[originally published on March 29, 2013 at the FBB mothership. Heavily edited for clarity.]
I’ve spent most of the last six months thinking about trauma. In my day job, we’re investing a lot of time and effort to identify the ways in which the traumatic experiences of our clients (individuals from vulnerable populations with some involvement in the justice system) affect their lives, with the goal of developing interventions that can help them process those experiences and clear obstacles to a successful, independent life in the community. I’ve also thought about this in a more personal context, as the cycle of life and death has hit pretty close to home lately.
During the same period, I’ve been listening to a lot of music. Fiona Apple’s The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver of the Screw, and Whipping Cords Will Serve you More Than Words Ever Will is still in the rotation, as is Amy Winehouse’s Frank, the new Cody ChesnuTT (Landing On A Hundred) and the newest Bruno Mars album (Unorthodox Jukebox). But there are three albums that have had a dedicated place in the rotation over the last couple of months – Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, m.A.A.d city, Killer Mike and El-P’s R.A.P. Music and strangely enough, the Django Unchained soundtrack. One day, I heard good kid from Lamar’s album, Willie Burke Sherwood from R.A.P. Music and Freedom from the Django Unchained soundtrack in succession and something clicked.
good kid is a soundtrack for trauma that evokes the experience of being a young black man in the inner city. A narrative about the intangible rents extracted by two forces struggling to establish a monopoly on the use of force in the community. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The first thing that always strikes me about this song is how Kendrick uses his cadence to convey emotion. Kendrick finds different ways to build momentum throughout the album, from using a progressively more complex flow to shifting from soft to more percussive words or simply increasing the pace of his delivery. On good kid, he layers his vocals on the last third of each verse so that you feel the pressure build until you almost feel the foot on your neck.
The references to a foot on the neck evokes Orwell’s 1984 (“If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever”) and serve as a visceral reminder of the physical brutality behind the metaphors. The phrase also helps puts the listener in the position of a victim of neighborhood violence and terror, someone who might think that the line between corrupt police and organized crime is gossamer thin.
Radicals have argued that badges are the only difference between police and gangs for decades, but good kid focuses on the psychic impact of this toxic dynamic on noncombatants. It’s the feeling of being stuck between two minority groups that make you feel like a stranger in your own neighborhood. When I was a young man, it felt like they were in an abusive, yet oddly symbiotic relationship. Even though both groups sincerely hated the other, it seemed as if police and gangs were invested in a vision of the poor/working class community as war zone/occupied territory, a narrative that crowded out competing views of the neighborhood.
I was uncomfortable with both narratives. Neither seemed to capture the messy contradictions of inner city urban life. If you drove by my grandparents’ neighborhood of Bedford Stuyvesant in the late 1980’s, you might assume that it was the kind of wartorn dystopia that Charles Murray warned us about in the previous decade. This ‘truth’ lost its power if you entered the brownstones or saw the people who filled and emptied the subway during rush hour. Maybe it would be harder for residents to resist the dystopian narrative in communities where mature gangs were deeply entrenched (and in small scale long wars with the local police department), but I imagine that in areas where mature gangs were deeply entrenched in the community, it would be harder for residents to resist the dystopian narrative, but even though the corner boys in Bed Stuy were pervasive, they weren’t part of mainstream culture like the Bloods, Crips or Folk, and most folk I knew from the area didn’t mistake their neighborhood for a literal war zone.
I was lucky. I had the right friends, knew when to appear tough and when to seem invisible, managed to avoid the wrong conflicts with the wrong people. My adolescence wasn’t traumatic, but it was emotionally draining. I don’t think I realized how exhausted I was until I moved away to college. I had become so used to being guarded all of the time, to the pressure and stress related to maneuvering through neighborhoods, that its absence felt almost alien. There’s this moment in good kid where Kendrick says that he got ate alive the other day, and while he might be talking about getting jumped, I remember having that feeling at the end of the day without anyone laying a hand on me. I guess that’s why the third verse (which explicitly references drugs) feels inevitable. The ever present threat and reality of violence has a traumatic impact on the body, the mind and the spirit. It fills you with despair and animosity. It’s only natural to search for an anesthetic, something to numb the pain, ease the pressure. A little drink, a little smoke, a handful of pills. The only problem is that the cure is worse than the disease, an illusory balm that “release[s] the worst out of [your] best”.
Killer Mike comes at this from a different angle in Willie Burke Sherwood, his autobiographical song from last year’s classic R.A.P. Music.
In the brilliant first verse, Mike breathlessly recounts the string of violent tragedies that led him to adapt to the realities of violence in his neighborhood by creating a persona that would be respected in the streets. An identity equally informed by the Lord of the Flies and the music of Tupac Shakur – narratives about the anger that fuels an endless cycle of violence and trauma. While Kendrick hints at escape through narcotics, Mike copes by becoming harder, by becoming “like an iron man“. In real life, Mike went on to become a working class guy before going into music, but it’s easy to imagine how his decision to become hard could’ve had tragic consequences. Prisons and graveyards are filled with men who decided to become hard in the narrow way that garners respect in the street. Although Mike’s choices were different than mine, there’s something about the “and I bought my first tape by Tupac and I got hard” line that reminds me of how effective Tupac was at articulating the righteous anger that I felt through most of my teenage years. I distinctly remember what struggling to control my anger felt like. How hard it was to not overreact to every perceived slight. It starts as a defense mechanism, but ends up as a crutch, especially once I realized that I was carrying those feelings around with me where ever I went. As Ta-Nehisi Coates once wrote, “even if you are not out in The Street, it’s very hard for none of The Street to live in you“.
Kendrick suggests a number of ways to resolve this conflict (or ease the tension) in Good Kid m.a.a.d. city, most notably in Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst, Black Boy Fly and the skit at the end of Real. But the solution that resonates the most right now is Freedom, by Anthony Hamilton and Elayna Boynton. The need to escape implicit in good kid is brought to the surface in the gospel tinged duet from the Django Unchained soundtrack.
Freedom was one of the many perfectly placed (if on the nose) sonic accompaniments to the film. The song’s power grows on repeated listening. When I first heard it, I thought that it helped situate Django within the legacy of American folk heroes and the African American community’s long struggle towards freedom while reminding us that his struggle was an intensely personal one. It’s a song about desperate hope in the face of impossible odds, a brief intrusion of reality into Quentin Tarantino’s heightened fantasy.
Freedom is painful, but there’s something about the song that fills me with optimism. It’s the slight tremor in Boynton’s voice when she sings that the sun’s gonna shine on her nicely. Hamilton’s confident declaration that there’s got to be a winning in his bones.
The echoes of spirituals and freedom songs in Freedom serve as a reminder that in some small way, my generation’s struggles for inner and outer peace mirror those of earlier generations. The block presented its own challenges to my parents and grandfather as young people. My father spent his youth trying to embrace his neighborhood without being confined by it while my mother gingerly navigated the invisible land mines of her neighborhood as a young woman. In contrast, my maternal grandfather was determined to abandon it for the suburbs. That reminder of a greater struggle helps fuel the hopes and dreams that give us the power to process our pain.