3 Perfect Rap Songs Shaped My Politics
Rap music is a complex art form with many hidden messages and mantras
In Flatbush, Brooklyn, you had to live by a code. Usually, when people say that, it means you could end up hurt if you violate. But that’s extreme. I think of a code of ethics more like a failsafe when life goes left. I’m not sure whether I was middle class or poor growing up because my mother worked hard and I had everything I needed. When I wasn’t with her or in school, I started to notice that the ways people acted were entirely governed by the code they followed. Like at the Queens bus depot, New Yorkers formed a single-file line to board the Q-buses. But in Brooklyn, when I waited to board, a gaggle of teens would mash coats together until the fattest or tallest conquered the cluster to the farebox. Different rules for different situations. I had to hope for civility but these politics were fluid and dependent on the direness of conditions. I didn’t have much power so I could mostly fight it or empower those around me. This idea of lateral empowerment strengthened me as a writer and a thinker as I encountered more line-skippers, predators, thieves, usurpers, and capitalists.
The popular theory is that hip-hop has thrived as an individualist’s art form. And some of that holds weight. No other music has been as distinctly autobiographical, taut, or striving. I used to watch Video Music Box, our local answer to MTV, to immerse myself in the world of rap music. As I sat up in bed, my mom would flip to Channel 31 on Friday nights for DJ Ralph McDaniels’s variety show of grainy interviews interspersed with new singles. With a child’s eyes, I looked for a mix of the familiar, like neighborhood haunts, and the magical, like outstanding graphics and color blasts. These flourishes weren’t hard to find in early rap videos and that introduced me to how words flipped and seeped into my memory. I liked rap crews more than I liked individual voices, at first. As an only child, the idea of brotherhood called to me and the circle of men hugged up and bopping to music was a welcome contrast to what the media had told me Black men were or could be. The Lost Boyz, Boogie Down Productions, Junior Mafia, Onyx, and Black Moon were gritty New York rappers touting bravado and masculinity outwardly but betraying unmistakably intimate…