By AmeriCorps Member Justin Porter
Music has transformed my life. I still remember the first time I heard the album Aquemini by the hip hop duo Outkast as a child. I was dazzled by Andre 3000's lyrical dexterity and beguiled by Big Boi's effortless cool. In addition to giving me a wonderful way to pass the time, these men taught me how to ask probing questions about the world around me. In a neighborhood where saggy pants and drug culture were sometimes the norm, I found myself embracing eccentric clothing and wordplay.
I reflect back on my very first day at Webster, the high school where I serve, as I nervously introduced myself to students in the cafeteria. I walked up to Matthew (a junior on the basketball team) and asked him how much he liked school. "It's a'ite. Boring, though." I then asked about his favorite class. "Basketball practice," he retorted smoothly. Getting desperate, I inquired about his favorite song, expecting another lethargic answer. Wrong. I could hardly handle the intensity of his gaze as he passionately debated the merits of Childish Gambino's popular songs "3005" and "Hold You Down." We spent another fifteen minutes discussing the impressive wordplay in Gambino's first album, Camp. The line that we both found most impressive was, "Culture shock at barber shops 'cause I ain't hood enough/We all look the same to the cops; ain't that good enough?"
Hip hop is a part of a tradition much richer than many of us can imagine. In being the honest, nuanced and contradictory response to adversity, hip hop empowers its creators and listeners. Young students of color occupy a remarkably complex place within American society - just take a second to imagine the confusion of having a black president yet being terrified of the police because of race. Hip hop, in all of its complexity and imperfection, is one of the best coping mechanisms these students have.
Over the past few weeks, I've spend a lot of time thinking about how hip hop both helps and harms young males of color like myself. Hip hop is beautiful and ambiguous, and it captures a powerful vision of what is both good and tragic about human nature. Take, for example, the Atlanta rap group Migos – a favorite amongst my students. If one was to only hear their hit single "Versace," it would be easy to dismiss them as another case of materialistic rappers poisoning the minds of our youth. Yet, Migos also have songs like "Struggle," where they respond in sadness to cases of police brutality with lines like, "Together we stand, we fall apart then we divide."
When I think back to certain past experiences, such as playing crossword puzzles on my mom's living room floor as a kid, running experiments in the lab as a teenager, or waiting nervously before walking into the first round of a debate tournament – I find that there is one constant tying these experiences together: music. Music has gotten me through it all, and it has influenced me indelibly along the way. My time at Webster has taught me me that I'm not the only one who is looking to find the rhythm.
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