Imagine a story with two protagonists: a young, white, Christian mother and a young, talented, black, male rapper. The rapper has had national notoriety since he hit 21; the mother just found hers with a viral video denouncing his lyrics through tears:
“We wonder why this society is so messed up. Listen to the music,” she laments.
Now imagine this story is a nonfiction tale of the digital age. The mother’s despair, anger and sadness, stems from Vince Staples and his incisive song, “Norf Norf” getting airplay on a popular radio station while she was driving her offspring. In the video, she proceeds to bemoan a world where her children could be exposed to such objectionable material, like the song’s opening line: “B**ch you thirsty, please grab a Sprite / my Crips lurkin’, don’t die tonight.”
She takes offense to the song’s chorus, a repeating mantra of, “I ain’t never ran from nothin’ but the police.” She asks, is this what we want to teach our youth?
She sobs, takes a moment to collect herself, and repeats this line from the second verse: “Folks need Porsches / h**s need abortions.”
She questions what the young ones listening will take away from the line: “Cut class ‘cause it wasn’t bout cash.”
Her overall verdict is that this particular song is what is wrong with civilization – all of her fears crystallized in the words of one young, black man.
The woman’s diatribe was widely-skewered by rap fans on social media. Many cleverly-edited videos popped up with her words in Staples' mouth in his bleak video for “Norf Norf,” or just over the song’s beat. The woman, who read every lyric verbatim, said “n***a” multiple times with the same kids she was so concerned about in the room as she recorded the video. She was much-maligned and came off looking ignorant, although her opinion came from a righteous, motherly place.
Vince Staples is quickly becoming a hip-hop giant. His sharp lyrics, gangster credo, modern sensibility and dark wit have made him into a lovable villain; fans marvel over his wordplay and slick, silvertongued, surgical flow, while shuddering at his harsh depiction of California gang culture, which he neither sugarcoats nor romanticizes. Also, his Twitter game is raw. One never knows what he’ll say publicly, but whether he’s comparing Donald Trump to Michael Jordan or explaining why he got into gang life (hint: “I started gangbanging because I wanted to kill people.”), his comments are always thought-provoking.
So, two Americans from worlds decidedly divided converge. A woman savagely critiques the content of “Norf Norf,” objectively Staples’ most popular song, due to the deft way he touches on the major themes of his work over the foreboding slap of a Clams Casino production, and her issue with the music illustrates the polarity between black and white America. Staples addresses the unsettling realities of drug dealing, his father’s drug addiction, a flawed education system, police pressure, violence, national politics – but the most impressive part is the dichotomy between how boldly unafraid he is of the life and death situations he details, while being terrified of the police, the supposed protectors of the peace.
Over the past five years, countless videos of mortal punishments dealt to black people unfitting of their offenses (many of whom did not take part in any illegal activity whatsoever) have surfaced, necessitating someone with darker skin running from the police. The Supreme Court of Massachusetts even ruled last month that black males, “when approached by the police, might just as easily be motivated by the desire to avoid the recurring indignity of being racially profiled as by the desire to hide criminal activity.”
This does not change the woman’s opinion. She heard a delinquent talk about delinquency from a position of power – her car speakers. She heard curses, abortion advocacy, “h**s” and “b***hes.” She heard a dangerous black man piercing the territory usually populated by Meghan Trainor. She heard none of Staples’ genius, pain or protest.
Meanwhile, Staples is busy attempting to rehabilitate an area ravaged by violence, which he continually delves into in his music. He is involved in charities like the Long Beach Youth Arts program, and readily admits that becoming a rapper saved his life. He wants the same things as this nameless Christian woman. He doesn’t want black people to feel like they have to run from the police. He doesn’t want black students to feel like they have to cut class, or bring a gun to school. The problem here, the disconnect, comes from whiteness. It comes from a lack of cultural understanding – white people are fond of blaming black music for destructiveness and a breakdown of social bonds, the same white people who grew up on The Beatles and Janis Joplin, artists accused of doing the same.
This woman needs to have a conversation with Staples, like so many white people must have with black people, instead of living inside their happy “police are our friends” bubble. Staples knows this, and handled the mother’s onslaught with grace and empathy befitting of a leader, noting that he did not find the online reaction funny.
“…the woman in that video is clearly confused on the context of the song which causes her to be frightened,” Staples wrote at the beginning of a series of tweets. “No person needs to be attacked for their opinion on what they see to be appropriate for their children. They have a right to it. This misunderstanding of our community leads to miscommunication which we should convert into a progressive dialogue.”