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Growing Up Hip Hop

byJamila A. Bailey
 

In 1986, as nine year olds, my god-sister and I were in love with Ralph Tresvant and Ronnie DeVoe from New Edition, sang Whitney Houston songs into hairbrushes thinking we were on Star Search, and bought our first rap album - Whodini’s “Back in Black” – with money my grandmother gave us to go shopping.

“Loddy Doddy” by The Get Fresh Crew was the first rap song I memorized and I had only heard a rendition of the song as recited by my second grade classmates, Tony and Jason. I learned dance routines to “Showstoppers” (Salt n’ Pepa) and “Nightmares” (Dana Dane) from my god-sister and her neighbor Yanique who was older than us.

At the time, how could I have known that I was part of a cultural phenomenon? I didn’t know that hip hop was political or that it offered sociological perspectives on a generation of black America that the rest of the country didn’t cared about. I didn’t know that black music always had a way of coming from the suffering and love of black souls and turning into a representative of America’s artistic relevance throughout the world. I didn’t know that white people stole black people’s music and made it popular.

In 1989, I was still making up dance routines – now to A Tribe Called Quest’s “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo” for a church talent show. I loved Big Daddy Kane’s high top fade, and growing up in the East New York/Brownsville section of Brooklyn, I remember seeing the Fat Boys pass by my private elementary school playground and later getting stuck in the elevator with Scoop Lover (one of Big Daddy Kane’s dancers). Hip hop was tangible – I could watch it on Channel 31’s Video Music Box hosted by Ralph McDaniels at 3:30 p.m. everyday after school; I could dance it with friends in basement parties, and wear it to choir practice on Saturdays.

Of course there were elements of hip hop that I didn’t relate to, primarily the lyrics of more hardcore artists. I was not poor, nor had I learned to feel victimized by my blackness. However, it was by listening to street anthems by Gang Star, Rakim, and Nas that I realized I did live in the ghetto, that some of my friends were victims, and that I was just fortunate to have escaped a life of axioms for self-hate and lack of opportunity.

I remember my cousin buying me “Tupacalypse Now ” for Christmas and I was not feeling it! West Coast rap music was sooo different. My cousin continued to put me on to underground hip hop groups like The Artifacts, Digital Underground, and Black Moon. As a teenager, I began to appreciate the angst and rebellion expressed in hip hop music and felt validated about my own issues by listening to hard bass lines, covered by the deep tone of masculine black voices telling me that it is a struggle to just stay alive. I had heard gunshots by now, knew that crack vials littered the playground in my development, and was aware of regular theft, people getting jumped, and needing to hide my jewelry on the train ride home from school.

Yet, I was still extremely attracted to the often profound statements made by alternative hip hop artists. In high school I dated an artist in the group The Boogie Monsters while my best friend dated someone in Da Bush Babies. I learned that I was a hip hop artist. I learned that rap music was part of a culture, that I was hip hop through the poetry and songs I wrote and performed, the autonomous style of clothing I wore, and the love that I felt amongst my East Village loitering friends.

Hip hop grew me up with fun, love, and a healthy dose of reality. As I entered college my hip hop identity was on lock. Everything was great with the Fugees album and the Roots solidly in, Outkast was on board, and Black Star was in effect. I was chillin’.

But something changed. Slowly, these sounds started to drown out and were overtaken by the success of artists I couldn’t understand – Jay Z, (sorry to say this but) Biggie, more Tu Pac, Puff Daddy, and others. I am in no way a hater – but to each her own – and I couldn’t seem to find mine anymore. I felt like I was left behind. Everyone else was still buying the music and progressing with the trends. But I was still stuck on “Do You Want More?!” and “Midnight Marauder”. Had my values changed? What was making me so uncool? Why couldn’t I embrace this transition in my culture? I was a poor intellectual and artist. I craved hip hop to feed my soul and challenge my mind.

My values did not change. However, I recognized that the direction of my culture was being pushed where I could not follow. I decided that I would not concede to the misogyny and urgency to have and have more that is prevalent in popular hip hop music. I had my daughter at 19 and knew that I couldn’t define my womanness/blackness/humanity by the standards depicted by the close to naked women dancing in videos; nor the men jumping around in oversized clothes and mouths full of gold teeth holding goblets.

So like a groundhog waiting for spring, I went underground. Ignoring the course of my generation, I turned to Lenny Kravitz and Cassandra Wilson to understand love and life; I turned to WOW Gospel compilations to turn around my pain. Hip hop became something I was subjected to in other peoples’ homes, cars, and nights out with my girlfriends. Hip hop was not a movement, a statement of anything I wanted to be. I was silenced.

But in 2005 I saw the Fugees back together! I watched “Run’s House” on MTV - a hip-hop pioneer teaching us all about virtues and the value of family. Is this the proverbial shadow that foretells of warmth, nurturance, and life that will call me from my slumber? Common Sense’s “H.E.R.” still resonates with me - hip hop is give and take. So for all the years that I took from it, what can I give back?

I am hip hop nearing thirty, done with my mourning and ready to act. How can I serve hip hop? What responsibility do I have in sharing virtue with those of my and an upcoming generation? Where are the spaces that support the alternative with money, time, and other human resources to create balance in hip hop? How can real hip hop no longer exist on the periphery, marginalized by popular culture?

Consumerism does not define who belongs to hip hop. Love, hurt, service, sharing, and striving to adjure oneself and others to self-directed investigations of truth in struggle and joy, make up hip hop culture – just as they do for any other. Expressions of these life experiences through music, fashion, dance, poetry, visual arts, drama, worship, and profession are what manifest hip hop.

It is too easy to analyze and critique hip hop music by today’s artists as irresponsible, hateful, and degenerative to the whole of society. What’s not easy is to combat the empty space in the souls of folk that allows us to fill this void with materialism, enjoyment of defaming others, and our deft ability to shake our ass to any old thing.

It is necessary to deconstruct hip hop not only as the social fabric of a generation, but as the church, the spirit of a generation in need of real love. We are raising a generation being taught to honor the rules of the drug game; that men and women amount to pimps and hos, and that love is an aberration in life.

Growing up hip hop was a blessing – it taught me how to do me. I have found my way back into the cipher and will spit love until I recognize H.E.R. again. Remembering the past to know where we are going is essential for lovers of hip hop.

 

 

 

 

 

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