Notes on a Hip-Hop Conversion

“I listen to everything except hip-hop and country.” That was my stock answer whenever people asked my teenaged self what kind of music I enjoyed. Explaining why I disliked these two was a different matter, but it boiled down to this: as a white, affluent, well-educated male, I felt neither country nor hip-hop suited my situation. Each failed to match my values and understanding of the world.

I associated country music with a kind of patriotism that I adamantly rejected – I was a young, angsty, self-important activist who saw the United States as an evil oppressor in the world. Big trucks, rodeos, and “God Bless America” bore no relation to my life.1

The same was pretty much true for hip-hop. In my sheltered world, hip-hop was merely gangster rap about drugs and women with larger-than-normal posteriors. This repelled me because I thought myself a well-behaved teenager – I came home when my parents asked. I hung out with ‘acceptable’ friends. I didn’t drink or do drugs. I saw hip-hop as foreign to all this and – dare I say it? – even downright sinful. This judgment, formed without very much evidence, was superficial and uncritical. It safeguarded my “good Catholic boy” image, or rather, it safeguarded my self-righteousness and purity. The idea that hip-hop could be anything more than heavy beats and gold chains was not a thought I entertained.

***

After my sophomore year of high school, in summer 2006, I attended to two ‘camps’ (for lack of a better term). The first, Amnesty International’s Youth Activist College, brought together aspiring high school and college activists from across the country. We spent a week at Marymount University just outside Washington, D.C. The College taught us skills such as campaign planning, decision making, and how to make activism fun – particularly by utilizing the arts.

At the time, slam poetry was rapidly gaining popularity. I listened attentively as one of my fellow activists performed a beautiful piece on women’s rights. Unlike the hip-hop I knew, her words moved gracefully, giving emphasis and vocal cues that drew the crowd into the story she wove. In later discussions, others related how their love of spoken word and slam poetry arose from hip-hop. This mix of dedicated activism and hip-hop confused me because it did not match my notion of rap bling.

Turntable by Francesco Romito via flickr

Turntable” by Francesco Romito

A few weeks later the bus taking me to the second camp of the summer, the Anytown Youth Leadership Institute, crashed in the hills of Missouri. Everyone was okay, but in hindsight this mirrored the crash that was going on between my worldview and hip-hop. This camp gathered students from Missouri interested in diversity and leadership. My high school diversity coordinator, Rob Evans, and history teacher, Tom Zinselmeyer, encouraged me to attend and bring the skills back to St. Louis University High. At the Institute, I was the only heterosexual, cisgender,2 affluent, white male.

I confronted many of my prejudices that week. Or maybe I should say that other attendees confronted me about my prejudices. As a good little activist, shouldn’t I be free of those? But my culture had programmed these biases deeply into me. Moreover, as someone who wanted to help people, I had my own ideas of what that help entailed. This often meant dismissing elements of another’s culture that I found negative, prioritizing my own worldview. That summer, it was becoming clear to me that one of these misconceptions clearly applied to hip-hop. At the Anytown Institute, I listened to a number of black and Latino students talk about living in the hood, racial segregation, distrust, and metal detectors in schools. They discussed gang recruitment, animosity between black, Bosnian, and Vietnamese persons and grandmas being the main caretakers in families.

Almost instinctually, I wanted to blame these various issues on hip-hop culture and what I saw as its glorification of thug life. I believed the people around me were blind to the detrimental impact of hip-hop. Yet none of these campers spoke of music as the culprit in their situation. (My privilege on the other hand…). The people around me, however, increasingly opened my eyes to my own dismissiveness and blindness.

***

Frank Waln is a Sicangu Lakota from the Rosebud Reservation, which sits on the southern edge of South Dakota. I met Frank at Creighton University and our friendship deepened during a service trip where he arranged for our group to learn about and participate in a sweat lodge ceremony. Born and raised in the rural life of the Great Plains, Frank started college at Creighton, which he attended in hopes of earning a medical degree to “help [his] people.” After two years, however, Frank realized that he needed to pursue his passion for music. Given his rural background, one might assume that meant country or Western. Nope: Frank is a hip-hop artist.

Two years at Creighton helped him discern his decision to leave the school. When I interviewed him recently, he told me:

“No one really said, ‘Well, what interests you? What do you wanna do?’ So it took me a couple years to figure that out. And I learned a lot at Creighton and I’d go home during the summertime to my res and work at the hospital on our res. And I kinda just figured out that that wasn’t what I wanted to do. That wasn’t my passion. Wanting to help my people was a part of my passion, but I didn’t know that I could find a way to do that doing what I love, which was making music.

Frank spent a year away from school before re-enrolling at Columbia College in Chicago where he studies audio arts and acoustics.

Frank first discovered hip-hop when listening to his cousins play the radio, but he wasn’t very interested in music as a whole. One evening on a walk with his mother, a glint of prairie sunset reflected off a scratched CD, grabbing his attention. Taking it home, he realized he had recovered Eminiem’s Marshall Mathers LP. At the time, Frank was struggling with emotions related to divorce, domestic abuse, and living in the impoverished reservation community. He felt that Eminem’s words spoke about his story, and that they gave him a sense of power. Even beyond the lyrics, the drums and beat behind the music energized him.

Because of his personal qualms with the violence of gangster rap, Frank searched for a different type of hip-hop from the kind his cousins liked. After hearing NAS’s One Mic, Frank wanted to become a rapper. NAS’s music offered a social commentary that Frank found inspiring. The lyrics named and discussed the reality around him, but also encouraged change in the community. Frank understood that NAS’s music helped his people, the same as Frank hoped to do.

This desire to help came from his mother, a tribal leader and important volunteer in the community. At a young age, Frank began taking food and other resources to community members living in remote locations who struggled to reach the tribal center. Plenty of people might come to the Res to help or for a visit, but Frank believes that the community must be the true force of betterment. For him, hip-hop is his method of taking ownership of this fact. Through his work, he tries to create hope within his own people while simultaneously demonstrating the richness of their history and culture to outsiders. Frequently performing half for Native and half for non-Native crowds, Frank acknowledges that many outside persons have a monolithic view of the Res as destitute and violent. His music draws an account far different than the average narrative we read in the New York Times. He creates a beautiful image of persons with stories. Have a look for yourself.3

***

 In my hip-hop conversion, Frank and his music have been crucial. He tells the real stories of himself and his people. He represents a culturally reimagined heritage of hip-hop and uses it as a tool for both expressing and challenging life experiences. For me, Frank has humanized hip-hop. Knowing him and hearing his music has almost become a Thomas-like experience in my life. Long a doubter, I have come to see (or is that hear?) and believe. What I mean to say is that Frank and his music have been a gift, and one that’s brought with it some key insights.

So imagine this young activist Jesuit beginning some of his most formative years as these events converge: the Occupy Movement, my deepening appreciation for hip-hop, and my own growing interiority and relationship with God. As I began my life as a Jesuit, I sat on the surface of many things – activism, hip-hop, myself, God, faith, and social justice to name a few. In many respects, I’m still on the surface. And at the same time, I’m living a life that requires and calls me to ever-greater depth. The Ignatian tradition invites us to drive our roots deeper, stretching out to our Source and the abundance and nourishment offered there.

As our roots extend, our perceptions and prejudices may radically change as well – and for the better. A white male might delve past his privilege to examine the foundation of hip-hop and the diverse world it represents. A man from the Rosebud Reservation may discover a form of self-expression that generates pride and hope in a community so often portrayed as helplessly broken and hopelessly backwards. A generation of artists might discover new methods for community engagement.

Hip-hop, I know now, is more than chains, rims, thick booties and violence. For me, it offers an opportunity for solidarity, to engage the world and the stories of others who are often unlike myself. Artists, pouring themselves into their work, allow me to enter their world and experience it in new and vital ways. I also think hip-hop may hold the keys to understanding, interiority, hope, and expression. I find myself saying something the “good Catholic boy” of my past could never have imagined: hip-hop helps me be a better Christian, a better man, a better Jesuit.

# # #

If you’re interested in exploring more hip-hop, here are a few suggestions. A special thanks to my good friends Adam DeLeon and Colin Laffey for their perspectives on the piece and artist suggestions.

Brother Ali | Atmosphere | Rebel Diaz | Frank Waln | Flobots | Lauryn Hill | KRS-One | Dilated Peoples | Lupe Fiasco | Talib Kweli | The Roots | Common (ft. Last Poets) | Invincible

  1. Fast forward a few years, and I’m much less angsty. I still see the U.S. as an oppressor (a topic for another essay), but more deeply appreciate that it’s also a country full of wonderful people.)
  2. The term ‘cisgender’ refers to a person whose birth sex matches their culturally accepted gender. In this usage, sex relates to a person’s organs; gender applies to cultural norms and expectations. In my case, cisgender means I’m a male who self-identifies as a man.
  3. For more on Frank, check out our interview that is embedded above (which includes important questions on activism), as well as interview he did with Native Trailblazers.

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