Giving Thanks to Hip-Hop

Whenever words have failed me, hip-hop was there to give me a voice.

I’ve always wanted to write some sort of post focusing on mental health and hip-hop, but a few things have held me back. First of all, I’m the last person on Earth who should be talking about mental health. I choose to ignore my random nervous ticks and mood swings, finding that it’s the easiest way to cope. I am too anxious to go to a therapist, and yet I advocate for better and more accessible mental health practices in the US. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, and I find myself being quite hypocritical when it comes to my own sanity. Secondly, I think that this topic has been covered so many times, although not enough awareness has been raised. Despite discussing these issues and how they’re prevalent in the genre, we still don’t discuss the lack of solutions and dangerous coping mechanisms. So given my lack of credibility on the subject matter, I decided to write something less analytical and a bit more intimate, especially since music has always been my way of dealing with my emotional turmoil.

We can start around high school. Man, high school fucking sucked. I had no clue who I was as a person. I tried to be friends with everyone and had some amazing, close friends, but I never found that I belonged to one particular group. That had its pros and its cons, but it made it difficult to relate to those around me. I was involved in a program that was extremely rigorous and challenging, and I felt like I was nothing compared to my classmates. I was lucky because I had my older brother who had previously gone through it, but we were very different as students. Everything came easy to him, and if he actually put in the work and applied himself, he was a force to be reckoned with. However, I was the oddball. I worked my ass off and always got my assignments completed, but everything seemed to be extra difficult for me, especially given my lack of preparation from my shitty middle school. On top of that, I wanted to have fun. I was amazing at balancing work and play, a skill I took with me to college, but that didn’t seem to be acceptable where I was. I liked to dress up and wear make-up, and for that, I was constantly slut-shamed and underestimated. That was when I discovered hip-hop, and I found a new side to my personality.

I’ve mentioned in older posts that I discovered hip-hop through my older brother. He used to mix in old-school artists like Mos Def and Busta Rhymes into his eclectic variety of music. His vast knowledge of music was intimidating, especially as I was going through my shitty teenage phase that caused a rift in our relationship. Music was his identity, and because he couldn’t stand what I was listening to, we had nothing to bond over. However, he played one song that caught my attention and had captivated me instantly. After that, I researched artists like J Dilla and Common. I started with lists of the best hip-hop songs of all time and started to dive deeper into those artists. That was how I discovered Common’s “Misunderstood”, and finally realized the way that I had always felt, whether it was in my school or my family or my social group. The chorus, which was originally written by The Animals, described the frustration that I felt in every decision I made. “I’m just a soul whose intentions are good, oh lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.” And yet, I was. Time and time again. All I wanted was acceptance. Boys spread rumors about me, accusing me of doing things. In reality, I was like putty to them because I finally had some sort of validation. I always felt like the ugly duckling out of my friends, so to finally be seen as attractive to them was a new feeling. A lot of those guys come to me today asking me to review their music, but I never forgot the things they said. The second verse of the song, which describes a stripper who quickly felt the empowerment she felt in her career morph into overwhelming sadness, felt strangely similar to me. In finding empowerment in the few empty compliments, I quickly became burdened with the sadness of the repercussions and realization that their intentions were fueled by one sexual motivation.

As I dived further into hip-hop, I realized that I could channel it into my studies to stand out from my classmates in a way that was innovative and authentically me. I used Common’s “Retrospect For Life” in a Philosophy paper about abortion, and for the first time in a long time, I enjoyed writing something. An assignment didn’t feel like an overwhelming burden; in fact, I couldn’t shut up! Lauryn Hill’s rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “Never Dreamed You’d Leave in Summer” still haunts me. I continued this trend for most of my external assessments including the dreaded extended essay, in which we could essentially talk about whatever we wanted. I chose to analyze hip-hop lyrics over multiple decades, showing how songs evolved in a way that mimicked society despite the genre acting as a revolution towards authority and the elite. I got to study topics such as police brutality, feminism, and homosexuality while relating them to songs and artists that I loved, citing rappers like Lil Kim, NWA, and Grandmaster Flash. It’s essentially what I do now! I was so excited, but that excitement quickly diminished when one of my classmates got a little too inspired by my idea. She changed her whole paper and thesis, and my overwhelmingly competitive nature took over. I was furious. Hip-hop was everything I knew, and now I had to find a way to separate myself when in my head, there was no way I could write a better paper. It was agonizing.

Once I moved away to college, I was able to reinvent myself. Scratch that-I didn’t change much; I was just exposed to a new set of eyes. I met people with no pre-determined judgment. Those who valued creativity and respected me for what I knew. I met and worked with incredible producers who valued my insight and commended me for my passion. I talked music with artists who understood and appreciated my taste and sent me tracks they thought I’d enjoy. I met this new community that encouraged people to pursue their love for the arts and realized that I belonged, even during the times that I didn’t think I did. And any time I felt like I didn’t deserve to know these people, they provided me with the validation I needed to know that I mattered. I held on to that love for hip-hop but realized that it wasn’t the genre that made me who I am; but rather, my experiences with it. It was how I related to those songs or interpreted the words. The emotions and memories that they conjured up for me when I heard a particular lyric or beat. It was that special bond that I had, the pain that I felt in some of the most emotional songs or the power that I felt in some of the most triumphant, that made me who I was. It even enhanced my relationship with my brother. He’s always been my best friend, we just happened to steer off our paths a bit. But when he finally asked me to make him a playlist of local artists that I personally knew, my heart was more full than it had been in a long time.

Hip-hop became my form of self-medicating. When I wasn’t sure how to explain how I was feeling, which is quite a reoccurring issue for me, I could communicate through lyrics and get a better grasp on my emotions. Songs like Slum Village’s “Selfish” helped me feel those butterflies when I had a crush. Other tracks like Teyana Taylor’s “Gonna Love Me” or Common and D’Angelo’s “So Far To Go” made me feel even deeper in love, whether it was with a person or the idea of them. Masego’s “Tadow,” Anderson .Paak’s “Lyk Dis,” and SiR’s “D’Evils” heightened intimacy and helped me embrace my inner sexuality. But then all of those songs, as well as tracks like Anderson .Paak’s “The Season | Carry Me” and Solange’s “Cranes In The Sky” were there to offer a soundtrack to my tears when I got my heart broken. The memories associated with those songs and what could have been taint my memories as I create imaginary scenarios in my head, forever getting disappointed when things don’t work out. Sometimes I just get carried away when it comes to certain songs. I’ve never particularly flourished when it comes to relationships, so music was my way of tracking what stage I was personally at with the person without having to open up and verbally state it. It was my way of communicating my feelings. Obviously, the other person doesn’t know my personal tie with these songs so it clearly never works out very well.

Furthermore, I despise the feeling of nostalgia. I hate how much it makes me want to turn back time to when things were simpler, even if they actually weren’t. It makes me miss that moment, and it makes me miss my younger self. Maybe I’m just afraid of the inevitable things that come with getting older. But my relationship with nostalgia in music is a bit more complex. I hate it when a song makes me feel nostalgic because I miss the moment when I first heard it. I also typically miss the past events that I associate with it. For instance, the beginning of quarantine feels like years ago. I remember I was particularly hung up on “Do U Wrong” by Leven Kali and Syd, as well as “Nature of the Beast” by Black Thought and Portugal. The Man. “Nature of the Beast” was especially difficult to have on repeat because it was only featured on a Tiny Desk and had yet to be made available on streaming services. But when I first heard it, it spoke to me. It gave me a little bit of light in an extremely dark time. And yet, now that the song is made readily available, and even though I do still love it, I can’t help but miss the feeling that I had when I first heard it. And yet, it’s not like I missed that moment in life. It was horrible. But is right now any better? I feel that way about a lot of music, especially Common tracks because that’s what lured me into hip-hop. I think it makes me miss that extra spark that I had for life, that was made so apparent by my love for hip-hop. Particular songs such as “Faithful” by Common and “Pusha Man” by Chance the Rapper have me reminiscing on a time in which those songs hit me differently, even though I still have a love for them. But there’s just something missing. I miss when I first heard Man on the Moon by Kid Cudi. I miss having it on repeat, and listening to it all the way through or sharing it with my parents. I miss sitting by myself and hearing “Solo Dolo (Nightmare)”, feeling particularly touched by the line, “why must it feel so wrong, when I try and do right?/Why must it feel so right when I know that it’s wrong?” It had a similar sentiment to “Misunderstood”; this song seemed to reflect all of the inner demons that I faced. The constant questioning of every single decision, and the overwhelming anxiety that followed suit. I listened to that song at some of the lowest of my lows, and even though every word resonates painfully to this day, the bit of magic that I felt when I first heard it just seemed to disappear. 

I think the worst type of nostalgia is the way you feel when a song is tied to a person who used to be a part of your life; e.g. past men, past friends, past places. Unfortunately, whenever I listen to E-40, I get annoyed beyond belief because a guy I used to be crazy about would play him on repeat. Similarly, after seeing Nas perform “Adam and Eve” with him, that stupid piano intro drives me insane. It feels like it creeps into my brain just to mess with me. My favorite takeaway from our time spent together was the incredible music he showed me; so when I was put onto all of these amazing songs, it was extremely difficult to listen to them after we parted. Not because of any harboring feelings towards the person, but because it changed my perception of those particular songs. And not having control over that can be infuriating. I go through this a lot because I’m extremely drawn towards creativity. I’m truly infatuated with someone who can show me new and beautiful music. So when that ends up dissipating, the pain that follows whenever you hear those songs is horrible. When I was in high school, I dated a guy that loved Common as much as I did. I couldn’t listen to “The Light” for months, and that was excruciating given how much I adored that song. Songs like Mariah Carey’s “We Belong Together” and Lil Flip’s “Sunshine” became unwanted soundtracks for different points of my life, simply because they reflected who was in it at the time.

However, when it comes to music, the feelings of nostalgia can be somewhat comforting. That’s where it gets a bit complex. It’s the albums like Busta Rhymes’ Extinction Level Event 2 and Tribe’s We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service. Or like Sa-Roc’s The Sharecropper’s Daughter, and Common’s The Dreamer The Believer. De La Soul, Styles P, Talib Kweli, Pharoahe Monch, Mysonne, and Public Enemy’s Chuck D perfectly encapsulate the feeling in their track, “Remove 45”. It’s the ability to produce that old school hip-hop sound so authentic to these artists and the culture while creating relevant music that touches on current subject matters. During the most exhausting times, these hip-hop albums transported me to a decade that I wasn’t even old enough to live through while still rapping about things that I was actively experiencing. It was confusing as hell, but it helped so much. I adored the Tribe Called Quest album, and even now when I reminisce on the GRAMMYs and SNL performances after Phife’s death, I realize that it was that bit of nostalgia that gave me the strength to keep moving forward. Even today, the Run the Jewels album, the Black Thought album, and the Busta Rhymes album kept me angry and motivated to fight for what I believed in while being fueled by the beats that were nostalgic of a different revolution with a very similar goal. It reminds you that issues such as police brutality and racism have been around for decades, and hip-hop is just one of the products created to help dismantle and revolt against those very issues. 

I’ve always found solace in music for a multitude of reasons. “Stressed Out” by A Tribe Called Quest and Faith Evans was like my theme song, wrapping up everything I’ve struggled to say so effortlessly with an impressive rhyme scheme over an intricate beat. It’s amazing to think that there are so many people out there, people who seem so unattainable and unreal because of their fame, who understand how you feel and can relay the message when you can’t even put it into a simple sentence. I think that’s another reason why I struggle with listening to Mac Miller after his passing. His tracks like “Self Care” felt too haunting, showing what could happen if one didn’t keep their demons in line. His struggles are familiar to me, not in the way that I see in me, but in a way that I’ve witnessed first-hand. And it freaks me out. And then you have artists like Chance The Rapper, who, if you’ve read some of my other posts, know that I have a serious hatred for. Despite his incredibly irresponsible and ignorant political tweets, I think he’s a great metaphor for my life. Acid Rap is still an album that I hold near and dear. “Pusha Man, “Everybody’s Something,” and “Lost” are songs that I’ve shed a lot of tears too, and “Favorite Song” and “Cocoa Butter Kisses” hold a lot of fond memories. This was all around the Camp era of Childish Gambino, too, I believe. I really started to see my depression for what it was at this age, so I understood those albums in a way in which I hadn’t digested music before. They were fun on the outside, but full of uncomfortable and heartfelt lyrics. I was finally starting to understand it. As I got older, I started to look back on those years a bit less fondly. And yet, one of the few positives was the music I discovered at that time, and the memories I associated with those songs. So as the years went on, and the music got progressively worse and worse in Chance’s case, I was upset. Because as much as I loved those songs, they became different to me. He went from speaking about important matters and feelings and hardships to absolute garbage, and it was infuriating. I still enjoyed Acid Rap, but I couldn’t get over the fact that as my outlook on life was starting to become a bit more negative, I harbored resentment towards one of the artists who once brought me so much joy. 

The depth of hip-hop and its ability to resonate with a person’s emotions can be terrifying. I’m sure a degree of that is because music is subjective and is definitely open to interpretation, but it’s overwhelming when it feels like someone else’s thoughts and words are based on what’s in your head. I have a strange habit of creating scenarios based on songs in which I can be the person I wish I was, and it ends up contradicting vastly with my insecurities. When I listen to “The Fire,” I envision myself with all of the confidence and courage that I wish that I had. I pretend like I embody the level of strength that they sing about, in a way that gives me a bit of an ego boost, even if it’s temporary. It gives me the power to believe that I can truly be anything that I dream of, even if that spark gets dampened by reality. Even if the sentiment is short-lived, the duration doesn’t impact how incredible it can feel. Songs like that have been forever imprinted on my mind as a blueprint for who I strive to be and how I want to live my life. I tend to envy a lot of female subjects in songs. Maybe it’s because I wish I met someone passionate enough about me that they considered me to be a muse. Maybe I just harbor animosity (without as strong of a negative connotation as usually conjured up) towards incredible women, because as much as I want to see them come out on top, I wish it could be me. Maybe my animosity is actually directed towards myself. I put myself into songs like “Lotus Flower Bomb,” “Jazzy Belle,” and “Bye Baby”, wondering what it would feel like if people saw me for qualities like those described rather than the insecurities in my head. Similarly, I look to female artists with admiration at how fierce they are. When I listen to Oshun’s “Blessings On Blessings,” I wish I could encapsulate even a quarter of their energy. When they rap, “don’t you ever disrespect my God body,” I get goosebumps. I’ve never been particularly good at standing up for myself, especially because I’m one of my own worst enemies. So to see that sort of self-love and respect is absolutely astonishing and makes me wish that I could see myself in a similar light.

It’s interesting how hip-hop can be my biggest comfort, while simultaneously feeding on my self-consciousness. I’ve been silenced so many times for so many reasons, and yet when I hear certain lyrics, it feels as though I could have written them because I have thought some of those same exact things. At times in which this country has experienced turmoil, hip-hop lyrics have spoken for us, expressing our frustrations and sadness towards unjust situations. But when those lyrics go deep enough to say exactly what you’re thinking, especially when you don’t allow those thoughts to reflect on your exterior, you feel eerily seen. It’s as if someone went through your diary. It feels intrusive, and yet there are some things that you’re glad got out there to the world. You feel understood in a world in which you’re usually not. You feel, even for a split second, like no one is judging you or working against you, but is instead there to help you and motivate you to keep pushing forward. And it’s a really reassuring feeling.

I hope everyone has a nice holiday. I know it’s very different this year without extended families. I’m blessed that I got to drive home and be with my parents in a safe and responsible way, but it definitely doesn’t feel the same. I’m thankful for everyone who has taken the time to read and share this blog, it’s the one thing that really makes me proud of myself. The support and reactions that I’ve received are mind-blowing. So thank you, I’m forever grateful.♥

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