A Past About a Better Future: Reflections from “African Dream”
When I was a young child, maybe 5 years old, my family stopped by a gas station in a predominantly black neighborhood. It was dark. I was tired. I saw a black man adorned with black leather with a full beard drive up next to us on a loud motorcycle. I remember feeling scared. Maybe it was the loud motorcycle. Maybe it was the beard and leather. Most likely it was the color of his skin. My dad stepped out of our car, said hello, pumped the gas, paid for it, and we left. A very normal exchange of goods and services. My dad didn’t seem scared so why did I? My parents were very kind. I don’t remember them ever saying one racist or even unkind word about another person. So where did this fear come from? Perhaps it was in the air I breathed coming up in a small city in Southern Indiana. Maybe I picked it up subconsciously. Regardless, it didn’t go unchecked very long.
Around that same time, I began listening to Hip-hop music. RUN DMC, Beastie Boys, Kool Moe Dee, LL Cool J. Then came KRS-One, the Native Tongues, Poor Righteous Teachers, NWA, the Geto Boys, Wu-Tang, Nas, O.C. etc… Also around that time I began school. It was a Catholic school with little diversity. Still, I made friends with the few kids who did not look like me. We learned together and played at recess and at each other’s houses. As I spent time with friends of different shades and backgrounds and as I continued to eat up as much Hip-hop as I could find, I grew. I had knowledge from robust experiences that informed the way I saw the world in a more universal, enriching way.
Hip-hop helped make up for the more whitewashed educational upbringing in the majority white Catholic school system. KRS-One’s “You Must Learn” comes to mind. Through this song I learned about several black contributions to the world. NWA taught me that perhaps the idea of America has not been realized by all its participants. Now, I probably wasn’t thinking in those terms when I was 10 but I was picking it up. I was being grounded in a diversity of thought and experience. Hip-hop in part provided that diversity in my life. Looking back I’m thankful that Hip-hop found its way into my life. I think I am a better human for it.
Enter the new song from Blu & Exile entitled “African Dream.” Black people in the history books I remember were “enslaved” people. And slavery was essentially an accepted practice at the time. It’s just what society did back then and everyone went along with it. Except, it was not accepted. Not by those who were enslaved. Not by good intentioned people that recognized enslaved people as persons filled with the same dignity and humanity as anyone else.
“African Dream” celebrates Africa and blackness and it calls us back to a movement in Hip-hop. The Hip-hop that guided me during my formative years never left. It has always been around but it hasn’t been as loud since the late 80’s, early 90’s. Recently, artists and groups that speak to the harsh realities of street life have soared. Their return to a grimey boom bap sound have Hip-hop heads all over going giddy. I know I am. I love it. And I want artists like 38 Spesh, Roc Marciano, Knowledge the Pirate, Westside Gunn, and the like to continue to tell their stories. We need their voices. AND we need voices like Blu’s on “African Dream.” We need Joey Bada$$ when he asks, “Y U Don’t Love Me?” We need Skyzoo’s “Beautiful Decay.” We need Oddisee to give us an “Odd Cure” to our current madness. We need balance. We need artists to tell us their stories of pain and struggle and we also need artists to paint prophetic pictures of a better tomorrow.
Blu paints such a picture on “Dear Lord” just three songs past “African Dream.” He imagines universal oneness: a world not defined by being separated, but by being together. He references everyone listening to a male God so it is not a perfect description in my view, but it is an attempt at striving for something better. This world needs that. More of that. Not just in Hip-hop, but everywhere because at every turn, children are watching and learning. Mine certainly are.
My nine year old daughter heard me play “African Dream” the other day. When I turned it off she said, “I like that beat. You should make a beat like that.” I should. Then, I should talk to my daughter about African history. Perhaps I could use some Hip-hop songs to help facilitate the learning.