Intermedial and Transnational Hip-Hop Life Writing

Nassim W. Balestrini

The growing popularity of celebrity life writing and of memoirs which focus on the respective memoirist's specific social, professional, ethnic, or other context has also spawned a large number of autobiographical publications by persons in the music industry. The field of musical autobiography is a recent development for which a niche in life writing scholarship has only been carved out in the past decade. The growing number of autobiographical book publications as well as autobiographical self-representations in non-analog, non-printed, not primarily verbal formats raises the question as to whether specific genres of hip-hop life writing have been evolving and as to the perspectives from which scholars should discuss them.

Situating musicians' life writing in general and hip-hop life writing in particular within the larger field of life writing studies poses multiple challenges. The asymmetrical power relation between a celebrity artist and her/his writer or editor in co-authored autobiographies, for example, sits uneasily with representing the artist/star through the lens of Enlightenment-style autobiographical discourse. Such discourse implies a narrative not only of social and economic upward mobility but also of a concomitant accumulation of knowledge and insight that the reader should emulate. Nevertheless, the Enlightenment autobiographical model is often used as a means of providing "high cultural legitimacy,"1 particularly for artists in popular music genres.2 A prominent example of a hip-hop artist's memoir that takes up this challenge of not following a traditional formula is Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson's Mo' Meta Blues (2013),3 which includes multiple jabs at the traditional supremacy of the co-writer or editor and at the expectations regarding the stable-self narrative established by Enlightenment autobiography.4 As I discuss elsewhere, Questlove upends the often racially informed imbalance between autobiographical subject and representatives of mainstream publication contexts through a polyvocal narrative that privileges his life narration and his (written) exchanges with Richard Nichols, the former manager of Questlove's group The Roots, on the one hand, and that gradually and humorously diminishes the role of his editor and a representative of his publisher whose email exchanges are interspersed into the main narrative. Eventually, the editor and the publisher's representative admit that Questlove effectively derailed traditional autobiographical formats and created his own version of life narrative based on his development as a musician and on his worldview.5 As a result, he challenges reading practices that expect autobiographical narratives to be monovocal and unidirectional.

Questlove's memoir, which relies on verbal narrative, assumes an intermedial strategy through visually perceivable differences of typesetting in order to indicate the interplay of voices (Illustration 1). He thus employs and interlaces verbal and visual means of processing his text. Other bestselling hip-hop autobiographies go far beyond typographical visual semantics and develop complex intermedial discourses in which the call-and-response between word and image creates a relational intermedial grammar. In the case of artists like Eminem and Jay Z, large-format book publications with myriad images, with text superimposed on images, and with numerous intermedial references to music call for analytical methods that acknowledge medium-specific affordances of meaning construction as well as the historical embeddedness of verbal life writing narratives and of the visual elements that share the semantic fields evoked in these texts. Such intermedial life writing not only transfers some of the components of hip hop into a book publication, but it also serves to elevate hip hop as an art form. Hip hop thus constitutes part of the subject matter because hip-hop artists' memoirs usually contain their philosophical approach to hip hop as a socially oriented art form; at the same time, hip hop offers new forms of self-expression that transcend hitherto prevailing autobiographical models.

Illustration 1: Questlove's Mo' Meta Blues employs intermedial strategies to highlight the interplay of numerous voices.
Illustration from Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson and Ben Greenman, Mo' Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2015), 194.
Image used in accordance with Austrian copyright law pertaining to the use of images for critical commentary.

For instance, Jay Z's Decoded (2010) features his rap lyrics accompanied by annotations regarding stylistic devices, literary, musical, and historical allusions, and autobiographical and political comments (Illustration 2).6 All of this is visually reminiscent of a scholarly edition of a poem or other work of art that is taken seriously as a long-standing artifact rather than an ephemeral performance. The emphasis on the creative process counteracts clichéd notions of popular music and of non-white self-expression as spontaneous, shallow, and not worthy of analysis.7 Similarly, Eminem's The Way I Am (2008) includes facsimiles of the lyricist's notebook pages, complete with captions that explain the contexts and thought processes of his creative work (Illustration 3).8 The same innovative and respectability-oriented impetus characterizes hip-hop memoirs, for instance by M. F. Grimm (Percy Carey) and 50 Cent,9 that opt for what Gillian Whitlock terms "autographics"10—that is, life writing in the form of graphic narratives.11 As indicated, hip hop as subject matter and artistic form has been confronted with long traditions of prejudice. Autobiographical self-expression thus frequently takes up prejudicial perspectives and counteracts them by not simply adopting but rather adapting and revolutionizing life writing formats which used to be the prerogative of economically secure white men.

Illustration 2: Decoded emphasizes the creative process involved in the production of popular music.
Illustration from Jay-Z, Decoded, exp. ed. (New York: Virgin Books/Spiegel and Grau/Random House, 2011), 98–9.
Image used in accordance with Austrian copyright law pertaining to the use of images for critical commentary.

Illustration 3: The Way I Am explains the contexts and thought processes of Eminem's creative work.
Illustration from Eminem, with Sacha Jenkins, designed by Headcase Design, The Way I Am (New York: Dutton/Penguin Books, 2008).
Image used in accordance with Austrian copyright law pertaining to the use of images for critical commentary.

As hip hop is a globally practiced artistic form, transnational American studies offers further options for studying hip-hop life writing. Hip-hop artists' life writing predominately combines autobiographical narratives of personal growth through overcoming terrific obstacles and of emerging as a promoter of social justice with an explanation and defense of hip-hop culture and artistic production. In the US-American context, such success stories often take a detour through phases of poverty, racial discrimination, criminal activity, drug abuse, and the like. In addition to finding one's artistic self and defining one's positionality,12 life writers find their way into a belief system in which to anchor their social activism.

In France, which constitutes the second-largest hip-hop market in the world, Abd Al Malik, a rapper of Congolese descent, published a memoir that was subsequently adapted for the screen and translated into English.13 This matrix of hip-hop practice and reception provides a good example of where transnational American studies concerns can come to fruition. Al Malik's narrative focuses on his experience of individuation through religious belief and through education. Sufism, a mystic movement within Islam, inspires him to work for reconciliation among Jews, Christians, and Muslims, and for human rights in general, while the narrative also expresses his love for France as a country and a culture.

Because of his appreciation of a national culture that has a troubled relationship with immigrants, Abd Al Malik's life narrative raises the issue as to whether his autobiography primarily functions as an emblem of mainstream respectability or rather as a site of revolutionizing white supremacist Eurocentric discourses in a transnational context. Having been decorated with the distinction of Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres by the French minister for cultural affairs in 2008, Al Malik's public image of the "good rapper" who stabilizes the republic has been criticized as cooptation. In the United States, a parallel phenomenon exists in the context of using hip-hop artists, particularly rappers who identify as Muslims, for State Department-sponsored cultural diplomacy in Muslim nations although Muslims are not generally seen as well-integrated into society, be it in the United States or in France. This form of soft diplomacy goes back to the equally problematic Cold War policy of sending African American jazz musicians to Eastern European and Middle Eastern countries.

Within autobiographical traditions, however, Abd Al Malik's arguments that Sufism is the heart of Islam that transcends hatred and Othering, that it allows him to be a musician, and that it has had a liberating effect echoes some of Malcolm X's experiences with international Islam as a global community devoid of racism. Simultaneously, Al Malik depicts his allegiance to France in terms of a specific understanding of what the republic stands for: the country he loves is not homogeneous but it is a republic that embraces the full range of religious and other belief systems.14 He thus suggests that the laicism of the French political system is not to be seen as anti-religious or as exclusively Western in the Judeo-Christian sense, but that it implies the freedom to develop individual notions of selfhood. In contrast to those who rebuke Al Malik as having sold out to French assimilationist policies, his autobiography can be read as an appeal to renew allegiance to the original ideals of the French republic—a strategy that resonates with African American life writing traditions.

A transnational approach to hip-hop life writing allows for comparative research on potentially reciprocal flows of influence. Both in France and in the United States, hip-hop autobiographers face the same dilemmas: their complex understanding of national political ideology and of individual beliefs may be represented in a reductive fashion as a result of the clichéd and financially profitable ways in which they—as popular music celebrities—are portrayed by mass-market media. Their critics may not appreciate their programmatic statements regarding systemic problems in their countries and on a global level when it comes to discrimination on the basis of religion, race, and class. As soon as a rapper becomes a celebrity, particularly through receiving decorations and prizes, the artist struggles with accusations of cooptation, lack of subversion and authenticity, and adherence to neoliberal positions. Further work needs to be done on how particular rappers who identify as Muslims present themselves as both dedicated religious believers and dedicated members of a nation, even though post-9/11 rhetoric frequently implies that this particular combination is a contradiction in terms. Their predicament is thus emblematic for hip-hop life writing and musicians' life writing in a wider sense, as the current cultural valences of an artist's genre and performance contexts tend to impact what kinds of life writing may be regarded as marketable to a specific readership.


-01- Daniel Stein and Martin Butler, "Musical Autobiographies: An Introduction," in "Musical Autobiographies," ed. Daniel Stein and Martin Butler, special issue, Popular Music and Society 38, no. 2 (2015): 116–7, doi. | return to main text |
-02- For a discussion of the economic implications of celebrity life writing, see Julie Rak, Boom! Manufacturing Memoir for the Popular Market (Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2013), 6–7, 12, 16. | return to main text |
-03- Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson and Ben Greenman, Mo' Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove (2013; New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2015). | return to main text |
-04- Stein and Butler, "Musical Autobiographies," 115. | return to main text |
-05- Nassim Winnie Balestrini, "Hip Hop Life Writing: An Intermedial Challenge to Essentialist Reading Practices," in Oxford Handbook of Hip Hop Music Studies, ed. Justin Burton and Jason Lee Oakes (New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming). | return to main text |
-06- Jay-Z, Decoded, expanded ed. (2010; New York: Virgin Books/Spiegel and Grau/Random House, 2011). | return to main text |
-07- Regarding the stereotype of non-white artistic self-expression as "untrained," "natural," "mimetic," and thus not really valuable, see Stuart Hall, "What Is 'Black' in Black Popular Culture?" Social Justice 20, nos. 1–2 (1993): 104–14, repr. in Popular Culture, vol. 3, ed. Michael Pickering (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2010), 443; Berndt Ostendorf, "Celebration or Pathology? Commodity or Art? The Dilemma of African-American Expressive Culture," Black Music Research Journal 20, no. 2 (2000): 217–36, doi, repr. in Popular Culture, vol. 3, ed. Michael Pickering (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2010), 385–402. | return to main text |
-08- Eminem, with Sacha Jenkins, designed by Headcase Design, The Way I Am (New York: Dutton/Penguin Books, 2008). For a more extensive discussion, see Nassim Winnie Balestrini, "Strategic Visuals in Hip-Hop Life Writing," in "Musical Autobiographies," ed. Daniel Stein and Martin Butler, special issue, Popular Music and Society 38, no. 2 (2015): 224–42, doi; Nassim Winnie Balestrini, "Hip-Hop Life Writing and African American Urban Ecology," in America after Nature, ed. Catrin Gersdorf and Juliane Braun (Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter, 2016), 287–307. | return to main text |
-09- Percy Carey, writer, Ronald Wimberly, artist, Lee Loughridge, gray tones, and Jared K. Fletcher, letters, Sentences: The Life of M. F. Grimm (New York: DC Comics, 2007); 50 Cent and Robert Greene, writers, and Dave Crossland, illustrator, The 50th Law (San Jose, CA: SmarterComics, 2012). | return to main text |
-10- Gillian Whitlock, "Autographics: The Seeing 'I' of the Comics," in "Graphic Narrative," ed. Hillary Chute and Marianne DeKoven, special issue, Modern Fiction Studies 52, no. 4 (2006): 965–79. | return to main text |
-11- Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives (2001; Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), 260; Balestrini, "Hip Hop Life Writing: An Intermedial Challenge." | return to main text |
-12- Smith and Watson, Reading Autobiography, 215. | return to main text |
-13- Abd Al Malik, Sufi Rapper: The Spiritual Journey of Abd Al Malik, trans. Jon E. Graham (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2009). | return to main text |
-14- Jeanette S. Jouili, "Rapping the Republic: Utopia, Critique, and Muslim Role Models in Secular France," French Politics, Culture & Society 31, no. 2 (2013): 64. | return to main text |

Suggested Citation

Balestrini, Nassim W. "Intermedial and Transnational Hip-Hop Life Writing." JAAAS: Journal of the Austrian Association for American Studies 1, no. 1 (2019): 147–150,


life writing; hip hop; intermediality; transnationality; transnational American studies

Peer Review

This forum contribution was reviewed by the forum editors, the issue's guest editors, and an external reviewer.


© 2019 Nassim W. Balestrini. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which allows for the unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.