My Pain Is Your Pain: Hip-Hop’s Nervous System and Language

My Pain Is Your Pain: Hip-Hop’s Nervous System and Language

I will always remember the moment I learned that Tupac died. I was sitting in the Razor Sharp offices on University Place in Manhattan, nearing the close of the business day when John ‘Mook’ Gibbons, my partner, close friend, and President of Wu-Tang Management suddenly announced the sad news to the whole office.

‘Tupac is dead y’all,’ Mook said, as his shoulders dropped and he sighed, putting his head down.

I just sunk in my chair and couldn’t believe it. Just numb.

For the past week I had been in communication with a colleague at Death Row Records and mutual friendly acquaintance that Tupac and I shared, who lived in L.A., who had been giving me updates, but I still wasn’t prepared.

Later that night I went to the recording studio to sit in on a session underway for Ghostface Killah’s Ironman album.

The mood was quiet and somber.

‘It’s on us y’all. He was a real n***a. Now everybody’s looking at us to keep it going,’ Raekwon said in the waiting room when I came in, calmly but with confidence and a sense of responsibility. Raekwon is a man of few words, but when he speaks it is clear, with authority, and always focused toward getting things done.

As I thought over Rae’s words I felt a tremendous loss in my heart. Tupac was a pillar of strength in Hip-Hop community and the fact that he was gone was a reminder of our own vulnerability – not just as individuals, but as an entire generation. As young as we all were, nothing was guaranteed.

I stayed numb that night as I drove home from the studio on the West Side highway, listening to Hot 97 play ‘Pac records with commentary and pained call-ins. The supposed East Coast-West Coast ‘beef’ that had some angry with Tupac disappeared that night. New York was united – we all had suffered a loss.

The next day I walked the streets of Harlem, feeling the energy and tremendous buzz over the departure of an icon. When I hit a corner stand on 125th street I looked down at the newspaper and when I saw a headline on one of the New York dailies and the phrase “A Rapper’s Requiem” with ‘Pac’s picture on it and I just broke down.

I didn’t care who saw me. A older woman walked by and told me it was alright.

What struck me that day was that everybody in Harlem, it seemed was grieving, remembering, and lamenting what could have been, together as one. As his music played on street corners, out of cars and apartment windows, there was the knowing exchange of looks, and a kindred spirit. It wasn’t about being a fan of Tupac or not, it was about the impact of the moment which had gripped everyone at once.

I can count on one hand the moments where I have felt such a unified feeling or weight – whether of emotion or purpose. The Million Man March comes to mind, the death of Biggie (again the scene in Harlem on a Sunday morning when I learned the news was touching), Hurricane Katrina, and the day after President Obama was elected, as well as the day of his inauguration, here in D.C.

And now, the reaction to the earthquake in Haiti.

Those who listen to my show (each Wednesday 12 to 5 PM EST: http://www.cedricmuhammad.com/media/) know that last week I repeatedly played the audio of a Haitian woman who was approached by CNN, on the ground in Port Au Prince, who wanted to interview her about the lack of cell phone service in Haiti. She wasn’t interested in discussing cell phones and immediately flipped the subject matter to the power of the unity she was experiencing among the Haitian people. Then she was suddenly joined by a young man who wanted to bear witness to her point – describing the generosity of the local cab drivers, street vendors and police officers. You can listen to the entire show by clicking here.

Regardless to where I turned – email, on the street, international or local news – it seemed I was confronted with powerful images and examples of unity, whether in Haiti or the African and Haitian Diaspora – everything from the country of Senegal offering land to displaced Haitians (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/01/16/AR2010011602048.html); Venezuela aiding Haiti out of a sense of debt and gratitude for the support that Haiti gave Simon Bolivar two centuries ago (in the form of money, weapons, troops, and a printing press) which led to the independence of 5 ‘Latin American’ states; Cuba sending doctors with Fidel Castro expressing gratitude for the inspiration Haiti’s revolution provided to his own; young children in New York City packing clothes for children their same age in a destroyed city; my Haitian-American friends in New York, New Jersey, and Florida pooling nickels and dimes to send home. I could go on and on.

But when I learned of the international linkages being made within the global Hip-Hop community, across all kind of ideological lines I was touched beyond words.

My own experience of connecting my Hip-Hop industry friends in Africa, with conscious artists in America, as well as street-oriented artists and industry professionals (who are not steeped in geopolitics) with those working with groups like the HipHopRevolucion collective in Venezuela (http://www.hiphoprevolucion.org/blog) over Haiti has been an honor and joy.

There is something very profound about the unity that Hip-Hop culture has embodied and produced that continues to impress me. It is as if a new people are being formed out of a generation – across, racial, religious, ideological and class lines. It reminds me of the phenomenon that took place in the 1960s and 70s in the Black community in the United States and around the world.

It brings to mind a portion of an answer in an interview of Minister Farrakhan conducted by Brother Jabril Muhammad, which appeared February 15, 2005 Volume 24 Number 18 edition of The Final Call newspaper that now appears in the book, Closing The Gap [http://store.finalcall.com/ProductDetails.asp?ProductCode=BK-CLOSING] (bold emphasis is mine):

Minister Farrakhan:…In New York City I took time with a friend, Gil Noble, with whom I spoke with privately and later with the leaders, to show them how language is used to change perceptions of our people and the realities of what we’re looking at.

I talked about how the word ‘Negro’ was used and how limited that term was and how the Honorable Elijah Muhammad used the term “Black” in such a way that it developed in us a body and the nervous system that connected us to our people all over the world.

So that when something was done in the Congo, years ago, in the killing of Patrice Lumumba, there was a demonstration by Black people at the U.N. When Martin Luther King was murdered a hundred cities were set on fire because we had developed a nervous system that allowed us to feel the pain of one another through the language that the Honorable Elijah Muhammad used.

So the enemy stepped up his studies of us. He wanted to know what was it and who was the leader that ignited us to burn up a hundred cities when all of the people that were burning the cities were not followers of Martin Luther King Jr.

They concluded that it wasn’t a specific person that was causing this as much as it was the way the media was used. It had given us as a people one shared attitude toward white people and toward what we called ‘the establishment.’

These attitudes hardened into a system of belief that all of us shared, no matter where we were in America—a belief about police; a belief about government; a belief about white people—that was very real. That attitude and belief grew into ideology—a common idea—that all of us shared and we had become a national community, even though we were in different groups; different churches and mosques, etc, there was something that bound us altogether.

When the enemy saw that television had served that purpose and the name “Black, Brother and Sister” had caused us to see ourselves as kin to people of color all over the world, they decided after the assassinations of Malcolm (X) and Martin (Luther King Jr.) and the departure of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, they had to change language.

They started that by again using the term ‘minority.’ Once we accepted the terminology, ‘minority’, a certain frame of mind came with accepting that language.

The fact that we are the ‘majority’ was destroyed. Then we became the ‘disadvantaged.’ Then we became ‘the largest minority in America.’ Then we became ‘African Americans’ and there we’ve stayed—‘minority, disadvantaged, African Americans.’

But what happened to us as a result of accepting that language? It killed the nervous system that the language of Blackness created. Then, every television show with Black as an adjective describing it, such as ‘Black News’ in New York; ‘Black Journal,’ ‘Black Star’ program in Baltimore, every city had something “Black” as a description of the main noun, and so ‘Black Journal’ became ‘Tony’s Journal;’ and ‘Black News’ was eventually taken off the air. “Black Star” was gone. Now you have no program anywhere on television with the name “Black” in front of it.

So the subtlety of the enemy, in deceiving us, was that he knew the value of language and that if you shift the language you shift perceptions. What he did was to create the death of our nervous system that connected us as a family. Then we could become tribes and kill one another and not feel the pain of our Brothers in the Caribbean, our Brothers in Brazil or our Brothers in Africa.

We began to be less and less global and more and more narrow in our focus, to be narrower right down to gang and tribes in terms of denomination and organization, and kill each other throughout America and not really feel the pain.”

[Perhaps it is no accident that one of the best received pieces I have ever written at BlackElectorate.com was “The Basis Of Black-Latino Unity Is Not Political,” (http://www.blackelectorate.com/articles.asp?ID=378)]

Evidence that something similar has taking place in Hip-Hop can be found in the numerous relief efforts – some mainstream and well publicized and others lesser -known – organized by Hip-Hop artists, opinion leaders, and industry professionals and entrepreneurs. One that stands out is the ‘Hip-Hop For Haiti’ (http://hiphop4haiti.ning.com/) effort, scheduled for January 30th, convened by Queen Yonasda Lonewolf. I asked her how it all came together so rapidly, and here is what she shared:

“I’m a rap artist/activist/writer/mother and when I saw the earthquake on the news, I was devastated, like I know many are! Within the small confine of those that support me on my music and activism work I just couldn’t sit back and donate $5 through my cell phone company. I had to do more! I just know too many people to not do more! So, it started as a clothing and food drive in Phoenix and bringing the Hip Hop community together, but within a week grew into something so much bigger after I used social networking sites, email, and texts to ask a question – ” ‘Hip Hop 4 Haiti’ who’s down to host an event in your city on Jan.30th?” Within 7 days we officially organized 34 cities that are all hosting hip hop fundraising events on Jan.30. It’s amazing how under a state of emergency the Hip Hop community can come together and unify and get involved on donating food, clothing and money for Haiti! We are also ustreaming (http://ustream.com/) all the events on this day! And now we have merged with the Hip Hop Caucus’ “Hip Hop Help Haiti” to continue the efforts after Jan.30, because Haiti is going to continue to need our help and our unity”

Things like this can happen this fast not just because of technology but because a new body and nervous system has been created by a cultural phenomenon that speaks and understands a common language that connects the minds and hearts of people – across barriers and boundaries.

The result – my pain is your pain.

There is still a lot of work to do, but I just don’t know what else to say about how moved and proud I am of my culture.

Perhaps Treach said it all in 1993:

Cedric Muhammad is a business consultant, political strategist, and monetary economist. He is also a former GM of Wu-Tang Management and a Member of the African Union’s First Congress of African Economists. He is author of the book, The Entrepreneurial Secret (http://theEsecret.com/). His talk show, ‘The Cedric Muhammad and Black Coffee Program’ can be viewed every Wednesday from 12 to 5 PM EST (USA) at: http://www.cedricmuhammad.com/media/.%20He%20can%20be%20contacted%20via%20e-mail%20at: cedric(at)cmcap.com

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