A friend invites me to celebrate his birthday at a club in Coco Park, an ex-pat nightlife hotspot in Shenzhen, China.

“It’s hip-hop night,” he tells me and my brain almost explodes.

We arrive around ten and drink a few beers after downing some shots of tequila and eating squid and tofu appetizers. We puff pineapple flavored smoke out of a hookah pipe as Snoop Dogg classics blast and people from China, Russia, Thailand, the Philippines, India, France, South Africa, Cuba, the United Kingdom, and America get down. The amalgamation of cultural influences almost gives me vertigo.

Only half of the room speaks English at all and most definitely not as their native language, but the entire club raps along to the lyrics, making sure to skip the “niggas” even though I am one of only three Black people within earshot.

I begin to wonder judgmentally, “What in the fuck do any of these people know about growing up in Compton?”

And then it dawns on me. Just as much as I do. Nothing.

It makes me think back to the summer of ‘96 and admit after almost twenty years that I didn’t get Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt album when it first came out. Fuck, I didn’t get Jay-Z. He was nothing more than Biggie’s friend and his lamenting about his drug dealer struggles signaled the end of the world to me. I knew that hip-hop would be dead soon or at least forever changed. There had been others of Jay-Z’s ilk before him, but none had made the gangster life sound like art like he did.

N.W.A. had pepper sprayed their rage with enough politics and perspective to make it relatable to anyone living through the crack cocaine explosion of the eighties and the destruction that it, along with the War on Drugs, left in its wake.

Aaaah, the eighties. Remember them? Those were the good old days, back when the cops just beat your ass instead of killing you.

Biggie was cinematic – loud, boisterous, and lyrical technicolor. You could almost see his words transform into images and flicker in front of your eyes with 4K clarity. He created distance. You felt a like a viewer sitting in a dark theatre enjoying a great show.

Jay was Goodfellas — an authentic first person narrative with enough Richard Wright self-reflecting introspection to make it clear to me that he would not, could not be ignored. He was Bigger Thomas with a Glock, some consignment, and a one way ticket to Baltimore. The nameless protagonist of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man had risen from the underground with a microphone and mad bars.

And I couldn’t stand the muthafucka’.

I had just graduated from Howard University and moved back to Atlanta to direct an independent film that I had written and convinced a small production company to fund. What time I didn’t spend that summer directing and editing the film I spent at the Atlanta University Center telling the fine female students of Spelman, Clarke Atlanta University, and Morris Brown that I was directing and editing a film. My uncle had bought me a brand new Volkswagen Jetta for graduation and every time that I opened the door for one of those educated, intelligent Black women and they turned up the volume and sang along to Jay-Z’s “Ain’t No Nigga” – they played that shit every other song on the radio that summer – I had to fight back the desire to vomit.

“Ain’t no nigga’ like the one I got.”

Yeah, but you keep complaining to me that you can’t find a good man.

“Sleeps around but he gives me a lot.”

So why did I just get a hug at the door after I took you to Red Lobster?

“Friends’ll tell me I should leave you alone.”

Exactly. Fuck. Jay. Z.

My life up to that point had been charmed. I had never heard my stomach growl. My childhood had been perfect. Everything I needed and anything I wanted had been provided for me. I went back to D.C. every semester with a personal check from my family to cover my tuition and my living expenses as well. When it was time to graduate and start my film career I simply wrote something and got someone to put up the money to film it. The way I saw it, dreams always came true because up to that point all of mine had.

Jay-Z’s mythologization of his struggles and criminal lifestyle sickened me. Although his words were honest, and, real talk, profound, I knew that they would ultimately lead to the gangster appropriation and glorification of materialism that much of hip-hop has become.

Sure, Snoop was already rollin’ down the street in a 6-4, but his gang credibility, endorsement by Dr. Dre, Death Row affiliation, and originality had put a gun to the head to anyone trying to jack his swagger. And Pac’s intelligence and political insight laced his Thug Life gangsterism with a level of Huey P. Newton Revolutionary Suicide complexity, nihilism, and rebellious intensity that would be hard to maintain without ultimately self-destructing. Just ask DMX.

Jay-Z had created a blueprint even before he created The Blueprint. Reasonable Doubt was so concise, detailed, and authentic that it opened the door for anyone with a vivid imagination and enough stories born from looking out of their project window or clocking in at their prison guard job to paint by numbers and create passable replications that became more and more distorted and mutated with each duplication.

I didn’t think that was good thing.

Years passed and my good fortunes and, to some extent, Jay-Z’s as well took a turn for the worse. S-dot-Carter had released three more relatively successful albums by the time I moved to Los Angeles at the beginning of the twenty-first century, but none had captured the sonic power or garnered the critical acclaim of Reasonable Doubt. When he released his fifth album, The Dynasty: Roc La Familia, at the end of 2000 I was living in a studio apartment in Panorama City trying to rebuild some sense of myself out of the shards from shattered dreams my year in Hollywood had left with me. I was lost and I just wanted to run, but I had no place to go. I couldn’t go home. I couldn’t be that guy — the guy who left his hometown with stars in his eyes talking about all of the amazing things that he was going to do and came back with nothing.

“Hey, man, what ever happened with your whole movie thing?”

Fuck that. I couldn’t board that Midnight Train To Georgia.

I bought Jay-Z’s The Dynasty: Roc La Familia not out of reverence for his talent, but out of respect for the place that he had carved for himself in hip-hop culture. So I hit PLAY not expecting much. “Intro” passed without fanfare. “Change The Game was cool. “I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)” was a hot radio joint. “Streets Is Talking” banged. And then “This Can’t Be Life” came on and for the first time I didn’t just hear Jay-Z, I felt him.

Over a Kanye West produced – Kanye hadn’t even broken his jaw yet – Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes sample, Jay rapped about his own struggles to make it:

“See I was born sewage, born to make make bomb music.”

When he rapped the words, “Damn, Ima be a failure,” I broke down crying.

There was something about the way he said it. The desperation. The hopelessness. The realness. As I sat on the floor in my studio apartment furnished only with a bed from Ikea and listened to Jay-Z share one of his lowest moments and thought about where he was at that moment, it gave me hope. His words suddenly transcended the Tony Montana Scarface narrative that I had previously viewed them through and spoke to a deeper desire and struggle in all of us to define ourselves, to write our own life story without other’s views of reality and our own failures having the final edit.

That desire manifests itself by driving across the country to pursue movie dreams, quitting a job to start a company, graduating high school, having a baby even though financially unstable (much less married), becoming the first Black President, or putting a gun under the seat and driving south down the Jersey Turnpike with enough dope under the wheel well to put you away for four score and seven years.

It was that look of desire that I saw in the eyes of people from around the world as we danced along to the beat in a small club on a Tuesday, hip-hop night in China.

That is the ultimate struggle and it is universal.


photography by John Fisher

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