One of the few tracks I put on when I hop on a train, a plane, or any automobile is A Tribe Called Quest’s “Award Tour.” Something about the rotating electric guitar sample and Dave’s (Trugoy of De La Soul) vocal butter chorus puts me in the mindset to make ideas and conversations flourish. That buh-duh-DUH-duh-duh-duh duhduhduhDA. It also contains one of Phife Dawg’s finest verses:
When was the last time you heard the Phifer sloppy
Lyrics anonymous, you’ll never hear me copy
Top notch baby, never coming less
Sky’s the limit, you gots to believe up in Quest
Sit back, relax, get up out the path
If not that, here’s a dance floor: come move that ass
Non-believers, you can check the stats
I roll with Shaheed and the brother Abstract
Niggas know the time when Quest is in the jam
I never let a statue tell me how nice I am …
I’ve been pondering this as some of the greatest visionaries of my lifetime passed on: Prince, David Bowie, Afeni Shakur, George Michael, Muhammad Ali, Gwen Ifill, Gene Wilder, Juan Gabriel, Attrell Cordes, Pat Conroy, Carrie Fisher, and Harper Lee, among too many others who I never met, but who left us so many of their gifts. The hits came faster than the bob and weaves we’d see in those old MSG boxing matches. But Phife Dawg hit me particularly hard. I only met him once, as a teenager taking a stroll past Madison Square Garden here in NYC. He and Ali Shaheed were shopping at the MSG store. In my giddiness, I ran up on him and told him I wanted to salute one of my music heroes. I remember them saying “Thank you” and giving me pound.
He had no reason to be humble after the monster album that was Midnight Marauders, and here he was, giving this random kid a pound. It was his personal day to just be the grown-up kid from Queens, the sports fanatic. But also, someone’s rap idol.
So many of us aren’t aware of the gifts we pick up from people we’ve never met until they’ve passed. This year, I was blessed to go to Washington, D.C. (on five occasions), Philadelphia, Austin, New Brunswick, Chicago, Little Rock, Minneapolis, St. Louis, Albany, Boston, and Providence. In each instance, I explicitly brought in conversations of equity and social justice, pointing out people who could do the work after they’d heard me speak. Some of these spaces were tougher than others. A few were particularly tense.
But in each instance, I used the tools I learned in the classroom as a teacher (and now as a father) to actively listen and then tease out real solutions where possible. I wasn’t letting any of them off the hook. I also did this as a full-time classroom teacher.
The trolls, detractors, and naysayers made strong cases for why I should step away from this work, but there was a stronger case for why I shouldn’t: the people. I heard countless stories of students, parents, educators, and other concerned citizens hoping to see a light in an entrenched sort of dark. The easiest thing for us to do is pretend that the people listening to us owe us something. The difficult part to acknowledge is that, at any given moment, the people listening to us can rebel against us. The fact that they choose not to disrupt us, or actually applaud us for our efforts, is a testament to the delicate trust we must build quickly.
Like teaching. Like any work we do with other human beings, really.
With only a few days left, it’s easy to say that 2016 was trash because the deaths of artists, athletes, and other visionaries has the power to unnerve us. On the other hand, my son performed his heart out at his first Christmas show. The personal and professional failures I encountered this year can’t erase this little light of mine. He and Luz continue to be the blessings on my lap.
Oh, and I got an award too this year. Once. Because of what I do with my crew and my fam, going each and every place with a mic in my hand. I didn’t expect it, either, since I’ve burned enough bridges this year.
I never let a plaque tell me how nice I am, but at least I had something to dedicate to y’all.