But around the country, all kinds of people were encouraged, by Hollywood and the news, to be scared of Black youth (as they were called). Some of those people took out full-page ads wishing them the death penalty. Some chased them from neighborhoods and mistook them for piñatas. Our parents, though, weren’t afraid of the kids and the rappers those kids adored, not necessarily. The moms and dads and grandparents, the aunts, uncles and older cousins, understood the old life-or-death stakes. They knew that hip-hop had unleashed a new confrontational energy. They were afraid for them.
I’ve thought sincerely about whether hip-hop’s boastfulness was a wonder drug for Black psyches in search of street-level hope. These rappers emerged from the same poverty a lot of us knew. But they turned that doubt into bright-sided art. So many Black children were scolded and mocked for dreaming of careers in basketball and rap. The odds were worse than low. We’re talking about young people, though. They dream. Somebody really is always making it in hip-hop. Why not one of them? I grew up watching all the practicing and rehearsing and studying, the rigor. The dream was big. They knew they could maybe be paid to fly, paid to flow. They could turn on a radio or press play on a mixtape and hear the flight.
For 50 years, the essential writing — fables, comedies, diaries; adventure, memoir, porn — about young Black life in this country has been happening in hip-hop. Songs about feelings, fantasies, dilemmas, confessions, fantasias. What else is Notorious B.I.G.’s “Ready to Die” and its grueling, knowing, melodic re-creation of moral decay and sexual congress other than a triumph of literature? It is but one title on a shelf buckling with scores of comparable powerhouses. That’s one masterpiece set in New York.
What eventually brews in Houston and Atlanta, Miami, New Orleans and Memphis, in Virginia and California, deepens hip-hop, takes it into freaky, funky, bouncy, hilarious, mischievously brewed realms, dark, dreamy, unstable landscapes. Frailty, paranoia, trippiness, Afrocentrism and minimalism emerge. It’s music mining the past but potently about the present, often about itself. Hip-hop kids didn’t know a national struggle for civil rights as more than lore or part of a lesson plan. They had experienced personal strife — the struggle for food, shelter, safety, stability, jobs and respect. How many of these artists came of age in or adjacent to public housing and the criminal-justice system? Plight was in the art.