I didn’t grow up with rap music. Despite growing up in a predominantly black neighborhood, I went to a Christian private school in a conservative white suburb where rap music was frowned upon — where being black in general was frowned upon.
Side note: My phone auto-corrected “rap music” to “real music.” That made me smile.
I don’t recall if anyone ever said it out loud, but, there, rap music was associated with gangs, drugs and violence, and every other stereotypical black behavior conservative white people hated. Rap was the worst thing in the world. I was a “good” kid, so I didn’t want to be associated with that either, so I rejected it, too. I learned to love R&B instead: Boyz II Men, Dru Hill, 112, Az Yet, Shai, Bel Biv Devoe, R. Kelly, Jodeci, Blackstreet, and classic soul — that was my “black” music. Will Smith may have been floating around then too, but I never really counted him. He was safe. He didn’t curse, wasn’t a “gang banger,” was generally upstanding… he was the Carlton of 90’s rap.
I thought N.W.A. was too antagonistic and they were awash with controversy in the periphery of my childhood. Snoop just didn’t make any sense to me at that time. My father would listen to Regulate by Warren G on repeat for a decade, but that was his music, not mine. Though, I still can’t hear “mount up” without rapping the whole song.
Coolio’s Gangsta’s Paradise was the first rap song that I really loved. I fell in love with it after watching Dangerous Minds. Though it’s a classic “white savior” movie, it hit at the exact right time in my life. I was getting ready to transition from my life in the white suburbs to the hood, and I had been relatively sheltered. My father tried to protect us by keeping us locked in doors. We pretty much only played in our own yard with kids my dad permitted in. If we went out, we had to be home within in 20 minutes of the street lights coming on. If it took us too long, we’d find our dad walking to come find us. We lived surrounded by gangs, drugs, and violence and I was oblivious. We got dressed every morning, drove to the white suburb, and put on our best “white masks” and tried to blend in. We went to school there. We played there. Our friends lived there. Home was the foreign space.
The masks began to crack in fistfights with bullies. They always knew how black we were and they never let us forget. I don’t know what it was with white kids and spitting, but it was a popular form of antagonism. Fortunately, the white kids were afraid of my older brother. He was always getting into fights and they wanted nothing to do with him. Things got worse when he graduated. We lost our bulldog and I still had two little brothers to protect on my own. I looked to rap to show me how to act tougher. For nearly two years after my brother graduated, we got into fights nearly every day. The school never suspended or expelled anyone. They were too afraid of the bad press following from the miniature race riots unfolding on the school playground.
The mask finally broke when my favorite teacher told my younger brother’s third grade class that “if Rosa Parks had just sat her black butt at the back of the bus none of this MESS would have ever happened.” Word spread quickly among the school’s few black families. The school was in a uproar. Our calls for her to be fired were met with platitudes and excuses. Instead, of firing her, they hired a black pastor, only they made him split his sermons with the white pastor. Then after complaints about his style, he was fired after only a few weeks, but still she stayed.
We couldn’t stay after that.
I had to re-think my identity after that. My favorite teacher hated black people, she hated me and everything that I was, and I had spent a year worshiping her. My former favorite teacher broke my heart, and, in doing so, condemned us to public school in the same poor neighborhood in which my parents tried to pretend we didn’t live. Dangerous Minds was a video representation of what I thought we were walking into, so I watched it like a documentary. Gangsta’s Paradise was the signature song to the movie, so I made it my battle hymn, and I loved it like a soldier loves the National Anthem.
Life was nothing like I thought it would be. It was an underfunded school with sub-par facilities and outdated classroom materials, and all of the white faces were replaced by black ones. I was terrified. For the first time in my life the teachers, the students, and the community were mostly black, and I had spent most of my life until then hearing about how terrible other black people were and trying to be more white. After a few weeks of adjustment, I learned most things were the same — that most people were the same. Most kids cared more about rap and “footworking” than boy bands, but they still liked the boy bands, and I stood out for doing “white things” instead of my skin color. The only white girl in the class “talked black” and I was accused of “talking white.” The world was very different from my last one, but not as different as I thought it’d be.
There were fights, but far less frequently than I had been in before. There were gang bangers, who were mostly high school students hanging out on porches. Most kids did their best to avoid them, crossing streets, skipping various blocks, and running if necessary. Some kids would end up in gangs, but at school, we were all friends. It never really seemed like being in a gang was a choice, rather, it was something that just kind of happened. You lived in an area with a gang, your friends were in that gang, maybe your family, and it was safer to be in the gang than to be on your own, so you joined too. It was just a fact of life.
As an attention-starves preteen looking for acceptance, I did everything I could to fit in, short of joining a gang. I played sports. I hung out with the cool kids. I pretended to smoke weed once. I dated a black classmate I wasn’t interested in because the girls in the room decided that we were a couple, so I just went with it. (That’s just what middle-schoolers do: they randomly pair off into political alliance couples — it’s Game of Thrones with less murder and more drama.) I tried to learn how to dance “black,” even practicing in the mirror at home alone. I studied rap music to a point where I could carry on debates about the greats. I played the game until I didn’t stand out at all. At some point I stopped pretending to be “black” and became black, my own way, and in the process, I fell in love.
I fell in love with hip-hop when I fell in love with black people, when I fell in love with myself. I had been living in a white world that was constantly telling me everything that was wrong about being black, so I avoided being “black,” stereotypically black. Then I lived in a black world with black people who loved being black and my world changed. It wasn’t a stereotype, it was a culture. It was our story. It was the story of the grind, the chaos, the oppression, the love, the strength and the perseverance. I fell in love with hip-hop when I realized that I was only hearing one side of the story, told by people who would never live it, and would never care. I fell in love with the story hip-hop told. It was real life. Someone once famously said that “rap was the CNN of the ghetto” or something like that. Hip-hop was my every day life. It was music, women, style, poverty, violence, and the pursuit of a “good day” despite the struggle of my surroundings.
It was real.
I think Tupac was the realest of the real, a rap legend, the living representation of life in the ghetto. He rapped about the internal turmoil of love and violence, survival and morality, getting out and loving where you came from. His death was a perfect poetic irony.
Because of Tupac, I learned about Biggie. From Biggie, I learned of Nas. From Nas, I found Outkast. From Outkast, the floodgates opened. Wyclef, Coolio, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and 504 Boyz became my “black music.” They paved the way for the Kendricks, Commons, and Kanyes, the Drakes, Childish Bambinos and Chance The Rappers. They were laying down tracks about a different black narrative to which I could march to my own beat and tell my own story. I fell in love with myself when I fell in love with hip-hop.