ghetto Archives - The Jose Vilson


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.


Jail’s a Revolving Door; The Casket’s Not

by Jose Vilson on June 15, 2008

in Jose

There I go, quoting another rapper again. I consider myself a rap fan by most standards, but today especially, I recognize the power of their words. When Jay-Z speaks of the “genesis of a nemesis” when telling of the birth of a drug dealer, when 2Pac speaks of hopelessness throughout most of his records, and when Joe Budden points out this blog’s title, discussing just how hard it is out there for people who don’t see a way out, I hear it and have been exposed to it for decades. Yesterday was the first day, though, that a foregone conclusion of the street soldier / thug lifestyle hit this close to home.

My cousin Richard was a young, handsome, charismatic man who frankly got caught up in the life. I don’t want to put all of his business out there, but over the last 10 years, he’s spent more time in the clink than out of it, and in some ways, it hurt. It’s family that’s in there. He was the first guy who made me a Yankees fan before 96, teaching me about Don Mattingly, Bernie Williams, Paul O’Neill, and Jim Leyritz. He made it cool. He was always winning the sports trophies at the local Boys’ Club, and he always had the hottest girl in the class. He had a drive and a way of selling himself that made you an instant believer. And of course, he always had the latest rap mixtape in his crib.

But I also know of the fights we got into in our youth, the trouble he constantly got into, the secrets he told me that shook me for almost a week, his 2 daughters by different mothers that he loved but he couldn’t always keep up with, and the habits that he got caught up in were hazardous for his mental and physical health. Despite the disappointment I felt about how his life turned out, seeing his cadaver yesterday reminds me why I do what I do. He had just gotten out of jail, but like so many of our troubled youth, he predicted his own death, and in timely fashion.

I’m loath to call him a rat, a piece of shit, or a worthless vagabond, terms that have been used for him. That was my cousin. I knew something was wrong with him when I felt my heart tighten up the night before. He’s one of the primary reasons I do more than just worry if my kids are scoring high on their state tests. In the position I’m in, I find myself conscious of the effect I have on some of my own children, especially when I already see some of them turning into my cousin. When your life expectancy is “any day now,” investing in your own life is really about the short term.

And the rain yesterday washed over us like a baptism, carrying his soul to a place where he doesn’t have to worry about these Earthly things …

RIP my cousin Rich

jose, who has no idea how he’s getting into school tomorrow like this …


A Synopsis of The Road Less Wanted

by Jose Vilson on October 15, 2007

in Jose

kidscrying.jpgLast week, I spoke extensively about one student who had some serious behavioral problems in his classroom, and how that’s a microcosm of what he’s going through at home. Whenever I look at kids like him, I know how to approach them because I’ve been witness to that environment. Unfortunately, because of program restrictions, I no longer work with the child after-school, but best believe I’m still paying attention to his progress.

After all, many of our children come from environmentally abusive backgrounds, and environmental issues in the urban ghetto usually get glossed over. People are quick to blame their environment on the victim when almost all of the evidence shows that our condition stems from oppressive policies stemming back to when this country was first founded. It’s hard to point a finger when the policies don’t just stem from one particular face, but a whole institution. That’s the critical part of understanding how our children can be constantly subjected to the road less wanted.

For instance, people blame poor urban families for their own health issues, everything from diabetes, heart failure, asthma, obesity, and high blood pressure. Yet, the foods we get here are usually in poor condition. I thought the food here was alright, until I visited the Farmer’s Market on 14th St., where I was astonished to see real and fresh vegetables. Real lettuce, with actually red tomatoes, and truly green broccoli and ripe pickles. Natural apple juice, and freshly picked oranges. Usually the first stop that these items make is the more affluent places, where the customers presumably live a healthier lifestyle but conversely where the produce makers will make top dollar for their produce. Meanwhile, a poor urban mother could a) settle for the less than pleasurable and unkempt vegetable aisle or b) go to the canned foods and boxed food aisles. After all, processed foods are much cheaper than organic food, even when the organic food’s quality has been severely diminished.

School LunchThen there’s the issues our children’s parents go through. Imagine all the history of denigration they’ve gone through: Reaganomics, crack infestation, needle and blue cap infiltration, gun warfare, massive rape and abuse, police brutality, immigration, English acclamation and retention, prison industrial complex promotions, rent hikes, gentrification, asbestos paint, lead-tainted water, declining hospital service, and abject poverty … and that’s just in my neighborhood.

Many of them have a good from 8-6, then come home and work on their families until 11pm. We have Third World conditions right here in America, and Hurricane Katrina only highlighted that temporarily. Little do people know that the Lower 9th Ward wasn’t pretty before the Hurricane, so what does that say about America’s response to places like that, Watts in California, East St. Louis, Southside of Chicago, Chinatown in NYC, and a thousand other places where poor children of all colors are all subjected to a lack of money and hence care.

Yet, when the children get to school, malnourished and uncared for, they act out. They’re acting out, stealing from each other and screaming at their teachers. Of course, that’s when teachers and administrators who don’t understand where these loveless children come from want to treat them for every possible disorder and dysfunction on Earth. I admit that some of them that do come from this background really need more substantial help than any teacher in the current public school system can offer. Many of these children don’t really have a disorder, and it’s been proven that if you just talk to some of these kids like human beings, those disorders start going away. And even if they’re not getting mistreated for some disability, they’re getting mistreated in the classroom. Some people who don’t belong near a classroom but see the value in looking like they’re making a difference let their inherent classism and racism shine brightest and thus build mistrust for an education for kids who need it.

None of this is new. To the contrary, the miseducation of our youth has gone on for centuries. And people wonder why poor people won’t take out loans to get a new home since money’s meant nothing but trouble for them. Pregnancy and STI prevention information isn’t a deterrent to those who have no self-esteem or self-worth. Thug rap went from reporting what’s going on in the streets to just living life on the fast lane because there’s no future so they live for the present. Colleges are easier to get into but harder to successfully get out of with the increasingly expensive tuitions and steady drop of governmental financial aid (which works well for a booming college loan market). With slave wages for the increasing population of immigrants from the West, South, AND East and a depreciating job market, it’s no wonder why the rich continuously get richer while the rest of us unknowingly have remained on the same plateau of poverty.

2PacThe one argument that everyone uses against me when I discuss these multifaceted issues is “But Jose, you made it. You lived in the same environment these people did, and yet look at you now. You’re successful and have a promising future. Why can’t they make it?” And usually, this person either comes from a household where the parents are successful and have been for generations, or a family whose grandparents were successful, and that story didn’t pass onto the person who asked me.

Their point usually starts with how some families they’ve seen concentrate more on getting 200$ sneakers an rims for their cars instead of investing in the stock market. They’ll see people rockin’ gold chains and wearing inappropriate clothing wherever they go. What I also believe they see is exactly what they want to see and not what’s truly there.

I contend that the factors that led me to where I am today were nothing short of fortunate. I had a mother who, with her flaws, pushed me in the right direction, a set of schools that were top-notch in their own respect, whether private or public, a good amount of people who believed in my own ability, and a genetic intelligence and stubbornness that could have prevented me from making some of the decisions I made but they did. If anything in this paradigm fell out of place, I wouldn’t have been as successful.

These opportunities I’ve worked hard for and have been granted haven’t made me any more complicit with what’s around me. I still struggle with different health issues like many of my neighborhood brethren do, and it’s something that I have more information on now. People don’t often break that seal until they’ve tasted a certain echelon of society. I am a firm believer in self-determination and making something out of nothing, but that’s exactly it. I don’t believe in alchemy. As a math person, I think there are simple solutions to some of the problems that afflict us, and it’ll be worth it if we can find those solutions.

Not everyone’s has been as fortunate as I am, though, which is why I fight for them. The images we see of the bling and the pomp are usually a very small percentage of truly poor people, and that’s what we don’t really see. Many of the little gadgets we see the kids have are second hand illegal devices, and liquor stores on every corner surface because it’s the one legal potion people use to get away from their daunting troubles. Change doesn’t happen by just sitting there; we need to be that change.

jose, a proud supporter of blog action day