Such Dummies, or Why I Didn’t Have To Decode Jay-Z Like Y’all Did

Jose Vilson Jose

Jay-Z's "Decoded"

I finally got around to reading Jay-Z’s Decoded after reading Kevin Nealon’s voyage towards fatherhood in Yes, You’re Pregnant, But What About Me? Rather than examining the contrasts of my literary interests, I prefer we discuss the last month of controversy I may or may not have sparked on the Interwebs with certain pieces I’ve written about the former (here, here, and here). Let me be clear: I usually don’t engage in conversations about pieces I’ve guest written. I learned that maneuver from my days blogging at the often murky Huffington Post. I uncovered this gem in my reading not-so-coincidentally:

“99 Problems” is almost a deliberate provocation to simpleminded listeners. If that sounds crazy, you have to understand: Being misunderstood is almost a badge of honor in rap. Growing up as a Black kid from the projects, you can spend your whole life being misunderstood, followed around department stores, looked at funny, accused of crimes you didn’t commit, accused of motivations you don’t have, dehumanized – until you realize, one day, it’s not about you. It’s about perceptions people had long before you even walked onto the scene. The joke’s on them because they’re really just fighting phantoms of their own creation. Once you realize that, things get interesting. It’s like when we were kids. You’d start bopping hard and throw on the ice grill when you step into Macy’s and laugh to yourself when the security guards got nervous and started shadowing you. You might have a knot of cash in your pocket, but you boost something anyways, just for the sport of it. Fuck ’em. Sometimes the mask is to hide and sometimes it’s to play at being something you’re not so you can watch the reactions of people who believe the mask is real. Because that’s when they reveal themselves. So many people can’t see that every great rapper is not just a documentarian, but a trickster – that every rapper has a little bit of Chuck [D] and a little bit of Flav[a Flav] in them – but that’s not our problem, it’s their failure: the failure, or unwillingness, to treat rap like art. Instead of acting like it’s just a bunch of niggas reading out of their diaries. Art elevates and refines and transforms experience. And sometimes it just fucks with you for the fun of it.

It’s probably why I got so pissed and had to respond so passionately to some of the discussions happening around the web. The smoke has settled since, but  For one, the people who responded often never took the time to try and understand someone from Jay-Z’s background. Like me. Not that I’ve ever dealt crack or traveled up and down the East Coast hustling, but I came from a rough upbringing from the projects where I was the exception not the rule. I’ve known and seen unnecessary death in the similar fashions he has. Despite whatever I believe about his personal contradictions, I secretly applaud him because he’s successful and passionate about his artistry, which is more than I can say about plenty others in the 0.01%.

Secondly, it proved the point many people of color feel about our education system: our education system is as much about indoctrination as it is about salvation. Some of my colleagues profess that a solid education is the only way out of the hood, which to a certain extent is true. But it’s not without its flaws. In some peoples’ minds, it can serve for the disenfranchisement of people who don’t necessarily believe that they landed on Plymouth Rock, but that it landed upon them. Thus, teachers remain teachers instead of facilitators and moderators willing to receive feedback and contributions about their own education. I had to look back at all the commenters who made nonsensical statements and say, “You really think someone your students listen to has NOTHING to offer?!”

Third, and more importantly, it let me know on a profound level just how unready teachers are for a profound change in education. Part of the reason why education hasn’t changed is because little has changed about who we ought to listen to when it comes to education. Too many of us profess that we want to be at the forefront of what happens in the classroom, but mimic and worship college professors who have our line of thinking. It’s no disrespect to Dr. Diane Ravitch, Alfie Kohn, and the cavalcade of experts too many of us pay homage to, but teachers who consider themselves leaders ought to recognize the fallacy of this validation / power structure. Too many of us hate overtesting and the Common Core State Standards, but ignore the underlying premise of these policies and replace them with the same power structures. We say we want the best for all children, but have a hard time using the words “Black,” “Latino,” or “Asian.” Heck, you still think those types of kids don’t come to school to learn how to make it in a world that’s not theirs.

Heck, you still think Jay-Z really has 99 problems. Based on what I’ve been reading so far, he’s got more than that. And one of them might be you.

Jose, who doesn’t know much about saccharine …

p.s. – I’m not editing this one.