Saturday, December 31, 2005

I Used To (And Still Do) Love H.E.R.

I had the occasion to be traveling to San Francisco for a surgical meeting a few months back. I only travel by air a few times per year so the whole experience of airports and planes remains more novel to me than to most adult professionals. For some reason, that novelty makes me very observant of my surroundings when I travel. My most recent trip started at the Manchester airport (that’s New Hampshire, not England). As is usually the case on any flight into or out of Manchester, I was the only black person among the 30 or so passengers on the small commercial jet. I settled into my seat and began my usual ritual of donning my earphones and portable music player and selecting some reading materials for the flight. For some reason I always feel the need to flip through the in-flight magazine for a few minutes, just in case there is something interesting there, but I usually move on to a good book once the flight is underway. I noticed a couple of young white males board the plane and sit down in the row ahead of mine, but thought nothing more of it at the time. We soon pushed back, taxied to the runway, and were off to Dulles International where I would be making my connection to San Francisco.

I was making relatively good progress on my book, when I came to the end of a chapter, and closed the book for a moment to enjoy the view of the Eastern seaboard. It’s breathtaking scenery on a clear night as one travels down the coast and sees the lights of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. I turned my headphones off for a moment to completely loose myself in the sights.

I did not get the peace and quiet I was expecting though as the young men in front of me were having a discussion about music that was too loud and opinionated to ignor. It just so happened that they were discussing hip-hop artists, and they were very critical of several modern artists. They shared a distaste for 50-cent and most contemporary emcees. These guys looked barely old enough to be in college, but they agreed that nothing from today’s stable of commercially successful rappers matched the genius of yesteryear. They both lauded the “classics” which turned out to consist primarily of NWA and the Beastie Boys. Now, I have to pause here to tell you that I had become increasingly bothered as their commentary continued. Something seemed so obnoxious about their critique of modern hip-hop. Their conversation ran the gamut: they debated whether Nas or Jay-Z was the better rapper. They discussed whether Outkast deserved the Grammy Award. They agreed that Ludacris was going to be around for a long time, but that Mike Jones and Paul Wall were just flashes in the pan. Eventually, the conversation arrived to where nearly every discussion about hip-hop eventually leads to: Tupac and Biggie. At this point I was so irritated that I put my headphones back on to drown out their voices.

Then it occured to me that the primary reason I was so annoyed with these two self-proclaimed hip-hop aficionados was not because they had being unfairly critical or judgmental, but it was because they were white. If I take a moment to be honest with myself, the exact same discussion in the exact same tone held by two young men of color would have probably not provoked such indignation within me. If they had been black, they could have denigrated Common, Mos Def, and the Roots and I would have quietly disagreed, but respected their right to have an opinion on the matter. But with these two white-youths, I was unwilling to extend them the same latitude. For some reason, I felt like they had no right to criticize these artists and were fortunate they were allowed to listen in the first place. While I was disturbed by these two white kids criticizing hip-hop, I was more disturbed at my response to them. I could not help but feel like yet another hidden abscess of racism had been revealed within my soul, and had bubbled to the surface.. Why was the race of the discussants such a factor in my response anyway?

I had never articulated my feelings prior to that moment, but I think my love of hip-hop goes beyond just pure appreciation for the music, lyricism, and artistic expression therein. I love hip-hop because I feel connected to it, because it seemed to have been born from the culture of my youth…the black American culture of my youth. Being a young black male in the 1980’s was difficult, as you tried to cope with your complexion and the discrimination that it engendered. And then along came this beautiful music: defiant, poetic, raw, and powerful as the bass would rattle your chest…you felt a unique bond to this music.

When I was in grade school, before I really listened to hip-hop, I was half ashamed of my race. But of course I was, because white America was sending so many messages that black was bad. For those of you under the age of 30, this might be difficult to understand, because the mainstream media has embraced darker skin tones (at least in certain areas), but I can remember a time before the Cosby Show when there just were precious few indications that being black was anything but “bad”. I can remember going to my father’s church when I was a little boy and being appalled at how the preacher hollered, and how noisy the congregation was. White America had taught me that the proper way to worship God was solemnly and quietly (the way they did in my mother’s church…she is Roman Catholic). I also remember being a little boy and preferring to watch the Brady Bunch over Good Times. To me, there was nothing redeeming about black culture and definitely not ghetto culture. As soon as I was of the age whereby I was able to understand what race was, I had already been brainwashed into believing that my race was inferior for some reason.

But then, I began to grow and love myself and my blackness, and hip-hop was a big part of me developing that healthy identity. If it had not been for Run DMC and Public Enemy I would never have learned to love the part of me that is culturally black. I can still remember the first time I heard KRS-One spitting one of his history lessons that confronted the lies we had been taught in school. My Dad had tried to teach me black history from a book once, but it had no traction in the face of all the messages I was receiving in school, on television, and in films. It took Boogie Down Productions and a little “boom-bap” to captivate my attention when he asked, “Why is that? Is it because we are the minority? Well black kids follow me..” And I did follow him…as if he was the black history Pied Piper, and the pride that swelled in me was like a new awakening.

I cannot say that hip-hop was entirely responsible for developing a black consciousness within me. Part of what was taking place was that I was maturing. I was learning to look beneath the surface of things, and attending black public schools did not hurt either. By the time I graduated from high school, a complete transformation had taken place in me. Not only did I learn to love myself, and my race, but I truly celebrated my culture. I celebrated the way we talked, the way we walked, the way we loved, the way we dressed, the way we sang, the way we danced, the way we played, and even the way we worshipped in church. I don’t think the transformation ever would have taken place without hip-hop. Like your first true love changes your whole perspective on life: having something in my life that consistently affirmed my identity as a young black male taught me to value my race and culture despite what other messages the mainstream media was sending. I had grown to love this music, because this music had helped me to learn to love myself.

So in hindsight, it’s not hard for me to understand why I attach such strong feeling to hip-hop and became perturbed when these white kids were criticizing it. After all, hip-hop is my beloved, and listening to these guys was like watching the woman I love go out with someone I know is going to hurt her. The racial thing just makes it more complex. I mean, I hear black men say hip-hop has gone to hell all the time, and it hardly phases me, but when these white boys so much as got ready to speak about Tupac and Biggie, I could not even handle the thought of them discussing that which I hold “sacred”…

The “problem” with hip-hop is that not only did it captivate my mind and teach me to love myself, but its message was so powerful and persuasive that it crossed the color line. Twenty years ago, when I was finishing grade school, the mainstream media was still teaching that black was bad. Today, the opposite is true, black culture dominates the mainstream media, and the coolest white guys and gals are the ones that can cross-over into the black culture…not the other way around. I can’t have hip-hop to myself anymore because it was too potent and beautiful to be contained by just black America. Rap has outgrown the box we put it in when it first came on the scene. Rappers have infiltrated Hollywood. There are world tours instead of a few small rap shows here and there. Rappers perform on the worlds biggest stages like the Super Bowl and even Presidential inaugurations.

But despite how much rap has grown, I still remember when we had what felt like an exclusive relationship. When you had to go to black-owned record stores to find the records, because it was all underground. (I still remember coming up on Ice T’s “6 in the morning”, and feeling like I had acquired a small nugget of precious metal.). My relationship with rap is still very much intimate in my mind, and apparently I am a very jealous lover. But the question remains: why is my jealousy in check when blacks discuss rap, but inflamed when whites do the very same thing?

There is no denying it…That’s how I feel… For some reason, I thought that these two white kids had no right to pass judgment on an art form that was conceived in a culture that in my mind, they cannot fully appreciate. The question is, what should I do with these feelings? My initial reaction was that I was allowing racist attitudes to shape my values and that it was wrong to discriminate against these two guys based on race because they should have just as much right to love or hate hip-hop as I do. But then, a part of me can’t help but justify my response as being appropriate. I compare critiquing hip-hop to using the N-word: tolerable from us, punishable for them. The N-word double standard deserves it’s own post, but I think it goes without saying that there are certain things that should only be discussed by those within the group and not without. It’s similar to the way you can say critical things to your family members, but will be willing to fight someone outside the family for the slightest remark about your loved ones. Is it really wrong that I associate hip-hop with being black, and that these two guys are from outside the group. What’s ironic, is that if these two white guys knew a young black man was listening to their discussion, I bet they would have shown more restraint in their conversation. Not only did I find them obnoxious, but I think they would have felt obnoxious to be comparing rap icons and thus black cultural icons like Tupac and Biggie in front of a young black male. I don’t think most white guys are going to have that conversation in front of a black person…and I suspect it is out of respect for this phenomenon that I’m describing…that blacks are from within hip-hop culture, and they are from without hip-hop culture… While it is mere speculation whether being aware of my presence would have affected the tone and even topic of discussion between these two guys, what is certain is that my reaction to their discussion was decidedly negative, and I am at a loss to interpret that reaction. Maybe it’s a racist attitude on my part pure and simple, or maybe it is an appropriate response given the cultural significance of rap music in my life and what it has meant to me in terms of overcoming racial self-hate. The pessimist in me thinks it’s the former, and the optimist in me thinks it’s the latter, but the realist in me suspects that there is a little bit of both.

To those who know that “Yes, yes, yall” is much more than 3 words,

I met this girl, when I was ten years old
And what I loved most she had so much soul
She was old school, when I was just a shorty
Never knew throughout my life she would be there for me
~Common from I Used to Love H.E.R.


At Sun Jan 01, 01:03:00 PM, Blogger chad said...

Just to give you something else to think about check out Matisyahu. He is a reggae artist whose music sounds okay, until you see him on stage and you realize that he is a Hasidic Jew, which made me say...Whoah! Watch the video for "King Without a Crown" if you have a minute.

At Fri Jan 06, 01:17:00 AM, Blogger Adrianne said...

Shockingly, I can relate. Despite the fact that I am white America, I am sad to say I was ashamed of my heritage when I was growing up in a very Anglo Saxon, British and proper suburb outside of Toronto. My brother and I were first generation Italians, and our parents, were loud, seemingly tacky and stereo typically Italian. I was keenly aware of how we stood out, and how bizarre we were to the outside world. I used to always ask my mother in an annoyed voice ; “Why does this family have to be so loud?!” Everything my family did, they did with passion and exuberance and it made me incredibly self conscious.

My family was also financially well off, so there was definitely the insinuation by my classmates who came to my house that we must have been in the “mafia” or else where would we get the money- after all we were Italian! That bothered me, it was the constant insinuation that Italians were never clever enough to excel academically or economically.

Also my classmates many of them harmlessly joking around, made fun of my Italian features, especially in highschool.

I was embarrassed to have school friends over because my family was so vocal and outspoken about everything. I also got the impression through the media that Italians were “dumb” and I was further embarrassed to admit that we were different than my British, Canadian counterparts. For so long I tried to fight it, I attempted to act, quiet, calm, reserved, I dyed my hair blonde and straightened it, and tried to blend in as much as possible. I was ashamed to admit my heritage because of the stereotypes that followed. I was ashamed I looked Italian, and tried my best not to dress “Italian”. It was not until the summer before I went to university, on a trip to Italy that I realized the shoe no longer fit, and I could never deny who I was, I could never lie like that to myself and disrespect my own parents. The summer I spent in Italy confirmed, who I really was, what I came from and that there was absolutely nothing wrong with that.

I embraced my cultural background more, as well as my religion. Being Roman Catholic and Italian is such an identity, it’s such a cornerstone of who I am, that since embracing it I feel so much more complete. So I can completely understand your anger towards those boys on the plane.

As for my parents now I just love their little quirks, I think it’s adorable that my dad has a little tomato and basil garden and makes his own wine and pasta sauce. I am proud that my parents, are audible and speak their minds, and openly disagree with one another, and even speak with enthusiasm using their hands, because despite all their traits there is no other family I would rather belong to. I am sure I got off topic too:)

At Fri Jan 06, 01:31:00 AM, Blogger Adrianne said...

Oh and I noticed your bio said you study medicine in New England. If you are a Yalie, I completely understand. I moved from Toronto to do a semester exchange at Yale in 2004, and had a very difficult time there. I was so shocked at 1) the sense of academic entitlement 2)how I could not relate to anyone 3) the immense poverty surrounding the campus that no one seemed to be aware of it. But that is all on the surface, Yale was both enriching as well as conflicting for so many reasons-in combination with that, I was my first formal introduction to a capitalistic society, which made me seemingly uncomfortable. I mostly made friends with exchange students. New England, Connecticut especially is a very "chilly" place, in reagrds to personality. There is no "zest".

At Thu Jan 12, 11:14:00 PM, Blogger Mr. Wilson said...

i am not surprised by your reaction to the guys in front of you, and i would expect i would have had the same reaction. they are entitled to experience the culture in whatever way it is presented/marketed to them, but don't forget that your formative years were spent in a world where, as you said, black was bad and white was right.

i personally remember the alienation i had in my classes. often i was the only black child, occasionally there was one or two others. i remember feeling invisible to these people, almost like a nuisance whenever i made my presence felt. fast forward to today, and a white kid that cannot assimilate at least some urban (read black) cool is considered pretty lame. i get a sense from many of my co-workers (especially my age and younger) that it is important as an adult to gain my acceptance, that i confer "cool open-minded white person" status on them. there is something very disturbing about experiencing exclusion for all those years and then turning around and accepting our music, our language and the very expression of our pain, and yet still not really accepting the people who create it, all the while begging for my acceptance all because i represent the same thing hip hop does...a safe experience with blackness. that is infuriating.

as for me, i got better things to do with my life than exorcise out every little bit of anger some non-suspecting person sets off in me because they awake some uncomfortable aspect of my greater experience. i am no fool, they are only waking up old feelings and traumatizations and its not really their fault. even if they are being insensitive, my reaction is probably out of proportion with the nature of the offense. its those old feelings and traumatizations i probably need to deal with, and they cannot be merely removed simply by intellectually acknowledging that they happened to me. (at least it has never worked for me).

hope you find your peace with hip hop and white people


P.S. All I keep hearing about Matisyahu is that he is a white Hasidic Jew doing dancehall. why does the fact that he is a white Hasidic Jew captivate so many people? He is a muscian, not an idealogue so I hardly see why the fact that he was born Jewish and chooses to observe some cultural traditions makes him worth checking out next to any other dancehall artist. its like the "50 cent got shot nine times" story. it seems that we have to encapsulate the experience of the artist in some marketable and stimulating blurb in order to compel people to listen to the art. i wonder how many young marvin gaye's are going unnoticed nowadays because they just don't have a marketable hook?

At Wed Jan 18, 12:01:00 PM, Blogger MIZPOWDERPINK said...

Happy New Year!!! I love this post! Hip Hop comes from Black people. It's an expression and extension of OUR joys and pains. It is our culture and here "they" are once again passing judgment on us. You were thinking, "stay in your lane white boys and mind your business". Based on our experience in this country, I think it is perfectly normal. Can they back up off our ish for a moment please? Can you put your sense of entitlement on hold for one sec? Thanks. You came from a place of emotion and appropriately so considering that's where the hip hop culture comes from. It's ok to get emotional sometime:-) BTW, I think this is why I have a problem with Eminem. A great lyricist and icon in hip hop who just rubs me the wrong way...clearly emotion.

Anyway, I wouldn't worry about it.

Oh yeah, Matisyahu is hot! I saw a piece on him a few years ago. He has great energy and a nice flow.

At Sat Mar 10, 02:07:00 PM, Anonymous LuneKeltkar said...

While recognizing that this post and the comments to it largely deal with emotional (not rational) responses to troubling occurrences (in this case, the "unsanctioned" discussion of hip-hop by two white men), two significant flaws weaken the reasoning in the post and the comments, at least where reason shows itself. (Note: I am most certainly not belittling the emotional responses discussed, as they are just as valid as rational responses; I'm just not talking about the former.)

First Flaw (particular): US citizens of African descent have created a number of art forms (jazz and the Harlem literary school come immediately to mind) that have eventually entered into and profoundly affected the larger culture through recognized anthropological processes called borrowing and diffusion. All cultures everywhere and at all times have involved themselves in these two processes, sometimes as the originators and sometimes as the recipients of cultural values and artifacts. To imagine that a cultural group could create a potent new art form embedded in a larger culture but then expect to keep that art form quarantined from the larger culture is about the same as expecting a piercing aria to remain separate from the air surrounding it.

Second Flaw (general): Dr. Wilson says that "it goes without saying that there are certain things that should only be discussed by those within the group and not without." It does not go without saying. The logical extension of this assertion is a profound cultural isolationism. Should I not read and study "Everyday Use" because the author Alice Walker was of African descent and therefore her written works are (by the tenets of this comment) forever beyond my ken as an "outsider"? Have I no business studying the paintings of Jacob Lawrence for the same reason? Have I absolutely no right to express the opinion that Gwendolyn Brooks is a better poet than Nikki Giovanni simply because both women are black and therefore beyond the reach of my comprehension or criticism?

Of course not. Cultural understanding and respect finally emerges through the efforts of people to transcend their own cultures, to study other cultures, to develop informed and insightful attitudes toward the values and artifacts of other cultures. A hideous legacy of bondage and cruelty beyond belief doesn't negate this basic way of embracing other cultures.

And I certainly don't need the approval of any particular person as a cultural stamp of approbation, as a way to both prove and assuage my white liberal guilt. I left that crap behind decades ago.

I grew up poor white trash in the backhills of West Virginia. Do I resent the Appalachian studies programs that have of late sprung up all through the US educational system? Hell no. Let them study my culture, its values and artifacts, all they want, in fact all they can. I'll be better for it, and so will they.

As for the two obnoxious white men who had the audacity to discuss hip-hop, no doubt they were tiresome. In this regard, I recall a line from "Desiderata" by Max Ehrmann: "Listen to others, even the dull and ignorant, they too have their story."

Yall come back now,



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