“I might be stretching it, but I believe if William Blake were alive he would be a hip-hop rapper”, Christian hip-hop artist and Blake enthusiast Testament told his audience in the depths of Blackwell’s Norrington Room last Friday night. To be honest, I’m not so sure his audience agreed.
As part of the “Inspired by Blake” festival, this whistle stop tour of the development of hip hop pointed not only to the influence Blake has had on a number of specific Brit Pop artists (Kate Tempest perhaps the most notable in light of her recent Mercury Prize) but also to the similarities between Blakean and hip-hop innovation.
It may not be very “Oxford” to acknowledge that education and genius do not always follow the same course, but the most powerful contradiction thrown up by the festival’s events must surely be that fact. Moreover, there is something oddly inappropriate about buying tickets to events celebrating the work of a “visionary” who was almost entirely ignored in his own lifetime, just as the use of “Jerusalem” as something of a national anthem must surely be one of the most impressive face-palms of all time.
Hip-hop, too, is often discounted; the image of hip-hop presented by the gimmicky dollar-sign jewellery couldn’t be further from the political criticism and rousing critique found in the lyrics of artists like Testament. Many artists work other jobs to support their endeavours.
Hip hop is a form that is “talking directly to someone” and a lot of the time that “someone” doesn’t want to listen. For Testament hip hop (not all hip hop, but the best hip hop) finds “discontent with this material world and touches through to a spiritual one”. In using new techniques and exploring different ways of creating art and sound to raise questions on the state we could almost be talking of the striking art and poetry of Blake – the “mind forg’d manacles” have not yet disappeared.
The similarities do not end in challenging the state or innovating art, however, even the imagery can be compared – both genres rely heavily on Christian writings. Compare, for example, 2Pac’s use of the “shadow of death” in ‘So Many Tears’ with Blake’s “Into the Furnaces & into the valleys of the Anvils of Death.” Both artists interrogate and take meaning from a common source.
Blake’s work concerned orphans, “chimney sweeps” and “youthful harlots” in a time when most poetry was gentrified – hip hop doesn’t shy away from the unglamorous either (“The gods are in the betting shops / the gods are in the caff” states Kate Tempest in Brand New Ancients).
The acknowledgement that not all of life can be idealised, while also presenting an ideal is at the heart of the form and the poet – “I must create a system or be enslaved by another mans”, says Blake. And this is at the heart, too, of hip hop’s growth from the civil rights movement in America. Facing artistic and worldly fear has never been more important – and Testament’s work creating a hip hop show (Blake Remixed) around these (ironically) canonised texts shows boldness and openness that I think Blake would have liked more than the academic talks about him. Perhaps he would’ve been a rapper after all…