Friday, November 03, 2017

What colors the way we listen?

This opinion piece by Austin McCoy opens by noting the left's positive and enthusiastic response to last month's freestyle political rant from Eminem.

McCoy goes on to ask?
But why did it take [...] until 2017 to afford rap music the respect [...] long given to other forms of artistic protest? 
It part, it is stylistic. Eminem’s caustic tone, vulgarity and angry delivery meshes with the angry white male style of political punditry [...]. 
But it is also substantive. For the past 30 years, black rappers have made controversial critiques of law-and-order politics in ways that made white liberals uncomfortable. 
My relationship to hip-hop is different than what McCoy describes, but I still learned a lot from the read. I came to understand how my appreciation of hip-hop in the past few years is connected to my whiteness, my politics, and my life experience - all in ways I hadn't considered.

See, I've always liked the Native Tongues Collective style from the early 90s, but I had trouble connecting to so much other hip-hop - stuff like Public Enemy, NWA, Biggie, 2Pac, Mos Def, Nas. Those seemed out of reach, until recently.

The stuff I've always liked has an idealistic take on the world. It typically portrays the hardships of being black in America as obstacles that can be overcome with positivity and a recognition of the value of blackness. I liked that message. I still like that message. It is one that should be shared.

But it is an easier message for a white guy from Wisconsin to wrap his head around.
Don't get me wrong, I don't think The Jungle Brothers were asking themselves, "How can we reach the Midwestern kids playing D&D in their parents' suburban basements?"

Nevertheless, I was able to make something of a connection because the message was about pride, skill, and bravery as tools for overcoming challenges.
The tools that the Native Tongues Collective described were familiar, and that reached across a divide.

The divide, however, was something I didn't understand.
Because those tools were being used to overcome challenges I had never even considered.

For the past several years I've been hearing hip-hop differently, and McCoy's piece helped me understand why.

When Black Lives Matter came along around 2013, the group prompted me to examine how race impacts my life - like my everyday life, not just those times when race is the in-your-face issue.

I remember being shaken by the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner.
Each case was an in-my-face example of how race shapes public safety, the perception of the police, and (as became clear in the aftermath time and time again) how we argue about these things.

But the Black Lives Matter movement asked me to consider these events more deeply.

I was aware of racial profiling. I knew it was wrong.
But I had never thought about how angry it would make me to be subjected to such treatment.
I hadn't considered what it would be like to teach my kids about how their race was going to impact what happened when they walked into a store, started at a new school, walked the streets, or asked a police officer for help.

And when I thought back to how upset I got when Martin, Brown, and Garner were killed, I realized I had never thought to myself, "That could've been me."

I knew - without thinking about it - the chances of that happening to me were reduced because I am a white guy from Wisconsin.

That is unjust in ways I had never dealt with.
And I know why I've never dealt with it. It is profoundly uncomfortable to acknowledge that I benefit from an injustice.

You rarely hear anyone celebrate a lack of justice, but you know this: Whereever there is an unjust situation, someone gained an unfair upper hand. They "won."
You'd think that person might be happy to be on the favored side of an injustice.

But I claim to value justice.
I want to believe my success was earned fairly.
So, to preserve that belief, I did not consider the challenges others face.
Now... I didn't intentionallly deny the existence of those challenges.
I just didn't think about them.

When the Black Lives Matter movement asked me to consider those challenges, however, hip-hop changed for me (so did other stuff, but focus).
Opening my eyes to those challenges helped hip-hop make more sense to me.

Descriptions of lives and lifestyles from Biggie, 2Pac, Nas and (more recently) Kendrick Lamar help me understand the challenges I have failed to consider.
The joy and anger and fear and love in the music are all put into a context I can wrap my head around; even if I can never experience that context, those artists - artists I once had trouble understanding - are now helping me see a bigger and more interesting world.

I'm better for it.
Even if I have to own some injustice, “I open my eyes and realizing I changed. Not the same deranged child stuck up in the game.”