Ok, it's 1994, the "West End" of Dayton, Ohio. The year that Da Brat's Funkdafied and The Notorious B.I.G.'s Ready to Die were just two of many hip-hop records to dominate the airwaves.
The genre was in its powerful second decade and thoroughly mainstream by this time. Yet, all this nine-year old cared about was a Swedish pop foursome named Ace of Base who were breaking America with a song called "The Sign."
That was a testament to my voluntary and involuntary isolation from hip-hop, its music and subsequent culture. Yes, I was a black boy in what many considered (and still do) the "black side" of town. By default I was immersed, as anyone my age would have been, in the wake of the colonization of this music. I was down with Naughty By Nature's "OPP" even though I only knew it as a chant-ready sing-along in the backseat of our Buick. When 1995 came around I loved singing along to Mariah Carey and Ol' Dirty Bastard on her "Fantasy" remix.
Though unlike my Dad, my younger brother, or any of my male peers, hip-hop didn't connect with me. Inside. It didn't stir my spirit or touch that place that I knew it should. Majority of the conflict dealt with my emerging sexuality. Hip-hop spoke a similar sentiment that generally defined Black America's position on homosexuality: You are not of us, go away from us.
So I did.
At 16, my ear had started to create its own universe. In a place like Dayton where there is no scene, you have to make your own and I made mine with music. My opinions toward hip-hop had slowly thawed, but not by much.
I allowed myself the luxuries of "old school" hip-hop. Emcee's that were friendly enough to work with the female singers I admired also got a pass sometimes. However, nothing went further than that. My lack of interest reflected the struggle I was having with said sexuality. The exaggerated image of masculinity in African-American society found its stage in hip-hop. Being attracted to what I (superficially) perceived as strength and sensuality was that form and its expression in hip-hop's institution. Psychology aside in 2002, the year I came out, I nursed crushes on Joe Budden and Cam'Ron look-a-likes in my class. Infatuations with straight black boys who'd soon as spit on me than talk to me.
College arrived and that "widening of life" atypical of the period began to take place. It was 2006 and my appetite for music was in rapid bloom. Any and everything was up for consumption: disco, alternative, neo-soul. My love affair with Quiet Storm and jazz was a year away. Then on a random day in 2006 I found him: Lupe Fiasco.
Instantly I was transplanted from being a slightly less awkward, more confident 21 year-old back to the shy, foppish slip of a teen that lusted after my black high school crushes. Lupe's stoic stare captured me as he floated in mid-air on his album cover. He was surrounded by Japanese boy culture objects and my curiosity heightened even more. I began to recall reading about a single he'd released called "Kick, Push." Driven by music fueled curiosity, and hormones, I decided to check out what he offered. Little did I know that this decision started a romance with hip-hop that thrives to the moment of this sentence being typed.
I discovered my tastes were specific and the jazzy beats of A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul appealed to me. I did enjoy some mainstream, creative presences in LL Cool J, Missy Elliott, Will Smith, and Salt 'N Pepa. Legends like Eric B. & Rakim put me in trances with albums like Follow the Leader (1989) and Don't Sweat the Technique (1992). Substance and style driven gentleman like Common and Mos Def captivated me, even the swanky Southerners OutKast caught my attention. The list grew endless. I began to see and hear the poetry, the range of sound, the presence these individuals had to offer me. I saw why this genre galvanized and enthralled, it was alive!
Later, after I joined the ranks of the arts weekly The Dayton City Paper, I got to interview one of my favorite hip-hop figures, Common. It was beyond what I ever imagined. Yet, inside me lurked that feeling of uncertainty, that this movement wasn't designed for me. I got the poetic stances, the varied musical patchworks that emphasized my mantra for music equality: quality over quantity.
The question remained that as an art form, did this represent me as a young, gay African-American male? I don't know. It's an issue looming over Black America. Its infested roots of homophobia, intolerance, violence (emotional and physical) lie within the recesses of the Janus masked black church. Hip-hop merely gives back to us what it was partially birthed out of. I've seen strides to embrace the black GLBTQ community, but much work still lingers. Maybe it's enough to appreciate from an aesthetic distance. Despite the difference in sexual orientation, we're all vibing to the same universal beat hip-hop offers to people of color. It may not be soon, but I'm happy to offer healing and connection. It can begin here, with hip-hop and I.-QH