I am an awkward-white-girl-rap-listener, and I believe there’s merit in it—in the unconventionality of my listening to rap and in the music itself. There are lessons to be learned from these tough rhyme-spitting gentlemen (and women of course, though they tend to be rarer). I don’t expect us all, my 83-year-old grandmother included, to bust out in rhymes and start a gangsta rap crash course for dummies—although, please do picture our grandmothers sharing mikes and rapping about the good old days. I am proposing the necessity of diversity in music and appreciating the value of rap. We should give rap a chance, even if it makes us cringe, feel awkward, or suddenly start to walk like we own the streets.
I am not your typical rap-endorser. There’s a gold and silver chain around my neck, but it holds a pendant in the shape of a banjo. I’m not wearing baggy jeans, but rather a flowery dress. And the closest thing I know to a gang sign is what’s called “shaka,” better known as that thing surfers do when they say “hang loose.” I like British comedies and philosophy and baking. I don’t violently cuss, but instead whisper “flup” or “fiddlesticks.” I like to sing little ditties about lost love and the poetry of mornings, paired with several rolls on my banjo. Sometimes, I listen to rap and I think I might have a hint of swag. I’ll put in my ear buds (and turn the volume down, so no one hears the flower child listening to Wu Tang Clan) and try my hardest not to walk with that tough gangsta swagger. Even writing “gangsta” feels absolutely wrong and awful, as if my mother will read it and send me back to church. But, I will try to assure you—in all my awkward rapping glory, there is a beauty to rap.
I wasn’t taught swag at church; rather, it comes straight out of rap culture. The Oxford English Dictionary defines swag as a noun, adjective, and verb. It means, “A big blustering fellow,” and “To move unsteadily or heavily from side to side or up and down; to sway without control.” William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream used “swaggering” in a way that meant “to walk or strut, with a defiant or insolent air.” Shakespeare’s definition evolved into what we now use with hashtags on Twitter. Urban Dictionary’s least inappropriate definition defines it as “How one presents him- or herself to the world,” and uses it in a sentence: “He got a killa swag.” I probably wouldn’t tell you that I’ve got killa swag, even if I were super confident in the way I presented myself. This idea of swag, though, was popularized through rap. No peace-loving folkster would utter a sentence like “He got a killa swag,” maybe because it isn’t all that grammatically correct, or because they wouldn’t want to use “killa” as a glorifying adjective, or simply because their previous knowledge of “swag” more accurately referred to a sway in one’s jaunt. Jay-Z’s song “All I Need,” which was released in 2001, has been described as one of the songs to start the hype surrounding the word, and has been very much a part of the /braggadocio/-style of rap (rap that is boastful or egotistic). After all, swag is a general confidence in the way you appear and in what you are doing. Most rappers have swag. They spit through a tongue-twisting mesh of rhymes to a pulsing beat that makes your head spin. The beats give birth to the swag. It makes you walk with a sway, swaggering, to each rhythmical beat and rhyme. It gives you confidence. It’s like a rooster puffing up its chest, the way a rapper projects a specific image for us all to see and cling onto, for us to dream about.
If, however, what I’ve described is true of swag—that it signifies undying confidence—then I shouldn’t feel so ashamed to listen to rap, right? I should feel confident. You, me, and our grandmothers should all jump in a sports car/minivan / pack of scooters and crank up the stereos to the rap geniuses of our choice without feeling a tinge of discomfort. Why don’t we?
I feel the same way about listening to rap as I do about my dancing: a sense of exhilarating shame. I feel like I’m doing something wrong, but I still feel a hint of liberation, like I’m hopelessly trying to break a stereotype but that I simply can’t. Maybe I’m too white, too innocent, too much of a rural forest girl. Maybe I’m too much of a romantic and haven’t felt enough pain. As far as traumatic goes, my life’s been pretty easy. My parents are still together, and I have a roof over my head. I listen to the Beatles on vinyl and take selfies with my dog. I read Kierkegaard and Fitzgerald and make browned butter biscuits. I like to make daisy chains. Maybe you can relate. Perhaps you, like me, have no interest in all of the negative connotations associated with rap—the seemingly single-minded desire of rappers for drugs, sex, and “dolla dolla bills.” As I’m sure you’ve gathered by now, those aren’t the sorts of things I long for.
Rap wasn’t always about a man’s obsession with ladies, dope, and dough. One of my Writing professors at the University of Victoria, Patrick Friesen, is convinced Bob Dylan’s song “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (1965) was the beginning of rap. Others note early African American blues groups like The Memphis Jug Band (1920s–50s). “Rapper’s Delight” (1979) by The Sugarhill Gang might not have been the first rap / hip hop song, but it was the first song to make America and other nations swoon over hip hop. Recorded in a single take, the song in long form is nearly 15 minutes and consists of rappers Wonder Mike, Master Gee, and Big Bank Hank (try not to be distracted by their giggle-inducing rap names) and their flow of uncontroversial rhymes. The accessibility of the song might have been what led to its popularity, plus it has a fun beat and isn’t terribly offensive. The chorus is reminiscent of jazz scat-style singing similar to the likes of Ella Fitzgerald with her mesh of nonsense syllables. The hook goes “I said a hip, hop, the hippie the hippie/to the hip hop-hop, and you don’t stop/the rock it to the bang-bang, boogie say ‘up jump’ / the boogie to the rhythm of the boogie: the beat.” This kind of quick-spitting rhythmical rap is what really seemed to help the genre take off. It’s groovy and the sort of thing that made teenagers dance at house parties (and old women, as seen in The Wedding Singer, with Ellen Dow behind the mic). Later, though, rap took a turn and began to include potent and insightful lyrics, be they about the rapper’s breakfast or their socio-economic views.
There’s an idea of “street-cred” that is essential to rap. Street-cred and swag go rhyme in rhyme. Donald Glover, known by his stage name as Childish Gambino, earned his fame as a screenwriter (30 Rock), actor (Community), comedian, and rapper. “Street-cred is code for ‘real,’” he says. “If you give them the truth, people get excited because they feel like they’re reading your diary.” Good rap is honest. It’s raw and gives a personal perspective to something, and not just to women, money, and drugs. Lil Wayne says in his song “How Can Something,” “I used to love her / [flup] it, I still do / ‘Cause love never dies / but it can kill you.” Aside from being a sort of beautiful quote, it’s honest. Rap is usually autobiographical, confessional, and always human. It can be as poetic as any other type of lyric, or Biblical Psalms, even.
In between the hymns we sang on Sunday and the folk my teetotaller mum shrilled off her mandolin at home, I eventually came across rap. The first rapper I saw was a 19-year-old white guy from Victoria who called himself Transit. I was 14. In Calgary, at an annual Christian Youth Conference, 700 smelly teenagers stuffed into the Ambrose University College gymnasium and jumped along to his spit of rhymes. “Put your hands up!” he yelled, so we all did. We slammed them up and down like gangsters in stolen sports cars (that wasn’t the message of the youth conference), and I was convinced Transit was a poet. A tough poet who could tell it like it is, though I had no idea what he was saying. We were stacked into the gym with our bodies squished together, all of us sugar- and Jesus-high, sleep deprived, and game for something new and cool: rap. Rapping was the most rebellious form of music I’d come across, but what could make it more rebellious? What if you were white, gangly, and rapping about the Way, the Truth, and the Life? That’s rebellious. And pretty awkward. But I can’t think of a part of adolescence that isn’t awkward, so we welcomed Transit’s rap with sweaty open arms. I bought his two albums and listened to them exhaustively in the privacy of my room or wearing my headphones on the school bus, again with the volume turned down.
My craving for rebellion at that time was probably just an inevitable part of life, the same part where you can never figure out just how much eye shadow to smear on or how tight your pants should be. I still crave rebellion, and might still be in that stage of life (though I am starting to figure out the premium tightness for pants). I’ve always been pretty subtle in the rebellious regard though, like pairing stripes and polka dots or black and navy blue. For me, listening to rap was another form of subtle rebellion. Mine wasn’t quite the same kind of rebellion as some of the rappers hurled about. I identified more with Canadian rappers Shad and Transit, in their pleas for the world to wake up, than with Wu Tang’s cry for “dolla dolla bills y’all,” but I appreciated both. I also enjoyed listening to the honest perspectives from lives I was completely unfamiliar with. A young English duo caught my attention, mostly because of their being British and my young-girl obsession with handsome witty folk from across the pond. Rizzle Kicks rapped about tea and social justice in thick British accents, so I immediately fell in love. With Transit, Rizzle Kicks, and Shad, I learned that rap could be more than angry, sexed-up, quick cussing.
There is a sort of poetry in rap that you might first dismiss because of all the ugly language, like my mother would. I understand. But take a line from Common’s “A Dream”: “Hold the same fight that made Martin Luther the King / I ain’t usin’ it for the right thing / In between lean and the fiends, hustle and the schemes / I put together pieces of a dream / I still have one.” Or Shad’s “Live Forever” featuring Dallas Green that goes, “Someone give some hope, that’s breath for our living souls.” That’s poetry, can’t you tell? Rap has a certain rawness to it, often with a confessional tone or a hope for a better future. I, being the banjo-playing optimist that I am, love the idealism in rap. In some ways it’s easy for me to be hopeful, since I haven’t been knocked down as hard as some rappers have. But if they can get back up, so can I, right? And so can you.
I propose the necessity of the diversity in music, and I stand by this proposition. Maybe you love classical music, or screamo, or punk rock, or blue grass, or folk, or orchestral pop, or top-40 hits. I think you need to give another genre, like rap, a try. Bump da beats, homie, no matter how awkward you are. I apologize for that sentence, but really, like John Lennon’s plea for you to give peace a chance, I’m asking you to give rap a chance, too. So, rebelliously crank dat rap (while still being conscious of noise pollution). You and your grandmother are welcome to come to my place anytime to bust or listen to some rhymes. Word.