About seven years ago, I had lunch with a young woman and my former boss (see “What We’ll Do for $$$” post, July ’09) at some overpriced Dupont Circle restaurant specializing in Russian cuisine. It was just before the birth of my son Noah. There was so much wrong in that lunch, in that conversation, in the dynamics of that conversation. But in between the idiotic moments of conversation, there was something completely unrelated to it mentioned that topped everything else. In describing her background in the arts and humanities, the young woman said, “I grew up on hip-hop…”
“Huh?,” I thought. Where did that come from? At the time, I was thirty-three, and she was twenty-seven. That would’ve meant that the young woman was born in ’75 or ’76. Hip-hop was barely an embryo the day she was born, and hadn’t become a truly national phenomenon until the end of ’86. Even then, it would take until the ’90s for hip-hop to dominate the music scene. And, given that this individual had grown up in the mid-Atlantic region and in the Midwest — not exactly hotbeds for the development of hip-hop — I found her statement somewhere between ridiculous and as true as a hollow bell.
It did get me thinking, though, about how circumscribed lives in this country of ours can be when we believe that everyone should see the world the way we see it. As if everyone else’s experience can be encompassed in our little life story. “I was raised on hip-hop” sounded to me like this young woman’s family, friends, community and education was completely immersed in the development and growth of hip-hop. Short of her being best friends with Russell Simmons, Sean Coombs and MC Lyte, the statement’s unbelievable on its face. But it’s also a refusal to recognize that the idealized way in which we describe our lives and world doesn’t really add up to what our world was, is, or the way in which we would like it to be.
Now, there are a whole generation of folks who’ve grown up listening to nothing but hip-hop, dancing in nothing but hip-hop rhythms, reading hip-hop-based novels and watching movies with hip-hop themes. Those folk, born after ’82, have the right to say that they were “raised on hip-hop.” But what does that mean, really? That they see the world through the lens of hip-hop culture? That American politics, globalization, social justice, education, popular culture, sports and entertainment can all be seen by folks simply and completely through the lens of hip-hop culture? If it does mean that, then I guess that’s a’ight. After all, that’s how some of these people in the hip-hop era have grown up.
I suspect, however, that this isn’t what folks like the young woman I described earlier mean when they say that they were “raised on hip-hop.” They’re asserting a sense of Blackness, an essence of an understanding of being Black or African American that they assume cannot be distilled as easily through their parents’ R&B, Jazz or pop music, through dance or art that’s more consistent with more culturally integrative times. For them, hip-hop is being Black — or “keepin’ it real” — a step beyond The Lost Poets, a phase past Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson, a grittiness that can’t be expressed through Diana Ross, Michael Jackson or Quincy Jones. Hip-hop is being Black in an urban and impoverished context — or being real and cool, I suppose — even when the people growing up on it aren’t impoverished or aren’t even Black.
And I have problems with this assessment of what being “raised on hip-hop” means for so many who have embraced it without understanding the eclectic origins of hip-hop. Or without acknowledging that too much drink from this well can be as isolating as only embracing neo-conservative ideology or only believing that one denomination of a religion — much less an entire religious ideology — can provide all of the answers we will ever need in this life.
The rhythms of my voice, my ability to speak and write in standard English, my eclectic music collection and my understanding of math and science, all illuminate the fact that I have lived a life of many textures. Yet I am still a Black man whose life was shaped by poverty, racism, community, education, music, sports and so many other things that other African Americans of similar backgrounds face and often embrace. I would never claim that I was “raised on hip-hop” any more than I’d say that I was “raised on physical abuse.” I heard Sugar Hill Gang, Doug E. Fresh and Run D.M.C. between ’80 and ’86, and I experienced physical abuse, but I wasn’t “raised” by either. My experiences are a part of me, but they don’t define me, and I certainly wouldn’t allow myself as an African American be defined by them.
To misquote Laurence Fishburne’s character Morpheus from The Matrix (1999), I’ll say this: “What is Black? How do you define, Black? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then ‘Black’ is simply a social construct interpreted by our brains.” Being Black isn’t all that’s hip-hop, and hip-hop isn’t all that makes or defines anyone as Black. It’s the totality of our experiences and actions that do so. Even if we were “raised” on country music, lima beans and Ex-lax.