Rap, Black Suffering, and OCD

by Matt B. on October 21, 2015

So you love rap – but you don’t listen to it anymore.

Just – ambiently. Like, if it’s on at a party or in someone’s car, I get excited.

I mean, the lyrics are almost uniformly boring. Of course they’re often magnificently clever and crazily inventive, but they’re usually about one thing – how great a rapper (thug, lover) the artist is.

The art kinda spins down into itself.

It’s nuts – Jay-Z’s been rhyming about the same thing for twenty years!

And yet the beats, the melodies…

Yeah, that’s the paradox. They open me up – lift me up. Chingy or Jay or old Snoop comes on the box, and my body is moving. Something is happening.

Maybe that’s not so strange, though. Because sure, they’re rapping about how big their dicks are or whatever – but often, the lyrics are beside the point. The stance is the point – the way your body responds, the power and confidence and aggression and explosiveness you feel. The music does that, and the lyrics kinda mime that posture – but more weakly, the way language always does.

Yeah, and this is connected to something bigger. Junior year of college, when all of a sudden I was deep into black art – reading Wright, DuBois, Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Cornel West, Toni Morrison. Taking classes on Black Power and Black Theology. Gobbling up MLK. Watching Spike Lee’s Bamboozled alone in my room, and getting knocked out, then trundling back to the video store for more.

What was going on here? White boy from white suburbs, all of a sudden immersing himself in black culture.

Right – maybe that sounds like wannabe behavior?

Maybe – though it says something strange about whiteness and blackness that you feel the need to justify being moved by towering artists. But anyway, it didn’t feel like some kind of white-inadequacy thing – not first, and not mainly. It felt like there was a pulse in all of these artists, something they were dealing with that resonated.

Any idea of what it was?

OCD, maybe. A sense of being put-upon. Of being dealt a wildly unfair and absurdly painful hand. Of making a way in the world anyhow.

So why don’t you listen to rap anymore?

Because it usually doesn’t feel helpful. The constant self-assertion, the need to prove oneself. It feels like it’s aiming at the wrong target – for me, anyway. Like, yes, damn right, I exist, and fuck no, I don’t deserve to be treated this way. But also, I don’t want to overcompensate. I don’t need to be the best at anything, more fearsome or dominant.

Not all rap struts like that.

Not directly, no. But even in the stuff that’s ostensibly about something else, that relentless self-assertion – cocky, insolent – is often still there. In the cadence, the pulse of it. And underneath, this profound insecurity.

I used to freestyle. Sometimes I was good, and sometimes I sucked. But almost every single time, my words would take on this rude, peacocking, comparative tone. Even when I was talking about our souls, about potentially uplifting stuff.

Sometimes you need that, though. To defend yourself and the people you care about.

Definitely. And we don’t need to say much about where rap comes from – at least in part. Hundreds of years of unimaginable black suffering. Near-death experiences of the soul. Generations of precious human beings ground underfoot.

And that history isn’t over, of course. Baldwin reminded us fifty years ago; Ta-Nehisi Coates just did it again. It’s 2015, and our country still needs a movement called Black Lives Matter – because that isn’t obvious to everyone yet.

What about white guys like Eminem? Cadence copycats?

No, I don’t think so. We all suffer.

So what’s the issue again?

Because sometimes it hurts more than it helps. That kind of fuck-the-world coarseness costs something – and not just to the listener. It costs the emcee. It means being in an attack crouch, perpetually pre-empting. It’s exhausting, and it makes it a little harder to be tender sometimes.

Or it reminds you how badly you need tenderness.

Maybe that too.





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