The notion that a person’s intellect is predicated exclusively on their academic career has always been as mythical as the concept of a white savior to me. Kia operating as an informal teacher in my life while he was just a child himself was all the proof I needed to know that. One Sunday as we sat in the church pewa my brother Kia looked at the paintings on the wall of the person the Pastor told us was Jesus. The Pastor’s Jesus looked like a young Hollywood actor fresh off the beach. He had long, flowy, straight, bright blond hair, a thin nose, and a slim face with piercing round blue eyes that stood out against his pale skin. He was shirtless but wore what looked like a towel wrapped around his waist and had open-toe sandals on his feet. Pastor’s Jesus looked down at us with open arms, while Kia stared up at him with open discontent.
As always, I was observing Kia as he was observing the world around him. Our eyes met and he said, “How could Jesus have such fair skin and straight blond hair if the Bible said he lived in Egypt? This painting can’t really be of Jesus.”
“Huh,” I responded. “If Jesus wasn’t white with blue eyes, then why does Aunt Pauletta have a picture hanging up of a white Jesus with blue eyes?”
“Slavery” he replied.
I knew that was all I was going to get. Kia wasn’t the type of teacher who permitted many questions. I’d grown to understand his teaching style and became particularly mindful of it when he was introducing me to something new.
When I was about eleven years old, he took me to Allah School of Mecca. I wasn’t particularly excited about going to another “school.” I was just excited that my brother was letting me in on his super dope smart world. He was letting me in on something that was his. Maybe he thought I was worthy. Maybe he thought I was ready. “When we get there, listen to what *Sakina is saying,” he instructed. “If you don’t understand something don’t just sit there and be lost. Ask questions.”
We walked into a large room filled with rows of chairs and took our seats as the teacher, Sakina, spoke to us from the front of the class. I was about 12 years old and the youngest person in the room. All the other students appeared to be in their early twenties, while Sakina appeared to be in her mid-thirties. She had a presence that pulled you in.
Sakina was tall. She wore what I assumed was a traditional African garment and her hair was covered, wrapped high, and majestically in fabric. Everything about her was inviting and her charisma demanded full command of the room. She didn’t have a mic, but her voice carried, even though it didn’t need to. The room, full of mostly Black young women was completely silent and she held the space. She was the MC, and her audience bobbed their heads in agreement. I listened – mindfully.
She spoke about the government manipulating the weather. She spoke about how the concept of time was being manipulated. I looked at my brother hoping to find sympathy somewhere on his face. I hoped that maybe, just maybe, he would see exactly how little I understood. I waited, hoping he would whisper the remedial version in my ear. I needed full explanations and not just clues. He must have sensed my confusion. “You have questions,” he asked in that characteristically New York way that turns a complete sentence into a question.
“Yes,” I whispered to him, my gaze still fixed on Sakina.
“Ask her,” he said.
“No. I don’t feel comfortable.”
“What’s your question?”
“Why would the government manipulate the weather? And the time?”
“To keep you unaware.”
All clues and no answers. I didn’t want to ask anything else. He never took me back, but he continued to present me with information that I didn’t understand but yearned to. Eventually, I learned to stop asking questions. I figured out that asking Kia questions resulted in damn near everything, but an answer. Sometimes, my questions resulted in him being proud; other times, frustrated. I, on the other hand, was always left more confused.
When we listened to music together and he said things like “Yo. Do you hear what this man is saying right here?” I knew that wasn’t an offer of a real explanation. He was just building another door I had no way of opening. Despite the doors, Kia’s connection to hip hop and his method of listening to it taught me more than his lack of answers ever could.
Through Kia, I learned that hip hop wasn’t meant to just be played; it was meant to be understood. Hip hop was the voice of Black kids in the hood who got their textbooks and incense from the same spots Kia did. So, I learned that though its popularity grew when white kids caught on, hip hop was still coded for us. I learned that men could listen to a song and experience their lives expressed in a way that communicated their brilliance, pain, fear, and humanity. I learned that hip hop often spoke about women through the eyes of the hunters –men – and that one-sided stories were acceptable. I also learned that something transformative happens when your story is voiced by people who look like you. People who feel the way you feel.
For all that Kia taught me, he could never help me understand how a song like “One Love,” could both magnify the voices of the men in my community while simultaneously muting mine. In “One Love,” the silence of women’s voices was deafening. Yet, the echo taught me that navigating the complex intersection of race and gender, in conversations around mass incarceration, was something I would have to learn independent of the “hunter.”
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