Waking up to News of Orlando at Bonnaroo
Full disclosure: I was keepin notes throughout my weekend in Manchester, Tennessee, preparing to write this post, mostly about music, as it relates to my new career as an Uber man. Then I awoke to Orlando, and as I've said before in this space, I'd just as soon leave religion to Mel Gibson and politics to Rand Paul. I figured I'd just delete everything I'd jotted, go on back home and get on with gettin on. But then I thought, This isn't a day to be quiet, except to take a moment for the innocent victims and their families and the family of Omar Mateen. Today, of all days, isn't a day to go on about our business, despite this empty feelin becoming all too familiar. Again, I ain't a politician or an expert. So don't worry: I'm not gonna wax on the Second Amendment or radicalism. My only hope with whatever this is that I've been doin is to bring us regular folks closer, to tell our stories. You don't have to agree with me or the people I drive around, same as I ain't got to agree with them or with you. That's the beauty of this place where we live. But I'd sure hate to think that you aren't turnin some things over, maybe even stoppin for a second and considerin something you hadn't bothered to consider before. I know I am. Drivin around in times likes these, bumpin Drake and Chance the Rapper and Future and Young Thug, with Barack on his way out and The Donald and Sister Hillary in a Twitter battle, I've been thinkin too damn much in black and white, when the conversations ought to be in all different shades. I guess it's somethin about bein behind the wheel down here, tucked in a corner of Tennessee, where it's still more of a thang than we'd care to admit, other colors and beliefs and dispositions still more apparition than reality—although, havin lived above the Mason-Dixon for a spell, watched the inside of a 7 train change hues as it barreled deeper into Queens, watched the pot holes and cracked sidewalks disappear the minute you crossed the line from Hartford into West Hartford, I contend we'd all be well-served by taking at least a half-step back, no matter your accent or the pigment of your skin. I didn't quite know how to get at this feelin I've been feelin until this past Tuesday, when I met Matthew, a young black man in his early 20s who graduated with his Master's from the University of Tennessee about a year ago. If I'm honest, based on his mannerisms and tenor, I made the assumption that Matthew is gay. That's not for dramatic effect, that's simply the effects of growin up how I grew up, where I come from, to notice such things. I'm a product of nature and nurture (much like you, I'd imagine), and every situation inside my Civic has its preconceived notions. I do not like this about myself. All I can do is listen and learn and end my day with a little more perspective than when I started it. I didn't inquire about Matthew's sexuality. To me, it didn't matter. And I'd like to tell you that it doesn't matter. Oh, how I wish I could tell you that it doesn't matter. Matthew requested a ride to Wal-Mart, and on the way I realized that we'd met before, him behind the bar in downtown Knoxville, me the one on the stool orderin the beers. I'd recently returned from Connecticut, full of the enthusiasm and certainty that most existential wanderers have, the belief that this move would be the final fresh start, that notion you always wish you'd held tight to when you hit yet another dead end. We'd bonded over our desires to leave the nest, his exit from Atlanta, mine from Kingston. He instantly remembered me and my story. I mentioned my upcoming Bonnaroo sojourn, and he said that he'd recently gone to New York for the Governor's Ball festival, where Kanye (rather fittingly, as Kanye tends to go) had been rained out last Sunday. Matthew was crushed. Kanye had been THE reason (well, him and Vince Staples) for Matthew choosing that festival. I grinned and said that Kanye would love to know that I love Kanye, as the song goes, and that I had only seen him once, as a sophomore in college, not long after his infamous "George Bush hates black people" rant. The arena, not surprisingly, was nearly empty in my red state. And I'll never forget Kanye cutting the music, mid-"Gold Digger," and poignantly quipping to the crowd: "OK, white folks, you can get away with saying 'N***A' just this once." As I've said before, I was a white boy of the '90s, when hip-hop was violence and misogyny and homophobia and "gangsta" and relegated to Yo! MTV Raps. I had to sneak Tupac's double-disc greatest hits passed my mother. It was about the beats, sure, this intoxicating rhythm, this throbbing bass line that raised my arm hairs in a way that I can only remember Nirvana doing to that point. But it was the rhymes, the poetry, the pain and the slights and the anger in the lines, the unadulterated testosterone, that spoke to me then, a pent up teenage boy, who'd begun to question what might be on the other side of the Great Smoky Mountains and west of the Mississippi River. Now, here is where we come to the nuance that I'm begging you to help me navigate, to not confuse sympathy with empathy, to not be oblivious to the obvious: I'll never know what it is to be sized up, subconsciously or not, by the pigment of my skin, or judged because of the gender of the person I pick to love. I'm thankful, albeit conflicted, for all the doors that have never shut because of my color, the letters assigned to my chromosomes, who I sleep next to in bed. I couldn't fit more neatly into the most privileged demographic in the world. So perhaps my passion for hip-hop is inexplicable, the way the effects of art often can be. Or maybe it was the fact that my formative years were spent without a father, or that I knew what it was for Momma to have to borrow money to replace our fridge when it plum quit. And here we are again, the nuance, the subconscious conflating of class and race, our gross generalizations in real time, that I've become conditioned to equate young black men with single mothers and poverty, to assign our friend Matthew sexual desires based solely on the pitch of his voice and a flick of his wrist, to ascribe to the ignorant notion that being gay or being black or being a Muslim comes with a check list, a check list that allows us to comfortably assign blame and reason and meaning to what we don't care to understand. I wound up giving Matthew a ride to and from Wal-Mart, and as we pulled next to his apartment, I asked if he could spare a few minutes. He obliged and I shut off the meter. We talked like old friends. I told Matthew that a funny thing's happened in my lifetime: hip-hop has become the anthem of this era, this very moment, that my eyes still dart around nervously when white college guys and girls pile into my car and rap every word to every Future and Drake track, singin N***A right along with them, like they (or I) have any concept of what that loaded word carries. "It was just a matter of time—hip-hop was too good not to take over," Matthew said. "You can't ignore what's good. And I can't judge anyone for listening—it's popular culture now. And why would I want to keep it from anyone? Besides, the reason it resonates with you and the reason it resonates with me doesn't have to be the same. Why does it matter if you can empathize with what Chance is saying? A lot of black people can't even empathize." I hate to admit it, but Twitter and the Facebang and Snapchat and Instagram and whatever else is out there that I don't know how to use has, interestingly enough, done a great thing for the music industry: It has brought more equality. The public, not the suits and the record labels, decides now, as Matthew says, what is good and what is not. Kids no longer have to sneak Young Thug by their parents—they just download him or stream him on Apple Music, where the "trending" searches are, as I type, Rihanna, Drake, Lil Uzi Vert, Bryson Tiller, Kevin Gates, and Chance the Rapper. (Nick Jonas clocks in at No. 7.) And the artists, to their credit, haven't censored themselves with all the new, mainstream attention. Which is why, for my money, hip-hop is saying more than any genre of music today. Being real, if you will. And being real always wins out—and brings us together. While I was jumping along to Vince Staples with kids more than a decade younger than me this weekend, I witnessed a young black man and a young white man embrace for no other reason than pure joy as Vince chanted, "I ain't ran from nothin but the police." They had never met, but realized (by way of a T-shirt) that they were both from St. Louis, from Missouri, where another thing happened not too long ago that made us hang our heads and wring our hands and wonder if something is ever gonna give. I smiled then, saw acceptance incarnate, same as I did when I asked Matthew what he thought when he got in my car and I was blasting "Angels" off Chance's new album. "I thought, Hey, this dude like Chance—got good taste," he said, raisin his voice an octave for emphasis. We shook hands and parted ways. I drove to Bonnaroo with the enthusiasm and certainty that had welled up inside me at the bar when I first met Matthew. I fed off his outlook. I danced and fist-pumped and high-fived with people all weekend, mostly kids, of all colors, of all backgrounds, of all beliefs—kids wearing "Gay Pride" shirts to celebrate this month, although you'd have been hard-pressed to single them out, what with all the tie-dye. These kids are gonna be alright, I thought, they're gonna be the something that gives, they're gonna help my generation and the ones before do what we're still struggling to do: put those preconceived notions to rest. Then I opened my eyes this morning—just a few hours after Chance made a surprise appearance during an AM set and the entire crowd joined in a singalong of The Notorious B.I.G's "Juicy," and every person under that tent, all of us family, all of us sitting ducks, rapped, "If you don't know, now ya know, N***A," not with an ounce of hatred, out of love and respect for a hip-hop pioneer who died too young—and I learned of Orlando. I'm sitting in a coffee shop in Nashville now, typing through tears. And I'm going to do something I said I wouldn't: I'm going to tell you that every person reading this will have a different opinion tomorrow and in the days to come, as more details emerge and the religion card is played and the race card is played and the sexuality card is played and the Second Amendment comes under fire, as The Donald's camp and Sister Hillary's camp pull all-nighters, spinning this to gain our support. I'm going to tell you that I don't know what to do, that the cries for regulations and laws must ring awfully hollow to the families of the victims, that they don't fill this empty feelin I feel. All I do know is that I wish I were back under that tent with those kids, feeding off them, their spirit, their freedom, to be in this place together, as family. I want to believe that they are gonna be the something that gives, that their hugs and hand shakes and high-fives are going to teach us, to help us put an end to these lonely nights.