In the spring of 2004, I quit hip-hop. It wasn't the first time. Our relationship was stormy from the start. Hip-hop was my first literature, and it was Rakim, not Fitzgerald, who first made me consider writing. Still, all that macho blathering was a weird match for me, a kid with the self-esteem of an earthworm. So every few years, I'd bemoan the state of the music, rip my Public Enemy posters from the wall, unspool all my mix tapes and swear, "Never again!" That was mostly posturing--all it took was something arch and underground, say, Operation Lockdown by Heltah Skeltah, to get me swooning.
But then that spring when I walked into a bar with 50 Cent and Fabolous pumping at maximum volume, it felt like an audio beat down--everything I ever hated about hip-hop blaring at me in all its nihilistic glory. I left with an equally black and dismayed friend. This was absurd--two black men in their late 20s acting like two white women in their early 70s. We could not close the night on that depressing thought, so we headed to another party, where the DJ deftly mixed the White Stripes and Eurythmics. We sat down. We ordered from the top shelf.
After moving from Delaware to New York City in the summer of 2001, I realized something deep and dear to me was shifting. Despite my stormy relationship with rap, my music collection had always been adorned with a COLORED ONLY sign. But New York's internationalism forced me to rethink my nativist aesthetic. I found myself furtively exploring bands that I would have written off in my youth. Initially I thought this was all temporary and meaningless. But the night I traded 50 Cent for Jack White, I knew something fundamental had changed, that the Soul Train had pulled into its final stop. When I went home that night, it was all devastatingly clear to me. I'd fallen for white music.
As a kid, I had an awful jump shot and no sense of rhythm. I collected comics and played Dungeons & Dragons. I was the opposite of the stereotypical image of a black kid. My most tangible link, the one that repeatedly saved me, was the music. I had all the verses from LL Cool J down cold. In college, I expanded out to Bob Marley and John Coltrane. In short, I was a black-music nerd, for sure out of love but also out of a need to find some common ground with my own. I never explored beyond that, mostly because the kids in my neighborhood believed the words white and music to be antithetical. Occasionally someone like George Michael or 3rd Bass would get a pass. But when we thought of white music, we mostly thought of rock, which is to say loud guitar and long hair.
Then one day I turned 25, turned on BET and realized that the music that marked my identity suddenly had nothing to say to me. I polled my friends and came to the conclusion that I was part of a lost generation--rabid African-American rap fans who had sadly concluded that the soundtrack of their lives was scratched. Most of them self-medicated with Alicia Keys or soft jazz. Others simply turned off the radio completely, preferring to replay the hits of their youth, hoping to recapture the moment they first mastered the snake or the cabbage patch.