Last month at a writing craft intensive I was asked to introduce myself, and mention my favorite lyricist. A name sat on the back of my throat ready to be spit out, Biggie. But, when it came to my turn I hesitated. I left the question unanswered. My mind rushed to silence my tongue, and Biggie’s name was confined behind the wall of my teeth. Silenced by the question, how could you like hip-hop? Underneath was another, how can someone so well read and sensitive, bounce her shoulders, and nod to the rhymes of rap music? My intelligence and judgement questioned, I chose when and who I professed my love for: Biggie, Tupac, Tribe Called Quest, Nas, and Kanye.
I can remember the precise moment I fell in love with hip-hop. I was nine, on the television three men dressed in big puffy winter coats, thick chains, fedoras, and the classic Adidas shell top sneakers broke out into rhyme. RUN-DMC burst onto the screen, determined and confident to win back the gold chain two street hustlers swindled from one of their girlfriends. Drawn by both the story of these tricksters who meet their match with RUN-DMC. Captivated by how the MCs spit out words in a way that reminded me of how the streets of Sunset Park spoke. I sang the words of It’s Tricky and watched the video until I memorized every frame.
I did not know this was the start of my life long love affair with hip hop. Despite that fact that I discovered alternative music junior year of highschool, I remained a loyal hip hop fan. I bounced to Tribe Called Quest and rocked out to Nirvana. Later, I realized my heart could love more than one genre of music. Though the lyrics of rock wailed alongside the angst in my soul, the rhymes of rap pulsated in beat to the anger I chomped onto with my jaw. But, made to feel that my choice of music rendered me dumb and ignorant, I kept quiet. Scared that the barrier of books I created to distance myself would crumble. I feared, I was less than, being the daughter of a Colombian uneducated mother and a drunk father. And, that I grew up in Sunset Park in the 1980’s and 1990’s when it was called Gunset. I never defended my love for hip-hop, just bounced and nodded.
I was fifteen year old, in my bedroom, when I first heard on the radio Electric Relaxation. First time I heard a woman’s thick thighs described as sexy and beautiful. Right after Q-tip paid homage to voluptuous women, Phife explained his love for Brown, Yellow, Puerto Rican, and Haitian women. A New York hip-hop group, Tribe Called Quest saw poetry in the streets that resembled my streets. Surely, this meant that despite the graffiti, broken car windows, and dime bags littered on the ground there was beauty in the hood. Words that swirled around me, part of my own lexicon: shady, punk, come correct, on point, were positioned in the lyrics, like parts of speech. My speech. I felt heard.
Not much later, I discovered the music of Biggie Smalls, taken aback by how his songs felt like a conversation with a friend. Biggie left nothing unsaid, rapped about how he sold drugs on the corner, was considered a fool for dropping out of highschool, dissed by girls, ate sardines for dinner, and all while his neighbors called the cops on him. But, it was Biggie’s confessional song, Suicidal Thoughts, which made me see the other side of him. Despite the fact Biggie romanticized drug dealing, boasted about womanizing, created false idols of his new fancy cars and stacks of money, and all through the haze of weed, there was layers of hurt and pain. That song became a blueprint for personal narrative, told with your words, with raw emotion, and force. I ached to confess my demons too.
Recently, I heard Jason Reynolds discuss how hip-hop gave birth to his writing. Though hip hop has influenced my writing, it was the stories in books that flickered the inspiration behind my own words. But, Jason Reynolds’ response to the critics of rap was what inspired me to consider my own relationship with hip-hop. Reynolds points out that those who wave the finger at rap, and only point out the explicit, misogynistic lyrics, and count all the times the “N” word is dropped, cannot really criticize the genre. Hip hop music is more than just all the things it’s criticized for. It empowers, it calls attention to, and creates community.
It was this definition that allowed me to come to love Cardi B. But, not at first. I’m not gonna front, first time I heard Bodak Yellow I rolled my eyes, thought the song was dumb. Why rap about red bottom shoes? Some days later, I saw a video of Cardi B on social media defending herself against all the haters. Cardi asked why the hatred, how instead of hating on her, they should see her as someone who chased her dreams to be a rapper. And, well then why not chase your own. I was intrigued. Next time Holden blasted Bodak Yellow I listened to the lyrics. I listened again and again. Cardi B owned her past, embraced her sexuality, and willed herself to succeed. Cardi B is a boss!
I don’t think I will ever not love hip-hop, not just old school rap, but even the new songs by new rappers. Hip hop lyrics tell the stories of those that often do not get their stories told. That is why I fell in love with hip-hop decades ago. I LOVE HIP HOP!