Lupe Fiasco’s “Manillas” and the Material Culture of Anti-Black Violence

Lupe Fiasco performing in Melbourne, Australia (Scott Sandars, Wikimedia)

In Lupe Fiasco’s seventh album, Droga’s Wave, he unveils how the historic legacies of transatlantic slavery connect with contemporary Black American culture, specifically highlighting the role of the Middle Passage as a critical point in the Black diasporan’s bodily destruction. Fiasco even reimagines how the enslaved resisted their bondage, creating characters called “Long Chains” who survive their submersion into the Atlantic Ocean and then use their newly-found powers to sink slave ships and rescue captives. Multiple tracks on Droga’s Wave revisit slavery as a defining component of Black identity in the western hemisphere, connecting aspects of contemporary African American culture to the horrors of an enslaved past. Critical responses to the album were mixed. Some praised it as a path-breaking contribution to hip hop, exhibiting Fiasco “at his independent, unhindered best.” Though others criticized the album’s editing, calling it “dense, convoluted, and monotonous,” and dismissed it as an unwieldy project hurried through the production process. Regardless of their judgments on the album’s narrative or its direction, none dismissed Fiasco’s unique ability to facilitate social consciousness through his rhymes, especially in recognizing how violence is interwoven within the history of the Black Atlantic.

Each track proves Fiasco is a student of history, as he uses creative word play and symbolism to explore the connections between African enslavement and the development of Black identities in the broader diaspora. Fiasco even explores the connections between the diasporic communities by rapping in fluent Spanish on the “Drogas” track, and rhyming in Jamaican Patois on “Gold vs. The Right Things to Do.” But his most critical intervention for understanding the links between history and public memory is displayed in “Manillas,” based upon the metal rings exchanged for enslaved people at West African ports. The song connects the modern problems of materialism with the material culture of transatlantic slavery. Fiasco’s decision to feature manillas as the main symbols of slavery is a unique choice when considering popular conceptions of Black oppression. The lash and shackles, two items that inflicted physical punishment against the Black body, are usually seen as the preeminent symbols of anti-Black degradation. But Fiasco argues the manilla established an initial point of contact between Africans and Europeans, since they functioned as currency when negotiating prices for enslaved Africans. In a historical note following the song, he explains, “the local chiefs on the slave coast of West Africa traded their human cargo for many different commodities and manilla was one of them.” Since manillas are not usually regarded as symbols of violence, his decision to feature them does prompt one to explore their historical legacy for Black diasporans. Why were they used by Europeans as an item for trade? How did they acquire value in western Africa? To what degree did they bolster and/or expand the Atlantic slave trade? How does this history inform Fiasco’s critique of Black materialism in the modern era?

For centuries, decorative rings and bracelets were enmeshed within the gift exchange economies of Western Africa. European traders noticed the value of these commodities and developed a commercial system in which they traded brass rings for enslaved people at West African ports. Portuguese traders called them “manillas” or “manilles,” and early English accounts corrupted the translation to read “manellios” or “manilly.” Essentially, merchants adopted a trade vernacular largely based on Portuguese words. Despite phonetic barriers and difficulties in Anglicizing the term, English traders by the eighteenth century called these instruments “manilles,” and recognized their value throughout Atlantic Africa. The 1773 Encyclopedia Brittanica defined a manille as “a large brass ring in the form of a bracelet…Manilles are the principal commodities which the Europeans carry to the coast of Africa, and exchange with the natives for slaves” (23). The manilles became so pervasive as trade goods that one enslaver on the coast of New Calabar noted they were “considered as the money of that Country.” European enslavers contributed to the expansion of the manille’s popularity throughout Atlantic Africa, causing them to ebb and flow in value as they spread throughout its coastlines.

Beyond their value as currency, manillas were functionally used to display wealth during marital ceremonies, and were often exchanged during the courtship process. Numerous sources suggest that certain rings worn by women indicated status and fashion, as well as her maturation from adolescence to womanhood.1 Enslaver William Bosman’s 1705 travel account A New and Accurate Description of Guinea, noted that when women consented to the suitor’s request, they were gifted clothes, necklaces, and “Bracelets” (441). How these brass rings became symbols of courtship and marriage throughout Atlantic Africa is difficult to pinpoint, but their cultural value was solidified well before the transatlantic era, albeit on a much smaller scale. Muslim traveler Ishaq b. al-Husayn’s tenth century account of sub-Saharan Africans outside the Kingdom of Ghana noted, “their country has much gold, but the people there prefer brass to gold. From the brass they make ornaments for their women.”2 The novelty of brass in regions filled with gold may have initiated the preference for the metal, and trans-Saharan traders like Al-Husayn noted this connection long before their Atlantic counterparts. As historian James Sweet argues, Iberians and Arabic speakers exchanged knowledge of Africa and its people, and Iberians preconceived notions of West African societies were heavily influenced by Arabic descriptions of Sub-Saharan Africa published in previous centuries. This intellectual exchange likely prepared Iberian sailors who sought trading partnerships along the Atlantic coastlines of Africa. As early as 1474, a Castilian account noted that the inhabitants of Mina demanded items such as threadbare clothes, brass candlesticks, and brass manillas. As opposed to candlesticks and clothing, manillas had little utility outside decoration and symbolism. This early demand for such materials reveals how quickly many African groups incorporated new objects into their cultures.

African metalsmiths certainly manufactured indigenous brass rings, but the European versions provided a readily accessible supply. On the 14th of January, 1684, Danish traders noted that “just as something new appears in the home country now and then, so it is here with the Negroes: when one of them buys something that pleases him, other Negroes also want it.” In illustrating the functions of supply and demand these same traders remarked upon the frustrating circumstance of being unable to sell 3,536 ½ lbs of bracelets on the Gold Coast, but simultaneously expressed optimism that those items still sold well on the Ivory Coast. African preference dictated the terms of the transatlantic trade and Europeans adjusted their supplies based upon consumer demand. In many respects, European traders benefitted from the differing regional preferences throughout the African littoral.

Manille importation continued to influence many African cultures, as they were used during ceremonial occasions like puberty and marriage into the early twentieth century. In various parts of western Africa courtship rings could vary in size to fit different body parts, such as legs, arms, or piercings on the face. Pieter De Marees’ Description and Historical Account of the Gold Kingdom of Guinea (1602) noted that married women “wear little rings in their ears of Brass or Pewter…and around the lower part of their legs they wear red and yellow Copper rings,” while unmarried girls wore iron bracelets (38). “Red” Copper is pure copper, while “yellow” copper is the form of copper mixed with Zinc that produces brass. Different West African societies preferred certain metals, and they were particularly keen in distinguishing between them.

Given this information, Lupe Fiasco’s “Manillas” speaks to an extensive historical record that shows how currency was manipulated to facilitate trade negotiations for enslaved people. Though some critics accused Fiasco of using a “tired” metaphor in comparing modern materialism to slavery, the historical record validates the comparison. The manilla’s value as currency was socially constructed by traders and enslavers, initiating patterns of consumption that asserted the worth of a human body could be valued through an inanimate object, in this case pieces of metal. Though manillas may not evoke the overt violence of other items that inflicted physical damage against the Black body, such as a whip or noose, its historical role in perpetuating the slave trade suggests it is as violent and anti-Black as any other object. As scholars continually engage the material culture and public memory of the transatlantic slave trade, we must continue to uncover the symbols of degradation that remain overshadowed by parochial histories of anti-Black oppression. The historical salience found on tracks throughout Droga’s Wave is the fruit of such efforts. As a secondary source for understanding Atlantic slavery, the album requires listeners to consider how objects like water, wood, and metal symbolize the violence of slavery, and how the landscapes of oppression continue to haunt African people on both sides of the Atlantic.

  1. Tyler D. Parry, “Love and Marriage: Domestic Relations and Matrimonial Strategies Among the Enslaved in the Atlantic World,” (PhD Dissertation: University of South Carolina, 2014), Chapter 1.
  2. “Ibn b. Al-Husayn” in Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West African History J. F. P. Hopkins trans. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 39.
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Tyler Parry

Tyler Parry is an Associate Professor in African American Studies at California State University, Fullerton. He studies slavery, the African Diaspora, and the Atlantic world. Follow him on Twitter @ProfTDParry.

Comments on “Lupe Fiasco’s “Manillas” and the Material Culture of Anti-Black Violence

  • This is a great read and gives more context to an already layered album, especially the song wav files. I never even considered that Lupe Fiasco picked water and wood because of it’s deep roots with violence and slavery.

    Upon my initial listening I thought they were picked because of the bystander effect and not because they were an integral instrument of black violence

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