I often wonder if the subtleties of Nas’ “One Love” are lost on the collective audience. Since its release date in 1994 to now, the song has grown from a “hood” classic to simply a classic. It has come a long way from the corners of New York to permeating conversation in mainstream America. Yet the seemingly deliberate word selections in the song indicate that the intended audience would always be the Kias and Romes of the world, and almost parenthetically, the Shanitas and the “Snakes.”
“But I heard you blew a nigga with a ox for the phone piece. Wildin on the Island, but now in Elmira. Better chill, ‘cause them niggas will put that ass on fire. Last time you wrote you said they tried you in the showers. But maintain, when you come home the corners ours.”
- Nas, “One Love”
The notion that this song was made exclusively for the hood is most notable in the quoted verse. In this verse, Nas mentions circumstances that can cause an incarcerated loved one to be transferred to a different facility. When he raps, “But I heard you blew a nigga with a ox for the phone piece. Wildin’ on the Island, but now in Elmira.” He is stating that he learned his friend cut another inmate with a razor blade when they got into a fight over the usage of the payphones in jail. The hood would understand this translation.
The use of a payphone in jail is critical. It is one of the primary ways inmates stay connected to their loved ones, and the outside world, in general. Most of the time, these phone calls made to loved ones can be the highlight of their week. This is why a person getting into a physical altercation over the use of a phone isn’t uncommon. The hood would know this. It’s also worth noting that stories about what was happening in jails always seemed to escape the “Island” long before an inmate was released. So, Nas saying, “I heard you blew a nigga with a ox,” is him letting the listeners know that he was made aware of this altercation from somebody other than his friend. The hood is aware of how typical and easy it is to stay connected to the daily happenings of prison.
The “Island,” also known as Rikers Islands, is in Queens and it’s a lot easier to receive visits from loved ones who live in NYC compared to prisons located in “upstate” New York. Elmira Correctional Facility, also known as "The Hill,” which Nas mentions in this song, is a maximum-security prison located about 266 miles from Queens, New York. When inmates in Rikers Island receive too many infractions, have too many fights, or simply become viewed as dangerous, they can get transferred to that maximum security. Elmira is a four-hour drive if your family lives in Queens and owns a car. If they don’t have a car or access to one (or even a driver’s license which many New Yorkers don’t have) it’s about $120.00 and a ten-hour ride on a Greyhound bus from Queens, New York.
Ask somebody with an incarcerated loved one and they will conduct an accounting level analysis of the hidden financial costs of incarceration. Talk to any man in the hood and he can give you a sociological breakdown of exactly why a person could get “tried” in the showers. However, only the pain of a woman, who has supported a man in jail, could tell the story of how promises die on the doorstep of freedom. Promises like “this will be the last time this jail is going to see either of us” rarely experience life beyond a visiting room. They get suffocated under the weight of expectations that require ex-offenders to leave a war zone, fully equipped with skills to gain legal employment. Sometimes, the final blow comes at the hands of friends offering support laced with poison.
When Nas rapped, “But maintain, when you come home the corners ours,” all I could hear was the danger inducing seduction from enabling friends that always resulted in Rome re-entering the revolving gates of Rikers. The line snatched my attention and forced me to remember the faces of his “friends.” They would always show up, days after he was released, with invitations to make fast money. The faster the money came, the quicker the promise died. Left to mourn the life that could have been was always me and my mother.
“I gave your mom dukes loot for kicks, plus sent you flicks.” And “I hate it when your mom cries, it kind of makes me want to murder, for real. I even got a mask and gloves to bust slugs, but one love.”
- Nas, “One Love”
Even as an adult I believed Nas was affected by the tears of his friend’s mother, but like Rome’s friends, I doubted he ever considered if his actions helped foster those tears. Tears that could never be dried with money for sneakers or reduced by the symbolic gestures of buying a mask and gloves with the intent to shoot somebody else’s son. If Nas was going to move beyond symbolic gestures to actually shooting the person that contributed to her tears, then he may have had to aim the gun at himself.
“Only twelve tryn to tell me that he liked my style
Then I rose, wiping’ the blunt’s ash from my clothes
Then froze, only to blow the herb smoke through my nose
And told my little man I’ma ghost, I broze
Left some jewels in his skull that he can sell if he chose
Words of wisdom from Nas: try to rise up above
Keep an eye out for Jake, Shorty Wop. One Love.”
- Nas, “One Love”
This entire verse is Nas talking to a twelve-year-old boy that admired him. Nas shared wisdom that the young boy could later benefit from, or as he called it “left some jewels in his skull that he could sell if he chose.” Nas ended the conversation by telling him to keep an eye out for the police. Which is ultimately a warning about becoming trapped in the criminal justice system. Again, the passing down of “hood” education continues.
The dialog around mass incarceration, or even criminal justice reform, usually centers Black boys and men. We saw an example of this when President Obama launched “My Brother’s Keeper.” This nation’s first Black President helped design and pushed a program aimed at protecting those often regarded as being most vulnerable to incarceration — young Black boys. Years of supporting incarcerated men and studying the criminal justice system have made me fully aware that Black boys and men are, in fact, often destroyed by mass incarceration. The need to protect them is warranted and discussing the effects of mass incarceration is imperative. The conversation and methods of protecting them should not stop. They should expand. This expansion should prioritize and reframe the entire conversation related to Black women.
In the story of mass incarceration, Black women are assigned the roles of fixers and protectors. Our backs are assumed to be the bridge between jails and successful transitions into the community. Our hearts are expected to be self-soothing machines that run on dead promises. Yet still, we remain an afterthought. A casual mention in a heated discussion. We are nameless characters in a widely told story.
It’s been decades since “One Love” was released and although there have been changes in criminal justice reform, we still haven’t moved the needle enough in terms of exploring the way incarceration uniquely impacts Black women. On a macro level, the public conversations around mass incarceration have shifted. There are more talks about what reform could look like and increased open dialogue from politicians about the way the “war on drugs” directly harmed the Black community. Yet, recognition without restoration is pointless, and offering blanket statements in response to a pointed concern is performative at best. At the very least, the conversations around systemic policy reform need to prioritize the enormous financial and emotional burden of supporting incarcerated loved ones. On a micro level, I have long since stopped internalizing the community pressures placed on Black women to support the men we love through incarceration. The costs, emotionally and financially, and the lack of structural support and systemic failures combined with the pressures our brothers face when they return to the life they once knew, have always proved greater than what I have the capacity to correct. Instead, I now expand my energy and efforts to center muted voices. Black women may not ever receive our version of “One Love”, but I’ll forever write our way into the conversations about prison reform that offer a perspective beyond the bars.