“Love is not enough” has been my relationship mantra for several years. By it, I mean that just because I love someone doesn’t mean we are supposed to be together or to stay together. One of my classic exit lines is “let me leave while I still love you. I don’t want to have to hate you.” For many folks, I could be talking about a romantic relationship, or I could be talking about our relationship to Hip Hop.
Last week Jay-Z gave an interview in the Wall Street Journal in preparation for his new book Decoded. Co-written with dream hampton, the book presents more than 30 of Jay-Z’s most well-known songs and his explanations of them. There are two particularly compelling parts of the interview. First, reflecting on what lyrical changes he might make when confronted with his words on the page, Jay, said,
“Some [lyrics] become really profound when you see them in writing. Not “Big Pimpin.” That’s the exception. It was like, I can’t believe I said that. And kept saying it. What kind of animal would say this sort of thing? Reading it is really harsh.”
If you think “reading it is . . .harsh,” imagine being on the receiving end of some of it.
But like many of the most avid connoisseurs of Hip Hop, I still think Jay-Z is the tightest rapper in the game, notwithstanding any recently whack BET top 10 rap specials’ determinations to the contrary.
There was a second moment that bears discussing. When asked what he would change about Hip Hop if he could, Jay responded,
“We have to find our way back to true emotion. This is going to sound so sappy, but love is the only thing that stands the test of time. “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” was all about love. Andre 3000, “The Love Below.” Even NWA, at its core, that was about love for a neighborhood. We’re chasing a lot of sounds now, but I’m not hearing anyone’s real voice. The emotion of where you are in your life. The mortgage scandal. People losing their jobs. I want to hear about that.”
Wow. Yes! This is exactly right.
So this is what it looks like when Hip Hop is all grown up. Grown folks in Hip Hop conclude what we all begin to know after the sucking and fucking years have lost their savor. “Love is only the thing that stands the test of time.”
Some have said that the litmus test for Jay’s sincerity will be a disavowal of misogynist lyrics and a refusal to perform songs like “Big Pimpin” in his shows. Uh, maybe. Yes, as a feminist, I believe that a person’s politics and performance should be congruent. But how many of us actually achieve this on the daily, particularly when it come to matters of love?
“I Never Ask for Nothing, I Don’t Demand of Myself” – “Justify My Thug” (2003)
Over the weekend, I got to hang out with some CFs in Atlanta, all single, or kind of single, and primarily straight. Each of us found ourselves in varied states of relational ambivalence: loving or liking someone who doesn’t quite love (or like) you back, at least not in the way you deserve; fearful of trying to date again after years of disappointment and failed expectations; and recovering from heart break or at least deeply hurt feelings. Yet, we are all also unapologetically pragmatic about getting our needs met even when conditions prove non-ideal. As a pragmatist, I had to ask, “is it feminist to remain in a situation where you aren’t getting what you need or want, but you are at least getting something?” What I heard was a collective groan, as we all thought it through. And then after that, a painful, collective, and resolved sigh.
No, probably not. But it is what it is.
I Call A Spade a Spade. It Just Is What It Is. (Jay-Z, Blueprint 2)
And IT is the condition in which we find ourselves. Perpetually alone. Needing love, needing companionship, needing sex. But willing to settle for less than, if only for a moment, even as the sermons, feminist and otherwise, play in the background. Is love enough? In the lonely moments of an otherwise full life, love definitely seems like the solution, like the stitching that turns a beautiful piece of fabric into the form-fitting number that accentuates the best parts of yourself. For all of us who don’t have the love that we so desperately want, it most definitely feels like enough.
But is it really?
I used to be so sure. That it wasn’t. Over the summer, after the Dating While Feminist debacle, I met a man whom I could love. Faced with the choice of a long distance relationship, he repeated to me what I had said to him in passing, “Love, as you told me, is not enough.” Ouch! I wondered if I had put the nails in my own casket by denying love the power to do what it does best: make a way out of no way, open up possibilities, move people to go the extra mile, force folks to rethink long-held truths.
My students grappled with the same question in a Hip Hop Feminism course I taught last Fall. In book after book, each scholar, after holding Hip Hop’s feet to the proverbial fire and finding it long on potential energy, but absolutely lacking in kinetic energy , ended up at love, explaining– but not necessarily advocating– that we stay wed to the culture because we love it, because we see its potential. That we keep engaging the music because we love it, because it moves us, because for so many of us, it gave us a “culture and a language.” But then I am reminded of Rihanna’s admonition, in an interview she gave earlier this year, on the heels of the Chris Brown situation. “F Love,” she said. In other words, don’t stay in something unhealthy, for the sake of love. Well, amen, to that.
And yet, like Rihanna’s most recent musical offerings indicate, the reality is much more complicated. And in moments like this, where we know what is right but can’t make our hearts match, feminism will have to be gracious enough to find room for us, to squeeze us in and love us. Feminism’s sofa is an oversized one anyway. Grownfolks need to stretch out. Love seats are for teenagers.
And what Jay-Z has said is definitely grown folks conversation. To encourage brothers to love deep and hard, in an emotionally dysfunctional culture, in which going deep and going hard are activities best engaged in with the phallus, is not an insignificant thing. We use the word revolutionary too damn much. This might not be revolutionary, but it’s something.
Hip Hop is not the only thing that needs brothers who love hard and deep. I know whole lot of sisters, self included, who need exactly the same thing.
And some times, I think us hard core feminists miss the opportunities these kinds of reflections provide because they aren’t packaged the way we think they should be. So if Jay-Z doesn’t fully repent and go in the opposite direction, we are asked to write his comments off as insincere, and in the most cynical fashion, to see them as a mere publicity stunt.
I wasn’t felt which is why I ain’t never played myself / I just play the hand I’m dealt—Justify My Thug (2003)
There are limitations to what Jay-Z can and ultimately will do in Hip Hop, because for him, it is both art and business. Rarely do love and money mix well. But love is a legitimate reason to come back to the table. Only if we come to the table can we hold him (and others) accountable if (t)he(y) renege(s). I don’t hate the player, and I no longer have to hate the game. I might not win, but I have a winning shot. My crunk coupled with my feminism give me nothing, if not a trump tight deck.
His “heart has led.” But, now, baby, “it’s our deal.”