I first got into hip-hop at the age of thirteen at Jewish summer camp. It sounds oddly symbolic but it’s true. At thirteen I was a gangly, awkward kid. I didn’t have a whole lot of close friends in the city; camp was a social refuge in many respects. Still, I was desperate to fit in. While I didn’t really think much of hip-hop, some of my camp friends played it. Now if you open my iTunes browser, you’ll be hard-pressed to find music that isn’t of that genre. Hip-hop can speak to anyone, from me to a Somali teenager we now know as K’naan. This is my way of explaining why it speaks to me.
HK lived on the Danforth, went to an extremely diverse school and wasn’t part of the “JAP bubble”- a term used pejoratively for Jewish kids from affluent backgrounds. He was the vector that infected my soul with rap.
The first track I really got into was Kick, Push, by Lupe Fiasco. The idea of me skating was (and still is) laughable, but the sense of being different and not really part of a group really got to me. Before long I listened to a lot of rap, mostly with one friend who everyone still calls “HK”. He was different from us, from a different place than the rest of the cabin. Most of the kids there were highly privileged, from almost exclusively Jewish neighborhoods. HK lived on the Danforth, went to an extremely diverse school and wasn’t part of the “JAP bubble” – a term used pejoratively for Jewish kids from affluent backgrounds. He was the vector that infected my soul with rap.
By the time I went home, I had a list of albums to listen to. It started with the typical mainstream fare: Kanye, Lupe, the odd Jay-Z track. I later began to expand into “backpack rap”, especially Jurassic 5 - What’s Golden was my soundtrack. People at home didn’t much like rap music and listening to it didn’t earn me any new friends. Graduating from my tiny, religious middle school and going to high school changed things a bit, but I was still an outsider. So I would put in my earbuds – when the beat dropped, everything was alright.
“Yo Alex, check out this track”
“What is it, man?” I said.
“It’s called ‘100 Strong Arm’, it’s by these guys from Toronto. I roll with one of them, C-4, he’s from J&F,” said *Mark, one of my closest, oldest friends and another of my hip-hop “muses”, referencing Toronto’s notorious Jane and Finch neighbourhood.
“Alright. Put it on.”
The first time I heard 100 Strong Arm was weird. I had listened to a lot of hardcore rap, mostly in the locker room before a football practice or game. Still, it was stuff everyone knew: DMX, Ludacris, that kind of stuff. Underground Toronto rap was really different though. It was surprisingly lyrical, skilled, over skeletal beats, although it rarely strayed from classic gangsta rap themes. Other artists followed 100 Strong Arm, a group track: Mayhem Morearty, Califate, and Point Blank. The more I listened to and got used to the feverish, fraught energy of Toronto rappers, just trying to make it, the more I got into gangsta rap. I started to listen to other, more mainstream artists.
While I liked the beats and the raw energy of gangsta rap, its world was alien to me. I didn’t know that world. I became increasingly disillusioned with the mindlessness of gangsta rap, which didn’t seem to say anything important or meaningful. I yearned for something more than guns and drugs, and started to drift away. At the same time, Mark was going in a different direction. What I couldn’t identify with, he could. While I stayed out of trouble, Mark found himself in drugs and violence, gangs and prison. As he was wrenched from my life, so too did gangsta rap go with him. Now, whenever a wave of nostalgia passes over me, I put 100 Strong Arm on, vibe to the beat and feel the pain of losing a friend all over again.
K’naan is my favourite musician. Between his incredible life story, his soulful, creative beats and lyrics, his astonishing raw musical talent and his personal humility in the face of fame and fortune, he stands above everyone else. I first heard K’naan on his track “What’s Hardcore”. It really encapsulated my growing exhaustion with gangsta rap. I started to listen the rest of his music and loved it. Growing up Jewish meant that melancholy ideas of exile and yearning for a homeland were all around me, in religious texts, prayers, and poetry. K’naan’s longing for Somalia, his descriptions of an idealized place of beauty and peace and joy, reached deep into my soul. I could identify with this music on a whole other level.
Meanwhile I was getting more interested in politics. I had always been a vaguely politically oriented person. Now I was getting really into it though, and in a radical way. Hip-hop was less of a result and more of a catalyst for this. As I had gotten into hardcore rap, HK, always conscious, showed me some Immortal Technique. Along with groups like Dead Prez and the softer but still political Talib Kweli, Tech really spoke to me. While Afro-nationalism and revolutionary socialism were unfamiliar to me, their radicalism was not. Rage against an unjust world was not restricted to them; knowing the historical oppression of my people, and that humanity had never fulfilled its promise of “Never Again”, made me susceptible to the siren of revolution. Soon, angry, political, revolutionary hip-hop joined my repertoire.
That’s where I am now. Hip-hop has changed my life, and is the soundtrack to most of my days. People often question why I like hip-hop, and say ignorant things like “Do you think you’re black or something?” The wonder of hip-hop, and all art, is that it can speak across lines of culture, time and space to basic human experiences. While I feel my white privilege at times, the feelings of longing for home in K’naan, or social exclusion in Lupe, or anger at an unjust world, aren’t restricted to people of one race or culture. It’s universal and that is the beauty of it, of Hip Hop.