From Tupac to Lorca: Finding the “Soul” in Hip-Hop and Literature

By Alejandro Nava, author of In Search of Soul: Hip-Hop, Literature, and Religion

Taking its name from a song by Bobby Byrd and James Brown, Eric B. and Rakim released a single in 1987, “I Know You Got Soul,” from their album Paid in Full. By sampling the funky rhythms and throbbing drums of James Brown’s signature sound, the rap looks backward to soul music while at the same time looking forward to a new age that will put on wax many of the hip-hop generation’s distinct idioms, brags, syntaxes, and struggles. The song epitomizes the fresh new prosody and poetics of the hip-hop generation, a generation that will use ghetto tongues to name and scrutinize American possibilities and shortcomings, American opportunities and grave injustices. As time goes on, other rap artists will jump aboard the soul train and pilfer its propulsive beats and energies, but they will also increasingly bring with them the weights and burdens of black lives in the twentieth century. As the title of their tenth album suggests—How You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul—Public Enemy, for example, drags these issues to the forefront. Typical to their prophetically charged vision, the album philosophizes and raps with a hammer, warning its listeners to the commercial and cultural forces in American life that seek to steal and cheapen the soul. In our own day and age—the age of Trump—Kendrick Lamar has burst on the stage of hip hop with some of the same anxieties and judgments. In song after song—“For Sale,” “How Much a Dollar Cost?” and “Mortal Man,” to name a few—he describes and dramatizes a soul in anguish, fighting and grinding for survival in a culture of consumption and callousness, doing what it can to resist the temptations of “Lucy” (his epithet for meretricious charms of Lucifer).

Though my book, In Search of Soul: Hip-Hop, Literature and Religion, is broader in scope than the soundscapes of rap, I see it as sharing the same airwaves and preoccupations as hip-hop artists in the mold of Lauryn Hill, Tupac, Kendrick Lamar, J Cole, Immortal Technique, Chance the Rapper and others. Simply put, the book is a response to the crisis of the soul in our age, and it considers the pressures by way of money, power and greed that can tarnish the highest ideals and values of the soul. More specifically, though, it explores the different nuances in the meaning of soul, from religious interpretations to profane and musical accounts. Part I of the book defends the basic values associated with the soul in the Jewish and Christian traditions: contemplation, compassion, spiritual depth, and fundamental human rights. I follow the lead of Lauryn Hill when she remarks that we need to “change the focus from the richest to the brokest,” as well as the famous adage of Jesus, “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?” Part II, then, moves to a cultural, artistic, and musical exploration of “soul” in African American and Hispanic traditions. In this second inflection, “soul” is a metaphor of artistic excellence and cultural/musical creativity. By examining the transformation in the grammar of “soul” from W.E.B. Du Bois and Ralph Ellison to Federico García Lorca and hip-hop, I consider how this concept became a counter-cultural trope and a weapon of protest against oppressive forces in American life. In the hands of these artists, it became synonymous with a spiritual force that could repel and overcome powerful tides of injustice.

By weaving together these different strands of “soul,” the book draws not only from my experiences in the classroom at the University of Chicago (where I studied religion), or at University of Arizona (where I’ve been teaching courses on religion and hip-hop); it is also a product of my schooling outside the walls of the university. For whatever else is true about the question of the soul, it is certainly the case that there is something fundamentally inscrutable and uncanny about the concept, something that requires an existential commitment to untangle its labyrinthine mysteries. In my own life (as in the religious, literary and hip-hop artists that I consider in this book), the pursuit of soul has taken me down surprising and uncharted roads, beyond the restricting borders of academic codes and norms, beyond the divisions of the sacred and profane. In learning from the street scribes of hip-hop, I have come to realize that whaling can be one’s Harvard and Yale (Melville), that the slums and tenements of New York can be the finest tutors (Stephen Crane), and that “beyond the walls of intelligence, life is found” (Nas).

Playlist on “Soul”

Literary Samples

Federico Garcia Lorca, In Search of Duende

W.E.B Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk

Ralph Ellison, The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison

Virginia Woolf, “The Russian Point of View,” in The Common Reader

Michael Eric Dyson, Holler if You Hear Me: Searching for Tupac Shakur

Alejandro Nava is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Arizona and author of Wonder and Exile in the New World and The Mystical and Prophetic Thought of Simone Weil and Gustavo Gutierrez.

What’s in a Name? W. E. B. Du Bois vs. W.E.B. DeBois

By Aldon Morris, author of The Scholar Denied: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Birth of Modern Sociology

Today marks the 149th anniversary of the birth of W. E. B. Du Bois. Just over a week ago, The United States Department of Education, headed by its newly appointed Secretary Betsy DeVos, set out to honor Du Bois during Black History Month. On the Department’s official website Du Bois’ famous quote “Education must not simply teach work – it must teach life” was emblazoned. It was wonderful that this great controversial scholar and activist was being honored by the Department of Education. However, all hell broke loose once the quotation made its rounds through social and print media, and radio and television. The reason for the explosion is that the Department of Education attributed Du Bois’ quote to “W.E.B. DeBois!”

Du Bois was precise when it came to the written word. He would have been unamused by the misspelling of his name and by all people, the Department of Education. Responding to a speaking invitation by the Chicago Sunday Evening Club in 1939, Du Bois made it clear that: “My name is pronounced in the clear English fashion: Du, with u as in Sue; Bois, as in oi in voice. The accent is on the second syllable.” Given Du Bois’ exactness regarding the spelling and pronunciation of his name, the Department of Education was derelict in its duty to educate. Like the school children it represents, the least DeVos and her Department should do is their homework before going public.

We should not merely obsess with this terrible spelling error. The significance of Du Bois’ work for the nation and the world should be the focus always. Du Bois excelled as a social scientist, man of letters, journalist, philosopher, poet and novelist and prodigious activist. He is the scholar of the twentieth century that taught us most about race and its future place in America and the world. His penetrating work on the global color line unraveling the souls of black and white people remains highly relevant in these troubling times. No person today should be labeled “learned” without having read Du Bois’ timeless classics, The Souls of Black Folk, and Black Reconstruction as well as his unsettling article, The Souls of White Folk.

Du Bois’ activism influenced social change throughout the twentieth century. Du Bois’ radical ideas and activism helped overthrow colonialism and race oppression in Africa, Asia, and South America. Du Bois was crucial in changing America. By being a founder of the Niagara Movement, the NAACP and the Crisis Magazine, Du Bois created the blueprint by which Martin Luther king, Jr. and the civil rights movement overthrew Jim Crow. In honoring Du Bois’ pioneering activism, Dr. King wrote, “One idea he insistently taught was that black people have been kept in oppression and deprivation by a poisonous fog of lies… The twisted logic ran if the black man was inferior he was not oppressed-his place in society was appropriate to his meager talent and intellect. Dr. Du Bois recognized that the keystone in the arch of oppression was the myth of inferiority and he dedicated his brilliant talents to demolish it.”

Du Bois supported young black student protesters reminiscent of activists in Black Lives Matter today. Responding to Black student protests in the 1920s, Du Bois exclaimed, “And here again we are always actually or potentially saying hush to children and students, we are putting on the soft peddle, we are teaching them subterfuge and compromise, we are leading them around to back doors for fear that they shall express themselves. And yet whenever and wherever we do this we are wrong, absolutely and eternally wrong. Unless we are willing to train our children to be cowards, to run like dogs when they are kicked, to whine and lick the hand that slaps them, we have got to teach them self-realization and self-expression.”

The Department of Education should not have misspelled Du Bois’ name. However, on Du Bois’ 149th birthday, we should not mistake the trees (misspelled name) for the forest (prodigious body of scholarship and activism) when considering the meaning of Du Bois. Indeed, the mythical “DeBois” withers from sight when confronted with the real W. E. B. Du Bois.

Aldon D. Morris is Leon Forrest Professor of Sociology and African American Studies at Northwestern University and the author of The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change, among other books. And read more about Aldon’s thoughts From Du Bois to Black Lives Matter.


The Legacy of W.E.B. Du Bois

“White scholars of the second half of the twentieth century did not purposely ignore Du Bois; rather, thanks to the marginalization of Du Bois by the white founders of sociology, they were ignorant of his work.” – Aldon Morris, The Scholar Denied: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Birth of Modern Sociology

Scholar Denied

Today, 148 years ago, scholar and activist William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (February 23, 1868 – August 27, 1963) was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. He earned a B.A. at Fisk University and in 1895 he became the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University. Known as a sociologist, scholar, educator, civil rights activist, leader, Pan-Africanist, historian, writer, editor, and poet, he co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909. In 1961, he became a naturalized citizen of Ghana. Du Bois died in Ghana at the age of 95.

Du Bois’ accomplishments were many—and sadly some were overlooked, specifically his contributions to the birth of modern sociology. Aldon Morris, author of The Scholar Denied: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Birth of Modern Sociology writes about his commitment to “setting the record straight” about Du Bois’ mastery of sociological thought.

In a graduate department of sociology I expected to study power and inequality, sociological theory, social movements, and Du Bois. Portions of that curriculum were fulfilled, but studying Du Bois proved elusive—even with Lewis Coser, who became an adviser and mentor that I met with every two weeks to discuss readings and “talk” sociology. Professor Coser interested me deeply because he was an important conflict analyst and an expert sociological theorist. Indeed, on the walls of Coser’s office were arrayed pictures of Marx, Weber, Durkheim, and Mannheim that seemed to beckon the uninitiated to the paths of sociological wisdom. Yet as I studied the images I was disappointed to see no picture of Du Bois gracing Coser’s wall.

In one session, I steeled my nerve and asked Professor Coser, “Why don’t you have a picture of Du Bois on your wall?” From behind a gigantic puff of cigarette smoke, he responded in his cultured European accent, “Masters of sociological thought are those rare scholars who build theoretical systems, and Du Bois did not build such a system.” I straightened up and responded, “But Professor Coser, what about Du Bois’s pioneering work on race where he accurately predicted that the problem of the twentieth century would be the color line?” Coser was not persuaded. In a barrage of words, I inquired, “What about The Philadelphia Negro and The Souls of Black Folk? Don’t they show a master at work?” Coser, always graceful and gentle when it came to students, softly replied, “Du Bois was not a master of sociological thought.” In that conclusion, Coser mirrored his generation, which also excluded Du Bois from mainstream sociological canons. White scholars of the second half of the twentieth century did not purposely ignore Du Bois; rather, thanks to the marginalization of Du Bois by the white founders of sociology, they were ignorant of his work. After that exchange with Coser, I took cues familiar to first-year graduate students that it was time to move to the next topic. However, I silently made a pledge in that office as the masters gazed from the wall: insofar as Du Bois was concerned, I would, one day, set the record straight. This book is my attempt to honor that promise by demonstrating that Du Bois was, indeed, a master of sociological thought.

Du Bois’ legacy is still felt today and exemplified in many of today’s African American intellectuals and activist sociologists as they continue to “produce pointed and critical scholarship, even when it’s discomfiting to the powers-that-be.”

Congratulations to 2016 PROSE Awards Winners Aldon D. Morris, David R. Schiel, and Michael S. Foster

University of California Press offers hearty congratulations to three of our authors that were the recipients of 2016 PROSE Awards from the Association of American Publishers last week in Washington D.C.

Scholar Denied

Aldon D. Morris was given the R.R. Hawkins Award, the ‘grand prize’ for all publications which are considered for an award, for The Scholar Denied: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Birth of Modern Sociology. Dr. Morris’s book also won the Award for Excellence in Social Sciences and the Sociology & Social Work subject category. View his eloquent acceptance speech from the awards luncheon on the AAP’s website.

Biology and Ecology of Giant Kelp Forests

In the Single Volume Reference/Science subject category, David R. Schiel and Michael S. Foster won the award for The Biology and Ecology of Giant Kelp Forests.

The entire UC Press team is honored to have published these two important works in their respective disciplinary fields, and offers hearty congratulations to Aldon D. Morris, David R. Schiel, and Michael S. Foster. Additionally, profuse thanks to the AAP for recognizing excellence in university press publishing over the past 40 years.


About the PROSE Awards:

The PROSE Awards annually recognize the very best in professional and scholarly publishing by bringing attention to distinguished books, journals, and electronic content in 54 categories.

Judged by peer publishers, librarians, and medical professionals since 1976, the PROSE Awards are extraordinary for their breadth and depth.

The R. R. Hawkins Award has been presented to the most outstanding work among each year’s entries its inception in 1976. Hawkins winners have included Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews (WIREs) (John Wiley & Sons), Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade (Yale University Press), The Diffusion Handbook(McGraw-Hill) and Alan Turing: His Work and Impact (Elsevier). The 2016 R.R. Hawkins Award was presented to University of California Press for The Scholar Denied: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Birth of Modern Sociology by Aldon D. Morris.

From Du Bois to Black Lives Matter

By Aldon Morris, author of The Scholar Denied: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Birth of Modern Sociology

This guest post is published in advance of the American Sociological Association conference in Chicago.Check back every day for new posts through the end of the conference on Tuesday, August 25th. 

Today black blood flows in streets throughout the nation. A century ago, the great sociologist, W. E. B. Du Bois, witnessed white mobs murder and maim African Americans to keep them in their place. Little did I know when I started my research over a decade ago for my just-published book on Du Bois entitled The Scholar Denied that his role as scholar/activist would provide a lens for me to think and act in 2015.  But I find myself seeking counsel anew from his work.

We all know that racial violence and oppression is hardly new. And it was not new a century ago when Du Bois wrote, “We bow our heads and hearken soft to the sobbing of women and little children.” The Black community sobs today. Racial oppression has not lifted. Black poverty still stalks the land and as Du Bois observed in 1903, “To be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships.”

9780520276352Over a century ago, Du Bois founded a field of sociology that demands that we hold up for examination hard truths about racism and that forces one to separate myth from reality. He uncovered the ways in which the “white” West dominated people of color globally.  His scholarship set out to prove all races were equal and that race was “socially constructed.” Gleaning how racial oppression operated, Du Bois set out to do nothing less that produce an academic and public sociology that sought to further social justice. As he observed: “I do not laugh. I am quite straight-faced as I ask soberly: ‘But what on earth is whiteness that one should so desire it?’ Then always, somehow, some way, silently but clearly, I am given to understand that whiteness is the ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen!” The disproportionate rates of poverty, murder, and incarceration of Black people today demonstrate that white skin color continues to be privileged while Black lives are denigrated.

While activists have used a new social movement moniker Black Lives Matter to give voice to a sense that racial injustice continues to dominate the lives of people of color, I find myself wondering about what responsibilities I have as a black intellectual to speak out.  It’s risky to be an activist sociologist: as often as not it derails careers, limits social networks and curtails upward mobility in the profession and in the public media.  But, again, Du Bois illuminates my own path, declaring: “I am one who tells the truth and exposes evil and seeks with Beauty for Beauty to set the world right.”  I’ve concluded that one of the primary tasks of black sociologists—actually all sociologists– is to produce pointed and critical scholarship, even when it’s discomfiting to the powers-that-be.

As black intellectuals we need to follow Du Bois’s lead in speaking truth to power. White sociologists should also follow Du Bois’ lead and execute research enabling them to speak racial truth to power. But, ah, white privilege is a stubborn beast, standing in the way of truths. Countee Cullen, in a poetic conversation with God concedes, “Yet do I marvel at this curious thing: To make a poet black, and bid him sing!” Our calling is to sing sociological truths. Black scholars should heed Frederick Douglass’ insight: “He who would be free must himself strike the first blow!” As I try to show in The Scholar Denied, our work needs to be political, engaged, rigorous—Du Bois has paved the way for us in his path breaking, brilliant body of scholarship and activism.

morris 2Aldon D. Morris is Leon Forrest Professor of Sociology and African American Studies at Northwestern University and the author of Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change, among other books.