I am an upper-middle class white boy in love with rap. Black guys on the street in New York sometimes call me “cracker.” Meanwhile I bump music like 2Pac and Dead Prez on iPod and write rhymes about blunts and my “struggles” at night alone in my room. Into my earphones they sing often about police brutality and making it out of the “hood.” I nod along.
Coming this July to radio stations everywhere, I eagerly await the new album of my favorite artist and poet, a rapper called Nas. Known as being the most conscious and intelligent rapper, he is considered a prophet of this generation’s African-American identity. The name for his new album, shocking too many, is Nigger.
It should not be so shocking. Nas’s art has always been a study in the self-conscious identity of African-Americans, and for almost all of them, what it means to be black, either in the US or abroad. Nigger is only the climax of a society—and art—which has continually made black people identify themselves only in the context of others, specifically the White Man.
Hip-hop, like any art, has helped tremendously in this attitude by being both inspired by, and inspiring, real life—it has been called the CNN of the ghetto. But it is also the White Man, specifically our highly idealistic, highly blind education system.
In history class we are taught black people were enslaved for hundreds of years. They didn’t get to vote and were kept out of the black schools. Today we were all the same, it was said, but what did not need to be said was that we were different.
It doesn’t matter if we were taught to not be racist, or taught that everyone was equal or God’s children, what matters is that it was brought up. That we were taught to ignore it, but implicitly implicated that it existed. And of course it does, all around us.
But these have always been lines that split people apart, identifications identified as differences, reasons for people to fall away from each other, rather than rally around each other. And it came up again and again in my earphones. To be black is to not be white. It is to be the antithesis of white, the response and revenge to white.
What I have found here in Rwanda instead—and maybe I was young and naïve for not understanding it before, though I’m sure it was taught in school—is that people align, not politically but personally, not along these inherited imaginary lines, but through how common their day-to-day lives are.
I have far less in common here with many of my own race or creed. I bond with the journalist kids, the boys who play basketball at Cercle Sportif and Club Rafiki, in Nyamirambo. Of course, these single commonalities don’t get you very far, but it’s a far more encouraging and authentic first step than bonding over impressions of Gisenyi, while sipping coffee at Bourbon.
As Rwanda races at the speed of light towards internationalism and modern development, it presented itself to me with open arms as the only land I had ever stepped foot on where there was no McDonald’s. There was no Pizza Hut and, so far, no Starbucks. There is MTV Base but that’s on DSTV, and most people listen to Contact FM. And yeah, they play Nas and Jay-Z from time to time, but mostly its Professor J or Chameleon.
Rwanda was a place of its own. No one was ever taught to see themselves through another’s reflection. Not like black people see themselves through white people in the States.
Furthermore, people here, to my knowledge, have not been taught what not to be. That is they don’t know to not listen to Kenny Rogers, or listen to some John Denver as the countryside passes by. They don’t see the contradiction that I—so sadly, so stupidly—grew up seeing.
Because it doesn’t matter if the ranch owner in Texas who as a child attended an all-white, no-black high school has nothing “in common” with the black goat-herder in Rwanda whose crops lose out on the global market because the Texan’s crops are subsidized.
In fact they have a lot in common, from dawn to dusk. They wake both in the morning early. They survey their land—they are people of the land—they take milk from the cattle, and feed corn to the chicks. The air is cold and misty to both of them in the morning, and they are more concerned with a good sleep and the shine of the stars away from the city lights, and the art of hunting, and the art of a nice lonesome ride with a strumming guitar on the radio and a slow, croaking song.
But in America, those ridden in pop-culture and pop-history, who call Africa their “motherland” and who think there blood is just as black as their skin, would scoff at the idea of listening to Shania Twain or Celine Dion, simply because it is “white.”
But that’s exactly what their “ancestors” back on the motherland—the ones those youngsters in America believe to their own most authentic form—are doing. Yes, they are also listening to Hip-Hop, but they are also listening to Zouk, and to Reggae, and to Swahili folk songs. No one tells them what to listen to.
Rwanda as a foreigner has forever told me what to listen to, and it has told me who I am, but Rwandans on a personal level have changed my mentality, hopefully forever. The farmer in Nyanza is as closely related to the farmer in New Mexico as he does with the student at KIST who buys his meat.
My journalist friend Don Muhinda, who has yet to see the ocean, has as much in common with me, who has crossed two oceans a dozen times, as I do with my classmates in New York.
The world is a much more beautiful place when we give it a chance. Giving people identities has never worked, and building identity and society on skin tone and what God you believe in has worked even less.
The beauty with mankind, and what we have taken for granted, is that with each generation really does come a new chance to correct our mistakes. It is corrupted by the talk of our parents and the idealistic ignorant talk of our teachers. We have taught the past and we have taught difference. No wonder that’s how we all seem to turn out.