Grits and Biscuits party
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The House Party Is The New Festival

Built in 1920, Coney Island’s Wonder Wheel is as much of a Brooklyn signature as the bridge. It’s overlooked the borough’s many lives from its southern tip; after the Jackie Robinson years, the crack epidemic, and the Bloomberg era, the “WONDER WHEEL” sign pledges to glow red every summer night. There’ve been two nights this summer when the 150-foot landmark is the second-most significant ferris wheel on this beach.

For those two rare occasions, it’s the ride a five-minute walk west that garners a second look; the smaller one boasts the words “The Greatest Day Ever!” in cursive font at its axis. It’s past 10 p.m. and its bulbs eminate green as the festival’s attendees twerk to the DJ’s Jersey Club mix, oblivious to the blackout that has paralyzed Midtown Manhattan. Past the other amusement rides and fried Oreo stand, inside the Ford Amphitheater, EDM producer Carnage is hyping the crowd in his guttural voice with every other bass drop as they’re bathed in their own red light. The scene is just the latest edition of Irvin Benitez’s brainchild, an amalgam of EDM, hip-hop, and carnival attractions inspired partly by the big time music festivals that have become ubiquitous.

The audacity of placing his annual amusement park next to the Wonder Wheel isn’t lost on Benitez as he talks about GDE in an Astoria Starbucks a little over a week later. The New York native doesn’t look back on that sight with that much awe; he’s already well-aware of the minor strokes that built this portrait. Benitez remembers GDE’s growth with a boyish energy that only betrays his age as his wide grin pushes his eyebrows into the wrinkles on his forehead. By his account, Benitez invested his life savings in throwing the festival, a mix of DJ acts and games produced by the same company Alicia Keys used for her child’s birthday party. The banker-turned-event organizer took a picture of the site and at one point sent the image to an Adidas executive in hopes of getting the brand as a sponsor. He refused to consider a social media pitch.

However, the first GDE did well enough for Benitez to be able to afford to have a ferris wheel the following time. That same executive saw an image of the ferris wheel and decided to reach out to him unaware that he was the sender of that DM. But Benitez remembered when they sat down in Adidas’ offices to discuss a partnership.

“At the end of the conversation, I’m like, ‘Yo, I wanted to show you something...I DM’d you,’” Benitez says, recalling that he took a screenshot of the slight with him to that meeting. “He was like, ‘Wow, I guess that I should pay more attention to my DMs.”

Benitez’s first famed event—the still-running Brunch Bounce, which became one of the first to bring the day party experience to Washington Heights after originally being just a shindig to bring his friends together—was created with just a three-figure budget from his own pocket. The Greatest Day Ever! is Adidas sponsored with costs that run upwards toward $2 million.

Though the ferris wheel is unique, the story of GDE’s rise has familiar themes. DussePalooza, formerly HennyPalooza, grew from an invite-only house party for friends that thrived on endless Hennessy. It now subsists on D’Usse and a partnership with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation, boasting Pusha-T, and Jay-Z himself as a few of its famed guests. Grits & Biscuits started when two HBCU alumni bonded over a southern hip-hop mixtape while living in New York. They did not realize how many New Yorkers had love for the subgenre until over 500 people showed up at that first party at Park Slope’s Southpaw in 2010. “It was almost like someone getting high for the first time,” third founder Maurice Slade, who co-founded the party alongside VP Culture, LiveNation Erika Lewis, and his brother Alzo Slade, says. The ecstasy was too high for them not to do another one—and eventually tour nationwide.

They’re all gatherings that grew into entertainment brands that pride themselves on democracy instead of clout. In a sense, they rebel against the exclusivity that’s been a signature of New York City nightlife. Many of the city’s clubgoers have stories of bouncers defending the door against a growing line, VIPs jealously guarding their bottle service spoils, or becoming hyper aware of one’s poverty thanks to a celebrity’s presence. DussePalooza was of a similar sort of guardedness during its early HennyPalooza days: attendees needed either invites from founder Kameron McCullough or be well-connected to get in before it became a public event at the 2013 Howard Homecoming after years of social media buzz.

“They felt that energy from us coming in to just know that it was a safe space, to know that there wasn’t any bullshit happening, to know the women were there just to have a good time,” says McCullough. “It was just a really fun house party that a lot of people have been craving and looking for and didn’t have the opportunity to have. When we opened it to the public, yeah we were nervous because at that point it was like, ‘I don’t really know this person.’ Probably can’t account for 500 people I don’t know personally. But in that same space, people just kind of felt that energy and what ended up happening was even with the people we didn’t know, we ended up creating a community.”

Benitez has a distaste for party hosts who don’t actually host and just exist in a glorified air in a roped-off section; at GDE, it’s him that’s greeting guests at the door. DussePalooza’s lore includes an ex-New York Giant whose publicist pitched the idea of him showing up as a star guest. (And tellingly, Grits & Biscuits’ merchandise include “No VIP” clothing.)

“He kind of angled it like his presence would make the party bottle service or whatever,” says Cory Townes, an early HennyPalooza guest and host. “Kam and [co-founders Kazeem Famuyide and Nile ‘Lowkey' Ivy] and them were like, ‘No, that’s not what this party is about.’ The party ain’t about VIP. This is everybody just being in the mix just listening to good music, dancing, and having a good time.”

The parties destabilize that dynamic; the absence of bottle service and similar perks evoke a large scale house party that appeals to its attendees’ shared love of expensive cognac-made-affordable and, in Grits & Biscuits’ case, Jeezy. The appeal isn’t only to everyday people, either. YG endearingly called DussePalooza “just some black sh*t” during a recent Hot 97 interview.

 

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“D’usse Palooza some black shit” - @yg during his interview with Ebro in The Morning at @hot97 😂 🗽#dussepalooza

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His point was that was when black culture is presented on a large scale—his 2019 Coachella set for instance—there’s usually a predominant audience consuming it. (YG: “When you do your tour and sh*t, you put your tickets up on the internet, black people is not the first ones to go buy it.”) DussePalooza is one of those spaces where the fact that it’s cultivated by people of color is seen in the faces of the audience and the room’s very air.

“That’s the message,” says ChriStylezz, DussePalooza’s longtime host. “It’s just us in one place having a great time, singing along, electric sliding, rapping, dancing, getting to it. It’s just some black sh*t.”

The scene is a small one that vies for the same demographic—college-educated people of color—but it’s not necessarily competitive. They come with their own worldviews; Benitez notes GDE draws more of the big festival Lollapalooza experience than G&B’s more communal vibe. The organizers also maintain they’re supporters of each other’s brands—the DussePalooza crew are no strangers to G&B’s gigs and are getting ready to co-host an event with Brunch Bounce at the Brooklyn Mirage in August.

“There’s no reason for it to be competitive,” Lewis says. “We’re all just trying to elevate the culture in a way that’s meaningful and respectful.”

The festival’s increasing crowd sizes parallels the founders’ ambitions. Benitez described himself as “dog tired” when the Greatest Day Ever became a Monday. When he started Brunch Bounce, he was a banker who was breaking even doing it as a side gig, when it took no longer than a week to plan. While planning those events still takes a short amount of time, the Greatest Day Ever’s schema dates back to the prior autumn, when the Wonder Wheel is less wondrous and the more lively lights are the yellow ones on the projects that overlook the beach. He said he’d already started thinking about the next artist lineup when this year’s GDE went down.

 

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Thank you for to everyone that rocked with us this year ... see you guys in 2019 #DussePalooza

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ChrisStylezz, Chief Operations Officer Benner Hall, and the rest of the crew already had their big We-Made-It moment: “Last December. Hammerstein Ballroom, Jay-Z came to DussePalooza.” His starry eyes and seconds-long silence make the significance of Hov’s appearance—not just as a cameo, but as a guest staying for hours—obvious. But Mr. Carter is a supporter instead of an end goal. Chris is still looking upwards toward becoming a boutique festival, where instead of touring over 20 cities, DussePalooza expands its scale in three or four major ones, while McCullough is considering moving it to other countries. Whatever the height or continent, they’re convinced it’s in reach.

“We’ve looked at it like we could do whatever we wanted because nobody has really done what we’re doing at this moment,” Hall says. “It’s up to us to define what our path is in being trailblazers in the real time. The difference is [the goal] isn’t high in the sky anymore. We’re looking at it like it’s obtainable.”

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Kadeen Johnson for Everyday Afrique

With African Music On The Rise, Afro-Themed Dance Parties Get To Win, Too

When walking up to the venue for New York City day party Everyday Afrique, the music greets you before you can even reach the door. Depending on the day or the DJ, you might be welcomed with a remix of Afrobeats star Mr. Eazi’s 2013 hit song “Bankulize” or embraced by Niniola’s 2017 Afrohouse single “Maradona.” The dozens of people waiting outside of the venue, the majority of which are black professionals and creatives, are dancing along to the music, seemingly unbothered by the line that stretches down the block. The lively scene outside of the venue looks considerably different than it did in 2016, when media company OkayAfrica teamed up with two popular party series, Everyday People and ElectrAfrique, to throw its inaugural Everyday Afrique event. In the three years since Everyday Afrique began, the crowd has increased from 250 people to more than 1,800 people per event, tickets are selling out faster than ever, and the African music that anchors the event has transcended the borders of Africa and is now being played on radio stations and in clubs around the world.

African music, particularly Afrobeats, has shared a prosperous give-and-take relationship with Afro-themed party series like Everyday Afrique. In the past, Afrobeats, Afrohouse, and Caribbean soca music were once exclusively celebrated by local communities living in major cities on the African continent—Lagos, Johannesburg, Accra, and Nairobi—and diasporic transplants that returned home to these cities for the holidays. Over the last two to three years, there has been an extreme increase in demand for various genres of African music in places like Washington, D.C., New York, London, and Paris, cities that for years already maintained a high concentration of Afro-themed functions to serve their diverse populations. In these cities, Afro-themed parties like London’s Afrobeats in the Garden and New York’s Afro Night Live have done their part to curate experiences around a growing art form that had little support but that they appreciated and believed in. Now, these same parties are benefiting from the music’s newfound success and expanding just as quickly as the sounds.

Everyday Afrique has been one of the major benefactors and beneficiaries of African music’s success in NYC. Three times a year during the summer’s three major holidays—Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day—Everyday Afrique hosts an all-out sweat dripping, rump-shaking, gwara gwara-hitting dance party in rotating venues around Brooklyn. The party’s soundtrack is a collection of popular and underground Afrobeats, Afrohouse, reggae, soca, and hip-hop music provided by half a dozen DJs including Everyday People co-founder DJ Moma and ElectrAfrique founder, DJ Cortega. “Our approach for Everyday Afrique has always been one of community-building,” DJ Cortega says over the phone from his home in Dakar, Senegal. “We do this through connecting people who are like-minded, that have common objectives, that are inclusive, and using music as a platform to bring people together.”

The bulk of people who make up Everyday Afrique’s community are African born and diasporic born people who dwell in neighborhoods in Harlem, Queens, and Brooklyn. Although the ages of the attendees vary, the 21+ crowd is largely dominated by millennial age professionals and creatives who likely share five or more mutual Instagram friends with any given person in the venue. There is a sense of Pan-African pride amongst the group, highlighted by “Very Black” graphic tees floating around the party and gold pendants carved in the shape of the continent dangling from attendees’ necks. Not only are the people at Everyday Afrique connected by their love for African music, but what the music represents and tells them about their culture.

A number of other Afro-themed party series that aim to conjure a similar feeling of cultural pride and community fostering have popped up in various cities around the world. Afrocode is a similar dance-heavy event that hosts weekly parties in Atlanta, New York City, and D.C. The inaugural Afrocode was organized by Ghanian entrepreneur "FredEvents" in 2013. He had the primary desire to connect the often fragmented black American, black Caribbean, and black African communities and provide a celebratory environment where they could listen to and appreciate one another’s music and cultures. "We picked a theme that wasn't solely African, but that can also bring the three cultures together to appreciate each others’ genre,” Fred explains via phone. “We knew the energy would be completely different because you are giving the best of all the three categories in one space."

 

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The energy fostered in these environments has been both a cause and effect of the diaspora’s growing desire to reconnect and learn more about their African ancestry through various cultural channels. The growing popularity of parties like these corresponds with the success of travel companies like Travel Noire and Tastemakers Africa, both of which create and share opportunities for black people from the diaspora to visit the continent and engage in historical and cultural experiences during their visits. “I think people are now paying attention to what it means to be African,” Fred says. “For the longest, a lot of African Americans, black people in general, have tried to seek that connection.” Although these connections are also being formed through fashion, art, and other creative mediums, nothing has seemed to connect Africa and the diaspora more than music and the spaces that are curating a vibe around it.

Afrobeats, in particular, has emerged as the leading genre during this most recent global African music takeover. The genre, which over the years has been used to define a broad collection of popular sounds coming out of West Africa, has catapulted a number of its stars into the international spotlight. Earlier this year, Afrobeats stars Burna Boy and Mr Eazi performed sets at Coachella and the summer before Afrobeats hitmaker Davido shut down London’s Wireless Festival with a highly talked about set. The former two artists were also featured on Beyonce’s latest surprise album The Lion King: The Gift, along with West African hitmakers WizKid and Tekno. The album itself appears to be an ode to the genre and its African roots and includes many of the same percussion elements as Afrobeats.

Much of the music's global appeal can be credited to its upbeat and lively instrumentation and feel-good lyrics, which tend to celebrate life, love, and positive experiences. “Afrobeats is engraved in people's culture, it's not just a cool thing,” Fred says. “People live, breathe it. It's a true culture, it's not just a music category. It feels like when hip-hop was starting out back in the day. They were telling their stories through the music. With the music comes a lot of different ways that we can showcase Africans in a different light.”

For Fred, Afrobeats seemed like the most logical breakthrough genre in the U.S. because of the hefty West African presence in cities like D.C. and New York, where both he and DJ Cortega first tried their hands at hosting Afro-themed parties. Europe has also been up on the Afrobeats wave. ElectrAfrique has touched down in Berlin and Paris, and London-based event company Sounds D’Afrique has brought the flavor of Afrobeats to London’s club scene. In each city, these gatherings are centering Afrobeats music, while simultaneously introducing locals to new artists and the sounds that energize crowds in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Jamaica, and other countries around the world.

Their success is a prime example of the adage “when opportunity meets preparation.” When Swedish born DJ Cortega first launched ElectrAfrique, he did so with a small team in Nairobi, Kenya. ElectricAfrique held its first party in 2011, the same year WizKid released his debut album Superstar and Davido dropped "Back When," the first single off Omo Baba Olowo. DJ Cortega, FredEvents, and other early Afro-themed party founders had the foresight to curate parties around a sound that had yet to find a global audience or show potential to do so. Now, the rise in attendance at these events can be directly attributed to the growth of African music.

Parties like ElectricAfrique are continuing to introduce other African people to the new popular songs produced by their neighboring countries. “Even though we're growing, it’s still relatively organic and community-based,” Cortega says. “We have never really tried to push super hard to grow. We want the event to grow naturally. We want people to enjoy being there and feel like this is a space where they are comfortable and where they identify and so they want to bring their friends and like-minded people to it. In terms of the vibe that's one of the very important elements.”

So what’s next for the growth of African music and the party series that provides the music with the grassroots marketing it needs to succeed? Neither DJ Cortega nor Fred see it slowing down anytime soon. “Africa is almost 1.2 billion people,” Fred says. “There's not a question about it being sustainable. The culture will always be there. People are always going to create. I think the part where the music is so much more important now is because people are starting to respect what being African is because they have a marketable product that they can attach a dollar value to.” Regardless of the changing landscape of the music industry, parties like Everyday Afrique, Afrocode and the like are primed to continue thriving as a result of the communities they built that may have been brought together by the music but stayed for the experience.

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The musical group Odd Future speak onstage during the 2011 MTV Video Music Awards at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on August 28, 2011 in Los Angeles, California.
Jeff Kravitz

Growing Up Queer And Black With Odd Future's Music

I.

“This is for the ni**as in the suburbs and the white kids with ni**a friends who say the n-word” – Tyler, The Creator

The first time I was ever called a ni**er to my face I was, for lack of a better phrase, "spared” the indignity of it also being in English. Language will leave you grateful for the strangest things I suppose. The year was 2012 and I was, for reasons I’ve long since forgotten, at a frat party at my alma mater wearing some raggedy KD35s, a still kind-of-new pair of Levi’s with a belt patterned with some classic mixtapes that was enveloped by a voluminous white tee with the name and logo of every Negro League Baseball team which I’ve owned since eighth grade but never grew into. Outside the house with the suffocating bass, a cloudless Pennsylvania fall was maturing. Dew dusted every suburban road in Swarthmore and October was settling into the trees. In the dark, the trees are everywhere. The streetlights are far between in suburbia, so you have to be within inches to see the changes flourishing around you, the kaleidoscopic qualities of death; even now, it is almost beautiful.

The man who called me ni**er was not a stranger. Until relatively recent to that point, we had lived within feet of each other as freshman year roommates. I’m telling you this less to blunt his violence than to explain why he was standing close enough to me for me to hear him. Everything about the sound system in a party like that seems to have a bone-deep hatred for the foundations of the building. It’s not hyperbole when I say the first time I was ever called a ni**er to my face everything was already vibrating, everything was already coming apart. The man, freestyle rapping very poorly to a song that was seemingly all bass to my deeply faded best friend, rhymed my name with “Mulignon” which in Italian translates directly to “Eggplant” and colloquially, on that night, me. The transfiguration I prefer is to tell you “Everything in me became a fist” but the reality is everything in me became a lens. I flitted a quick look to my friend who seemed to have lost the line in the bass or was biting his tongue. I studied the party, I counted the white people in the basement (too many), I counted the Black (we were standing next to each other, it went quickly); I uncurled my fist. I could see every possibility for the fight I knew I could win: the jaw I knew I could break and in that same breath, looking into the dew populating his face, my own expulsion if I laid hands on him. I was and am ashamed, he had called me a ni**er and all I could think of was the consequences I would face.

I turned, said I was getting another drink but really I hustled past the partygoers; the slick and swelter of their arms pushing the names of my shirt closer to me until finally I was up the stairs and pulling open the door. I was out in the air too furious even to shiver where the wind hit me. Pushing into the dark, t-shirt clinging to me heavy with the excess of other people’s want, I stared out first towards the train tracks then a light I trained myself to imagine as Philly, I was alone staring up and into the unpunctuated night, Black and without witness. I’m not telling you this story for sympathy, but to tell you how a boy governed by consequence and shame could fall wholeheartedly and dangerously in love with its absence. I’m telling you how I first fell in love with Odd Future.

In 2012 I was the hapless manager of an equally hapless rap collective that was paid in pizza and exposure, in that order. Disowned by policy, we rolled 5, 10, 12, 15 deep across a campus that could have never imagined us. Our songs were wack but that didn’t really matter, for once everywhere I looked, we were legion. I imagined this was what it must be like to be famous and unconcerned with consequence. This was what it must be like to be in love, I was sure of it.

The real magic of Odd Future is that for some Black boys, we imagine heaven to be a place where we and we alone are the greatest danger to ourselves. Odd Future, in their best moments, loved in a syntax of sheer, reckless desire. They seemed most of the time governed by impulse that delighted in existing right at the edge of familiar logic. Many would call their work “raw” because we love lazy approximations for tenderness in America, we love the taste of the wrong word said confidently. This is less about rawness than it is a story of the perils of falling in love with being unabashedly ugly, and that’s what they were and what I wanted most.

Nobody in Odd Future was good looking. In fact, many of their lyrics seemed to be in open conflict with the idea of being attractive. They were ugly, and we were ugly, and this was how we were beautiful to one another. In the worst fall, I believed I would ever endure, my hair was often dirty, my beard scraggly and uneven in a way I can now identify as my body’s signal for a depressive episode. My clothes were also pretty wack and I was shopping size-wise for the person I was and desperately wanted to return to being, a me whose muscles were shredded but at least his sadness was quieter. But Tyler, the Creator was wearing short-sleeved shirts with hand-drawn donuts on them. Earl Sweatshirt, nearly my exact age, constantly referenced his globular forehead, rapped seamlessly of his bulbous lips as the contrast of his face as he swilled cough syrup and set fire to sheriffs’ whips. At 19, I wanted to be so ugly it made me hyperbole; unassailable, loved by my ni**as and only them.

Beauty, as we had been taught it, was for people with something to lose and there was something, is something, still in me that wants nothing so much as to not give a f**k. To weaponize not giving a f**k, to weaponize all my ugly as an act of trust that I am not alone in that ugliness. We moved like bastardizations of another man’s light, eager patrons of each other’s flaws, content to call this love. And it was love, in the Odd Future way—15 boys who knew beauty not as a look, but a looking past. We grew fluent in each other, like boys do; we grew too fluent in looking past.

II.

“I’m high and I’m Bi…wait I mean I’m straight” – Frank Ocean

I didn’t know, and I did, that I wanted to call boys beautiful in a whole other reckless way in 2012. But just as the trees of Swarthmore shrank from imagining me, so too could I not imagine who could love me that way; if I was indeed, that way. Being a teenager is mostly going to class and trying to decide what sorts of violence you are prepared to tolerate, and I was only really good at the latter. The first time I ever heard Tyler, the Creator rap I was, true to form, skipping class because I was “sick.” This wasn’t untrue, but rather than the vomit I was naming in a series of well-manicured emails that could only semi-plausibly come from somebody who had just finished vomiting, it was a sadness ricocheting from synapse to synapse—a drumbeat without a melody. There are few more pitiful lonelinesses than percussion in isolation. What I remember about listening to “Yonkers” for the first time has very little to do with the roach and everything to do with the way the Blacks and whites seemed to pulse in lock step with my temples. That, and the way Tyler said “fa**ot.”

Tyler, the Creator says “fa**ot” with the tenor of someone casting a curse they don’t want to believe is already spoiling somewhere in their marrow. I was a boy. I am a boy. I have heard the word because I am alive among the afraid. Tyler’s enunciation, though, was always that of a man who was rapping with a cleaver already lodged in his windpipe and he said each slur as if it were another quarter inch that the weapon could come out and we were invited to take the blade’s place. I am an American, I am always learning to justify. The distance between what someone says and what you want to believe they mean isn’t especially hard to traverse if you’re a freshman in college. If you’re just a witness to the knife it doesn’t take much to think he doesn’t mean you specifically.

It goes like this often in boyhood, unfortunately—proximity and tenderness are too often mistaken for each other. I became infatuated with Frank Ocean on the song “Super Rich Kids” in the summer of 2012 at a job where I was paid to sit in a room with my headphones on removing staples from the insurance files of long dead people. I didn’t know at first that Frank Ocean was part of Odd Future, content simply to hear someone else sing of the emptiness of rich folk that had alternately grounded or terrorized me all my life. Frank seemed to know what I knew, against all odds, that the rich have no children, only sad assets.

Looking back, it begins to make sense that someone who we could know so intimately to be in a group but not of it could produce a song like that. It was only the introduction of Earl Sweatshirt’s verse that tipped me to the reality that the two could be friends. I loved Odd Future and I loved Frank Ocean and had not known that, at least theoretically, to love one was also to love the other. Reading more about Ocean’s sexuality, I would stare at the videos for “She” and “Oldie” and wonder what was he doing around so many people who claimed to love him—and maybe even did—but spoke as if they might shank the boy he loved, too? The real question, true to form, was why was I doing the same?

The reality is that too much of boyhood is proving what you are not. When you’re Black somewhere that you’re not supposed to be more than theory, Blackness itself can become uncharacteristically rigid. Passing as straight was not as much of an active effort for me as it has been for some that I love. Really to sit and feign ignorance of my own bisexuality, to sit and listen to most of Odd Future call me out of my name was not especially difficult because I didn’t need to do much to pretend it wasn’t my name. That’s the thing about Odd Future level violence: some of it was so hyperbolic that I could neglect the crucial fact that when we imagine a violence, it brings it further into the realm of plausibility. To be around some folks in the collective as they spoke with fear about “that gay sh*t” or said “fa**ot” wasn’t as much a knife to the throat as it was a subscription service, a tax I could forget I was paying until it cost me.

After being almost implausibly different from the backdrop of the alma mater, I think we were all grateful for loyalty that demanded a different strain of assimilation from us. I am American, I am always learning how to justify. One of the many ways I wasn’t doing my job as the manager of the collective was that there wasn’t very much of an endgame outside the production of an album-length follow-up to a 2011 mixtape that was mediocre at best. I think, at some level, we were all invested in stasis. There’s an ecosystem to masculinity: what does not yet demand to be confronted can, at least theoretically, be endured. For some of the members from outside the college, as long as the album wasn’t done there was still always a place to sleep and people who found you useful and called it love. For some of us inside the college, we had a love from outside the suffocating loneliness in which we lived. We could ride with folks who looked like us and pretend we didn’t see or weren’t responsible for the violence they brought upon us and people we loved. We could pretend we were home. So long as the album was not done, nobody needed to know what I was, and I could be anyone and nobody would cast me out. Better, I thought, to be like Frank and have friends you must look past to love, who said fa**ot to pull you closer, to say “you are like us, so long as you are our ugly, we will not let you pass into the dark.”

III.

“And you don’t even have to look ‘cause we gleam obscene in the light” – Mike G It seemed like Odd Future’s love for each other for many years was based on a simple, familiar logic: There is no greater love than to resolve never to be out-violenced in the name of those you love. This, to me, was the real magic of the video for “Oldie,” the final track on the last Odd Future mixtape. There’s an almost surreal collective innocence to the group as they wander around the set, shoving into each other with mischievous impatience to lip sync their assorted verses. It’s a simple concept on a simple beat, a collective that was already showing signs of inevitable fracture together and young, it could almost distract me from the very real effects of the violence weaving through the lyrics. Almost.

It is a privilege when a transgression can remain theoretical. It was a privilege to pretend that when Odd Future wrote extensively of the murder, rape, and dismemberment of women and queer people that they couldn’t be serious. Maybe they weren’t, but even if they weren’t, that’s not the point. The point is that Odd Future was a collective of young people for whom mental illness was a kind of superpower. When I was at the onset of my depression, depression seemed like a rarity in the Black communities I was from. To many, it still is. I felt like so many who look like me a sense of kinship with these boys who seemed, rather than choked and heavy from this unsustainable summer fevering through my brain, supercharged with their own ugly possibility. I was willing to do what I knew about beauty to stand in the Black and white of that a little longer. I looked past, and looked past, until I couldn’t. It was frighteningly easy to pretend that the deprivation of privilege that accompanied the surge of my depression precluded anyone suffering a similar season from having the power to commit the violence they described.

Surely, I justified, there was a way that this was persona, and persona alone. To a degree I was right, there is a level of persona to anything written, the space between imagination and utterance is often wide. But the imagination too is, for better or worse, a deeply personal thing. The violence of Odd Future lyrics then was not merely observed, but a sickness that, like depression, I was in conversation with and the longer I looked past, the longer I was only delaying acknowledgment the call was coming from deep inside the house. Which is to say my imagination itself was and is sick to be able to do the work of looking past, it is my ugliest thing and I am trying these days to reimagine what its health might look like.

What does one do when the inconceivable future becomes the consistent present? When the president’s casual speech is soaked and powered with a deeper violence than any the collective imagination of a bunch of Black teenagers, foraging for their place in violence, could conceive of? Jay-Z once said that he admired that Odd Future was the highly creative and vicious byproduct of years of systemic neglect who were now lashing out at what made them; how they are saying to America, “This is the son you made. Look at your son.” I used to like this idea a lot, tried to embody the best of it; a nation’s shame living a shameless life. For me, this seemed like it must be freedom because I was young and freedom seemed a monolithic prospect. You were free or you weren’t. Either you were the greatest threat to you or someone else was. This, of course, then the proof that in a nation dedicated to exploring every imaginable violence, where the Atlantic Slave Trade found root and queer people are murdered regularly, that there is no such thing as hyperbolic violence in America, there is merely Tuesday. I’m old enough now to know that I once wanted the worst of freedom, I tolerated violences upon myself and others in the name of being less lonely. I don’t think I’m special, just an American trying to be less so these days.

The lucky thing about being the same age as many of the members of Odd Future is that the story is, barring tragedy, not over. I’m cautiously optimistic in a world where Tyler, the Creator is openly gay but jokes about refusing to date Black men that one day we might simply be beautiful to each other. I don’t know what will happen, I can’t until I’m there. Many folks in the collective don’t talk anymore. I hope where all of us are from our various spectrums of sadness, isolation and complicity in masculinity and violence we’re moving towards the healing we needed from what we could not mend alone in each other. My depression is still, as it was at 19, an unsustainable summer and I am doing my work to divorce myself from the idea of it being a superpower. Rather, I’m listening to “Oldie” in the fall with an older man’s ear to take what I can from the best of imagination in better company, in more healing love. Beyond the window the trees are changing again. This autumn is welcome and may last all my life.

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Beyonce, Jay-Z and Blue Ivy Carter attends the 60th Annual GRAMMY Awards at Madison Square Garden on January 28, 2018 in New York City.
Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images for NARAS

An Ode To Jay-Z, The Ultimate Rap Dad

Rap, throughout its history, has always referenced parenthood in some form. Most often, it was to extol single mothers for their goodness while deadbeat fathers were berated and called out for going ghost. In recent years, as the social media landscape has blown open the avenues of communication, famous rap dads, in particular, have become increasingly transparent about their lives as family men. Where years ago there seemed to be endless bars mourning the demise of the father, artists are now using their platform to balance the scales. They’re showing themselves to be present and intentional.

Few albums make me think more about the concept of parenthood, and legacy, than Jay-Z’s 13th studio album, 4:44. It’s a stark and blistering work of memoir, heavy on confession and self-examination. When 4:44 finally dropped, I, like many others, was filled with wonder. How was it that Jay had managed to so fluidly deconstruct everything I’d been wrestling with for the last few years? Though the specifics of our experiences differed greatly, the central ideas dissected on 4:44, especially those concerning fatherhood and family life, had been swimming around my brain for some time.

***

Hip-hop saved my life. And it was fatherhood that set it on fire. This bears explaining.

What hip-hop has done for me, is what it has done for millions of fatherless and heart-wounded kids—it provided, at the very least, the shading of a better life. If it wasn’t for hip-hop, and the value I ascribed to it, it would be impossible to know just how far I’d have settled into the more lamentable aspects of my environment. Forasmuch of a goon as I was growing up, something always kept me from becoming too emotionally invested in harsh crime. I dabbled in mischief like an amateur chef knowing he would only go so far. I saw in hip-hop, in the art of it, something worth pursuing with tenacity; something like a healthy distraction. So I committed to finding my lane.

Though there were brief stints dedicated to developing my modest graffiti skills and footwork, it was the words that flowed and came without struggle. The school cyphers sharpened my wits and compelled me to feed my vocabulary daily. Only my wordplay could save me from getting ripped to shreds in a lunchroom battle. I read books and scoured the dictionary for ammunition, I listened to stand-up comics who fearlessly engaged the crowd and proved quick on the draw. It seemed fruitless to know a billion words if I couldn’t convert them into brutal attacks. I had to break the competition down and render them defenseless, stammering for a rebuttal. There could be no confusion as to my superiority. So instead of joining the stickup kids or depositing all of my energy into intramural sports, I put my soul and mind into the task of taking down all manner of wack MCs. That’s why I say that hip-hop saved me.

But fatherhood was its own saving grace. It showed me that the world did not revolve, nor would it ever revolve, around my passions. Fatherhood put an extra battery behind my back as a creative, sure. But it’s more about being a consistent presence at home than chasing any dream.

***

As an artist and writer, I cannot so much as think about fatherhood without considering some of the material that deals with feelings comparable to those I felt after I became a father. Songs that contextualize very specific emotions over the drums.

In his 2012 track “Glory,” Jay-Z, someone who had long been vocal about his strained relationship with his father, reflects on the birth of his daughter Blue Ivy, his first child with wife Beyoncé. Produced by the Neptunes, “Glory” was released on January 9, just two days after Blue was born. From start to finish, it carries a sort of gleeful melancholy that resonates on multiple levels. While it is, in essence, a comment on the exuberant joy attached with welcoming a child, “Glory” is also a note on death and mourning.

Before Blue came along and flipped the script, Beyoncé had suffered a miscarriage. The pain the couple experienced left them fearful of not being able to conceive. The dual purpose of “Glory” is made clear from the outset, and with blazing transparency. “False alarms and false starts,” offers Jay, laying the groundwork for what immediately follows: “All made better by the sound of your heart.” The second half of the couplet establishes what was, as we come to learn, the most pivotal moment in the rap mogul’s life up until then. The moment where all is made right, where the sting of loss is eclipsed by the possibility of new birth. Jay continues in this mode, shining light on the redeeming gift that is Blue and, also, how the child is a composite of her mother and father, yet more still.

The opening bars of the following verse are equally striking as Jay, addressing Blue, touches on the death of his father from liver failure. Jay is signaling here, leading us somewhere but with the intent to shift gears. Instead of dwelling on his father’s shortcomings like one might expect him to, Jay breaks left, resolving that deep down his father was a good man. What begins as an indictment of a cheat who walked out on his obligations, ends with a declaration of forgiveness and generosity. But Jay soon directs the focus back to his blessing and how hard it is not to spoil her rotten as she is the child of his destiny. It becomes apparent that this is a man at his most self-actualized. A few more welcome digressions and “Glory” closes the same way that it begins, with the final line of the hook: “My greatest creation was you.” This points to something that I, too, came to know as fact. That no matter what I do, and regardless of what I might attain—power, wealth, the esteem of my peers—nothing is quite comparable to the happiness and the terror that comes with siring a child. “Glory” succeeds as it casts aside any traces of bluster and bravado, making room for Jay to unearth lessons that were hard-won yet central to his maturation. And what is the purpose of making art if not to bust open your soul and watch it spill over? Shout out to the rap dads raising babies and doing the work to shift the narrative.

Juan Vidal is a writer, critic, and author of Rap Dad: A Story of Family and the Subculture That Shaped a Generation.

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