"Acoustic Ghostwriting: Rap Aesthetics and Late 20th Century African American Literary Experimentation"

Carter Mathes (English, Rutgers University)
Mathes is an assistant professor of English at Rutgers University.  He has completed a book manuscript entitled, Imagine the Sound: Experimental African American Literature After Civil Rights (Minnesota 2014)), that focuses on the relationship between sound and literary innovation during the 1960s and 1970s.  He has also co-edited a volume of essays on Black Arts Movement writer and critic Larry Neal, “Don’t Say Goodbye to the Porkpie Hat”: The Larry Neal Critical Reader (under review).  He is now beginning a study of black radical thought in literature and music as it moves between Jamaica and the United States during the twentieth-century.  He has essays in print or forthcoming on Toni Cade Bambara, Peter Tosh, and James Baldwin. 

"Acoustic Ghostwriting: Rap Aesthetics and Late 20th Century African American Literary Experimentation"

John Edgar Wideman’s 1990 novel, Philadelphia Fire offers a complexly layered, impressionistic literary reflection on the 1985 decision by Wilson Goode, the Mayor of Philadelphia (and the city’s first elected black Mayor), to allow the police department to drop a bomb on a row house occupied by members of the African American social activist organization, MOVE.  Wideman positions this tragic action and its lingering aftermath as an axis around which he formulates a series of multi-vocal, shifting meditations on late twentieth century urban black life in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement.  My paper specifically focuses on Wideman’s incorporation of rap musical aesthetics and the sonic orientations that these aesthetic techniques create across the narrative architecture of the novel.  Rather than read this text as simply representative of black postmodernism (as it has often been framed), I consider the formal presence of rap lyricism and approaches to sampling as tools that allow Wideman to create a quickly shifting yet intimately probing series of critical perspectives throughout the interwoven layers of the novel.  Moving between analyses of Wideman’s collage-style assemblage of voices and thoughts, and the aural (as well as lyrical) dimensions of several rap collaboration between Ghostface Killah and the RZA, I argue that the sonic innovations of rap present a formal and epistemological orientation that facilitates Wideman’s literary inquiry into post-Civil Rights era black political culture.