Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Black Geek: Skateboarding and Hip-Hop

Green vs Grey - an as yet unresolved geek controversy
I remember buying my first issue of Thrasher magazine.  I placed it on the counter tentatively, halfway expecting the saleslady to shake her head, call me a fraud and instruct me to return it.  

Before I ever landed a kick-flip or dropped in a half pipe, I studied that Thrasher magazine.  I loved the counter-culture feel of it.  The magazine had pictures of impossible looking stunts and advertisements for things with stunningly irreverent (for an eleven year old) names.  I’d never heard a Butthole Surfers’ song but I wanted to.  I had no idea what one would use Mr. Zog’s Sex Wax for but I wanted some (or at least a t-shirt advertising the mysterious substance). 

Proper “professional” skateboards weren’t cheap and you bought them in pieces – the deck, the trucks, the wheels.  After some pretty consistent begging I convinced my parents to buy me a “professional” deck for my twelfth birthday.  It was a “Lance Mountain.”  What a cool name for a skateboarder.  Later in my short-lived skateboarding career, I would shun Powell-Peralta products as too “mainstream,” but at the time I was ecstatic.  My dad wouldn’t spring for professional trucks and wheels though, so I removed the crappy stuff from my generic skateboard and made due. 

I was in the sixth grade.  This was a formative year; kids were taking on roles and personas that they would keep for the rest of their school life.  The jocks were becoming, THE jocks, the preps were becoming THE preps, the overachievers were becoming THE overachievers.  With my comic books, role-playing games and skateboard, it’s not difficult to guess in which group I belonged.  I was the type of kid that could give you a painfully detailed description of the differences between the grey and green Hulk.  If you don’t know what I’m talking about you probably got laid in high school.    

Race started to matter a lot more.  Suddenly just being black was insufficient.  Seemingly overnight a list of blackrequisites sprung up: sports (basketball, football – ok, skateboarding, hockey – not so much), speech (broken), even reading habits seemed to be monitored (one risked being accused of “acting white” if seen with books too often).  And, of course, musical preference. 

My parents were firmly entrenched in an evangelical gospel church and did not listen to “secular” music.  I hated church, but loved gospel music – real gospel music in an old school, fire and brimstone black church – even when the voices crack or don’t reach a note, the songs are dipped in emotion and you’re moved.  In his autobiography, Malcolm X (who was, naturally, hypercritical of the black church) talks about the solace he found in Mahalia Jackson while in prison.  Even more than jazz, gospel is ingrained in the black American consciousness and despite my jaundiced atheist views it still feels like home.

But, a love of gospel music is not something that pre-teens are really comfortable espousing to their peers (or at least I wasn’t).  My skateboarding buddies were into bands like Dinosaur Jr., Siouxie and the Banshees and the Cure.  Especially the Cure.  I liked hip-hop too: De La Soul, Jungle Brothers, Tribe Called Quest.  But by the time I got around to naming the hip-hop groups I liked it was too late – the Stranglers and Radiohead had already been discovered in my tape collection.  Junot Diaz asked,

You really want to know what being an X-Man feels like?  Just be a smart bookish boy of color in a contemporary U.S. ghetto.  Mamma mia!  Like having bat wings or a pair of tentacles growing out of your chest.  The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, p 22

I’m an Air Force brat, but life was actually easier when we were visiting our cousins in New Orleans’s Ninth Ward (“Niggas from the nine, don’t mind dyin’. ” my young relatives would extol).  In New Orleans I was treated like a goofy anomaly.  On the Air Force bases I was a liability; there were less black kids so the feeling was we need our full strength – we couldn’t afford any anomalies.  When we first moved to the U.K. we didn’t live on the Air Force base and there were enough skinheads (not proper skinheads like my friend Mike Crawley, but racist thugs that made my daily walk home from the bus stop a harrowing experience) around, to justify the question, “was Dewaine black enough to be depended on?”  Black enough?  The question itself incensed me, but not so much as the fact that the answer was somehow linked to whether my English was sufficiently broken, I had a Run DMC tape in my Walkman and could hold passable guy talk about the NFL.

I’m still no big fan of team sports (I’d rather watch MMA than the NFL) and I still like hip-hop (but not Run DMC).  Now I have a different problem with hip-hop.  Discussing Israel, an American Jewish friend of mine once told me, “when you grow up really loving something it’s hard to turn off those feelings, even after it has turned so obviously ugly.”  This is how I feel about a lot of Hip-Hop.  I have songs on my I-Pod that I only listen to in the gym with headphones.  My daughter is very inquisitive and as much as I enjoy Ludacris there are aspects of his songs best left unexplained.    

So, with a nod to Nick Hornby, here’s a list of the top three Hip-Hop songs I am ashamed of myself for liking:

I am a black American and English is my first language – I still only understand about 30% of this song.  Some rappers have the ability to render misogynistic lyrics toothless.  Juvenile does not.  When he asks, “You gonna knock that ho’s teeth out, huh?” it sounds like a rhetorical question.  Of course you will, Juvenile. 

Ludacris does have the charm to make us laugh at some pretty raunchy stuff.  But, incorporating the inquiry “If you got some big titties with a matching ass” into the chorus of this song was a bold move indeed.    

This song sounds like an X-rated Saturday morning cartoon jingle.  To an electronic melody better suited to an episode of the Power Puff Girls, Too Short makes hard-hitting comments like, “I bet she can’t wiggle like that with a dick in her.”  Charming stuff.  

…and the top three songs I use to defend the genre:

Of course, “You Got Me is everyone’s default favorite Roots’ song.  And I do love that song.  But, “Sacrafice” displays creativity without pretense and positivity without preachiness.  That’s hard to pull off.
 
Lots of rappers have sampled Midnight Star’s “Curious.”  Eric B & Rakim did it first and best. 

Of course, Eminem has done lots of stuff that could easily make the other list.  But, in “8 mile” he describes insecurity, frustration and stifled ambition in terms that would make Dostoevsky proud.   

Nowadays kids have it easier when it comes to music.  It seems it’s perfectly permissible for my young cousins to have both Vampire Weekend and Lil’ Wayne on their I-Pods.  Lucky them.  I hope that it hasn’t gotten any easier for geeks to get laid though, that just wouldn’t be fair.                 

3 comments:

  1. I continue to love the blog. While I suspect you read (and would have interesting opinions on) Ta-Nehisi Coates, this post makes me wonder if you caught the video of a recent panel on ethics and superheroes at the Center for American Progress recently:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PogqGQmxdW8

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  2. Great post, D. I suspect you growing up black "on the run" and me growing up small town as the town whore's daughter is why we have such differing opinions on "how things are run". I LOVE your point of view and how it gives me a different light to view things.

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  3. Thanks for reading guys. After stacking up rejection after rejection from editors it's beyond heartening to hear some kind of positive feedback.

    You know, I've never read, "The Beautiful Struggle." I just checked and surprisingly it's still not available on Kindle. I do read Coates in the Atlantic from time to time and I have nothing but respect for his work. The panel was interesting. I never really was into DC comics as a kid, so I perked up more when they were discussing X-Men as opposed to Superman & Batman. The panel got me thinking about black heros in the Marvel universe. I distinctly remembering being bugged by the fact that Powerman was an ex-con and that Wakanda doesn't really exist. Storm was Kenyan so I didn't really identify with her much at all...

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