You can tell a lot about a writer based on who and what they center in their work. For example, when Nas wrote the song “One Love,” an open letter to his incarcerated friends, I got a glimpse into who he was - a young, smart, boy, from Queens who loved his hood and his friends. I also saw him as a teenager waking up to the brutal impact of incarceration on Black men.
Through his music, I’ve fallen deeper in love with Nas over the years. I guess it’s only fitting that as I aged his music started challenging me the most. The older I got, the deeper I listened to his songs. Some aged well and others simply no longer spoke to the Black feminist that I became. I found myself doing what bell hooks called “talking back" to the songs.
Some years ago, after one too many trips to Rikers Island to support an incarcerated loved one, I became frustrated by the missing narrative in “One Love.” I didn’t hear enough empathy for the Black women impacted by incarceration, and I wanted to change that. I’ve been writing my way into missing narratives ever since.
In our community, we talk about issues like mass incarceration as if Black women are spectators and not casualties ourselves. This is particularly true in hip hop, where the harmful practice of relegating issues that cause harm to Black women are pushed to the “B-side” of conversations. We are only included in discussions around incarceration when determining how effectively we support Black men in prison. We might be excluded from the larger discourse, but we are not exempt from the problem.
Data indicates that “between 1980 and 2019 the number of incarcerated women has increased by more than 700%.” If you look closer at the data you will see that despite Black women only making up 13% of the United States population we comprise “30% of all incarcerated women.” This means Black women are being incarcerated at increasingly higher rates than what was previously considered. Yet, the narrative is almost always exclusively about Black men, and we are expected to show up and unconditionally support them despite what it costs us. I don’t have any quantitative data to toss in here to substantiate the latter, but I don’t need it. Talk to enough Black women and we will provide you with enough qualitative data to paint an accurate reflection.
Black women got hella stories about what it feels like to support incarcerated brothers. Listen to our stories carefully and you will find that our support for incarcerated Black men stems from how deeply we empathize with them. It’s easy to understand Black men because we see them so clearly. We see them even when they don’t always see us and even when we aren’t written into the song.
It’s been more than twenty years since “One Love” dropped, yet many of the characteristics revealed in Nas’ persona still ring true today. Open letters tend to do that though. Open letters are revelatory in that they peel back layers. They expose the core of you, the parts that never change, the parts you wouldn’t want to change for the world. They remove the public face and the carefully crafted facade you’ve created through social media or publicists and lay your guts out there for the world to consume.
“Beyond Bars: On Hip Hop, Prison, and Missing Narratives” is my open letter. It’s a series of letters, rather, and at its core, it’s a story about love--the love I have for my brothers, hip-hop, and always and forever, my community. It’s my way of unpacking issues in our community that are amplified in hip-hop and it’s me writing Black women into “One Love.”