There was something off about my world growing up. So much was forcibly being locked out — everything from cursing in the adult films my parents would watch that I was only a room away from to kids kissing in the Disney shows I was allowed to watch. Meanwhile, a different flavor of hell was rolling on the reel from which my parents couldn’t step outside of themselves for long enough to prevent my siblings and me from binge-watching. It made for a pretty conflicting message. Growing up too fast — bad. Dodging punches thrown by your mother from the front seat while she drove home from church because you had re-requested a stop at the beauty supply store that she didn’t give an answer to the first time — fine. Verbal and physical abuse was normalized in my home under the guise of discipline. It provided a build-up that I had absolutely no clue how to release.
Instructing your pre-adolescent children on the ways of the world while fixing their hats, holding an umbrella and building a roof of Dos and Don’ts over their heads simultaneously is the triple-layered sheltering that raised me. It was very selective sheltering but all the things I’d come to experience, in bulk, outside of home was left off the syllabus of childhood lessons. I have no children so I don’t pretend to know what it feels like to present the crude realities of reality to bright-eyed little sponges without scarring their hearts with all the warnings you intend to imprint on their minds.
I knew from a young age that I didn’t want to be anything like my parents. The more I grew into myself the more I realized there were bits and pieces of both my parents lodged in my personality like shrapnel. Apples fall from trees and they roll, but there were just some traits that I couldn’t roll far enough to get away from. My love for the arts was a direct reflection of all of my mother’s obsessions and before long it was the one heirloom I didn’t mind being handed down.
My mother had a love for music that I didn’t understand when I was young. Her days of playing Michael Jackson at ignorant levels usually followed some depressive streak of making everyone in the house miserable, so I always had qualms about whether or not it was ok for me to sing and dance along. It took some time for me to find my own way to music but when I finally did, nothing was the same.
It took a while as there was a rule in the house, just like with TV, there was music that wasn’t allowed. My mother did her own thing, of course, but children weren’t allowed to listen to anything besides gospel. The list of things that were prohibited grew as new opportunities came about, but it all stemmed from one concept — if it had nothing to do with God, we had nothing to do with it. That applied to the elementary school production of The Wizard of Oz that I was excited to be a part of until the permission slip portion that was sent home cluing my father in on what was happening. Wizards? Witches? “No!” It applied to the trip to NASA I had won in an essay contest in elementary school. It applied to cheerleading tryouts in high school but was somehow overruled for things like middle school basketball and high school track and field.
I was introduced to secular sounds through pop. Aside from the pardoned Michael Jackson tapes, it was selectively allowed as it pertained to Disney films. “Bringin’ Da Noise” posed no immediate threat as it played in Disney’s “The Other Me” but would have been shunned had it just been playing from the stereo without context — though we still tensed up when music played in our permitted films while he was home. That was the era of looking up and printing out song lyrics on the computers at school. I remember learning “All Star” by Smash Mouth for music class around ’99 /‘00. My father found the paper with the lyrics mixed in with my homework and had a fit. “Your brain gets smart but your head gets dumb?! Is that what you’re listening to?” I was careful to hide my indiscretions better after that.
When I got hip to hip-hop and R&B via the FM radio settings on my sister’s walkman that I’d swipe and take to school field trips, it was a whole new life. I didn’t know why it was prohibited in the house. Gospel is cool but so was R&B. I liked vibing with some of the rap songs but R&B was my jam. There was nothing that my 11-year-old self knew about heartbreak but “You Got It Bad” made me feel emotions that Sunday school songs and Britney Spears didn’t. I felt in touch with the world around me. I loved music.
It didn’t take long before I transitioned from R&B to Rap. The conversations that the group of guys in my middle school Latin class always had about new rap songs sparked my interest. They were good friends but would argue with each other about lyrics and who the better rapper was. I didn’t understand anything about it but I pushed me to do what little research I could. I remember one night in particular — I snuck into my mother's room while she was at work. I sat in her bed with my homework to disguise the real reason I was there — to listen to the radio. I flipped to our local radio station, hot 93.7 to see what was playing and back to the gospel station 104.9 when I thought someone was coming. That night, I heard 50 Cent for the first time and I was eager to hear the rap debate the next day at school now that I knew what the guys were talking about.
I played around with the beats of the mainstream rap song I heard and made little remixes that were way too close to the actual lyrics to be called anything but fun and games. It wasn’t until “All this commotion emotions run deep as ocean’s exploding. Tempers flaring from parents just blow ’em off and keep going” struck chords that resonated with the dissent I was never allowed to express that I found a prospective release for all the home life build-up.
When I realized in middle school that I didn’t have to be able to sing like the R&B artists that I fell in love with, to express those encased emotions, I let music lead my rebellion. Pandora’s box laid open in my bedroom in the hours between the time I’d get home from school and the time my father got home from work. But when he’d return, I’d scurry to hide any evidence of my budding worldliness.
Rap music birthed the spoken word poet in me. Although there were no ambitions of being a rapper or knowledge that poetry was something I could do anything major with, I stuck with it.
My favorite place to go once I hit high school was my aunt’s house. She was “the cool aunt,” whose house was the go-to spot for all the rule-bending action when summer hit. She had the internet, every music video channel I could want, and she didn’t care much about what we did. I would spend as many hours as I could soaking up as much music as time would allow before going home. I was glued to the computer between BlackPlanet, burning CDs and looking up the words for my favorite songs on azlyrics. It was then that I was exposed to BET — 106 & Park, Rap City: Tha Basement, and the stock pot of all the explicit visuals I could consume.
We spent many long, fun-filled days at my aunt’s house only to shrink back down to our sheltered, religious selves before going home. I don’t remember if it was a pleasant outing for my parents or an explosive moment of dysfunction that my siblings and I were tossed from that lead to the switch up but we stayed at my aunt’s house one summer night. I slept in my little cousin’s room. I woke up sometime after midnight and turned on the small TV that was sitting on top of a bedside table across the tiny room. If I had been home, getting back to sleep would have been simple as there was no TV in my room to steal my attention. I flipped through the channels I was most familiar with first — Disney and Nickelodeon — there was nothing on that I cared to watch. I flipped some more and stopped on BET. I had never been up that late, never watched TV past a certain time and never expected to see what I saw. I’ll never forget the image of Nelly, the credit card and the bottom of a woman wearing a gold thong.
I was about 14 at the time of my first and last encounter with BET uncut. I wasn’t exactly rainbows and unicorns but I was a church-going, Disney-watching, sheltered adolescent girl that wasn’t exposed to much of anything that wasn’t rated G. I won’t pretend that it scarred me. I wasn’t that wholesome. I was post-pubescent enough to be intrigued — to compare myself and my body to the women I saw dancing and being praised in that video. The words meant little to me in context. It was one of those “actions speak” sort of deals. Granted, I didn’t turn into some orgy loving nymphomaniac — I’ve always been quite reserved. I did, however, learn to associate attention with value. I remember wanting a body that would demand the sort of attention I always saw Black and Hispanic women getting in these videos. I had no idea what I’d do with it once I got it, but I wanted it.
Songs like “Tell Me” by Bobby Valentino — especially the remix featuring Lil Wayne — sounded like high praise. “Now you got my eyes following the places you go. I’m caught up in ya vibe tryna kick it like Judo”. It all boiled down to the attention, the source of that attention and how it felt.
The music I found myself listening to conflicted with my own writing as my experiences didn’t scratch the surface of what was being promoted. I knew it was what was popular, but I didn’t know how to create that kind of content which led me to believe that writing wasn’t something I could do.
Growing up before social media, before think pieces on how media objectifies women, before the rise in movements supporting conscious and ambitious women, my empowerment came from the same source: music. “Survivor” by Destiny’s Child was the first song I heard that made me associate women with strength and I emulated the camo-wearing power stomp and fist pump combo move screaming “I’M A SURVIVOR!” whenever neglect, rejection, and self-doubt stranded me on my emotional deserted island.
It was a start to becoming who I am now, but even as a college student there was too much 22 two’s and not enough “Get It Together” (India Arie) in my iTunes catalog. The music I was hip to mostly derived from suggestions by guy friends, so there was always more than a splash of misogyny embedded into my playlists. I was beyond the age of accountability, and it was my own responsibility to nurture myself, but it didn’t click that the music and the videos I listened to and watched was what I was feeding my emotions about myself and my creativity — “you are what you eat” was always too improbable in the most obvious context for me to even take a second thought about how it related to my mental and spiritual diet and subsequently, my art.
Nothing against Jigga,“too many b*tches wanna be ladies, so if you’re a hoe Imma call you a hoe. Too many b*tches are shady” kept me guarded in my actions as it concerned men. While Christina and Lil Kim made some valid points about the double standard in “Can’t Hold Us Down,” father Hov’s opinion meant much more to me.
I can only imagine how much sooner I would have found the self-esteem I needed to not only live but to create what was true to me had I known to balance bobbing to the censored cuts of Freek-A-Leek at school functions with the double-standard quelling vibes TLC provided in “Girl Talk”. I needed more emphasis to be placed on how “respect is just the minimum”.
The disconnect came from all that I was creatively attracted to coupled with the fact that I essentially was not about that life in any regard.
My rhymes were fairly elementary up until I started college in 2007. I met a rapper from New York during my one semester at The University of Hartford that took a liking to me. Although it wasn’t reciprocated, I appreciated the interest he took in my writing. He’d compliment my work and offer suggestions. Though his ulterior motives were evident in the way he clowned me for my obsession with my boyfriend that was still in high school, I respected his critique of my art and remained cordial. He got me into switching up my rhyme schemes. Rather than rhyming the end of every bar, I practiced doubling rhymes mid bar and switching flows as often as I wanted to.
The roommate I had from the city that I spent half the semester with after moving on from Sarah Beth from New Hampshire put me on game. She introduced me to Lupe Fiasco and picking apart bars for meaning. I remember that November when American Gangster dropped, her homeboy’s Christian and Kelcy came by our room for a kickback and we listened to song after song and passionately discussed Sean Carter’s lyrical genius. He became a real influence in my writing after that.
I practiced writing about my life, as meager as my experiences were. I mimicked the rapper-style shit talk that I admired the most. I became more conflicted than ever, as I grew more socially aware, of the content of my writing. I perpetuated the same woman-bashing I had been affected by, and by 2009 it all became too much. My life began to mirror the drama I pretended to be about and it left me feeling isolated in the group of people I thought I wanted. I put down writing for some time because I had no idea where to go from where I was and I was too preoccupied with resuming my studies to figure it out. I’d write things that sounded good but spending time piecing words together that I never felt compelled enough to do more with felt unnecessarily taxing.
During that time, I took comfort in the musical stylings of Jhené Aiko. I loved the way she sang so serenely about some of the same concepts that I had heard rappers spit about in more vulgar tones. It was immensely soothing. It gave me new creative goals. It was what I wanted my words to feel like. I sought out artists that made me feel similar things with words that healed. A friend pointed me in the direction of India Arie’s Voyage to India and I knew that anything I created after that point had to be something real — it needed meaning.
I didn’t anticipate that I’d do more with writing than poetry. Mandated writing assignments annoyed me, so I didn’t think I’d write anything on my own time that didn’t rhyme. I found that there are some things that were all too real for me to water them down by dressing them up in metaphors. Sometime later I began to take it seriously and became an independent author sharing stories of my mental health. Not only did I not think I’d find a career in writing but I never thought those bitter moments powered by my parent’s emotional neglect would serve any purpose besides conditioning me for a life of self-deprecation. I never imagined that music would provide more than momentary feelings — even more, that it would fuel my ambitions as a writer.