When I grew up where I grew up, engaging in hip hop wasn’t a lifestyle. It wasn’t even called hip hop. Instead, in our predominantly working-class and poor African American neighborhood of north Omaha, Nebraska in the 1980s and 90s, it was simply rapping, graffiti, and breakdancing. We watched movies like Wild Style and Breakin‘, and later Colors. If you were engaged in it, which everyone seemed to be, you knew the code. That code was one I thought I had to know in order to be safe in my hood, but I never really was, just like anyone else there.
That code is far different today. It was late 1993 when it started to change in the world I came from. That year I tried to start college, going off to 60 miles from our neighborhood to a place where a few people from my high school were going. One of them, a dude named John, was an honors student who was docile and sedate. Freshman year came though, and he’d changed. Apparently over the summer he’d used his height to become a street basketball player, and along the way he adopted the language and attitudes of the guys in my neighborhood I thought were strictly secret and for people from our neighborhood only. Suddenly, he seemed to know the code.
Over the next few years, gang rap proliferated and graffiti died out in my hood, MTV started becoming irrelevant, and shoes became super expensive. My secret stash of Ice T tapes became whack as everyone started bumpin’ Eazy E, Ice Cube, and other rappers who were suddenly being played all around Omaha. At the same time, cruising on the main street in the city got shut down, car races in another neighborhood were shut down, and I moved back to the hood. Working in a factory on the city’s east side, I hung around a little bit with some neighborhood guys from the block. We went to a club on 24th Street a couple times where the music was intense and white people were rare. That felt like a bastion, like rap was a safe cocoon.
Today, I understand differently. It wasn’t rap that was safe, it was the hood and African American culture. I was only ever an observer, but one with an access few white Americans can imagine. I still earn unintentionally racist responses when I talk about the food, music, or ways we lived then. I also understand that what I experienced during that coded access was the commodification of hip hop. Suddenly the code was for sale, and people like John could buy the right shoes, watch the right movies, smoke the right weed, and gain access to a culture that wasn’t his own. Or mine.
Somewhere along the way hip hop seemed to coagulate into a more identifiable experience. When I moved to the West Coast in the late 1990s I learned about the East Coast hip hop revolution that was happening earlier that decade. I began to ingest rappers like Common, Mos Def, and The Roots. I rediscovered A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul, and took solace in the hip hop movies of my youth. But another thing happened to hip hop: The Internet. Suddenly, there were conversations with backpackers across the country and around the world, and people were hopping around about everything hip hop. People were talking about the power of hip hop, what hip hop can do, who hip hop is for, and why hip hop matters. Today I understand a lot of those people experienced hip hop as a subscription, a fad or phase they were going through. But a few of them understood the code.
Fast forward to today. Last night I saw Seattle’s Blue Scholars play in downtown Olympia. The band, which has been informed by a social justice/activism/cultural understanding along the lines of much great underground hip hop, has inspired me for a decade now. But I experienced something familiar last night, and came to know hip hop a little different than before.
Looking out into the audience, I saw hordes of white teenagers who’d grown up consuming culture. They were John, the guy from my freshman year, only not trying so hard. Instead of cutting their hair a particular way or buying the right shoes or even listening to the right albums, these youth simply consumed and enjoyed what came across their plate at the moment it arrived. Blue Scholars were the act to go see last night, and they went. There were some serious fans there, too, guys with foam Blue Scholars hands pointing fingers in the sky in faux gang signs, and young ladies lip syncing every word. It was cool to see. In the over-21 area with me were a hundred of my peers, people who’d bought all the albums the day they came out or went to support the regional music scene. And of these crowds, none were better than the other. All were equal in their fandom.
And that’s what hip hop has become, a bastion of fandom. Fans who consume, fans who even relate, but few who truly understand the code. Late at night sometimes, when its dark and I can’t hear the frog blaring outside my Pacific Northwest window, I imagine the sounds of my nights when I was young. Car metal scraping from the bump in the street the city wouldn’t fix. That car was already crazy low, and it vibrated bass few I know can imagine, the kind that rattled the windows on my house and always shook the trim on the car as it went by. I can hear the random crack of gunshots, and the screams of women who always seemed caught up in it. There were stanky smells that filled our house from hordes of bangers roaming the streets, and there may have been a party at Bobby the Crack Dealer’s house down the street. That party would be thumping, too. It generally was a mix of R&B and hip hop, with people scattered onto the lawn, and police sometimes rolling up on the house. There was a certain hour in the summertime when it got too dark, and when we just didn’t go outside.
That was hip hop to me, and today I understand the code. The code allowed me to feel safe, like I understood something others didn’t. It let me have access. It let me into a community where I didn’t necessarily belong, and it helped me understand my identity as a border crosser. Hip hop never allowed me to relate to white kids. Even today some of my best friends understand that I’m different because of how I grew up, where I grew up, and they attribute it to who I grew up with. While there’s racism in there, there’s also some truth, albeit confusing truth. The reality is that I engage differently with culture, with community, with belonging, and even with the topic of engagement because of hip hop. Because of the hood. And because of my experience with race in America today.
Engagement is sometimes a subtle thread, and sometimes a gigantic rope. Right now, I’m feeling as deeply connected to the culture I grew up with and around as I ever have, despite being 15 years and 1,500 miles away from it. I don’t know if I’ll ever be in it again. But after the show last night, I still know the code, and I know it will always be part of me. That is what engagement is all about, the lasting connections throughout our lives. For me, one of those is hip hop.