I can’t remember if it was my first time hearing rap music, but I can remember the first time I heard NWA. It was a pivotal moment for my music-loving heart. I was maybe thirteen. The song was Straight Outta Compton and there were more curse words in the first three lines than I’d likely ever heard in all my years, including the one word we were never to utter anywhere ever. My mother made that clear. Once I got past my initial wide-eyed wonder at the language, I knew I was hooked.
I couldn’t put my finger on why exactly this music resonated so much with me. I mean, it’s clearly not mine to claim. No matter how much I was the poor kid in the rich kid school, I was still a white girl from the suburbs with never a worry about having enough food or shelter, or dodging stray gunfire or angry police. And yet, somehow those songs reached deep into my soul. I’d argue now it’s because of the art.
These men (and later women, oh Missy, Lauren, Mary and The Queen, aah) are lyrical geniuses. They could tell an entire narrative in rhyme which felt very new to me. Sure, I’d heard poetry, but I was mostly bored or confused by it. I’d already begun my love affair with lyricists in other genres, and I appreciated a good story in song. But rap was the first poetry I ever loved. Honestly, it’s still the only poetry I have ever loved. And the music? Oh, the music. You feel the emotion of rap songs down to your toes even if you never hear a single rhyme.
My early NWA experience led to an entire exploration of the genre that turned into a musical appreciation and love that has lasted well into my adult years. One that remains pretty hard to explain as a privileged white woman living in the suburbs.
If I thought explaining it was hard, try passing it on to my kids. I know it’s weird, but I feel really strongly about passing on my musical legacy. Let me be clear, I can’t write a lick of music, play a single instrument and I can barely carry a tune, but music has always been the one tool I’ve had to bond with people. When my brother and brothers in law were separated from my by so many years that everything else seemed inaccessible, we shared music, punk and jazz and hard rock.
I’ve connected to students and nephews and those much younger than me through pop music. Music is what drew me to my college roommate. We shared many a moment marveling over the beauty of a well-written lyric. She remains one of my best friends today and we still share tracks across the miles via iphones or facebook walls. Music connected me to every boy, and frankly every friend, I have ever loved. Some people bake to show their affection. I make mix tapes (or cds or downloadable mp3 lists). It seems natural then that I would want music to connect me to my own kids.
The Girl and I have a few common musical threads. She fully embraces the girl power rock songs and swirly singer songwriter ballads she has fallen asleep to since she slept in a crib. And of course, there are show tunes and show tunes and show tunes. Try as I might though I could never fully get her on board with rap. Any time I’d try to point out a lyric or segment of bass that resonated with me as we were driving in the car with Backspin or even Hip Hop Nation blasting from the speakers, she’d mostly just look at me side-eyed like her crazy old mom, or gasp at the cursing I was allowing her to hear when normally I’m very stern with that language in her ears (unless it slips from my lips now and again.).
Rap and Hip Hop, she just didn’t get ’em.
Until they came to Broadway.
She’s been obsessed with Hamilton since almost the day it made it’s debut. She has had the soundtrack on repeat for months. She talks about it so frequently that I actually had to threaten to take away her phone if she brought it into any conversations for a week. She knows every word to every song and can even spit ’em out fairly well for a white girl from the suburbs. She has come at this show with the same over-the-top enthusiasm she brings to most everything. Which means, she’s researched every character and every actor and every rap reference in the score. She’s educated herself on DMX, Biggie and Eminem. She kept telling me I was going to love it. I looked at her side-eyed like my crazy young daughter.
We went to see the show last night.
I loved it. The music is incredible. The atmosphere is all the energy of a rap show with a lot less weed. It was sitting there that I was able to put a finger on why I loved rap so much. No, it wasn’t written for me, or maybe it was. I mean the history lessons my girl is getting from this show are far more comprehensive and realistic than any I ever read in a social studies text.
No, the stories still aren’t mine to claim. Or maybe they are. American history, complete with references to the stain of slavery on our independence and the powerful contribution of immigrants to our overall freedom, should be all of our history. These are the stories I want my kids to know about their country. Not the white washed version I got in school.
No matter the stories or whom they’re written for, the artistry, the passion and the depth of rap music are on full display in this show. The rhymes are so tight it was pointed out that forty pages of detail in the biography that Hamilton is based on are condensed into the opening number. The out of this world music that still reaches deep into my soul is hard to deny. Whether it’s in Compton or on the boards of Broadway, rap music is powerful and artistic and (should be) as much a part of our American landscape as rock and roll. I’m so grateful to Lin-Manuel and his remarkably talented cast for showing that to my girl in a way I never could.