The Legacy of March 9th: How Hip-Hop Can Build a "Brave Community"
Hip-Hop has two axioms:
1. "the greatest rapper of all-time died on March 9th"
2. "Where Brooklyn At?"
Ok...maybe they're not quite axioms.
What's indisputable though is the special place March 9th and Brooklyn holds in the consciousness and ethos of Hip-Hop. And in turn, why so many Rap junkies, Hip-Hop heads, and admirers of the culture feel such a deep connection to the person that intrinsically links art, event, and place: The Notorious B.I.G.
March 9th has become one of those days that shows you how dope Hip-Hop really is. The date commemorates the passing of our icon; but we spend the day going so hard celebrating and enjoying his life, accomplishments, and overall genius.
And accordingly, March 9th becomes a day where we get all types of goodies. Some are perpetual, like Mister Cee goes in on Hot 97. New traditions arise, like #biggieday becomes a trending topic. New jewels are dropped, like where the inspiration for the "Detroit players" line in Hypnotize comes from (Side note: dream hampton puts us ON this year...and did it from a very intimate part of herself...we all should be grateful).
It truly has become a beautiful thing. March 9th exemplifies the prophetic power within the phrase Life After Death.
But the most moving (and celebrated) aspect of the day's commemorations is the music. The endless recitation of Biggie lines forces every listener to reflect on the power of his words. Actor Will Smith once said that Big's 1st album, Ready To Die, was comparable to Richard Wright's Native Son in that both "should be studied in psychology classes to understand the plight of the black male in the inner city." Indeed the only voice that could merge rap and Bigger Thomas together was named by NPR as one of the 50 greatest of all time. In fact the totality of Big's artistry still inspires current MCs: Jay Electronica recently said that the Ghost of Christopher Wallace is "more than just the rhyme and the skill," but that it allows you to tap into the "spirit of the person."
Who's more the spirit of Brooklyn than B.I.G.? The Notorious B.I.G. is so Brooklyn. But how does today's Brooklyn compare to his?
Of course when it comes to Hip-Hop, BK still goes hard. Jay Decoded much of the complexity and confusion held by the public about Brooklyn and the low-income urban Black neighborhoods there and throughout the U.S. Musically, artists like Fabolous, Maino, Joell Ortiz and many others still let us know where Brooklyn at.
But in so many ways Brooklyn has become a very different place. Different from Mike Tyson's Brooklyn. Different than Sal's Pizza or the Huxtable's Brooklyn.
Borough President Marty Markowitz calls it the New Brooklyn:
"Brooklyn is changing and it's for the better! Change has come in the form of new stores, revamped neighborhoods and the fastest job growth in New York City. Today's Brooklyn is not your parents Brooklyn."
This "New Brooklyn" is one where the distinction between "DUMBO" and Fort Greene slowly erodes. Where Park Slope and Williamsburg are ever expanding. Where "Black Brooklyn" and Medgar Evers College are in deep struggle and contestation over how (and why) public higher education should serve a place and its residents. And where Atlantic Yards and Coney Island see a sports arena and a hotel as economically beneficial for the community.
Indeed you could call much of this revamped; or you could call it gentrified. But honestly, I'm the last person who should depict the details and essence between the "old" and "new" Brooklyn. However, they unequivocally speak to a more salient event: the making of a "new" New York City. But more troubling, is what is happening to the people of the "old" New York City. How do they fit? Where do they go? What is the color, the quality, the conditions, of their lives? What is the texture of the social fabric that makes the image and lived experience of New York City so unique?
It is a tension felt throughout the boroughs, communities, and neighborhoods. We see its passion and courage when residents pressure the City Council to seriously examine legislating a living wage, or to protect and to stand up for the purpose and function of ethnic studies at CUNY schools. Its vision is illuminated when people fight for a community-based model of planning and development. And its astute acumen is exhibited when it opposes large-chain retailers like Wal-Mart, arguing that these businesses are detrimental to their neighborhoods.
We also see the gloom of the "new" New York City. Where the richest man in the city can tyrannically decide to stay in power.
The changing New York City is emblematic of a changing urban America, and a changing country. But who's telling this story?
The sentiment; the essence; the spirit; the struggle; the emotion; the brilliance; the joy; the depth---how can we capture this? How does today's young Black male process Bigger Thomas' historical narrative, now living in the "Age of Obama"? Does the reality of a Black President impact their plight? What are the emerging communities and who are the people in it?
Who's willing to say I Got A Story To Tell?
The legacy of March 9th is that it demonstrates the power of storytelling. The Notorious B.I.G. compels a generation past and present to dive into his nuance and his specter. And every year on March 9th, we commemorate his life through the tradition of story-telling: pictures, remixes, drawings, mixtapes, tribute songs, and so much more---some essay form, some auditory, some in 140 characters or less.
March 9th reminds us of Hip-Hop's third axiom: the tradition of storytelling.
There are many lessons to learn from this tradition, and Biggie. We've certainly recognized the danger that weapons, violence, and "gangsterism" have both in ideas and in bodily action---and no doubt the sadness and lost we suffer when they all come together and manifest themselves in senseless murder and tragedy. The sexism; the violence against women (and any person); the most persistent challenge to mainstream Hip-Hop is breaking its objectifying and hierarchical expressions of gender relations. And the materialism (and frankly, borderline idolatry) we have of high end designer fashion certainly complicates the pursuit of a robust spirituality that emphasizes the principles of sacrifice, selflessness, and justice. Most definitely, the Hip-Hop tradition of storytelling includes the sharp critique of our missteps and misgivings; our faults and failures; our demons and indulgences; and a unrelenting call to become better.
But the lesson we can draw from what happens every March 9th, is another power the third axiom holds: it calls us to action. Our hyper-activity on this day should be seen as a ringing reminder that we must be actively engaged in creating the next stories that will be told, just as much as we are engaged in telling our history. Brave New Voices, writers, artists, scholars, academics, and others must move past the beloved community. We must form a brave community, one equipped with enough skill, and that is daring enough, to fearlessly confront this "new" New York City and all the other stories being made--from unions to education; from AmeriCorps to public housing. In the words of our Poet Laureate:
"Stay far from timid/only makes moves if your hearts in it/and live the phrase Sky's the Limit."
Rest in Peace, The Notorious B.I.G.