‘There and Back Again’ is a series of articles in which I reflect on my upbringing in Lithonia, Georgia and my eventual return to New York in the mid-1990’s. Much of it relates to Hip-Hop, and how I truly discovered a culture that would eventually define my outlook on life. This was my world from childhood to adolescence. This series began as an ongoing column on Planet Ill. It now makes it official debut on ‘Scottscope’ with this piece, written in memory of the 1992 Los Angeles Uprising.
1992 was arguably the pinnacle of the Black consciousness movement in Hip-Hop, as well as Black consciousness in popular culture. It was all downhill from there, at least from my perspective. The fuse lit by groups like Public Enemy and filmmakers like Spike Lee burned brightly for six years before going Nova with the Los Angeles uprising and the film Malcolm X. I felt I was ready for the revolution back then. During the latter half of my 9th grade year at Tucker High school, Ice Cube’s sophomore album Death Certificate was my soundtrack, The Autobiography of Malcolm X my bible.
While my east coast brethren were keeping me conscious, my west coast brethren were offering war reports from ground zero. They wore Jheri Curls, downed 40 ounce bottles of Malt Liquor and claimed affiliation with various factions of the Bloods or Crips. They cursed a Hell of a lot more than New York rappers. They rarely, if ever, used the word “woman” to refer to the opposite sex. In the months between the Rodney King beating and the resulting riots, guys with names like MC Eiht and Da Lench Mob told me everything I needed to know about life in South Central, or so I thought.
In the middle of my 9th grade year, a new student was admitted to my art class. I’ll call him Jayo, in honor of the rapper Jayo Felony. I do this for two reasons. Like Jayo, this new student was from San Diego, CA. Also like Jayo, he claimed affiliation with the Rolling 40’s Crips. He was tall, lanky, dark skinned, and wiry. He also wasn’t afraid to speak his mind, and was more than willing to deal with any repercussions that might follow.
One day in art class, our assignment was to draw logos and banners. “Jayo” did one that read “Diego 40’s” in big crude block letters. Surrounding them on all sides was a series of hands, also crudely rendered. The fingers on each were twisted into weird configurations that resembled sign language. I didn’t know what gang signs were at the time, so it didn’t register that he was using this particular assignment to “rep his set.” Neither did our art teacher, who gave Jayo a passing grade on that particular assignment.
|Rapper Jayo Felony|
Jayo had a huge, ugly knot on the bridge of his nose. He had another on the middle finger of his right hand. They weren’t merely bumps, but broken bones that had not been set to heal properly. Jayo said he got them while fighting and didn’t bother going to the hospital afterward. He didn’t like hospitals much. He liked cops even less. One day, after observing that I had a talent for sketching, he asked me to draw him a picture of a cop getting his brains blown out. When I asked him why, he simply stated that he hated them. “If my father was a cop, I’d hate my father” he said. He then told me a story about being harassed by cops back in San Diego.
Most of the New York transplants at Tucker High thought that L.A. gang culture was silly, and west coast gangsta rap unrealistic. Such attitudes rubbed “Jayo” raw. “Y’all just don’t understand what it’s like out there” he’d say. He often did so while furrowing his brow and shaking his head. When native Georgians made similar comments, his reaction was no different. He also had a lighter side though. He noticed my taste for Chicago Bulls gear, the main colors of which were black and red. Red was, of course, is the color of the Bloods. Whenever Jayo saw me wearing Chicago Bulls apparel, he’d jokingly say “Nigga, what’s up with you and all that red? I’m gonna start bringing my gat to school!” He’d then call me a slob, which is a derogatory term for Bloods gang members.
Like most NY transplants back then, Jayo felt a strong connection with his hometown. I could visibly see that his mood was different during the days that the L.A. uprising unfolded. It seemed to confirm everything that he had told me about the police, as well as everything the music I’d been listening to had talked about. I heard through the grapevine that he beat the shit out of some kid during gym class on one of those days. No teacher saw it, and the recipient of said beating was too scared to rat him out. Knowing Jayo, this kid probably made some snide remark about the riots, Rodney King, or gangs.
|Unforgettable image from the Los Angeles uprising.|
Me and Jay got along well because of our mutual love for Ice Cube and Cypress Hill. Jayo also liked the Native Tongues and Flavor Unit. He was pretty universal with his tastes, though he shared NY Transplants disdain for Miami Bass and ATL Bootyshake. Like most native Georgians, he thought New Yorkers were assholes, yet he seemed to like us anyway. We grew apart during my 10th grade year, at the end of which he graduated. He told me that instead of going to college, he was going to enlist in the armed forces and become a “part-time G.I. Joe.” I saw him again shortly after Thanksgiving of 1993. He came by the school to visit dressed in his class A Marine Corps uniform. He even seemed to stand different. I said what’s up to him. Though he seemed glad to see me, we kept the conversation short. Over the years, I began to realize that gangbangers don’t necessarily give up their affiliations when they entered the armed forces. I never got to find out if Jayo ever did.
Here we are in 2012, and the drama over Trayvon Martin’s murder threatens to plunge the country right back into the same turmoil that unfolded on April 29th of 1992. I remember how naïve and idealistic I was back then. I remember looking at all of the events that unfolded in the context of what Cube and John Singleton and company had told me life in Los Angeles was like. I now realize that those guys were indeed prophets. I also now realize that there’s only so much that a song or movie can tell you. I’ll probably never know if Jayo was indeed a Rolling 40 Crip as he claimed, or if he ever outgrew such nonsense. However, he did teach me that the things that played as entertainment for me were real life to some. I wonder if right now, there’s a fifteen year old transplant from a major city who thinks that he knows everything about Florida because he listens to Rick Ross. If the verdict in the Trayvon Martin trial indeed incites a riot, I wonder how those events will shape his young mind. The more things change, the more they stay the same.