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Coates, hip hop, and philosophical thinking beyond the education system

Coates, hip hop, and philosophical thinking beyond the education system

Izzy Ortner is a fourth year Contemporary Studies student at King’s as well as a Political Science student at Dalhousie. The courses that have shaped her at King’s include Asia and the West, Post Colonial Literature, Idea of Race in Philosophy, Literature, Art, and Feminisms: the First Three Waves. She writes political poetry in her spare time.

The latest class which has impacted Izzy is Philosophy of Hip Hop. This course navigates two key philosophical concepts of Foucault and Butler that inform our understanding of Hip Hop as a legitimate philosophical endeavour.

Hip Hop questions the white, dominant discourse which reinforces neoliberalism and treats systemic racism, oppression, and violence toward Black people as tragic and infrequent rather than the deliberate, baked in legal, social, economic, and political systems that perpetuate racial violence.

Judith Butler’s racist saturation of the visible in her work Reading Rodney King, discusses the ways in which we comprehend the visual media we consume. Our aesthetic field is influenced by our personal identities and makes it difficult to untangle white sensibilities with media interpretation. Think: “The person should have just complied with police and then that would not have happened.” Often, non-Black media and citizens are quick to assume guilt and believe the individual deserved violent punishment because the white, neoliberal police state is assumed to be benevolent. However, Hip Hop challenges the punishment discourse. Hip Hop aims to destabilize our understanding of crime and punishment; it speaks to truth and power instead of discipline and punishment.

Michel Foucault’s episteme, in a rudimentary sense, refers to a priori knowledge informed by discourse of the current time. In our time, white, neoliberal, civility politics is a cornerstone of social and political discourse. It is the assumed truth of many North American citizens’ ideological sensibilities. The episteme therefore serves as a mindset in which the racist saturation of the visible veils white folks from understanding the true pervasiveness of racism in all spheres of life.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me is a text we explored in Philosophy of Hip Hop. It is an intimate portrait of Coates’ life and experience with race relations, the education system, and American history. Through his lived experience, he shows how rapper Nas shaped his philosophical understanding of himself and the world and how writing his own bars served as a creative and philosophical exercise in asserting his agency as an independent thinker.


Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me highlights how the condition of the Black body and American history are interconnected and how often this relation is blinded for white people who do not have the experiential knowledge to see the pervasive nature of racism in America. The term “people” in a political and historical sense has in America been white centric. Coates writes, “the question is not whether Lincoln truly meant “government of the people” but what our country has, throughout its history, taken the political term “people” to actually mean” (6). Institutions continue to leave behind people that look like Coates and he drives this home by showing how race complicates this notion of personhood and existing in a community.

Racism is seen by the dominant discourse to be a natural phenomenon which is far removed from the handiwork of people. It is seen as a natural progression from race, which is taken by its literal definition and not further analyzed as a concept stemming from socially constructed racial hierarchies. Coates states, “race is the child of racism, not the father” (7). Whiteness throughout history has sought to reinforce racial difference and oppression.

The history of America is founded on the exploitation and pillaging of resources, lives, and liberty. Despite this, America continues its pursuit of American exceptionalism to prove the country to be the greatest above all. Coates asserts that if we are to take this notion of American exceptionalism seriously, we hold it to “an exceptional moral standard” (8). This exceptional moral standard is not upheld in modern America. Rather, it is routinely not followed through the systemic racism found in state institutions such as law enforcement. The police are “endowed with the authority to destroy your body” (9) no questions asked. Acts of injustice, violence, and inequality are upheld not by immoral individuals, but by citizens who are correctly interpreting laws and policies of the state. The legacy of American history reinforces this correct interpretation. To be Black and Brown in America to never be fully entranced by the “most gorgeous dream” (11) of the United States. Here, the driving message of the first part of Between the World and Me arises. Ta-Nehisi Coates is addressing not just this notion of the disillusionment of the American dream, but the entire section of his writing to his son, who has gone through this disillusionment by seeing young Black boys on the news murdered by police.

Black people do not have the luxury to be swooned by the dream. Ta-Nehisi Coates states that he feels he cannot properly comfort his son, because this would be futile. The reality of being Black in America is to not be able to access this luxury because to do so would risk one’s life and body. Yet, “the dream rests on our backs” (11) Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, despite not having access to its idyllic dreamscape.

Life within the Baltimore Black community that Coates grew up in translates into a larger conversation about communal language of street social norms and codes that operate outside of whiteness. Coates describes internalized fear of being a Black person in Baltimore. He heard this fear through the music he was exposed to. “I heard the fear in the music I ever knew, the music that pumped from boom boxes…it told them [young Black people] against all evidence and odds, that they were masters of their own lives, their own streets, and their own bodies” (15).

This fear largely permeated through the entire community with brushes with the police and its cycles of violence. Being Black in Baltimore, as Coates explains, is nakedness to violence—a direct assault on the body (17). The driving point is that the nakedness is intentional and a direct result of policy and laws that do not protect Black and Brown people (17).

The distance between Coates and other spaces in the world were separated by a barrier. Though his son has seen much of the “American galaxy” (21), Coates reminds his readers that the same systemic barriers remain and survival is an integral piece.

Much of the posturing on the streets of Baltimore that Coates experienced was out of this fear for survival and the posturing could be a method for feeling a sense of power, security, and street reputation (23). The “thrill” (23) of living on the edge with near-death experiences on the streets is not a choice for people of colour, but this rhetoric of the thrill was demonstrated with rappers. This posturing is a sort of self-protecting mechanism against the oppressive state and the hardship of every day hustle. Learning the body language and verbal codes of the streets acted as learned security for one’s corporeality, as the streets were for Coates always confronted with the possibility of physical endangerment.

Rather than school being a social safety net for young people of colour, it was a source of insecurity in many cases. Coates writes, “fail to comprehend the streets and you gave up your body now. But fail to comprehend the schools and you gave up your body later” (25). Algebra, English, biology, and other subjects were vague and distant for Coates. Distant multitudes of galaxies existed, but school did not help him access them. Coates’ curiosity was not fostered at school. The classroom did not seem to assign meaning in itself. It was a means to an end—to aid in students pursuing a life in another ‘galaxy’ so to speak. Coates needed school to quench his curiosity but did not find this ever to occur. Nas’ bars about schools being a poison confirmed his suspicions about education as an institution. Schools were “drugging us with a false morality,” Coates states (26). On the other hand, school is a utilitarian escape to perhaps flee prison, death, or poverty. However, in some ways it compromised free will and a free spirit (26). Coates comes to the conclusion that both the social rules and norms of the streets and schools are the curtains between the world and him (28). Outside of these two aspects of life, he could write about feelings, question things, and draw himself into his own consciousness in order to find personal agency (29). His independent thinking was not overshadowed by religion, school, or the streets. Coates could interrogate his own understanding of the world and exercise creativity.

Through his own writing, he came to the idea that he was not an innocent, and that meant neither were those involved with the shaping of American history (29). The violence of the history of civilization was paved by so-called good intention, which is inherently hypocritical as Black people are expected to hold non-violent morality (32). This double standard prioritizes the intentions of violent institutions more than the righteous indignation of oppressed peoples.

Coates urges us to “forget about intentions” (33) because the world is physical and institutions and individuals impact our physical realities. American society’s reaction to those not adhering to institutional expectations or rules is often an excuse for society to wash their hands of responsibility and humility. Good intentions are the “sleeping pill that ensures the Dream” (33).

Coates revered Malcolm X who in the 90’s was quoted in hip hop verses. Malcolm was a symbol of fearlessness and intellect in Black communities. Malcolm included in his speeches to preserve your life and your body in the face of existential violence. He told us to not rely on the mystical and the magical. There were messages of treating yourself like a precious jewel in order to advocate for Black liberation and to remind oneself that Blackness is beautiful (35). Coates asserts that Malcolm spoke the truth, unlike the schools that hid behind faux morals, the streets that cared about bravado, and the American dreamers (36). Malcolm was plainly to the point and not mystical. “If he hated, he hated because it was human for the enslaved to hate the enslaver, natural as Prometheus hating the birds…Malcolm spoke like a man who was free, like a Black man above the laws that proscribed our imagination” (36). This freedom of expression and autonomy inspired Coates to write bad raps and bad poetry (37). Without the drive to express himself that Malcolm instilled, he may not have been able to find autonomy through exploring books and music to form his own impressions of the world and himself.

Listen to Izzy’s Philosophy of Hip Hop inspired playlist.


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