Personal Responsibility and the Ways We Bullshit Ourselves Into Believing We Practice It
Last night I found myself at a club with a group that is well educated, well spoken, well traveled and eat well for all of those reasons among others. They are DuBois’ Talented Tenth but instead of bringing the other ninety percent of the race to the same prosperity of material, mind, and spirit; they make maybe the most severe contributions to what keeps them from it.
How does a trip to Club 609 in St. Louis’ Loop suggest such a big premise? Well just imagine the kind of music that was playing there to which we were supposed to mindlessly dance because, well, we wanted to dance. As the circle of women tightened on the semblance of a dance floor, a sort of 80’s mix of “It Takes Two” and the “Humpty Dance” made me wiggle pretty much imperceptibly (I gotta get warmed up you know, and since alcohol ain’t my thing, it goes down with a nod, to a wiggle, to a two step, and so on). This warm up was to the well masked chagrin of our ringleader who was doing a good deal more than wiggling. Then came some newer stuff—laced with language that revealed the artists’ notion that women are sexual beings to be played with and discarded when they lose their usefulness; that drugs are a reasonable pastime—or profession—as the need calls for; that violence is a reasonable way to solve differences of opinion on all the above matters and more. My body stilled.
My partners would probably claim there is no way to hear the lyrics of such songs with the club’s heavy amplification. You and I know that is one of many lies we tell ourselves to excuse our personal responsibility. Or else we are too drunk to notice the lyrics, which is by design. Alcohol dulls the senses and the ability to reason which is why many a mistake is made after a night at the club. When you’re buzzed and the music is amplified, what would be unreasonable on an average day seems fair enough.
Many of the educated set would tell you that they don’t even listen to pop radio until they get to the club. The ones I know pretend to be so into NPR and the college indie stations that I have to wonder who is deciding which misogynistic, violent music is coming blaring down a street near you or at your local get-crunk establishment.
A visit to Club 609 let me know.
I work with “inner city” underserved kids all the time. They are not making the determination of what gets played for the very obvious reason that they can’t get into the clubs and dance to show the deejay what they wanna hear. And, maybe less obviously, because they are not buying music. It is the educated brothers and sisters who make these determinations when they jam the dance floors of the get-crunk establishments or grown and sexy soirees for the likes of such music. When they buy the latest cd from the local independent store—never the chain—to make themselves feel progressive. Club bangers are made not born. It is those folks like a friend of mine, a suit and tie brother, who is so charmed by Jay Z’s gangster tales, he buys—not downloads—every volume. And he likes to make sure that surrounding neighborhoods through which he drives are well aware of his penchant. If Jay Z is the pied piper for an educated, supposedly aware young man, can you imagine how easily his word skill and swagger can draw a bunch of impressionable kids to the cave?
According to my friend, Jay Z is simply talking about the life he lived which is the refrain of many writers/rappers who choose the lyrics they perform. As a writer I understand talking about what you know first. But how many volumes will it take to go over the same story? An author could not publish the same story with new words as many times as rappers record and sell the same ghetto stories. Let me call myself writing my own version of a John Grisham novel because “I can only write about what I know,” and he “happens to be writing the same thing.” Then let’s step back and see what happens. Because that is what music artists do when they choose to write the same negative and destructive themes over and over.
More negative and destructive, is what the themes do to young people. I know young women who believe that they are sexual play things. They have sex, unprotected at that, because they believe they owe it to guys for reasons including that they were in his room or home at a late hour; that they have been dating for some period of time; that he will leave them if they do not concede to his sexual demands. I have young men who lose friends to violence that they still posture or even practice to be viewed as hard; d-boys who decide other options aren’t as lucrative even when the occupational hazard of dying on the streets is not awarded hazard pay or health benefits.
Now this is not an indictment of hip hop music, let me be clear. Hip hop is not the parent of all the social ills in the world as many critics would have you believe. I love hip hop and know that since Sugar Hill Gang it has been a macho music with rawness, intensity, and celebration of excess from clothes and cars to women and clout. I only use hip hop for the obvious example it provides of that sickening cop out: this is what sells that’s pushed in order to justify laziness, selfishness, greed, and mostly excuse individuals from real personal responsibility.
Inasmuch as my life intersects, sometimes knowingly, even more times unknowingly, with others, I try to be careful of my daily decisions. That’s personal responsibility. I know that if I’m buying the music, ultimately I’m saying that what it says is okay and helping to make the club banger that then reaches the pop radio playlist/that becomes the soundtrack of young peoples’ lives/that tells them ultimately that what the lyrics say are okay. And of course, then, they behave accordingly.
Personal responsibility requires sacrifices too many seem unwilling to make, especially when it imposes on their personal interests. To want to be a living example of what I believe, that those lyrics are destructive and therefore unacceptable, has to be more important than wanting to shake my ass. So I stood at the club fighting my hips; perturbed but poker faced.
Last week I complained about the subjectivity and not-what-you-know-but-who-you-know circle that is the literary/publishing community and was told that maybe I should play that game to get my foot in the door and then try to change the game. That’s a hypocrisy that, once again, is self serving. I can’t want to be published so bad that I sacrifice my beliefs and then return to them when it’s convenient; when I’m good and published. That’s not taking personal responsibility; it’s joining in the problem rather than, albeit at the expense of the great sacrifice of not being published, being part of the solution: a literary utopia where the merit of one’s writing is more important than who they workshopped with to revise the piece.
It is individual decisions that create a consensus, after all. I’ve been told again and again, though, that I’m being a hippy; too idealistic to expect that individuals make individual decisions that have integrity: do the “right thing” even when no one is looking. I’m not convinced that my detractors are not right about that. But as for me, in my house, that’s the way it is. Even against the will of my hips.