'Can't See Me' | New American Songbook

Feb 26, 2018

The phrase “can’t see me” is a well-worn trope in hip hop music. A search on the website genius.com—an encyclopedia of hip hop lyrics and annotations—for the phrase brings up thousands of hits spanning the entire history of hip hop. But what does it mean, beyond the obvious, and how are we to interpret it?

Invisibility as a theme in African American art and literature can be traced back at least as early as Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man, which recounts the radicalization of its narrator, but also examines the myriad ways a person can be opaque to their surrounding society. In hip hop, this opacity is often weaponized--“haters can’t see me,” or opposing emcees can’t see me. Despite all the declaratory statements that otherwise occur during a rap verse, there is always something held back, unseen.

A new movement in philosophy can help us contextualize this "unseen-ness." Described as Object-Oriented Ontology, this school of thought posits that objects can never be fully described by either their qualities, what they are made of, or their effects, what they do; there is always something that withdraws and remains unknown, even to the object itself. In many ways, the hip hop emcee exists in this unknown space. The art of rapping is itself a revelatory process that specializes in inhabiting and communicating from these spaces that we can’t see, but exist nonetheless.