Becoming: How I Learned to Walk Hip Hop
Mean mug? Check
Head cocked back? Check
One pant peg rolled up? Check
Dollar store gold chain? You know it!
Where It All Began
It’s summer 1997.
I’m a whole ‘pre-peach fuzz’ years old.
And I was determined to walk like LL Cool J.
Now if you don’t know who LL Cool J is, that’s ok. You most likely have some peach fuzz to grow yourself. Today, LL Cool J is some actor on NCIS: Los Angeles. Back then? He was like a Drake dancing in his feelings with a dash of 21 Savage. He was sort of rap music's first big solo star. He was it.
If anyone knows me, you’d know that I am, was, and always will be the consummate nerd. In 4th grade, for example, I’d forego recess to play librarian. I set out to self-teach myself the anatomy of molecules, atoms, and electrons. And to keep it real, Isaac Asimov was actually my favorite lyricist (Nerd joke that I don't care if you missed).
But there was something about LL.
There was something about the skin color we shared.
There was something about our Black-Man-in-America story that drew me to him.
I was a first-gen Haitian, in a two-parent household, balancing three different identities. I was Haitian, American, and at the same time, some entirely separate combination of the two. I was boy, and despite having a father, craved big brother guidance.
To me, LL Cool J was man. I was not. And that gap needed filling.
So I did what any young nerd would do. I studied him.
Learning to Walk
The way the dips and hops in his steps rhythmically synced with the Harlem-shake-like swing of his shoulders were mere mechanics to me. It was like learning a Nintendo cheat code. Left, right, up, down, left, left, start — swag achieved! You get the picture. Swap Nintendo for PS4 or something, I don't know.
So there I was. A kid on Laighton Street in Lynn, Massachusetts — practicing my strut — up and down my sidewalk. Awkward, huh? And ironically, what started out as a routine I wanted to master became a way of life that mastered me. In hindsight, learning LL Cool J’s mannerisms was my gateway “cheat code” to manhood. Looking back, he, 2 Pac, Jay Z, Jadakiss, Nas (and others you may or may not have heard of) became my only versions of black man in America. So I consumed until I became...a man after their own image.
This was pre-YouTube, pre-Facebook, pre-“@ me yo”, and pre-Insta. Heck, this was pre-Obama. There was no, “Alexa, where are all the good black men?” Just me and this music.
I know - that sounds terrible. Some of you were born drinking the ‘free WiFi’ koolaid. What on earth did kids do, right? But I digress.
So yes, these men shaped my walk as a man. But my true problem was not in emulating the culture they taught me. It was that I didn’t know I was being taught to begin with.
And that, I would argue, is why today’s young man is more confused than ever.
Learning to See
Today we have YouTube.
Today we’re on the ‘Gram.
Today, we experience and see the calm of Obama as much as the storm of a Trump.
We have no shortage of men who act out the saga of manhood before us. We’re bombarded with thousands of competing messages. And. It. Is. Overload! Which is why I believe in what I’m about to say more than ever.
Here’s what I think.
Before a boy can decide to become a man, he must first acknowledge that every man he encounters is teaching him something about manhood.
He must first learn to see. Why? Because the most dangerous lesson is the one you don’t know you’re being taught.
Now, don’t take all this as an indictment against hip hop. For one, I believe the art form has shed light on some important things in society — but that’s a topic for another day. However, do take this as a call to explore what you’re being taught and by whom. Do take this as a warning to avoid passively consuming all that lands on your plate.
Learning to Become
So yes, my LL Cool J "walk" as a boy, became my walk as a man (or what I thought was man). I was being taught — or to put it in church language — discipled, and didn’t even know.
I think if you looked around, you’d see and spot some of your “teachers” as well.
I’m well past the summer of ‘97 now. And I’ve had to unlearn some things over the years. I still have some old lyrics memorized. I still have a little Harlem shake muscle-memoried into my body. Shoot, on some days, I still kind of walk a little Hip Hop. But by now you’ve guessed that it was never really be about the music. It was always about the outward behaviors and internal dispositions we adopt and learn to act out as men.
And If I’m honest, I’m still learning to unlearn.
And that's ok, because mastering manhood is a life-long journey towards a forever destination. I’ll even go Lord-of-the-Rings on you and say it’s a quest. And like all quests, you can’t begin to walk until you begin to see. And you’ll find, like the boy who learned to walk Hip Hop, that there’s a reality none of us can escape from — a phenomenon most can’t easily explain.
It’s an undeniable mystery and life-changing truth.