what if the worlds/were a series of steps/what if the steps/joined back at the margin

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“The Wire” Was Ahead of It’s Time (Part 1)

Note: I am not finished with the entirety of The Wire. Currently I am on season four, episode seven. Why do I love television so much? Because it’s story telling with words and images that is the same every time, there is no variation, there is no retelling, it is the one time presented, and you can analyze it over and over again. It’s not like oral stories passed on, the story itself remains the same but the significance changes over time. It is filmed in one era but can be viewed in another, making the experience different. The technological and anthropological significance of television is one that is truly intellectually underrated.

The Wire might be one of the most bad-ass, gritty, and provocative television series off all time that was not only revolutionary for it’s time, but the social concepts explored in The Wire continue to be possibly more relevant today than at the time of it’s broadcast during 2002 to 2008. The early millennial had not socially approached it’s next revolutionary epoch in America, the likes of which we are seeing in the next wave of liberation movements (gay rights, the fight for racial equality, a focused discussion on what modern feminism is), most likely because Bush was in office and everyone was really patriotic because of the post 9/11 environment and focused on several international wars we had going on. From a national perspective with white Americans in charge, there wasn’t a lot of time to talk about race. So unfortunately for The Wire, while it was critically acclaimed and an arguable work of television perfection, was praised and watched, but the saturated racial environment explored by The Wire wasn’t raw like it is now.

Flash forward, and under our first black President, a barrage of social changes are accomplished. Gay marriage is legal in 36 states, marijuana is fully recreational under one state and medicinally available in 23 states in some form, and there is a frank national conversation about how rape victims are treated in this country from a non-male solipsistic perspective. Granted, this did not all occur at once under President Obama (gay marriage and medicinal marijuana were “a thing” before his administration though clearly the ability of both those movements to gain momentum forward increased dramatically under Obama), but the more liberalized political and cultural environment and clearly brought changes.

However, as a nation, we are seeing a discussion on race relations that still has the ugly unsettled undercurrents and full swirl tsunamis of white supremacy and hatred against non-whites that pervades in the hearts of some in this country. With all footsteps forward come backlashes, and as everyone knows the scope and breadth of hatred is long-winded. Ferguson was a national tragedy, disaster, and embarrassment to justice. It also caused Chris Rock to make one of the funniest jokes I have ever heard concerning how social relations now function in the new cyber world, “I found a new app to tell which one of your friends is a racist. It’s called Facebook”, referring to the number of pro-Wilson sentiments that many white Americans were exposing, some in the process exposing the ugliness and irrationality of their racist thoughts. Indeed, I defriended at least two people as a result of their hateful racism displayed on my Facebook feed.

Back to The Wire, the first season is pure gold. I am a cinema and television junkie, and The Wire proved so masterful in it’s story telling, character building, and plot development, that the next seasons unfortunately haven’t captured the same gold shine, though they do gleam as works of the most advanced and rich television series to date. However, the rest of the seasons are not without merit. The first season is a work of drugs, sex, money, power, politics, and what lays beyond the veil of civilized and polite company. The rest of the seasons tell the tale of how it gets to be that way, and unfortunately some of the sexiness wears off. Season Four is spent examining the broken lives of Baltimore’s children, hardly a “sexy” topic and nor should it be, but one of incredible seriousness that shows the generational impact of times that came before a person was born.

John Rawls is considered a father of “liberal contractionalism”, or the philosophical concept that all human beings have an inherent obligation to one another by virtue of being human. On your first day in Philosophy 101 class in college, you are taught Rawl’s “Veil of Ignorance”, a mind exercise that asks the person to erase any and all concepts of identity. Pretend that there is no civilization, you have no identity, and you don’t know the significance of any identity characteristics behind “the veil”. Now, while you’re behind this veil, you create what you want society to look like.

Is it based on your identity characteristics, and which ones, and why, and for what reason, and how?

Most likely you would say something along the lines of an equal society, because human beings are by virtue, of merit in and of themselves.

What this equal society looks like, is up to your imagination. But remember, when the veil is lifted and you are in a wheelchair, without physical beauty, of the ethnic group out of favor, and of a limited economic status, do you want to be considered of less value than a physically beautiful able bodied person who is part of the majority ethnic group with a lot of disposable income? Remember now, you didn’t know your identity and what it meant under the veil. You were just asked what equal treatment of human beings looks like.

After The Wire runs us into the underworld, introduces us to where political contributions come from in inner city urban areas, what people do when they are put in potentially deadly environments, and a healthy swig of cop culture, it brings us to what happens to the children when they grow up in this environment. And this is what America was not ready for ten years ago, an examination of what police violence, racial tension, economic degradation, illegal drug markets and poor understanding and treatment of people living with addiction can psychologically wreck on children.

Ol Dirty Bastard of the Wu Tang Clan, one of the greatest hip-hop groups to help tell the struggle of the African-American identity and experience in inner city America, once said “Wu Tang is for the Children!”. Most people rarely understood the extreme wisdom of this rambling man, and what he meant was, us, the Wu Tang, we tell the truth. The truth, what you let children know and how you let them know it, is how they know the world. Wu Tang wasn’t about lying to the children, it was about enlightening them to the harsh reality with their story-telling.

In Part II, I hope to offer an analysis of why America needs to rewatch The Wire in order to pull away our veil of ignorance. 

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Favorite Rapper Series #2: Ol’ Dirty Bastard [Part 1]

Ol Dirty Bastard was probably the first rapper I should have done, but instead I did Lil’ Kim. I was debating if I should do someone recent (ASAP ROCKY will be next) but Ol’ Dirty is my first foray into love for hip-hop, his style something I didn’t understand but craved. I first saw him on BET (Black Entertainment Channel) at aged twelve, in 2000, with this video:

Like the reaction I talk about in the post about Lil’ Kim, I distinctly remember that I did not know how to interpret it but instantly loved it. At age twelve for a young white girl in the white suburbs in a school district noted for elitism, I had little to no experience with Blaxploitation movies or the frank adult themes that the video explored. It would be several more years until I could understand the narrative he was presenting. But I loved it.

I knew Ol’ Dirty was making a commentary on what it was to be Black. I knew that he was making fun of something (Blaxploitation films, in this case). I knew that it had to do with sexuality (ODB fathered thirteen children, for one, for two Blaxploitation’s association with titillating themes such as prostitution and nudity) and acts of criminality (in this video, drugs, violence, and generally wild lifestyles which was widely mirrored by “Dirt McGirt”‘s long-term associations with criminality). All of themes, raw sexuality coupled with acts association with outcasted peoples such as violence, drugs, wildness were common in ODB’s work. He was a thoroughly self aware artist while refusing to give up the lifestyle that made him famous.
If you listened to “Baby Got Your Money” you can hear him rap about knowing the feds were watching him.

Indeed, in my own hometown, it is the legend that he used to come up to Bing and sell crack in the ‘hood even after the Wu Tang has made in mainstream music.

Ol Dirty was from Brooklyn, New York, and was a part of the Wu Tang Clan who mostly originated from Staten Island. He died in 2004 from a drug overdose. Primarily active in the 1990s but still recording up until he died, Dirty’s is considered an original gangster (OG) of rap music. His music is realistic within the experience of growing up Black and in New York City with dire economic experience. The auditory experience of Ol Dirty is one that recreates the places that made the composite of his life. In “Harlem World” he brings you into what is presumably Harlem during the 1980’s, a time of AIDS and violence,

Ol Dirty often has beats that are haunting and eerie. This is a creation of sound that carries into modern rap, in Drill music for example. The recreation of the chaos of the urban atmosphere is palpable and fills your head. It should be noted that Ol Dirty Bastard is the first of his kind within the sphere of his rapping style (extremely eccentric, bizarre, and outside what was typically heard of the era), and has an extremely distinctive sound. He got his name from the kung-fu movie “Ol’ Dirty and the Bastard” but Method Man has also been quoted as saying his name is significant to the fact that “there is no father to his style”. Indeed, he is considered something of a mythical Wu Tang member.

Often misunderstood for the constant recurrences of bouts of mental illness that manifested in bizarre behavior, frequent crack cocaine and other drug use, and occasional stints in jail, Ol Dirty is also the most misunderstood member of the Wu. A recent New Yorker Magazine article that chronicled the most significant figures in New York hip-hop ever (of which Jay-Z was featured on…how oddly capitalistic of you, Hov), dissed him with smugness. He is amongst the most irresponsible a citizen as a citizen can get, yet he is a respectable figure for the way he lived his life and his refusal to give up authenticity within the context of an artist being a manifestation of his art.

It wasn’t like he didn’t know his life was a mess. He mocks himself in “Drug Free”

He starts the song with “Don’t get High” and them immediately “Cocained-the fuck up/paranoid as a motha…yo I’m paranoid as a fucka!” followed by “nigga I’m tired of gettin’ high like that/stop fuckin’ with me”. Like what he was doing in the video for “Baby Got Your Money”, he reflected reality back at itself and then mocked it for the absurdity of it’s existence. Perhaps this is why he is so misunderstood; he is so advanced as an artist that there are truly so few artists that pursue his way of creating. The song ends with the lyric “Kids! Don’t! Do! Drugs!/drug free! drug free! drug free!” which ends with the infamous goodness of Dirty’s singing. He is entertaining in his insanity while also reflecting the duality of his reality; utter sadness and ecstatic energy.

As I get older I am more able to relate to Dirty and understand what he is mocking about life. I knew what he was doing when I was twelve, but (thankfully), had not had enough of life’s absurdity to understand what he was portraying. He has my heart ever since.

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Can White People Rap?

My father is an avid blues and jazz fan, and growing up these were the musical genres most heard in the house. Famously, there is an essentialist question within blues, that being,

“Can White people sing the blues?”

For those crying “racism!” or “reverse racism!”, please relax. In previous posts I discussed why I as a White person see it necessary for my people to participate in the destruction of a system of privilege that wholesale benefits us (a later post I am planning will hopefully demonstrate the mechanics of superficial white privilege benefit for Whites while actually causing large scale harm to the entire society). I am not trying to attack White identity in this post, but pose a question about how our identity works.

The essential nature of the blues is human despair translated into haunting music, beautiful sounds evoking the ultimate sadness the conditions of human misery can cause. Listening to the blues is a wonderful experience because of the richness of the music but also an ongoing understanding of how people can create in the face of adversity and despair. The blues is based on the causes and conditions of Black Southern life; poverty, hatred, barriers to advancement, general terror and the threat of rape/murder. Black Southerners faced constant degradation, and in many instances had to participate in their own degradation in order to economically survive, which is reflected in Blues. While there were certainly poor Whites who endured conditions of poverty and misery, it should be noted that the experience was not the same. Without this extra layer of despair, White Blues performers have often been noted to lack a certain intrinsic musical quality that is found in all Black music performers.  

There is some debate as to the origin of rap/hip hop music. Some assert that rap music started in the Bronx during the 1970s as a direct result of Black political power. However, the Watts Prophets are widely credited with being the first hip hop group, formed out of the disarray of the Watts Riots, a race riot that took place in Los Angeles in 1965. In any event, this music is directly tied to Black political power and has roots in its story-telling quality of Black life and philosophy standing in contrast to ruling White privilege and power. Like the Blues, classic hip/hop and much of later hip hop takes the subject matter of what Black life consisted of. As I argued in Chiraq, that tradition still continues though it is often misunderstood because the lyrics may not be understood as political, intellectual, or significant.

Two of the most significant rap/hip hop figures in history, Tupac and the Wu Tang Clan, are collectively the most significant lyricists in the history of hip hop. Tupac was born to a Black Panther who months before his birth faced a three-hundred federal prison sentence. The Wu Tang Clan are a group of Staten Islander gangstas (and Brooklyn, holla Ol Dirty Bastard) who could be described as enlightened warriors.

From the Wu, “I bomb atomically, Socrates’ philosophies/and hypothesis can’t define how I be droppin these/
mockeries, lyrically perform armed robbery/Flee with the lottery, possibly they spotted me/Battle-scarred shogun, explosion when my pen hits/tremendous, ultra-violet shine blind forensics” a song called “Triumph”. If you don’t think that is pure poetry, you have clearly never been very literate.

From Tupac, “This time the truth’s gettin told, heard enough lies/I told em fight back, attack on society/If this is violence, then violent’s what I gotta be/If you investigate you’ll find out where it’s comin from/Look through our history, America’s the violent one/Unlock my brain, break the chains of your misery/This time the payback for evil shit you did to me/They call me militant, racist cause I will resist/You wanna censor somethin, motherfucker censor this!/My words are weapons, and I’m steppin to the silent/Wakin up the masses, but you, claim that I’m violent” a song called “Violent”.

Both the Wu Tang and Tupac can be viewed as warriors. Both are regarded in the classic gangsta rap genre, but they are more than “gangstas”. They are poets who reflect the situation Black people have faced in the reality of the complete destruction of Black political power that was engineered by COINTELPRO, a government counter-intelligence program that is worth researching to understand the politick of White supremacy within American policies. Without legitimate power, lack of economic opportunities, and an unequal education system, rap music took the place to tell the dire story.

As a footnote, I exempt Eminem from this question about “Can White People Rap”? Eminem cut his teeth in Detroit and is a skilled lyricist and recognized as a legitimate rap talent within the hip-hop community. While lacking the experience of Blackness, he was raised in poverty, crime, and by his own acknowledgment participated in illegal activity in order to survive. I believe that like myself, Eminem calls bullshit on the White privilege system, “surely hip-hop was never a problem in Harlem, only in Boston,/After it bothered the fathers of daughters starting to blossom” from the song “White America”.

The White rappers I’m talking about are people like Macklemore and Iggy Azalea. They both make me want to vomit. Macklemore, for his righteous co-op of the problems of marginalized peoples and Iggy because she is ear-meltingly without talent, admonishing how she is a “bad bitch” while coming nowhere close to the likes of Lil’ Kim (the queen bitch, the supreme bitch, and the mistress of Notorious BIG and a skilled lyricist herself) or her contemporary Rihanna, who really is only considered a “bad bitch” for loving blunts. Iggy just seems to like to show off her beauty, and uses Black people as props in her videos. So edgy.

Kendrick Lamar and Azalea Banks, both of whom are Black, could be considered their counterparts. I am not going to link to Iggy or Macklemore, but here is Kendrick and Azalea

Kendrick Lamar lost to Macklemore at this past years Grammy’s. As Ol’ Dirty Bastard had historically pointed out (Wu Tang is for the Children!) the Grammy’s know shit about hip/hop when they chose Puff Duddy (sorry, Daddy) over Wu Tang. It was insulting and irritating in both instances. Iggy Azalea and Azalea Banks are compared mostly for sharing a name, but also because they came out at roughly the same time. Azalea Banks has had trouble releasing another album because, in her words, old white men don’t understand her music, a statement that may have a fair amount of merit to it. Banks historically has been through much hardship, spending some of her young adulthood as a stripper, and Lamar is from Compton and grew up in relative poverty. On the contrary, the White artists do not appear to have grown up under much hardship. It appears the greatest hardship Iggy endured was being rejected as a model for having a fat ass. Macklemore seems to have grown up in complete and total privilege.

Azalea Banks and Kendrick Lamar are not Wu Tang Clan or Tupac. Their music is without much political influence and they are not as lyrically talented. But such is that current state of hip hop. It appears that the glory days of early ’90s hip hop have been gutted commercially which started to take place in the late ’90s. There is still talent here; for example I am a big fan of ASAP Rocky, an artist who almost comes close to the glory days because he is funky and his lyrics are well crafted, but again he is no Tupac.

I titled this post “Can White People Rap” to be provocative. I’m sure many will find it offensive. I find it a little offensive myself, honestly, that I am positing that there is something intrinsic about a person’s race that enables them to do certain things better than other people of a different race. However, I’d like to get a little bit beyond that and conclude with the question of, what part of experience of identity of race causes a genre like hip-hop to be dominated by people with a common identity experience? What causes the dominant people within the racial dynamic to lack oomph within this genre? Is it because of hip-hop’s starting point was out of the Black political movements of the 1960s and 1970s and hopeful empowerment of Black people, that then turned into poetic witnessing of Black life, and then was commercialized by White record label owners? I do not know the answer to these questions, but I do know that Macklemore should not have won that Grammy, and that if ASAP Rocky wanted to ride with a fine bad white bitch, he should’ve called me and not Iggy Azalea.

Wu Tang Forever!