I rap, you rap, who isn’t rapping these days? I just ran into these lines from the Vietnamese-Canadian Chuckie Akenz:
Wanna beef with my clique, we can war tomorrow
And we won't stop frontin' til your chests are torn
'til your faces are scorn, 'til your blood squirts out
'til the moment we break your motherfucking mouth
Lordy, lordy, sups, Chuckie? What’s roiling you? The anthem of gangsta rap is still “Cop Killer,” of course, written by Ice-T in 1991, in response to Rodney King’s beating:
I got my black shirt on.
I got my black gloves on.
I got my ski mask on.
This shit's been too long.
I got my twelve gauge sawed off.
I got my headlights turned off.
I'm 'bout to bust some shots off.
I'm 'bout to dust some cops off.
Cop killer, better you than me.
Cop killer, fuck police brutality!
Cop killer, I know your family's grievin'
Cop killer, but tonight we get even.
I got my brain on hype.
Tonight'll be your night.
I got this long-assed knife,
and your neck looks just right.
This shit’s been too long is right… Scholar/blues harmonica player Adam Gussow, one half of Satan and Adam, pointed out that the familiar gangsta themes of drugs, guns and cop killing were present on the very first blues record. Written by Perry Bradford, “Crazy Blues” was recorded by Mamie Smith in 1920. Its last verse:
Now I've got the crazy blues
Since my baby went away
I ain't had no time to lose
I must find him today
I'm gonna do like a Chinaman, go and get some hop
Get myself a gun, and shoot myself a cop
I ain't had nothin' but bad news
Now I've got the crazy blues.
Tracing the blues to the late 19th century, Gussow explains:
“1890s saw the coming-of-age of the first freeborn generation of black southerners, a generation that enjoyed an unprecedented freedom of travel (although hemmed in by lynch law and vagrancy laws), a new freedom to determine the contours of one's sexual personhood, and a freedom, too, to live out the violent outlaw identities of mythic "bad niggers" such as Stagolee and Railroad Bill. In the midst of virulent racism and violent repression, the blues emerged out of a creative tension between black grievance and disillusionment on the one hand and black freedom and expressive license on the other.”
There was another American musical genre, developed also in the 19th century, that dealt with issues of white hegemony. The Tejano corrido is much less well-known, however, partly because the songs are in Spanish. Scholar Dan W. Dickey explains:
“Events in Texas between 1836 and 1848 resulted in the colonization of the lower Rio Grande area by white empresarios. The gradual displacement or subjugation of the Mexican people there provided the basis for more than a century of border conflict between the Anglos and the Mexicans. During the struggle against the Anglos, the corrido form developed in the area and became extremely popular. In [Américo] Paredes's words, the borderers' "slow, dogged struggle against economic enslavement and the loss of their own identity was the most important factor in the development of a distinct local balladry."
Fighting a losing battle, they sang of defiance. Here’s a Texas ranger-killing corrido:
Ya con ésta van tres veces
que se ha visto lo bonito;
la primera fue en McAllen
en Brownsville y en San Benito.
En la cantina de Bekar
se agarraron a balazos;
por dondequiera volaban
botellas hechas pedazos.
Esa la cantina de Bekar
al momento quedó sola;
nomás Jacinto Treviño
de carabina y pistola.
“Entrele rinches cobardes,
el pleito no es con un niño;
querían conocer a su padre,
¡yo soy Jacinto Treviño!”
Decía Jacinto Treviño
que se arrastraba de risa:
“A mí los rinches me hicieron
los puños de la camisa.”
Decía el sherife mayor
como era un americano:
“Ay que Jacinto tan hombre,
no niega ser Mexicano.”
Ya con ésta me despido
aquí en presencia de todos;
si me quieren conocer
los espero allá en Matamoros.
My rough, real rough, translation:
This makes 3 times
beauty reveals itself;
the first was in McAllen,
then Brownsville and San Benito.
In Bekar’s cantina
a shootout erupted;
shards of broken bottles
In Bekar’s cantina
only one was left,
only Jacinto Treviño
with rifle and pistol.
“Come in here, cowardly rangers,
you’re not messing with a kid;
if you want to know your father,
that’s me, Jacinto Treviño!”
Jacinto Treviño tried to stifle
a laugh as he spoke: "To me,
rangers are only suitable
to sew my shirt cuffs."
The sheriff then spoke
as an American: “Jacinto's
too much of a man, there’s
no denying he’s Mexican.”
With this I’ll take my leave
from all those present here;
if anyone wants to find me,
I’ll be waiting in Matamoros.
Corridos are often about real people and issues, crimes, outlaws and murders, but they aren’t necessarily anti-gringos. After Kennedy was assassinated, dozens of corridos were composed in praise of the late president’s ideals. As an outlet for the disenfranchised, however, many corridos remain songs of grievances. Texas billionaires don’t do corridos. Kings, presidents and deciders, no matter how wobbly, speak in slogans. Serfs and slaves sing the blues.