The Young and Disenchanted

Posts Tagged ‘Common

In the past couple of years, I have become increasingly aware of a tense conversation emerging on my campus around February between African and African-American students. This conversation deals with the question of “blackness” and how it relates to identity, and becomes even more fraught during Black Heritage Month. It usually plays out in a meeting attended by members of the African Students Association, Black Students Organisation and Caribbean Student Association (the three biggest black groups on our campus), where two factions stand on opposite side of the issue: the (for lack of a better word) FOBs who don’t necessarily identify with the word black as it is used in the American context, and the Americans who do. I belong to the former group, and as a result have heard everything from “You’re running away from your blackness” to “Maybe the ASA shouldn’t participate in BHM if you guys don’t think you’re black.” Le sigh. Instead of cussing out a motherfucker the people who misunderstand why I feel the way I do about the word black, I’m going to take a minute out to explain my relationship with it and maybe shed some light on the way some people of African descent feel about the concept of race and how it plays into their identity – or at least, this woman’s perspective on the subject.

From what I have observed while studying in the USA for the past 3 and a half years and from talking to African-Americans, the word black here is a highly loaded and politicised term. Not only does it refer to a particular phenotype, but it also speaks to a specific cultural, political and historical identity that has evolved alongside the United States itself and in many ways is shaped by its representation of a numerical minority asserting itself against a hostile majority. It has been a stigma, a badge of pride and is almost always at the forefront of conversations about self- identity.  While I understand and appreciate that, I am not an American and I did not grow up in the same social context most of my fellow students, which means that the word black carries totally different connotations for me.

Nigeria’s population is pretty much 100% black. This means that growing up, race was clearly not at the forefront of my identity formation because everyone – more or less – looked like me. I didn’t go to a primary school where I was the only black kid. There was no need to section out a month dedicated to the achievements of our race. There was no celebration of our first black president because as long as we have been an independent country, they’ve all been black (although I wouldn’t describe the military dictators as “presidents,” per se). This is not to say that I wasn’t aware of the fact that I was black – it just wasn’t that important. Growing up I would never have used the word to describe myself – it was usually applied to people with that extra-midnight-dark-chocolate skin tone (I, being lighter-skinned by virtue of a random Scottish great-grandfather, was called “yellow” or “oyinbo” which is a term in pidgin for “foreigner”). No one in my immediate family would be called “black” as the term is generally understood in Nigeria – as the shade of your skin tone rather than as a denotation of your race or political identity. Other things were more important to my understanding of who I was: my ethnic group (Isoko), the state from which my family originated (Delta), the city I grew up in (Lagos). My parents never failed to remind me that I was an Isoko girl, a point that was reinforced every time I digwe’d for my grandmother when she came to visit. I think this same grandmother best illustrates how differently race is applied in the Nigerian context: she is half Caucasian (and honestly kind of looks like an old white lady), but ask her what she is and she will resolutely reply that she is an Agbor woman. I understand that in the USA ethnicity and race are often used interchangeably but, as my grandmother’s case shows, at least some Nigerians separate these two concepts and, because of our particular social and political dynamics, generally place more emphasis on the former.

Fela said once that he did not know he was African until he left Africa. This quote more than anything explains my relationship with the word black. When my family moved to England, I suddenly became black because I was in a minority and that was the easiest way to mark me out. At that stage of my life, it was never a huge deal – most people accepted it when I said I was Nigerian and used that term instead. I do remember once having to fill out a census form and searching for the “Other” space where I could write “Isoko – Nigerian” instead of ticking the “Black/Afro-Caribbean” box – not because I had a problem with that label, but because I felt phony identifying with a group that had a totally different story to mine. After all, I wasn’t descended from people who had migrated to Britain in the 1960s from Jamaica. Still, I was becoming increasingly aware of a separation between how I saw myself and how people outside Nigeria saw me.

Moving to the USA only further emphasised this disconnect. When I tell people that I don’t necessarily identify with the word black, I get everything from bemused looks, to side-eyes, to hurt glances from African-Americans who think that I’m disowning them and their connection to Africa. Let me categorically state that I do NOT, in any way, shape or form, reject the fact that I am black. My kinky hair and name with more vowels than consonants proclaim that before I even open up my mouth. And I love it. However, I refuse to hang my entire self-identity on my race. Even though it’s important, I shouldn’t have to subjugate other aspects of myself to my race, whether it’s on the basis of being from a third world country, or my love of jazz or the significance I place on being from the African continent. I don’t want to limit the ways in which I form coalitions with other people by always privileging the colour of my skin or my facial features over these things. I understand that in the reality of the United States race is an important tool for alliance building, but in the reality that I grew up in and for the most part still exist in, that simply isn’t the case. Even more problematic for me is this notion that black = Africa. If that is the case, then where does that leave the people of Berber, Arab and South Asian descent who are Africans like me? As a friend astutely said, race is a social construct that was used for many years as a tool of oppression – and, some may argue, is still being used in a similar vein today. I can’t help but be cautious about choosing an aspect of my identity that can be manipulated for sinister purposes – not to say that my ethnic identity cannot be similarly exploited, as is often the case back home, but I am talking specifically about my experiences living in the USA.

Maybe if I end up living here for an extended period of time, my race will begin to be a bigger deal for me than it is now. For right now I’ll say this: growing up black for me was a radically different experience than for those who grew up in the USA. Our different understandings of and relationships with the word black should not lead to contention, but rather to an expansion of our cross-cultural conversations. Black isn’t a monolithic concept – let’s eke out the many shades and hues during this grey ass month of February.

P.S. Gotta love a chill ass Common joint

I finally saw Nas in concert. It was at the New York leg of the Rock the Bells tour, and it was everything that I’d ever hoped it would be. He came out looking fresh in a white shirt and NY fitted, and performed everything from “Made You Look” to “One Love” (with Damien Marley mixing in his father’s track with it – I cannot WAIT for Distant Relatives to drop). The whole arena was going wild, everyone pumping their fists and getting hype. The energy all around me blasted away the tiredness I felt from getting so little sleep the night before, and I stayed on my feet rapping along like I had a record deal my damn self. Towards the end of the set Nas and Damien performed “Road to Zion,” at the beginning of which Damien asked everyone to put their lighters/cell phones/hands up in the air. Looking around at my fellow hip-hop heads in their thousands, faces illuminated by the electronic glow, all of us caught in the sheer passion and love we felt for this music, I couldn’t help but think of the many millions of souls around the world hip-hop culture has touched.

My first hip-hop memory is of listening to Snoop Dogg’s first album with my sisters (I’m going to discount my brief obsession with MC Hammer because a) I don’t directly remember it, it’s only from my family telling me I was a fan that I even know this and b) those damn harem pants). My dad was (and still is) a huge fan of Dr. Dre and purchased Snoop’s first album – Doggystyle – on cassette. It probably wasn’t the best thing for a 5 year-old to be listening to, but no one could tell me anything – I’d be rhyming along to “Gin and Juice” like I knew what liquor, Long Beach or weed were. One of the first things about rap music that fascinated me was the fact that rappers fit so many more words into the same 3 minutes and 30 seconds than performers of other genres do. My little brain was obsessed with how they came up with so many rhymes – some of them in the middle of lines – and coupled this with a beat that got people doing the head bop with a look of total and complete concentration, finished off with a catchy hook. It was magic to me then, and still is now.

The hip-hop I listened to when I was younger (particularly while my family lived in England) was heavily influenced by what my older sisters liked: Mase, DMX and Busta Rhymes were particular favourites, and probably the reason why I’m still an East Coast girl at heart. Trevor Nelson’s show on MTV, The Lick, further opened up the world of American hip-hop to me. My sisters and I would gather around the TV late Friday nights after our parents had gone to sleep, thirstily soaking up everything from the new Timbaland and Missy joints to The Roots’ latest (the first track by them I remember hearing was “You Got Me,” one of my favourite songs of all time). We didn’t only listen to rap – R’n’B was our shit too (R Kelly, Erykah Badu and Aaliyah – good times), and being a nine-year old girl living in England, I fell under the spell of the Spice Girls. Yeah, I said it – no shame in my game.

Ten years on my music tastes have expanded to include indie, grime, coupé-décalé and electronica, but I still go back to hip-hop despite all the talk of it being murdered by Soulja Boy and other ignorant-ass-dumb-chain-wearing-pseudo-rappers. I like to pride myself on the fact that I mostly listen to what people term as “conscious” rap (you know, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Dead Prez) and the OGs (A Tribe Called Quest, Wu Tang, Biggie), but I do still bump chart rap. I won’t necessarily buy Rich Boy’s or Rick Ross’ music, but I’ll be damned if I’m not the biggest boss that you’ve seen thus far. I made the distinction between my “club shit” and “real shit” a while ago (to be precise, circa December 2006 when I bought Nas’ “Hip Hop is Dead”), citing the over-commercialisation of the game and the lack of imagination that, unfortunately, the rise of the South has brought to hip-hop. Yes, rappers have always talked about money, cash and hoes (at least since the 90s), but they would more than occasionally bring up socio-economic and political issues like the struggles of the average young person coming up in an inner-city ghetto or the realities of police brutality, and do both with the flow that made you go “daaaaaaaaaaaamn!” But that was then. Now, if the Billboard Hip-Hop and R’n’B chart is anything to go by, sex, designer clothes and being strapped when you hit the club is all that defines the music that I fell in love with all those years ago, only now without the allure of clever wordplay or imaginative production. All new rappers seem to be mocking (or reflecting) the intelligence of their audiences, posteuring in their LV-upholstered SUVs. All hope is lost.

Or maybe not. Last weekend, I went to the album launch party of Blitz the Ambassador, a Ghanaian rapper based in Brooklyn. I was blown away first by the fact that he performed with a (seriously smoking hot) live band, his flow and the fact that he played the talking drum. I felt the way I did when I saw Nas perform a few weekends ago, the way I did when I first heard “With so much drama in the LBC/It’s kinda hard being Snoop D-O-double-G”: a bubbling excitement, chills down my spine, and a strange feeling of familiarity, because it sounded like the junction between my childhood and my present. Needless to say, I snapped up his album immediately and I love it. But of course, nothing can ever be that picture-perfect. Towards the end, Blitz made a little speech thanking everyone for their support and love, and then made that comment that so many of my favourite “conscious” artists have made before: “I don’t do this for the money.” Um, I’m gonna go ahead and call bullshit on that. Obviously, artists don’t create music solely for cash – the music industry is far too fickle for that to make sense (for better pay, I’d recommend construction or police work). There’s the drive to share a message with like-minded individuals, to be expressive, to do something that makes you so incredibly happy nothing else could compare. And I feel all of them on that. But seriously? If it really isn’t for the money, why can’t I get your album for free? And why do you get mad when people download your shit if it’s all about reclaiming the game and resurrecting hip-hop? And why don’t you stay underground rather than signing with a big record company? Understand I’m not attacking Blitz directly here, but speaking in general to the artists that look down their noses at the “coonery” of people like Gucci Mane and T-Pain (on a personal note, I’m going to add Kanye and Lil Wayne to my list of people who are making hip hop kind of unbearable). Yes, they lack artistry, but at least they’re being 100% honest about why it is they’re in this game. And they must, to some degree, believe that they’re truly making good music… although what that says about their mental state, I’d really rather not contemplate. All I’m saying is that hip-hop isn’t necessarily dead, but that the non-“conscious” rappers are a representation of one (unfortunate) direction it has taken. I don’t think this is a permanent evolution. I also think the “conscious” dudes need to get off their fucking high horses – YES you make better music, but it really isn’t that life-or-death serious. As far as I’m concerned, all the back and forth and haterade in hip-hop right now is doing nothing for its devotees. Basically, rappers: get the fuck back to making music that gets me so hype I act like a little kid who OD’d on candy, stop using Twitter as a forum for bitching at each other and make hip hop the only love of my life once more.

That’s just my very humble opinion. Hip-hop heads, let me know if you feel otherwise and shit.

P.S. Title is from my main man/future-children’s-father Common: first ever track of his I heard, and still one of my favourites of all time.