Image via Flickr
I wasn’t particularly interested in cars growing up. Unlike many young boys who share formative moments with their father looking under the hood of a family vehicle, my dad was more of a point “A” to point “B” guy, and didn’t pass on any such love of motor transport.
As a result, I was generally unsuccessful when I participated in car-related activities as a kid. I remember trying to play the Nintendo 64 game Cruis’n USA with my cousin—we’d have to stop every minute because I kept unplugging the controller by yanking it in the direction I wanted the virtual car to turn. He tried to explain (several times) that I should use the joystick, but after an incident where the console nearly came crashing to the ground, his mom gently suggested we try another activity. So I wasn’t exactly waiting with bated breath to get my driver’s license when I turned 16.
What did excite me about driving was the prospect of independence—the ability to go where I wanted, when I wanted (mostly to run errands for my Mom, apparently), and to finally, finally control the music. Growing up, car rides with my family were characterized by an endless stream of traditional Indian music and Lite FM, both of which made the young hip-hop elitist in me cringe.
I couldn’t wait to become the stereotypical embodiment of a 17-year-old suburban kid, blasting hip-hop out of his mom’s minivan. When I first got my license, I would drive back and forth from the grocery store blasting irreverent songs like Pharoahe Monch’s “Simon Says,” and drive extra laps around the neighborhood because I didn’t want to end a song early. When I left the car, I went back to being swaggerless Hershal. But when I was in the car, windows down, whipping through the burbs to Kanye West’s “Drive Slow,” I was a God amongst men. It sounds silly in retrospect, but it’s how I felt at the time.
Even though I have enough self-awareness these days to realize that the whole thing is probably a bit corny, I’ve never able to kick the habit. I’m certainly past the point where I’d go out driving explicitly for the purpose of blasting music, but there’s something so addictive about four wheels and a good speaker system. I’m not what most people would describe as a traditional alpha male, but when I’m in the car blasting “Public Service Announcement,” it’s the closest I come to feeling like I’d be able to survive in some sort of primitive hunter/gatherer society with just my wits and a pointy stick.
But just recently, my bubble was burst. I was driving around during my lunch hour, blasting Chance the Rapper’s song “NaNa,” and attracting plenty of attention from onlookers. The song was just about to end when I stopped at a traffic light. Just then, Action Bronson’s voice came booming out of my innocuous Corolla: “SUCK MY MOTHERFUCKING DICK, IT’S THE YOUNG RANDY VELARDE. QUEENS BABY. BLOW ME.”
Truthfully, I’d never given a second thought to Action Bronson’s outro until that moment. I looked around and saw three people staring at me intensely: A young mother with a toddler, an older white lady with a “Well, I never” look on her face, and a middle-aged Indian man glaring sternly as if to say, “your parents didn’t make sacrifices to come to this country for this.” In that moment, I realized that what I was doing was probably inappropriate. I turned down the volume, rolled up my windows, and tried unsuccessfully to make an apologetic face.
It was strange to find myself feeling suddenly conflicted. This couldn’t have been the first time something like this had happened; I guess I’d just never noticed the hordes of people leering at me before. It made me question what was responsible for my change in disposition. When did I transition from, “Let me bless these onlookers by exposing them to my fire music catalogue,” to, “I feel weird about not adhering to the conventions of polite society?”
I’m still grappling with the latter. No matter how many legitimate criticisms I have about the arbitrary nature of social conventions, I can’t shake off the look of anger in the eyes of that young mother. She was so furious that I’d inadvertently exposed her child to sexually explicit language. If I’d been able to reason with her, I would have explained, “None of this matters. Your child will see porn on the internet in like two years,” but unfortunately, I didn’t get the chance.
It occurs to me that, regardless of my personal beliefs about how irrational it is to censor certain words in the age of the internet, it’s not my place to project these beliefs onto society. So, even though this woman probably dances (rather hypocritically, I might add) to Flo-Rida’s “Right Round” in her car with her child in the backseat, I was probably in the wrong on this one.
But I think my embarrassment is only part of the equation. I felt conflicted because I’d inadvertently ignored a fundamental lesson I’d learned from my lifelong quest to defend the moral/artistic merits of hip-hop: the value of context. Generally speaking, unless I’m speaking to some Bill O’Reilly type with a predetermined opinion, or I’m confronted with some indefensible lyric, I’m able to explain away the offensive implications of hip-hop lyrics by contextualizing their existence. The problem is that context is altogether lost on someone who simply hears a snippet of a song from a passing car.
With that in mind, the people who heard “suck my motherfucking dick,” from my passing car definitely did not have the necessary context to understand Action Bronson’s rap persona. At best, it would have made them think, “Oh, that was unpleasant,” but at worst, it may have served to reinforce whatever bigoted opinions they already held about the genre. And that’s the exact opposite of what I want.
I’m haunted by the image of that “well, I never…” lady sitting with her friends at brunch, discussing the moral bankruptcy of hip-hop, longing for the days when music was made by people who had squeaky clean public personas—but, if we’re talking about Phil Spector, were literal monsters in their personal lives.
Still, the fact remains; it’s summertime, the weather’s fine, and I like to listen to music at a certain volume. Truthfully, all I want to do is roll down the windows in my Corolla and blast A$AP Rocky’s “Excuse Me.” And you know what? I probably still will. Unfortunately, from now on, I’ll be looking over my shoulder, haunted by the nagging suspicion that I’m potentially validating the stereotypical opinions of the uninformed.