Sunday, March 26, 2006

Rhythm, Reflection and Word: A Window to Identity

*This piece is the narrative/theory paper which I wrote to document "prior learning" experience through Hip Hop for my Liberal Arts Bachelor's at Antioch University Seattle. Below is the "course description" followed by my narrative, analysis, and bibliography. It was written in the Spring of 2006, and is the philosophical foundation of my "Hip Hop Idealist Era" of life. I'm including this on my blog as a reference point for those interested.

Course Title: Rhythm, Reflection, and Word: A Window to Identity

Course Description: This course is the third in a three part inquiry utilizing the phenomenon of hip hop within popular culture to investigate the dynamic connections between ethnic traditions and cultural practices of art as it informs and is informed by social change, identity, and conflicting worldviews in a globalizing age. In this course, students will explore the transformative, illusive nature of identity, and analyze its relationship to art through the first hand experience of writing, recording, and performing numerous spoken work pieces, raps, songs, and poems. Students will utilize techniques of expression, self-reflection, and integration of new knowledge as expressed through hip hop culture. Students will also reflect on the implications of artistic expression through specific cultural forms on group identification and collective experiences.

Learning Competencies:
~Further develop skills in artistic expression
~Explore the nature of identity through the lenses of self-psychology
~Explore process of personal identity development as traced through works produced
~Gain understanding on how life experience informs identity
~Gain understanding on the relationship between the concept of identity and worldviews
~Explore how group identification informs issues of human difference
~Analyze how issues of human difference impact choices and behaviors of the individual
~Utilize artistic expression as a means of integrating new knowledge
~Utilize artistic expression as a means of self-reflection

Credits Requested: 9
Documentation: Learning Narrative, Sample of Works Produced on CD
Dates of Learning: April 1998-June 2003

      Difference and Identification: Charting the Changes

      Ours is a world plagued by the problem of human diversity, a condition fundamentally different from being plagued by diversity itself. Diversity itself casts no clouds over living, poses no threat to the continuation of life. In fact, Darwin tells us diversity and differences are one of the propelling forces of existence. Only when human differences become infused with meaning do they hold weight in our day to day interactions. And, of course, they do. It is no secret that the politics of a rapidly globalizing market economy have constructed intricate borders of oppression and privilege across divisions of race, socioeconomic class, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, nationality, and religion. However, not only do these borders operate on the lives of individuals, but through them as well, by way of identity.

      Deeply embedded within the notion of identity is the concept of difference. We learn who and what we are from learning who and what we are not, lessons that are gathered by all people through the experience of living. Much of the time, these lessons are closely tied with personal defeat, or rejection, that we recycle and utilize defensively in the construction of our identities. 

      Because the concept of identity is closely linked to human growth and each individual’s personal construction of worldviews, it is not a linear process, and its results are not stagnant. Identity, one’s sense of self, shifts from situation to situation, manifests in different forms, depending on the circumstances one finds one’s self in. Identity is a deeply subjective notion that, because of its dynamic relationship with the construction of worldviews, plays a key role in how one’s life is lived.

      Such changes of perspective, identification, and worldviews are extremely informative on the relationship between self and society. I have learned through my experience that these changes are indicative not only of the natural process of human development and growth, but also of moral dilemmas one may experience in life that can be interpreted, under a sociopsychological lense, as being reflective of larger social issues, such as racism, classism, and sexism. Within this framework, one may explore, through the evolution of identity, the ways in which such prevalent ideologies, which guide the perpetuation of social inequities, are internalized by individuals. This often results moral dilemmas between one’s sense of self and one’s behaviors, how one lives one’s life. Only after an awareness of this process is developed can one begin to, as some would put it, “exorcise the demons,” or rather, resolve such moral dilemmas of the self that exist as a result of the prescribed meanings which have become infused in human differences. The resolution of such internal tensions often acts as a driving force in achieving one’s growth potential through critical consciousness of identity.

      Cultivating a critical consciousness of one’s own identity is not a passive feat. It requires a great deal of introspection, reflection, and deliberateness, as well as a chronology of reference points from which one may reconcile the inconsistencies between one’s identity, one’s sense of self and one’s growth potential. This is why the act of journaling is encouraged in both the realms of psychology, in the fields of counseling and coaching, and in rehabilitation from drugs and alcohol, as well as at many academic institutions. Journaling is the deliberate act of documenting such reference points, which over time will reveal shifts in perspectives, identifications, and worldviews. Similarly, the introspective, reflective act of creating art also provides one with many reference points from which to chart one’s changing self.
      The Dual Roles of Art in Identity Construction

      Art in one’s life can take on dual roles concerning identity. First, and most obviously, art operates as an outlet through which identity is expressed on a number of levels. As an outlet, art offers a unique opportunity to investigate different aspects of identity through its content. A work of art communicates a perspective, latent with perceptions, passions, and conflicts as experienced by the artist. Thus, for the artist, one’s art becomes something like a journal, an intimate diary of one’s past which portrays different stages of one’s life. Each piece is the product of the artist’s life, and is a benchmark not only of the past, but of the psychological, social, and developmental “place” the artist was at when it was created. For the artist, each work is a reference point.

      As an outlet, the art I have produced in my almost eight years of writing rhymes, poems, and creating music, have constructed a timeline through which to critically evaluate my own identity, and the number of social, developmental, and psychological forces which have shaped each nuance and shift in my sense of self. It is through my art and the practice of my craft that I came to recognize, and address moral dilemmas in my life and resolve them. The works you will read and the tracks you will listen to which accompany this learning narrative are the reference points in my “journal.” In this narrative, I will elaborate on how this “journal” has revealed different aspects of my changing identity and worldview, by evaluating the perspectives, perceptions, passions, and conflicts which are communicated in the music and poetry. 

      However, art does not have to play solely a passive role in the investigation of identity. This is because art often takes the form of cultural practices, which have the potential to possess unique and powerful energies derived from cultural memories. This is not to say that any specific cultural artistic practice produces by itself, art without the artist. It does mean, though, that an artist’s conscious connection to the cultural memory of any artistic practice cultivates a general openness within the artist which deepens his or her creative potential to harness the unique and diverse energies and feel of this memory. Some people call this phenomena simply knowing your craft, however, the implications are deeper when investigating the artist’s sense of self.  Conscious connection to the cultural memory of an artistic practice actively engages art in the construction of identity. In my life, my movement toward developing a conscious connection to the cultural memory of rap and spoken word poetry not only informed my experiences through my identification with hip hop culture, but also evolved to include my identification and concern with issues of injustice, poverty, miseducation, marginalization, and racism in America and across the world. Thus, it can be said that art is valuable not only in documenting and expressing the evolution of “self,” but also plays a significant role in shaping who that “self” is. I will expand on this concept in this learning narrative by showing how the cultural memory, or the “5th element” of hip hop, had guided, and continues to guide, my sense of self, my identity, my behaviors, and my worldview through my art.


      Love at First Sight: The Early Encounters with Hip Hop

      Like many of my generation, I first became exposed to hip hop through its newest and most currently popular element- rap music. Also like most of my generation, I became exposed to this through “YO! MTV Raps,” a show syndicated on the MTV network from 1988 to 1995 hosted by Ed Lover and Dr. Dre, fully dedicated to the airing of rap music videos. I’d sit, Saturday mornings at 10:00, and watch videos of artists like Wu-Tang Clan, Queen Latifah, Goodie Mob, Mobb Deep, DAS EFX, the Dogg Pound, Outkast, Yo-Yo, Notorious BIG, 2Pac, the Fugees, the Luniz, Brand Nubian, KRS-One, Bone Thugz –N- Harmony, and Ice Cube, just to name a few. I used to love watching these music videos that seemed so much more vibrant and alive than that of other musical genres. “It was inexplicably contagious.”

      Since I first wrote those words, years ago, in reference to my almost instantaneous attraction and fascination with hip hop music, I have found numerous similar accounts in reference to the magnetism of blues, rock n roll, and especially jazz. There is no question the contribution of African American musicians have almost wholly shaped all that is American music. What is more difficult to articulate is the energy derived from the legacy of African American people, their unique ancestry and cultural experiences, which is transmitted so consistently and thoroughly through these musical genres, having been perhaps the driving force for its genesis, and propelling its continual innovation and evolution. Of course, such intangibles would remain, for me, unexplored until later down the line. At that time, it was just something I liked, and started to cling to. 

      My father, who is Jewish and has been a musician all his life, found the music horrible. To him, it lacked musical integrity, the sampled loops integrated into repetitive beats providing the backdrop to what sounded to him like senseless gibberish being the main vocals. But despite his lack of appreciation for hip hop, he always acknowledged how much his own work was greatly influenced by that of black musicians. It was him who, upon hearing my practice presentation on Black American influence on American music I had chosen to do for a class, chastised me and first educated me on the long legacy of African American music in this country. My mother, a Chinese immigrant from Taiwan, was much more accepting of hip hop music. She said the lyrics were too quick for her to follow, though she often enjoyed the singing that would be featured in the hooks and bridges of the songs. She says the same thing to this day, though is still very enthusiastic about any music I’ve made myself, especially when I explain my lyrics word for word.

      Embracing rap marked a point in my life where I first deviated from my father’s opinionated stance on music, a quite traumatic thing being that music was one of the only things my father and I spent time speaking about. This motion of self-assertion correlated with the beginning of long years of turmoil in my life, a period of time that I can analyze through both psychological and social lenses. Being biracial but too ambiguously so to be defined, at an age when peer groups begin to form based on race, proved difficult on my adolescent years. I had, what I can say is a very traditional Chinese American upbringing, but because of my physiology, felt like I didn’t quite fit in among my Chinese peers. My also correlating isolation from my ‘gifted program’ peers because of my “underachievement” in school, pushed me over the top, sealing in my perceived isolation. 

      It was during these lonely times when I started writing my own rhymes, inspired by rappers like Mia X and Da Brat. My first attempts were secrets that I wouldn’t even read aloud to myself. Eventually, I began to appreciate the process of writing, reading, fixing, writing, reading, fixing, fixing ect. It was relaxing and somehow alleviating and liberating. I derived from the act, a sense of pride, and my rhymes spotlighted this. My first raps, like many of my raps now, took on the confident, trash-talking tones of traditional hip hop boastfulness aimed at other rappers, but with less creativity in the cadence of the words. One such example is:
      “my rapture is to master chapters/tainted with deadly statures/ that raises rappers from the present and have them stuck in the pasture/ break bounds with verbal contest/ unlike rest/ I put that cerebral cortex to the test/ cause I’m the best” 
      I found it to be the first writing I could ever sit down and do at my own command without incentive or necessity. As my confidence in my work built, I began feeling freer to let it be read, then eventually heard. I found for myself, there were few things as exhilarating as having my art acknowledged and appreciated, and the act of rapping infused me with a sense of power, as fleeting as it was during that stage in my life. 

      These early experiences I had, the magnetic energy and sense of power, the affirmations derived from simply the act of rapping I describe, speak to the “intangibles,” the cultural memory of hip hop music, which runs deeper than, I believe, even the pioneers of the culture realized at its conception. Hip hop has always been about youth culture and having fun in the face of adversity, but one looking to articulate the “intangibles” can also say that within the art of rapping, it is the traditional elements of the African worldview, specifically West African cultural belief of Nommo1, that are channeled through the artist, lending her its energies.
      Of course, I did not yet appreciate the potential of what I had stumbled upon. Like many young people from sheltered backgrounds, I made the mistake of getting caught up in “doing” hip hop, the way I saw it being done from my limited perspective as a suburban kid in a predominantly White environment.

      Socially, I capitalized on my rhyming skills to alleviate my sense of isolation. I began identifying in the only way I saw fit ~ through the popular culture portrayals of music. But of course, this was not the identification with authentic forms of hip hop culture. It was a surface level interpretation; an adolescent understanding of what hip hop was, established in the vast realm of youth culture created between mass media, the internet, and public schooling, and fueled by a commercialized multi million dollar music industry. I began hanging around the clique at my junior high school that listened to the harder, more underground rap I was familiar with. The people in this peer group were mostly Black and some Hispanic and Asian, and like many adolescents of Color in predominantly White environments, having little guidance in racial identity, we became the classic “wanna be’s” of the ‘gangsta rappers’ we listened to. We formed our personalities and the visual manifestations of them based on the limited and negative stereotypes of “coloredness,” we experienced as portrayed by popular culture through rap music. 

      Of course, we didn’t recognize the racist, Eurocentric perspective that informed our destructive behaviors. We didn’t see that the images and stereotypes we were intentionally taking on and striving to become were little more than the degrading, falsified, and racialized product of White dominance and exploitation in the commercial economy. We smoked cigarettes and weed, stole from people and stores, robbed other students, and started fights, swearing up and down that was who we were and no one could change us. I would make elaborate plots to scheme other students at our school, more for the thrill of conspiracy, like the glorified mob style stories spun by some artists, than the outcomes. I attempted to portray an image that was tough, unruly, and uncontrollable at my own expense. I began to idolize money like the rappers I listened to. As my cadence began to improve, the content of my rhymes went downhill, sounding like this:
      “Stacking it up/blowing it up/ fuck who we gotta crush on the come up/we going up/ stacking scratch to cathedral ceilings/ if you ain’t feeling/ you might wanna reconsider the thoughts with which your dealing”
      I believe it was easier for us to pretend to “not give a fuck,” than it was to see the real circumstances which created our discomfort in our environments and lack of self-esteem. It was easier to fain pride and feed a failing ego with meaningless nonsense than it was to build real love for ourselves. I was acting out, and, with the same tendency I have had all my life with things I do, I was doing it to the extreme. I was becoming the worst of the worse. This behavior isolated me further from the possibility of creating healthy relationships with my peers, and started problems at home with my family, a pattern which snowballed down a slippery slope. 


      Learning the Distinctions: Street Life vs. Hip Hop Culture

      Some lessons can only be learned through living. I ran away from home when I was only twelve years old, then again when I was thirteen, and ended up surviving in the streets of Seattle, then Portland, then Orange County, then Las Vegas, then Seattle again dealing drugs, selling my body, stealing, boosting, and committing a myriad of other crimes chart-toppers rap about. Because I was never grounded in my sense of self as a youth, I had always consciously centered my behavior on environmental cues, thus I had little problems becoming whoever I needed to be in this world. Like a subject of The Stanford Prison Experiment2, I adapted with relative ease to whatever role the situation called for in this culture of crime. It became like a game. I was the submissive, obedient “child of the night3,” pimped and pandered, broke. I was the independent, tough dope dealer, serving fiends up their death wish with a nonchalant swagger, I was the quick, bold, booster, arms full of merchandise, running to the getaway car, I was the smooth talking saleswoman, I was the conniving, treacherous girlfriend, the husband and boyfriend-fucking slut, I fought, I stole, I lied, I exploited, I was deceived, raped, beaten, robbed at gunpoint. Though young, I realized quickly the glorified portrayals of street life which permeated commercial hip hop music was quite distant from the reality of it. 

      The glory of criminality, when applied to its manifestation in impoverished, urban communities, is founded on falsified notions. The romanticized appeal of deviance is rooted in the belief that the deviator is rebelling against the confines of a repressive society, which stifles his or her sense of self, toward a more authentic existence. However, not only do the short-lived economic and social benefits of criminality serve more the purpose of survival than self-authentication; but criminality itself may, in these circumstances, fail to qualify as deviance. 

      It is too readily accepted that crime equates with social deviance. Such an assumption puts too much weight on the Western ideal of rugged individualism, belittling the catalytic role social structures, public policies, and shared systems of thought play on individual behaviors. I would argue that for some, committing such crimes as selling crack, prostituting, and engaging in violent behaviors toward your peers, is not deviance at all, but rather the fulfillment of the role greater society has prescribed for you. Such crimes, which serve to affirm the perceived barbarianism, and other condescending stereotypes of subservience, of mostly Black and Hispanic men (but also, in our region, increasingly women, and people of Pacific Islander descent), become the ultimate acts of compliance to a repressive society.

      Still the glory of street life continues to be sung, like an anthem in hip hop music, and can be found in the content of almost any rapper. This is partly because demands from a public, largely ignorant to the realities of street life, yearn for the telling of such urban legends which serve to entertain and intrigue. I speculate that many artists intentionally cater to such demands in order preserve their mainstream appeal. But it is also true that the culture of crime which has risen from impoverished urban communities has become entangled with hip hop culture in mass media and in the perception of people because they share the same genesis and, in many cases, the same patrons. 

      The cultural traditions of hip hop, the four elements which arose from the young, poor, Black and Hispanic kids in the Bronx so many years ago were the aesthetic practices which were stubbornly retained by the underprivileged, who should have been, according to all probability and circumstances, too busy trying to survive, to concern themselves with something as impractical as art. I know I never wrote any rhymes in my time on the streets. In contrast, many hip hop pioneers did, participating in the dehumanizing culture of crime which permeated their environments, as well as conjuring what some call the divine, creative energy it takes to facilitate the generation of an art, a movement. Thus, much of the content of the works back then and now project this moral dilemma of the artist, a battle fueled by the internalization of the mixed messages life has sent them. This is the result of identity’s defensive tendencies toward self-preservation, justification through rationale, even after the self has been skewed beyond recognition by its destructive behaviors. 

      Guy Adams and Danny Balfour illustrate the dangers of this tendency as it operates on a global scale in Unmasking Administrative Evil. In this book, they identify technical rationality, a way of thinking and living that emphasizes the scientific-analytic mindset, as a hallmark of Western thought which enables the ‘masking’ of evil in our social structures and public policies.
      “Indeed, ordinary people may simply be acting appropriately in their organizational role- in essence, just doing what those around them agree they should be doing- and at the same time, participating in what a critical and reasonable observer, usually well after the fact, would call evil. Even worse, under conditions of what we call moral inversion, in which something evil has been redefined convincingly as good, ordinary people can too easily engage in acts of administrative evil, while believing that what they are doing is not only correct, but in fact, good (4.)” 
        Their theories are useful in analyzing the “culture of the streets,” as expressed through and portrayed by hip hop in popular culture. The theory also applies when analyzing the sociopolitical conditions which produce such a devastating reality for so many people in this country, and our bureaucratic system’s inability to alleviate the suffering which results from the perpetuation of such inequalities.

      But the reality of street life is not one I can claim to fully understand. Even back then, I realized how different my experience was from those surrounding me because of the luxury I reserved, given that I had a caring, upper-middle class family trying to find and bring me back home. But shielding me from the guilt of causing my family pain by distancing myself from such truths was not as difficult as one would suspect under such circumstances. I lied about my true identity to hide my age, my real name and circumstances, and my privilege from the people I ran with, and was so consumed with the burden of sustaining such a charade at all times that I often lost myself altogether. For six months I lived one moment at a time constantly on guard, never knowing who or where I would have to be or become next. 

      Luckily, I got arrested six months later for a very minor charge of shoplifting and was returned to my family, whom out of fear and helplessness, sent me a week later to a privately owned and operated behavior modification lock down program in Utah called Cross Creek Manor.


      You Don’t Miss a Good Thing Until. . .

      Though probably the darkest days of my life, my experiences at Cross Creek proved to be valuable in the cultivation of both my craft and my sense of self, because they taught me the elusive, suggestible nature of identity and identification, and the distinction between one’s self and one’s image, how one is perceived. Cross Creek’s philosophy was essentially this: Kids are good and made bad by external influences and by controlling these external influences for up to five or six years, kids could be made good again. The policies and procedures of Cross Creek are not based on any modern professional psychological or developmental expertise, although psychiatrists are hired often to prescribe behavior modifying drugs to the “clients” with mental illnesses. Rather, “therapy” techniques and “processes” are conducted uniformly on all “clients” as though the same band-aid placebo could heal the ailments of the world.

      This is where I had my first full psychiatric evaluation. I was diagnosed with Depression, possibly complicated by Bipolar Disorder, a variety of Conduct Disorders, and Antisocial Personality Disorder. Lord knows what kind of medications they would have had me on, had my mother not raised hell and insisted they wait, for the shock of my loss of liberty, to settle in and try again. The second evaluation pointed to ADHD, and I was put on Welbutrin, a medication which made me gain almost fifty pounds in the two years I was on it, and which did not do much for my attention.

      They identified the external influence of my deviance (which they called “nonworking behavior”) as too much rap music. Although they couldn’t take my music from me (no music was allowed anyway), they deprived me of something more personal- my privilege to write rhymes. It is funny how such simple freedoms one takes for granted mean the world and more when taken away. The staff often resorted to snooping through my letters and papers to find evidence that I was breaking their orders. Although I found momentary escapes from this madness, like in the shower or bathroom, I felt invaded, and infuriated that these people took from me what I perceived to be the only thing that “worked” in my life, the only thing that made me feel good. It made me even more mad that this was not the same treatment other girls, whose music of choice was not hip hop, in the school received. 

      They could sing their pop, punk and grunge, almost anything, except for the industrial style metal the gothic girls were into, which was deemed “satanic.” Some were even encouraged to write poetry! I would ask them why, if other girls were allowed, even encouraged to express themselves through poetry, why I couldn’t do the same. “Poetry,” they would say, “is not rap. You write rap songs. That’s a part of your ‘image,’ you don’t write poetry.” This usually ended the discussion. Even when I attempted insisting I wouldn’t write rhymes, I could never convince them to allow me this liberty. ‘Image’ was “nonworking” at Cross Creek Manor.

      Being in your ‘image’, or the false persona you projected to hide your emotions out in the real world, was one of the worst offenses one could commit at Cross Creek Manor. How could rap itself be an image I wondered. I began questioning whether this was true. As time passed, I began to realize I indeed, had clung to the ‘image’ of rap in my early years. Of course, it was not the nature of hip hop itself which projected this image. It was the commercial media, popular culture, it was the music industry feeding White America what it had always suspected was the truth, and it was within this domain which I had set out to define myself. But back then, having no guidance on this quest, all that was planted within me with this realization was a seed of doubt concerning both hip hop and the field of psychology which was represented to me by Cross Creek.

      Although the psychologically rigorous program at Cross Creek is designed to inhibit all doubt about its processes, it could not shake this doubt, nor this inkling that neither the people at Cross Creek, nor I really understood what rap or hip hop or living was about. As my skill of writing secret rhymes in my head developed, I watched their forms change from flat, nursery school rhymes to more intricate cadences, colorful patterns dancing around, creating my own sanctuary- the only safe place in Cross Creek, or even the world sometimes, to express my feelings and opinions without persecution. One rhyme I wrote into my memory from those days follows. Its presentation represents my growth as an artist, its content expressed the paranoia and anxiety such environments as Cross Creek cultivate.
      “fragment my multiplicity/ seem like everybody got it in for me/ in my vicinity/ it feels like their tempting me/ to excoriate my divinity/ damn is this meant to be/ some euphoric epiphany/ I can’t think straight/ my mind scatters and tatters when I relate/ any fraction of data splattered and clattered on my dinner plate/ swear I’m in a state/ where borders thicker than the pearly gates/ and its penetrates my temple so fast/ I can’t scream RAPE!” 

      On a Quest for Meaning

      My parents terminated me from the program at Cross Creek six months after my arrival. At the time, I was on level three, of six. Later my mother would tell me it was because she felt I was changing, becoming less and less like myself, and becoming more and more happier in lockdown. I suppose it is in the nature of the human mind to find glory within its confines. I was ecstatic to be free, but within my renewed freedom, my bitterness and cynicism from my experiences on the streets and at Cross Creek resurfaced with an unexpected vengeance. I adopted a very negative outlook on life, something that began expressing itself through my choices in music, which moved to more controversial and “shocking” artists hip hop artists like Brotha Lynch Hung and Esham. After living as I had for the past year, I had become convinced that the material I was learning in high school was pointless, and for the first time in my life, I began actively seeking out an alternative education for myself, studying different religions and philosophies, less for the purpose of understanding, and more for the purpose of contradicting and “shocking,” with the extra sting of knowledge. As I had in the past, I grounded my identity in music. 

      Through some casual friends at my high school who were also into hip hop music; I was introduced to an older man, almost thirty, who had a small, very informal, record label, upon which I was too quickly recruited. Being very young and eager, I was strongly influenced by my producer’s opinions and criticisms of my style, which took my music down a too deliberate, commercialized path. His goals were to shop a maxi-single (a four track album) for distribution deals, therefore the content of my music needed to fit a specific criterion that appealed to the general public. I especially loathed the comments he would make about my weight, saying I was cute but needed to lose some pounds to promote sex appeal. This frustrated me, as I found that my art was becoming less and less my own. There was only one track I made in those days where I was truly expressing something I felt. The track was “Sabbath Day,” one which my producer begrudgingly allowed on my maxi-single album. It is track one of the attached CD, and these are my lyrics.
      “It was a sabbath day/ executing straight profanity/ bumping sacrilegious melodies/ veins pumping this insanity/ adrenal glands secreting in preparation for releasing my wrath/ on any mothafucka that ask for they deletion/ I’m speaking/ based on the thesis/ that’s it’s the will of God/ ignoring the fact shits more blasphemous than Herod/ I rock Niche and Kant before biblical rants/ and as the chants slant/ advance from those in a trance/ cause I enhance/ the world’s desire for a good savior/ ain’t gotta indulge in barbaric behavior/ cause he won’t save ya/ he’s a product of, fear of the unknown/ the seeds unsown/ and the roots ungrown/ it’s a long way from home/ please don’t get me wrong/ dissinigration of faith/ is not that point of this song/ but its just the level I’m on/ so fuck the confusion/ I’ll sacrifice the comfort to not live life in delusions.
      Hook: Now that I lay me down to sleep/ I pray to nothing my soul to keep/ If I should die before I wake/ I pray to nothing my soul to take.”
      The cynicism and depression is evident in this track, and it certainly portrays a perspective that I have long since evolved from, but for me it epitomizes my worldview and sense of self back then. I still felt alienated, misunderstood because I never understood myself, and rejected by everyone and everything. But as is the tendency of identity, I projected my rage elsewhere. As portrayed in the content of “Sabbath Day,” religion was one of there places catching this wrath, especially what I perceived as the ignorance of faith in the goodness of this life, this world. I believed that this type of faith could only come from a sheltered, privileged life which I could never return to. The rhymes on this track were a desperate cling to glory within this brand of loneliness. I would leave the label in little more than a year after a fall out with my producer, and retreat from my own creative processes for months to follow. 


      The Real Hip Hop: From Doing to Being

      Though my experiences with this label were largely fruitless, one thing that did come out of this relationship was my introduction to local hip hop culture, other artists, venues, coffee houses, and clubs where I could go experience some real culture as it begins, in the grassroots, rather than how it was prescribed on music videos and on the radio. I began playing more and more of a passive role, and started attending a lot of the local shows in Seattle as a hip hop patron, not an artist. I went to Wordsayer (Jonathan Moore) and his wife, Kylea’s Sit n Spin Sunday afternoon, an all ages hip hop venue/coffee house/laundry mat, to enjoy good music, and be around talented, experienced, and dedicated artists. From meeting people and getting flyers on other events, I was exposed more and more to a very fundamental aspect of hip hop culture- community and activism. I began writing interviews, music reviews, and covering events for the local hip hop website and magazine Seaspot.  I enjoyed the friendly and familiar faces, many of which are still dear to my heart and play vital roles in my life to this day.

      It was from this string of events and connections where I first discovered spoken word poetry, a format I quickly adopted. I began going to Basement Nation on Wednesday nights at the Speak Easy, an open mic for spoken word poetry and musical collaborations. I believe now that I so quickly clung on to the spoken word format largely because I could carve a place within that community with comfort. What I mean is, with spoken word, I could utilize my skills as an artist within this community without taking on the challenge or scrutiny of saying I was emcee4. Not yet quite grasping how I fit into the bigger picture of hip hop culture as a non-Black5 young woman, I was often reluctant to grab a mic6 and spit rhymes in front of a crowd. I could, however, tailor these same rhymes to the more feminine, “softer,” less controversial spoken word format and “read” them in the somewhat repetitive, yet so recognizable spoken word cadence. In contrast to the aggressive style and content of my raps, the spoken word pieces I performed at open mics7 conveyed my angst in a more contemplative style, utilizing more alliteration and throwing in unnecessary rhetoric to make up for the lack of rhythm between lines with words, like the following piece. Unlike my songs, I never named my earlier spoken word pieces.
      “I’m in the dark groping and hoping and floating/ trying to speak but/ my words are choaking and I/ can’t find a opening (repeat)
      they got my lids stitched with threads of ignorance, trying/ to put out the wick that burns my endurance, crying/ compelling lines propelling through space and time/ mangling minds, in waves that wind/ each vertebrae in my spine/ spinning in minimum revolutions/ descending indiscriminate convulsions/ that’s constituting/ intricate confusion/ mimicking benefit remenants of contributions/ that don’t exist/ with fists of steel/ persist to peel/ pieces of will/ that pleases to dismiss the real/ reeled from sound bits/ bit from the real field/ dissecting projecting weapons depends on the real deal” 
      One could say that exposure to hip hop culture, as it manifests authentically in its diverse ways on the level of the people versus what is available in popular culture, propelled me into what Beverly Tatum calls the “immersion/emersion stage” of racial identity development, complicated by the fact that I am Jewish and Chinese8. Finding myself wholly consumed and wanting to be fully dedicated to hip hop culture, I feared violating the borders of what was acceptable as though these were established and impalpable. This community was the first I was a part of where it was common practice to shed light on issues of social injustice, especially racism, and I wanted not to be perceived as just a White girl trying to rap. Spoken word was a format where I could utilize the art of rhyming, express myself, and participate without my anxiety around this moral dilemma stopping me. 

      In reality, I was limiting myself and my potential because I was still clinging to the belief that I, because of my background, race, or gender, was different than anyone else who loved this culture. In fact, the belief that because of my race, background, or gender, hip hop could not belong to me is indeed rooted in the same stereotypes which perpetuate the misrepresentations of hip hop culture in the mass media. I had internalized these stereotypes, and was allowing them to shape my identity and dictate my behavior. 

      But as time progressed, my relationships with my peers grew closer, and through the encouragement of these friends, whose opinions I so valued and appreciated, I began to open up again. The friendship of likeminded individuals, all in similar stages of their lives, my community within this culture, proved to be the cocoon for my transformation. I started participating in freestyle sessions, and eventually got an opportunity to collaborate on a song, my first time stepping in a recording booth for what seemed like eons. This is track two on the accompanying CD, “Get Down,” and my verse and the hook are as follows:
      “Hook: This sounds the shit so get down/ get down/ your grooving in the Sea town/ with words so fresh and profound/ and profound/ love is what I have found
      Thoroughly be/ the burrowing beat/ knocking from head to the feet/ never could stomach defeat/ blow like the tree’s, easy/ jazz in the alley so pleasing/ releasing/ all of my stress when I hear my man make the keys sing/ these heartfelt melodies/ musical soliloquies/ pinnacle of the realest, see/ hip hop, ya feeling me?/ yes, thus/ mental stimulus/ like ticklish clitoris/ limitless mimickers/ venomous gimmick-ers/ couldn’t begin to fathom the end of us/ pretend their us/ fool don’t you know that the actions your taking is dangerous?/your words can be tangled/ your thought process wangled/ mangled and thought to be plaguerous/ and picketed/ I’m sick of it/ the concept is just so ridiculous/ and ficklest/ chew on this like roots of liquorish”
      Despite the thrown together nature of this track, it still puts a smile on my face when I hear it. It felt good to create and it still feels good to listen to. The content, itself, is light-hearted, easy, in comparison to literally anything I had previously done in my years rhyming, and there is also something to be said of process here. In contrast to the tracks like “Sabbath Day,” which were created under the guidance of my former producer and took weeks and weeks to complete, “Get Down” was produced (meaning the beat was created), the lyrics were written, the vocals were arranged, and the tracks were recorded and mixed down in a matter of hours. The spontaneity which arose from this collaborative effort was a driving force in its rapid production, and its general success at being a compelling composition that makes you want to move. Sometimes the music, the mood creates itself. For example, when we were attempting to record ourselves chatting to create a certain mood at the end of the song, a group of friends serendipitously arrived at the studio, and the subsequent burst of excitement which followed authenticated the sound were attempting to fain. 

      It was through this experience that I began to learn that there are elements, certain “intangible” qualities in the cultural practice of rap, and really in all artistic practices, which allow art to create itself. It is within such moments of spontaneity and improvisation when the artist facilitates the process by allowing the art to speak through her. The artist becomes a channel for that which already exists to be expressed. Some would consider this the revolutionary quality of art, others the spiritual element of it. The difference is debatable. The third track on the CD, which we created under virtually the same circumstances as “Get Down,” is entitled “Genesis,” and it touches this subject not only as another example, but also in its content. This is the first verse I’ve ever written in under thirty minutes and recorded in one take. It was also the first verse I had ever written that I found more meaning in as time passed.
      “Hook: What is now/ is a genesis of sound/ confound, unbound, profound/ that our flesh surrounds/ when you break it down/ when you break it down/
Verse: Genesis/ my premise is/ God let me see past the blemishes of nemesises/ who invented this? To their benefit/ alien residents/ evident sediment/ development impediment/ who please to mislead the seeds of evidence/ oo the presence is/ competitive sedatives/ whose head it in?/ to really try to spread this kind of venomen/ my praise to heaven been/ engrained in verbal medicine/ for metaphysically bettering/ veteran/”
      It is not as though since these experiences, I have been able to, at my whim, invoke the magic of the hip hop gods and awaken the cultural memory preserved in this music, in the rhythm of this culture for my own devices. It is not as though since then, all doubt and hesitation I have ever felt, all stereotypes I’ve ever internalized, and insecurities I’ve ever entertained have not reared their ugly heads in my life, haven’t swayed the wind of my decisions. The struggle is continuous, complex in nature, and deeply personal. It is just that through such life lessons, the magnitude of this practice, this craft, and this culture made itself known to me. It not only opened in me new modes of thinking, gave me new experiences, and provided me with a means to measure my growth and integrate my new learning, hip hop possessed me and graced me with its spirit. Everyone has, or should have, their art, be is aesthetic in nature of not, to cultivate this openness. Some engage in the art of healing, some the art of caring, others the art of teaching, still others that of building. Within each of these passions, these outlets, one can achieve the same grounding, the same authenticity and openness; can find one’s self possessed in its creation just the same. 


      In his novel, Mumbo Jumbo, Ishmael Reed likens this “possessing” quality of art to Voodoo- the practice of allowing, even welcoming oneself to become momentarily inhabited by many gods/spirits. In this novel, which takes place right before the Harlem Renaissance, jazz is portrayed as an antiplague epidemic which sweeps the country, possessing even the most unlikeliest of individuals, much to the horror of the pillars of Western Civilization, who seek to preserve the monolithic influence of Christianity through the repressive worship of one God, for the sake of “guiding” the masses. The metaphor is just as disturbingly fitting when applied to hip hop, in an age where politicians regularly contradict the very foundation of democracy by advancing their agendas on ideological platforms. It is just as fitting in an age where the politics of a rapidly globalizing market economy, the matrix of oppression and privilege across divisions of race, socioeconomic class, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, nationality, and religion operate both on, but largely through the identities of individuals, like a plague which sickens society. My art is my defiance, my protest, my affirmation, and my faith. Hip hop is my antiplague, the exorcism of my demons, a vaccine to alleviate the paralyzing symptoms of existence in an ailing society, and nourishment to potentially heal it.


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