Even after floods and fires, music, art and sports get us past our tragedies
As we deal with Hurricane Florence in the East and wildfires in the West, triumph will combine the morning
Sometimes my students at John Bartram High in Philly would sing the song from the beginning. Sometimes they’d start the song near the end. And at other times, they’d sing their favorite line from “Rapper’s Delight,” the 1979 Sugar Hill Gang tune that drove me crazy.
“You don’t stop.”
And they didn’t. Or wouldn’t. Or couldn’t stop for weeks and weeks. Just as the baby boomers had with rock ‘n’ roll, my mid-teenagers had fallen in love with the sound of a new music that vexed many elders.
Being alienated from youth culture threatened me with a dreaded malady: premature aging. After all, I was just 25, the spiritual son of Smokey Robinson and the metaphorical little brother of Stevie Wonder, not wanting to believe in a new music I didn’t want to understand.
“How long will I have to endure this doggerel set to a beat?” I asked my friend Bruce Britt, a musical and music writer. Britt, whose work sometimes appears on The Undefeated’s site, said that rap, like rock ‘n’ roll before it, was here to stay: “It’s a new urban blues.”
I hadn’t known, and I asked somebody, but I didn’t want to believe the answer.
Years later, a college kid who vaguely resembled the singer-songwriter John Denver sat in my office at the Connecticut newspaper where I ran the internships. Rap was enjoying a Golden Age then, with everyone from KRS-One to Public Enemy producing epic music. Nevertheless, I didn’t think of rap as my music. But the kid with the sandy-blond hair thought of it as his, which was evidence of its reach and significance.
He told me that rap gave a voice to people who would otherwise be voiceless so they could say what would otherwise go unsaid. He envisioned a future where the influence of rap would grow until even people like me would have to acknowledge it. Looking back, it was as if he saw the musical Hamilton using rap to bridge the present and the past, holding up a mirror to the nation’s founders in which we could all see our reflections.
From cubism to abstract impressionism, from bebop to hip-hop, art offers a new way to look at the world, a new way to hear the world or speak to it. Sometimes we embrace new perspectives. But at other times we reject them as if they are fast-moving cars, racing into our blind spots as we travel uncharted territory.
Animated by a throbbing hip-hop heart, the movie Blindspotting explores how we struggle to see others and how we struggle to be seen by others, how we are challenged to understand the things we see in all their nuances and complexity, the folly of only seeking to see what we think we already know and understand.
We’re a nation of strangers. We live on isolated islands of indifference and animosity toward one another. We hear others as if they speak from the Tower of Babel. Still, we sometimes come together to enjoy the multiring circuses of big-time sports and entertainment. But, too often, it’s disaster, destruction and death that bring us together via network and cable TV news: Wars and famine, fire yesterday on the West Coast, flooding today in the South and blizzards tomorrow in a place of Mother Nature’s choosing.
Still, the only things new about our disasters are the locations and the headlines. Each new disaster reveals the ancient and eternal truths we must live by: When trouble strikes, we come together to help one another. That’s what we’re called to do in the wake of Hurricane Florence wrenching houses and people’s lives from their moorings in America.
Some might remember from Bible study that after the long night of trouble comes joy. The musical Annie tells us that even for those living the hard-knock life, “the sun’ll come out tomorrow.”
Rap, a musical form I dismissed 39 years ago, is in its second generation of inspiring and offering comfort and joy. Today, as Americans draw on one another’s strength to withstand Florence’s destruction, Kendrick Lamar tells us that triumph can come after setback. After all, the Pulitzer Prize-winning artist says pain and joy are in his DNA. They are in our DNA too.
And so are the strength and wisdom to overcome stormy weather.