Friday, September 19, 2014

Will "Da Real One" Bell

My favorite Will Bell rap/poem has to be his "You have been warned". It has great comedic moments and delivers a powerful message. Will is criticizing the stars of the rap industry who "ain't doing nothing but mic bruising". So in a sense this poem is about being “real”. Will is not just hating on the stars of the rap industry, he is also trying to present a picture of how horrific the ghetto is.

From the start Will begins his attack with "And I got more thug in me than three fourths of the whole rap industry so... I don't scare easy."

He follows with a great line "So when it comes to shit like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre... it ain't got nothing on 10 city blocks filled with guns, heron, and crack rock. That's probably why they ain't trying to film no horror movie in the ghetto." which, while being a somewhat funny line (he doesn’t deliver it in a somber tone but in a playful one - which sets the crowd roaring with laughter), also works towards accomplishing the presentation of a picture of the ghetto as being horrible.

"Cause where I'm from if you got a problem with a nigga you don't rap to him you put gun claps to him. You think I'm lying? Just look at our past. I love Tupac and Biggie but both of their mouths wrote checks that their ass couldn't cash"

Here Will references the murders of famous rappers Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G in the 90's. Both participated in a verbal feud (East Coast vs. West Coast) but in the end were both shot and killed. He is able to both tell a story about the ghetto - how the ghetto functions - with the line “where I’m from if you got a problem with a nigga you don’t rap to him you put gun claps to him” and also takes a stab at rappers who became disconnected with the ghetto after they’ve risen to stardom, and eventually pay a bloody price (“Tupac and Biggie but both of their mouths wrote checks that their ass couldn’t cash”).

The second Will Bell poem I want to present is “So I Run”. This is the most emotional of the three poems, and you can hear the emotion in Will’s voice as he presents this poem for Def Poetry on MTV.

In the poem, the narrator “travels backwards through time” to many iconic and sad moments in African American history. He runs from slave tunnels to Malcolm X’s assassination to Tupac’s murder, chased by a voice screaming “YOU BETTER RUN NIGGER!”. He runs and he runs and he only gets peace when he eventually dies. This line really reminded me of the "Keep that nigger boy running" line in Invisible Man so I wrote a second blog post that took some of my thoughts about that into more detail.

In terms of his presentation, we really hear Will's emotion as he sounds angry and on the verge of tears at the same time. Scared and frustrated at the same time.

It hits hard, it doesn't reward us with a happy ending, and it's presented in a way that allows us to feel the full emotional impact of the words.

The last poem that I want to talk about is Will's Diary of the Reformed. I ended up choosing this one as my poetry reading.

This poem talks about the useless violence in the ghetto. It specifically focuses on "black-on-black" crime and is -as Will describes it- a "black-on-black rhyme" (which, as a white guy, made it a little uncomfortable to say/rap to a room without a single black person).

The narrator begins getting a call from his cousin about "how he just got shot at". The narrator immediately takes action, gets ready, and sets off with his cousin to take revenge on the people that attacked the cousin. It is only moments before the narrator is about to take action that he has an epiphany moment and realizes the cyclical pointlessness of all the violence. It just creates more violence and ends up hurting everyone.

This was an even more powerful poem once I learned that Will Bell was killed in 2011 from such useless violence. He was shot outside his strip-mall located poetry club by two people who have yet to be identified.

You better run!

Just some thoughts I had listening to Will Bell's So I Run, contrasting it's story to Invisible Man....

While listening to Will Bell's poem So I Run, I was reminded of the dream envelope that the Narrator opened in Invisible Man that read "Keep that nigger boy running."

In So I Run, the narrator is chased through many different scenes of terror in African American history. From the underground railroad to the murders of Tupac and Biggie, the narrator runs. He runs from a voice that is always chasing him. It screams: "YOU BETTER RUN NIGGA!". The fact that these two phrases are so similar to each other made me immediately make the connection that they had.

And so I started to think about the narrator in Invisible Man versus the narrator in So I Run. For starters they are both running, and they are running because of other people. In So I Run, the narrator is running from a threat - he is fleeing in terror. This is very different from the running that the narrator does in Invisible Man. From his college scholarship, to his dismissal to NYC by Bledsoe, to his "reeducation" (the party members literally called it "indoctrination") in the communist party, the narrator is kept running for the benefit of others. For the benefit of the white town leaders, for the benefit of Bledsoe, for the benefit of the party. So in a way the two forms of running are similar and in a way they are different.

Or maybe Will Bell is not trying to say that people were literally screaming "You better run nigga!" at him. Maybe he is trying to say that was what it felt like or seemed like to the narrator. Maybe the narrator (in So I run) feels that the actions of those around him are telling him "You better run nigga!". If this is true, then the only difference between the two narrators is that the narrator in So I Run is conscious of the fact that he is being sent from place to place while the narrator in Invisible Man is not fully conscious of this fact.

In So I Run, the narrator gets peace from the voice -from the fear- only when he finally dies. However in Invisible Man, the narrator seems to have escaped from the "Keep the nigger boy running" cycle when he is in his lightbulb room stealing electricity from the city.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Humility in Chapter 1 of "Invisible Man"

"Son, after I'm gone I want you to keep up the good fight. I never told you, but our life is a war and I have been a traitor all my born days, a spy in the enemy's country ever since I gave up my gun back in the Reconstruction. Live with your head in the Lion's mouth. I want you to overcome them with yeses, undermine em with grins, agree em to death and destruction, let em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open" (16)

This quote - the dying words of the narrator's grandfather - sets up most of the first chapter very well. I suspect it will set up the rest of the book very well, but I cannot make a definite judgement on that since I haven't read most of the book at this point.

The best single word that both encapsulates the grandfather's dying speech and the first chapter in general (as well as a single word can encapsulate such things) is humility.

Humility presents itself in two very different ways in chapter 1. There is a first type of humility that is ingrained in one's existence. It becomes as much of a person as primal desires are, it is a defining characteristic of one's existence. This is the type of humility that the "town's leading white citizens" (at the community gathering) want in the black populace.

The second humility is one of illusion. It is a tool, an attack that -like a tick or leach- is able to gain strength through remaining undetected. This is the humility that the narrator's grandfather described. He (the grandfather) was in full, conscious control of his humility - and that is what separates his humility (of the second type) from the narrator's father who, by having no conscious control or understanding of his humility, has ingrained it into his existence (the first type).

The narrator in chapter 1 is stuck in a sort of limbo between these two polar opposites.

(1) "On my graduation day I delivered an oration in which I showed that humility was the secret, indeed, the very essence of progress. (Not that I believed this - how could I, remembering my grandfather? - I only believed that it worked.)" (17)

(2) "Should I try to win against the voice out there? Would not this go against my speech, and was not this a moment for humility, for nonresistance?" (25)

(3) "Then on a sudden impulse I struck him lightly and as we clinched, I whispered, 'Fake like I knocked you out, you can have the prize.'
'I'll break your behind,' he whispered hoarsely.
'For them?'
'For me, sonofabitch!"

These are three quotes that show that the narrator has a pretty good understanding of what his grandfather was saying. The narrator is sort of 'sucking up' to the white towns leaders, and the humility that he talks so passionately about in his speech is certainly not ingrained in him (for we see him in all three quotes using it as a tool - to curry favor or attempt to avoid pain). In the third quote the other fighter does not have this understanding. By letting humility become a part of him, he partly destroys his own identity, accepts his second class status, and refuses to use illusions ( in this case faking unconsciousness) to trick the white town folk (who just want to see two blacks beat the hell out of each other).

But as soon as the narrator get's his briefcase and scholarship to the black college, he feels that he has triumphed over the townsfolk. And while the objective act of giving someone a nice briefcase and a scholarship is certainly a kind act - knowing these rich white town leaders, it is fairly safe to assume that this was an act to push the narrator towards "leading his people in the proper paths" (32) and to "Keep this nigger-boy running" (33).