I love hip hop. It is a language that speaks to me, with the complexity of the beats, the dexterity of the rhymes, the posture and pride of rappers that makes me swoon. It is like opera to me, with all the sturm und drang of Wagnerian proportions, but with modern values and transformative knowledge. My newest obsession is The Neptunes song “Pop Shit”. I have never heard anything so beautiful in my life. The layering of the samples, the vocal harmony perfectly dovetail with the mc’s swagger, there is small heaven in that song. I believe that we get complimentary snack size portions of the afterlife, and we all receive them in a different way. For me it is the arrogant smirk in Pharrell’s voice, the skittish percussion and the dizzying freak I get on whenever I hear that song.
The overture that captured me for life was Public Enemy’s “Don’t Believe the Hype.” In the late-eighties, I worked at Stormy Leather on Howard Street in San Francisco, a leather dyke emporia. On Sundays, it was quiet, and we would listen to a radio station that would put Malcolm X and Martin Luther King speeches under phat beats, which felt like the birth of something great. Word was born and the DJ would spin you right into Chuck D’s booming voice. There was such truth to rap right then, and there was no apologies made to anyone about anything. It was the first time that it struck me that music could be political, even though I grew up in San Francisco at the tail end of the Summer of Love – those musicians were rebelling against their own establishment, and even though there were amazing poets during that era, their rhymes didn’t affect me like the epics of Afrika Bambattaa or Grandmaster Flash. Who gives a fuck about “Howl?” What was that supposed to mean anyway? Wasn’t that dude in NAMBLA?
Chuck D I took to as my new leader. His righteous anger and eloquence was infectious, the beats hypnotic, the passionate struggle of not only people of color, but really all minorities were expressed in his lyrics. I got it. We all did at the workshop, toiling over the sheets of black leather, the scent getting into our skin as we bobbed our heads. We understood oppression, as below poverty level women, as queer, as Asian, Latino and Black. Not only that, as sex workers, we were vilified by feminists as traitors to our own movement, as sadomasochism was seen as an accommodation and supplication to the patriarchy. We were also blasted by the established queer community for wearing chaps and making the entire GLBT constituency look like perverts. Like we were the ones in NAMBLA.
For the first time, we got to make our shame into rage, and rap gave us the formula, the “pi” for our feelings of misery and displacement, which had before remained an unanswerable equation burning into our just-born political brains. Yes, Public Enemy were talking about the ghetto, but we all lived there, no matter what our street address. In the projects of the mind, 911 is and always will be a joke. It would take a nation of millions to hold us back. The revolution will not be televised. I am a black man, and I will never be a veteran.
Things turned around when Ice Cube released “Black Korea,” a wrathful, venomous anthem against the Korean merchants of the inner city. I felt like I was cast out of a tribe I so desperately needed to belong to. Gangsta rap, still powerful, had sexist themes that I blocked out because I still wanted to have that hardness, something that would exist as a melodic talisman inside me when the ‘rainbow was enuf.’ I was partly in agreement, as the song was about people that I knew, relatives who had banished me years before, so there was an odd satisfaction to it, but then again, my face was the uniform I could not camouflage, even though my mind belonged behind enemy lines. I also felt that weirdness like when someone makes fun of your mom – a sense of propriety like “I can say that but you can’t” stance. Also, the undeniable racism and violence of the song was this indelible mark on my precious amulet, and it just felt like bad luck. Ice Cube eventually apologized for the song, and made the genius film “Friday”, yet that same antagonism between Koreans and Blacks exists, in a mythological realm, in that neighborhood between “Do the Right Thing” and South Central during the LA riots. I don’t care.
I still love hip hop. There isn’t the kind of unifying political message as there once was, but there is yet unending beauty there, that grows despite all the misogyny, materialism, mayhem, maleness, malevolence toward homosexuals, murder and yachts. The rhymes are still rebellious, and the styles have become sophisticated beyond what anyone could have ever imagined. Nothing is perfect, but the first heady years, when Sundays were all about Chuck D and the world that we, the freaks of all freaks, were bound to inherit and hopefully come to rule, but unlike our predecessors, we would do so with truth, compassion, justice and generosity, gave us an enduring hope that keeps Public Enemy on my iPod to this day. Fight the power.