Thursday, October 05, 2006

Bringing Sensitiveback: An Essay Part 3

Geto Boys, "Minds Playing Tricks On Me"

Notorious B.I.G., "Suicidal Thoughts"

"I sit alone in my four-cornered room, staring at candles."

I want to keep going with this essay in parts, as the ideas keep building and adapting and I really hope that we can get a discussion going on the future of hip-hop. Following up on my ideas before, I want to delve into the idea of opening hip-hop up to the world and challenging the violence and misogyny that dominates today. I must reiterate however that all of this comes from someone who loves these very songs, who loves hip-hop and despises the haters and backpackers and assorted idiots.

Much of my thinking on these ideas comes from reading I Don't Want To Talk About It, Terrance Real's book on male depression. I've already laid out my reading of hip hop, the more recent especially, as the art of the traumatized, a reflection of urban male youth. It's hard not to see the characters that dominate today - men's men, strong, tough, silent (no snitches), humorless (I may crack a smile, but ain't a damn thing funny), violent, angry. Is there a way to break this, to acknowledge while challenging its dominance? I turn to two of the most powerful rap songs ever made to find a break.

First, the legendary Houston rap group, Geto Boys. Scarface, Bushwick Bill and Willie D are in that all-time category, achieving near mythical status at Pound for Pound. While many of these above attributes could easily be found in their music, I also feel like they are one of the few to ever look at mental illness, going crazy and breaking down. This may not seem like much, but in a culture obsessed with toughness and lack of vulnerability, it's enormous.

"Mind Playin' Tricks On Me" was one of the first Southern tracks I heard and to this day it is one of the most memorable and powerful songs I've heard. Who can ever forget the video of Bill punching the street until his hands were bloody? Or Face talking about seeing someone following him? Or Willie's visions of those he'd killed? Shit is real and poweful and stunning.

"Suicidal Thoughts" is even more disturbing and shocking. In essence, Biggie gives us his suicide letter, rapped over the beat of his heart. Here's a topic that no one talks about, one clouded in shame and disgust. Yet, here is the best rapper of all-time talking about, letting us into his mind filled with self-loathing and shame, unafraid. These are unique thoughts, but the end result of suicide should remind us that boys can't hold all of this in forever.

Why do I think that this is an opening? Because mental illness is anathema to masculinity. In fact, many men consider depression a female disease, a product of weakness and emotions. These songs above show the toughest of the toughest as scared, worried, neurotic, in essence, human. It's a condition almost completely unexamined in hip-hop, which is unsurprising as it perfectly reflects the society at large. Can you imagine the reaction if a stream of rappers acknowledged the sadness and loss that they have experienced growing up, if they balanced the pussy and guns schtick with an acknowledgment that there is a time to be open and emotional? It's a way to redefine masculinity and allow it to mean emotional as much as strong.

What do my dear readers think? I'd love to hear your criticisms of my ideas or how you would try to open hip-hop up to more balanced and human music. How about my women readers? I know that this is a lot of you, don't be shy, speak up, let your feminist flag fly, call me out, call hip-hop out, let's get a debate goin'. Yeah yeah yeah!


Sinro said...

Its funny, when your listening to it. You dont think about the image nor the message itself. Good post.

Liz said...

So true. As a school counselor at a public high school in Coney Island, I think that boys today see very few options. You are either tough and have meaningless sex, or you are a "fag". Sensitivity is for girls. There is no room for feelings - unless the feeling is anger.