On violence and homecomings
The only time I have ever feared for my life at a rap concert, I was 12 years old. It was not the first time I remember myself running due to fear, not even the first time I remember myself running due to fear of a gun. But it was the first time my fear of death and my love of music sped toward each other on the same track. It was in Cincinnati, Ohio, during the peak of the Lyricists Lounge tapes. I was visiting my oldest brother, who was in his junior year at the University of Cincinnati. He had to do a lot of leaning on our parents to convince them to let me and my 14-year-old brother go and spend the weekend in his dorm. They were never told about the rap show, which would have almost certainly made the trip a firm “no.” The show, set to be headlined by Black Star (Talib Kweli and Mos Def, as he was then known), began later than expected on that Saturday night. It was late in the spring, near the end of the school year, and it was humid, with dark clouds rolling over the outdoor stage, threatening to open themselves wide. These moments at shows today always make me tense — moments when there is palpable restlessness, and everyone has run out of things to do with their hands, run out of things to look at on their phones, and run out of small talk. That night, in 1998, with less technology, the moment arrived quicker. I don’t remember much besides a small scuffle to my right, and then a significantly larger one. Perhaps there was a punch thrown, or a shove. I do remember someone behind us yelling the word “GUN,” and my oldest brother’s hand around my arm, pulling me in the direction of every other black person there, running fastest away from the idea of death, as we do.
Whenever there are shootings, deaths, or violence at rap shows, the most predictable reaction is that of the media, wanting to “examine” rap music and its lyrics or its influence. Commonly, black rap fans react by citing history, statistics, and logic around violence not being a rap problem. We comb for stories of shootings at rock concerts. We screenshot violent punk lyrics. We say, “Do you know Johnny Cash made songs about killing women?” We get into the “rap vs. hip-hop” semantics. We send out still photos of fire and blood and fists unlike our own. At the core, this makes sense. So many other aggressive musical spaces are given the comfort, or even the right, to embrace violence as a means of expression. Punk and hardcore scenes are understood as necessary things that can calm a life outside of the musical space, with the understanding that sometimes that violence may spill over into something else, something more real and deadly. Rap — or “gangster rap,” as it is called when there is violence — was born out of that same need, and it deserves to be held up in the same way. That doesn’t mean a dismissal of whatever real and non-cathartic violence flows out of the music, but it means valuing the need for the genre and style in the same light that we use to condemn the violence. N.W.A couldn’t run into the streets and brawl with the police officers they felt harassed by, and so they put that anger into their music. That music became a safe space to express rage outwardly — not just for them, but for anyone who has a shared experience and feels moved to anger — in a car alone, or in a bedroom with friends, or in a bar. I was a young and angry child who found myself surrounded, most often, by young and angry children. And not all of the loud and angry music was for us. Sure, I would run to it anyway from time to time, but the music I most needed and wanted when I couldn’t fight or fight back was the music made by people who looked like me, who were angry like I was, about things that I could relate to.
The hallmark of punk is that it claims not to need to exist for anyone except for the punks, the people who need it most. This is somewhat easy for the genre to achieve because the cultural entry points for modern punk are so low: There are rarely punk songs these days that cross over and become mainstream hits, sung by everyone. Black culture, it seems, belongs to everyone whenever they want it. So then rap belongs to everyone; even at its most angry and violent, rap cannot claim the same type of haven that punk and hardcore claim for themselves. Yet I have feared for my life most urgently at punk shows when I look around and see no one who looks like me while fists fly, no one who would pull me away from the violence and run until we saw light. It is easy to take stock and run numbers on large violence, and less easy when the violence is a small, ongoing hum.
For a few weeks recently, the No. 1 song in the country was Desiigner’s “Panda,” a song that I, despite my best efforts, really enjoy. It’s playful enough and ambiguous enough to be a modern rap hit, driven largely by a beat and a small handful of memorable lines. In order to be a No. 1 song in America, a song has to be listened to in places other than those where black people live and die violently. It has to be a song that gets played in the suburbs, on radio stations in cars full of white kids rapping along to the words, a song that consumes nights in every possible corner of every state. This was “Panda,” a song that I have thrown up my hands and rapped to. A song played by white people strumming acoustic guitars on YouTube, singing the words “hundred killers, hundred hammers.” A song whose primary ad lib is a faux-machine gun. The kind of music that America can fall in love with but still keep at a distance. This is still rap music to a lot of people: the person not good enough to show up to the dance holding hands with, but good enough to dance with after you’ve arrived. The friend you keep at an arm’s distance, just in case “something bad” happens, and you have to pretend as if you never knew them.
I look at violence as something all-encompassing that many of us are trying to survive, at various degrees, throughout our everyday lives. I consider the way rap sits in all of this, the lyrics I have rapped out loud that I would never carry out, even as I know there are people who rap those same lyrics who have carried out the things I wouldn’t. Violence has existed and evolved rapidly since long before the first record of any genre was cut; it will continue to exist and evolve, no matter what shape the genre of rap takes. This is the machine that we are all in. A culture that is easy to consume until it is easier to condemn, and still, the dead. A person was killed at a rap show, and I do not take easy to the news of death, no matter what wind the news arrives on. The thing about death is that we, so often, want someone to answer for how it happens. I, too, want this, as much as everyone else. I want this and still don’t want to sit back and ask, “What are we going to do about this angry and violent rap?” Because I know what it is to need to hear that anger coming from a place that is not inside of yourself. I know what it is to need to have it sit next to you, untouched, as yet another means of survival.
Last week, Gucci Mane was released from prison. It was his latest release from incarceration, after pleading guilty to possession of a firearm as a convicted felon in 2014. His release was met with celebration by rap fans, some of whom, like myself, who know what it is to have someone leave, by jail or death. America never frowns on the celebration of a person who has done wrong. Our entire foundation is built upon those celebrations, and yet, when a person who has served their time walks free and the hood rejoices, there are those who wonder what the celebration is born out of.
The blackness I most find myself comfortable with is the blackness that tells me I will always have a place to come home to. So much of what I enjoy about black fame and black infamy is how we still call back to our roots, an attempt to signal to each other that we haven’t changed, even though everything around us has. Before we realized it was a baseball bat, I smiled when Beyoncé boasted of having hot sauce in her bag, because I love a long line of black women who keep several bottles at their side at all times. This, too, is a small homecoming: the things that we carry with us as a small window to a world that we left long ago. I wish to always have a room to go to in the place where I’m from. A room where I can play spades, laugh loudly with my friends, and turn up a song in which someone raps about things that, in another space, I would surely shout down. I want to know this comfort even after I have sinned, to some degree. I want to be held accountable for those sins but still have a place where I know I would be loved even if I stole or got caught with something I shouldn’t have. I cheered at the news of Gucci Mane’s homecoming because I have seen a mother’s face when she gets to touch a child who has lived behind bars and glass for far too long. I have sat down at a table where no one is innocent but everyone is trying to survive the best they can.
It goes without saying that some evils are either unforgivable or more difficult to forgive. I consider this, always, when listening to the rappers I once loved and love less. I consider it when I cringe while skipping past a song that I rapped to five years ago but can’t stomach now. This isn’t something that occurs often for me, but in the moments when it does, I still consider myself thankful for the place that song once held in my life, and thankful for the fact that I no longer need it. As I get older, some things are harder for me to consume. I say this and don’t only mean rap. I say this and don’t only mean music. The discussion, for me, revolves around what it is to consume violence as entertainment in a world where violence is, at times, overwhelmingly palpable. When the discussion starts with people who talk about, quote-unquote, “holding rap music accountable,” I appreciate how it sounds, but I don’t know what that looks like in practice. What is accountability when talking about an entire genre of music? Do we muzzle the violence and anger in these songs? A violence and anger that is relatable, and in some ways comforting? Do we tell rappers to find a new way to express their experiences? Is accountability an understanding of how and why this music is consumed in the manner that it is, and then making the choice to either love it or not, in spite of its sins, like the child who disappoints but still has somewhere to call home?
There are days where I still return to the type of rap music that Gucci Mane makes, or the type of rap music that gets played in clubs before shots ring out. I do this even though I am less angry now than I once was, but I still need to hear the stories. The drug dealer made good, the killer from a block like the ones I have known, the stick-up kids with children whom they love. It remains the window into a home that I know I can return to, even as I become more removed from it. It serves, like most music, as a small break from a world I sometimes don’t understand into a world that I do. I did not know if there was actually a gun at that Black Star concert, but someone said “gun,” and so I ran. A rapper on a song says “gun” and I dance. I escape darkness into another type of darkness. One that I can navigate because I know the words to it, or because I know what comes next. Inside the music, I know who gets to live and who gets to die. I am not tasked with making sense of things that are entirely senseless. I can skip to something else when the songs become too much, and ask again to be forgiven.