On the Way Home
On my subway ride home to Brooklyn, my focus typically shifts between watching my fellow passengers and views of the East River as the B train crosses the Manhattan Bridge. As a third-year doctoral student in psychology at New York University, I study people as well as their culture and environment. I’m captivated by the vast diversity of everyone around me in this city—South Americans, Africans, African Americans, Asians, Hasidic Jews, Middle Easterners, Euro-Americans, West and East Indians, and more.
This time I’m returning from watching renowned hip-hop artist Sinna* (*All names of characters, songs, and quoted lyrics have been changed to protect the privacy of the people in the story) record his new album in the studio. Like many hip-hop artists, Sinna’s lyrics depict the life that he lives every day. During my ride to Brooklyn, the album tracks reverberate in my mind. I’ve been observing Sinna for a social psychology project that investigates the link between hip-hop music and community violence.
As the train pulls into the Broadway-Lafayette Street station, an all-too-familiar voice blasts throughout the subway car: “Ladies and gentleman, we are being delayed due to a stalled train up ahead.” Like the other passengers, I am initially perturbed but decide to seize the opportunity to listen to the freshly made mix Sinna has given me. From the first downbeat of the track “Fear Not,” I am moved to hum along with the deep, heavy bass line that lays a foundation under his robust baritone voice, while the catchy melodies and harmonies of the guest vocalist urge my internal world to dance. But after the first chorus, Sinna begins rapping this unforgettable message: “It’s only a matter of time before I pop you with my nine / See, I don’t care ’bout yo’ cryin’ momma / ’Cause she shoulda taught you not to sweat me.” Suddenly I feel queasy. It’s difficult to associate these words with the soft-spoken guy who made a point of opening doors for me and saying, “Ladies first.” Various thoughts flurry through my mind, and I want an explanation to lessen the blow. For a moment, the shock of the dichotomy between these disturbing lyrics and Sinna’s demeanor causes me to nearly miss my stop.
Observer and Activist
As I begin to walk home from the subway station, I think about another interviewee, Mrs. B. She’s a wise, elderly woman who is adamant about enacting positive change in the community. In some ways, she reminds me of my grandmother. She’s perfect for my project, and she gets me thinking about my role as a social scientist. Not too far into our interview, it becomes clear that this retired schoolteacher has a mission. She suggests that I use my work for social change in our rapidly deteriorating community. “If more of our people, like you, could just funnel all that knowledge back into the community, we would start seeing some changes real fast,” she says. She claims that I can have a positive impact on these artists. She tells me I could write magazine articles advocating a different kind of hip-hop to help reverse the violent culture that this music promotes.
In an attempt to quell my guilt, I rationalize that I am not a music critic or a writer for a hip-hop magazine. “I’m an ethnographer with a defined purpose,” I tell myself. My work will have an impact. Research will eventually have an influence on how people view this culture. In turn this will influence government-funded programs, educational systems, and the overall quality of life for my people. I’m fully aware of the need for positive change, but I also know that my role as researcher should not involve passing judgment on those like Sinna, whose lifestyle and philosophy don’t necessarily align with mine.
But I can’t help but think about how immersed my young family members and friends are in this culture. They listen to hip-hop, watch videos on TV, and love artists like Sinna; they even request his CDs as gifts. Even though the children in my family are being raised by the same supportive and religious grandmother who raised me, they try to live the image that Sinna projects through his music. Perhaps because the influence of the music is so close to me, it has fueled my desire to understand and study hip-hop artists in their world. And maybe as a member of academia, I’ve lost sight of what that world is like on a conscious level. I wonder, “How will I balance my own mission and the realities of this world and remain insightful on all levels?” I also wonder if my mission and presence has triggered a similar struggle in Sinna. Perhaps I’m a reminder to him of his own struggle.
I recall the tears streaming down Mrs. B.’s beautifully structured cheekbones as she expresses frustration and sadness at having to plead with the Lord to protect her children from the violence in the streets they travel every day. Her voice echoes in my mind for the duration of my trip home. I visualize completing my dissertation and imagine bringing about positive cultural change through my writing and community service activities. And suddenly these dreams replace the burden I felt earlier. As much as I respect Mrs. B.’s views, I must follow my own path. The difference I hope to make may not have impact soon enough for Mrs. B. and others, but it will be made.
The earthshaking screech of a bus stopping up ahead yanks me out of my contentment. As I greet the vendors who have sold their ethnic jewelry and fragrant oils in this neighborhood for years, a series of beeps coming from my cell phone notifies me of an urgent message. Strangely, I feel apprehension. Upon listening to it, I learn that a dear friend has just been shot by a gang member. I picture the world that he lived in, filled with fear and violence and the music that glorifies this lifestyle. Suddenly my flurrying thoughts about how to bring about change in these violent communities move further from my mind and closer to my heart.