AUGUST 20, 2016
ALL EIGHT OF US are leaving with 50 bucks. The club manager has also thrown in two drink tickets per person, and since three of us don’t drink, I manage to hustle an extra three. Five drinks tonight sounds about right. I’m drinking Jack and Coke. Just three hours ago we ended an awful sound check session. Sound check sessions are always awful. You never quite sound like yourself. Check. You never sound the way you will after three Jack and Cokes and a crowd shows. Even if that crowd is only 10 people, those Jack and Cokes fill the empty space. The sound dude is usually some failed musician named Richard or Fred or Frank. Frank knows everything about music. He’s in his mid-30s and comes to our makeshift “backstage” area and says, “you guys are up next.” I ask Frank about the fucked up sound check. He reassures us it’s all figured out.
Before going on stage, we go over the set list. We talk about the musical moments we don’t want to miss — to make sure our transitions are tight. Our band, Black Elephant, consists of three emcees and five musicians. Our drummer is the youngest in the collective. He’s the most important member. He holds the tempo and doesn’t have the luxury of mental lapses like the rest of us. I speak directly to him when I mention, “Let’s kill this shit tonight” and “These small town bumpkins are not ready.” We’re always ready. We all believe we’re one of the best unsigned or signed collectives out there. We all believe we’ll be wealthy rap stars soon.
We look onstage at the opening act. Sometimes we’re the opening act if the headline is The Roots, or De La Soul, or Jurassic 5, or Common. Tonight, some small town local act has the crowd hypnotized. I can’t say I know for sure, but they seem to go harder since we’re in town. They try to make sure we feel like the visitors we are and remember they’re the hometown heroes. This is their house. This is how it always goes.
Small town local act vacates the stage and our musicians plug in. I’m looking into the crowd for familiar faces. Sometimes I see people who look like people I grew up with. This eases the nerves. I’m doing enunciation exercises to mask the Jack and Cokes. I’m going over my verses to make sure they’re all memorized.
Being on stage is greatest feeling of them all. This must be how Mike Tyson felt right before fights. He talks about the way his emotions would abruptly shift from debilitating nervousness to absolute assuredness. A boxing god. And in this moment I’m an emcee god.
I made a promise to myself a couple of years ago. I promised to be more honest during interviews. As a poet and academic, I’ve spent much of my time and training on not only perfecting my craft but also on becoming a better liar. I’ve spent many afternoons agreeing that work which didn’t inspire me or wasn’t technically sound was brilliant. I’d say shit like, “Yeah, so and so is one of the best writers of our generation,” or, “This work is masterful but I just need to sit with it for a while.” Most often these lies occurred in graduate literature classes or poetry workshops, and often I’d go home unable to sleep, wondering why some of these literary works or writers just didn’t inspire me — why I had lied.
Believe me, this isn’t an essay about interviews.
And yet, for many years when being interviewed about my poetry, I offered the most clichéd responses. I led with names like Hughes, Whitman, Harlem Renaissance, Beats, and Modernism. I told interviewers that the countless hours of reading was most responsible for the soul behind my work. I admitted to first wanting to become a poet after reading a poem by (insert any famous black poet). And while none of these things were outright lies, they weren’t completely truthful either. For me to be truthful about my early inspirations is to lead with names like NWA, Nas, Tupac, OutKast, and No Limit. To be truthful: I’m a dated emcee, and a working poet just happened to be the next best thing.
Chinaka Hodge is not a dated emcee but knows them better than they know themselves. In her new collection Dated Emcees, Hodge plays tour guide while leading the reader through scenes of treachery, regret, and short-lived enchantment. These poems contain the voices of violent and desperate communities where rapping or playing ball are the only means of escape. I know them quite well. These emcees are both dated (outdated) and dated (past romantic flames). In the first poem in the book, also the title poem, Hodge sets forth the recurring theme of the dilapidated hood superstar:
bet, so, first fall in the new millennium, i’m invited
to rock for the legends at this party. i’m eighteen,
gangly and in an impromptu cipher of washed up
rappers, finger-dead can holders, uprocking on
inflamed knees, asking what to do with the next decade,
these medallions, felt caps, izods, really still izods? okay
sure whatever, old dudes rocking old fits in new york on this
the twenty third day of autumn smoking loosies
and spliffs outside the stage door of symphony space.
you know. high. art.
These men don’t know they’re washed up or that their fits have been out of style for quite some time. They’re nostalgically trapped in a past when their allure, money, and women were at an all-time high. They’re comfortable there. (These are the dudes 50 Cent was talking to when he asked, “Damn homie, in high school you was the man homie, what the fuck happened to you?”) Hodge cleverly and ironically calls their work “high. art.” It’s a subversive move that asks readers to check their assumptions about art. In the world of these poems, hip-hop is the privileged art: to be in the upper echelon of emcees is to be royalty.
The female speaker in these poems is an unapologetic groupie. Rather than let others relegate her to groupie status, she’s chosen to actively perform the role — to crush its negative connotations and to do whatever she wants with it. In the poem “sex on a tour bus,” the speaker playfully toys with the groupie title at the expense of her love interest:
really, i want to talk about the next morning when we are
parked and still you tell me to go ahead and use the last hot
water and wash my hair for real and i call myself a groupie
and this is the only thing that makes you angry and, you
remind, that’s impossible because your brothers love me. we
are a thin pane discussion, me writing your name backwards
in the fog so you can notice how carefully i practice marking
the signs of you.
Our protagonist isn’t the only woman on this bus, but her exposed voice moves the poem forward:
this is when i realized it is always going to be us. me titties
uneven and fatter than the girls in the front row and you rav-
enous for me anyway. how i finally call you into the shower
and we dance there with no water and no time and no space
The anonymity of these dated emcees was one of the many pleasures I found in Hodge’s vignettes. We are mostly allowed to name these people what or whomever we want.
Dated Emcees is tragically but truthfully decorated in death. Hodge pays homage to fallen hip-hop nobility. Of the great emcees shown reverence, none are given more flowers than the Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur. Creatively and skillfully, she offers a lamentation to Biggie in a poem titled “small poems for Big” which consists of “twenty four haiku / for each year he lived.” In the poem’s opening, the speaker acknowledges the mid-’90s East Coast versus West Coast feud which featured Biggie and Tupac at its center. The speaker also acknowledges her West Coast affiliation — which would make sense assuming Hodge, an Oakland native, is the speaker.
when you die, i’m told
they only use given names
neither b.i.g. nor smalls
just voletta’s son
hustler for loose change, loosies
and a lil loose kim
let me tell you this
the west coast coast didn’t get you
illest flow or nah
had our loyalties
no need to discuss that now
that your weight is dust
that your tongue is air
and your mother is coping
as only she can
While the poem laments the loss of one of hip-hop’s most powerful and skilled voices, it also illuminates the cyclical tragedy of urban mourning — of black mothers burying their murdered sons. As the poem progresses, the speaker’s tone becomes more personal and confessional. I’m reminded of Nas’s dazzling verse about Biggie in his song “We Will Survive.” (“I missed your wake not ’cause I’m fake / ’cause I hate to see somebody so great in that way / I would’ve stayed so long with so much to say / I had to put in writing to keep me and Brooklyn from fighting”). Hodge continues:
the cut of your jib
unique command of the room
what about you’s small
no not legend, not stature
real talk just lifespan
yo, who shot ya kid
nypd stopped searching
shrugged off negro death
well, we scour the sky
we mourn tough, recite harder
chant you live again
of all the lyrics
the realest premonition
rings true: you’re dead. wrong
Hodge’s use of alliteration, assonance, and consonance speaks to her lyrical prowess as a wordsmith. In many of the poems we’re being told about emcees by an emcee. Hodge is not just a potential character in these poems, but a master of ceremonies and harbinger of music.
I vividly remember the night Tupac Shakur was shot. I remember the match between Mike Tyson and Bruce Seldon. I was a huge Tyson fan growing up, and thanks to my parents, and drunken five-dollar-a-head pay-per-view house parties, I watched most of his fights. Ironically, Tyson and Tupac were the gospel for me and all the young guys in the neighborhood. We swore by them and apologized for them. When Tyson was released from prison and the two became friends, our worlds were nearly perfect. Nothing was better than having your favorite musician and professional athlete become homeboys. When Tyson walked to the ring, the arena would play an unreleased Tupac track. I always recorded his fights, not just for the fight, but for the opportunity to learn Tupac’s lyrics. The day after the fight, I’d play the ring entrance over and over until I’d memorized as much as I could make out.
Hodge pays tribute to Tupac immediately after her poem to Biggie: “ninety six minutes after tyson wins and you’re gone / las vegas quickly strips you of your last song / every black man in nevada pilgrims to trudge you / walk last rites, as only god can judge you.” This poem consists of 12 and a half couplets, “one line for each year he lived.”
The lines are informed by hip-hop history but can stand on their own. Hodge speaks to a very particular audience without completely dismissing the hip-hop novice. If you’ve never seen the video of Suge Knight decrying Sean Puffy Combs at the 1995 Source Awards, then you might not know what “don’t want no producers dancing in our videos” is alluding to:
don’t want no producers dancing in our videos
named our first borns after brenda’s embryo
your dear mama, eschews her crackfiend fame
afeni becomes household, recognized name
the people used to clown when you came around
with the underground mimic and savior your sound
mark your ink, the lives of thugs on their stomachs
their bottoms, their rolling twenties, their hunneds
your words so sacrament so memorized so litmus
test and testament so wretched so generous
never knew malcolm as machiavellian text, hence
you vexed and cursing: our black and shining prince
Mentioning Afeni Shakur is eerily timely and symbolic, given her recent passing. Here again, Dated Emcees explores both the familial and communal effects of street violence through the tragic deaths of our most heralded emcees. Both Ms. Shakur and Ms. Wallace are more than mothers of slain emcees; they are community mothers and anchors to poor neighborhoods: “afeni becomes household, recognized name.” How do we become comfortable burying our sons? This becomes Hodge’s challenging question for us. What do we tell “our black and shining prince” in the wake of his death?
Growing up, my auntie Bracie was a household, recognized name. No matter how thug you were or what you were going through, she made you believe tomorrow was worth it. Many times I witnessed her successfully convince a young man to curb his intentions for violence. Moments later that same young man would be in my auntie’s kitchen eating a plate of leftovers. I don’t know if I’ll ever understand her ability to reach young black men. But for this, she was referred to as mom. And when a neighborhood boy died tragically, she’d grieve as if he were her own.
When I first heard of the detailed circumstances behind the 2012 murder of a 17-year-old boy, Jordan Davis, in Jacksonville, Florida, I became un-desensitized. Oddly enough, with the amount of black boys and black men being terrorized by white men and or murdered by cops, the details of the Davis case eluded me. It wasn’t until last winter, three years after, while watching a 20/20 special, that I fully understood what transpired. A young black boy listening to music in the car with his friends was violently gunned down by an adult white male pedestrian, Michael Dunn. This all started because for Dunn, the black boys were playing their music entirely too loud — the kind of loud that warrants death. While I watched this, my three-year-old son laid sleep next to me. I looked over at him with teary eyes and saw him 10 or 15 years in the future. I saw him and his friends in a car loving the same kind of bass thumping music I love. I saw a murderer pull up beside them. I turned the TV off.
In a broken ghazal, a poem for Jordan Davis, Hodge tragically but beautifully illustrates the transition from simply desiring to feel a good song to transitioning from this life. The muscular couplets are sharp and weighty, and by the poem’s end, I couldn’t help but want to turn that TV off again:
with best friends at nothing gas station
got sound turned up so loud can’t help but feel you
when the system yanks the bass of your neck it’s closest
you ever feel to god every other instant you’re hunted you
haunted wanted vaunted attacked so black
dark alone gone head you
love the crew live for the weeknd party next door
die by friday you
cry mercy so thirsty cashed in iced tea, hoodies,
fun-sized candies, new years, bachelor parties. you
have hidden everywhere one can hide a black body
you have gone there clung to bars unsafe how you
petrol stop threat when he’s who fired nine then left
just boys shot up in time you
fall away he say he standing his ground well
so are we — he’s gone now and so also you
here steel gasps rattled bumpers flashing lights
too late ambulance & this is what it means to be you
seventeen with a life wish wanting a song stuck
in your head & instead getting a bullet.
The speaker in these poems is no voyeur or apathetic fly on the wall; she’s a participant in a precarious community. These aren’t anthropological tourists’ poems from the privileged outsider searching for sentimentality. No. The stakes are much too real. In a pantoum, “no childhood,” Hodge writes, “our twenties a decade of wakes / no one could open their eyes / each casket begged a bouquet / we learned to roll one handed.” Hodge keeps it one hundred, most notably in her portrayal of and benevolence toward black men. While many of these dated emcees are severely troubled and flawed, she continues to see the best in and want the best for black men:
I have a brother who is a unicorn
so tall you have to crane your neck to meet him.
His thoughts are ivory that protrude from the center
of his head, make him awkward in mixed company.
[…] He doesn’t cry. Ever. Unicorns can’t cry
[…] My brother knows. He knows.
There are men made to hunt him
OutKast, Nas, Jay Z, Eminem, Drake, Biggie, and Tupac are just some of the emcees highlighted in Hodge’s truthful and soulful testimony. Its truth moves me to work harder at my practice of not lying. So here are some truths: my name is Derrick Harriell. I enjoy burgers and bourbon. Sometimes I laugh really loud at absolutely nothing. I once tried to learn acoustic guitar. I once gave away my acoustic guitar. I’m not good at home improvement or fixing things. I drive really slow and follow traffic laws. Parking makes me nervous. A police car in my rearview mirror makes me nervous. I once got kicked off the Megabus. I once tried to make a citizen’s arrest. I once was in a hip-hop collective. I believe I can still out-rhyme 90 percent of signed emcees. I’ve never read Huck Finn all the way through. My mother named me after a Young and the Restless character, Derrick. My name is Derrick, Derrick Harriell, and truth is, I too am a failed emcee god. I too am a dated emcee.