could be (part 3)

This post is part three of a four-part series on my song, “could be,” from my album my anxious age. You can read part one here, on the importance of knowing and honoring the stories of the ones we love in order to know them fully, and you can read part two here, on the hard and necessary process of letting ghosts go in order to live whole.

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The Grammys, Kanye, Racism, and Us

On Sunday I gathered with a small number of friends to watch my second favorite awards show of the year (the Oscars take first prize). As one of said friends described, the Grammys are the equivalent—in fact, superior—to most national holidays for me.

Although ratings dropped significantly and a lot of viewers felt little more than boredom, I thought this year’s show was actually indicative of the state of more than music in America—an important step for a show that is typically just another way for celebrities to celebrate themselves.

Despite groaning that Pharrell was going to perform “Happy” two years too late, I was taken aback by his approach to the song. His dancers donned hoodies and—during a piano interlude in the middle of the song—raised their hands to indicate the now-iconic “hands up, don’t shoot” protest signal. Drawing to mind both Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, Pharrell used his platform to nod to the African-Americans that never get the chance to succeed like him.

President Barack Obama made a surprise video appearance to speak out against domestic violence, along with a spoken word performance from activist Brooke Axtell and Katy Perry’s moving rendition of “By the Grace of God”. In the week leading up to the film release of the disgusting glorification of domestic violence (otherwise known as Fifty Shades of Gray), the three messages were bold, timely, and necessary.

Throughout the three-hour show, social messages like these were more than sprinkled throughout the broadcast. Country artist Eric Church sang “Give Me Back My Hometown” with news footage ranging from #BlackLivesMatter protests to the Je Suis Charlie demonstrations. Beyoncé’s choir also made use of the “hands up, don’t shoot” signal, Prince made reference to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and John Legend and Common performed their beautiful Selma-inspired “Glory” to close out the show.

Art has always been meant for addressing societal ills in attempts to move people to action. In fact, part of Obama’s speech noted artists’ “unique power to change minds and attitudes and get us thinking and talking about what matters.”

This year’s Grammys seemed to center on that notion, as artists who were being recognized for their work were pointing to what really matters right now.

I couldn’t wait to discuss this with people the following day.

After logging onto Facebook, however, I found that the entire conversation around the Grammys had turned to Kanye’s speech about Beyoncé deserving the Album of the Year win over Beck. “Go away, Kanye. Just go away,” one post read. “Kanye proves to be an idiot again,” another said. Shirley Manson, lead singer of Garbage, wrote an open letter to Kanye, telling him to stop throwing his toys. These and other vulgar words and phrases were used to chastise the artist.

Let me begin by saying that Kanye’s comment about respecting “true artistry” was insulting—intentionally or not—to Beck. It was inexcusable to even accidentally imply that Beck is not a real artist (even though he later clarified that he loves Beck, the initial wording had already done its damage).

But why was that the story that media focused on the next day? You currently cannot Google the word “Grammys” by itself without Kanye’s speech popping up at the top of news stories. Is it that Kanye’s speech was the most “exciting” part of the Grammys—even if it came in the E! post-show? Is it that Kanye was dead wrong or right, depending on who you asked?

I think the real answer is that both media and now social media have trained us to care about the wrong things. In a year where we could have opened up some great and needed conversations about racial issues and domestic violence, media outlets have focused our attention to what is being described as another Kanye “rant,” “outburst,” or “tantrum.”

As I write this, I know some of you will read that last paragraph and think, “Way to go, Kanye. You ruined it.” But Kanye, though not totally innocent, was not the one who turned your focus to him. When you watched or read about the Grammys, you chose what to talk about. You chose what to digest. You chose what to post about.

What many of us do not understand about Kanye’s speech is that his opinion—though not totally clear in this speech—was rooted in very real and valid feelings about the troubling history of Grammy awards. “They need to stop playing with us” is another way of saying, “The Grammys need to stop pretending to honor black artists.” (Kanye has spoken about this before, in clearer terms.)

When LL Cool J introduced Kanye for his performance of “Only One,” he mentioned that Kanye has won 21 Grammys. What he didn’t mention was that Kanye has only won these awards in the Rap and R&B categories, which historically mostly feature only black artists. Though a relatively young genre, hip-hop albums by black artists have only been nominated for the coveted Album of the Year category eight times. Only Lauryn Hill and Outkast have gone on to win. Music legends Tupac, Notorious B.I.G., and Jay Z have never been nominated. Compare these numbers (or lack thereof) to Eminem’s four nominations, more than any other rap artist and a third of the total number.

It is easy to dismiss the Grammys as an irrelevant award show. But the reality is that, regardless of how much we vocally dismiss it, we pay attention to it. And when black artists are told they are honored by the show, but see that they are usually only honored when pitted against each other (and not when Eminem is nominated), this promise feels hollow. Yes, Pharrell and Beyoncé won against white artists for “Happy” and “Drunk In Love,” respectively. But the exceptions are never the rules.

A reality of white privilege is that we get to attribute Beck’s win over Beyoncé to musical ability and ignore any potential racial implications. People of color cannot help but be hyper-aware of racial implications, whether real or perceived. This is the reality that Kanye lives in daily, the one where he points out privilege that we are either afraid to admit or unable to even see.

I am speaking from a place of white privilege myself, but I have observed the way my students view different situations in their lives, constantly questioning whether a teacher’s reprimand or a waiter’s rudeness was racially-charged. Before teaching, I never considered that people might be treating me in a certain way based on my race. That is part of what privilege is: being able to exist without awareness of why people treat you in a certain way. The world that people of color exist in does not allow them such a carefree, inattentive attitude.

When my African-American students view the media, I want them to see a narrative that says they are valued, that the outcry of #BlackLivesMatter is not just a dream deferred, something paid homage to only by artists who already look like them. I want them to see African-American success stories without asterisks, without footnotes.

I want them to Google “Grammys” and see celebrations of Beyoncé rather than dismissive reductions of her life’s work. I want them to see people talking about Kanye’s moving tribute to his mother and daughter rather than calling him a baby for expressing real fears of prejudiced voting systems. I want them to see WHITE people fighting for African-Americans, rather than just African-Americans.

If you want to stop being part of the racist media, stop insulting Kanye on your newsfeed. Post something positive about him, or another African-American artist. Question the way media portrays him and other black artists. Start a conversation about whose voices are heard on the Grammys and whose are not. Support the #ItsOnUs campaign to help victims of domestic abuse, an issue affecting all races.

If you feel you cannot do any of these things—or don’t want to—don’t post another word about the Grammys. Don’t call Kanye a child for feeling something you have never had to feel yourself. Don’t reduce people for the sake of it, or at all. The media has already done enough damage without your cutting sword.

Let’s talk about what our world really needs right now. Because black lives really do matter. And domestic abuse is on all of us to stop. And social ills need more than artists paying tribute to them in order to be cured. You are more capable than you realize, and certainly more responsible.

The Race

For the better part of 23 years, I never thought about being white. There were times when I may have considered it, perhaps while laughing at the truth to the blog Stuff White People Like or being laughed at when sharing that I am a rapper. But a laugh was all it ever was.

Then I started teaching in a school made up of 95% African-American students. Needless to say, I think about being white all the time now.

There are certain stigmas that are attached to every race, for better or worse. When you are white, you don’t often have to consider the stigmas attached to your race because they’re either not very negative or they’re easy to ignore when you are surrounded by people who look just like you. It’s a privilege, to not have to worry about how the color of your skin might make people perceive you.

For most of my students, they will never have access to that privilege. My students are 12 and 13 years old, and they already think about the color of their skin. Every day. One day a few weeks ago, my students were learning the various poetic devices. They took a ‘gallery walk’ through the room, with devices like imagery and metaphor defined and exemplified on the walls.

While taking this gallery walk, I overheard one of my students say, “Why do we have to learn English? We’re black.” The rest of the students erupted in laughter.

And I froze. I didn’t know what to say to this “joke”. The student said it in jest, but there is an old adage about how all jokes are rooted in truth. Was what he said a joke to him and the other kids, or was there something about his words that deep down he and the others really, truly felt?

Since becoming a teacher, I have developed the superpower of recognizing teachable moments. There is a sixth sense that comes with being a teacher, in which you are able to recognize off-handed remarks and offensive jokes as moments where you should stop the entire class and drop some knowledge about life on your younglings.

I knew this was a teachable moment, but I have yet to fully master the superpower of having the guts to talk about what I haven’t experienced. Don’t get me wrong: the poetry unit we just wrapped up used rap music with social messages about race and overcoming discrimination, hardship, or circumstance to be successful in a world that often tells young black children that they cannot be. But that doesn’t mean I have figured out exactly how to address these issues with my children in a way that will mean something to them.

I recognize this divide between me and my students daily—a bridge that often feels grueling to cross, even impossible because of the missing boards that our nation has failed to replace over the years. A few days ago, a teacher told me that some students say they don’t respect me because I’m white. My students have literally said the words, “I don’t respect him because he’s white. What’s he going to do to me?”

What am I to do with this? What are we to do with this?

I have students that are expressing that they don’t fear me because of an actual, deep-rooted and long running fear that white and black will never mix well. It breaks my heart to know that these preteens have already developed a mistrust of the other, because the other cannot possibly be similar or even the same.

A different story, but related: a few weeks ago, a controversy sparked over the rap category at the Grammys. Out of the four categories covering the rap genre, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis won three. They also took the Best New Artist award.

In most categories, their debut album, The Heist, was competing against Kendrick Lamar’s debut album. There is a widely-held consensus (to which I subscribe to) that Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city was obviously the better album. There was even a debate over whether Macklemore should be eligible for the rap category, perhaps being a better fit for the pop category. And yet, he went home with four Grammys and Kendrick none.

Afterwards, the internet was abuzz with the racial undertones of one of the few white rappers in the music industry beating black artists, especially the one (Kendrick) who many consider to be the best thing to happen to hip-hop in years.

I got caught up in it for a minute. I love all of the artists nominated, but I couldn’t help but feel there was an injustice to Macklemore winning almost everything. My students wanted to talk about it and—once again—I froze. “Yeah, Kendrick deserved to win,” was all I could manage to say.

I kept thinking about the Grammys long after people stopped caring—after all, it’s just one show in a lineup of spectacles, and the Super Bowl replaced it in headlines only a week later. But you’re talking to a guy who watches the biggest football game of the year just because some of his favorite sitcoms come on afterward. What do you expect from me?

I have been listening to Macklemore and Kendrick Lamar for about the same amount of time. I started listening to them both around the same time that I decided to become a teacher. I don’t really consider them factors in that decision, but both of them have taught me about important issues that I have taken to heart in my few months of teaching.

Macklemore’s and Ryan Lewis’s album The Heist deals with crucial and relevant issues like alcohol addiction (“Neon Cathedrals”, “Starting Over”), American materialism literally causing the death of children (“Wing$”), and the consequences of our hookup culture (“Thin Line”). (I think “Same Love” is also an important conversation, but I don’t want you to tune me out because of your opinions about something irrelevant to this post.)

Kendrick Lamar’s album good kid, m.A.A.d city also deals with crucial and relevant issues, as the entire album follows a teenager through a day on the streets of Compton as he deals with peer pressure, gang violence, drug use, insecurity, alcohol addiction, and the death of loved ones. The whole album, to me, is telling kids just like the ones I teach that they can avoid the “fate” assigned to children living in poverty and make better lives for themselves.

Do you see what happened when this race debate raged over Macklemore and Kendrick Lamar? America missed a really good chance to notice that two artists are trying to be lights in a world of darkness. We wanted to talk black and white instead of positive and negative messages. We wanted to criticize Beyoncé’s sensual performance and Katy Perry’s “Devil-worshiping” act. We gave the highest honor to Daft Punk for an album that says what to influence our children?

Few people who were unaware of what Macklemore and Kendrick Lamar rap about became aware that they are saving kids’ lives with their positive words. Few people who reel against rap as a negative, moral-less genre realized that two young artists are going to make sure it never turns into that mostly untrue stereotype.

And I think it is this inability to talk about what really matters that has caused a few of my students to mistrust me. It is this attention to the wrong details that has made my kids think about their blackness more than their potential to change the world in positive ways. It is this ignorance that has affected my ability to cross a bridge with my students and show them that we are different but ultimately the same.

I visited a school last summer where a student told me that his teacher had taught him that “the only race is the human race”. I want my kids to celebrate their race and never ignore that it is an important part of who they are, but more than that, I want them to celebrate their humanity and how that connects them to everyone else, regardless of skin color.

I want them to not let their race be the thing that separates us.

I want to tell them that the only race that can pull us together is the race to spread a little light in the dark before our time is up.

We aren’t long for this world; we can waste our few years mistrusting each other and letting our differences hold us back, or we can stand next to one another and make this world just a little bit better than when we arrived. I don’t need to think about my color or your color to know that we can’t do it without each other.