Music has been as much a part of my life as breathing: the voices of my own mother, grandmother, and women of the church; Parliament Funkadelic on my dad’s record player; Boogie Monsters and Lords of the Underground; Onyx and Flatliners; Pebo, Luther, Whitney and Anita. Aaliyah, Jill, Gerald, and Frankie. Music speaks to the melanin in my skin. It drives the functions of my brain stem. Rhythms catch my ears from down the block. I freeze until I can identify the melody. Music sends chills through my bones, motivates me to run a little farther, or work a little longer. I can’t live without it.
Between the thump of the bass and skeet of the treble, you can find me.
As a youngun’, I was afraid of a lot of things. I feared I would be bound to the land that raised me, never able to see the world for myself. Fear fueled me to look for other ways to encounter the world. Music seemed my best option in a small, rural town. I spent my youth playing my dad’s records and listening to radio stations late into the night on my grandmother’s radio. When I became older and started to define myself, I realized I liked my music with no filter, no apology. I wanted music that took risks and said what I needed to hear. I found poetry in the lyrics, rhymes, and unrestricted songs. I was, am, and will always be a hip-hop head. I hear the poetry of the streets in hip hop songs. Kurtis Blow, Africa Bambadda, Lil Wayne, and DMX speak to me without bullshit.
In 1997, my friends and I graduated high school in rural Florida. It was the first Tuesday in June. That night, we were set to walk across the stage on the football field in front of our families and friends. We would accept our diplomas, a hard-fought rite of passage into adulthood. We spent the hot days practicing for graduation and thinking about taking on our new lives. That Tuesday also marked the release of second album by the Wu-Tang Clan, Wu-Tang Forever. The album was a dual-disc masterpiece that only true hip-hop heads knew about. I hopped in my black 1986 Camaro, the t-tops off, with my brother as my co-pilot. I put the pedal to the floor of “Tank,” the old Camaro with aluminum racing mag wheels, V6 engine, and two 12-inch subwoofers pumping in the back. My small town didn’t have a record store that sold an unedited copy of the album, so south Alabama was the next best place to go. We rocked all kinds of music up that narrow highway and tried not to get a ticket.
Halfway there, we passed several of our friends already on the way back to home. Imagine us honking and waving while gliding by each other on the highway doing about 70. The ride back made the day even better because we had Wu-Tang Forever. Disc 1, Track 11 was “Itz Yourz” with a chorus that started “It’s yours, the world in the palm of your hand.” That song kept the speakers thumping, my brain in ecstasy, and the pedal to the metal halfway home. I was high on hope and glory that day.
“Triumph,” disc 2, track 2, is an ode to success and conquering anything in your way. It was the timeless magnum opus of the album, and it turned that Tuesday into a memory I won’t forget. For the next several days, “Triumph” was all I could play. Soon after graduation, I headed to Basic Training absent of the thump of the bass line for nearly three months. The song still remained stuck in my brain.
In 2003, my soon-to-be-wife was nearing graduation from her university. We had been living together for about a year. My own post-secondary education was put on hold. I had left a pretty good job and moved to live with my brother. My mother fell sick and was soon out of work, then my brother had to move due to complications with his tuition assistance program. I was left with a two-bedroom apartment, a year lease, and no way out. I had to work. I had to pay bills. A dead-end job desk job, but at least, I had a dope gray and orange Sony Walkman. I went everywhere with it. My music tastes had changed in the passing years, but I was still a hip-hop head. I needed music to match my mood. Something that both made me mellow out and rage harder to burn off the sickness I felt. Incubus and Linkin Park were my weapons of choice. America had invaded Iraq for the second time that year. It wasn’t long before my National Guard unit was activated to spend time training in southern Georgia and then slated to travel to Kuwait.
While in Georgia, my unit went to the Post Exchange, or PX, with its video games, DVDs, magazines and civilians, to feel like normal people. At the PX, I picked up Linkin Park’s Meteora. The love affair I had with Hybrid Theory‘s mix of traditional b-boy, deejaying, rock, rap, and power vocals echoed the ups and downs of my days in the hot Georgia sun. I was prepared to defend the American way with “Faint,” “Somewhere I Belong,” and “Nobody’s Listening.” The end of the day came crashing down with “Numb.”
Incredibly sad and shut away, I was a not myself and I knew it. Six months later, my unit went to Kuwait without me. Politics spared me the trip. I had to find myself again.
I’m independent and not a follower. Everything man, renaissance man, country boy, Christian-raised, rebellious, Black and proud, that’s me too. To get back myself, I had to get creative. I needed different types of sound. Bass music was gone. Rock music was depressing. Rap music (Public Enemy, ATCQ, Leaders of a New School, Puff Daddy, 50 Cent, and Snoop Dogg) was still missing something. I wanted something new, but old. Something cool but with soul. Something edgy and tricked out, yet classic and familiar. The Black Eyed Peas were close. Lil Jon and Ludacris were my comfort zone. Kanye was the College Dropout, like me, but with a record deal. Then, I knew what I needed; it hit me like a shot to the brain.
Cee-Lo Green and His Imperfect Imperfections and Cee-Lo Green…Is the Soul Machine were both in heavy rotation on my playlists years earlier. But Gnarls Barkley’s St. Elsewhere didn’t hang on the heels of the BEPs or the Gorillas. It didn’t mimic No Doubt or Linkin Park. It shattered the ceiling, crushed the floor, wrapped the house in a gasoline blanket, lit the house on purple fire, and then, put out with fire with rainbow water bullets from a 45 caliber firehose. I couldn’t get enough. I listened to the method and madness of “GoGo Gadget Gospel,” the crunk elevation of “Transformer,” then you could flip to “Who Cares” and “Gone Daddy Gone.” I got away from my dark places, got into a groovy new world, and asked, “Does that make me Cra-zay?” When I heard Gnarls, they opened the door to crush black velvet road. I knew I was being shown the way home.
Years passed, my playlist remained static: The Roots, Talib Kweli, Chrisette Michelle, DeLa Soul, Jill Scott, and Erykah Badu. It was hard to listen to a lot of the new artists. I just lost touch somewhere. Again, something seemed missing. I finally felt like I might as well give in to the music that the kids were creating these days.
Then, Jordan Davis was shot and murdered outside Jacksonville for playing his music too loud in 2012. I was in shock. Over the next 12 months, it became clear how dangerous it was to be young and black in America. I was frightened because I had dodged that hatred growing up. I even took chances that could have had similar results, but didn’t. I succeeded in life, and then learned that my success didn’t matter. The proper speech didn’t matter. Proper clothes didn’t matter. Proper education, job, or friends didn’t matter. I was still Black in America, and America didn’t care what happened to me as long as there was no interruption to the lives of people who didn’t look like me.
The protests started, and voices were raised. The ancestors’ blood rose up in our souls, and many Black people found an inner light of most black people that transformed into a roaring flame for justice, unapologetic Blackness, resistance to appropriation, and social vigilance about how Blackness was portrayed. Magazines posted photos of today that looked too similar to the civil rights marches of my grandparents’ day. A sickening reminder of just how far we had not come.
Hope turned to anger and disgust, but we still needed hope. I still needed hope.
One album shed light on Blackness, pride, anger, and passion. Unforgiving and funky, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly takes you there, right there, to the center of Black America: the city streets, the plague of police violence, incarceration, country roads and ball fields where you get spit on, called out, and insulted. This album was ample and true; it was poetic justice. Pride appeared at a whole new level with “King Kunta” and “The Blacker The Berry.” “Complexion” conjured feelings of self-love and self-hate. “Wesley’s Theory” and “These Walls” offers a space of rest and recuperation before “Hood Politics,” “You Ain’t Gotta Lie,” and “For Sale” get your blood going again.
But no matter what your mood, high, low, good, bad, standing still, armchair activism, or marching in the streets, you can hear Lamar and know you are justified in your own skin, spirit, mind, and presence. In “Alright,” he assures, “we gon’ be alright,” and you repeat the words “we gon’ be alright,” over and over and over again until you just know, you just know, you can weather the storm too.
You keep up the fight. You keep going and growing and learning and achieving. You keep loving and living and teaching and existing. You can keep bumping your favorite music. You keep living through the trials that life deals you and stepping over them, one after another, because you will be alright, as long as the music keeps playing: “Pimp, pimp? Hooray. Pimp, pimp? Hooray. Pimp, pimp? Hooray.”
My method to keep going year after year, my desire to never turn cold or be trapped in this world comes down to one song, Outkast’s “Reset.” Every year, I reflect on my life up to that point. I think about all my anxieties, fears, success, and triumphs. I look inward at my heart (and soul and light) and see what have I done to feed and grow me. I listen to “Reset” again and again. How do you stay the everything man? How do I push myself year after year to do more when I’m already tired and all of my fucks have been given? I still have a loving wife, a family to support, a legacy to create, and ancestors to carry home.I have to start over and find a way to let as much of the unnecessary weight go. Or I have to find new ground to tread, new goals to reach and new opportunities.
Years after this Outkast song was released, I still have to hear it and evaluate. On the anniversary of my birth into this world, I listen to “Reset” to recognize where I have been and think about where I am going. What matters is how I spent the year and how will the next year be better, even in the tiniest ways.
“Reset” is my hope song. With this song, every year, I thank the Gods of my ancestors, the God of my family, the talent of the artists, and the spirit of my soul that I have music. I will always have music. And as long as I can pop in a tape or a CD, plug in my mp3 player, or bluetooth my phone, I can go another day bobbin’ my head and mouthing the words as I push through like Talib, Curren$y and Kendrick do.
Tyrell Baker is technology professional who married young, served his country and prides himself on his catalog of hip-hop history and music. He spends his time following technology culture, researching family history, and continuing to explore the changing state of anime, social media, and urban music