On December 9th, ESPN will premier “Ali Rap”, a program that claims Hip-Hop/Rap music was born from the antics and proclamations of Muhammad Ali. But did Ali really influence rap music, or is ESPN merely grasping for straws in an attempt to capitalize on the attraction of one of the greatest boxers and public figures of the last 50 years?
In order to validate ESPN’s claim, it is necessary to look at the difference between Ali and African-American celebrities prior to the late 1960s. Earlier African-American boxing champions such as Jack Johnson were undoubtedly victims of an exploiting white entertainment culture. Because of segregation, African-American boxers were seen as performers no different to the average white fan than the circus strong man or the bearded lady. Only when Joe Louis fought Max Schmeling in 1938 did the American people rally behind a black champion. Louis was an American – “one of us.” For one fight, the rich and the poor, the educated and the unlearned, and the black and white were all united.
Nine years later, Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier. Being the first African-American to play in the Major Leagues, Robinson appealed to to African-American communities nationwide. Robinson’s strengths however, are the reason he is no longer as culturally relevant as Muhammad Ali, a claim made famous by ESPN columnist Scoop Jackson. Robinson’s upbringing, military service, and college education separated him from the average African American. While their civil struggle was the same, Robinson, both because of his diplomatic nature and his initial agreement with Dodgers’ owner Branch Rickey to not fight back, did not brazenly approach the social issues the way Ali would 20 years later. Agree or disagree with him, Robinson was not a threat. He was the Martin Luther King, Jr. of sports desegregation.
Although Jackie Robinson did not employ any braggadocio, to claim Muhammad Ali originated the art of “trash-talking” or “talking smack” prevalent in rap music is completely incorrect. Short staccato claims of power had existed in African-American culture long before the 1960s. Gospel, blues, and field hollers all carried the call and response, back and forth style of announcement, where a message was stated without many words being said. Blues singer Muddy Waters, for example, proclaimed he was “The Hoochie Coochie Man” and the world knew he was him, a boastful claim if there ever was. If ESPN narrowed its claim and presented the idea that Ali was the first African-American to employ these techniques in sports it might be more correct.
Where ESPN can claim Muhammad Ali influenced rap is in the role of populist hero. The idea of populist hero in rap/hip-hop culture is discussed in depth by Cutler Edwards in his thesis Kung-Fu Cowboys to Bronx B-Boys: Heroes and the Birth of Hip-Hop Culture. According to Edwards, the idea of hero was one who faced the struggle of his/her environment head-on, took on the establishment, and lived by his own moral code of justice. Edwards writes,
“the hero exhibits all those traits which a society collectively finds most appealing and desirable, and he uses those powers in the ways which it deems most appropriate. Usually this means that the hero performs acts that one feels one would not have the ability to carry out, lacking the physical strength or personal grit (or both) necessary to complete the tasks in question.”
Edwards further contends the idea of hero continuing from the cowboy of the old western movies to the kung-fu fighter of more recent cinema to the art of breakdance “battling”. By changing his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali, protesting the Vietnam War, and standing up for social justice, Muhammad Ali fit all of Edwards’s criteria and became a real-life hero to millions.
So did Muhammad Ali “invent” rap? No. Was he one of the first mainstream athletes to use the braggadocio of African-American celebrities such as Muddy Waters and Satchel Paige? Absolutely. Ali’s ability and methods fit perfectly in an age quickly immersing itself in sound bytes and 30 second attention spans. No longer would lengthy discourse and the diplomacy of Jackie Robinson or Martin Luther King, Jr. move the masses. Catchy phrases such as “I am the Greatest” were the future, directly influencing “The Revolution will not be Televised,” “Fight the Power,” and “Get Rich or Die Tryin’.”