New York’s Lost-Found Tribe: Urban Black Youth, Five Percenter
Philosophy and Nationalism in the Golden Age of Hip-Hop
Adviser: Wallace D. Best
Walter Keith Griffin
“Throughout the process, I was challenged by the readings I did, by the classes I took and the ideas engaged in them, and by my thesis adviser.”
I imagine that very few students enter Princeton with a thesis topic already in mind. With freshman and writing seminars, residential college life, and making the transition from a high school to a college mentality, freshmen who anticipate this oft-dreaded senior year requirement may invite curiosity, and understandably so. Yet my senior year in high school proved to be so transformative, I set my sights on the thesis well before I should have (depending on whom you ask). But before I get into that story, some background on my personal life will shed light on why I was such a peculiar case.
I grew up in urban Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as a Christian in the Pentecostal tradition. For those unfamiliar with what it means to be a Pentecostal Christian, what it came down to for me was that this identity superseded all other identities and dictated the way in which I represented myself to the secular world. Thus, despite the fact that the majority of the members of my church were African American, strains of thought like Black Nationalism and pride seldom informed teachings that centered primarily on building a personal, spiritual relationship with God. If I had any issue or need, there were usually two answers I could reliably count on as suggestions from the church: praying and paying tithes. And most importantly, secular music—and hip-hop most especially—was strongly discouraged, preached against, and forbidden at home.
Another important piece of the puzzle involved the Republican views I espoused in high school as a result of this lifestyle. Having come of age well after the age of Reagan, with no real knowledge as to how egregious my act was in the eyes of my black peers and elders, I was partly rebelling against what I viewed as “blind liberal partisanship” in Philadelphia, and truly embracing the social platform of conservatives like George W. Bush and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum. No one could fault me for lacking conviction, because I held steadfastly to these positions externally, even though I fought an internal battle between what I was taught to believe and what I yearned to learn.
Senior year of high school would prove to be the catalyst of not only a personal transformation, but also the beginning of my love affair with my eventual thesis topic. That spring, I attended a church sermon that purported to open my eyes about the true evil behind the secular music that I secretly indulged. The true enemy to Jesus Christ and the youth that he so dearly loved was the message of the Five Percenters, according to the visiting minister. These Five Percenters, also known collectively as the Nation of Gods and Earths, taught a radical—but, as I would come to learn, not so new—creed that centered on the divinity of the black man, which was blasphemy to those who had accepted Christ as their lord and savior. The group disseminated their message, at times blatantly but often subversively, through the cryptic language employed in neo-soul and hip-hop music. After going home that night, I said goodbye to CDs by artists such as Jill Scott, Nas, Jay-Z, Destiny’s Child, and OutKast. If the message sounded even remotely secular, Islamic, or as if it came from the Five Percenters, it found a new home in my trash receptacle.
That reaction, however, was not enough to quell my fascination with the Five Percenters, and being a rebel by nature in matters of popular culture, I found my way back to the same records I trashed upon enrolling in Princeton. For me, there was something deeper to these mysterious, “dangerous” Five Percenters about which I had to learn. Was it political? Cultural? Economic? All of these questions lingered in my mind from the moment I stepped foot on campus, and as a freshman, I was determined to prove by April 2010 that the Five Percenters had a direct impact on the positions taken by black political figures during the 1990s.
Naturally (and fortunately), it didn’t quite pan out the way I had laid out in those first few months as a Princeton student. As I tried to pair my interest in Five Percenters with a potential declaration of politics as my major, I grew less convinced that the conclusion I reached was so cut and dried. The few historical accounts that existed on the group already reached a similar conclusion, or at least aimed at that insinuation, and the more scholarship I discovered on Five Percenters, the less convinced I was that I’d contribute anything original to the conversation. But even as my focus turned to other things academic and social, I still held onto the hope that my thesis would in some way incorporate this influential group.
In many ways, this interest propelled me to explore courses in the religion department, as did a freshman seminar, “The Religious Right in Modern America,” taught by history professor Kevin Kruse. I didn’t know it at the moment, but with that fall semester course, I was embarking on a journey that would lead me to interrogate politics through a religious lens, and I would ultimately engage race and identity, sociology, and philosophy in this approach. My interest in political conservatism and rhetoric inspired my junior paper (JP) on Jimmy Carter and the rise of the evangelical presidency. I set out with the goal to have two completely different topics for my JP and my thesis, but the independent research I conducted when learning about the Religious Right deeply informed my understanding of the significance of the Five Percenters and their moment in cultural and political history.
In this same time period, I also took courses offered by the Center for African American Studies. Among the most influential on my thinking was “Black Power and Its Theology of Liberation,” taught by religion professor Eddie Glaude, particularly for the way in which it reframed players like Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael as equally important to the black freedom struggle as Martin Luther King Jr. With this in mind, I went on to take “The Nation of Islam in America” with my eventual thesis adviser, Professor Wallace Best, understanding that what I originally took to be fringe developments were in fact central to the cultural development of African Americans.
All of these experiences made me more ready than ever before to embark on the thesis journey. Much of my initial research during the summer before senior year was book based, and dealt as much with learning about the period in which the Five Percenters came to prominence as it did with learning about the group’s founder, Clarence 13X, and early adherents. Along the way, Professor Best continued to push me in different directions, and I didn’t understand in those moments that it was to add nuance to my story. In addition, the more I read and the more I learned in two of my senior-year courses (Noliwe Rooks’s “Migration, Urban Space, and African American Culture,” and Imani Perry’s “The Black Melting Pot?: Interrogating Race, Difference, and Identity”), the more the focus of my thesis changed. This understandably led to many moments of crisis in Firestone Library, in which I ran the gamut of emotions in my solitary carrel. Most important, though, was my eventual return to the music, which is what drew me to the Five Percenters in the first place. The music—more than the books, the classes, and the discussions I had with professor and peer—is what provided the focal point from which the rest of my thesis grew.
In order to properly understand the era in which Five Percenter hip-hop was most prominent, the late 1980s and early 1990s, I had to properly cover Islam’s history in 20th-century black America, touch on the Nation of Islam’s role in the emergence of Five Percenter thought, and look at Harlem in the 1960s, when the group and its philosophy really took root. The history of hip-hop and its birthplace in the Bronx also was necessary to discuss, and I found that all of these stories were more intertwined than I had originally thought. What ultimately united them was race: The realities drawn from this social construct were central to the development of Five Percenter philosophy and hip-hop culture. Finally, the politics of the era also played a huge role in influencing the message and the music, and unsurprisingly, the dominant force during this period was the Religious Right, led by the inimitable conservative president Ronald Reagan.
Throughout the process, I was challenged by the readings I did, by the classes I took and the ideas engaged in them, and by my thesis adviser. With the wrong attitude, I would have viewed these challenges as roadblocks to the story I wanted to tell instead of enhancements to the story I needed to tell. Yet, the more I opened myself to the idea that a) I could be wrong about something, or b) I could take an argument in a completely different direction, the more success I had during the writing process, one that required a lot of patience and focus. Perhaps the biggest lesson I learned was that, although I was afforded the luxury of only having two days of class a week as a second-semester senior, there was never an off day. This attitude, all of the book research I performed, and listening to Big Daddy Kane, Eric B. and Rakim, and Public Enemy powered me through the process down to the very last minute, and out of it came my thesis.
This was the crowning moment of my Princeton career, and understandably so—I enrolled with the hope of converting fear and curiosity into something I actually understood. The result was a piece of scholarship of which I could be proud, one that synthesized a lot of seemingly divergent ideas into one definitive text on urban black America in the late 1980s. I can imagine that the thesis isn’t as personal an ordeal for everyone who comes through Princeton, but my story is testament to the fact that one nagging concern could set the course for your entire undergraduate career, and as I look back, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
New York’s Lost-Found Tribe: Urban Black Youth, Five Percenter
Philosophy and Nationalism in the Golden Age of Hip-Hop
Walter Keith Griffin
Wallace D. Best
Professor of Religion and
African American Studies
“Keith brought all the analytical skills he honed during his time as an undergraduate at Princeton to bear on this intriguing topic.”
It seems impossible to me now, but when I arrived at Princeton from Harvard Divinity School in 2007, I had never heard of the Princeton senior thesis. A number of my friends had taught at Princeton or were current professors, and I had even had a yearlong fellowship at the Center for the Study of Religion in 2002. But that which was “quintessentially Princeton” had escaped my attention. In all honesty, upon learning of the importance of the thesis to Princeton culture, I was not exactly pleased. And my displeasure had as much to do with the fact that I had failed to take into account something significant when contemplating my move from Harvard, as it did the extraordinary amount of work the thesis represented for most professors. How could I have not known about it? What had I gotten myself into?
Well, I soon learned that at Princeton total immersion is fair play. I gave myself over to the work of advising theses and have come to understand why it is a crucial factor in Princeton’s standing as one of the best undergraduate educations in the country. This was made even clearer to me last year while serving as thesis adviser to Walter Keith Griffin. From our very first meeting I was sure that Keith was poised for a journey that would broaden his perspective, stretch him intellectually, and provide a worthy capstone to his time at Princeton. All of this came to pass, and the thesis he produced is a work of significant and innovative scholarship.
The Nation of Gods and Earths (NGE), or the Five Percenters, is one of the most important and culturally influential groups in the United States. But perhaps due, in part, to their small numbers, they have escaped the attention of most historians and other scholars. They also have been rather difficult to classify, given that they tend to resist a religious identity and the group disclaims any connection to the better-known Nation of Islam, of which they are historically and philosophically an extension. In his carefully researched thesis, Keith shows that the NGE have had their greatest impact in the realms of urban culture and hip-hop music. Or, as he puts it, “a profound impact on urban life, identity, and popular culture.” Because of their influence in these realms, they have shaped the discourse and the frameworks for how we understand the plight of black youth in cities and urban conditions generally.
The argument of the thesis is quite compelling. Keith holds that far from being an obscure element of New York—specifically Harlem—culture, the NGE has served “as one of the key points of entry in assessing the role of race and identity in America.” Coinciding with and in many ways generating the birth of urban hip-hop, the NGE provided a crucial language to express notions of black pride and “authentic blackness.” As he further claims, their influence during this era marked “an important moment in America’s consciousness and awareness of Black Nationalism and the rumblings of the black urban underclass.” More important, Keith shows that the “golden age” of hip-hop (1987–1993) was characterized by incisive political critique and commentary under the influence of NGE philosophy and discourse well before the themes of “gangsterism,” regional boosterism, and “conspicuous consumption” invaded the genre—the time when “message rap” was relegated to the margins. During this “golden age,” he claims, young hip-hop artists were “ambassadors of blackness” and articulated the existential angst of black urban youth “at a critical point in the story of race in the United States.”
Keith could have made this thesis a simple linear narrative. More historical accounts of the group are sorely needed, and this study makes an important contribution in that area. But “New York’s Lost-Found Tribe” combines historical method with sociological method and critical race theory. This interdisciplinary approach was necessary to reveal the group in all its ideological complexity and for the idiosyncratic nature of its beliefs and practices. Most reputable studies on the history of race in the United States, for example, assert unequivocally that race is a “social construction.” It is not “real.” It is made “real” by the experiences of particular subjects or groups. Keith shows, however, that NGE philosophy necessitates a conception of the “realness” of race. For the NGE, race is a “biological” as well as social fact. This insight supports the meticulous way Keith traces the history of the NGE from the early 1960s when it was founded by Clarence 13X, “Saint of the Street,” up to “The Age of Reagan.” Indeed, one of the best aspects of the entire thesis is the way Keith is careful to place the NGE in context.
There are several key findings in the thesis. Keith used FBI records to show how the government agency’s ideas (and surveillance) of the group changed over the years. In the early 1960s, the FBI considered the NGE “a racist hate gang” that was “as much a threat” as the Revolutionary Action Movement and the Communist Party. By the time of Clarence 13X’s death, however, he (and his movement) were considered “moderate.” Keith also draws a fascinating connection between the policies of New York urban planner Robert Moses, the NGE, and the rise of hip-hop. Much of the music in the early days of the genre spoke about (and against) the conditions Moses created (and uncreated) in the Bronx, and the fires that raged in response to them. Keith states it this way: “The hip-hop culture that arose from the ashes of destruction in the Bronx, New York, owes as much to the influence of the Five Percenters as it does to the fires that raged in the Bronx during the 1970s.”
This is a stunning piece of scholarship in many respects. It is a clear and balanced analysis of this important group. It is well written, thoroughly researched, and forcefully argued. Keith brought all the analytical skills he honed during his time as an undergraduate at Princeton to bear on this intriguing topic. His contribution to the study of the NGE will not only help us better understand this group and its place in hip-hop culture, but also the various (and often troubling) ways race and racial ideology continue to profoundly shape the urban black experience.
The thesis won the Ruth Simmons Thesis Prize from the Center for African American Studies.