Sunday, August 26, 2007

Yale : New Haven :: ? : ?

As I walked by myself down Elm Street last night I looked up and saw three large men in caps and baggy clothing turn the corner and head in my direction. I was neither fearful nor anxious as I kept walking towards them, yet as I came close enough to tell that the men were white—and thus probably students or football players—I guiltily perceived a hazy feeling of relief float through the back of my mind. The relief came from the understanding that white students generally do not bother other Yalies at night, and I was likely in no danger. Yet it was tinged with guilt because I like to think of myself as a racially conscious black man but a simple encounter on the streets of my home awakened stereotypes I’ve long tried to suppress.

Over the summer, however, I generally experienced the opposite phenomenon: when I walked alone at night, rather than feel even the vaguest feeling of relief when I saw a white person, I instead became acutely fearful. The difference between last night and the summer was contextual. Over the summer I led a bike trip across the country as part of a fundraiser for the Habitat for Humanity Chapter of Greater New Haven. I was the lone black person in a group of 27 riders, and most of the nine-week journey struck through the heart of Middle America: Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming and Montana. We spent nights in churches like the First United Methodist Church of Douglas, Wyoming, and celebrated the Fourth of July in Oshkosh, Nebraska, a town of 700 people with almost no blacks. Some people in many of the towns we biked through likely never saw a black person before we came through—much less one in bright yellow spandex.

I had never spent much time in the rural Midwest or Great Plains, and my initial prejudices of gun-toting, bible-reading, pickup-truck driving Red Staters made me apprehensive. Crossing the Mississippi from Illinois to Iowa brought to my mind scenes from Deliverance; and, like Jon Voight, the last thing I wanted was to be held at gunpoint by a local farmer for his own bemusement. I felt the urge to cringe when I saw people drive by with gun racks on their back windows, and crossed the street when I saw a group of rowdy teenagers on the sidewalks of the small towns we stayed in. In the rare instance where I would see another black person on the street or in a supermarket, nodding or saying hello carried an extra significance for me than it did at home. The greeting contained a tacit acknowledgment that we both understood: if one of these white folks around us goes crazy, I’ve got your back.

I was forced to engage my fear of the Middle American for the first time in Western Illinois by the Iowa border. As one of the trip’s leaders, I was in charge of driving our 15-passenger support van and trailer occasionally, and on this rainy day as I was turning the van around, the gravel and mud on the side of the road gave way under the van’s weight and I wound up stuck in a six-foot deep ditch. I climbed out of the van and paced up the road, expecting to have to call AAA or a towing agency, when minutes later a man in a red pickup truck drove up and slowed down as he approached. The man was probably in his forties, dressed head-to-foot in army fatigues with long hair and an unkempt beard. I was by myself, in a yellow jacket and cargo shorts, holding my Treo cautiously as I prepared to run. The ominous banjo track from Deliverance played through my mind.

Rather than reach for his gun rack, however, the man rolled down his window and with a country drawl kindly asked if I needed a hand. He lived by the water tower a mile away, and he offered to get his larger pick-up truck from home that he could probably use to tow me out of the ditch. Soon after he left, several more cars stopped and asked to help, with many of the drivers pulling over and getting out of their cars. The scene looked like an impromptu roadside farmer’s market, with a dozen or so men and women huddled around my van and trailer in the Illinois cornfields. The rain turned to drizzle, and soon enough the man in the army fatigues came back and quickly towed the van out of its grave.

The point of this story is not to suggest that over the summer I discovered that racism was dead in Middle America. On the contrary, Iowa, for example, has one of the most disproportionate incarceration rates of blacks in the country, with one in thirteen black Iowans in prison—a rate 11 times higher than Iowa’s much larger white population. Nevertheless, if I hadn’t been forced to reassess my stereotypes towards Middle Americans through personal contact by meeting and talking to wonderfully generous and friendly people, I likely would continue to maintain an unnecessarily disrespectful attitude towards all of them. The same is true, albeit in reverse, at Yale: just as Deliverance gave me an unreasonable fear of white people in rural Illinois, the innumerable stories told to incoming freshman about how dangerous New Haven is only confirms unreasonable fears of all black people walking down Elm Street. Even Cultural Connections, which does a great job of facilitating discussions about race and ethnicity at Yale, had as its first meeting a Yale-sponsored lecture on campus security--a lecture which, when given to the entire freshman class two years ago, featured a man in a gorilla costume.

Yes, like many cities, New Haven has crime and other problems, just as racism continues to exist among whites in Middle America. But to do a better job of introducing freshmen to New Haven, Yale must change the metaphor it uses to describe Yale’s relationship with city into something that promotes establishing individual relationships between students and New Haveners. It is dangerous to think of Yale as a safe bubble floating in the middle of a violent ghetto because it allows students to disengage from the city and retain a negatively disrespectful attitude towards all of its residents. Yale is an intrinsic part of New Haven just as New Haven residents compose an essential part of Yale. And as an institution, Yale should try encouraging students to engage their city and its residents through advocacy, service, and personal contact among Yale students and staff as much as they warn them to secure their own belongings.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Back in the day my pops said, "Right on."

In response to Naima's critique of the Rock the Bells festival, my own plea for new hip hop heroes, and our on-going discussions of the many problems with the hip hop we love so dearly, I want to take a second to think about some of the hip hop music that falls under the mainstream radar.

I came of hip hop age in high school within a diverse group of politically active kids in Chicago. The city's problems with racism, segregation, and corruption were our backdrop. We went to communist meetings, African American Culture Club, and open mics at a folk music school. We recorded CDs which we sold for $5 between classes, and did each other's cover art. Some of the graffiti writers went on to art school. Some of the emcee's built their own musical instruments when they couldn't find the sound they wanted otherwise. We read Bomb the Suburbs by hometown hero Upski and watched some of the better things about Chicago die around us. For a while I studied Ali Shaheed Muhammed's beats closer than anything in school, and pulled samples from dumpstered records and CDs from the library. And I took it really hard when I realized Rawkus Records was falling apart.

There's more to this than just waxing nostalgic. I've spent the past week revisiting old hip hop albums and thinking about music as a vehicle for social change. The hip hop I grew up on was pushed aside as "alternative" hip hop--hip hop at the time ordered you to back that azz up, and any other message was deemed alternative. Graf and breakdancing make only cameos in mainstream hip hop videos; instead, silent women in bikinis (apparently black women's year-round leisure wear) narrate thug story after thug story penned by rappers living in mansions. Remember how excited people got when Kanye West yelled, "George Bush doesn't care about black people" on national TV? Rappers should have been saying that all along, worrying about something a little bigger than how many pairs of Air Force Ones they have.

Political rap shouldn't be an obscure sub-genre. Black men: the stakes are high! You are many times more likely to go to jail than to go to college. You are constantly underestimated and racially profiled. But you know this already. So quit talking about grillz and tip drills, and speak out against the power structures in this country that try to put you down.

And all the rest of us who don't always find our spaces within hip hop: we've gotta keep pushing our way in. We're not "alternative."

I think this is the first BJB post to come with a soundtrack. Here are a few songs that push the boundaries of what hip hop is or what hip hop says:

Atmosphere, from Minnesota, writes songs about stealing food and suicide in grain silos. A few albums back they started emo-rap, for better or worse. Scapegoat, from Overcast!

J-Live is a former English teacher from Brooklyn. Them That's Not, from The Best Part is a rags to riches to rags story about rappers being arrogant and phony.

Hand Me Downs by Soul Position (Blueprint + RJD2) says what I wanted this post to say but far better (from Things Go Better with RJ and AL).

Kid Koala plays the turntables, bending notes to build jazz/funk songs. His first album came with a comic book he'd drawn on brown paper. Fender Bender, from Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

The Cold Vein by Cannibal Ox builds and builds until its ending, the hidden track Scream Phoenix, a song about rebirth.

If you listen to nothing else here, please check out Patriotism by Company Flow, from the compilation Soundbombing 2. Company Flow's earlier songs alternated between dystopic political sci-fi and early 90s b-boy anthems. Listening to them before bed once gave me nightmares of state violence.

And I know what the first critique of this is, so I'll beat you to it: there are no women listed here. I'll be honest, beyond my childhood crush on MC Lyte, I've only listened to a handful of female rappers in my life. I don't know that I've ever seen one live. Even in underground hip hop women are very marginalized, and if you don't seek them out you don't encounter them; I've had to admit recently that I didn't seek them out hard enough. So please, dear readers, if you've got a great female rapper in mind, please introduce us in the comments section.

Place the bill in the middle of the table and your tip will be niiiice

When you are out with a boyfriend, husband, friend…whatever it may be…where is the bill usually placed? From my experience it is usually in front of the male whether the server be male or female. Keep this assumption that you are engaged in a patriarchal relationship from being true and cover your own part of the bill. Open the door for this male. Demand the same amount of respect as he. Put an end to this chivalry which to me is just inequality. What reason does a male have to treat a female one way and not expect the same treatment back? Do we as women intend to receive but not to give? These little steps, rebellion some may even see it as, reject small signs of dominance exerted by males on the day to day basis. What makes you believe that you shouldn’t be responsible for paying for your own expenses? And if you’re going to allow him to pay for you, when will you offer to pay for his? Right now are you saying you shouldn’t have to because he is the man? Well does being the male entail financial superiority? If not, why are financial responsibilities on the list of manly duties? These practices are rooted in a misogynistic culture. Will you continue to follow these guidelines?
You think a real man pays the bill all the time? No. A real man is so wrapped up in “being a man” that he is intimidated by a woman who can cover her part.

Stop making that move from a patriarchal household to a patriarchal relationship. Remember, cash rules everything around me. CREAM get the money. Dolla dolla bill y’all.

In order to respectably demand equality on a greater scale you must first demonstrate your ability to embrace it on a smaller one.

Excuse me Oprah honey...

I'm sorry really I promise, but niggas, bitches, and hoes do exist. I'm just being honest." -T.I.

I know I may upset people (Not that I care. You all should have learned that from BM-WF.) but I'm going to have to agree with T.I. on this point. My discrepancy with hip hop is the way in which the terms referring to females are used. Not that they do not exist.

woman, female, or girl = bitch, slut, or hoe

In hip hop music, no matter the situation. No matter how glorified the woman in the song is. She will be referred to as the same thing as the woman that same rapper allegedly despises.
Also, bitch and hoe, words often meant to describe women in general, are used to describe men of unsatisfactory qualities. Punks if you will. Pussy is also used in this way. Obviously referring to a part of a female's anatomy. Suggesting that because it is of a woman it is of lesser value than that of a man's body and that by being called that you are less than a man. I'm ok with bitch used to address no one in particular but rather to emphasize the previous statement.

Examples (all Busta Rhymes songs):
I Love My Bitch - "I love my bitch" is said dozens of times throughout the song. His bitch apparently will never let him down. He also loves his bitch.
Pass the Courvoisier - "Best dressed bitches actin' all cute to my shit." - Nothing wrong with these women. They're just women. And therefore, are bitches.
Touch It - "Flipmode, bitch!" Acceptable.
Hail Mary 2003 - " That bitch shot himself in front of Def Jam." - A guy whom he does not like (and is less than crafty with a weapon) is called a bitch.
I unfortunately could not think of a line in which he uses bitch in an unsavory, but nonetheless, acceptable way. If it sticks to the accepted definition of bitch then I let it ride.

Busta Rhymes is nowhere near the main offender or top threat when it comes to using the b-word inappropriately. He popped into my mind because of the song I Love My Bitch which seemed to get the point across just fine in the radio edited version I Love My Chick. I’m confused as to why he didn’t stick with chick.

I think since I’m deeming certain uses of the term ok there should be a male equivalent. I want to be able to insult a male in a different way than just calling him some derivative of a word for female (Anyone with suggestions for this new term let me know and let’s spread that shit son!). What fun is that? Female hip hoppers (all 3 of them) fall victim to the same thing. Referring to themselves as the top bitch yet calling their enemies bitches. Some may argue that females could take the term bitch and empower it (kind of like nigga) as some have attempted to do (Trina and Lil’ Kim). But there is not a strong enough female force in the industry to pull this off. Also, it does not help that a strong argument could be made for one or both holding true to the actual urban definitions of hoe and bitch.

And with that I will leave you with some Lupe in which we see bitch become prevalent in his eyes. Not just saying that the girl he once dated was a bitch but to say that this bitch opened his eyes to the meaning of the term. It awoke an awareness of the reality of it all. That bitches do exist and that hip hop artists misuse the term. It’s not that all rappers hate women. They just don’t respect them.

Now I ain’t tryin to be the greatest/ I used to hate hip hop/ Yup/ Because the women degraded/ But Too Short made me laugh/ Like a hypocrite I played it/ A hypocrite, I stayed it/ Though I only recited half/ Omitting the word 'bitch'/ Cursing, I wouldn’t say it/ Me and dog couldn’t relate/ ‘til a bitch I dated
-Hurt Me Soul

I Know What Jesus Looked Like

A line of Bible toys is going on sale at Wal-Mart.
Just as I expected Jesus looks like a white hippie from the 70s minus the colorful schemes.
Pharaoh had a unibrow and cartoonish features.
Esther looked like Demi Moore.
I'm glad that the geniuses of One2believe were able to produce these figures so close to their actual likeness. They didn't have much to go on. Areas and regions described in the Bible? Historical data? None of this was at their disposal. So give credit where credit is due. The people who reside in areas mentioned in the Bible do not resemble those who dwelled and traveled through these areas in Biblical times. Somehow Africa evaded this phenomenon because Africans still look the same. If I showed you an African now and an African from 500 years ago, could you tell the difference? Of course not.
Everybody knows that Moses and Noah and all them looked like normal white people. For all you know, your next door neighbor is a descendant of Moses himself. The more I look at Goliath the more he resembles my 7th grade Language Arts teacher.
Buy these toys for your children, your brothers, and your sisters. With no information to go on, one has to assume that Biblical figures looked like white Americans. I mean...haven't they always ruled the world? Isn't every continent's (except Africa) indigenous people brunette and brown-eyed? People (except the Africans) have changed drastically in appearance over the years.
These figurines are made to counter the violent ways of Spiderman and other white action heroes. The only time it is acceptable to depict violence is when it is in the name of the Lord. And I command you to spank any child who dares to think that it's okay to allow his mighty Samson figurine to succumb to the wrath of Goliath on the kitchen floor.
I'm working on a line myself. It's called One2deceive. There is only one figurine. A black Judas. But until the day that black Judas reigns supreme, I will wage Holy War on my bedroom floor. I'll trade you the Batmobile for Moses' stone tablet.