Rap Music and the Stagolee Mythoform

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Spring 2005, Volume 4, Issue 1
http://www.americanpopularculture.com/journal/articles/spring_2005/nelson.htm



Angela Nelson
Bowling Green State University

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 manifestations.

Stagolee: 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 American culture.

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 satisfaction.”

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 from "Kid":

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 in them.

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 to Arizona.

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.

I 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.

Conclusion

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 from oppression.

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.

Works Cited

Above the Law. Livin’ Like Hustlers. Ruthless/Epic Records, ET 46041, 1990.

Abrahams, Roger D. Deep Down in the Jungle: Negro Narrative Folklore from the Streets of Philadelphia. Chicago: Aldine, 1970.

Asante, Molefi Kete. The Afrocentric Idea. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1987.

Baker, Jr., Houston A. Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987.

Campbell, Joseph with Bill Moyers. The Power of Myth. New York: Doubleday, 1988.

Cocks, Jay. “N. W. A.’s Grotesque New Rap Album Soars to No. 1.” Time 1 July 1991: 78.

Gore, Tipper. “Hate, Rape and Rap.” Washington Post 8 Jan. 1990: 15A.

Gundersen, Edna and James T. Jones IV. “Public Enemy Draws Fire and Support for Arizona Video’s Lethal Racism Fantasy.” USA Today 16 Jan. 1992: 2D.

Jarvis, Jeff. “The Couch Critic: Nightmare Café.” TV Guide 22 Feb. 1992: 24.

Kellner, Douglas. “Television, Mythology and Ritual.” Praxis 6 (1982): 132-55.

Levine, Lawrence W. Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought From Slavery to Freedom. New York: Oxford UP, 1977.

Lewis-Peterson, Sonja. “A Feminist Analysis of the Defenses of Obscene Rap Lyrics.” Black Sacred Music: A Journal of Theomusicology 5.1 (Spring 1991): 68-79.

MobVersa. Cold Chillin’ in the Studio Live. Uni Records, UNI-10, 1988.

Molette, Carlton W. and Barbara J. Molette. Black Theatre: Premise and Presentation. Bristol, IN: Wyndham Hall, 1986.

Naughty by Nature. Naughty by Nature. Tommy Boy, TBCD-1044, 1991.

Poison Clan. Two Low Life Muthas. Effect Records, E-3001, 1990.

Roberts, John W. From Trickster to Badman: The Black Folk Hero in Slavery and Freedom. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1989.

Schoolly D. Am I Black Enough for You? Jive Records, 1237-1-J, 1989.

Scott, Sophfronia. “People: Rapid Rap Rise.” Time 24 June 1991: 67.

2 Live Crew. As Nasty As They Wanna Be. Skyywalker, XR-107, 1989.

 

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