Rap raised me.
I was born in 1989, just in time to reach my adolescence in the rap-dominated early 2000s. By the time I was 13, I was lucky enough to have at least partially memorized such indelible hits as Nelly’s "Hot in Herre," Cam’ron’s "Oh Boy," and of course, the still overplayed "Back Dat Azz Up;" not to mention recorded myself a few episodes of BET Uncut. Doing this helped me to develop a healthy obsession with rap. Without it, I am not sure I would have become the man I am today.
My experiences with rap could have turned me into a lot of different things. One thing that these songs did not turn me into however, was a criminal or misogynist. I was, and still am, able to maneuver through the lyrics and develop a rap-inspired narrative that has gone on to define my life. My narrative revolves around ambition, and a steadfast knowledge in knowing that I am going to have to work hard to get anything close to those objects we are accustomed to seeing in rap videos.
When I began consuming vast amounts of rap I was impressionable. I wore white T’s that were three sizes too large – underneath jerseys that were anywhere from four to five sizes too large no less. I repeated phrases and words that I could not completely understand or comprehend, as in Eminem's "Real Slim Shady": "and show the whole world how you gave Eminem bleep bleep … wait, he said VD … what’s that?" Some of those repeated phrases did include the word "ho" and often times even "bitch." However, these are things that I regret more than the two years (at least) of ill choices in clothing. I was dumb and, more importantly, young enough to believe that these rappers knew what they were talking about.
Rap music did not make me a misogynist, a serial dater, or a gun-totting thug. What rap did make me however, is somebody with dreams that I may not have been dreamt up otherwise. For every Lil Wayne's Rollin ("I’ll come to your show and shoot you and your hypeman") there is an Ambition by Wale ("Was on my grind cause times was harder than the cellar floor//My momma taught me never steal and never tell on folks."). These are relatively current lyrics. You don’t have to go back to Tupac to find inspirational raps in popular rap.
Looking back, I probably gravitated to the genre because I saw people who looked like me that were successful. They had women, they had cars, and they had money. When you can’t fully understand the message, the images are what stick – and they did. Seeing the cars and money allowed me develop dreams that I could one day attain them. I never saw any of those things in my neighborhood, and knowing that a black person had them gave me confidence that I could get them too. Rap music also stresses hard work, and that things – especially for people of color – do not always come easy, as Jay Z told us in "Breath Easy": "I spring train in the winter … with the weight of the world on my shoulder…I’m far from being God, but I work Goddamn hard …".
Today, rap is like a scapegoat. People see Chief Keef, a young rapper from Chicago, and vaguely blame him for gun violence. No doubt this blame stems from his rap videos, but as most people will be quick to point out, Chief Keef is a product of his environment. The guns are a part of his life, they are what he sees every single day. Critiquing rap for serving as a mere reflection of one’s environment seems narrow-minded. People do not rap about bullets, booze, women and drugs in a vacuum; they rap about them because that is what they know.
There has been a whole generation of youth who were positively influenced by the genre. It isn’t just me; it’s every single kid – black, white, Asian, Latino – that listens to rap music during their morning commute, or their nightly workout. It’s every single kid who has had a bad day, or just wants to get away, and puts on a pair of headphones, listens to Kanye, or Lupe, or Jay, or Keef, or whoever, and goes into a place where it is infinitely easier to be happy.
Rap shouldn’t be a scapegoat. It should be celebrated.