Red, White & Hip-Hop
Hip-Hop taught me American Values
When you’re a first generation American you float within a limbo of cultures. Your identity is like playing a game of tug-of-war, pulled between your upbringing and the American culture you’ve been exposed to. I wrestled with the understanding of what it meant to be American, until I unwrapped the gift of hip-hop.
hip-hop n. a contagious rhythmic foundation that controls my hips, evokes my desires and comprehends my thoughts while simultaneously comforting my uncertainties. My voice.
My cousin was Hip-Hop, he saved my life. He was my protector as we grew up, despite his inability to protect himself. Standing at 5’9 and 250lbs, he was bigger than the average kid in his 7th grade class. His distinct West Indian cadence made it hard to understand him but easy to taunt. The late rapper Notorious B.I.G was his favorite lyricist, demonstrated through the Word Up magazines that wallpapered his bedroom. I suppose this was my first lesson in the significance of representation. “HEART THROB NEVER BLACK AND UGLY AS EVER.”- Biggie Smalls I reminisce on the days consumed with overhearing the retracting cassette tapes playing the same continuously lines, as though he was striving to tattoo it on his brain. I never complained, though I got sick of hearing the high pitched, mouse like backwards raconteur and button popping. He found a sense of peace in those words, as if he understood them to mean something no one else could.
He’s coming home today after serving 5 Years in Jail.
I never truly believed he stood a chance to be great if I’m being honest. He appeared conquered before even trying. The words No Snitching declared on his flesh, prevent him from sharing the name of his accomplices; the councilman who closed the community center, the teachers who passed him despite his inability to form a structured sentence, affirming no child left behind and my bible toting aunt who never as much as said a curse word, but assisted him in this crime as she failed to tell her son that despite what it seems, dreaming isn't illegal. It’s a pity the hours she worked overtime leaving him to discover the streets never got recognized as time served in his sentence. I protested and demanded to hold the system accountable, but it appeared that bullhorn I shouted through was muted. As I stood overpowered on American land the bravest thing I could do was openly question freedom. The equation of justice is one-part system, two-part race and economics with a solution of confusion and defeat. I turned up my headphones.
"Now I can't pledge allegiance to your flag / 'Cause I can't find no reconciliation with your past / When there was nothing equal for my people in your math / You forced us in the ghetto and then you took our dads."- Lupe Fiasco
There are lessons I didn’t absorb until later in life. I declined the opportunity to leave my house after the Trayvon Verdict was rendered. I declared war when Michael Brown was assassinated. I cried uncontrollably when the grand jury cleared an NYPD officer of criminal wrongdoing in the chokehold case of Eric Garner. I turned the news off and my music up when I heard they found Sandra Bland hanging in a Waller County jail cell.
“FUCK THE POLICE! COMIN STRAIGHT FROM THE UNDERGROUND/ A YOUNG NIGGA GOT IT BAD CAUSE IM BROWN/ AND NOT THE OTHER COLOR, SO POLICE THINK THEY HAVE THE AUTHORITY/ TO KILL A MINORITY.”- NWA
I closed my eyes and my dreams lead me to imagine assembling my networks and marching until we stood around Emmett Till’s grave. I didn’t see the mountain tops or the promise land, I merely saw the weather worn headstone directing us to where the body colored like the crackled soil we stood on laid after justice wasn’t served. I dropped a rose and whispered Fuck the Police, because I could say what they couldn’t. I stopped whispering and started yelling, FUCK THE POLICE! FUCK THE POLICE! FUCK THE POLICE!
No one stopped me or even stared, I was free to say whatever I wanted to say.
I considered the catcalls and arm grabs a birth right for a thirteen-year-old pubescent girl in NYC. At some point I lost the deed to my body. I questioned the ownership as if I merely rented the space men undressed as I walked by. The recognition of possession of my body as mine, didn't occur until I saw my picture spread-eagle squat, sporting a leopard print bikini and fur- trimmed robe, plastered around the neighborhood. It silenced the loud whistles and increased the volume up of my music.
“IMAGINE IF I WAS A DUDE AND HITTIN CATS FROM THE BACK/ WITH NO STRINGS ATTACHED, YEAH, PICTURE THAT. / I TREAT YALL LIKE YALL TREAT US, NO DOUBT/ AY YO YO YO, COME HERE SO I CAN…” - Lil Kim
He told me he was offended by my words, fearful of my aggressive sexual nature and verbally requested that I’d respect his space and his body.
I replied #MeToo.
Growing up West Indian is growing up being a devout Christian before you’ve learned how to spell your middle name. Sunday school preceded a full service, followed by an extended fellowship where the elders quoted bible verses and the youth shed their halos and applied fitted baseball caps. At some point I was all churched out. I recall quoting “Jesus knows my heart” statements to pacify my guilt I sensed from skipping service.My mother would frequently command that I turn off the devil’s music in her home, where she believed Jesus lives. I stood at a crossroad with Jesus and 2pac. Certainly, I wanted to protect my soul but the answers to social understanding of American culture laid somewhere in between the philosophies of Wu Tang & Lauren Hill.
2pac won. Until the day I responded to Ms. Miller my eighth-grade science teacher, who asked if we knew how the Earth was formed. I proudly stood with my shoulders back and my chin up as I quoted the verse that I had read hundreds of times in my earlier youth “'In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth...”. I waited to received praise for my answer when she yelled “No religion in my classroom”. I slumped in my chair as I questioned the reasoning behind our comfort in a conversation of war, drugs and even sex in school but restrict the discussion of religion. The unanswered questions began to overwhelm me so I muzzled them with lyrical comprehension.
“So here go my single dawg radio needs this, they say you can rap about anything except for Jesus, that means guns, sex, lies, videotape, but if I talk about God my record won’t get played, huh?”- Kanye West
When the music stops and my feelings are without a rhythmic mirror I retract back to just another foreigner. A person without a home, land that I cannot claim, my speech is silenced, the body in which I reside is now commanded by someone else, I cannot pray to my God nor yours without repercussion. Hip-hop has not only defined but provided an authentic narration of street life that is universally understood. More than just music, hip hop is a language, a race, art, it’s a voice. My voice. So Please Don’t Kill My Vibe by telling me that Geraldo Rivera believes hip-hop has done more to damage black and brown people than racism because I’ll just turn up the volume on my music.
“I pledged allegiance to the integrity of Hip-Hop and to the complex message for which it stands, one movement under God, rhythm & poetry, with elevated consciousness and verbal freedom for all.”