Thursday, August 28, 2014

Let Me Rap to You Real Quick...a Guest Post by Courtney McKinney

This was hard to write because there is so much importance I will attempt to distill into the next few paragraphs. Ultimately there is only so much I can say about hip-hop because it is so closely tied to the touchier topics of race and poverty in America, but here it goes...

I was not raised listening to rap, in fact, it was something I was actively encouraged to stay away from. The swearing, the misogyny, the violence, oh my! That was my general feeling about hip-hop (rap) music up until about 3 years ago. My family is black, but my childhood relates to most rappers about as much as your average white kid living in the suburbs. I know nothing of strip clubs or life in a gang or life as a poor person. 

What I relate to is humanity. What I relate to is art in its true form -- a vehicle for people to express their realities in a way that other people can digest, and hopefully address. 
It's hard to convey the emotion behind marginalization, but for a lot of black people in America living on the margins is the lived reality. Young black men are taught different sets of rules on how to stay alive when interacting with police, and a disproportionate number of black people grow up in neighborhoods where the only tangible examples of financial success are illegal or extreme (i.e. fame via professional athletics or entertainment), but they still live in a country where money is king. I never considered the reality of American poverty before I became a hip-hop listener. 

Rap is a language that has become much more mainstream since it first began in New York City. It started at block parties where DJs would fuse 70s funk and soul music with percussive beats, and people began rapping over their creations. Eventually hip-hop became a language for discontent because it came from communities where those issues were a part of everyday life ("The Message" by Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five is a good early example). As rap became more popular big labels got a hold of young rappers with the promise of unheard of financial success, and mainstream rap music changed dramatically (which eventually led to a push-back and a rise in artist-run labels). 

The price of popularity is that the music must have mass appeal. The rap we hear on the radio is the music we are given because the labels know it is what consumers want to hear. Listening to people rap about easy sex or drinking to blackout is easier than listening to people discuss the hopelessness of growing up in the projects, or the logical reasoning behind selling drugs, or acknowledging the dysfunction certain citizens encounter within our justice system. It is easier to hear the lyrics about bitches and hoes so that is what a lot of people hone in on, but if you are open to it deeper content is there -- often on the same album. 

That is why "hip-hop heads" will always tell you to listen to a whole album. Radio singles act like disguises, sometimes they show the real person, but other times they camouflage something else. Most people don't realize that a lot of hip-hop artists were the smart kids growing up (for example 2 Chainz went to medical school before embarking on his rap career). 

Rap lyrics can be deeply descriptive, thoughtful, and introspective. The rap game is one way to use intelligence to get out of strife. Rapping is a way to express emotion, fear, and anger -- just like any other art. Rappers also give voice to their communities, which is vitally important. Lupe Fiasco tells young kids the world is theirs no matter where they grow up in "The Show Goes On." Tupac told young black women to keep their heads up in the midst of poverty and poor treatment in "Keep Ya Head Up." Rappers consistently give hope to young people in communities where it often seems that there is none. 

Hip-hop albums have the ability to function like the Trojan army, and the mainstream singles are their Trojan horses. There's a message for all of America in rap that tells us what is going on for some of the people in this country, and unlike the video vixens their reality isn't always pretty. Everyone has an idea of what "the hood" looks like and what the people are like who live there, but if you're patient enough to dig a little deeper than the showy consumer-oriented veneer you will find a more robust portrait within hip-hop culture. You will find humanity, and you will find the invisible Americans who live in a world most of us can't comprehend. 

If you want to know more about anything I've discussed, please read these pieces that deal with the topics very well:

On self-segregation and how it creates misunderstanding
A little more on self-segregation
On the tendency to link a person's behavior with their art

Suggested listening list (These are full albums that should be listened to without shuffle):

Kendrick Lamar: "Good Kidd, m.A.A.d City," "Section 8.0"
NAS - "Illmatic"
A Tribe Called Quest -- "The Low End Theory"
Tupac - "Greatest Hits"
Black Star - "Mos Def and Kweli are Black Star"
J Cole - "Cole World: The Sideline Story" & "Born Sinner"
Outkast -- "SouthernPlayalisticCadillacMusik"
The Notorious B.I.G. (Biggie) - "Life After Death" & "Ready to Die"

Courtney is the product of an early West Coast existence, a Texan upbringing, and an East Coast coming of age. She is a graduate of Lewisville High School (Go Farmers!) and Yale University (Go Bulldogs!), and she currently lives in New York City where she will soon begin work for the Brennan Center for Justice through NYU Law. She previously dabbled in film, television journalism, and education. She’s generally interested in almost everything, which informs her writing. 

Check out more of Courtney's Musings:

Friday, August 8, 2014

Why I Love My Sister

"A sister a little bit of childhood that can never be lost." 
It's hard to say if I truly remember when my sister was born, or if I remember the photos of her birth. Regardless, the memory is there. August 9, 1990. 

I realize now, as a 27 year old new mother, that my then 27 year old mom was a complete warrior. Her mother had passed away unexpectedly 2 weeks before my sister's arrival. I can't imagine the loss, but I can completely understand how the bond between the two of them is deeper than just mother-daughter. Without a doubt, I believe a part of my grandmother's spirit made it's way into my sister's heart and back to this earth. She was a source of joy and comfort for my mom that nobody else could be. She was their little angel baby. She'll always be the baby of our family. 

As for me, I was 3. As far as I was concerned, Laura Rose ((which turned into "Rosebud," which got shortened to "Bud")) had brought a Prince Eric doll from wherever she came from, as a gift to me. She was in. I liked her.

Not only am I grateful to my sister for being such an amazing sibling, friend, and person...I am also so grateful to my parents for giving me Bud. 

Anybody who has a sibling can relate. My sister is my confidante. She's my partner in crime! We laugh at the same stupid stuff (like a dog's collar...why is that funny?!), and feel similarly on so many issues, it's eerie. When something is going on in the family, she's my preferred person to talk to, because she's on EXACTLY the same page. She's the only other person on the planet who grew up in the same house, with the same parents. Every holiday was spent together. Every birthday, ever. I held her as a baby and will stand beside her in October as her matron of honor. "Grateful" doesn't begin to explain my feelings toward her.

We started out really close, and played together constantly. Most of the time, she would kindly watch me play Barbies by myself. Haha. We also had a game, creatively titled, "The Game," where we would claim various pieces of furniture, homes, pets, you name it! in our make believe life. She was "Kristy" and I was "Kelly". Eventually, I got tired of playing The Game with my little sister, and dramatically acted out Kelly's death. I'm pretty sure she was devastated. We played N64 together in inflatable chairs, never learned how to dive together, and even played Christmas carols on the flute together. We rode bikes together, had pretend interviews on the old camcorder, and made up children's TV programs where we were the stars. When I hear Elvis Costello, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Natalie Merchant, and Gin Blossoms, I think of our long summer days back in the 'ville. Any memory I have of my childhood involves Bud.

When I was going into high school, and Bud was 10-11, we spent less time hanging out as friends. I don't remember having a falling out or anything, it just seemed like in hindsight I was in a tryin-to-act-cool phase...fortunately, it was short lived. I remember in college, coming home and realizing how authentically cool my sister was, and being grateful for our relationship. 

At Joe T. Garcia's with our baby cousin, Allie Jean!

My gift to Bud for her 21st birthday

Now, we are closer than ever. I'm also more proud of her than ever. She graduated with her Bachelor's from Tech Summa Cum Laude in 2012. She immediately pursued her Master's, and is now a Speech Pathologist, with a job lined up to begin next week. Luckily for us, she was at home ((Flower Mound)) for most of the summer, but she moves to Houston next week to start her professional life...and I have to say, I am so sad.

She is so much help. She picks up LG from the nanny...she makes dinner all the time...she runs errands, cleans up, drops everything to help me out. She's so helpful. I also lean on her emotionally. I call her more now than ever. Or text, at least. I go to her when I'm down, and I feel no judgment, just total love, and understanding...true understanding. She's very empathetic. 

I used to think of myself as "the smart one" and she was "the pretty one." That sounds so dumb, but it's truthful. Now I realize she's both. She's so beautiful inside and out. She's so smart. She has practical knowledge and a very intuitive sense that's refined. She's open to Life, and doesn't claim to know all the answers. She is a seeker. She has a lot more going on in her mind than she blurts out ((I tend to blurt)).  She has become more "herself" which has been fun to watch and support. 

At the end of the day, I probably love most the ability to cry with my sister, and laugh until I cry with my sister, in any situation. While I love the small things, like swinging on the porch swing sipping a cocktail, watching The View ((and eye-rolling at Sherri Shepherd)) or jumping in the community pool in our clothes after a hot summer walk...I am most grateful for the big picture...which is that she is a part of me, and I'm a part of her. 

Happy birthday, Bud! I'm so glad you were born. And HAPPY BRIDAL SHOWER DAY! I hope you have the best birthday//bridal shower ever. I love you, forever and ever.