This essay will examine how the Stagolee mythoform is manifested
in the lyrics of African American rap music during its initial
commercial breakthrough and crossover from 1988 to 1992. Molefi
Asante spends a considerable amount of time explaining mythology
as it operates in African American culture in his book The
Afrocentric Idea, which will serve as a foundation for my
ideas. Myth is often defined as a traditional story accepted as
history, a story that serves to explain the worldview of a people
or to instruct or to entertain (Kellner 133-34). African American
mythmaking primarily involves the response to life in America
by the person of African descent. Asante contends that myth becomes
an explanation for the human condition and an answer to the problem
of psychological existence in a racist society (98). According
to Asante, myth is most pervasive as a mythoform, which is the
generator of social ideas and concepts in our relationships with
peers, friends, family, and ancestors (96). Even while myth is
connected to life and its social functions, functionalism alone
cannot dictate what myth is or should be. Overall, says Asante,
African Americans use mythoforms to preserve links to the past
– mythoforms are their cultural history (98-99).
Within this context, the ancestors of African Americans play an
important role as heroes and heroines. Mythoforms in African American
discourse demonstrate control over circumstances, as opposed to
control over nature. For example, Harriet Tubman, a significant
mythoform in African American culture who actually lived, symbolizes
an enactment of resistance. She is an enactment of courage and
survival in a racist society. She is the caring mythoform: a rescuer
of her people. Like Tubman, it is the black heroine or hero’s
mission to surmount any obstacle in the cause of peace, love,
or collective spiritual harmony (98-100).
What I seek to demonstrate in this essay is how the African American
mythoform of Stagolee informs African American rappers. I believe
this is a culturally significant connection to make because of
the similarities that exist between Stagolee and some male African
American rappers: Both (1) challenge authority, (2) embody toughness,
badness, maleness, and blackness, (3) seek to achieve victory
by any means necessary, and (4) are archetypes of resistance.
I will show that the heritage of this historic, folk, popular,
and legendary hero in African American culture was enacted during
the initial commercial breakthrough of African American rap music,
albeit unconsciously and sometimes in the form of parody. In addition,
I will briefly describe the mythoform and its various discourse
Symbol of Resistance
Stagolee, who was also known as Stackolee, Stackerlee, Stackalee,
Stacker Lee, Staggerlee, and Stack Lee, was the most important
"bad man" or "bad nigger" in black folklore
(Levine 413). Historian Lawrence Levine notes that there are versions
of Stagolee myths dating back to 1895 (413). More recently, in
1964, folklorist Roger D. Abrahams has recorded three versions
of Stagolee from three African American males in Philadelphia
(136-42). Stagolee is the town bully and in every version of this
myth the central event is a gun battle between Stagolee and another
"bad man," Billy (or Bully) Lyons. Stagolee shows no
compassion toward Billy and successfully kills him. Ultimately,
Stagolee is captured, but even when sentenced to jail or death,
he typically remains stubborn and arrogant to the end (Levine
414). The three versions of Stagolee myths include the following
ten elements: (1) a description of the social and historical context,
(2) a catalog of Stagolee’s material belongings, (3) Stagolee’s
ceremonial gait down the street, (4) Stagolee’s entrance
into the “Bucket of Blood,” (5) the serving of the
fateful meal and the consequent killing of the bartender, (6)
the arrival of the dead man's mother and her warning about the
coming of her other son, Billy Lyons (or Benny Long), (7) the
deploying of the girl for sexual intercourse to keep Stagolee
at the "Bucket of Blood," (8) the arrival of Billy,
(9) the fight, and (10) Billy's demise (Abrahams 134-35). Other
versions of Stagolee say he is tried and convicted of murder and
then sent to jail. Still others say he was killed and sent to
hell, where he begins his career anew. This ballad, below, collected
in Texas and Louisiana in the 1930s by John and Alan Lomax illustrate
this version of the mythoform:
When de devil wife see Stack comin' she got up in a quirl,
"Here come dat bad nigger an' he's jus' from de udder worl.'"
All de devil' little chillun went sc'amblin' up de wall,
Say, "Catch him, pappa, befo' he kill us all"....
Stagolee took de pitchfork an' he laid it on de shelf –
"Stand back, Tom Devil, I'm gonna rule Hell by
myself." (Levine 415; Abrahams 132)
Stagolee represents a person who is not responsive or responsible
to white laws or society. According to Abrahams, he is an arrogant
bully and troublemaker who is a "bad man" both by nature
and by white society's standards since his acts violate their
laws (129-30). Works by Levine, Abrahams, and Geneva Smitherman
do not give a sufficient analysis of Stagolee and his place in
African American culture (although perhaps it was not their intention).
In addition, Carlton Molette and Barbara Molette do not discuss
him at all since he is neither a common character in black theater
nor a cultural folk hero based on their criteria. On the other
hand, Asante fully examines the significance of Stagolee in African
First of all, Asante says Stagolee represents the radical impulse
to challenge an authority that seeks to repress freedom, improvisation,
and spiritual harmony. He argues this mythoform contains the direct-action
orientation found in people like Marcus Garvey, Fannie Lou Hamer,
Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Further, Asante adds that
the Stagolee mythoform recurs in African American culture in the
musician who improvises, the basketball player who follows his
own rhythms to demonstrate his skill, or the "deformer"
(Baker 15) who refuses to have her art suppressed. In sum, these
persons are the heroines and heroes of African American culture,
and Stagolee is their prototype (Asante 106).
According to Asante, an authentic Afrocentric rhetoric is founded
upon the slave narrative. Stagolee, not surprisingly, is also
related to slavery because he retains the fundamental attitude
of resistance as manifested in the slave revolt. He, like enslaved
Africans, has a deep conviction for justice for all people and
for emancipation from oppression. Because Asante does not want
his readers to confuse Stagolee with a person who actually lived,
such as Harriet Tubman, he informs us that Stagolee is only a
presentation, a presence, a symbolic enactment of the African
experience in America (107). Stagolee is significant to African
American culture to the extent that African Americans do not need
to call his name because his attitude of resistance is maintained
through their relationships with friends, family, peers, and ancestors
in a racist, sexist, and classist society.
Perhaps the best enactment of the Stagolee mythoform was in Malcolm
X's oratory, itself a prototype of hard-core rap rhetoric and
style. Asante says Malcolm X spoke outrage and the possibility
of violence (if it was a necessary means) in the defense of the
dignity of black people (109). Therefore, through enactments like
Malcolm X's, Stagolee ultimately must be seen as an oratorical
or verbal symbol of resistance. He is an archetype of the rebel,
protest speaker, and revolutionary. He is the African American
discourse metaphor for the rhetoric of resistance (Asante 110).
Following him came such well-known figures as H. Rap Brown, Gil-Scott
Heron, James Brown, and Chuck D.
The rhetoric of resistance has always been an essential element
in African American culture, and it still exists in the language
of rappers today. African American male and female rappers embody
the attitude of resistance in their very artistic existence, language,
fashion, and gestures. In fact, the rise of hip-hop has been of
major concern to American society, as evident in the preponderance
of articles and reports about it in the late eighties and early
nineties. It has been principally portrayed as a music that is
bereft of ethical values. In fact, an article by the president
of the Parents' Music Resource Center (PMRC), Tipper Gore, associated
the "violent" lyrics of such rappers as Ice-T, 2 Live
Crew, and Public Enemy with rape. However, in the language of
black literary scholar Houston Baker, white American society is
responding just as he would expect when the "deformation
of mastery" is occurring. He says the "African sounds"
of rap are only "monstrous and deformed" to intruders
of it; these intruders includes most whites and some blacks (usually
of higher socio-economic status) (Baker 52). The aesthetic and
ritualistic values within hip-hop – rhythm, percussiveness,
and call-and-response – are predominantly foreign to Western
cultural and musical values.
Stagolee is the archetype of this difference. The traditional
myths about him illustrate his badness and meanness and suggest
he is an outlaw, perhaps one of white America’s "most
wanted." The names of rap groups and performers suggest Stagolee
is alive in contemporary African American "naming culture":
Public Enemy, Rebel MC, NWA (Niggaz With Attitude), Terminator
X, Gangsta Pat, Digital Underground, HWA (Hoes With Attitude),
BWP (Bytches With Problems), Poison Clan, Above the Law, and Detroit's
Most Wanted. The enactment of Stagolee's "badness" (meaning
that he is both the best at what he does and is the most "low-down"
and "dirty") is the essence of boasting in hip-hop,
as well as in the blues. Debonaire and J. T., the MCs of Poison
Clan (known as the "Baby 2 Live Crew"), boast of their
notoriety in the title cut, "2 Low Life Mutha F---as."
Debonaire illustrates his notoriety in another rap entitled "Bad
Influence," where he says he is the "devil's dad."
When black males refer to themselves as someone's "daddy,"
they usually mean that they have some kind of authority, that
they are more experienced and mature, and that they possess more
wisdom and physical strength to subdue another male. So, Debonaire's
claim portrays him as "badder" than the devil himself,
"badder" than bluesman Peetie Wheatstraw who was known
as the "Devil's Son-in-Law." This makes Debonaire "super
bad." Also, Debonaire's boast is similar to Stagolee's situation
with the devil. He told the devil in this ballad version: "Stand
back, I'm gonna rule hell by myself." By boasting that he
is the devil's dad, Debonaire is essentially saying he can rule
hell alone, and the devil should stand back.
In many ways, Stagolee was not simply a "bad nigger"
but a "super nigger," which is the title of a mix by
Schoolly D's DJ. A vocal cut-in parodies a phrase often used by
the comic book character Superman, and, not surprisingly, Schoolly
D has given it a new twist: "This looks like a job for super
nigger." Demonstrating this attitude, MobVersa, another rap
group, acknowledges that their music is "militant" and
poses a threat to society. Above the Law says they are a "menace
to society," and they have to rap. In addition, they state
that since God gave them the talent to rap, no one can take it
away from them, perhaps not even the devil.
Critics like Tipper Gore and the judge who ruled that 2 Live Crew's
1990 performance in a Florida nightclub was obscene would agree
with these artists' "bad" self-portrayal. In two raps
by Naughty by Nature, "Yoke the Joker" and "Wickedest
Man Alive," the lead MC, Treach, enacts the Stagolee mythoform
when he describes himself as the "Freddy [Krueger] of rap"
and as the "wickedest man alive." "Wicked"
implies the highest level of evil and/or skill a person can achieve.
"Freddie Krueger," a character, who appeared in the
first version of the film A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984),
represented the greatest degree of evil, appearing in people's
nightmares and usually killing them (Jarvis 24). Treach's use
of these two ideas suggests his skill is so developed that he
can "out rap," or "kill," any rappers who
attempt to compete against him.
In rap music, Stagolee is indeed a symbolic enactment of black
self-affirmation in a racist society. Although I have discussed
several rappers who represent an attitude and rhetoric of resistance,
no rappers do this more than the rap groups Public Enemy, NWA,
and 2 Live Crew. 2 Live Crew, led by Miami-native Luther Campbell,
actively attacks Western views on sex and sexuality. In June 1990,
their album, As Nasty as They Wanna Be, was deemed obscene
by a U. S. district court judge in Florida, and Campbell was arrested
on charges of obscenity after the group performed songs from the
album in a Florida nightclub. The 2 Live Crew case became a landmark
in that they were the first musical act to have an album deemed
obscene in a U.S. district court (Lewis-Peterson 69). Psychologist
Sonja Lewis-Peterson argues that the focus on the constitutionality
and racially-motivated persecution and prosecution of this black
male rap group has overshadowed the true issue, which is the use
of sexually explicit lyrics on the Nasty album and their portrayal
of women as objects for sexual assault (70). Basically, the method
by which 2 Live Crew expresses their sexual prowess as men is
through violent references to women. In "D--k Almighty,"
they say: “I’ll tear a p---y open cause it’s
2 Live Crew are enacting Stagolee's sexual prowess, which is only
one aspect of Stagolee's nature and character. His sexual prowess
is implied in several versions of his myth. For example, in his
exchange with the female who is supposed to keep him occupied
at the bar until the arrival of Billy Lyons, Stagolee takes her
upstairs, so he can "prove" his virility. To illustrate
this scene, below is a "toast" recorded by Roger Abrahams
Just then a cute little broad came over, a terrible smile.
She looked me up and down and said, "You look like you
ain't had none, Daddy, in quite a while."
I said, "Now raise, b---h, don't hand me that s--t.
I'm used to p---y quite a bit."
She looked at her watch, it was quarter to eight.
She said, "Come on upstairs, I'ma set you straight."
The bed gave a twist, the springs gave a twistle.
I throwed nine inches of joint to the whore before she
could move a gristle.
We came back downstairs. They was f-----g on the bar,
s-----g on the floor.
Just then you could hear a pin drop, for that bad-ass
Benny Long walked in the door. (Abrahams 137)
2 Live Crew are, like Stagolee, resisting Western notions of
sexuality. However, for many segments of the African American
community, 2 Live Crew represents the worst element within Afro-America
(Roberts 213). In sum, 2 Live Crew are essentially deemed “bad
niggers” (Roberts 171-219).
Perhaps the most supreme enactments of "bad niggers"
was Niggaz With Attitude (NWA), who express an attitude of resistance
against white supremacist ideology and some fundamental African
American cultural values. Although in their rap of 1988 "F--k
tha Police" they speak of the unfair treatment of black males
by police (white and black) in Los Angeles, several of the raps
on their 1991 album, Efil4zaggin (Niggaz4Life), are even more
destructive according to some critics. For instance, the rap "One
Less Bitch" says that a fool is “one who believes all
women are ladies” and that a “nigga” is a person
“who believes all ladies are bitches” (Cocks 78).
In another rap, they have an "appetite for destruction,"
an appetite that compels them to commit manslaughter and murder
in the first degree (Cocks 78). NWA was definitely not doing business
as usual. They might have been deconstructing white supremacy,
but they were also enacting the "self-fulfilling prophecy
syndrome" by "constructing" the stereotypes whites
already had about black males. As "bad niggers," or
"bad niggaz," some African Americans may have viewed
NWA’s behavior as the primary reason for the continued persecution
of blacks in American society (Roberts 179). However, NWA only
saw themselves as threats to white American society, not to African
American culture necessarily. In a June 1991 article Dr. Dre of
NWA said this: "People are hungry for NWA. Nobody can do
it [gangster rap] as good as we can. We're underground reporters.
We're just tellin' the news" (Scott 67). Furthermore, in
a July 1991 article about their album's appeal to white American
middle-class teenagers, MC Ren replied: "The record's real.
It’s the truth. White kids have been seeing so many negative
images of blacks in the media for most of their lives. Now they
have a chance to see something real. White kids got hip. What
can you say?" (Cocks 79). MC Ren believes white teenagers
should be able to see the negative images of blacks come to life
Overall, NWA vindicated themselves by saying they were simply
“telling the truth.” Truth is a state of being corresponding
with experiences, facts, or existential reality. African Americans
have always felt compelled to “tell the truth” about
their experiences in America in order to counter the “lies”
that early Europeans created about them and their history. Among
the several forms of expressivity available to African Americans
in the past and present, music has been a principal means by which
they have expressed the truth of their experiences. Truth-telling
is an ethic in African American culture, one of the culture’s
highest moral values, because as during the days of enslavement
and now, truth-telling is used as a way of maintaining self-dignity
and holding at bay the oppositional myths the oppressors have
used to control African Americans.
Accordingly, NWA believed it was important to tell the truth about
their experiences and their disapproval of white supremacist ideology
and its adverse consequences for black people. Further studies
on this issue of "gangster rappers" can ascertain the
sacrality of their "truth"; however, for my purposes
I need only say that even as "bad niggaz," NWA portrayed
the "burden of freedom" through "truth-telling,"
and they valued it more than complying with white American middle-class
values that ethnocentrically determine what and which "kind"
of truth is acceptable to tell.
Public Enemy also expresses an attitude and rhetoric of resistance.
Although they do not speak about killing excursions and committing
unspeakable acts to women, as do NWA and 2 Live Crew, rappers
Public Enemy explicitly speak about the social and political status
of African Americans in combative and abrasive terms. They are
"badmen" in the sense that they are battling against
the constraints of white supremacist ideology. This may not always
appear to be the case, for there was a considerable amount of
controversy concerning their video released in 1992 on Dr. Martin
Luther King's national holiday, entitled By the Time I Get
By the Time I Get to Arizona is a fictional revenge "fantasy"
that graphically depicts the assassination of officials of Arizona,
one of two states, at that time, yet to proclaim Martin Luther
King's birthday a holiday. Critics asked if it was a 1990's version
of Black Power or simply anarchy, warping King's message of peace
(Gundersen and Jones 2D). Public Enemy leader Chuck D said the
video was not a King viewpoint but a Public Enemy viewpoint.
say a tooth for a tooth, a head for a head, but…I'm telling
people to be more intelligent. I'm anti-gangster; I'm into total
education of our community. But how in the hell can you be non-violent
in a violent society? The biggest gangsters have been the U. S.
government [and] white supremacy in the Western world. [Critics]
know I'm no Dr. King or any preacher...I'm here to create a lot
of dialogue. (Gundersen and Jones 2D)
The controversy over the Arizona video exemplified how African
Americans viewed black protest speakers or Stagolee enactors,
such as Public Enemy, as "badmen" and "bad niggers."
Although Chuck D says he was creating a dialogue about the effects
of white supremacy, some of the traditional civil rights activists,
along with King's family, blasted the video for distorting King's
devotion to peace. They "worried" that young rap fans
would embrace Public Enemy's "vengeful stance" (Gundersen
and Jones 2D). However, unlike 2 Live Crew who justify their "obscene"
actions because America really desired it, and NWA who say they
are angry at America and must tell the truth, rappers Public Enemy
are consciously deconstructing white supremacist ideology. They
were combative and antagonistic, but their mission was to attack
directly the absurdity of the system of white superiority that
was reflected in the two states that imply that a black man is
undeserving of having a Federal holiday proclaimed in his name.
Martin Luther King did more to bring the races of America together
than any other American, so where was the justice in opposing
his national recognition with a holiday? Public Enemy was deforming
the "minstrel mask" of hypocrisy to awaken African Americans
and white Americans to the truth. They were illustrating that
if violent behavior is systematically used against a group of
people because of their race then at some point the receivers
of this aggression will conceive of solutions that will also embrace
violent aggression. Public Enemy is an enactment of Stagolee,
and they have an attitude in line with the rhetoric of resistance.
Mythology in rap is personified through the historic, folk, popular,
and legendary mythoform of Stagolee. Although most times used
unconsciously, mythoforms are pedagogical and sociological tools
in African American culture, and they support and validate the
values and beliefs in it (Campbell 31). Stagolee is ultimately
an oratorical (or verbal) symbol of resistance. He is an archetype
of the rebel, protest speaker, and revolutionary. Like enslaved
Africans, Stagolee has a deep conviction for the attainment of
justice for all people and for the attainment of human emancipation
In sum, the Stagolee mythoform displays an attitude and rhetoric
of resistance to white supremacist ideology that rappers enact
through their music. Stagolee is indeed a symbolic enactment of
black self-affirmation in a racist society. Present-day African
American male and female rappers continue in this genealogy, particularly,
by embodying the attitude of resistance in their very artistic
existence, language, fashion, and gestures. From 1988 to 1992,
the Stagolee mythoform was kept alive in African American rap
music as a contemporary response to life in America.
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