In this chapter I examine the ways in which hip hop exemplifies the instrumentalization of “words as weapons.” From Bam’s seminal call for street gangs to battle with mics instead of macs, to Rakim’s “Lyrics of Fury,” NWA’s entreaty to “Express Yourself,” the lyrical “trajectories” of Guru’s words on “Brainstorm,” Wu-Tang’s 36 Chambers ideology, Jun Tzu’s localizations of The Art of War, Sidi-O’s “Extrait de Aumertume” [Extract of Bitterness], and King Giddra’s “Saishu Heiki” [Bullet of Truth], hip hop has long conceived of such verbal arsenals, lyrical kung fu, and other rhetorical gestures to words becoming weapons. Indeed, we might think of this weaponization of knowledge as the very premise of hip hop—of rap music as martial art. While this theorization will help explain hip hop’s deep and enduring commitment to East Asian and global martial arts (kung fu, karate, jiu jitsu, capoeira, etc.), my aim here is a more foundational one—to account for the ways that the trope of violence functions and circulates in hip hop discourses and performative practices.
The chapter employs a political economy framework to argue that this performative translation from the material to the discursive, so central to hip hop knowledge and artistry, is premised on the centrality (and adjacency) of the first and second amendments of the U.S. constitution: “the freedom of speech” and “the right to bear arms.” I argue that the adjacency of these instruments of revolution, as codified in the 1789 document, has led to a superstructural conflation of the two. Yes, speech has always been a powerful weapon, but weapons are now speech—according to a (notably white) slice of the American citizenry. Using Ta-Nehisi Coates’s thesis that racial violence is central to American national identity and with the backdrop of Ferguson, #BlackLivesMatter, and mass shootings firmly in focus, I tease out the ways that hip hop has proven an unlikely force for non-violence. While the term “martial art” remains a paradox for many, it seems a fitting place to begin in accounting for the ways that hip hop provides a discursive and performative field in which to vent frustrations, enact fantasies, build confidence, and formulate plots—without ending up in jail or shot (so to speak). The chapter concludes with the suggestion that hip hop, as an artistic outlet, might be one reason that, despite their commonplace marginalization, demonization, and criminalization, young black men have not gravitated toward the white male pastime of mass shooting.