Wednesday, December 27, 2017

A River Runs Through It

Once upon a time, when my daughter was about ten, I took her to see Nicki Minaj at the Paramount Theater in Oakland. “Starships” was a hit that year and she loved that song, but even then some might have said this was an inappropriate concert for a pre-teen. I did not care. In my world, ‘what was your first concert?’ is a standard line of party chat, and I wanted to ensure that she had a good answer. The Paramount is a beautiful venue, easy to get to and lovely inside. Besides, I wanted to see Nicki Minaj myself.

Fast forward six years and she and I are on our way to see Lupe Fiasco at the UC Theater in Berkeley, having another mother/daughter moment. Lupe is one of those rare artists who sit in the middle circle of our Venn Diagram of the Beloved, and I wanted to take advantage of that before my daughter drifts away into boyfriend-land, where I am no longer welcome. She loves Lupe because his songs remind her of her childhood. I love him because of his political edge. Also, once I was showing “Bitch Bad” in my Race and Ethnicity class and one of my students tweeted him and he tweeted us back. He said, “Thanks, USF!” It was practically my favorite moment in teaching – barring the time we showed “Paradise Lost: the West Memphis 3” and Jason Baldwin walked into the classroom at the end.

But back to the future! At first I thought this evening was going to be a bust. In my experience, rap shows can be really boring, with the artist kind of marching around on stage as if in a boxing ring, waving the mic around, and not doing much else. Plus, UC Theater, which I had never been to, turns out to be like one big huge bar. (Five bars, actually, and the one on the main floor is an especial drag.)

But then, Lupe came on and all was right with the world.  I am certainly accustomed to hearing very bad opening acts followed by very good headliners, but surely the talent-gap between the openers and Lupe Fiasco was the largest one I have ever experienced. On the night of Dec. 15th, he played for two full hours and was amazing throughout, through hits and non-hits, slam poems and off the cuff remarks, shoutouts to local charities (“let’s do this Occupy style – you yell the information, I’ll repeat it!”), covers of Kanye (“Touch The Sky”), shout outs to his d-jay and songs from the new record, “Drogas Light,” his first on his own (non-major) label.  

Full disclosure: I hardly ever go see rap artists. The last one I went to was Chance the Rapper, about three years ago; and I know that this gives me away as the kind of white person who coasts along the top of rap, experiencing it as a sort of lagniappe - or, as Lupe said (after he played “Superstar”): “Look at all the little islands of white excitement!”

Caitlin and I looked at each other, self-consciously, and laughed sheepishly. We were indeed an island of white excitement during that song, no lie. But what can you do? I don’t think he meant it venomously, it’s just a fact that, if you’re people like us, that’s what you’re going to hear. “Battle Scars,” “The Show Goes On,” (which samples Modest Mouse), “Paris/Tokyo”… in part because I am white, and in part because I am a mere dabbler in cutting edge rap (and those two things aren’t necessarily linked), these are the songs I associate with him with, though of course he has a much richer and deeper catalog that everyone else in the room knew far better than me. But that’s how it should be. Anyway, the reason to go to rap shows, even when you’re old and haggard, is that it’s the last place on earth where everyone in the audience is still hooked into the music as they should be. It takes me back to seeing Husker Du and howling out every word in unison with the crowd.  

Also, in addition to everything else he is – rapper, poet, entrepreneur, activist – Lupe Fiasco is what I consider a punk rocker. I can’t describe what I mean by that, exactly, except that whatever rash, abrasive attitudes he is spinning out put there, are mine as well. I can’t quote you any of his lyrics, but know that they express something I am thinking about the world right now, too. He once said, in one of his rants against Obama, “You should fight power, even if you agree with it.”  Yesterday he tweeted a very thoughtful answer to someone’s question about how to react to the phrase ‘stay woke’: “Nothing wrong with being vigilant and aware of your surroundings and circumstances. BUT wokeness shouldn’t be automatically defined or put into the same category as correctness. “Stay Woke” should be more internal facing, constantly being aware of ones inner flaws & faults first.” 

That kind of thoughtfulness is threaded throughout his musical output, such that I don’t know what is more surprising, the fact that he has in the past had actual hits (“The Cool” sold 900,000 copies) or the fact that, having had those hits, he was now playing a small-ish venue like the UC Theater – when Jay-Z is playing Oracle in a few weeks. In my opinion, he is superior to Hova. But then, like so many supremely talented artists (Chance the Rapper and Prince come immediately to mind) and very much unlike Jay-Z, Lupe Fiasco used his early success to go rogue. He always made music that was edgy and intellectual, ripe for seminars in critical race studies classes like mine. And I must not be the only person who teaches his work, because at the end of this show, someone handed him their final paper and he read the title aloud: it was, “W.E.B. Dubois, Lupe Fiasco, and the Tragedy of Double Consciousness,” or something like that, and he laughed aloud. “Thank you!” Can I keep this?”

Then he said, “Wait – Never mind. I’m not going to read this shit. No – just kidding…I’ll have someone read it and explain it to me.”

That comment made me happy, as did the concert as a whole, because it was so hooked into the idea that we should open our ears more and listen to what others have to say. Anyway, I went home and I wrote this blog, but then I was hesitant to post it, because I feel like it is just stating the obvious, and that it has no relevance to the music or the scene or the experience. And yet, the next night, I went to see the Dream Syndicate, a band that is entirely of my era, I found I had absolutely nothing to say about it other than, it happened, and it was good. That kind of music, it’s not about the future; it’s not even about the present. It’s like that famous saying of William Faulkner, 'the past isn’t dead – it isn’t even past.' That kind of sums up the Dream Syndicate.
dream syndicate, independent, 12/16/2017

You know, it’s so hard to go out sometimes, and even more so when you go to see things where you feel out of place. I get into a lot of conversations with people about the enjoyability, even the propriety, of doing such things at my age, but I still feel like, I don’t know, it’s worth being a witness. Isn’t it? Or should I leave it to someone else? I am undecided, but I feel like I often have insights at rock concerts that I wouldn’t have if I didn’t go to them. At Dream Syndicate, there were no insights to be had, because I had them all about that band in about 1986. But at Lupe Fiasco, during one of the intervals, I was scrolling through twitter and I saw the seven CDC words supposedly banned by the White House: ‘vulnerable,’ ‘evidence-based,’ ‘diversity,’ ‘fetus,’ etc.

My first thought was, “Well, I know what MY first tattoo will be.” And then I was enraged. But then, later, during the concert, something about the sound of it made me think, ‘but how can you ban WORDS?’ Language doesn’t work like that. It is like water, or lava, or the current, or the atmosphere, or a river running through our consciousness... It is unstoppable, and unpredictable, and impetuous and rash, and like Lupe Fiasco, it flows.