equality.
Exhibiting Blackness by Bridget R. Cooks
What the publisher says :In 1927, the Chicago Art Institute presented the first major museum exhibition of art by African Americans. Designed to demonstrate the artists’ abilities and to promote racial equality, the exhibition also revealed the art world’s anxieties about the participation of African Americans in the exclusive venue of art museums—places where blacks had historically been barred from visiting let alone exhibiting. Since then, America’s major art museums have served as crucial locations for African Americans to protest against their exclusion and attest to their contributions in the visual arts. In Exhibiting Blackness, art historian Bridget R. Cooks analyzes the curatorial strategies, challenges, and critical receptions of the most significant museum exhibitions of African American art. Tracing two dominant methodologies used to exhibit art by African Americans—an ethnographic approach that focuses more on artists than their art, and a recovery narrative aimed at correcting past omissions—Cooks exposes the issues involved in exhibiting cultural difference that continue to challenge art history, historiography, and American museum exhibition practices. By further examining the unequal and often contested relationship between African American artists, curators, and visitors, she provides insight into the complex role of art museums and their accountability to the cultures they represent.