Racial Pride in the Works of Langston Hughes and Jay-Z

By Patricia Hendricks

Introduction to Poetry


Comparing Langston Hughes' "The Weary Blues"(1926) and "The Negro Speaks of Rivers"(1926) with Jay-Z's "Guilty Until Proven Innocent"(2000) and "Hard Knock Life"(1998) might not seem appropriate. However, the poetry of Langston Hughes, who wrote during the Harlem Renaissance, has stunningly similar properties to the poetic works of rapper Jay-Z, who is an urban hip-hop artist.  These men both used the historical movements of their times to become passionate figures in the battle against racism. The racial issues these men faced are very similar and are sources of inspiration for much of their writing. The men explicitly remark upon these hardships through their work. However, whereas Hughes’ poetry is traditional, Jay-Z’s poetry is hip-hop. Hip hop music has roots in jazz, but the flow and meaning of hip hop differs greatly from the jazz music that inspired Hughes.

Although these artists thrived in different times, their messages come from a place of personal struggle. Langston Hughes lived in the 1920’s during the first influx of mixed race gatherings in jazz bars and clubs, and artists like Hughes became figureheads. Hughes used his poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” which he wrote in his youth, as an outlet against the weight of racism. This poem was the beginning of Hughes’ journey to becoming a historical advocate. Racial pride was a massive influence on the work of Harlem Renaissance writers like Hughes and hip-hop writers like Jay-Z. Jay-Z produced most of his popular music in the 1990’s and into the new millennium. The police brutality case of Rodney King created the feeling that the justice system was racially discriminatory; in King’s case the law was “guilty until proven innocent” instead of “innocent until proven guilty.” This outcry against racism followed in the pattern of Hughes’ work as if to prove that what Hughes’ was fighting for was still not attained and that Jay-Z would follow Hughes’ legacy to rally the public toward racial pride and equality.

Hughes used the movement of the Harlem Renaissance much like Jay-Z used the media in the 1990’s. When the Harlem Renaissance swept through New York City, it was not long before this intercultural expansion was felt throughout the country. It brought African American culture into the urban mixed-race gatherings that allowed the influx and outflow of talent and opinion. This allowed for Hughes’ work to become popular.  Media coverage of police brutality proved racism was still alive in the early 1990’s and it became a subject in Jay-Z’s lyrics. Jay-Z used his talent to show that many things were unequal, including, in his view, the American justice system.  Racism within the American justice system is the focus of Jay-Z’s “Guilty Until Proven Innocent.”  Jay-Z states, “I thought this was America people!/ Uhh, yeah, guilty until proven innocent, huh?”  h Later in the first verse he continues, “Arrested, put in the lineup, tryin’ to put dents in my armor/ But I'm a survivor, plus I'm liver than most/ Out on bail, fifty thou', still ridin’ with toast/ I ain't tryin’ to collide with folk/ but I don't want folk takin’ Jigga for joke/ I guess you niggaz just woke - good morning!” Jay-Z talks about being a survivor of oppression and, through hip-hop, Jay-Z begged America to see that racism was alive.

Hughes and Jay-Z intertwine meaning with rhythm. The rhythms used by both artists literally beat out a flow that allows the reader or listener to enjoy the poetic experience all the more. Hughes and Jay-Z both use audio enhancing capabilities in their work to preserve each poem’s meaning.  The article, “Do Right to Write Right: Langston Hughes’s Aesthetics of Simplicity” by Karen Jackson Ford states, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers has become memorable for its lofty, oratorical tone, mythic scope, and powerful rhythmic repetitions.” The focus on the auditory sense that Hughes and Jay-Z incorporated into their work allows them to remain memorable.

Hughes’ “The Weary Blues” uses rhythm to imply meaning. In this case, the soul of a black man playing the first blues song that Hughes ever heard is expressed through the rhythm in these stanzas. “Thump, Thump, Thump, went his foot on the floor./ He played a few chords then he sang some more.” (Hughes 351) Hughes uses rhyme and sound to create a jazzy flow throughout the poem. This song so affected Hughes that it inspired rhythmic flow throughout much of his work and the idolization of jazz singers represents a note of empathy for the sorrows in their songs. Rhythm affected Jay-Z and Hughes and both use it prominently in their work. Whether it is the rhythm of a hip hop song or that of a blues song, rhythm has the power to carry a message seamlessly through words; it gives sounds meanings as they unfold to reveal how auditory sense can have so much to do with mood and meaning.

The use of blues elements within Hughes’ works personifies emotion through rhythm. The vivid emotional sense of his work may be explained by the possibility that this emotional poetry stemmed from the struggles of his early life. Angelita Reyes, in the article, “Memory Telling and Praise-Singing of the Genius of Langston Hughes” states:

The use of blues elements within Hughes’ works personifies emotion through rhythm. The vivid emotional sense of his work may be explained by the possibility that this emotional poetry stemmed from the struggles of his early life. Angelita Reyes, in the article, “Memory Telling and Praise-Singing of the Genius of Langston Hughes” states:

When the dream was deferred and Langston was still young, his father James Hughes gave up on the United States. He abandoned his son and wife, and immigrated to Mexico because of the dehumanizing racism that did not allow him to pursue his talents and business skills in the United States. Langston Hughes grew estranged from his angry father who "hated" black people and who did not want to "live like a nigger with niggers." Langston Hughes was a lover of black people and culture in the United States and throughout the African Diaspora, in spite of (or because of) his father. He expressed his compassion for and honesty about black people through his writing for over forty-five years.

Knowing Hughes background can be useful in deciphering the significance of “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” Hughes writes, “I’ve known rivers:/ Ancient, dusky rivers./ My soul has grown deep like the rivers.”  In the poem Hughes refers to the rivers of the Euphrates, the Nile, and the Mississippi. People of African descent have lived beside each one of these rivers at a certain juncture in time. He uses the phrase, “My soul has grown deep like the rivers” to establish the idea that his people lived and died by these rivers, and his soul grew deep like them.

Similarly, in “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem),” Jay Z raps about the struggle of his life in poverty. He raps, “From the dope spot, with the smoke Glock/ fleein’ the murder scene, you know me well/ from nightmares of a lonely cell, my only hell/ But since when y'all niggas know me to fail?” He refers to his time in jail, and the struggle to leave a life of crime many African Americans are born into. Jay-Z’s father abandoned him just as Hughes’ was abandoned by his father. They each used their feelings of abandonment as a tool in their work. Jay-Z uses it here to tell a story of surviving the oppression to which his race is frequently subjected.

Writing about hip-hop artists in “From Bricks to Billboards:  Hip-Hop Autobiography,” Mickey Hess says,

Hip-hop lyrics often trace the development of the artist through childhood poverty to wealth and celebrity in the music business. As stars such as Jay-Z or Wu-Tang Clan narrate their struggles against systemic racism in their lives and careers, they foreground criminality and compare the hip-hop industry to the drug trade. I argue that as rap artists juxtapose the production of hip-hop music with the trafficking of illegal drugs, they challenge existing narratives of music industry assimilation of African-American music forms; their lyrics function as counter-stories that promote rap artists as outlaw entrepreneurs, rather than as minority labourers exploited by a white-controlled record industry.

The opinion illustrated here suggests Jay-Z’s struggles early in his life and even after becoming famous were inspiration for much of his music. At 12 years old, Jay-Z, who was raised in the projects of Brooklyn, shot his brother in the shoulder for stealing from him.  He used his life as a demonstration of how the poverty that plagued his race could be turned around because he eventually showed everyone he could escape poverty and survive the racism that coincides with it.

Hughes and Jay-Z had to overcome the complex of a bastard child and the struggle of racism.  But aided by the love of music and the historical times, both made it where they stood as leaders in a battle against racism. As they stood up for their rights through the use of popular entertainment they became more than just artists writing poetry. Hughes and Jay-Z became symbolic figures of protest in a world where the battle against racism could use every leader it can get. Their different treatment of the issue of racism sets them apart. However, the social movements of their lifetimes particularly amplified their ability to become popular. The Harlem Renaissance supported Hughes’ work where the popularity of hip-hop and public discussion of racism in America assisted Jay-Z. Though these two artists wrote on different timelines, with different motives, and manner of approach, they relate on levels of position in the world because of race. Their life circumstances got them to a place where they could reflect upon their former struggles and be rewarded and commended for their creative accounts, and most importantly, become people of influence in society.


Works Cited

"Do right to write right: Langston Hughes's aesthetics of simplicity. " Twentieth Century Literature  38.4 (1992): 436-456. Humanities Module, ProQuest. Web.  29 Mar. 2010.

Hess, Mickey.  (2006). “From Bricks to Billboards: Hip-hop Autobiography.” Mosaic : a Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, 39(1), 61-77.  Retrieved April 18, 2010, from Research Library. (Document ID: 1006462071).

Hughes, Langston. “The Weary Blues.” Kennedy, X. J., and Dana Gioia. An Introduction to Poetry. 13th ed. Boston: Longman,  2010. Print.

"JAY-Z - GUILTY UNTIL PROVEN INNOCENT LYRICS." Lyrics. Web. 29 Mar. 2010. http://www.sing365.com/music/lyric.nsf/Guilty-Until-Proven-Innocent-lyrics-Jay-Z/95DBAF90F6A7AD3748256A06000C4730.

Reyes, A.. (2009). MEMORY TELLING AND PRAISE-SINGING OF THE GENIUS OF LANGSTON HUGHES. The Journal of African American History, 94(2), 266-273.  Retrieved April 17, 2010, from Research Library. (Document ID: 1917975701).

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