Prose from Poetry Magazine

Life Is Good

How hip-hop channels duende.

When I discuss hip-hop these days, I am usually talking with my youngest brother, who was one of the most talented rappers in our hometown. Usually it is inextricably bound with how we grew up and how we thought our friends would not go to college or live beyond high school. Then, there are those who did survive past college, or past thirty. I talk to my best friend from high school who worked two part-time jobs and collected disability for partial blindness. He supported his mom and two younger siblings while we were both in school, and sometimes all we had was a head nod to a beat to sustain us — someone telling a story that looked and sounded a little bit like us. Now, I talk to my friends who are grown and growing up, and some of them are dying. We become aware of the mortality and vulnerabilities around us when they die of high blood pressure, diabetes complications, heart problems, cancer, and substance issues, part and parcel of racism.

I recently told my brother, while working on a thousand-piece puzzle with my mother, “I am so grateful that you made it to age thirty.” He asked me, “What you mean, Tar?” I said, “You always ran up in those spots where people would get wild, and I would have nightmares that someone would shoot you.” And we talk about Joe Buck, who cut kids’ hair for free for the first day of school and gave free haircuts for job interviews and how they robbed him and shot him down for the small bit of cash that was on him. My brother wrote a song for him, and it was then I knew that hip-hop was the home for elegy, but it was also dangling on the precipice of duende. So I was rereading Lorca’s In Search of Duende, looking for some link beyond a contemporary continuation of the blues tradition that hip-hop obviously echoes, when I read this:

Behind these poems lurks a terrible question that has no answer. Our people cross their arms in prayer, look at the stars, and wait in vain for a sign of salvation.

Whenever I encounter needless and inherently systemic loss, I think of Lorca.

The duende does not come at all unless he sees that death is possible. The duende must know beforehand that he can serenade death’s house and rock those branches we all wear, branches that do not have, will never have, any consolation.

When I think of how death is looming and possible, it is not difficult to see why Nas’s “I Gave You Power” personifies a gun, much like Organized Konfusion’s “Stray Bullet,” or why Notorious B.I.G. had albums with the titles Ready to Die and Life After Death, nor was it unusual to hear MC Lyte’s “Poor Georgie” or Nonchalant’s “5 O’Clock.”

Then I think of what mattered to my students at Westinghouse High School on the West Side of Chicago who loved Nas’s “One Mic,” and a young man named Xavier, who eagerly showed me his copy of B.I.G.’s Life After Death as soon as it dropped. At least three students died during my time as a teaching artist there: one in a fire with her baby, one shot, and another hit by a drunk driver who dragged her body for blocks before he stopped.

Then there was one of my students at Rutgers University who wrote a letter to Notorious B.I.G. based on Langston Hughes’s “Theme for English B,” because the Bed-Stuy legend taught him something about writing before he came to my class. The opportunity to write about loss and trauma affirmed that they were survivors with capacity, talents, and rights to survive and thrive. Even though the affirmations in hip-hop were (and still are) reflected in material gains, fantasy is what sustains people in their most vulnerable moments, which is why Lorde can sing “I cut my teeth on wedding rings in the movies. And I’m not proud of my address. In the torn up town ... ” in the song “Royals.”

The magical property of a poem is to remain possessed by duende that can baptize in dark water all who look at it, for with duende it is easier to love and understand, and one can be sure of being loved and understood. In poetry this struggle for expression and communication is sometimes fatal.

But all of this brings me back to Nas, the emcee who grew up in the Queensbridge projects. He had a mother who was a postal worker, and his father is a well-known musician named Olu Dara, but the lure of dropping out of school and making illicit money was still tempting until he found his pen. To me, Nas always sounded like your homeboy that you felt would eventually right himself and live a long life, if he was careful ... and lucky. Illmatic has just reached the twenty-year mark as a hip-hop classic, but it’s been something to hear him pen more confessional, grown-up work that mirrors aspects of my own life as an adult woman who has experienced the loss of love through divorce. The cover of Life Is Good, where he holds a version of his former wife’s wedding dress, speaks to me. Then 
I think of what I said recently to poet Kyle Dargan: “Writing has 
always saved me. When friendships and relationships disappear, writing has always ensured that I have a place to land.” Hip-hop has been that place for so many people, a solace trapped in the breakbeat, between headphones, on linoleum, in fluid movement, behind turntables, in the arc of aerosol spray.

When I consider duende and hip-hop, I see how this culture has become an outlet from the very systemic forces that attempt to invalidate marginalized people and how it constructs possibilities for survival. When I hear Nas deliver his lyrics in “One Mic,” I am transported back to the video of him standing under a bare light bulb in a dark, basement-like room. There are no fans, no bling, no swag, no preposterous posturing. There is only Nas and his voice intoning how he only needs one mic. Even as each verse escalates with a different violent act that rises in volume and intensity, when he comes back to the chorus, Nas is calmly, softly telling us that one mic is solace and balm. As Lorca says: 

The duende’s arrival always means a radical change in forms. It brings to old planes unknown feelings of freshness, with the quality of something newly created, like a miracle, and it produces an almost religious enthusiasm.

This enthusiasm that he describes sounds exactly like the outlets of hip-hop and its global reception that continues to permeate popular culture. So, I keep thinking life is good, and I have taken Martin Luther King Jr. saying “longevity has its place” as more than a familiar phrase. There is always this pressure to live, but Nas leans back as a grown man and says he is alive and financially secure while explaining how those very conditions that could have killed him made him stronger and proud — not in the sense of Horatio Alger, but as a person who is continually typecast as a criminal incapable of happiness, joy, or a nuanced, complex history. This is what I think when 
I look at my youngest brother or when I consider J. California Cooper’s novel Family. In Family, a mother attempts to poison herself and her children to avoid the relentless trauma of slavery. She 
becomes a ghost who narrates the story of her children who are 
unsuccessfully poisoned and are eventually flung all over the world. There is joy in their surviving and the psychic weight gives them ways of expressing themselves that she never imagined. So, when Chrisette Michele sings the following hook in Nas’s “Can’t Forget about You,” I think of my youngest brother and how we are both proud that we’ve made it, even though death is inevitable, and often, the very thing that impedes the lives of those we love. 

These streets hold my deepest days
This hood taught me golden ways
Made me, truly this is what made me
Break me, not a thing’s gonna break me 
I’m that history
I’m that block
I’m that lifestyle
I’m that spot
That’s my past that made me hot
Here’s my lifelong anthem
Can’t forget about you.
Originally Published: April 1st, 2015

Tara Betts is the author of Arc & Hue (Willow Books, 2009) and the chapbook THE GREATEST!: An Homage to Muhammad Ali (Winged City Chapbook Press, 2013).

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  1. April 24, 2015
     Eric Huling

    reading this makes me feel really connected to
    you. A gift you have, words are a life style and
    to few of us get it, but you do. Keep expressing
    yourself thru your pen.

  2. April 29, 2015

    Keep expressing
    yourself thru your pen. truly enjoyed!!! It ...

  3. May 4, 2015
     e. thomas f.

    I enjoyed reading this.