Fanning the Pain
The Price of Appropriation
— Spike Lee (@SpikeLee) July 18, 2014
Last year at about this time – actually a month earlier in July of 2014 – Spike Lee tweeted a link to a cell phone video of a city street in Staten Island, New York. From my home in Los Angeles, I clicked on the link unsure of what to expect. The video began with a tall black man standing outside a convenience store speaking with two white cops. The weather looked mild – sunny but not overbearingly hot like summers in the city can be. The man was in his early 40’s, barrel chested with a heft of a belly and the broad shoulders to match. As soon as I heard his voice – his gait of speech, the endearing rasp behind his words – I felt like I knew him. In a different place, in a different situation, I could hear him cutting up, making a sly comment, and his big chest echoing a deep warm laugh.
The man was Eric Garner.
As I watched Eric speak then eventually plead with the two white officers in front of him to just “…leave me alone…” because “…he didn’t do nothing…,” and he was “…minding his own business,” my heart slowed. My breath drew short, and my mouth went dry. In retrospect, I realize that my body knew before my mind what was coming next. It was trying to warn me, tell me to turn away or hold onto something because violence was about to unfold. That day, on my Lenovo laptop’s lousy 14” screen I watched a man – a father like myself – beg for his life before he was choked to death in broad daylight on a city street in America in 2014.
When the video was done – when Eric’s lifeless body was swarmed by uniformed police – I cried for a brief moment and then closed my laptop and went to wake my two-year-old son from his nap. I didn’t tell anyone about what I had watched. I didn’t retweet the original tweet. I didn’t discuss it with my family or friends. To be truthful, I ignored it, moved on as much as I could until after another week it slowly faded in my memory, started becoming part of my history filed under “Things I Don’t Know If I’m Better Off Having Seen.” Soon, it was replaced by the immediacy of my life – publicity for my first novel, my son’s upcoming transition into preschool, sketches of plans for a family vacation in the Fall.
I don’t remember anything specific about August 8, 2014. As I’ve been working on this essay, I’ve been reviewing my calendar from that month trying to piece together what I was doing when I learned of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri. Much like Eric Garner barely a few weeks before, I remember watching it unfold on my Twitter feed. I remember witnessing a few tweets turn into a hashtag, then over twenty four hours, an outrage flooded through the Internet to the degree I’d never seen. Between the conflicting reports, people were screaming through their computers and every other media outlet I followed. Witnesses came out from the community. The local police marched out in force as folks gathered on the streets to protest and have their voices heard. Then a few days later, I watched another shaky cell phone video this time shot from twenty yards away.
A stream of blood poured from Michael Brown’s body and pooled just above his head onto the middle of the street. A few white policemen slowly paced back and forth guarding Michael from a gathering crowd which included his own father and mother who repeatedly screamed, “Where is the ambulance?,” in vain. Whereas watching Eric Garner get murdered I’d experienced fear and ultimately physiological shock – as I watched this video of Michael Brown dead in the street under another hot sun, my stomach turned; nausea overtook me. The video was a nightmare made real. A warped sequel to a corrupt movie that I prayed didn’t exist. But as I was to witness over the next twelve months, these stories were just the beginning. Eric Garner and Michael Brown were just the first names on this profane roll call of dead.
“What do I owe?”
That question has been echoing in my head over the past year increasing in volume and frequency every time another Black American is murdered by another pair of racist hands. I am not black. I am an ethnic mutt of Chinese, Cuban, and African descent. My family is from the Caribbean. My father was born in Jamaica, my mother in Trinidad. I was born in Canada. My mother’s father was black, and while I have some cousins on her side who are considered black, I am not. If I identify with any ethnic community, I would say broadly I identify with first-generation immigrants of color. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that I have more in common with them than any specific race. It doesn’t matter if they’re from India, Mexico, Ghana, the Philippines, China or anywhere in-between – I recognize myself in their stories of coming to America, of trying to assimilate, the love of their culture’s food, and of experiencing prejudice. I say all this because after watching, reading, and researching the murders of:
Reverend DePayne Middleton-Doctor
Honorary Reverend Clementa Pinckney
Daniel Simmons Sr.
Reverend Sharonda Singleton
And countless others…
I’ve realized that the brand of racism that I’ve experienced in this country is not the same kind of murderous racism that Black Americans face and have faced every days since the inception of this country. It is this fact that has made me look in the mirror and ask myself what I am, who I am, and what do I believe in.
Hip Hop is in my heart. It has been since the son of a family friend in Toronto entrusted my father with a gold TDK cassette of a Hip Hop mix that he’d personally curated in 1993. When I pressed play on my jambox in my bedroom in suburban Dallas, Texas, this is what I heard:
My heart slammed. My ears exploded. Sitting on the carpet in my bedroom, my head moved –bounced and nodded – like it had never done before. Up until that point, all I knew of rap was MC Hammer, Vanilla Ice, and all the crossover artists that were on heavy rotation on top 40 radio. But as I listened to this powerful voice call out, “Woop, woop, that’s the sound of da police. Woop, woop, the sound of the beast.” Something exploded inside me. It would be another few years before I understood the significance of the letters “KRS” and “BDP” but that was alright, because in that moment surrounded for miles in every direction by sprawling white suburbs, an errant seed of Hip Hop had made its way down to Texas and would start to grow.
Hip Hop became my identity, a defining factor that to this day influences the way I walk, talk, dress, and even what I teach my son. Up until these past two years, I’d never thought I was “appropriating” the culture. For close to two decades, Hip Hop has been a fact of my life. Much like my Christian faith, it is intrinsic to my belief structure – the lens through which I navigate the world. But after watching the videos of these murders and seeing the victims’ names pile up month after month in a seemingly never ending stream of unjust death. Over and over, again and again, the question has come back to me
“What do I owe?”
If I listen to Hip Hop , dress Hip Hop , live and love Hip Hop , how can I in good conscience turn a blind eye and respond in silence to the blatant racism that was destroying the very community that created what I held so dear?
Would you love a sports team – football, baseball, basketball – and give silent consent to its players imprisoned between games?
Could you still enjoy your favorite television show or movie knowing that at the end of every episode all the actors would be persecuted, harassed, and beaten on their way home?
But we do this. We love something deeply while at the same time give our silent consent to its creators’ murder. We take the art of their souls and leave their bodies – like carrion – to be ravaged by the worst of us. We say,
We love your art, Black America. We love your music, your writing, the way you entertain. But we do not love you. In fact, we not only don’t love you, we consider you less. You have our permission to be arrested, beaten, and killed. With our blessing, you will be neglected, hunted, and destroyed.
A few weeks ago, Cis Van Beers – the creator of Hip Hop Golden Age, flew out to Irvine California for Ice-T’s Art of Rap Festival. I wasn’t able to make it down, but we were able to talk for an hour about HHGA and our shared passion for Hip Hop . Like myself, he missed the lyricism of the 90’s but appreciated the swagger and stance of the younger generation of new artists. We connected, and when I set the phone down, I knew I wanted to write for the site. It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up to connect with my tribe – true “heads” – from all across the world.
If you were lucky enough to grow up during Hip Hop ’s Golden Age, you probably remember the term “conscious rap.” It doesn’t get thrown around as much as it used to. These days, it’s harder for conscious rap get made much less float to the top. It seems like the second half of Nas’ career has been him fighting to get his music made and marketed on his terms, and he’s Nas. For younger artists, the pressure to create radio singles just to make a living dominates their time leaving little room for them to create the kind of socially conscious work that the previous generations were able to. And without conscious music, we lose a conscious audience, and so begins a feedback loop that gets us to where we are currently.
But there was a time “Conscious Rap” was nothing short of a genre, a whole subcategory like Gangster Rap, Latin rap, East Coast, West Coast, Dirty South, (there was even Horror Rap for a while.) At the height of the Golden Age, the role of conscious rappers like Brand Nubian, Public Enemy, Paris, X-Clan, Dead Prez, Ras Kass, and many others was to keep the rest of Hip Hop honest. Collectively, they served literally as our conscience and were a constant reminder of where the music came from and exposed the broader Hip Hop community to the social and political issues that mattered most.
Don’t get me twisted: I love that Hip Hop is mainstream. I love that it’s on television ads, and that Drake sells Sprite. At the very least, it’s a validation of what the music can do – proof of the irresistibility of the boom bap. A lot of older artists are finally getting their due and that’s no small thing. But as an audience, we take the music for granted. We’ve forgotten where it’s from, and who we need to honor for bringing it to us. I’ve realized just as I bob my head, and raise the roof, I should be raising my fists and my voice with Black America to protest the systemic racism that plagues this country and kills innocent black Americans. Black America has given me much more than just music and backpacks, and make no mistake, if we’re not careful – if we don’t take care and protect the culture and the people that created Hip Hop – the music will die along with the community. And there’s no currency in the world – earthly or spiritual – that would compensate a tragedy of that scale.
That’s my word.