Hip-hop hour: To an old friend, on how to love hip-hop

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Dear old friend,

I never intended to make it personal, but every train of thought — every anecdote — led me to you, so I think I need to address this column to you. Sorry that it’s public, but we would never have had this conversation in person, anyway. I know that you hate confrontation.

Before I get all fired up, I think I need to check the hell out of my privilege. I know UC Berkeley kids love that. Really, what do I know about honoring hip-hop? I’m from the Asian-American suburbs of the 626 — the least hood place you can possibly hail from.

But that’s the problem — so are you. Sometimes, I think you neglect your origins. You walk a fine line between appreciation and appropriation. Ever since you joined your Asian fraternity, you’ve been dropping that N-word a ton, and you’ve been preaching a very gang-esque idea of brotherhood. (I’m sorry, but whoever makes you do fist pushups on jagged bottle caps is not your brother.)

You wish that your life story were pulled out of the gritty back alleys of To Pimp a Butterfly — which I know you adore. When we came back for winter break, you literally talked to your barber for an hour about Kendrick Lamar. You forced three of our friends to have a listening party. I thought that you’d had a religious conversion.

So I wish that you would have listened more closely. I wish that you heard the echoes of history in Lamar’s ancient soul. There are a lot of ghosts who drift through the album — Tupac, Miles Davis, Sly Stone. Wander deep enough, and you’ll hear the scarred cries of the Underground Railroad — “I picked cotton that made you rich.”

Lamar just wants you to think about the history of things. I wonder if you would be a changed man if you heard where hip-hop comes from.

Rewind back to winter break, and we were sitting in your garage, having beers with friends. That winter was a heated time. I’d seen a lot of mournful frustration in the streets — a lot of tear gas. I guess I’ve become that generic Berkeley liberal, because I was angry at your thoughts on the highway protests.

“Don’t you think that it defeats their purpose if they’re getting in other people’s way? Inconveniencing them? Like, what’s the point?”

“Well, you know, they’ve been inconvenienced, too.”

You were no better than those Twitter handles that shouted “All lives matter!” from the other side of the glass ceiling. You’re casually confident in using the N-word, but you shy away when it comes time to stand in solidarity with the black community. It baffles me. How can you be a fan of hip-hop and not a fan of protest? Hip-hop has been the anthem of protest for its entire history.

Yes, I mean that all hip-hop is protest — even now. The outlandish brags of “N**as in Paris”? That’s protest. Waka Flocka Flame? That’s protest, too. It doesn’t matter how dumb you think the lyrics are.

The first hip-hop hit to sweep the nation was “Rapper’s Delight,” which sounded like, “I said a hip, hop / Hippie to the hippie / The hip, hip a hop, and you don’t stop.” Yet even then, hip-hop was the anthem. Immortal Technique once said, “Hip-hop was born in an era of social turmoil … in the same way that slaves used to sing songs on the plantation … that’s the party songs we used to have.”

In fact, hip-hop was born at a moment of riot. In 1977, New York City experienced a severe blackout, and the neighborhoods erupted with looting. Interestingly enough, electronics stores saw a lot of damage. Simmering and simmering, the movement of hip-hop reportedly exploded because the artists finally had recording equipment.

And how sad is that? The progenitors could never afford to make their own music. Riot was the only option, or else they would stay silent. But that’s the point of hip-hop — to lift yourself out of the gutters when the world is against you.

In the 1980s, Eric Lynn Wright was embroiled in the Compton drug trade until he discovered rap music. It had serious money-making potential. What’s more, no one was being shot for dealing mixtapes. Wright cleaned up his act and became Eazy-E. Out of all people! A street rat became an artist.

So those are the wary caterpillars who paved the way for the butterflies we idolize today — butterflies such as Lamar. Since the beginning, hip-hop was a voice for those street rats who never asked for a life of crime, who lived in fear of being pulled over for “reasonable suspicion.”

I wrote this letter to you because I don’t think you try to honor this history. Another weekend, we were chilling at your place, and you showed me a couple GIFs of black women acting silly. You mocked them — “Hah! Black people.” That was, in all honesty, pretty racist.

If you’re going to love hip-hop, you have to learn to love all of hip-hop. I wish you’d weep for Michael Brown. I wish you’d care about Ferguson, Missouri. You can’t pick and choose. You can’t choose to embrace its slang but ignore its martyrs. That’s the difference between appropriation and appreciation, you know — whether or not you care about the social cause.

I’ll admit that I’ve also struggled with figuring out my debt to the hip-hop community. I never feel like I’ve done enough. I marched down Telegraph Avenue once in December, but I was too busy with finals to ever come back. I felt guilty. I started this column because I’m trying to raise awareness the only way I know how — writing shit down. It’s a start.

Maybe you’ve even had a change of heart by now. I just got a text from you, saying that you miss home. I’m sorry if I’ve misunderstood you at all.

You know all I want is the best for you. I want you to be smarter about who you decide to be. I hope that we can talk it out and settle our differences. Or maybe this is goodbye. Who knows? I know that we can try to be better, though — you and me.

What’s your perspective on that?

Jason Chen is the assistant arts editor and writes the Monday column on hip-hop. Contact him at [email protected].