On Representation

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I never thought much  about growing up in a place where black people played tennis. It just happened that my hometown happened to have the best public tennis facility in our area, so much that people from suburban areas would flock to our courts to play and practice with coaches our in town.

I think a lot about this, because I realized when I was in my late 20s that growing up where I did probably shaped much of my worldview in ways that being someplace else might not have. I’m not saying it was all perfect, it was far from that. But just the access to influences who didn’t just look like me, but who were a melange of characters who demanded excellence in different ways, helped shape my perspective because I wasn’t a stranger to black excellence. Not only that, it never occurred to me that there were jobs or things off-limits to me because growing up I saw black people who did everything. My first doctor was black, all of my school principals except one were black — my first elementary school principal was a black woman for 5 of the 6 years I was in that school.

Even the white teachers I had seemed to be hellbent on teaching us in ways that defied conventional expectations. We were reading Orwell in elementary school. We participated in activities like Odyssey of The Mind that took us away from our town and around the state and region to compete — and succeed at high levels.  When I lived  in distant places years later, it occurred to me at different times there were people who simply had never encountered a black person in a leadership position. Or a black dude who was the tech guy and not the basketball coach. I joke about this sometimes, but it really does matter. How people see  you doesn’t just affect how they treat you, it impacts the range of opportunities you’re offered and the ways people perceive your smarts because  they’re not quite sure how you got where you are — since they’ve never seen anyone doing what you’re doing.

That’s not my problem, though. And yet, it becomes my problem more often than now. It doesn’t excuse being less than excellent. Make no mistake, I’ve been afforded some fantastic mentors and people throughout my adult life who have seen things in me I had not yet seen in myself. They’ve supported my goals, encouraged me and tried to connect me to bigger and better things. Almost none of them looked anything like the people I grew up with.

I just felt the need to connect the dots on representation. I know some people look at “firsts” in 2016 and think even the mention of such things is a step backwards. “Why does it matter?” “Why can’t we just celebrate these accomplishments as Americans?” We can, but there’s an added joy to defying expectations, especially when there are structural barriers to many of the things that people still want to do today. Remember that successful might happen globally or nationally, but it starts locally.

Think of bridge trolls as gatekeepers. Every time you want to do something, there might be one person to determine whether you get to do it or not. Sure, you can go to another town but that takes time and money. Or find a private club that’ll accept you. Maybe it’s just finding someone who sees your ability and talent and is willing to nurture it. Success is measured in small distances, not big gaps, especially at the elite level. What separates the people who make it, is often a matter of timing and opportunity.

Whenever there’s some historic achievement where someone is mentioned to be the “first” to do something — specifically here in America — I often vacillate between being annoyed that we have to mention it and grateful that we live in a time where such barriers are falling.

I try to reflect on every moment  as if it’s penance to the people who  were denied access, who fought and broke rules and raised hell to give their forebears access to the opportunities they now enjoy freely.

Every time you hear “so and so is the first _____ to do _____,” it’s a little whisper of apology from every single person who might not have been complicit, but part of the collective debt we all share from a past with fingerprints all over our lives today and how we live them.

A tale of two internet columns

Today was an interesting day in internet columns. On one hand, you had a Forbes.com contributor Gene Marks who shared his “insights on what he would do if he were a “poor black kid.”. I’d quote some of the absurdity here, but I’ll just make you look at their site because well…the only reason to run tripe like that is for eyeball traffic.

On the flip side, I did enjoy Wesley Morris’s The Rise of the NBA Nerd in Grantland.

 

Old political commericals

I found this entire video completely astounding. Just the way the things evolved over time and how in some ways, the themes have not changed a bit at all. The site the Living Room Candidate is a pretty astounding site.

For it to be 1956 and for Adlai Stevenson to be so candid was interesting to me.

The significance of now

I won’t be voting for either major party candidate in this year’s Presidential election (and I never have…)

But I can’t help be struck by this…

August 28, 1955 – Emmitt Till is murderd in Mississippi
August 28, 1963 – Martin Luther King gives his I Have A Dream Speech in Washington, D.C.
August 28, 2008 – Barack Obama accepts Democratic nomination for President in Denver, CO.

I, Too, Sing America
Langston Hughes

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

Tomorrow,
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
Then.

Besides,
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed–
I, too, am America.

Noel Gourdin might need to shoot a new video

Ok, so here’s what happens when you make a song that your label probably doesn’t expect to “blow up” like it does, so they let you film a video on a shoestring budget that isn’t close to being what the song is about.

Take one Noel Gourdin. He made this song called The River. Steve Harvey played it on his radio show apparently and was such a big fan that it’s motivated stations that never played to pick it up. So I guess maybe label does know best? They probably didn’t think the song would get very far.

Hence that video.

Well, here’s how Noel Gourdin explains the song though (on his YouTube page, in marketing copy)

That’s apparent on the richly moving “The River.” Produced by Kay Gee, “The River” conjures up vivid images of family, faith, tradition and the journey towards becoming your own man. “We wanted to make a modern-day Negro spiritual,” concludes Noel, of the song’s inspiration. “Both my grandparents lived in Mississippi about 3 hours from Biloxi and I spent every summer with them, so I really soaked up that atmosphere and history. My grandfather had just died and I was really thinking about him, and in the Deep South the river represents something spiritual. The song means a lot because it’s so close to home.”

Ok, that’s cool dude. Really cool. So why did you let them talk you into making a video that has NOTHING to do with that? I know, I know. Rookie mistake. You’ll do better. First step? Re-shoot that video, before they start showing it on TV.

Nas, The “N-word” and the veneer of artistry

If you haven’t yet heard about it, Nas — the rapper — has decided to name his newest album Nigger.

That’s right. He’s going to blunt the word into irrelevance. Or so it seems. Is this a remarkable show of hubris from an artist or there something else at play here?

It’s actually pretty simple, I think. Nas will be accused of pushing the envelope and probably feels quite passionately about what he’s doing. But I’m not quite sure it’s all that complicated, really.

My suspicion is that he figures for hundreds of years, the word was used to dehumanize a group of people. Being a seemingly well read (if completely confused) guy based on his past body of work, Nas is clearly figuring that “I’d rather profit from the word, because that’s the ultimate sign of defiance.”

Cute. And the marketplace will reward and revile him at the same time. And the delicious irony of certain kids going to music stores to request the album probably will be worth the price of admission — provided it were charged — although no one buys music on wax or CD anymore.

So..it really doesn’t matter after all.

Here’s a single from the album. I won’t even tell you the title. It’s too annoying.

I imagine this lil’ publicity stunt will irk his base more than it’ll provoke actual dialogue. But he’s not concerned with that. After all, it’s all about ‘moving units’. (that’s selling albums for the uninitiated.) At it’s best, the whole scheme is intellectually lazy. His peers in the ‘rap game’ will defend their use of the word to their graves, are just going to be enabled by this. Copycat albums from southern rappers will follow, with gratuitous use of the world sprinkled liberally as if it were sugar in my oatmeal. It would’ve been far more clever to call the album HNIC or something else. At least then, it’d have a small sliver of wit involved.

But nope. no such cleverness or creativity is to be found in the era of

Perhaps one of the best things that could come from this is that people will hear the word enough that they’ll be disinclined to use it. Not because “words hurt”, but instead because there are a myriad of other words that would be far more productive and would expand the ways in which those inclined to say it could express themselves. It would be pretty hilarious if it could induce rappers to engage in contests to see who can use bigger words in their tracks. Or use them in the proper context. Is that what this is all about anyway, expression?

No one complains about rock lyrics, because they don’t matter. Rock music doesn’t take itself very seriously, even when the artists are serious about their craft. Hip-hop at its core is all about the verbal jousting and wordplay. The verbiage is the frosting AND the cake. Sure, great beats help. But the words will sell a track in the end. The double standard might suck, but it is what it is. And with hip-hop having gone pop, the bar isn’t anywhere near it used to be. It’s much less a hurdle now and merely a puddle to avoid on the way to stardom and infamy.

Hip-Hop’s awkward embrace of capitalism

I heard Rich Boy’s “Let’s Get This Paper” because my brother would be listening to it while it was on television. Then I actually watched the video once and I thought, “well at least the beat is good.” (Of course…) I downloaded it to my Zune and it was in the random rotation just like anything else and one time, it came on.

I listened to the whole thing and wasn’t sure WHAT to think about it. I mean, I appreciated the anti-drug selling message.

And then we can’t get a job, ridin’ we get them pounds
If it ain’t that coke then we get that ‘dro and break it down
See that ice, the dope man paradise
Boy better think twice, that dope have you doin’ life

But then, he started talking about welfare and I got a little uneasy.

They tore down the projects, so where we gonna move next?
They takin’ them food stamps, they stop government checks

But then I thought about it more critically and I began to think about the people out there who don’t have any hope at all. Their days and nights are confined to thinking about basic necessities of life and who feel as if they are completely disconnected from the rest of society, who not only don’t understand their plight or care about why they are where the are.

That’s not what I wanted to write about, though.

Songs like this aren’t all that surprising in hip-hop and in fact, some are far more candid the further away from the mainstream you get. How one separates the wheat from the chaff in terms of the hyperbole and uncomfortable embrace of socialism or redistributive economics, is really an exercise in selective hearing.

With all of the talk about people losing their homes due to the sub-prime mortgage “crisis”, I’d like to focus on a group that have completely fallen off the radar.

Katrina victims were home owners. These weren’t people who necessarily had a lot of money. But over 60% of them owned their homes. I felt that the post-Katrina circumstances would have been a good opportunity to help those people — and those who were just renting — to be part of a pilot program aimed at community building and home ownership. By using tenets of the ownership society as a something other than a discussion piece, but something actually used in practice would have been a marvel. But I suppose that makes too much sense for politicians, as usual.

The GOP had has a unique opportunity for years now to match their rhetoric of entrepreneurship and urban renewal by developing policies that would actually target many of the afflicted in rural and urban areas.

I say rural because I realize that it’s probably not all that sexy for a party that can barely get more than 10% of the black vote to support policies that benefit them in an era of patronage politics. But there rural communities that are on the decline and that are losing their kids. Not because the kids necessarily want to leave, but simply because there aren’t any incentives for businesses to grow and INNOVATE in these very livable communities.

The whole rural v. urban debate is an entire set of posts for another day, though.

Hey, money my motivator, my mouth, my money maker
Now I don’t see them haters, so let’s go get this paper

And then it hit me. This is the ode to entrepreneurship like none other. It’s a miracle they let him put this song on the album for fear it might cause thousands to do something other than scare the living daylights out of entire neighborhoods.

But then, this was Rich Boy’s debut album and it’s not as if they really thought he’d have a bigger market than his region (the South) and so, bigger places like Chicago and New York were safe from being tainted by this clandestine message of DIY scrappyness.

The fact that exasperation that he sees his entire neighborhood in a shambles, folks close to him dying or going to jail and he realizes through their examples, comes to the conclusion that he has to do something else.

I would hardly conclude that there is therefore any demonstrable evidence that Hip-Hop has indeed beaten the welfare state, but I would suggest that tracks like these indicate an entire generation of young folks coming up with a desire to do what others do, but rather than to ‘dare to dream’ towards suburban lives like many of their parents, their goal is to build it right in their own neighborhoods.

There are lots of other tracks that talk about ‘getting that money’ and in far more crass ways indicate how they’re going to make it hand over fist. But the underlying sentiment is exactly the same in each case. It’s to say “we didn’t have it before. We’ve been shut out and we want our chance. And if you’re concerned that I’m who I was then, look at me now with all of this new stuff I have, so clearly I can’t be that same person you thought me to be then.”

I don’t know if you can concoct a more constructive dialogue out of the entire conversation than that. My difficult with the way rappers talk is that more than any other genre of music in the American mainstream, hip-hop comes from the experiences of actual people who are not mincing many words in articulating to you their frustrations directly and candidly.

I could cite a number of tracks from Jay-Z, Pharrell Williams and Lil’ Wayne, among many others who (off the top of my head) have essentially tried to get you to understand that they are operating in a completely different stratosphere from the ordinary bloke and use this not so much to inspire you to do the same thing, as much as they’re trying to set themselves apart from everyone else. (Though the group Clipse on the track Hello New World do precisely this. I came away impressed with them saying “if we can do it, you can do…”)

I doubt these artists are trying to deliberately focus the attention of their listener base towards a wholesale embrace of capitalism by examples of lamenting lost welfare checks and gentrification of neighborhoods that were ignored, but rediscovered by modern prospectors looking for the Missouri of New Urbania.

The fact that the conversation continues to become more savvy and focused more decisively on building an inroads to the larger economic community, as opposed than the “old way” street capitalism ethos of hustling in one’s own community and entrepreneurship as a buzzword rather than a practical way of life is an interesting turn of events buried into the mainstream rap conversation.