Sunday, March 25, 2012

Why I Listen To Jay-Z

A while ago I noticed a copy of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People in a used bookstore.  I had known of the title for some time but had never read it.  Since being more effective is something that I strive for, and since I feel it's one of my strongest weaknesses, and since I love used books, I bought it.  Really all I wanted was help in figuring out how I could best get schoolwork done with less procrastination but I was happily surprised to realize that the book provided considerably more than that.

Certainly there are mainly valuable lessons contained within, I'll mention one that really stood out.  Much of the advice contained deals with how to navigate various relationships and of course communication is invaluable regardless of the type of relationship.  One of the points the book's author Stephen Covey makes is that one should always First Understand, then Be Understood.  When I first read this it seemed so obvious that it doesn't really bear stating.  It is just too cliche seeming, like a commendation to "walk a mile in his shoes."

However, the problem is that comprehension is always done through one's own framework which necessarily skews understanding.  The suggestion then, is to really seek to understand the other person's point of view, by considering not just the information being presented, but why it's being said.  This involves questions and rephrasing so that both parties can be certain they're on the same page.  Only when you understand the other person's point of view do you present yours.  Then seek to have the same level of understanding.  So often disagreements stem from people who are arguing different things.  Here's an example.

A while ago my friend Calvin loaned me a book by Jay-Z called Decoded.  It is part autobiography and part discussion of his rap lyrics.  It was perhaps surprising that Calvin loaned me the book because historically I've been dismissive of rap, not being overly fond of the sound and outright contemptuous of the lyrics.  The lyrics are after all, hopelessly materialistic, violent, misogynistic and based solely in shock value.  However, I decided to read a bit.

I read about Jay-Z's start in the projects selling drugs but later skipped over to his explanation of the only song of his that I knew, 99 Problems.  I had heard the song before but the only lyrics I knew were of course, the chorus.  "If you're having girl problems I feel bad for you son, I've got 99 problems but a bitch ain't one"

In the book he discussed the lyrics from the second verse:

"The year is '94 and in my trunk is raw
In my rear view mirror is the mother fucking law
I got two choices y'all, pull over the car or
bounce on the double put the pedal to the floor
Now I ain't trying to see no highway chase with jake 
Plus I got a few dollars I can fight the case
So I pull over to the side of the road
And I heard "Son do you know why I'm stopping you for?"
Cause I'm young and I'm black and my hat's real low
Do I look like a mind reader sir, I don't know
Am I under arrest or should I guess some mo?
"Well you was doing fifty five in a fifty four"
"License and registration and step out of the car"
"Are you carrying a weapon on you, I know a lot of you are"
I ain't stepping out of shit all my papers legit
"Do you mind if I look round the car a little bit?"
Well my glove compartment is locked so is the trunk and the back.
And I know my rights so you gon' need a warrant for that
"Aren't you sharp as a tack are some type of lawyer or something?
Or somebody important or something?"
Nah, I ain't pass the bar but I know a little bit
Enough that you won't illegally search my shit
"We'll see how smart you are when the K-9's come"
I got 99 problems but a bitch ain't one
Hit me"

The thing that surprised and impressed me the most was the chorus.  "I've got 99 problems but a bitch ain't one" isn't misogynistic here, he's talking about the drug sniffing dog.  Granted I'm a sucker for puns, but that's where my perspective changed a bit.  Looking back through the rest one can see the what life is like for a poor, black man from the projects.  The power tripping and racism of the cop, the prejudice, and the us versus them mentality is all there.  I can complain about his dealing drugs but in the absence of any other opportunities it's difficult to lay too much blame on that.  

Now I wouldn't say that having a rough background justifies all rap lyrics.  Some of them are truly horrible, but I don't see how anything productive can occur if offended, middle-class, white people mount a censorship attack on their art without really understanding what's being said.  From the little I learned about living in the projects from the book, the mentality is that it's a dog-eat-dog world and you can only look to yourself to overcome the trials.  Maybe the lyrics about having the Bentley, the diamonds, the champagne and all the rest is the justifiable pride that comes from starting with nothing and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps to success despite the fact that countless others do nothing by try and pull you back down.  Maybe the glorified violence, materialism, misogyny and all the rest are just a contrast of the life in the projects to the life on top.  Maybe at the heart of the lyrics is a glorification of what's been overcome.  

I don't know to what extent that's the case, but I'll never know if I don't learn how to understand and be understood.  I imagine that without any of that understanding my criticisms will be understood as "You're evil and threatening and so is your culture and you should be more white.  I didn't care about you when you were growing up in a neighbourhood of drugs, fear, violence and lack of opportunity and the only reason I care about you now is because you offend me."  Hardly possible to have meaningful dialogue.  

I'm not ready to go out and buy a bunch of rap albums; even if I loved the music I still find the lyrics too offensive to enjoy.  That doesn't mean I wouldn't listen to them though, how else could I come to understand?


Anonymous said...

Brilliant. Waiting to read more!

Anonymous said...

Awesome, now check Talib Kweli!! Woooo =)

Need to get my book back from you, now..

- Calvin

Sara Nadine Thomas said...

Quite insightful Ed. A good challenge to look beyond our own presuppositions to understands where others are coming from.