One of America’s exciting young poets is 19 years old. Like several other innovators, who are among the greatest the country has ever produced–Notorious B.I.G., Jay-Z, Yasiin Bey (Mos Def), Ol Dirty Bastard–Joey Bada$$ is from Brooklyn. He has infused hope in the lives of tragically nostalgic hip hop heads who do nothing but long for the Golden Age of the early 90s, the years that birthed the aesthetic now reconstructed and reinvigorated by Joey. The young rapper’s retropoetics are thoroughly colored by the sound palette of architects like DJ Premier, who teams up with Joey on “Unorthodox.” The song offers what you would expect in a Premo beat, but the brilliance comes from the pristine cuts on the hook, and the way Joey’s flow overruns the rhythmic pockets between bars in a way that fellow Brooklynite Talib Kweli pioneered, but never perfected to this degree, never made sound this good. The video’s flickering primary colors, sketchy animation overlays and graffiti scrawls nod to another brilliant Brooklyn son, painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, whom Joey somewhat resembles in the clip, especially in Basquiat’s 1986 incarnation in Tamra Davis’s recent film The Radiant Child.
Joey’s acknowledgement of his debt to the thick history of Brooklyn rhyme style is, in other cases, still very clear, though more subtle. In the opening of “Waves,” Joey rhymes:
Since nine-five, momma been working nine-five
And I know the landlord fed up with our lies
So we pray to the Gods, the Jahs, and the Allahs
To keep us safe and watch our lives
The insistent, patois-inflected assonance in these lines recalls the glory days of Brooklyn hip hop, especially Smif n Wessun’s dancehall stylings on their opus “Dah Shinin” (1993). But Joey differentiates his style and persona from the Bucktown muggers by following the stanza with:
Cause all we tryna do is do good
Put on my hood when I walk through hoods
Cause these niggas these days is loco
You get it in your vocals if you ain’t a local
That’s why I’m tryna go global
That’s why I’m tryna be a mogul
Joey’s hood both hides his face and helps him keep a low profile, while simultaneously presenting the same hooded, shaded face of the jux artist. In order to avoid becoming a victim, he becomes the image of someone who would punch him in the throat and take what he has.
In his now classic study Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City (1994), sociologist Elijah Anderson theorized this contradiction in self-presentation as a survival mechanism. He describes a boy named Lee who, like Joey, wants to avoid the pitfalls of life on the corner and pursue success in the wider world: “Nonetheless, Lee wears the same clothes as his street-oriented neighbors. When the police cruise his drug-infested neighborhood and see him in his Timberland boots, his striped shirt, and his hooded sweatshirt, they stop him and ask him where his drugs are, and this makes him bitter. The knowledge that the wider system in the person of cops, teachers, and store managers downtown is instantly ready to lump them with the street element takes a psychological toll on boys like Lee. At the same time, there is so little support for decency on the streets that they have to mimic the street kids in order to get by.”
Though I’ve always thought that Anderson’s division between “decent” and “street” kids is far too neat, his ethnography still offers powerful examples of the paradoxes forced upon kids like Joey, and the brilliance and courage they muster in order to live through them. In the process, they do more than just survive, they make their lives into an art of living, a discipline of beautification, even if America, at large, still does not comprehend that beauty. I sense that there is a connection between a childhood of witnessing, and being touched by, pervasive violence, and the science of maintaining immaculately clean sneakers; a reciprocal relation between the desire for fresh fashion when surrounded by rot.
In any case Joey’s “Waves” is a document of self-fashioning, one that both nods to the long history of a young culture and acknowledges the importance of institutional support for the creativity of youth. In the opening of the video, we see that he sleeps in an Ecko t-shirt, the quintessential hip hop brand built up by the quintessential hip hop entrepreneur, Mark Ecko. Joey lets us know about his long-standing connection to authentic hip hop culture in his short life–we sleep in old t-shirts, ones that have grown soft from many wears. He switches into an Instigate 93 hoodie, also by Ecko, that directly references hip hop’s Golden Age and reasserts its remnant potential, the rebirth of which Joey wants to spearhead. Joey’s performing arts-focused Edward R. Murrow High School–like the Murray Bergtraum High School for Business Careers that brought together boys who would later become Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest and the Jungle Brothers–gave him the opportunity to pursue beatmaking, poetry, and emceeing, and form a collective of nearly 20 other talented young people who, with their array of skills, have the potential to cultivate a multimedia empire before they’re even old enough to have a legal drink.
The radiance of radiant children is always in-born; but it is also a socioeconomic product. This is not a contradictory statement, but a necessary affirmation that economic conditions and institutional practices shape dreams, defer them (as Langston said), diminish what Max Weber so plainly and perfectly called “life chances.” Conversely, institutions can reproduce conditions of privilege that also reach the soul of a child. Once the privileged child integrates that privileged condition into their self-identity, claiming it as the fruit of their intelligence, hard work, and merit, it becomes very difficult to help them see their privilege as the collective artifact that it is. At bottom, this naturalized privilege is the outcome of the same societal processes that generate the poverty that the dominant society, conveniently, frames as an outgrowth of the lack-filled souls of the poor, their laziness, their absent ambition, their dependency.
Structural oppression, systemic poverty and racism–these are forces that helped produce hip hop literature, forces that shape not only exterior fashion, poses, and gestures, but the very interiority, the psychic lives of youth. The poetry or paint of the radiant child is both a testament to the endurance of congenital light, and also, as all of us would do well to remember, it is the fruit of cultivation, of support, of community and opportunity. For each radiant child–from Jean-Michel to Joey–there is, currently, a multitude whose light we allowed to fade through neglect, at best, or snuffed out in one way or another, perhaps by just doing our jobs, at worst. I say this not to depress the reader, but to remind us what the wondrous exceptions like Joey really mean for hip hop culture, for American literature, and for this society, still spending its days gazing into a distorted mirror, one we need voices like Joey’s to help us correct.