The hip hop albums I’ve listened to, from Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle to Kendrick’s To Pimp a Butterfly, have taught me more valuable life lessons and offered more insight into my world than any education I received in school. In school, I learned other things—learned how to read, write and do math. To a certain extent, the questions and challenges I was required to complete in classes taught me how to problem-solve. History and geography textbooks allowed me to understand my situational context. I learned that the world was bigger than my block, bigger than the east side of Toronto, and bigger than North America. In high school, classes taught me lessons that were not explicit aims of the curriculum—art and French class, for example, flaunted the notion that I could not excel in all things. Or rather, they made me appreciate that art and languages were talents that seemed to come to others more naturally. Going from class to class and interacting with a variety of teachers who all had different personalities fostered in me the realization that in order to “get ahead” in life, one needed to be well-versed in the subtle arts of persuasion and negotiation. But the hip hop that I listened to, both to and from class (and sometimes during class), taught me about the very life I was trying to get ahead in.
In fact, hip hop taught me how to live. There were mistakes that I didn’t dare to make thanks to listening to Biggie’s Ready to Die or because of watching videos like TLC’s Waterfalls. Although Biggie rapped with a cadence that perfectly meshed with any baseline similar to old jazz musicians like John Coltrane, his lyrics embellished a lifestyle of guns, drugs, and women that I only dared to fantasize about. I didn’t need to be told by a teacher that crime or lust was a frivolous pursuit, I saw it through his stories told in songs like “Everyday Struggle” and “Suicidal Thoughts”. In sex-ed class we cringed as our gym teacher, Mr. Burke, scrupulously used a banana and a Durex to teach us what “safe sex” looked like. Truth be told, I already knew the importance of such measures simply by watching the gaunt face of an actor seemingly stare into his own soul in that TLC Waterfalls’ video while their lyrics rang, “His health is fading and he doesn’t know why. Three letters took him to his final resting place.” What I was learning in classes about succeeding in life was not quite as powerful as what hip-hop was intrinsically teaching me about it.
English classes taught me how to write ‘properly’ but music taught me how to articulate meaning. I gravitated towards hip hop because that was what best represented who I was. I got it when rappers would drop slick double entendres and witty punchlines. Whereas our teachers would speak to us in pedantic tropes regarding how to best succeed, rappers would share life lessons through elegant word play. “Money and Blood don’t mix like two dicks with no bitch – [you’ll] find yourself in serious shit”, Biggie would warn us about venturing out into the business world with family. Were some of the lyrics of the nineties overtly homophobic and chauvinistic? Unfortunately, yes. Did they provide glimpses into how to be successful? In a sense, that too. But aside from the detriments of hip-hop during that era, one thing was undeniable: hip-hop’s ability to teach us how to make sense of our world.
Hip hop supplemented this lesson through another, sometimes subconscious, process – it explained life through a shared vernacular and word play that was stripped down and simultaneously luxurious. The more we listened, the more we understood how to analyze and then explain our circumstance through words that were, in fact, universal to everyone in our community. I understood and was compelled by the stories hip-hop artists told of their neighbourhoods and struggles to “live and maintain”. “Live and maintain”, those three words echoed our exact circumstances. The phrase had an almost oxymoronic value. In a sense, to “live” meant to pursue material markers of success: jewellery, clothes, nice shoes and eventually a fancy car. While to “maintain” meant sticking to the core values of our community – honoring family and your clique over almost everything else, staying authentic in all situations, and remaining true to the culture of hip-hop, of blackness. It was a saying so iconic in our communities that it was common for people to respond to “Hey, what’s up?” with “just living and maintaining, bro.” We clung to hip-hop music because through the process of living within our daily realities, the music taught us exactly how to maintain our sense of self, family, and community. It taught us how to see things before, during and after we experienced them – because we had already felt them through the music we tuned our ears into. Through it, we learned how to navigate between dreams of material accumulation and the harsh process of everyday living. Hip hop became the compass. Plus, it was the music being played in the apartments of my friends during the evenings and the music I heard bumping out of car stereos as they whisked by my street all summer long. Although I never thought of myself as a music connoisseur, hip hop was very much a part of my being. And I owe a whole lot to the hip hop music that made major parts of me.