Depending on your perspective, there was a time you might have considered me an outright goon. Not a goon to the level of Bishop from the movie Juice, but one with savage tendencies nonetheless. When I was eight, the school principal sent me home for wearing a shirt that read “No Code of Conduct” in bold, black script. Ma’s English was shaky then, so its meaning was missed by her. I can’t say I fully understood its message either, but you wouldn’t have known it by the way the shirt corresponded to my general posture.
I was drawn to the counterculture. Music and art and skateboarding made me want to live louder, turn my life up for the world. Often that meant exposing my ignorance in the process. Like the single time I sported denim backwards because Kris Kross made it seem fresh for a stint. It wasn’t, and I got clowned. When you’re young, it’s permissible to have these gaps in your logic, to act out and never bug over potential repercussions. Everything is about the moment, and how to squeeze more out of it for its own sake. One more swig of the Cuervo; a last hit of the blunt; a bike to jack because I need a ride home and that red Mongoose looks like it flies.
* * *
Weeks before my parents’ marriage officially dissolved, my father showed up with a gang of bullet holes in Ma’s Accord. That was it. There was no more hanging on to blind hope, or attempting to make excuses for his behavior. Ma knew it, everybody knew it. My grandfather could have killed the man, and maybe I would have forgiven him if he had.
After they split, my father shoved off to the motherland. By now he was on the run—from his enemies and from the law—and had to leave the United States permanently. Ma lost the house and we moved into a small, two-bedroom apartment in Fort Lauderdale. Our first day there, I was blown away by the large community pool and half-court basketball setup. What seemed like dozens of kids my age roamed freely about the complex, on BMX bikes and scooters. Many of them were first-generation Americans like me and my brothers. Their parents were from Haiti, Brazil, the Dominican Republic. Some worked construction, others in restaurants or the night shift buffing floors at the local hospital. Our building sat just behind the school I was to attend for my last couple years of elementary. “Here we will build a home,” Ma said. “Just the four of us.” The next day Ma took the belt to my ass after she found out I’d sprayed shaving cream all over the exercise equipment in our new gym.
I realized that my first language was inextricable from who I was and how I should perceive my place in the world.
Now I had no choice but to share a room. To save space, Ma found a triple bunk bed on the cheap. I was on top, Alejandro in the middle, and Andres on the pull-out with the built-in drawers. Sometimes Andres slept in Ma’s room, like a sweet, protective boyfriend. He was just a few years old, but he made a ritual of checking the windows and making sure the doors were secured at night. Time passed and not much changed. The three of us boys still stayed up late sipping sugary drinks and feasting on questionable television. When my brothers fell asleep, I’d sneak out to the living room to watch Def Comedy Jam and Spic-O-Rama in the dark. I’d found a hero in John Leguizamo, whose rage and distrust of authority mirrored my own. While I generally loved my Latin culture—from our food to our music and celebrations—I wasn’t always self-assured enough to embrace certain aspects publicly. I hated to stand out when I was younger, unless it was for some commendable deed I’d performed. Nothing bugged me more than when Ma spoke Spanish in front of my boys, even though most of them came from Spanish-speaking homes, too. It wasn’t until I saw Leguizamo’s one-man show that I came to fully own my identity. I realized that my first language was inextricable from who I was and how I should perceive my place in the world. Anything less was self-hate.
Anyhow, me and my brothers never talked about our father. They were too young to comprehend everything I’d seen. As far as I knew, they were never brought along on dates with side pieces. They didn’t watch our father get blitzed in the kitchen or witness his longtime friends turn homicidal. These were my secrets to own and interpret however I chose.
* * *
Soon, Ma began taking on more hours at the nail salon. With my father ghost and contributing nothing monetarily or otherwise, the pressure to earn more money grew heavy. Her tips went to food and utilities, her meager paychecks to everything else. There were times she would mail the check for the car note or the phone bill and purposely leave off her signature. The check would get sent back a week later with a reminder to sign and return, which bought Ma extra time to get her paper together. She couldn’t afford to pay a sitter when she upped her hours, so Ma now had to take us to work with her two nights a week. She’d pick us up from school and drag us to the salon; a client would wait as Ma got us settled in the back. For the next four hours or so, we’d yell obscenities, get into fistfights, ruin homework, and make it almost impossible for Ma to work uninterrupted. One night, after he’d scribbled over someone’s class project in permanent marker, Andres bolted onto the main floor, blood dripping from his mouth. The women looked on, their eyes wide with shock. Ma lost her cool and time suddenly moved slower. Point is, we could be terrible then, and I recall many bloody nights and total pandemonium. “Where is their father?” I heard a bemused client ask once in a voice just above a whisper. Long gone, I thought. Long gone.
My father was born in 1953 in the town of Moniquirá, about ninety miles north of Bogotá. The second oldest of six children, he lived with the burden of birth order on his shoulders. He and his older brother, like many older siblings, were strongly urged to look after the others—and mandated to throw fists when necessary, at school, or the yard. Petty disagreements often came to blows, and their skin grew thicker by the grade. For them, everything came second to preserving their name. Had they let someone slide for disrespecting a Vidal, it might have been perceived as charity, and so they took no shorts. They would never know any other way.
Nestled in the province of Ricaurte in the department of Boyacá, Moniquirá is surrounded by rivers, hills, and coffee plants, its fertile lands producing many natural resources. Bocadillo, a Colombian confectionery made with guava pulp and panela and wrapped in leaf packaging, is among its most well-known exports. My father’s father worked in the fields until he moved the family to Bogotá in search of opportunity.
Bogotá in the 1950s could be described as idyllic, depending on whom you ask. People might speak of the extravagant parties and dances and the magic of youth. Perhaps they would tell of their long treks around lush valleys and their weekends spent at a relative’s finca up in the mountains. But between 1948 and 1958, hundreds of thousands were murdered in the partisan warfare that came to be known as “La Violencia.” Like my mother, who was raised to the south in Santiago de Cali, my father was bombarded by the daily reports of bloodshed around the country. Though censorship from the government did what it does, and though the threats against journalists and news organizations became heightened during that period, there was no way to ignore what was happening—the chatter in the streets, the paranoia of schoolteachers who had loved ones on the outskirts of the city. But violence has seen varying levels of intensity in Colombia. More than fifty thousand lost their lives in the Drug Wars of the 1980s, during the reign of Pablo Escobar, and in the guerrilla warfare of the 1990s.
* * *
For my father, with time and age came anger. And many of his experiences helped breed a deep distrust in the law. Though he may have been a merciless shield for his brothers and sisters, it didn’t compare to how frantically my father protected his mother. When he was seventeen, he served his first bid in jail following an altercation. One afternoon, when he and his mother were coming back from the market, a man in his thirties directed a sly comment at my grandmother. My father, barely out of high school, confronted the stranger and demanded he retract his words. When he did not concede, my father saw red and beat the man stupid in the street, nearly killing him. The police came and they put my father away for two months. They said he was crazy.
While my father sat in lockup with slabs of torn flesh under his fingernails, Ma, three years his junior, excelled at Colegio María Auxiliadora, a private Catholic school for girls in the Valle del Cauca. The middle child in a family of five children, she was beautiful and studious, tall and thin with big brown eyes. As a teen, my mother made grown men stop mid-conversation. But it hadn’t always been so. My mother was such an ugly baby that her parents, wonderful as they were, hid her for the first year of her life. When friends tried to make plans to visit, my grandparents would find a way to evade their requests. The baby is very sick; the baby is sleeping. Their list of excuses piled up until they finally deemed it safe to parade my mother around like they’d done the others. By the time anyone saw her outside of her immediate family, my mother was already walking and showing off teeth.
As the years went by, my father would demonstrate his contempt for superiors and the simple functions of responsibility. He was bright and warmhearted at the core, but he was also a menace. He scolded well-meaning administrators, defied every order. It seemed jail had changed him for the worse. Instead of accepting those months behind bars as a wake-up call, he dwelled on the sweet reward of exerting control over another’s body if they deserved it. He’d tasted the essence of supreme power, and he concluded that it was good.
* * *
Never mind the agony inflicted; never mind the emotional scars that poor bastard would have to endure long after his bandages were removed.
Never mind the violence that reminded onlookers of the civil war in which their country was entrenched.
Never mind that parents and their small children were made to gaze upon a madman who equated justice with suffering.
Never mind the warm sun and the breeze that earlier that day had signaled to all the makings of a perfect afternoon.
* * *
My father’s contempt for authority got passed down to me, like a piece of jewelry I didn’t ask for. In time, I made a sport out of testing the olds. Teachers, guidance counselors, school security guards. Most got the gas face from jump. I didn’t thrive on their instruction; I seldom trusted their judgment and I questioned their intentions at a fundamental level. Where this suspicion came from wasn’t always clear. But part of it, no doubt, came from witnessing plenty of scum take advantage of their high positions. They were the broken pieces to a power structure we did our best to resist. Basketball coaches were the occasional exception, but they weren’t immune to our contempt either. If they said to go right, I might still break left, through the legs and behind the back. My boy Carpio, in an organized city league game one summer, snuffed a kid clean in the jaw for scuffing his Spike Lee Jordans. He got ejected and had to sit out the next game. It would have been easy to defend Carpio’s right hook had the two not been teammates. Homeboy was a damn savage.
* * *
At Silver Lakes, I was a lost one on an uncertain path to middle adolescence. No purpose, no plans. The only things we chased were girls, ill beats, and cannabis, which we got for the low from the Haitians on 10th Court. We filled our days with violence and whatever mischief we could find. We lifted from convenience stores like I’d done as a kid and picked fights with derelicts from other blocks. We bled; we pounded the pavement. When the summer temperatures cooked us like carne asada, we took to the Boys Club, with our raps and our sticky weed. It wasn’t long before I started slanging. I reached out to Carpio, who was the plug, and asked him to help me get rich. He mapped out some territory, and soon I was flipping nickel and dime sacks by the racquetball courts. I listened to Onyx and scribbled lyrics of my own invention on scraps of loose leaf as I waited for the burnouts to show up with cash. Admittedly, I was a horrible drug dealer. Nobody taught me how to not be careless with money and I could never save up. It was all dollar slices, movie tickets, and cassette singles. My only real currency was my friends, who I’d have died for if it came down to it. Although we showed love and cherished our brotherhood, we never fully realized just how dependent we were on one another. We rolled in packs of threes or more, at the ready for anything. We organized cyphers, slap boxed outside the bodega. We spent hours unpacking the gems of that day’s Rap City, who wore what and who unleashed the phattest 16s. Together, we represented power in numbers. We were rappers, poets, skaters, dope pushers, misfits, and sneaker heads; all attention-starved. Our lives revolved around hip-hop and what the music had helped birth in us: an appetite for more, more, more. I grew up with a hunger so big I thought of nothing else. Hunger for food, yes, but mainly for significance. Hunger for meaning. I looked for signs in everything; the nugget of truth in the dirty joke, the broader message in the freestyle. When an older boy, bent on proving his grit, put a knife to my neck at a bowling alley, I wondered if there wasn’t something more at play. Was this yet another sign that I was destined for jail or an early grave? I was, after all, my father’s son.
I’m not sure why, but to this day I have a fear that I will someday end up in prison. I don’t break the law; I pay my taxes. And yet, there’s this nagging fear that prison—and I realize the absurdity of this fear—will simply happen to me, regardless of my attempts to live well and right.
Anyway. Hard as Ma tried, she couldn’t get through to me back when. I gleaned what I could from those not much older, those heroes who, though not fully formed, seemed to occupy thrones and preside over planets. No one then epitomized the contrarian spirit better than the rappers and skateboarders we idolized.
* * *
In the Eighties and Nineties, skateboarding and hip-hop were the most natural of marriages. In their own way, each provided a kind of escape from the world we saw crumbling around us. Fathers went missing and mothers strove to keep their homes intact. Us kids, we went Casper, too, only on four wheels. We were aimless but we were free. And freedom was our faces to the wind.
My first board was the Marty Jimenez Jinx deck with the bat design and hot pink grip tape. It was damn beautiful and, for a while at least, I guarded the thing with all of my might. That is, until I got lazy and thought I could leave it outside the front door overnight. Someone caught me slipping and the goods were his for the taking. Thinking back, I can respect it to a degree. As much as it angered me then, and forasmuch as I’d wanted to punish the culprit, I knew better than to slip like that. I didn’t even deserve it if it could be taken from me that easily.
Skateboarding and hip-hop are institutions that, at a point in their respective histories (they’ve since been more heavily commercialized), spoke directly to the rebel soul of youth culture. They questioned systems, they asked the why of things, they railed against popular opinion. They encouraged individuality and valued personal expression. For those who felt shunned by society or by their parents and needed an outlet, these institutions were there. Skaters were the rejected geniuses who made a playground of the earth around them. They manipulated surfaces to serve their own needs. Groups like Pharcyde, Freestyle Fellowship, and the Beastie Boys helped define an entire era of hip-hop. They provided the soundtrack to the streets. Concrete Jungle, a 2009 documentary by Eli Gesner, encapsulates how both art forms helped inform each other—and how each went on to influence the masses in ways no one could have imagined.
Skateboarding and hip-hop are institutions that, at a point in their respective histories, spoke directly to the rebel soul of youth culture.
The best track ever to center on skateboarding is Lupe Fiasco’s 2006 breakout “Kick, Push.” Essentially a love song, “Kick, Push” focuses on the oddballs who found their freedom in skating and in one another. It’s the classic scenario: boy meets girl, they hit it off, girl leads boy to secret skate spot, cops shut it down. But even though cops ruin almost everything, the single, and the video, brought Lupe’s distinct perspective to the forefront. “Kick, Push” instantly became an anthem, a rallying cry for skaters and a certain breed of rap head. But Lupe made it known early that he never wanted to be seen as a face for the sport. He wasn’t rap game Lance Mountain speaking for a subculture. For him, “Kick, Push” was about exploring the relationship between hip-hop and skate culture, and the sense of community they foster when the two coexist. Embracing the power of juxtaposition has always been at the root of Lupe’s oeuvre. But his star status has often seemed at odds with what he was taught to value as a boy growing up in Chicago.
In “Hurt Me Soul,” another number featured on his debut album Food & Liquor, Lupe, born Wasalu Muhammad Jaco, addresses some of this tension and the conflicted feelings he once had toward rap. Because he was taught to value women and girls, he took issue with some of the first records he was exposed to.
Now I ain’t trying to be the greatest
I used to hate hip-hop, yup, because the women degraded
As an artist, Lupe has always existed between two worlds: the sacred and the profane. “I grew up juxtaposed,” he once told Entertainment Weekly. “On the doorknob outside of our apartment, there was blood from some guy who got shot; but inside, there was National Geographic magazines and encyclopedias and a little library.”
* * *
In my youth, I’d have related to this idea of juxtaposition, but somewhat in the reverse. Inside there was chaos and enmity. But outside, while there were side-eyes and stickup kids waiting to pull your card, there was also a world that felt beautiful and endless. There were other blocks in other cities in different states. And though I couldn’t touch them just yet, I took heart knowing they existed, and that someday I might set foot on them. Perhaps that small sense of hope sprung from lessons I was taught in Sunday school, the few times we attended. Though we didn’t grow up in what you might call a religious setting, Ma would tell you that ours was a Catholic home. Una casa Católica. She would make the sign of the cross over us before we set out for the world each day. But in ways, that’s where young Lupe’s path and mine would cease to converge. Lupe’s conviction calls back to his upbringing as a devout Muslim, and as the son of a Black Panther. Both of his parents saw to it that, no matter how harrowing the world was outside, there was always balance.
Before Lupe’s father passed away in 2007, he extended just one charge to his son, which he spoke to Lupe’s sister Ayesha. In a conversation with Cornel West at Calvin College’s 2009 Festival of Faith & Music, Lupe shared this charge.
“Tell Wasalu to tell the truth,” his father said. And then he died.
The truth: it’s what my friends and I were searching for in our brazenness, and in our misplaced rage. It’s what our mothers wanted us to encounter before it was too late, before violence and bitterness grew in us like a virus. When Lupe talks about living on the fringes, and when he rhymes about the teens kicking and pushing in pursuit of something real, it all rings true inside me.
The truth: it’s what my friends and I were searching for in our brazenness, and in our misplaced rage.
For my father, though, the idea of truth, and what it means to be invigorated by it, existed merely in the abstract. From the time he was young, ducking bullets—both real and figurative—became the norm. And manipulation was his tool. My father bent reality like that supervillain Mad Jim Jaspers. You might say it was passed down from his own father, whose penchant for deception saw no end. He was a creature of the bottle. My grandfather started his days with a tinto at sunrise and slowly worked his way up to the harder stuff, which he slammed back periodically until sleep. He lied, verbally abused his wife, neglected his kids. He didn’t model truth to his sons and daughters, like my father didn’t model truth to me and my brothers.
As junior high progressed, our circle grew smaller. People began to drift, relocate to other districts. Some got shipped to their parents’ country as a form of rehabilitation. Ma always made threats, but I never believed she would follow through. You’ll never, I said, after I’d gotten bagged for doing graffiti not far from our house. Domingo was with me, but the cops let him go since it was me they’d caught with the spray can.
* * *
I always made low marks in school, beginning around the sixth grade. One excuse was that the majority of my instructors rarely made the material compelling enough to keep me engaged. Again, Ma spoke very little English during these years, so the help I got at home was limited. The same was true for many of my friends who lived in homes where English was the second language. Even as our folks prized education and admonished us about its value, this was just a fact of life. We were mostly on our own. Few of us got any extra aid in our studies, whether from parents who were too busy keeping us alive or tutors who charged by the hour. Having a tutor was a privilege that not many people I knew had.
Things at school got progressively worse. Ma was getting summoned for parent-teacher conferences every couple months. I was either fighting, flipping off teachers, or napping through their lessons. And even though my spelling and vocabulary skills were on point—Ma loved to brag about my way with words—she knew something had to be done. In the middle of my seventh-grade year, the assistant principal was called upon to intervene. It was usually just Ma and a crabby old woman with horn-rimmed glasses, but this time it was more grave. As soon as Ma walked into the room, she could tell something was different.
“Hello, Ms. Vidal. I’m Mr. Albert.”
“How are you? Yes.”
“Good, Ms. Vidal, but we’re concerned about Juan.”
“Yes, yes. I very concerned.”
“He just can’t seem to stay on top of his studies. He’s a smart boy, but he seems to be showing very little effort.”
“Yes, it’s true.”
“Ms. Vidal, have you heard of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder?”
Ma freaked. You’d have thought Mr. Albert had told her I’d contracted some rare and incurable blood disease. Not to mention, Mr. Albert’s heavy Creole accent made matters seem all the worse.
“Oh my God! Is he sick?”
“No, no. Ms. Vidal, it’s OK. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is actually fairly common.”
“OK. OK. What do we do? Please tell me what do we do.”
“We, Juan’s teachers and I . . . well, we think he should be tested. This will help us determine next steps to ensure that your son succeeds academically going forward.”
ADHD cases climbed like mad in the late eighties and early 1990s. All across the country, rowdy teens were being tested routinely on the recommendation of agitated teachers and administrators. Doctors were diagnosing kids without blinking. Spacing out in class? Must be ADHD. Constant scrapping and undermining of those in command? It’s probably ADHD. Depressed? Sounds like ADHD to us. It was never the teachers and their lack of creativity that were the issue. According to them, it was the fault of the hormone-crazed students who believed they had better things to do than squeeze into a musky portable classroom and be fed half-truths.
A week after the conference, me and Ma sat in a cheerless doctor’s office waiting to be called in so I could take my Psychological Assessment. They asked Ma to come back in a few hours since the examination was going to take time to complete. The doctor hit me with mad questions out the gate, asking about everything from my relationship with my parents to my thoughts on life and my supposed inability to concentrate in Math. As he talked, I found myself trailing off, distracted by a number of things. To start, his mustache made him look like a square and sad sexual deviant. There were drab paintings on the walls—dolphins and badly drawn whales—and a candy bowl without any candy. Soon, I called bull on the whole thing.
“Juan, have you heard of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder?”
“Have you heard of Wu-Tang?”
“Yes. Do you like Wu-Tang?”
This instantly bothered me.
Not anymore, I said.
“What else do you like?”
With that, I decided to probe and test his knowledge of Shaolin’s finest.
“Ah, doctor, you know, the usual: ‘Runnin’ up in gates, and doin’ hits for high stakes / Makin’ my way on fire escapes.’”
“Really? Can you tell me more about yourself?”
“‘I was a man with a dream with plans to make cream / Which failed; I went to jail at the age of fifteen.’ ”
He finally caught on.
“Oh, these are song lyrics?”
“You said you knew the Wu, right? Well, I’m quoting ‘C.R.E.A.M.’ and you don’t know what’s what.”
“My apologies, I don’t know what a Wu-Tang is. Juan, let’s talk about school.”
He’d already lost my respect, and I saw no reason to give anything else he said much credence. When Ma returned, I was in the hall, ready to jet. She went inside to settle things with the doctor, and when she came back out, she seemed irked. She handed the woman at the desk a check and scheduled another visit for the following week. The next meeting was more of the same. The doctor went on and on and I quoted Fat Joe and Queen Latifah. Eventually, he saw that he was getting nowhere with me. As we were leaving, he offered a sincere goodbye, probably confident that he would never see me again. I channeled Montoya Santana from the movie American Me.
I said: “You know, a long time ago, two best homeboys, two kids, were thrown into juvie. They were scared, and they thought they had to do something to prove themselves. And they did what they had to do. They thought they were doing it to gain respect for their people, to show the world that no one could take their class from them. No one had to take it from us, ese. Whatever we had . . . we gave it away. Take care of yourself, carnal.”
Ma elbowed me in the ribs and the man stared into me blankly.
On the way home, Ma explained that because her insurance didn’t cover the full amount of the doctor visits, she had to come out of pocket for $600. She barely had that in her bank account, she said, and the rent was due. I was regretful for having made a joke of the whole mess. “I did this for you,” she said. “But you know I can’t afford this.” She told me they’d prescribed some drug called Ritalin, which, according to them, would help me focus and fight off distractions. Ma told them she would be in touch, but she had no intention of giving me drugs. She’d researched it and heard stories about the side effects of the medication—vision problems, insomnia—and decided to hold back.
“I’m not going to give my baby any damn pills,” she said. After that declaration, I never heard another word about ADHD or pills again.
* * *
I made enemies in those days. I could be cold and sharp-tongued, but I told myself it was mostly for survival. After Ma and Joe—yes, that Joe—had been dating for some time, we all moved in together. Soon they decided to pull Joey out of private school and have him join me at Silver Lakes. Joey was whip smart and athletic, and the Puerto Rican dimes couldn’t get enough of his spikey blond hair. They’d point and gawk and he’d turn red. At first, people would refer to Joey as “Juan’s White Brother,” but that stopped once he flexed his quarterbacking skills on Field Day. One of the few white boys on the intramural team, Joey was beastly when he snapped back to pass. Nobody was nicer. Before long, he had a rep, and he’d sometimes get asked to things I knew nothing about. Though we were as tight as brothers could be, in time we ran with different crews.
Toward the middle of the school year, Joey got invited to a party he wanted to go to and asked me to roll. I had my reservations. Life had taught me to be selective about the places I went without proper backup. None of my boys were going, and a jam with an unfamiliar crowd, in my view, called for more support. At the same time, I didn’t want Joey to go alone. The day before the party, I still hadn’t made my decision. “Well?” Joey shot during dinner. Ma broke the silence, promising that if I went with him, she’d cop me some new gear for the occasion. That was the end of the matter. An hour later, I was at the mall getting laced with denim and a Georgetown Hoyas T-shirt and matching Starter hat. As we approached the mall’s exit across from the Chinese spot, I saw a familiar face grilling me hard; it was a short and stocky Filipino kid who went to my school but was one grade above. He was standing around with his swarm of eighth graders. When me and Ma got closer, suddenly they were all staring me down. I didn’t know why. I knew they weren’t going to initiate a scuffle then and there, but I was prepared, my fist cocked at my side. The hate in their eyes seemed strange and unwarranted. In the car, I racked my brain trying to recall if I’d flapped my gums at anyone different that week. Nothing stood out.
‘Juan, have you heard of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder?’ ‘Have you heard of Wu-Tang?’
The party was at the clubhouse of a development called Heathgate. I knew the area well but I never had much reason to visit, not until now. Ma dropped us off and Joey and I made our way inside. My Hoyas fit was fire and I felt fresh and clean. The music was pumping; there were strobe lights, streamers, and tables with an assortment of fare and refreshments. Boys and girls played the wall with their cliques. I thought, This isn’t so bad. At the least, I got some new digs just for stepping up. The DJ played decent mixes, and soon I built up the courage to hit the dance floor. There were girls from wall to wall. Later, when I was cooling down by the spread of cold cuts and soda, I caught a few boys eyeing me. At first, I didn’t make much of it. I soon realized it was the same crew I’d seen the day before, outside the Panda Express. Then the Filipino kid came into focus and I was seized with regret. I knew this had been a bad idea. We needed to leave, and swiftly. I walked over to Joey, who was talking to the DJ, and told him it was time. “Trust me,” I said. “Just c’mon.” Joey knew this wasn’t a drill, and he followed my lead without hesitation. I didn’t want to seem frightened, so we moved toward the door casually. The kids noticed that we were jetting and they gathered like moths to the flame. Everyone else was grooving, not a gripe in the world. Me and Joey speed-walked down the street in the direction of a nearby shopping plaza. I turned around and saw the boys in pursuit. There were six of them. We didn’t run; they didn’t run.
“Who are those guys?” Joey asked.
“I have no idea.”
“Why are they following us?”
“I have no idea.”
While I didn’t know much, it was clear that their intent was to stomp me out.
By the time we reached the plaza, we’d lost them. We snaked into a department store and disappeared through the back, where we climbed a wall that led into an adjacent neighborhood. When it was safe, we called Ma from a pay phone and she scooped us up. We never mentioned it again, and I never made the same mistake twice. Trouble seemed to always find me, even when I wasn’t looking for it. Sometimes I came out unscathed, and other times I wasn’t so lucky. But there was always a lesson; I just had to trust the voice in my head.
* * *
by eighth grade, Domingo, Tomás, and I had become inseparable. Tomás would boost liquor from his mom’s boyfriend and we’d hop on the bus for God knows where. The local bus was a gift for that season of our youth. As a practical measure, sure, but also as a window into human behavior. I saw it all on the number 52: violence, intercourse, every drug imaginable. Most people kept to their books or tunes, but others were far less reserved, mumbling to themselves or feuding with their lovers. The occasional brawl landed a little too close for comfort, but it was all telling. And while I stupidly got lost on a few occasions—I took the bus alone from time to time—I always had my Walkman. I learned to appreciate Dr. Dre’s Chronic for the masterpiece it is while adrift in the middle of downtown Miami.
The cyphers we’d hold in the back row are some of my fondest memories of riding public transit as a teenager. It went like this: Domingo would kick the beatbox and Tomás and I would take turns coming off the top or reciting lines we’d penned earlier. We’d wax poetic about each other’s mom, bust on a stranger’s off-brand shoes, and go into long tangents about how our skill was superior. I tapped into something valuable on those rides. For the first time in my life I came to see my voice as a kind of weapon, the most effective instrument at my disposal. I used it to dazzle my small audience with epic roasts and wisecracks about whatever came to mind. It was a remarkable thing to learn, even as I couldn’t fully know the doors it would open later.
* * *
The last summer before high school would begin, Domingo perfected his blunt rolling technique and Tomás got a job stocking shelves at Publix. I filled entire notebooks with lyrics and got away with more than I could hope to remember. Before I was fifteen, I’d been jumped twice and arrested three times; petty theft and vandalism. After that final arrest, the one for tagging, Ma’s patience was spent. She drove to the station in tears. The night before, she’d found a nickel bag in my wallet, so this was the start of my ending. She’d made a decision in her mind, another thing I wouldn’t know until later. On our way back home from the station, Ma told me the arresting officer, something Gugliotta, had said I was a good for nothing little spic and was headed nowhere. Naturally, Ma told him off. She’d defended me in principle, but I knew things had to change. I knew that if the officer, who supposedly represented some idea of honor and morality, felt this way, I should take heed. A month later, Ma came upon an article in the Sun-Sentinel. The same officer, Gugliotta, had been charged with two counts of burglary. Cops ain’t worth a damn, I thought to myself.
We were blazed on some North Lauderdale bud when Domingo said, “Look.” He took to the coffee table, corn chips snapping under his feet. Some of our boys were in third period by now and we laughed, pitied them in their lockdown. It was the year Black Sunday dropped and the Hill was showing out. “I Wanna Get High” rattled trunks all across a scorching Miami and shook our core type heavy. Compulsive truants, we’d ditched class that day to sing their praises, B-Real and Sen Dog’s raps emanating from our bodies like a spell.
“Look,” Domingo said, standing on his mother’s furniture. “It’s no secret that you’re all in need of something meaningful to believe in. I mean, really believe in,” he said. “It goes like this around these parts. You got it all. You’d think, what with your sunny beaches, your platinum and endless gold, your drive-thrus and stocked mini-marts, you’d be satisfied. Wrong. All this and you’ve fallen to boredom, toking all day and yearning for something lasting; a well-paved road,” he said, “a narrow path. More sex, more noise. Less of you people, though. You damn degenerates with your fast and random ways. As your leader, I’ve come to understand this,” Domingo said, “that perhaps we’ve been going about this all wrong. Forgive me,” he said. “What might be necessary is a fresh cause. A thing without the pitfalls of institutional belief,” said the ex-churchboy. “You know what I’m talking about. What we need, I’ve come to accept, is a new religion. Yes, gentlemen, lend an ear. One with better music, see, more beats; more electric guitar, maybe, more oboe. One for which our devotion might be better understood, shared by every heathen with a heartbeat. See what I’m getting at? Let’s shake things up. I’m hinting at a place. Some place where you would not be scorned when politely requesting a second fix of that delicious communion bread. Sound good to you fools? I’m talking merchandising efforts that dazzle, campaigns that tug at the core. We for something raw and revolutionary, something for us, who are far from prophets but evangelists of a new day. Talk to me. I’m preaching up in here and I think you love it.” We said, “Chill,” but he didn’t let up. “You love it.”
For the first time in my life I came to see my voice as a kind of weapon, the most effective instrument at my disposal.
“We bear witness, we picket,” he said. “We stumble into crowded supermarkets, high as all hell. High on life, we make eyes with fly strangers, the hope in our faces burning bright. Up, down, and around the block, winning lost souls in some holy dance. It’s bigger than man’s stupid reasoning, trumps pop psychology with the flick of a verse. It’s the brand of sainthood you’ve always desired and didn’t know it. Am I right? I’m bringing it right now and you love it. I know you do. Talk to me. You want a movement? Well, here it is. It’s time to stand for more than your inebriated self. Think about it. Find yourself immersed in something great, the sort of thing that might pull a poem out of you, maybe even a good one, with meter, like iambic or something. This thing we’ll fight for, this magnificent monster of a movement complete with mad bumper stickers and quality tracts, anointed handkerchiefs and ink pens; this thing with more grape juice concentrate; this thing that offers what no gang ever could, not ever; this with no name as of yet, more on that later, but a soul and heart that supersedes definition and encompasses belonging. Friendship and camaraderie,” Domingo said. “Cookouts and sing-songs. This thing, this bloody beautiful thing we build, could be undeniably, unequivocally, the jam.” I laughed my head off, Tomás made the sign of the cross. Domingo bowed and ran for the toilet. This is the kind of foolishness you spew when you’re dumb high and a poet.
* * *
When I think of my old crew, I also think of Odd Future. Led by Tyler, the Creator, Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All is a kaleidoscope of talent, wits, and defiant disorder. Since first making a name for themselves as teenagers in 2007, they have remained outliers, a few dozen in-your-face skate rats with little regard for rules, pop tradition, or anything formulaic. They have been protested against and attacked incessantly for their lyrics, which frequently make references to murder, sex, and drug abuse. Tyler, Earl Sweatshirt, and a few others in the collective have come to represent disruption as a calling card. They are young and rich and free, they “skate hard and thrash black hoodies.” They won’t be tamed or bent against their will. They are skaters through and through. The ways in which they’ve challenged authority, especially on their early records, and in interviews, is on par with so many of the youth I know who came of age in challenging circumstances. They can be terrifying for those who don’t understand them, but affirming for those of us who do.
Odd Future more or less disbanded after members gained notoriety and started to branch out as single entities. But the same criticisms have followed Tyler and Earl, specifically, years into their successful solo careers. Neither has shied away from including violent and gruesome subject matter on their albums. As is often the case with these things, there is far more to unpack than what can possibly be understood at the surface. Both rappers, in fact, have attributed much of their anger and disillusionment to the void left by their absent fathers. The pain of abandonment is something the rappers still carry, however explicitly, as they have settled into adulthood. Much of their material explores these frustrations candidly, their deft and cutting verses serving as portals into the broader epidemic that is fatherlessness in America. But this is what ultimately powered the creative spirit of Odd Future when they started. “It made for good music when we were angsty teens,” Earl told the Los Angeles Times. “Daddy problems are tight when you’re trying to make angsty music.”
For them, it was about confronting personal demons while also creating something that resonated on the level of art. It becomes increasingly clear that, had OF members not gravitated to the counterculture early on, there might have been nothing else to help light their paths. In these art forms, they found a kind of refuge, a vehicle for their aggression. But this is the reality of millions of youth everywhere, not just rap stars or skaters raised in fractured homes. Every day boys and girls are left to make it work, to try and build their lives with pieces that don’t fit neatly together. This is why fathers on a whole have such positional power. Everything a father does matters. Their words, and their silences, are universes unto themselves.
To let Earl tell it on “Chum”:
It’s probably been twelve years since my father left,
left me fatherless
And I just used to say I hate him in dishonest jest
The counterculture took the place of a father I could no longer touch. Since things like school and religion couldn’t get through to me, I was being trained up outside of organized institutions. What I gravitated to were these movements that not only felt redeeming, but also freeing. They were almost everything I needed.
Excerpted from Rap Dad: A Story of Family and the Subculture That Shaped a Generation by Juan Vidal. Copyright © 2018 by Juan Vidal. Reprinted by permission of Atria Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.