Nas in 1998. Photo credit: Mikamote - Own work/ CC BY-SA 3.0. Changes made: Photo cropped.
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Long Read | Nas’ Ultra Black Theory

“Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.” His ghost rewrote hip hop from Queensbridge projects and came through for Africa. Nas’ “Ultra Black” is the most commercially successful Pan-Africanist artist’s white paper on Black power, a rapier-like abstract of Nas’ sprawling political thought.

Nas may be the weeping prophet of Pan-Africanist hip hop but his vital anthem, “Ultra Black”, is the sound of black joy. The veteran rapper’s political albums were an extended sigh under the weight of history. Aside odd interventions by Jidenna and Kendrick Lamar, he has been alone in his mission to rap a discredited ideology into the 21st century. On his 2021 Grammy-winning album, he changes it up with the main single, “Ultra Black”.

While the Doja Cat diss moved the memes at the time of the release, the more provocative line on “Ultra Black” is: “No matter your race, to me we all are black.” Among the conflicting maps of Pan-Africanism, the New York rapper has the broadest one, picturing Blackness as an all-embracing state of humanity. The position, forked off previous albums, will raise few eyebrows in Afrocentric circles but Nas is in fact proposing a radical new Pan-Africanism.  

“If the color black absorbs all light, ‘ULTRA BLACK’ is a representation of the people’s unification, highlighting Black joy and a bright future ahead,” Nas doubled down on his message of universal Blackness, partnering the Pantone Color Institute to create symbolic custom colour “ULTRA BLACK by Nas”. In a related statement, he stated that Blackness extends beyond race, colour and creed. Having dealt in the “sad tones” of Blackness on previous albums, his collaboration with producer Hitboy, which has since run intro three albums, keeps things upbeat and majestic on his his first Grammy album, King’s Disease.

Black is the continuing source of cultural vitality

For Nas, Black comes before and after race – it is the code base of humanity; Black is not a pre-civilisational state – although the West has weaponised the lie for selective ideas of progress, Greece and Rome are, in fact, civilisational forks of Black Egypt; Black is the universal banner of justice – a nod to the racially widening turnout at Black Lives Matter and a reproach to African leaders who fetishise colour to oppress their own people; and, of course, Black is the continuing source of cultural vitality – a fact Nas embodies as one of the most influential living artists. 

Black is the continuing source of cultural vitality – a fact Nas embodies as one of the most influential living artists.

“Ultra Black” is the most commercially successful Pan-Africanist artist’s white paper on Black power. As a hip hop capitalist, Nas is the unusual poet laureate who observes neither the saintly asceticism of Bob Marley nor the socialism of W.E.B Du Bois and George Padmore. As a lone-wolf intellectual, he performs outside the state-led Pan-Africanism that presidents commandeer over journalists and academics. He has notoriously sparred with respectability politics, but his open definition of Blackness cannot be further than the Afrocentric hardline. With hip hop, the world’s foremost music genre by streamed volume, Nas is conveniently placed to further the global ambitions of Pan-Africanism. He complicates the office with his own curious contradictions.

Bob Marley live in concert in Zurich, Switzerland, on May 30, 1980 at the Hallenstadium. Photo: Wiki commons/Ueli Frey

The heart that beats under Nas’ Escobar persona is an Africa-shaped vacuum. Whereas the foremost African-American thinkers spar across Western ideological lines, Nas holds Blackness and Africa to be interchangeable so that it is the same thing to say: “We are all African” on Distant Relatives (2010) or “We all are black” on King’s Disease (2020). The classic reproach to Pan-Africanism is that it is a thing of romance detached from lived struggles. And yet the antidote to the open sores of Afrophobia and gang violence is the message of African unity in “War against Love” (2019). As Pan-Africanism opposes itself to the continuing problems of extractive capitalism, state violence, human rights abuses, systematic White supremacy, unfair trade, environmental degradation, economic inequality, war and religious violence, Nas unreservedly lends his voice.

Disrupting the politically correct, multicultural superstructure of a White supremacist

In Hegel’s dialectics, Europe’s most influential philosopher for the past two centuries regards “negroes” interchangeably with the night of the world, the animal spirit, the undeveloped geist, slavery, sorcery and pre-history. Hegel’s system is not just racially overdetermined but influential enough to fit the triad of colonial mythology with social Darwinism and state Christianity. As the human spirit marches into enlightenment and freedom, Hegel considers the African its vulgar antithesis.

Decoloniality, science and political correctness alternately torch Hegel’s ghost out of the African consciousness. Nas meets racism his own way along the lines of Debordian detournement. (According to Guy Debord, power feeds off revolutionary energy by intercepting, artificialising and appropriating it. Revolutionary energy reverses the circuit by capturing, undermining and revitalising the artificial spectacles of power.) Nas enacts this move by disrupting the politically correct, multicultural superstructure of a white supremacist, neoliberal infrastructure: “It is absolutely silly to have a funeral for the word nigger while the actions still continue,” he provokes. The 2008 “Nigger” controversy where Nas’ label was financially strong-armed to stop him from using the racial epithet as his album title is a classic example of Debordian dialectics.

Nas performing in Ottawa, 2007. Photo credit: Snowmangoose / CC BY-SA 3.0. Changes made: Photo cropped.

For both Nas and Hegel, then, the “nigger” is the universal remainder behind and outside the march of history: Only that Hegel pictures this history as a grand European march of civilisation while Nas pictures it as a descent to pre-humanity (the unsustainable duality of reason and racism, civilisation and colonialism). Nas disrupts Hegelese by repeating it with its disturbing implications: “They say we N.I.G.G.E.R, we are much more but still we choose to ignore the obvious: We are the slave and they are master” (“The Slave and the Master”, 2008). 

But how is “the slave” “much more” rather than “much worse?” Because being brother at the superstructure and slave at the infrastructure is the great fraud of late modernity. Only after the material condition is acknowledged over the multicultural show is Nas able to continue: “What are you looking for? You are the question and the answer.” The answer is not political correctness but political correction, not the moral superiority of the oppressors but the moral agency of the oppressed. In Slavoj Zizek’s The Ticklish Subject (1999), Hegel’s “night  of the world,” is a necessary zero point for freedom, a retro-synthetic disruption of the status quo. Zizek relates the “night of the world” with Hegel’s description of “negroes” as the monstrous and perverted children of nature. If Hegel’s “negro” is not a slave (in fact, Haiti had a republican revolution and abolished slavery before most of Europe and America) he is a sorcerer. Hegelese is the night in which all Blacks are cows.

Nas and Damian Marley performing in New Zealand, 2011. Nas is wearing an All Blacks Jersey recently given to him by some of the players. Photo credit: Brady Dyer. / CC BY-SA 3.0. Changes made: Photo cropped.

In Nas’ booth, this “nigger,” this universal remainder becomes the agency of universal emancipation. This is context for Nas’ “Ultra Black” theory: “No matter your race, to me we all are black.” Beyond the romantic idea of everyone coming from Africa, Nas’ Africans are the freedom fighters uniting: “To question the system, be the resistance/ No matter what color you are, everybody niggas,” (“Untitled”, 2008). Class and race are indivisible in the call to “end all racism, all injustice, all oppression to poor people any people anywhere in this planet,” (“We’re Not Alone”, 2008). His old-world reconstructions in the Damian Marley-assisted “Ancient People” (2010) do not romanticise power but progress, the ancients who “spoke free with drum for sennent.” History is Black because it is defined by the concrete actions of the oppressed rather than the self-awareness of the oppressors, hence:  “Abraham Lincoln did not free the slaves; fuck your Proclamation” (Not for Radio, 2018).

Nas’ Pan-Africanism essentialises unity for progress

While state-led Pan-Africanism essentialises unity around race, Nas’ Pan-Africanism essentialises unity for progress. Unlike many Pan-Africanists today, he has no problem with blaspheming the reputed pillars of the movement so that on the “Road to Zion” (2007) collaboration with Damian Marley, he challenges Robert Mugabe for “putting guns to dead bodies.” The Mugabe legacy of state violence is the  inconvenience that Pan-Africanists and their institutions like AU and SADC are happy to leave unseen and unheard, more interested in the grander things to be said. Nas’ Pan-Africanism goes beyond the mutual back-scratching of our elite-run regional organisations. 

Setting out from precarious streets to global superstardom, Nas’ definition of kings and queens are the ordinary people whose resilience and ingenuity outshines structures of oppression. We are not repeatedly reminded of “the black teachers who taught Greeks and Romans” on “Nas Is Like” (1999), “I Can” (2002) or “King’s Disease” (2020) just to feel good about it but to defy racially themed limitations and enter our individual king spaces. 

As a street poet, Nas necessarily takes his pictures from the unnameable bottom and names it.

Nas risks collision with Pan-Africanist media and academia when he details slums, diseases, destruction of the youths and division within the Diaspora as the contemporary Africa on “Africa Must Wake Up” (2010). Unlike the Western press that routinely traffics these stereotypes, there is benign motivation here and the break from tradition serves Africa’s poorest. Metanarratives like Africa Rising often fail to see beyond the African middle class, privileged Afropolitans and the prestige projects of African leaders. The story of the visible elites gets to be presented as the story of the continent. As a street poet, Nas necessarily takes his pictures from the unnameable bottom and names it.

Nas in 1998. Photo credit: Mikamote – Own work/ CC BY-SA 3.0. Changes made: Photo cropped.

Pan-Africanists like Chinweizu Ibekwe have theorised an exclusively Sub-Saharan Pan-Africanism, while hip-hop heads sometimes decide the community fitness of rappers according to how dark they are. Nas’ Pan-Africanism is inclusive even of nationalities known to have exploited the physical Africa. We encounter the contradiction in search for a humanistic Pan-Africanism in which colour is incidental rather than essential. In stripping Pan-Africanism of its institutional romances to its bare humanity, Nas reclaims it from political institutions to ordinary people. 

Read more:  Hip hop and Pan Africanism: from Blitz the Ambassador to Beyoncé

If Nas is the champion of the poor African, then his money talk and billionaire goals suggest a break from the trademark asceticism of conscious artists. During decolonisation, Pan-Africanism could be taken for another name for African socialism. Nas, with Kendrick Lamar, basks in hip hop’s companion ideology: capitalism. Capitalism comes up in Pan-Africanist hip-hop as an instrument for the creative and political independence of Blacks. However, billionaire rap is highly individualised and, even where it comes with agonising self-awareness, as in To Pimp a Butterfly, the lone struggles of the Black creative against corporate serfdom are hardly the struggles of the Black majority. On his 2018 album, Nas adds the idea of Pan-Africanist praxis to rich-rapper problems, promising to buy back land owned by the slave-masters, while the change of focus from consumption to investment is meant to empower.

In the years that hip-hop forgot Africa, Nas never did, looking up to Patrice Lumumba and Martin Luther as prophetic predecessors on Stillmatic (2001), and awakening the souls of Black folks to economic independence on Lost Tapes (2002). If Illmatic (1994) is the Queensbridge MC’s great American novel, then the untitled album (2008) is his dissertation on critical race theory and “Ultra Black”, a rapier-like abstract of his sprawling political thought. 

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