Mark Anthony Neal Dissects Coding in Hip-Hop


Mark Anthony Neal, professor of African & African American Studies, spoke at the Diversity and Inclusion Summit on black coding as part of longstanding cultural practices and its use today through Black Twitter.

Speaking on the second day of the Summit, he also dissected hip-hop and its origins’ use of coding to send a message without it being revealed to those who it was not meant for in a talk titled “#BlackCodes + #BlackTwitter + Mobilizing a Mobile Diaspora.”

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“Historically we refer to them as work songs, field songs, slave hollers…but very often these songs weren’t just singing for the sake of singing,” Neal said. “It was a way for them to communicate. They may be singing as a group ‘Go Down Moses,’ but what the slaveholder doesn’t know is that Moses is a field down, away from the plantation or a cave.”

Neal added that singing in the plantation fields was a way communicate about meetings late at night in separate locations, in order to plot escapes from the plantation. He argued that their version of social media, the version that persisted for years before the invention of the internet, was word of mouth.

He also brought up the cassette tapes that were used by artists far before the CD was invented to spread their music, before radio even played black music. But Neal focused mainly on the coding that went on in hip-hop, using a song from the 1980s to show how artists would convey a political message to their audience through coding.

“The point was that he could convey complex, lyrical messages publicly, but to a very particular audience because only black audiences could unpack the code,” Neal said. “This was important because hip-hop was able to politicize young black folks in the ‘80s since it worked in code.”

Using videos like Eric B. and Rakim’s “Follow The Leader,” and “George Bush Doesn’t Care About Black People” by The Legendary K.O., Neal showed how hip-hop has continued as a form of social media by sending messages to their audiences through coding.

Students in the audience, including juniors Bridget Forson and Bryanna Bradley, found his references to these artists very interesting and appreciated his use of relevant videos both in the past and in recent years.

“I like how he played different videos [and] songs that were relevant to the topic,” Forson said. “I didn’t even know there was a song that used Kanye West’s ‘Gold Digger’ as a background for a political message.”

Bradley connected the information to the course she is taking, Global Anglophone, which she said highlights the meaning of language used by literature from Africa, the Caribbean and the Americas post European imperialism and colonialism. However, she did find Neal’s delivery to be a bit distracting from his message at times.

“I thought he purposely alienated himself from his audience by putting emphasis on the age gap,” Bradley said. “I was personally offended, since I was aware of all of his references because my parents are older and from New York City, a major component in hip-hop culture during its prime.”

During the student session, a few students and Thomas Alexander, coordinator of the Multicultural Center and friend of Neal’s, did have the chance to ask Neal questions about recent work by hip-hop artists and playwrights that have reached mainstream recognition.

Bradley took the opportunity to recommend that Neal see “Hamilton,” the Broadway musical that has received so much praise and recognition that its actors will perform a piece for the Grammy’s via satellite.

“We did disagree on the idea of hip-hop as an identifier when the issue of Hamilton the Musical came up,” Bradley said. “He was afraid of hip-hop being “whitewashed” in the musical, yet the show runner Lin Manuel Miranda is Puerto Rican and created a multiracial cast with obvious hints to the “codes” of hip-hop in a respectable manner.”

Bradley and senior Giovani Dulcio both used Rihanna’s music as an example of the kind of coding that occurs as hip-hop artists grow during their experience working in the white male dominated industry. Neal praised Rihanna for her latest song “B*tch Better Have My Money” for its underlying message that wasn’t as clear to the masses as it was for a smaller audience.