By Jenny Jocks Stelzer, English Faculty.
A couple of weeks ago, MSJ (to whom I happen to be married) said something cool: “I’m more interested in what’s unfamiliar to me than what’s familiar.” As I ALWAYS do when he says interesting things, which he does so often, I thought about it for a while. For once, I agree.
As you may know, my current intellectual pursuit/guilty pleasure/obsession (depending on your perspective) is rap music. I’ve created a new RMU course called The History and Poetics of Hip-Hop, and I’ve been studiously following blogs, reading criticism, and bobbing my head to Nas’s Illmatic, Wu-Tang’s 36 Chambers, and N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton, while my students school me on Lil’ Wayne, Lupe Fiasco, and Kanye West. (I know; my job is friggin’ awesome.)
So, many of my friends and colleagues have been all: “Say what? YOU like rap music? YOU? A 30-something, Oak Park-living, food-and-fitness-obsessing, intellectual-pretending, white-being mom?” What interest could you possibly have in the world of hip-hop?
First of all, I do happen to have some familiarity with the music and the culture, even if it is simply because I was a suburban (read: white) kid in the 1990’s going to an urban (read: black) high school, and the distributors of rap music, both in tape/CD sales and in the media (MTV) in the ‘90’s made the smart marketing move to target white kids whose disposable income was growing and who needed a new rebellious consciousness to identify with, because Madonna was mainstream, punk was no longer available, and grunge, well, was just too grunge-y. So, my friends and I would ride around in our parents’ cars rapping every Digital Underground, D.O.C., and DJ Qwik lyric at the top of our lungs. We even got into the 2-Live Crew. No joke.
This was the unfamiliar. We were fairly privileged teenaged white girls with a pretty limited sense of how messed up the world really was. Sure, we knew kids at school who were in gangs, our friend groups were quite economically and racially diverse, and we occasionally went to “the east side” to find that lady who would buy beer for minors (good god, I hope my kids never do this). But, for the most part, the larger culture validated our own limited, sheltered experience, and, from the teenager’s perspective, this was WAY too familiar to be cool.
Our exposure to hip-hop was a cultural awakening to something truly unfamiliar: the reality of lack (said KRS-One) and what it’s like to have a larger culture that marginalizes and, even, villain-izes you. That, frankly, was cool. When we learned of the Rodney King beating and the L.A. riots, we were, I think rightly, compelled to make sense of that marginalized experience. And, in what I now know was a complicated and immature reach toward eliminating the inner racism that made a spectacle of “the ghetto” to people like us, we totally embraced gangsta rap. We recited the aggressive lyrics with all of the white chick swagger we could muster, and complained when our parents or teachers talked about how inappropriate “our” music was as that same distribution and media network slapped the “Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics” sticker over the cover art, compelling us even further to shout “You don’t like how I’m livin’, well f**k you!” and “Me love you long time.” No joke.
After years of New Kids on the Block and Debbie Gibson, which validated our suburban-girl experience and rarely challenged us, we were ready to be challenged. So we embraced the marginalized identity, and the marginalized art that went along with it. Perhaps it was just rebellion, but I think it might be a yearning to empathize with the unfamiliar, really, that draws us to art we don’t immediately understand. Sure, much of what we enjoy and admire is grounded in the universal-ization of our own experience, but, what is REALLY interesting is art that makes the unfamiliar familiar. Regardless of my claims to street credibility simply due to the fact that my friends were diverse and I knew Too $hort’s real name (Todd Shaw, yo.), white privilege rendered me, and the culture that represented my experience, incapable of really understanding what it was like at the time to be outside of the mainstream (read, mistakenly: cool). Embracing rap music was a transgression that both irritated my parents AND gave me a sense of myself as someone unjustly misunderstood and anti-authority, even if it was inauthentic and, looking back, kind of embarrassing. Plus, it felt pretty damn cool to act “hard”.
These days, as I research the social and cultural movements of the 1980’s and 90’s that helped make hip-hop what it is today and apply critical poetic analysis to “6 ‘N the Mornin’” and “Get ‘em High,” I’m a little more self-reflexive in my response to the “Say, what?” question. I’m into rap precisely because it comes from a place that I have little familiarity with, but that I long to feel empathy toward and, for whatever foolish reason, to identify with.
Plus, much to MSJ’s dismay, I can’t resist a phat beat, a dope flow, and a smooth voice.