A Written Testimony, Ambrose Akinmusire, Black on Both Sides, COVID 19, Fetch the Bolt Cutters, Fiona Apple, Illmatic, Internal Affairs, Jay Electronica, Live! One Night Only, Mad Max: Fury Road, music, Nas, on the tender spot of every calloused moment, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, Outkast, Patti LaBelle, Seven Sundays, SiR, Sleepy Brown, Southernplayalisticadillakmuzik, To Pimp A Butterfly
I’m now a bit over 41 and a half years old.
I’ve finally reached the age when the divide between my life and the lives of those in their teens and twenties feels incredibly clear and insurmountable. I can no longer pretend to understand the perspective of young people without talking to young people. I always thought that I would have mixed feelings about this time of life, but it feels more like an opportunity to learn new things, which is kind of great.
The space between 41 and 41 1/2 feels much larger than the space between 40 and 41 (or 35 and 40). The COVID health emergency plays a large role – the days tend to blur together when you shelter in place for ninety days – but it’s also about the ways in which the basic rules of the world have shifted over the last few months.
It’s more than the endless crises – the pandemic that caused a painful recession with Depression era food/job insecurity as we are struggling with the stress test for democracy that is the Trump administration (and his enablers in Congress) and a weeks long police riot targeting citizens protesting police violence against Black people.
It’s the sense that I’m living in a moment in which anything is possible. This can be the moment when we can decide to confront systems of white supremacy and misogyny. I’ve spent my life reading and watching and listening to stories of women experiencing abuse in environments controlled by men (or being punished for not being the right kind of woman) and Black people enduring abuse in environments dominated by white people.
I’ve lost count of the stories about Black people abused by the police, from the murders that make the news to the demeaning, disrespectful everyday encounters that are less ‘newsworthy’ but deeply painful. This is not the first time that I’ve seen impassioned protests and powerful activist movements that have arisen in response to these incidents, but this is the first time I’ve seen so many people resist co-optation.
It’s not enough to schedule trainings on anti-racism or against sexual harassment or on de-escalation and how to be an effective ‘guardian’. It’s not enough to release a statement stating that Black Lives Matter or that you are listening. It’s not enough to write a consultant/lawyer approved note saying that you believe the woman who was raped or harassed. Crowds may cheer when you take down a statue honoring a person for the atrocities they committed, but they will not be satisfied.
They want to know how you will contribute to the project of dismantling systems of oppression. They want you to create opportunities for people, to address harm, to ensure that those who commit harm are held accountable. They want you to imagine an approach to public safety that centered the needs and preferences of people and communities (especially those who are ignored and harmed by our existing system). They want justice.
I hope that their efforts succeed, but worry about the darker possibilities, whether they take the form of a reactionary backlash that could result in a bloody reign of terror (as we stumble towards fascism and global irrelevance) or light procedural reforms and lip service to activist movements. I look back at history (both in this country and elsewhere) and think of the times when movements were undermined and destabilized or ruthlessly crushed. I know better. We are not condemned to endlessly repeat the past. This feels like a moment for truth-telling. It seems like people feel compelled to tell the truth in this moment. This country may finally be ready to stop committing the crime of innocence. In the midst of a pandemic, my sense of hope has been renewed.
The other interesting part of being 41 is that I am endlessly surprised by pop culture anniversaries. 2019 marked the silver anniversary of Illmatic and Southernplayalisticadillakmuzik, the debut albums from Nas and OutKast. Both are classic albums that don’t feel vintage or like products of their time. Neither feels twenty five years old. When Nas tells me that his sentence begin indented “with formality”, or when Sleepy Brown sings about how “niggas killing niggas is part of the master plan”, the flow and words still feel vibrant and contemporary even though the song also transports me to the moment in high school when I first popped the cassette tapes into my Walkman (with Dolby B sound).
I’m quick to identify Nas and OutKast as contenders in conversations about the “GOAT” of the genre, but I don’t spend much time thinking about their respective legacies or how they’ve influenced artists (in a variety of disciplines) over the last quarter century. I often think of them as vital, talented artists, but forget that they are icons.
This was the first year I realized that my definition of ‘recent’ with respect to culture has become fluid. It could be a reference to last week, last month or last year (or five years ago). Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly and George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road feel like they came out pretty recently, but they’re both five years old.
I notice this phenomenon with most forms of culture, but it’s most noticeable in music. Many of the artists who I think of as ‘emerging’ or ‘up and coming’ are mainstream presences who’re firmly part of the establishment. Artists who debuted a decade ago feel as new as the artists who released their first music in the spring of 2020. Some of these ‘new’ artists have been around long enough to inspire subsequent generations of ‘new’ artists. I’m occasionally surprised to read about MCs who view Kanye West and Lil’ Wayne (post The Carter) as seminal artists. This logic also applies in other areas – I still think of an actor like Leonardo di Caprio as a youngish actor with a promising career ahead of him, but forget that people in their twenties probably see him in the way that I saw Jack Nicholson when I was young – an established industry figure who would be considered an all timer if he never made another film.
Why do things feel so different? I think it might be because the role that art and culture play in my life has changed over the years. I used to define myself by the art and culture I loved. I listened to albums on repeat and memorized liner notes (and bought all the bootlegs and mixtapes). I saw movies multiple times and watched all of the credits. There are years and seasons I remember for the albums and films that were released as much as for the people I met and things I experienced. The Summer of Only Built 4 Cuban Linx and a relationship that was reaching a bittersweet end. The Fall of Internal Affairs, Black on Both Sides, student government and drunken revelry.
I read all of the interviews and features (all of them) and devoured the criticism. Music and film played a powerful role in my life during the years when my aesthetic preferences were being developed, when I was deeply in the process of becoming myself.
One day I stopped. I still listened to new music and watched new movies, but they were unmoored from any specific place or time. I still love film, music and art. They move me, entertain me and add meaning to my life. They are still part of the soundtrack of my life. I’m still fascinated by the unfamiliar, but the discovery of newly released work is less central to my experience. Over the last few months, I’ve spent a lot of time listening to music that is novel to me – from Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters and Jay Electronica’s A Written Testimony to on the tender spot of every calloused moment by Ambrose Akinmusire, Patti LaBelle’s Live! One Night Only and SiR’s Seven Sundays. They all feel equally new and vital, though some were released over two decades ago.
I find myself drifting away from the discourse about new culture as I get older. I enjoy reading and writing about culture, but don’t need to engage with things immediately anymore. There was a time in my life when Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday were incredibly important days of the week for me. It was a time for new music, comic books and film. At 41, I simply enjoy art when I encounter it.
(The author, listening to a dope track from Avantdale Bowling Club for the first time in the fall of 2019).