Wordsmith Wednesday: 2Pac’s “Brenda’s Got A Baby”

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The words this week are the lyrics to 2Pac’s song “Brenda’s Got A Baby” from his 1992 debut record 2Pacalypse Now on Interscope Records.

“I hear Brenda’s got a baby, but Brenda’s barely got a brain
A damn shame, the girl can hardly spell her name
“That’s not our problem, that’s up to Brenda’s family”
Well, let me show you how it affects our whole community
Now Brenda really never knew her moms
And her dad was a junkie, puttin’ death into his arms
It’s sad, ’cause I bet Brenda doesn’t even know
Just ’cause you’re in the ghetto doesn’t mean you can’t grow
But oh, that’s a thought, my own revelation
Do whatever it takes to resist the temptation
Brenda got herself a boyfriend
Her boyfriend was her cousin, now let’s watch the joy end
She tried to hide her pregnancy, from her family
Who really didn’t care to see, or give a damn if she
Went out and had a church of kids
As long as when the check came they got first dibs
Now Brenda’s belly’s gettin’ bigger
But no one seems to notice any change in her figure
She’s twelve years old and she’s havin’ a baby
In love with a molester, who’s sexin’ her crazy
And yet and she thinks that he’ll be with her forever
And dreams of a world where the two of them are together
Whatever, he left her and she had the baby solo
She had it on the bathroom floor and didn’t know, so
She didn’t know what to throw away and what to keep
She wrapped the baby up and threw him in a trash heap
I guess she thought she’d get away, wouldn’t hear the cries
She didn’t realize how much the little baby had her eyes
Now the baby’s in the trash heap, bawlin’
Momma can’t help her, but it hurt to hear her callin’
Brenda wants to run away
Momma say you makin’ me lose pay
There’s social workers here every day
Now Brenda’s gotta make her own way
Can’t go to her family, they won’t let her stay
No money, no babysitter, she couldn’t keep a job
She tried to sell crack but end up gettin’ robbed
So now, what’s next? There ain’t nothin’ left to sell
So she sees sex as a way of leavin’ hell
It’s payin’ the rent, so she really can’t complain
Prostitute, found slain, and Brenda’s her name
She’s got a baby”

This is pure storytelling from a figure who remains legend and somewhat of an enigma in modern American culture, partially due to the juxtaposition of his self-ascribed thug image and demonization by high-profile conservative figures with the skilled, thoughtful, and emotional poetry found throughout his body of work. In just under two minutes on this track, Tupac Shakur creates a character to discuss poverty, sexual abuse, community responsibility, teenage pregnancy, and other social issues from a close-up, personal perspective rather than through the dehumanization of a headline. He is an observant, intelligent street reporter explaining the root causes, blending the personal with the political, rather than exploiting the tragic effects like the media often does. Only twenty when these words were released and only twenty-five when he died, Shakur was a poet at heart navigating his past, his reality, his imperfections, and the challenges of his/our time with an open heart and an open mouth. The world needed Tupac to tell these stories, his stories. We needed to see him grow, to reconcile his gentle with his gangster, his poet with his panther. I hope there’s heaven for a G.

– NR

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Wordsmith Wednesday: Danny Brown’s “Fields”

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The words we’re highlighting this week are from Danny Brown’s song “Fields” from his 2011 album XXX on Fool’s Gold Records.

The lines are:

“It’s like they all forgot man, nobody care about us
That why we always end up in prison instead of college
Living in the system, working kitchen for chump change
Lost in the streets, niggas playing that gun game
Where nobody wins, just a bunch of mommas losing
Dead body in the field, nobody heard the shooting
We living in the streets where the options is limited
Cause its burnt building instead of jobs and businesses”

When I first saw/heard Danny Brown in my dorm room back in 2011, I was immediately drawn to his whole thing: busted tooth smile, weirdo hair, rock star attitude. His approach all felt genuine, like he was in his own lane lyrically/stylistically and was inviting you to ride passenger as he swerved full speed. That’s why I’m highlighting a chunk of a verse that juxtaposes the blown out bizarro bravado Brown is typically known for. The media loves to hold up statistics of violence in major cities, especially within black communities, but hardly ever makes the logical jump away from race to socioeconomics. Urban poverty, like that found in Danny Brown’s home city of Detroit, breeds a culture of drugs/gangs/violence because to some those are the unfortunate means to the most American end: money. When traditional economies don’t support citizen’s families or simply don’t exist, alternative economies emerge. Through these words, Brown provides a window for outsiders to see the root causes of the crime scenes they see on the nightly news, humanizing harsh realities that networks sensationalize for the story. If politicians started listening to poetry instead of pundits, maybe they’d learn that paychecks do more to curb violence than police do.

– NR

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Wordsmith Wednesday: Rage Against The Machine “Bulls On Parade”

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Our words this week come from Rage Against The Machine‘s song “Bulls on Parade” off their 1996 album Evil Empire.

The words are:

“Weapons, not food, not homes, not shoes
not need, just feed the war cannibal animal
I walk from corner to the rubble that used to be a library
line up to the mind cemetery now”

As a kid, Zack de la Rocha’s lyrics on the radio were my first unconcious introduction to anything resembling radical American political thought, planting seeds about corrupt government (“Testify”), brutality by racist police (“Killing In The Name”), and exploitation for greed (“Sleep Now In The Fire”) in my head that would germinate into adolescent opinions during the Bush Era. Rage Against The Machine and The Battle Of Los Angeles both served as catalysts to the development of my personal politics and interest in alternative histories before an introduction to Howard Zinn at sixteen gave some structure and solid argument to de la Rocha’s anger. However, it was always these lines that stuck out to me as a boy growing up in the shadow of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, specifically the imagery of a destroyed library. The juxtaposition of war and ignorance against learning and care is a relationship that has only become stronger and clearer as I’ve grown up in a world where the United States has been at constant, endless, expensive war without any clear objective or exit strategy. For over half my life now, we have had troops on the ground in Afghanistan fighting, and dying, in a war on terrorist organizations that essentially fuels itself by providing propaganda for these organizations with U.S. military presence. Just this week there has been a presidential call for an increase in troops. Eisenhower is ignored, Halliburton is forgotten, and the military-industrial complex chugs on. This cycle is pushed forward by politicians and pundits championing American safety, strength, and prosperity while children in parts of this country go hungry, homeless, and hopeless. Unfortunately for those kids, feeding, clothing, and empowering the poor has little of the perceived or real political and economic benefits that war can provide to the powerful elite, so they just keep rallying around the family with a pocket full of shells.

– NR

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Wordsmith Wednesday: George Saunders’ “The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil”

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Our words this Wednesday come from George Saunders’ 2005 novella The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil.

The excerpt is:

“Suddenly Phil didn’t seem like quite so much of a nobody to the other Outer Hornerites. What kind of nobody was so vehement, and used so many confusing phrases with so much certainty, and was so completely accurate about how wonderful and generous and under-appreciated they were?

‘Boy oh boy,’ said Freeda.

‘He just comes right out and says it,’ said Melvin.

‘Thank goodness someone finally has,’ said Larry.

‘As for you Inner Hornerites!’ bellowed Phil. ‘Please take heed: You are hereby testing the limits of our legendary generosity, because of how you are, which is so very opposite of us. Friends, take a look at these losers! If they are as good as us, why do they look so much worse than us? Look how they look! Do they look valorous and noble and huge like us, or do they look sad and weak and puny?”

If some of the rhetoric in this excerpt seems to echo what you’re hearing in the current political discourse, that’s because the language of nationalism and it’s dumber, more violent cousin, jingoism, often rest on the vilification of the “Other.” This is the language you heard on the campaign trail and it’s the mindset behind border walls, travel bans, and threats of nuclear war. Throughout the book, Phil’s populist approach and appeal to Outer Hornerites, similar to that of Trump, is almost entirely built on expressing their superiority over Inner Hornerites, of using single incidents or accidents to generalize about “Them” and using fear to quell any dissidence among the Outer Hornerites themselves. Originally meant to be a children’s story in response to a challenge to write a book where all the characters are conglomerate objects, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil uses satire to simplify, and clarify, factors that lead to conflict, subjugation, injustice, and, in this case, genocide. This story’s cautions against blind faith in authority, national hubris, sensationalist media, and compliance with injustice seem a lesson to navigating our current sociopolitical landscape, a shifting lesson I’m learning every day. I don’t have the answers, but be careful of those who try to win your heart and mind by vehemently spouting confusing phrases with certainty.

– NR

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Wordsmith Wednesday: Kendrick Lamar’s “LUST.”

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Our words this week come from Kendrick Lamar’s song “LUST.” from his latest record “DAMN.”

The words are:

“We all woke up, tryna tune to the daily news
Lookin’ for confirmation, hopin’ election wasn’t true
All of us worried, all of us buried, and the feeling’s deep
None of us married to his proposal, make us feel cheap
Still and sad, distraught and mad, tell the neighbor ’bout it
Bet they agree, parade the streets with your voice proudly
Time passin’, things change
Revertin’ back to our daily programs
Stuck in our ways, lust”

On a collection of songs built around breathing life and form into broad human themes, Lamar engages lust not just as a sexual concept but also one of desiring the easy, the pleasurable, the lazily indulgent. The self-centered default. He reflects on this concept in men, women, and himself before dropping the above words at the end of the final verse. These lines reflect something essential and troubling about the recent US presidential election and the national response in the months that followed. After clenched stomachs and disbelief came genuine discussion and community building efforts, energetic and directed and productive. But sustained, unsexy resistance is hard. Legs start to hurt and throats go hoarse. Victories are small and meaningful outcomes require a marathon. Time passes. Normalization begins. Constant engagement and outrage get exhausting and complacency starts to return to those privileged enough to afford it and to some that can’t. Back to the default. So, while it may be human nature to seek the comfort of the self-centered action, real growth requires personal sacrifice for collective progress, less lust and more love. I’m definitely guilty of making the selfish choice in the face of greater injustice, but I’ve also made sacrifices to reach out and pull others up. It’s right, but it’s hard. Damn.

– NR

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Wordsmith Wednesday: Mos Def’s “Wahid”

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We are highlighting the last verse from Mos Def’s song “Wahid” from his 2009 album The Ecstatic for our Wordsmith Wednesday this week.

The words are:

“Schooling the young like Rev. Run
Quote Pac and tell ’em keep their heads up
And when the pressure comes down press back and press up
Fret not ghetto world guess what?
God is on your side, the devil is a lie
The Empire holds all the gold and the guns
But when all is said and done there’s only
La ilaha ill’Allah”

Mos Def is known for his legendary ability to smoothly weave sometimes dissident ideas together through idiosyncratic rhyme schemes, simultaneously painting in broadstroke and penciling in the details in the wet paint. These lines plant the power of knowledge and hope poetically against military and monetary might, reminding the marginalized to always push back against external pressures that threaten to crush them.As a non-believer from a loose Polish/Italian Catholic background, I don’t connect as much with the religious connotations of this verse as much as I value its message of encouragement and emboldenment of young people coming up in world that may discourage or diminish them. However, it bears noting that the Arabic line roughly translates to “there is no other god than God” in English, referring to idea that all temporary/secular  struggle and desires dissipate in the face of eternal Truth, a concept shared between major monotheistic religions.

In light of our current social and political landscape, it’s important to remember the elements that should unite us in pursuit of Truth, regardless of religious beliefs (or lack thereof): protection of the weak/marginalized/impoverished, morally and ethically sound thought and action, sustained resistance in the face of corruption and abuse of power. Strength through love and empathy is far more sustainable than through guns and gold. Keep your head up and keep pressing back, everyone.

– NR

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Wordsmith Wednesday: John Mellencamp’s “Jack & Diane”

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This week’s Wordsmith Wednesday spotlights lyrics from John Mellencamp’s “Jack & Diane” originally released in 1982 on his album “American Fool.” The iconic lyrics read:

“Life goes on
long after the thrill
of living is gone”

Wistful and straightforward, these words have woven their way into my emotional fabric just as they have plenty of other Americans. They fill me with a nostalgia for weekend afternoons on the back patio of my childhood home, a yearning to be young again with my girlfriend, and, most of all, the Midwest. They make me miss things I didn’t appreciate enough when I had them, but suggest that I’ll at least continue to experience life even if it lacks some the magic it once held. They let me know I’m getting older. These words just feel very much like the Truth when I hear them.

– NR

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