Rap helped me through every phase of my life thus far. I wrote these short paragraphs to highlight the journey.
I went from lukewarm to hot
Sleepin' on futons and cots to King Size
Green machines… - Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem) by Jay-z
This is one of my favorite Jay-z lines, and my first introduction into rap. I went to a French school in Winnipeg, Manitoba. I was lower middle class. Most of my classmates were upper middle. Not a big difference--but at the time, felt like worlds away. That’s when Jay-z stepped in. When I first heard Hard Knock Life it was like someone miles and years away showed me my life in a different color, and I saw sleeping on a cot wasn’t filthy but could hold power. Years later I met similar roadblocks: knew where I wanted to go, but not how to get there. I only had hope…and Jay-z:
Hold a Uzi vertical, let the thing smoke
Y'all flirtin' with death, I be winkin' through the scope… - Marcy Me by Jay-z
The lyrics were less about the content than the delivery and the moment, which for me, was the realization that I was the driver of my own vehicle. Rap drove me--and kept me moving.
When I started rap myself, I was awkward and shy--but you can’t be the best if you don’t feel like the best. I had to be fierce, roar like a lion and say it with my chest. Talk my shit. Took some time to get there. I’d drop in to a cypher at Studio 393. A cypher is a group of rappers who get together to improvise. There, I’d spend my evenings rapping amongst older folks trading bars about dreams and reality. Now bars, for those who don’t know, is the measurement of music and time. In rap, it’s everything. Trading bars means you flow and say something so true it transcends the cypher. Becomes something for people to remember. I loved trading bars the way I love basketball: for the strategy and friendly competition. We rhymed off the top of our heads for hours on end. But at some point, I focused so much on winning I forgot the main goal: community connection and laughter. These times are gone. Looking back, I wish I could hold on for just a moment longer, to the friends and the laughter. Hold it all closer, never let go.
In 2018, Boots Riley, formerly of the Oklahoma rap group The Coup, expressed ideas something like this:
Art is a beautiful thing, it’s a tool, and when you see someone in a rock and a hard place you give them these tools not so they can become a productive member of society or so they can benefit you. You give them these tools because it’s the right thing to do. It’s what we need to make sense of the world around us.
His ideas still ring true for me, cause life changes in a blink, for the better and worse. Never in my life did I think I would live through a pandemic. But I was fortunate and used my tools to make art out of sorrow. Not everyone could. Not everyone can. Disease, isolation, chaos and fear. Not everyone makes it. Why I didn’t crumble under the pressure leaves me lost in unexpected ways. But like Boots Riley said, I had some tools and I used them. I tried to make sense of my world. Some folks I know survive physically but because of drugs and alcohol, maybe not mentally. I’m grateful to be here and be in these spaces. I find myself making the truest art I’ve made. Every day getting closer, using the tools I’ve got in an always complicated, always changing world.
I have explored and been part of the genre for the past 10 years
I am 23
I have experienced a number of things
I feel foolish telling people I’m a rapper I feel
confused being mixed race
I feel lost growing up with no dad
I have felt proud and joyful playing my first concert as a young boy Felt
comradery and laughter in a vast sea of people
I have felt peaceful knowing I am not helpless
Without my dad. Varying degrees of high and low
These feelings come and go they are not linear and rap has always helped me to move
through them when I sit with my discomfort and make it sound a thousand times more
epic than what it is, it’s how I care for myself without hurting myself
When I have finished a verse and puzzled all that I can I know I can let got for the time
being and when it comes back, I know where to look.
This has been my journey growing up. Through isolation to connection. From a pandemic
to moments of beauty and deep thought. It’s what rap has done for me. And I will never