The Noname You Need To Know

Noname is the best female rapper in hip hop right now. She may be the best technical female rapper in terms of lyricism and flow (which I define as your ability to rap like another instrument on the beat rather than a competing force) in a decade. She might also be a top 5 rapper out right now*. Her mixtape Telefone dropped in 2016 and delivered one of the most complete projects of the year. She’s done features for her fellow Midwestern up and comers Chance the Rapper, Mick Jenkins, Saba and Smino and has routinely stolen the show on their songs. She was also excluded from both the 2016 and 2017 XXL Freshman class as well as nowhere to be seen when BET announced their nominees for the Best Female Hip Hop Artist award despite dropping a notebook’s worth of significantly better verses over features and an album than the likes of Remy Ma, Nicki Minaj or Young M.A. Like her accidental counterpart Chance the Rapper, Noname is also an independent artist who has refused to sign her art and soul to a label which I would suspect has something to do with her lack of industry recognition.

Why am I telling y’all this? Because you should be listening to Noname if you’re not already along with a cadre of other young Midwest rappers. More than just a technically sound rapper whose talent can hang with the fellas whose flow will remind you of an old school Def Jam Poetry performance, Noname’s lyrics create the most impact. Her flow has the soft power of a spoken word piece and the words she chooses come across with the depth of one as well. Which makes sense because Noname was a spoken word artist growing up in Chicago before developing her talent as a rapper at the Harold Washington Library in Chicago where she crossed paths with other young Chicago musicians like Saba, Chance the Rapper, Vic Mensa and Donnie Trumpet.

Like many of the artists I’ve named in association to her, Noname says “woke” things casually in her music. Unlike artists like Kendrick Lamar for example who make albums with overarching racial themes to address the experience of black people in America, Noname and her counterparts drop lines or verses that make you pause the song and contemplate the white patriarchal power structure around you. A verse will be about her own life and experiences but the intellect with which she sees her own life events force you to see and hear her story but also beyond her story, and what makes her experience the way it is. On “Yesterday” Noname recounts her granny’s funeral and advice she was given:

Fill the lining in the pine box, my granny fill the time slot

“Don’t grow up too soon

Don’t blow the candles out

Don’t let them cops get you”

My granny almost Sparrow I can see the wings

The choir sings

And la da di la di da da da, dah

Only he can save my sou

 She didn’t make a song about police brutality or the African-American tradition of elders passing on knowledge to the youth on how to be black and alive in America, Noname casually threw out the advice from her grandmother. Almost a quiet nod to other black people, a line that can be felt deeply by those who have lived that experience and would be met with a puzzling look from everybody on the outside. Earlier on that that same song she makes a casual remark about the nature of club dress codes and their biases against black people as she says “I only wear tennis shoes to clubs with dress codes ‘cause fuck they clubs.” To a listener it’s just a casual line about bucking authority, but to the black listener, the audience her music is aimed at, it is a remark about a feeling that we have all experienced or seen as the dress code is enforced as soon as our turn hits in line. Noname with her clout as a rapper now can break those dress codes she knows are intended to discriminate against her and people who look like her “cause fuck they clubs!”

What comes through in Noname’s art is not that she wants to educate and make songs about the black experience, but that she is a black woman speaking on her life in an educated enough way to see the larger patterns of oppression that are a part of her experiences. She isn’t taking us on her journey to self-discovery like recent Kendrick Lamar albums, so much as her recounting her own stories through an already aware lens. True to black women, Noname already has the answers if anybody would listen up. Bars on gentrification, consumerism, and the school to prison pipeline without the usual weight of conscious music wrapped in tales of granny, momma and her friends, and that’s just on her average feature. She paints pictures with her words like the spoken word poet she is and alludes frequently to experiences special to growing up black and aware.

In 2004 on his debut song Kanye West said “What if somebody from the Chi’ that was ill got a deal on the hottest rap label around? But he wasn’t talkin about coke and birds it was more like spoken word, except he’s really puttin it down?”

We’ve often said the “Old Kanye” is gone. Well he’s back. At least the spirit of that young soulful nigga from Chicago is back. The children of Kanye are bursting out of the Midwest, a crop of young emcees that are mostly unsigned to labels who are really putting it down, except it’s not about coke and birds but more like spoken word. People have often compared Chance the Rapper to Kanye West, calling him the second coming, the heir to that soulful throne, but he isn’t alone. The princess of that great Yeezus kingdom is Noname. The knights are Smino (of St. Louis), Saba, Vic Mensa, Monte Booker and Mick Jenkins. You miss the old Kanye? Check out the heirs to his musical legacy.

I’ve left some Apple Music links below with both a Noname playlist and a “More Like Spoken Word” playlist so y’all can hear what I’ve been hearing and get hip:

https://itunes.apple.com/us/playlist/noname-kanye-kids/idpl.u-e98lAdKuzMVWjdY

https://itunes.apple.com/us/playlist/midwest-it-was-more-like-spoken-word/idpl.37eca5ac21234a09a6e4c3d392b3247e

 

*Before you ask, in no order it’s Kendrick Lamar, Chance the Rapper, Vince Staples, Noname and Young Thug.

“They sold prison the way they pipeline, systematically lifeline erase all niggas, they so bulletproof from the law. Law abiding citizen shot, Willie Lynch do crack now. Made the new letters shiny, now we pray King Kunta.”

“They gentrified your neighborhood no need for cops, watch. Look at the yoga pants, coffee shops and yogurt stands. Cosumersim, holy land. And on the other hand my momma land…

It look like funeral home, church, church, liquor store, corner store, dreadhead, deadly…”

-Noname, featured on Saba’s Church/Liquor Store

“Mississippi vagabond, granny gon turn up in her grave. You said my granny really was a slave for this? All your incompleted similes and pages ripped? You know they whipped us niggas, how you afraid to rap it? You went to heaven after so we could free them now. Ain’t no ocean floor when you can be a Yeezus now.”

-Noname, Reality Check

Stop Lying On the Black Dollar

The most common solution I see presented for the woes of the African-American community is an investment in black businesses and the development of a black self-sustaining economy similar to that of the Jewish, Chinese, Indian etc. peoples who have immigrated to this country. For a number of reasons this solution is destined to fail if our purpose is to see economic and social freedom for all black people. As a historian, I cannot help but think about the history of free black people dating as far back as the American colonies long before the revolution. There have always been black people with some money, although their number has been tiny, they have existed. Today we have black CEOs, a former black president and a bevy of black entertainers and athletes all with enough wealth to invest in black communities and create thriving economies. Why don’t they? How far do millions actually go? And are their investments equating to a change in the black condition? Recent numbers on the racial wealth gap show black people quite literally centuries behind their white counterparts in terms of median household wealth.* Why is community investment and buying black not enough? What’s stopping us from being the Jewish or Chinese communities?

Racism. Were you expecting more?

Yes, other communities have faced racism as well, and some continue to face racism, but there’s will never be the brute force of anitblackness because there’s is a residual racism, determined by their proximity to whiteness, both literally and culturally. Many have assimilated into whiteness over time (see Italians, Irish and White Latinos today *stares angrily at Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz*) or used antiblackness as a way to get ahead themselves (see all the Asian owned property in the ghetto and look into the amount of Jewish people run major industries that still discriminate against black people). See, the issue at play here is capitalism is inherently exploitive. Capitalism preaches that if one works hard enough they too can achieve and rise through to the upper class. Trends show us social mobility in the United States is incredibly difficult** and there is a finite amount of dollars and property to be had in this country, and certain groups got a two to three hundred year headstart on the landgrab (after destroying Indigenous communities whose land it was). Wealth primarily transfers from generation to generation. Black people could spend the next two hundred years investing in our own communities and “buying back the block” and still not see a dramatic shift in those trends. The deck is stacked against us.

Capitalism requires a group to exploit for labor. The United States of America became an economic superpower during the 19th century on the backs of FREE African-American labor. Over time the capitalists (those who own the means of production, not people who support capitalism) have resisted raises in wages and the rights of workers so they can pay as little as possible for labor. Fair and equal payment for labor would leave capitalists with little profit, or at least little excess, and that contradicts the nature of capitalism, a system fueled by human greed and exploitation. In the United States, the very foundation of our system is the African-Americans as the mules. We can fight our way into the system, but somebody has to be exploited. How much time would it take for black people to be so fully represented in all aspects of American society that they are no longer the assumed group to be exploited? And what would happen then? We would exploit the less qualified, unlucky and those born into poverty the way white capitalists do the poor white people now, in what we PERCEIVE as a just meritocracy instead of discrimination and abusive cycles of poverty used to fatten our pockets. I don’t believe true meritocracy can exist because humans are flawed. We are biased from the day we begin socializing, we see groups as “us” and “them” and we will translate those biases into any system we create. What’s the end goal of black capitalism? It cannot by the very nature of capitalism be the economic and social freedom of ALL black people. It has not been and will not be. The black American capitalist of old sold or transported his fellow black people as the exploited group then and they will exploit the labor of their fellow black people today.  Power in capitalism is not a righteous power, it exploits and destroys and to chase that power as a people group only ensures we’ll discriminate if everything went right for us and we could even hold that power. Capitalism requires somebody have poverty inflicted on them. Poverty is violence. 

As a historian in the making, I refuse to repeat failed propositions to free black people. History tells us what works and what doesn’t work. It shows us failed attempts, where systems are weak and where they are strong, and most importantly how incredibly adaptable the American system of racism is. We fight for a seat at a table that is constantly being moved, rearranged, taken apart and rebuilt whenever we figure out its location. It’s a game we cannot win. History tells me so. Activists and revolutionaries of old tell me so.

“We got to face the fact that some people say you fight fire best with fire, but we say you put fire out best with water. We say you don’t fight racism with racism. We’re gonna fight racism with solidarity. We say you don’t fight capitalism with no black capitalism; you fight capitalism with socialism.”

-Fred Hampton, leader of the Chicago Black Panther chapter

Working class people of all colors must unite against the exploitative, oppressive ruling class. Let me emphasize again — we believe our fight is a class struggle, not a race struggle.”

-Bobby Seale, Black Panther co-founder

 

Now I will add to Bobby Seale’s statement that although the larger struggle is a class struggle, racism is still possible even if capitalism was done away with and needs to be done away simultaneously or not at all. However it is evident that those who studied and fought for freedom in the most visibly radical way ever seen in American History, knew black capitalism was not the solution. They knew their enemy was not just the rich or poor white racist, but the white capitalist manipulating the white racist to enjoy his social status over black people more than he despises the poverty he’ll never escape. There is a history of African-American leftism in the United States that predates World War II. And a history of communal living in certain African and Indigenous groups that predates the very term “socialism”. It, like much of American leftism, has been scrubbed from our history books. It would be a disservice to the freedom fighters of old (dating back to before the Red Scare that forced the Civil Rights movement to go nonviolent and Christian, i.e. MLK) to disregard the labor they put into analyzing the black struggle and drawing conclusions for us to spout made up meme facts about black buying power and fight for black capitalism, a system we have been shown and told will fail.

I don’t think I have the answers. I have no idea how to achieve the goals set by activists of old. But I know what will not work when held side by side with history. For now I resolve to study works by black ideologues, activists and revolutionaries. If we want solutions, we would do well to start from where they left off rather than repeating their path only to arrive at their same conclusions a decade late because we didn’t trust their labor and analysis enough. Or didn’t care to read it.

 

“Sorry ‘merica, but I will not be your soldier. Obama just wasn’t enough, I need some more closure.”

– Joey Bada$$, Land of the Free

“If you put crabs in a barrel to insure your survival you gon end up pullin down niggas that look just like you..”

-Ironically the black capitalist himself in a song where he advocates black economic excellence lol, Jay-Z, Murder to Excellence

*http://www.epi.org/blog/the-racial-wealth-gap-how-african-americans-have-been-shortchanged-out-of-the-materials-to-build-wealth/

**https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/02_economic_mobility_sawhill_ch3.pdf

Be Humble Black Man

Kendrick Lamar released a new song and accompanying video last night. Naturally it set the internet ablaze. The song was a combination of aggressively arrogant lyrics over a booming Mike Will Made-It beat, the video a barrage of imagery that deserves hours of analysis. I don’t want to do any of that analysis. Quite simply I don’t have the range. It deserves advanced depicting.

I do want to discuss one particular scene from the video, the only scene not repeated throughout the video. At the 2:16 mark Kendrick Lamar is seen from the outside of his bedroom window, aggressively rapping lyrics and gesturing at police with flashing lights and most importantly, roughly 22 red lights pointed at him as the police take their aim. What struck me wasn’t the police presumably aiming their guns at a rapping Kendrick Lamar, we know police kill black people, it was the attitude with which Kendrick responded. Leading into and during the 6 second scene Kendrick raps “Watch my soul speak, you let the meds talk, aye. If I kill a nigga it won’t be the alcohol, aye. I’m the realest nigga after all. Bitch be humble.” As he raps he does two motions every black man recognizes, he grabs his nuts and he beats his chest while staring down 22 scopes. This image has stuck with me.

image_6483441

As a 24 year old black man guns are a constant threat. The most likely cause of death for black men 15-34 is homicide.* Black men’s homicide victimization rate is a little over 7 times the national average.** Police murder black people at a higher rate than white people.*** The ways in which a gun can end my life are numerous. It could be at the party because the wrong nigga got mad and I bobbed when I should have weaved getting out, could be on the car ride home because the police officer who pulled me over for speeding is one of the white people who finds my skin threatening**** or one of the white supremacists who has infiltrated local police (about 100 years too late on this one Feds)***** and after I dodge the fear of death by hands of my brother or my overseer, it still could be the trigger-happy emasculated white man who mistakes me for a threat as I walk home from the corner store because I was craving an Arizona, word to Trayvon Martin,  murdered in Sanford, FL ten minutes down the road from where I grew up. I haven’t walked to the gas station the same since…you get the point. I’m always aware, especially in the South, that guns are ever present. And for the possibility of being shot by a white man, badged or not, the fear is laced with anger at their perceived right to my body. The wrong act of pride or expression of culture by me can be perceived as a threat by them.

That’s why the image of Kendrick grabbing his nuts as he refuses to be humble and stares down a barrage of barrels held by the overseers is powerful. It’s fearless. It refuses to be silenced. Kendrick raps that he’ll let his soul speak and won’t blame his actions on the alcohol because he is the realest nigga. He owns his words and doesn’t need to explain or excuse them. He said what he said. He will not suppress himself for them, even with their ultimate threat at the ready. When I see Kendrick aggressively spit his soul in the form of bars at the police, an institution historically hellbent on silencing him, it makes me feel like I can do the same. I won’t give them sovereignty over my body as they’ve traditionally taken. If they take it by force, then they won’t have my psyche. I won’t fear their force. 

I recently was asked to discuss then write about what is “art”.  The best answer I could surmise was anything you experience with your senses that makes you feel something. That 6 second clip, the still image I made my wallpaper, that symbolic “fuck you” indeed made me feel something. All these thoughts and feelings of rage and pride flooding me as  I take in the image.  
image_6483441 (1)

“Ah yeah, fuck the judge. I made it past 25 and there I was, a little nappy-headed nigga with the world behind him.” – Kendrick Lamar, King Kunta

“Grown man never should bite they tongue unless you eating on p***** that smell like its a stale plum.” – Kendrick Lamar,

(Crazy. As I’m writing this somebody fired shots at the basketball court on campus around the corner from where I’m sitting in my bed. Wonder if the target was a black man?)

*https://www.cdc.gov/men/lcod/2014/black/index.htm

**http://www.huffingtonpost.com/josh-sugarmann/the-gun-violence-epidemic_b_9540258.html

***https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2016/07/11/arent-more-white-people-than-black-people-killed-by-police-yes-but-no/?utm_term=.c5ea941657c7

****https://massappeal.com/study-black-males-size-overestimated-whites-view-threatening/

*****http://www.salon.com/2017/01/31/fbi-investigating-white-supremacists-infiltrating-law-enforcement-agencies-report/

What now? 

A young man sent me a DM. He is 17. His white friend, his teammate, took me on regarding Black Lives Matter on Twitter.I didn’t entertain him (I don’t debate trolls or kids, block and go).  But I watched them converse. I watched him call his friend out. Then watched his friend backpedal and stumble over his words. He messaged me confused and sad. His white friends, the ones he believed cared about him, keep outing themselves. They keep showing him they don’t see the humanity of black people, they were down to be friends until his blackness was on the table. I didn’t know what to tell him. What do you do when at 17 the illusion breaks down in front of you? That young man is a stranger to me, but I can relate to his experience. We all can. Every young black person is seeing people taking sides and watching a lot of people they believed to care pick the other side. We’re angry. Hurt. Sad. The lights came on when George Zimmerman murdered Trayvon Martin, and more people than we could imagine were pointing at Trayvon instead of Zimmerman.  

This election season, mixed with the racially charged conversations can’t be undone. PC Culture isn’t going away. Women, the LGBTQ community and racial minorities are upset. The spirit of the 1960’s has found a place in 2016, fueled by the Internet to hit a speed never before seen. Last time the movement was killed by the murder of leaders and the infection of crack and heroin in poor communities. I don’t see that happening again. Young black kids wanting equality aren’t going away. Angry white people demanding they be quiet aren’t going away. We’re watching a car crash, but the pile up won’t stop. We keep looking to the election to put a halt on the carnage. 

When the votes come out in November, do we all take a breather and forget? What do we do when the smoke clears and Hillary is our leader (I dare not speak into existence the idea of Trump winning). Does she mend these deep wounds? Can she? I don’t see it. Those Facebook statuses and tweets can’t be undone. The Trump stickers and signs can’t be unseen. And the “what about black on black crime” and “cops do have it hard” can’t be taken back. These cuts hurt. I know I’ll rebound, and so will that young man. But rebounding isn’t forgetting. Cuts leave scars, and scars usually come with lessons. Racial innocence can’t be restored, and a generation (from 13 to 30) just had the glass shattered.

Don’t ask me for solutions. I don’t have them. I’m still mourning our post-racial illusion. 

“Visions of Martin Luther starin at me. If I see it how he seen it that would make my parents happy. Sorry mama I can’t turn the other cheek. They wanna knock me off the edge like a fucking widow’s peak.”

-Kendrick Lamar, HiiiPower 

“Dreams of reality’s peace, blow steam in the face of the beast. The sky can fall down, the wind can cry now, the strong in me I still smile. I love myself.”

-Kendrick Lamar, i

We Matter! Checking In: July 7, 2016.

I’ve sifted through a lot of thoughts, reading, I’ve talked to various people, and tweeted through a lot of frustrations. I don’t have an eloquent vocalizing of my feelings. They’re too scattered, loud and angry. Here’s what I’ve worked out though:

*Black people feel free to skip 1 and 2. Or don’t, you’re already here*

1. If your goal is to derail conversations about the oppression of people of color, black people specifically, to shout All Lives Matter or explain to me the “other side” (which I’ve heard 1000 times, trust me you’re not special or unique, sorry) go away. I have no energy left to explain why the agents of the state should stop lynching us, nor how we got here. Use Google. Bring it to me, and that block button is swift. 

2. Read something. Honestly, listen to black people. We have 400 years of black people explaining our oppression. “What about black on black crime?” isn’t original. It is rhetoric. It dates back to our emancipation. Read. Learn. Go listen to a black person, seriously. Don’t defend yourself or center the white experience, listen and believe us because our humanity should be enough for our voices and feelings to matter. We matter. 

3. The timing of these 3 deaths is significant. Context always matters. Shortly after Jesse Williams delivered a powerful speech on how tired we are of being abused, 3 black men, 3 black fathers are taken. 2 in front of their children. Context matters.

4. I’m angry. I’m also scared, and sad. It’s complex. Remember we are all complex people and thus our feelings are complex. I have a right to feel. Nobody can tell me I can’t cry. Nobody can tell me I can’t be angry at the police. They don’t get to do that. We all have a right to feel and grieve. Contrary to the American narrative, it is not our job to forgive anything or anybody. If somebody chooses to, that’s their right as well. 

5. This doesn’t feel like freedom. The demonization of black people for things people don’t deem respectable is played and boring. We didn’t deserve nor ask for this. It isn’t on the oppressed to comfort our oppressor to paraphrase Jesse. We don’t have to explain black on black crime. Nor are we obligated to pull up our pants, stop dancing or turn down our music. We are Americans like everybody else, probably more so, regardless of if blackness is respectable. Keep yourself safe, we all know the rules. Don’t be reckless to be reckless, but don’t apologize either. 

6. We are not the crazy ones. Don’t let the derailing, the backlash and the bullshit make you believe this is anything but oppression by an oppressor. We are not crazy for demanding equality, they are crazy for not seeing our humanity. 

“How we still slaves in 2016?”

-Jay-Z, We Got the Keys
“Somebody tell these motherfuckers keep their hands off me. I ain’t a motherfuckin slave keep your chains off me.”

-Vic Mensa, 16 Shots 

We Wear The Masc

Don’t cry. Toughen up. Be a man.

What does that mean? Sincerely, what does that mean? I’m sure you’re running over a list of rules and regulations about what men do, and probably more of what they don’t do, inspired by family, media and whoever coached your (insert sport here) team. To the men, what insults would you fight over? Honestly. “Stupid”. “Ugly”. Not fighting words yet. “Asshole”. “Douchebag”. Probably not yet fighting, hell I revel in being called an asshole. Let’s take it up a notch. “Bitch”. *fists clench* “Pussy”. *What did you say?* “Faggot.” *Square up!*

Let’s keep it real. The most insulting thing a man called be called is a woman. To be denied his manhood and demeaned, degraded to womanhood. Men are probably nodding their heads in agreement, but what does that say about our view of men in relation to women and our roles. A lot of the talk of the day is about redefining gender roles, and I am completely for it. Women have voices that need to be heard and acknowledged and they have the right to decide what being a woman means. I leave that to them. But when we say redefining gender roles, how often do we talk about redefining manhood? Short answer, never. Why? A much longer answer for another week. For now, let’s stay on the what. 

The roles as they’re set up are toxic, not just to women as we ingrain sexism and homophobia to each new generation, but to us as well. I love being a man. Don’t mistake me. I don’t love all of the rules however. Most of what the things men are supposed to be are rooted in what we are not. We are not women; thus we are not frail. We are not emotional, so we have a society of men who struggle with emotional expression and thus are most likely to express those emotions via violent crime and abuse. We are not women so our sexuality is about conquering and bragging rights, not expression or emotion. In such a culture we see rape happen to at least 20% of our women (probably higher because of unreported abuse), because we excuse men’s sexuality being out of control. We are not gay men. Point blank. So young men are afraid to ask questions, gay teenagers and young adults are at an increased risk of suicide because a literal feeling inside of them (that’s as best I can define why I like women, so I imagine it feels the same for them but pointed in the opposite direction) tells them not to like what we tell them they are supposed to like. If boys go against these rule then we bully and beat them until we break them. If you’re not stringently straight and hyper-masculine, then you’re gay. We operate in absolutes. Most of the time we write things off to boys are boys and men are men. Good old testosterone, right? Or is that just the copout? 

As best I can tell, masculinity is an ego-driven social construct that teaches boys young to prove they are masculine, that is to say not feminine (not a woman, and not gay). We’re socialized young. The difference in my talking about the oppressive nature of manhood as compared to whiteness is that I am complicit. I partake. I enforce these roles. As men, we hold societal power because of the systems that be. Thus we hold the power to unpack and redefine manhood whenever we decide. Change starts at the top.

Maybe everything above is stupid. Maybe I’m spouting off silly hypotheticals because “well I know somebody who doesn’t do that somanhood is fine”. I can say I honestly don’t know. This is my writing out an answer to my own question. This is my trail of logic as I venture into adulthood as a man, and out to define my masculinity for myself. 

What I do know, is living in constant fear of “looking gay” (as if being gay is an insult) or “acting like a bitch” (because women are lesser than us or something) tiptoeing around nonsense rules of what it means to be a man is tiring and I don’t plan to commit to this version of manhood for 60 more years.

*Homework before I write the next part of this, go on Netflix and watch “The Mask You Live In”.

“We wear the mask that grins and lies, It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,— This debt we pay to human guile; With torn and bleeding hearts we smile, And mouth with myriad subtleties.”

-Paul Laurence Dunbar, We Wear the Mask