Jeremy’s World

We sat around a large rectangular table waiting for Jeremy, all of us eagerly assessing our peers without making too much eye contact. It was one of those classroom tables that reminded me of seventh grade science class; cold to the touch, and every time I lifted my hands I could see sweat-based palm indentations slowly evaporating.

Everyone had his or her best outfits on; a button-up that Lisa ordered online two weeks ago that she just got in the mail. A cardigan that James had been saving just for the first day the temperature dropped below 50 degrees. We weren’t trying to impress each other; we were using the class as an opportunity to wear something that was not loungewear or work uniform. To prove to ourselves that we still had a taste for fashion. To feel like we were still a part of society. Below the table, under our favorite jeans or thermal-lined chino khakis, we all wore the same electronic monitoring device on our ankles.

I wore a Nike winter hat I had just purchased at the Ace Athletic down the street. It wasn’t that cold out, but I had been inside all day, and the October frost, while refreshing, was exceptionally frigid. I took a good 30 minutes perusing the store before selecting the hat. I was 45 minutes early for class, and this was the first time I had been in a clothing store in months. I went around to every rack–price-checking a sweatshirt, trying on a windbreaker, sizing up a pair of joggers in absolute bliss–all the while feeling like I didn’t belong in the store.

My house arrest sentence allowed a 30-minute window to commute to-and-from work. Aside from that, I was given two hours to get groceries, and required to attend three hour-long AA meetings per week. And then there was this class, a weekly three-hour interdisciplinary lecture taught by Jeremy, a recovered addict-turned-counselor. It was a drop-in course, of which six were required to complete the Diploma of Alternative to Jail Sentence with a perquisite of multiple DUI convictions.

Jeremy juggled anecdotes of children dying in car crashes, childhood friends drowning in addiction, and uncles who drank fifths of Jack Daniels by the hour. He ended the class, every week, trying to convince all twelve of us that the only way we would not find ourselves on house arrest (or in jail) was to abstain from drinking altogether. Moderation was not an option.

Every class was the same cycle of worksheets and dry erase board diagrams, diluted with back-and-forth banter:

“Wake up, Darnell!”

                     “You have a problem if you’re here!”

                   “I wouldn’t have to teach this class if no one got a DUI.”

                     “You could have killed somebody.”

       “Darnell?!”

A recurring three-hour dream that changed ever so slightly, and never resolved itself.

New people joined every week.  Jeremy would prompt them to tell the class how they got their first and second (or third, or fourth, perhaps) conviction:

“Did you ever think you’d get a second one, after the first one?” he asked. “Then why are you here?”

Blank stares. He caught another one. A fresh pupil who would learn, after a few classes, that arguing with Jeremy was a rite of passage that you could only avoid by biting your tongue or sleeping. I didn’t get to know Darnell very well, but he was on to something. The rest of us grew very accustomed to biting our tongues, and let the newcomers talk.

Us veterans did most of our talking before Jeremy arrived. We would take turns confessing what we missed most about life before plastic anklets bound us. The first restaurant we’d go to when we got free. Whether we thought our probation officer would let us have thanksgiving dinner with family. How we felt like dogs chained in an electric fence. Adam’s dad smoked in the house, and he had severe asthma. Nicole worked in a bar and had to repeatedly tell her boss to stop feeding her drinks. But the conversation would always turn into probation officer horror stories:

“The washer and dryer are outside of my anklet range, and that fucking lady who sits there and monitors our obedience always calls me as soon as a put the drop the detergent in the machine.”

“My PO is by the house EVERY DAY it seems like. He popped his head through my window like ‘why didn’t you answer the phone.’ I was in the shower, chill!”

“I’m getting tested every week. I’m afraid to use mouthwash at this point.”

After a while I mostly just sat and listened. I could feel white privilege oozing from my silence. It only took a quick scan of the room to realize that only the black kids were contributing to this dialogue. My whiteness denied me access to the gripe session, as I rarely had anything to complain about aside from my shower’s terrible water pressure. I saw my probation officer twice over the duration of my sentence. Once, when he installed the bracelet, and once to ask me if I was going to all my classes.   I was never tested for drugs or alcohol even though I abstained in absolute fear. Categorized as a low risk case, I was ignored during the entirety of my probation, because of my skin color. The probation officers were too busy hounding my classmates.

I had committed the same crimes as everyone else in the room. I was just as maliciously irresponsible when I drank three too many Jameson’s on an empty stomach and left the bar in a blackout daze, reaching for my keys. Just as reckless when I drove my Jetta into that parked Toyota, too incoherent to realize that I had swerved out of the driving lane. Just as foolish when the police found me searching through my car for my phone, as it lay in the middle of the road, smashed into pieces next to a few parts of Prius bumper with the same fate.

White privilege is a strange thing these days. Living in a world where some are crying “Black Lives Matter!” while others declare post racialism; a world where racism is most dangerous in its subtlest forms. I won the draw that rewards me with a seemingly infinite benefit of the doubt, and even if I don’t perpetuate racial stereotypes or decry affirmative action, simply benefiting from white privilege is participating in the problem. Naively or purposefully benefiting from the obstacles of others. Knowing, or choosing to ignore, that others are being profiled and frisked and arrested and monitored and jailed more frequently because they have a different skin color.

This unfair treatment was performed for me every week. There would always be a different horror story that I would never experience. I would never have to fear that my probation officer would come stomping into the house, or that my house arrest would be extended because I couldn’t pay my fines on time, or that I wouldn’t be able to wash my clothes without getting a phone call.

When Jeremy walked in, the room turned silent. Jeremy did not see this world. He treated all of us as recovering addicts. He knew us by what our blood alcohol content was when we blew into that Breathalyzer. And although Jeremy would talk in circles and start arguments and threaten to call our probation officers, he was right. We’re all human. We all make mistakes. If we were caught driving drunk several times, we almost certainly had a drinking problem. This was refreshing, to be treated for my transgressions. To recognize that taking a break from alcohol was probably a good thing for me, and that drinking heavily would only land me back in this same room. For once, I didn’t feel like I was getting special treatment. I was being scolded for doing something terribly wrong. It was enough to put an extra pep in my step when I was getting dressed. To put on that favorite shirt that I hadn’t worn in a three months, and step into Jeremy’s world.

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On Ferguson: White Fear Murdered Michael Brown

Ferguson

America was watching as St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch scraped through every minor detail of the events of August 9, 2014. Painfully and impatiently, we heard this tired white man repeat the alleged interactions between Darren Wilson and Michael Brown; an incident that left Michael Brown lying dead on the asphalt and Darren Wilson in protective hiding, on paid leave from his post as an enforcer of the law.

Here was McColloch, sluggishly repeating that we know barely anything about why Michael Brown’s life was taken. And somehow, this uncertainty was appropriate background to justify a Grand Jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson. The jury wasn’t harbored to decide whether or not Wilson was guilty of murder, but rather if Wilson should be tried for his actions.

We have our decision. Wilson’s judgment to fire multiple rounds at Brown was concretely justified, says McCulloch. He feared for his life, and as an officer of the law, used “proper training” to shoot and kill a young black man.

I remember, vividly, the last time our nation gathered to hear one man speak. Barack Obama took to the stage in Chicago to announce a victorious presidential election. Like many, I was in tears over the moment. It seemed as if the nation was changing before my eyes. As if the dreams of Martin Luther King Jr. were realized in a moment of collective joy.   And yet we find ourselves, six years later, gathering around TV sets and rallying in the streets because the American justice system continuously justifies systematically profiling, incarcerating, and murdering American citizens solely because they are black.

McColloch’s statement treats Michael Brown’s death as a tragic, yet isolated incident. And by detaching Brown’s death as one event of tragic uncertainty, he attempts to excuse Wilson’s actions merely as an officer trying to do his job. In reality, this is one of many incidents of black men being targeted, instigated, arrested, and murdered.   Police officers continue to justify using their weapons because they are consumed with white fear; because they were raised and trained to see black men as useless thugs who belong either dead or in jail.

We cannot treat this decision as simply one incident of a white officer killing a black man. If we do, we ignore this culture of systemic profiling, of dangerous, poignant racism that underwent a significant surge directly following the election of Obama.   No, Rudy Guliani, Ferguson isn’t about black on black violence. No, Don Lemon, Ferguson isn’t about rowdy looting protestors. No, white America, Ferguson isn’t about Black rage or “reverse racism.” These issues are irrelevant topics to distract the American public from facing the fact that white people have reacted to President Obama’s election the same way we have reacted to any progress black Americans have ever accomplished in our nation’s bloody timeline of race relations.

Ferguson is about white fear; the same white fear that drove whites to create Black Codes to maintain supremacy after the abolishment of slavery. The same fear that had whites clutching to Jim Crow laws long after segregation was publicly eradicated. The same fear that urged present day republicans to establish the antiquated voter ID laws to intentionally prevent large portions of the poor black community from participating in our so-called democratic elections after we elected our first black president.

The same white fear inspired Darren Wilson and countless other white police officers to turn black citizens into thugs and “demons” who pose a threat to their livelihood, and therefore deserve to be shot and killed.

If we can’t enslave them, we’ll shackle them with laws. If we can’t segregate them, we’ll make them powerless. If we can’t control them, we’ll incarcerate them. And if at any point we feel threatened, we have the right to kill them.

Fear can stem from misunderstanding, lack of exposure, misrepresentation, or cultural differences. This mass white fear, however, cultivates itself in hatred. A cyclical hatred of black progress. Hatred of this illusion that white people are somehow losing their grip on American supremacy. Hatred of any threat of American post-racialism.

No, fellow white people, we cannot claim that we live in a post-racial America, and yet simultaneously use that façade to justify a mass hysteria that we have lost our superior majority. If we ever want to make any sort of claim to post-racialism, we need to stop fearing black progress, and using that fear to justify the mass incarceration and murder of black Americans.

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Rappers As Victims: Blame for Perpetuating Racial Stereotypes is Misplaced

bobby-shmurda

You might’ve seen the video once or twice. As the beat fades in, the camera scans a crowd of young black men standing on a street corner. Some guys are holding styrophome cups, others are leaning on cars, and a few are making gun motions with their hands. The camera zooms in on the crew’s leader, Bobby Shmurda, whose cold eyes stare into the lens as he begins to recite the lyrics to his hit song, “Hot Nigga.” The song, which made Shmurda famous in a matter of days, is a classic braggadocio of the rapper’s street presence and power. He raps about the daily dealings of his gang: “selling crack since like the fifth grade,” “running through checks till I pass out,” and, living up to his name, “try to run down and you can catch a shot, nigga.”

What do you see when you watch the video? A young artist selling himself out to the narrow ideals of commercialized hip-hop? A dangerous hoodlum who belongs in jail? A thoughtless kid who is obliviously perpetuating racial stereotypes of black men?

I see a victim.

Shmurda is a victim of white music executives, who throw money at him to portray a rigid, idealized character of the young black thug. Why? Because white suburban kids get a thrill out of imagining hundreds of black kids toting guns and selling drugs. Because rich white guys can sleep at night knowing that they are personally responsible for continuously codifying black men into a singular image of the dangerous black thug. It’s just another reason to throw that kid into jail for having a gram of marijuana, or saying the wrong words to a police officer, or making the wrong motion with his hands. The more black people we throw in jail, the less we have on the streets, and the more money we have in our pockets.

Here’s a brief sample of comments that sit below the video on YouTube:

“America would be much better if slavery still existed,”

“Wow just straight fucking niggers..this is why black people were better as slaves…look at them now…we don’t want some trashy biggest going around fuck that shit #stupidfuckingniggers.”

“These rise of the planet of the apes DVD trailers are looking good”

Somewhere, a rich white music executive is leaning back in his office chair, cheesing.

He’s a victim of peer-pressure, that suffocating presence that captures young black men in poverty, tempting them to protect themselves with gangs and violence and drug money. For many young black men, gang affiliation is not a choice. If you grow up on a certain black, you are assumed to be part of gang. If you aren’t affiliated with one gang, you are assumed to be part of another, and your life is in danger. If you want to walk home from school without getting mugged or shot, you need the protection of your peers. If you want to make anything over the measly minimum wage, you need to deal drugs. This cultural dilemma is a direct product of the four-decade war on drugs and the failures of the public education system. As long as drug dealing produces more money any job that doesn’t require a college degree, young black men will resort to gang affiliation.

Blaming Bobby Shmurda for perpetuating racial stereotypes is victim blaming. It’s like blaming women for getting sexually assaulted because of the way that they dress. Shmurda is not the first to release a music video bragging about his crew’s violent tactics and drug money earnings, and he certainly wont be the last. He is one of many rappers who fall victim to the temptations of white music executives, and we can’t blame him for that.

We can, however, encourage more funding for public education and after-school programs. We can start supporting artists who promote socially conscious lyrics. We can stop supporting white music executives and turn off the radio. We can end the war on drugs and provide our youth with rewarding jobs that pay enough to feed families. We’ve got a lot of work to do, but there is no time for blaming victims. We don’t need to give that rich white guy another reason to sit back in his chair and smile about his misrepresentations of black culture.

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Dear (Fellow) White People:

WhitePrivilege

Back in my grade school years, I developed a mindset that socioeconomic circumstances trumped skin color. I was raised in a relatively humble middle class home, attended an inner-city public school, and didn’t have cable TV. I didn’t inherit a trust fund or have a fancy car in a garage waiting for my 16th birthday. I was aware that there were kids born into families much better off than mine, and there were certainly kids who grew up in worse conditions. But my whiteness, I thought, didn’t make me any better or worse off than any other middle class sixth grader.  Woopty doo.

Convinced that our country’s problems were disproportionately blamed on race, I believed that improving America’s socioeconomic gaps would fix all of our problems. Segregation was a thing of the 70’s. Racism started and ended with Remember the Titans.  I lived in this mythical America where skin color was no longer a burden, and rather an aesthetic difference that contributed to cultural diversity. I gradually learned that this was all a product of my imagination, a fairy tale that continues to embody the façade of equal opportunity, freedom, and the ever-attainable American dream.

I’m not sure when the separation started, exactly, but I began to notice that number of black kids in my classes dropped drastically by the year. I was placed in “scholars” classes and shipped off to “gifted” programs once a week–both of which were, not coincidentally, stocked with the majority of the white kids enrolled in the Pittsburgh Public School system. There were a handful of black kids who received the same special treatment, but they were undoubtedly the exception.

As the grades went higher, the number of black students in my classes grew smaller. Was it merely a coincidence that my black peers had lower reading levels? That they were placed in larger “mainstream” classes with less teacher-student attention and inferior curriculums? That the only times I would interact with my black friends were on the school bus and in gym class?

The more black students disappeared in my classrooms, the more I realized that my educational experience was a microcosm of present-day racial segregation, a prime example of the many benefits I received because of my whiteness. It wasn’t until I reached college that I grasped how few white children had more than a handful of black classmates ranging back to their kindergarten days. I found myself thankful that I even attended an inner-city school, hearing from my college peers that their suburban prep schools rarely had more than ten black students, total. I imagined assembly halls filled with blissfully ignorant white children, celebrating black history month like it is some sort of annual accomplishment.

We find ourselves wondering why there are so many white people who have no idea what white privilege means. Who have never unpacked the knapsack, never grasped the blessings of their whiteness, or been called out for racist remarks or attitudes. They grew up to be the people who cried out for Obama’s birth certificate, who labeled Affirmative Action as reverse racism, and attended rallies in support of Darren Wilson’s innocence.

The truth is, my dear fellow white people, that we will never rid ourselves of our privilege. Feeling guilty about our whiteness does nothing to change our problems. Privilege isn’t a stain that we can scrub away. White privilege is the elephant in the room that only gets bigger and more damaging the longer we ignore it. We can only start empathizing, start changing the ways we view racial inequality, and stop contributing problem.

We can stop teaching children that racism ended with the 1970’s civil rights marches. Keep each other from perpetuating the myth that Obama’s election marked the beginning of a post-racial America. Stop bragging that we have black friends, as if it’s some sort of pass-go card to avoid being labeled a racist. Put an end to using commercialized hip-hop to categorize, homogenize, and diminish an entire group of people.

We can stop assuming that our justice system is colorblind. Realize, for instance, that the War on Drugs isn’t really about drugs at all, but rather a crusade led to intentionally target and incarcerate minorities. Accept that racial profiling establishes present-day caste system that labels black youth as suspected criminals because of their skin color. We can come accept that our current system takes advantage of the reality that plenty of people of all races commit crimes in this country, and uses this fact to police certain areas, prey on minority groups, and leave black youth feeling lucky being alive and out of jail by the age of 25. We can change who and what we vote for, and decide who and how we want to enforce our laws.

We can stop pretending that we deserve the jobs that we inherit because our grandfather’s grandfather made boatloads of money on the backs of slaves. Stop insisting that our legacy admittance to Yale was somehow a merit of our own accomplishments. We can call out our co-workers, friends, and family for racist habits.

Well, even after all this, we’ll still be privileged, but at least we can get up in the morning and proudly say that we aren’t part of the problem. At least we can go about our privileged white lives knowing that we are doing something to stop the oppression that burdens black Americans from birth. That carries with them from the hospital crib to the preschool, from the classroom to the workplace. From the convenience store to the jail cell to the cold hard asphalt that Michael Brown lay dead on for four hours. We can protest.

For too long, I believed that my own principles were somehow enough to reach some peace of mind that I wasn’t contributing to the damaging ways of white folks. But we, as white people, cannot sit back and blame “the white man” for having a stronghold of American discourse. We can’t lay blame on the police force and the judges and the teachers, because these people are our former classmates, our co-workers, our family and friends. As members of the white community, we are to blame.

I’m not saying that it’s our fault that we were born with white skin. We are, however, at fault for the destructive oppression that our own community has afflicted on American minorities for centuries. We must hold ourselves responsible for changing the ways we enforce our laws, educate our children, and treat each other on a daily basis. Only then can we claim to be part of the solution.

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Re: Dear White Gays: Stop Stealing Black Female Culture

Earlier this month, TIME magazine published an essay by Sierra Mannie, a young black woman who made an eloquent, fervent plea for white gay men to stop stealing black female culture. Simply put, we need to “check [our] privilege.” Mannie embodies the voice of many black women who are sick of seeing white gay men appropriate their fashion, slang, and style with no apparent awareness of their own inherited privilege. She claimed that these white gays have no notion of the line between appreciation and appropriation, and that this reenactment of black womanhood was therefore an offensive gesture.

Mannie’s essay is, without question, a profound statement, and it forced me to consider a different perspective on the behaviors of the white gay community. Some of her arguments, however, leave no room for the complexities of masculine and feminine identities within the gay community. She steps back momentarily to explain that she isn’t trying to “suck the fun out of your life” with her demands:

All of this being said, you should not have to stop liking the things you like. This is not an attempt to try to suck the fun out of your life. Appreciating a culture and appropriating one are very, very different things, with a much thicker line than some people think, if you use all of the three seconds it takes to be considerate before you open your mouth. If you love some of the same things that some black women love, by all means, you and your black girlfriends go ahead and rock the hell out.

This conflict is not as simple as “you can have your fun with your black girlfriends, but don’t take my culture.” Mannie claims that the line between appreciation and appropriation is “much thicker than some people think,” but doesn’t expand upon where this line begins and ends. The gay men who I know that come remotely close to appropriating black female culture are not doing so for pure enjoyment. They act this way out of appreciation, and more-so admiration for black women. They repeat slang phrases because they find them to be powerful expressions of femininity, a perspective that Mannie’s essay very rigidly dismisses: “womaness is not for you.”

I don’t have any claim to womanhood, but in this world where masculinity still has a firm grasp on cultural power and agency, I find the expression of the dominant feminine to be few and far between. Regardless of our white male privilege, gay men still have a rightful claim to femininity, and I’m proud to say that some of our best role models are black women. Women like Sierra Mannie and Beyonce and Lauryn Hill and Maya Angelou. I admire the way they express their femininity with such grace and power.

When white gays repeat a phrase like “throwing shade,” they may not be trying to appropriate black female culture. I, like many gay men, can often relate more to this expression of feminine power over the violent, rigid world of the masculine. In embracing and expressing the feminine, are gay men not then surrendering to its societal burden? Are we not leaving ourselves vulnerable to the oppression and discrimination that comes with feminine embodiment? While I certainly have the choice to pass as a straight man, isn’t my abandonment of this choice—whether it is manifested through the admiration of black female culture or through other mediums—a way to tear down the wall of masculine supremacy? The gay community has enough trouble idealizing masculinity and degrading feminine expression, as I’ve already explored here.  We don’t need any more voices telling us that we have no right to the feminine just because we have the privilege of passing as straight, or the convenience of getting back in the closet.

I have to assume that Mannie’s impressions of white gays are limited to young gay men who are still trying to figure out how to express themselves. And while they do not represent the entire community of white gay men, there are plenty of white gays who choose to imitate drag queens on RuPaul’s Drag Race because they finally have a source of feminine power to relate to, but have no concept of the line between admiration and appropriation. They just know that they love telling their friends to “sissy that walk” or “oh no she better don’t.” And this is by no means an excuse. I think her essay goes a long way to stop white men from “breathing fire behind ugly stereotypes” of black women. The gay community does not get a free pass to objectify black women or appropriate their culture, and we are responsible for policing our own circles to stop any sort of perpetuation of “ugly stereotypes” that mock women, or the black community, or any other community that faces oppression at the hands of white privilege. As much as her plea has surely resonated with the small sample of white gays who imitate black women for pure enjoyment, she fails to delve into the complexities of the problem. We shouldn’t be saying “don’t even think about identifying with black women.” We should be asking why gay men seek refuge in black female culture, and why they identify with the strength expressed through black womanhood.

Racial appropriation, alone, is part of a larger problem that extends far past the gay community. To think that white gay men have any right to identify with black oppression because of their own experience with discrimination is erroneous. Drawing parallels between black and gay oppression doesn’t do any good for social progress. White people–gay or straight–who perpetuate black stereotypes or appropriate black culture for enjoyment are inherently racist. There is nothing about my sexuality that will ever erase my white privilege, and nothing about my experience that will ever make me understand what it’s like to face the burdens of an American societal system that was built to privilege whites and disenfranchise the black community. But I don’t think singling out white gay men for their appreciation of black women is a solution, especially without considering that any semblance of misappropriation is certainly rooted in admiration for black female culture, and for the strength of feminine expression.

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The Injustice of Incarceration

Jail Bars

It wasn’t until after I learned the capitals of all fifty states.  After I had been lectured on the triumphs of American independence and the basic principles of my country’s foundations of freedom and liberty and pursuit of happiness.  I even learned of the abolishment of slavery and the progressive narrative of the Civil Rights movement of the 1970’s, before I found out that the United States still had prisons.

I clearly remember standing at the window of my father’s downtown office, looking down at the courtyard of the old Allegheny County Jail, watching uniformed black men play basketball, wondering why they were surrounded by large walls and barbed wire.  Before this point, I was fully convinced that prisons were storybook structures, and jail time was a punishment that fell out of practice sometime between the middle ages and whenever Les Miserables took place (my older sister was an avid fan).

Let me be the first to admit that this delayed comprehension of the American Justice System was only made possible by the fact that I was born into stable middle class white family.   I didn’t live in a neighborhood that was policed heavily, my parents never faced trouble with the law, and I grew up under the infinite protections of white privilege.  I was never suspected of thievery, or pulled over or patted down by police because of my race.  I never had my father dragged out of my home for petty crimes, and I wasn’t raised by a struggling single mother who had to choose between working a second job and reading to her children.

I say all of this, primarily, because I’m certain that if I were born with a different color skin, that I would have learned about the harsh realities of mass incarceration long before I actually did.  That I would have been racially profiled, perhaps patted down and pulled over because of my skin, and maybe even dragged behind bars for something as trivial as marijuana possession.

Far too many Americans hide behind the façade of post-racialism, and refuse to acknowledge that systemic racism is alive and well, operating within the mass-incarcerating machine known as the American Justice System.  The notion that everyone holds equal rights and faces equal punishment is a myth.  People of all races commit crimes, and our current system relies on that fact to target and heavily police minorities to perpetuate a myth of inferiority. Once thrown in jail, young black men are stripped of their rights, removed from the voting population, and denied access to education.  These so-called “correctional facilities” are nothing but modern day slave cells.

I’ve written frequently about how hip-hop addresses racial profiling and mass incarceration on this blog.  How black men often lament that they’re lucky to reach the age of 25 without being incarcerated or dying. On the tragedy that jail-time and death have become a forced rite of passage for rappers, and on how it’s problematic that these rappers gain authenticity through punishment and fatality.

And yet we wonder why so-called “family values” have deteriorated in urban neighborhoods.  We ask why these children aren’t being read to, aren’t being fed properly, and aren’t forced to attend school.  What do we expect when police these neighborhoods heavily, thrown their parents in jail, and wonder why they can’t get a job that will properly support their children.

Go ahead, ban Donald Sterling from the NBA.  Boycott Justin Bieber and Paula Deen for their racist remarks.  Whatever convinces you that you don’t perpetuate racism enough to fall asleep.  None of this will fix the fact that white children can go through a large part of their lives without even knowing that prisons still exist, meanwhile black youth are targeted by police and introduced to the perils of incarceration from birth.

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Snubbed for his Skin: Kendrick Lamar’s Racially Charged GRAMMY Rejection

Image

When Kendrick Lamar took the stage at the 2014 GRAMMY Awards, he stared right at thousands of well dressed white people sitting in their seats, staring awkwardly at this rapper they might’ve heard of a handful of times.  They looked nervous, not knowing what to expect from this so called good kid from a M.A.A.d. city.  He was interrupting that Radioactive song that had heard on a couple commercials and they SO couldn’t wait to add to their running playlist now that they knew the artist’s name, so he’d better make it quick.

Four minutes later, the tuxedos stood and the flashy dresses swayed. This Kendrick guy had just spit two verses about gang violence and young poverty with a hungry motivation that would make you believe he had just escaped the madness of Compton.  All of a sudden he was jumping up and down pounding a bass drum with his hands, and they had to clap along.  If you haven’t seen the performance, I suggest you check it out.

So this was the guy who just lost in all seven categories in which he was nominated? Listen to the last verse of the song, which didn’t appear in the original version of M.A.A.d. city, written specifically for the GRAMMYs performance.  The last few lines sound as if Kendrick expected the snubs.  As if he was screaming out to primetime television that he doesn’t give two fucks about a GRAMMY award:

Fuck, look in my eyes, tell me I died, tell me I tried, to compromise

Tell me you love me, tell me that I, don’t give a fuck and can barely decide

Wishin’ good luck on my enemies, all of my energy go to the almighty God

I could drown in a bottle of Hennessy, fuck your amenities, I’m gettin’ better with time

And why should he care?  Good Kid M.A.A.d. city will stand as one of the best albums of Kendrick’s career.  The work earned him well-deserved commercial success and acclaim, and the credibility to claim his spot as one of the best rap artists in the field.  Can he really beat himself up for losing an award because of the color of his skin?

That’s right.  The reason why Kendrick Lamar lost in all seven of his categories was because there were white artists—generally Macklemore and Ryan Lewis–in contention.  The general response to Macklemore’s GRAMMY sweep wrote off the awards show as a popularity contest.  Like every other awards show, they recognize artists because of their likeability.  Or because they’ve attained commercial success by making pop hits.  Or because they look good in the spotlight.  But most of all, because they’re white.  Skim the list of GRAMMY winners  this year, or last year, or the last ten years.  Count how many times a black person won an award over a white contender. For years, the GRAMMYs not-so-subtly awarded black artists by crowning them within the rap and r&b genre categories, rarely awarding them  with album or song or performance of the year.  Kanye West might have won best rap album or rap performance competing against other black rappers—he is  ranked sixth all time with 21 GRAMMY awards–but has never won album or song or performance of the year.

As much as I’d like to toss away the GRAMMY Awards  and every other show into a black hole  of irrelevance, the racial discrepancies here are far to pertinent to the current  state  of  American race  relations, and more specifically, how the music industry perpetuates and demonizes black stereotypes, mutes any form of socially conscious black counterculture, and rewards white artists who make us think  that everything is hunky dory. Excuse the pun.

Friends of mine can confirm that I was one of many music heads who had Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” video on a tab, preloaded, ready to press play to anyone and everyone with a few minutes to share.  The four-minute secondary shopping spree was one of  my favorite music videos of the year.  Hell, the duo’s  album turned out to be a decent compilation.  So  when GRAMMY nominations were announced, I wasn’t surprised to see The Heist listed in several categories, although rumors have spread that the rap nomination committee stirred controversy over Macklemore’s eligibility as a rapper in the first place.

Macklemore is a rapper.  His music belongs in the hip-hop genre, and his album deserved nominations for Best Rap Album, Song, and Performance.  His race shouldn’t be a factor in his eligibility any more than Kendrick’s.  But history has spoken, and Macklemore four more awards to add on the wall, and Kendrick chose to celebrate his seven snubs with a TDE fan appreciation concert at the House of Blues, even bringing a fan on stage to freestyle to a Section 80 classic.

Macklemore texted Kendrick to apologize, saying “You got robbed” and “I wanted you to win.”  A nice sentiment, perhaps, but Macklemore shouldn’t have to apologize for his white privilege.  The issue is so much bigger than Kendrick being snubbed.  Rather, his main stage elimination is part of a long lineage of racial discrimination in the music industry.  For that, apologies have long been due, and will most likely never come to pass.  Kendrick’s electric performance was a slight slap in the face to an audience that was hesitant to clap along at first, but when the smoke finally cleared, all we seem to talk about is Beyonce’s over-sexualized twerking.

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Kanye West: The Crazy, Ranting, Inarticulate Genius

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America, y’all have to see me.  Y’all have to get used to this face.

Imma stand for everything I’ve seen in my life.  And Imma try to express that to yall the best I can.  And I feel like I’m creative enough to make it work.

In my heart, there’s so much stuff I want to say to the world…it’s like I really got a lot on my mind.  I’m not using rap as a way that I’ll get paid or something.  I’m using it as an opportunity to really say some stuff that I think needs to be heard.

I probably don’t have to tell you who I’m quoting here.  In part, because his confidence and passion have echoed the same message throughout his career.  And perhaps even more so, because clips from his interviews have been circling the web for weeks.

 But these quotes aren’t from recent interviews, they’re excerpts from Kanye West’s hour-long interview on MTV’s You Heard It First (YHIF), in 2002. 

Two years before he released his first studio album, The College Dropout

Four years before he went on a nationally televised telethon for Hurricane Katrina and uttered the famous claim “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” a moment that the president would later claim to be the worst moment of his career. 

Seven years before he jumped on the stage at the VMA’s and interrupted Taylor Swift’s speech to announce that “Beyonce had one of the best videos of all time.”

And eleven years to the present, 2013, in which he’s projected videos screaming injustice and present day slavery, ranted at concerts about corporations and media misinterpretation, gotten into feuds with the likes of Jimmy Kimmel over a parody sketch of his BBC interview, and broken out into screams in several live interviews.  And how could I forget, Kanye released his sixth studio album, Yeezus.  A work that projects the rapper at his most angry, violent image to date.

Yes, America, I think we’ve gotten used to this face.

And plenty of Americans have turned against Kanye, either because they don’t like the aggressive sound of his new album, or they don’t like how he continues to rant on interviews or denounce the same corporations that he participates with. He’s even been labeled as crazy, idiotic, and childish, when in fact, he’s none of these things.  He’s a producer-rapper-fashion designer who, in everything he’s done artistically, has expressed the grave racial injustice that has slowly been hushed, systemized, and  subsequently accepted by the American mainstream. 

What makes you think Kanye is crazy?  Because he rambles in live interviews, and looks like he might cry every time he exhales? Because he breaks off into tangents about the white hierarchy of the fashion industry when asked why he worries so much about money? 

What makes you think he’s unintelligent?  Because he can’t fully compose himself to articulate a message that has been misunderstood and hushed and concealed for decades? That he can’t come up with a perfectly eloquent answer to a question like “How are we slaves if we have a choice?” A question that requires a multilayered response, dipping into commercial control, the roots of slavery and white manipulation, and a thesis full of other complexities. 

Kanye West is not a teacher.  He doesn’t aim to educate the masses or start a career in public speaking.  Instead, he’s an artist, whose art has ignited flames of misunderstanding and confusion.  Because Kanye is taking chances, and sending messages that no one else has been brave enough to even consider, he feels compelled to explain himself to the masses.    

What makes you think he’s childish?  Because he strings together anecdotes that appear to have no correlation?  Because he starts yelling when an interviewer suggests that he’s going about things all the  wrong way? 

Sure, Kanye is egotistical and loud and persistent.  At times, he’s out of control and often, he has trouble articulating his message.  But he’s also more brave and passionate to stand against the entire industry of American racial injustice more than any other artist of our time.   There are things that are severely wrong with our country.  Money determines everything. Corporations have ridiculous amounts of money, and use to perform pathetic puppetry on the government. White hegemony has grasped a stronghold on American wealth, and uses it to carry on a nepotistic system that praises familial or fraternal connections over work ethic or achievement.

In an interview with New York City’s 105.1 program The Breakfast Club, Kanye spoke out on this deficiency:   

“You know we don’t know nobody that got a nice house. You know we don’t know nobody with paper like that we can go to when we down. You know they can just put us back or put us in a corporation. You know we ain’t in situation. Can you guarantee that your daughter can get a job at this radio station? But if you own this radio station, you could guarantee that. That’s what I’m talking about.”

White families more often live in neighborhoods in which the property tax funds better education for their children, ensuring that they can go to college based on their plethora of opportunity and financial support. Neighborhoods that aren’t policed and racially profiled by cops who are eager to put black people in jail to maintain systemic mass incarceration, fueling further economic gain through privately owned prisons that make their money from collecting inmates. Sounds a little like, oh, I don’t know, slavery?  If you think Kanye is crazy because he’s stating these truisms, then I urge you to reevaluate your perception of the role of racism in the American hierarchy. 

There’s plenty more in The Breakfast Club interview.  Kanye speaking on his futurist views, and how he compares himself with Steve Jobs and Walt Disney.  Speaking on his disputes with corporations such as Nike over royalties and fashion boundaries.  Claiming that he’ll be in the history books in a few decades. 

And yes, Kanye often struggles to articulate his thoughts in a linear form for interviews.  Does this make him unintelligent?  That he can’t come up with a perfectly eloquent answer to a question like “How are we slaves if we have a choice?” A question that requires a multilayered response, dipping into commercial control, the roots of slavery and white manipulation, and a thesis full of other complexities. 

Kanye West is not a teacher.  He doesn’t aim to educate the masses or start a career in public speaking.  Instead, he’s an artist, whose art has ignited flames of misunderstanding and confusion.  Because Kanye is taking chances, and sending messages that no one else has been brave enough to even consider, he feels compelled to explain himself to the masses.    

Sure, plenty of Kanye’s claims dismiss any sort of humility on his part.  But we’ve never loved Kanye for his humility.  We’ve always seen him as an egotistical maniac who could care less about what people think of him, or what he’s supposed to say, or what kind of music he’s supposed to make.  That very ego fueled a decade of brilliant music production, several momentous occasions in the public spotlight, and some a few ruffled presidential feathers.  You can see the hunger in Kanye’s eyes in the 2002 interview with YHIF.  It’s the same hunger he carries with him today, a burden to throw injustice back in the face of white America. 

If that makes him crazy, then what does that mean about us?

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Dr. Glover, Mr. Gambino: A Confessional Rapper’s Struggle with Racial Identity

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I caught wind of Childish Gambino before ever hearing mention of this Donald McKinley Glover fellow.  Most people know Glover from his portrayal of Troy Barnes on NBC’s Community, or perhaps from his work as a stand-up comedian. Me?  I didn’t hear of him until he stepped into the rap scene.  I’m not a big fan of television shows, but when someone starts spitting similes over sped up Adele, they really know how to perk my ears.  As if Adele was chanting the perfect caveat in the second chorus of “Rolling in the Deep”: “You’re gonna wish you/never had met me…”  before this corny monster calling himself Childish Gambino jumps in to rap one verse before the song is nearly over.   Punch lines like “‘I’m saying that my life’s swell: cortisone,” matched with painfully honest bitterness: “Wow, girl, that’s what you really wanted, huh?/A Michael Cera knockoff, I guess I wasn’t white enough.”  

Yes, Childish Gambino, I kind of wish we had never met. But what initially felt corny and insincere has evolved into a compelling, complex character in hip-hop; Gambino has a lot to say about racial performance and black identity, even if we have to swim through corny punch lines to find said message.  Rapping seemed like a hobby for Glover at first.  But now, Glover has moved from actor-who-occasionally-raps to the next rapper-who-abandoned-acting, as if he needed anything else to draw comparisons to Drake.  He has taken a reduced role in Community, and is set to release his second studio album Because the Internet on December 10th

Donald Glover never really quit acting, though.  His alias, derived from a computer engine that generates Wu-Tang-esque titles from real names, was only the beginning of Glover’s rapping persona.  Childish Gambino is a corny, sensitive, aggressive misogynist, who makes you question when he’s being sincere, when he’s actually pissed off, when he’s pulling your leg, and if he really ever walks around the club surrounded by Asian models.  He’s mastered this jeckle and hyde see-saw character who often reflects on his own authenticity as a rapper, role model, and black man.

Gambino’s first LP, 2011’s Camp, was best known for “Bonfire,” an appropriately named single that strings together clever tangential similes that tells the hackneyed rapper tale of being rich, popular, disrespected, and surrounded by naked women:

Move white girls like there’s coke up my asscrack

Move black girls cause, man, fuck it, I’ll do either

I love pussy, I love bitches, dude, I should be runnin’ PETA

From the single and what I’d heard prior to Camp, I was convinced he was a wittier, more privileged version of Lil Wayne.  Albeit entertaining, this side of Gambino was a mere snippet of his persona’s complexity.  Several of his tracks on Camp portray compelling confessions from a rapper who has suffered through childhood bullying and relationship troubles, all stemming from issues with his racial identity.

On “Backpackers,” Gambino rants about his lack of “street cred” because he’s often considered “that well spoken token,” the nerdy black guy who is too nerdy to align with mainstream America’s image of the black rapper:

Nerdy ass black kid, whatever man I’m sick of him

That well spoken token, who ain’t been heard

The only white rapper who’s allowed to say the N-word

I buy a bunch of ’em and put it on my black card

Now I got some street cred, use it ’til it’s maxed out

He’s “the only white rapper who’s allowed to say the N-word,” passing as a white man but still grasping to his black roots to brag that he can, in fact, say “the N-word” without offending anyone.  The black card pun is equally gripping, conceptualizing the literal purchase of black identity, or “street cred,” through using the word nigger.   

On “Hold You Down,” Gambino dives further into his personal issues with racial identity.  At the end of the first verse, he raps:

But niggas got me feelin’ I ain’t black enough to go to church

Culture shock at barber shops cause I ain’t hood enough

We all look the same to the cops, ain’t that good enough?

The black experience is Black and serious

Cause being black, my experience, is no one hearin’ us

White kids get to wear whatever hat they want

When it comes to black kids one size fits all

The idea that many black youth suffer from both black and white oppression is troublingly real.  If a kid isn’t “black enough,” they’re forced out of the black community while still suffering through the inevitable struggles of racial profiling and white supremacy.  They can pass as neither white nor black, thus facing maltreatment from both sides.  White youth can pass as black as much as they please without ever facing the anguish of racism, but for black kids, “one size fits all.”

So before you criticize for Glover for being a misogynist, or inauthentic, or inconsistent, perhaps give some more thought to why he’s performing as such, and what that means about our societal ideas of what it means to be accepted by the white or black community.  The multiplicity of Gambino’s persona: his lyrical confessions, questionable sincerity, and braggadocios punch lines are all product of a man who felt the need to play these roles to gain acceptance. 

Perhaps we should consider Gambino a confessional poet of hip-hop.  When the bonfire goes out, when he stops playing the persona of the demonized black pimp, he has very gripping points to make on racial identity and the black experience. And when he does decide to perform as this iron jawed sex king, can we view that as a very telling performance of a black rapper?  As insincere as this corny demon sounds, it’s a very honest portrayal of how mainstream America views rappers. The money and women and outrageous behavior Gambino needs to brag about to gain authenticity in hip-hop, it’s all part of his struggle with racial identity.  Glover has passed between the lines of white and black for his whole life, and Childish Gambino is the main stage materialization of that duality. 

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Review: Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP2

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I was ten years old when Eminem stuck his middle finger up to the world with The Marshall Mathers LP.  To people who said he could never make it in hip-hop because he was white.  To naysayers who called him a never-will-amount-to-anything piece of white trash.  To his absent dad, his child’s mother, his English teacher, and his dope-head mom.  He didn’t give a fuck, God sent him to piss the world off.

And here we are, 13 years later.  Eminem is eight albums deep in his career.  He’s experienced inconceivable success, scandals, law suits, drug issues, recovery and finally, a full circle return in the form of The Marshall Mathers LP2. 

And me?  Well, Em and I have sort of lost touch.  I admired him for not giving a fuck.  I loved the way his witty lyricism hopped jumped and skipped through this maze of beats.  How he challenged himself at every turn.  How fast can I flow on this beat?  How much can I offend mainstream America?  Like he got off on the image of mothers covering their sons ears, begging him to stop bragging about slitting faggots’ throats and raping women.  His subject matter thrilled me.  Like the thought of running away for a night just to see how my parents reacted.  Or saying a swear word in sixth grade social studies to get a gasp out of the girl next to me.

But I’m twenty-three now, and honestly,  MMLP2 doesn’t really do it for me. Sure, Eminem exercises his renowned lyrical abilities.  He can spit as fast as Twista, tell graphic tales, and make hilarious allusions to current events all in one verse. But thirteen years later,  I no longer get a thrill from hearing about women being drowned and violently fucked, and frankly, It’s hard not to cringe from the image of my childhood idol breaking a table “over a couple of faggots backs.”

Now–before I get slim-shady’s fan group all riled up into thinking I’m some oblivious, easily offended critic—I get the whole alter-ego thing.  I understand that Eminem doesn’t actually believe all these things.  That slim shady is his evil rapping twin persona that was born to see how easily he could offend sensitive ears.  That Eminem actually supports gay rights, probably respects women, and has done his best to raise his daughter to believe the same.  I get it.  I just think the act is exhausted, and find myself asking: why?

Why is Eminem so angry? He’s not the same twenty-seven-year-old who had something to prove.  He’s a successful rap icon, self-proclaimed rap god who has earned a spot on most everyone’s list of top-ten MC’s alive.  Why does he find it necessary to rekindle the flame he sparked at the beginning of his career, revisiting the same subject matter, hunger, and angry-menace attitude? The very persona that earned my respect as a young fan of hip-hop has me at a loss, wondering why a forty-one year old mogul hasn’t really changed at all.  What was once an impermeable confidence now comes off as a desperate desire to prove that this middle-aged man still has his old tricks.

When I think of Eminem’s peers, rap icons like Jay-Z and Kanye, they’ve matured in ways we couldn’t have perceived at the start of their careers.  They’ve grown into icons who have learned how to revisit their past with more reminiscence than full-fledged embodiment.  Who can brag about how far they’ve come and how much they’ve learned with a newfound maturity, and a worldly awareness of what they represent in the world hip-hop.

The intro to “Rap God” really says it all.  We hear a comic book, Wu-Tang-esque voice : “Look, I was gonna go easy on you and not to hurt your feelings, But I’m only going to get this one chance.”  As if this is Slim-Shady’s only chance to prove something to the world.  Prove what?  That he can still portray this misogynist, homophobic persona?  That if he doesn’t do that, he’s going easy on us? Eminem hasn’t hurt my feelings, he’s just left me disenchanted by his range of material.  In thirteen years, he hasn’t found a way to prove his dominance in the rap game without bragging about sexuality dominating women?

He begins to acknowledge this lack of progress in “Asshole.”  In the last verse, he spits:

Only women that I love are my daughters

And sometimes I rhyme and it sounds

Like I forget I’m a father, and I push it farther

So father forgive me if I forget to draw the line

It’s apparent I shouldn’t of been a parent I’ll never grow up

 Eminem embraces some self-deprecation here, revisiting the self-criticism that has always added an admirable complexity to his music.  But at this point in his career, the wheels have fallen off.  Slim’s don’t-give-a-fuck attitude that made him so appealing in his early work feels different now.  Like he’s trying too hard to be careless.

I’ll still spin “Till I Collapse” on my heavy rotation and hell, I think MMLP2 has some great lines, killer flows, and stadium beats.  I still think that Eminem is a hilarious, complex rap icon who has filled a necessary hole in hip-hop.  His ability to paint horrifying pictures and embody a range of characters is unmatchable. It’s easy to see how his music has inspired a new generation of rappers–Odd Future, Kendrick Lamar, and Yelawolf to name a few.   Perhaps that’s why, as much as it pains me, I’m being so critical of my childhood icon.  Because, thirteen years later, I expected more from a rapper who is fully capable of doing so.

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