I’ve long loved jazz music. It was my high school art teacher Mrs. Melba Cooper who gave me my first real introduction to the beauty that flowed from the big band and swing to the bebop and cool eras. From Duke to Ella to Miles, to (my favorite) Coltrane, it all has broadened my view and deepened my love for my people–black people who birthed this great music and all of the tributaries of creative expression that help to form the mighty river that is the artistic legacy of black peoples. This is a hallmark of the wider black experience. Black folks have creative genius. …Suddenly, I’m afraid that someone’s gonna scream #AllLivesMatter!

Black people have always taken the sub-par circumstances, resources, etc. and made exceptional works of brilliance and beauty with them. Table scraps became soul-food. The ear-hustled fragments of the slavemaster’s religious discourse became a source for the field songs, ring-shouts and sermons to be included in the longstanding oral tradition. It’s what Cornel West calls “tragicomic hope…a profound attitude toward life reflected in the work of artistic geniuses…”[1] West goes on to explain that “the black American interpretation of the tragicomic hope in the face of dehumanizing hate and oppression will be seen as the only kind of hope that has any kind of maturity in a world of overwhelming barbarity and beastiality.”[2]

It’s was those same oppressive, segregating forces that made the great migration a necessity. And it was after this migration that these new artistic forms could really begin to flourish. The Harlem Renaissance was a direct outgrowth of this determination and hope. It was Brent Edwards who said that Jazz is significant because it represents some of the best potentials that are inherent in the American conceptions of democracy–making sure everyone has a place to have their own say.”[3] And boy could these creative geniuses say it. They created their own spaces like the Savoy, and styles like Swing to communicate a determination and zest for life that would not, could not be squelched.

The above video features the swinging, scatting styles of the incomparable Cab Calloway leading his big band in the 1943 film Stormy Weather. However its the athletic, acrobatic dancing prowess of the Nicholas Brothers that makes the clip so timeless. These creative geniuses were two of the most famous in the world even though they had never had formal dance training.[4]  The clip represents what is possibly know as their most famous performance. Speaking of the timeless number, Fayard Nicholas recalls, “We never rehearsed it, but we could picture in our minds what we were really supposed to do.”[5]

No rehearsal. Just plain genius.

This genius is what preserved the slaves and composed those powerful field songs and ring shouts. It’s the same genius that gave birth to the reverberating bitter resolve of the blues, and the faithful fortitude of gospel music. It’s the same genius that sprung the sounds of swing and the high flying Lindy-Hoppers of the day. 

Its the same creative genius that caused poor black kids from the Bronx to jimmy-rig homemade soundsystems to neighborhood playground street lights and move the crowd by looping break beats from the soulful sounds of James Brown. It’s only true creative genius that would cause these poor black kids with little formal musical/instrumentation or electrical training to devise systems for looping, mixing, fading, and sampling existing forms of music to make a brand new style. It’s only creative genius that would make a young person grab the mic and mesmerize the anxious crowd with percussive rhyming words that were in lock-step with the beat. 

Speaking of locking, it was the creative genius of the Nicholas brothers and the like that would inspire more creative geniuses to devise their own  form of dance. It was while the breakbeats were looping that these kids grabbed broken down cardboard boxes from local furniture stores so that they could dance and spin under sounds of the Herculoid subwoofer speakers without scraping themselves on the concrete. They popped and locked, and with disjointed and fragmented movements told the story of their broken and interrupted lives. 

All of this and more would soon come to be known as Hip-Hop, and it is pure creative genius. But you know the old folks would always say, “The chip don’t fall too far from the block.” 


[1] Cornel West, Democracy Matters, p. 19.

[2] ibid. p. 20.

[3] Brent Edwards speaking on the PBS series: The African Americans Many Rivers to Cross by Henry Louis Gates “Episode Four: Making a Way Out of No Way (1897 – 1940).”  

[4] The Nicholas Brothers Flying High, 1999. Accessed at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jTmJowrBwOY

[5] ibid.

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