“Compassion will cure more sins than condemnation.” – Henry Beecher Ward
“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” - the Dalai Lama
“It is lack of love for ourselves that inhibits our compassion toward others. If we make friends with ourselves, then there is no obstacle to opening our hearts and minds to others.” – Author Unknown
DISCLAIMER: While I do not agree with everything JAY-Z does or says, in learning to see the world more compassionately I understand I can learn a great deal from him and the journey he has been on. His world is different from mine – and many of yours – but denying it does not make it disappear. If you lack compassion or critical thinking skills, please end reading here.
In November 2010, rapper JAY-Z took part in a conversation at the New York Public Library with conversation host Paul Holdengraber and critically acclaimed Princeton professor Dr. Cornel West. This conversation was part of a series, Live @ New York Public Library.
In what turned out to be an extremely revealing evening, JAY-Z spoke eloquently about his then new book, De-Coded. The primary purpose of this book, JAY-Z explains was to “make the case that hip-hop lyrics – not just my lyrics, but those of every great MC are poetry if you look at them closely enough.” In addition, JAY-Z wanted to “to tell a bit of the story of [his] generation, to show the context for the choices [they] made at a violent and chaotic crossroads in recent history.”
During this conversation on this November night in 2010, JAY-Z explains the story behind his hit song, “99 Problems.” While he received a great deal of criticism for referring to women as “b*****es” in the song, his defense was the following: I was not referring to women but to the K-9 police dog referred to in the song. While I personally find several holes in this explanation – after all, the song begins with this lyric that is oft repeated throughout the entire song: “If you’re havin’ girl problems, I feel bad for you, son / I’ve got 99 problems but a b**** ain’t one” – what I do appreciate is JAY-Z’s explanation of the importance of the context and complexity of his songs. There is a deeper and hidden meaning that must be pursued.
While many people – former talk show host, Oprah, included – have and will listen to a song like 99 Problems and point to the excessive use of the “b” word, there is a greater point being made, JAY-Z argues. However, the greater point is to be found beyond the music, beyond the surface.
Take for instance these lyrics, the second verse of 99 Problems written by JAY-Z:
The year is ’94 and my trunk is raw
In my rearview mirror is the motherf***ing law
I got two choices / Ya’ll pull over the car or
Bounce on the double, put the pedal to the floor
Now I ain’t trying to see no highway chase with Jake
Plus, I got a few dollars / I can fight the case
So I pull over to the side of the road
And I heard, “Son, do you know why I’m stopping you for?”
Cause I’m young and I’m black and my hat’s real low?
Do I look like a mind reader, sir? I don’t know!
Am I under arrest or should I guess some more?
“Well, you was doing fifty-five in a fifty-four.”
“License and registration and step out of the car.”
“Are you carrying a weapon on you? I know a lot of you are.”
I ain’t stepping out of sh**, all my papers legit
“Do you mind if I look ‘round the car a little bit?”
Well my glove compartment is locked, so is the trunk in the back
And I know my rights, so you gon’ need a warrant for that.
“Aren’t you sharp as a tack. Are you some type of lawyer or something?”
Nah, I ain’t passed the bar but I know a little bit
Enough that you won’t illegally search my sh**
“We’ll see how smart you are when the K-9’s come”
I got 99 problems, but a b**** ain’t one
(The words of the police officer are in quotations)
On first glance, the minds of my more conservative readers will be filled with words such as “filth,” “smut” and “ungodly.” Yet, as JAY-Z points out, focusing on the actual words of the lyrics misses the message altogether. While the words and connotations may be foreign to peoples in different parts of the country and the world, they do have a symbolic meaning. There is, in fact, a powerful interpretation behind these poetically coarse phrases.
I can remember when I first heard this song. I had borrowed a CD from friend of mine to listen to a couple of other songs that sparked my interest. This song, 99 Problems, was the very first song on the CD. After listening to it, I was somewhat shocked. The lyrics, the rhythms, the instruments, the voices. When it all comes together to create 99 Problems, it sounds so angry and deliberately offensive. To top it off, I was listening to this song while still living among the cornfields of Indiana where track houses and trailer parks abound. While we certainly dealt with our problems of poverty and racism and while crime was rampant in certain parts of the state, this was not like living in the heart of Newwark, NJ, Brooklyn, NY or Compton, CA. I did not understand how a song could be so vile and unfriendly.
Then I listened to it again…and again…and again. Over and over, partly for the rhythm, but mostly for that second verse. It moved me. Most importantly, recurrently listening to this song gave me my first impression that life was not the same for others as it was for me. While I had always viewed the police as safe and dependable, in other parts of the country – in other parts of the world – the police are an object of fear, corruption and downright evil. In the interview, JAY-Z reminds the listeners of a point in very recent American history when police officers would arrest a black man, take him back to the precinct, interrogate him and them drop him back off on the streets, yet this time in rival gang territory…just for fun. In truth, this should fall under the guise of cruel and unusual punishment. How could a humane and decent person find this kind of tact entertaining? Even more, how could we still live in a country where these kinds of actions are still permissible?
Of course, it is easy to sit in our comfortable chairs in our plush living rooms and decry the perceived criminal. Off with his head! Feed him to the lions! Even more dangerously, we do not even think about these kinds of people and these kinds of problems. Just like the music to this song, they are foreign to us.
And that is the purpose behind the music of JAY-Z. Of course the music, the pulse, the cadence, the tempo exists to entertain us. But how much greater if we can be enlightened? How much greater if we can learn to think liberally? That is, to see compassionately through the eyes of another.
Later in the interview, JAY-Z talks about the meaning and different connotations behind the word “hustler.” For most people, that meaning of “hustler” has negative intimations. It denotes a pornographic magazine, a female prostitute or a scam artist trying to make a quick buck. While it may be these very things, cannot it also convey the essence of a person who works hard to create their own luck? A person, trapped in a city or country with millions of people, who, against all odds and through sheer determination and tenacity, rises above his counterparts to succeed? Could this not also be the meaning of the term “hustler?”
JAY-Z continues with explanation of the word “hustler” in describing how he and his peers looked up to these men – the “hustlers” – in their younger years. These hustlers were the hustlers who give the word “hustler” a negative undertone. They were the drug dealers, pimps and, dare I say, hustlers. Yet it was these same hustlers who took the time to show JAY-Z how to be a Man; how to have integrity, honest and loyalty. As JAY-Z so eloquently states: “He’s feeding you life while at the same time destroying life by selling destruction.”
“For shame!” you cry out. “How could one possibly learn moral values from a mere street hustler?!” Ah, but wait! Here is where the complexity of life and human beings comes in to play. It was these “hustlers” who were the only men around to teach JAY-Z and his contemporaries the lessons of manhood. The other men and women who succeeded in fleeing the project never came back to show the young children how to make it out of the projects. Once safely out, they never returned. So, these young men who, like all young men do, needed male role models to latch on to, latched on to the very men who showed them respect and gave them attention: the street hustler.
Are we beginning to get the larger picture? To think more compassionately? To think more liberally and critically?
Life is complex and the context of any decision is important in understanding the decision itself. A young 15-year-old girl has an abortion, murdering a helpless little baby. A young boy on the streets robs a convenient store in the middle of the night. A young lady comes to school not caring about her grades and showing attitude to anyone who tries to reach out to her. A young man goes to prison for drug possession with intent to sell. A rap song includes some foul language along with a tale of destruction and oppression.
All of these look simple on the surface. However, the challenge is to go deeper. To see the context and work to understand the complexity of every situation.
In this, we show compassion, we become enlightened and we are able to share in the joys and sufferings of our neighbor. We become, at last, a community.
I encourage you to watch this interview in its entirety. It is, at once, brave, daring, intimate, poetic and illuminating. And it speaks to the complexity of human nature. For this reason alone it is worth watching.
Here is a short excerpt: