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
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