99 Problems But What They Think Ain't One

I think it is important for us to hear perspectives that we don’t normally get a chance to hear; perspectives far different than our own, coming from a much different place. That is why I took the opportunity to read Jay-Z’s book Decoded when a youth who I meet with regularly offered to lend it to me.

Jay-Z grew up in a neighbourhood full of poverty and crime, but it was home to him. He dealt crack on the streets and that was just his normal reality. Most of our immediate experience with Jay-Z is his music, most of which I neither care for nor relate to, all the more reason to let Jay-Z teach me a thing or two. My experience has taught me the principle that I can learn something from everyone, and certainly Jay-Z did not disappoint.

I was particularly interested in his experience of being constantly misunderstood as a young black man in America;

Being misunderstood is almost a badge of honour in rap. Growing up as a black kid from the projects, you can spend your whole life being misunderstood , followed around department stores, looked at funny, accused of crimes you didn’t commit, accused of motivations you don’t have, dehumanized – until you realize, one day – it’s not about you. It’s about perceptions people had long before you even walked onto the scene. The joke’s on them because they are really just fighting phantoms of their own creation.

In my own life, I don’t like being misunderstood. Particularly in cases where someone might assume negative things about me, motivations or actions, I would do quite a bit to set the record straight to protect my honour and integrity. That is part of what makes Jay-Z so fascinating to me. He, like many others I’m sure, learned that he would never be able to stop the misunderstandings, so he stopped caring, and even in some cases provoked the stereotypes, just to have a laugh at the response.

I have many misgivings about this approach, but at the same time I have a lot of respect for it too. I once heard a friend I respect a lot wonder about how unwilling we are to sacrifice our reputations; we want to protect them so badly. We want to be understood, have people assume the best about us, be thought of well. But there may come occasion where we must sacrifice our reputation, times when people will say what they say and our best course of action will not be to do whatever we can to set the record straight on our own behalf.

This is the main problem with the pursuit of ‘cool’. “COOL” is basically the pursuit of getting others to believe something about us; convincing others that we are whatever the current standard of cool is. This is a dangerous habit to acquire, constantly living for other people’s opinions about us... meanwhile many who engage this pursuit will comment dismissively, “I don’t care what anybody thinks about me.”

“I don’t care what anybody thinks about me,” is always a lie. It is in our DNA as humans to desire community and belonging. It’s not weak to want others to like us, it’s just human. That is where this pursuit for ‘cool’ comes from, although it takes on a very unhealthy form.

As far as I can tell, what truly matters is that we know who we are and find others in our lives who will accept that and support us with love, dignity and respect and we will reciprocate that to them. We cannot expect everyone to accept it, nor even understand it.  When we feel misrepresented or misunderstood we can try to set the record straight, but it will not always be possible. Can we sacrifice our reputation at those moments? It might actually be a healthier option than fighting for those who are clearly not friends to like or understand us.

Jay-Z goes a step further though. He calls his song “99 Problems” a “deliberate provocation to simpleminded listeners”. If you don’t know the song the most popular line reoccurs throughout the song and goes, “I’ve got 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one.” Jay-Z talks about that line as “bait for lazy critics” because the song is not about a girl. He knew that critics would react with, “Aha, there he goes talking about them hoes and bitches again!” a common criticism of hip-hop.

I have to admit I’ve often said statements that I know can be misinterpreted or seem as extreme for the purpose of provoking a response and creating a discussion/dialogue.  I guess though my issue with Jay-Z’s choice is; who else is he misleading? Along with his critics, many other young listeners will miss the ‘joke’ as well and not understand that the lyrics were meant to provoke those who stereotype and don’t listen. Many Jay-Z fans gladly sing the main hook to the song without the irony intended and use the word bitch in a sexist and derogatory fashion. It seems irresponsible to me. Yet, can I hold Jay-Z to the same standard of feeling responsible to be a positive role model that I feel? I don’t think that was ever his intention.

Jay-Z knows his own listeners can be lazy listeners as well. He has been only too happy to hustle them along with his critics. Knowing that his audience was copying his own fashion choices, he made his own clothing label that has been outrageously successful; Jay-Z knows he has influence.

I suppose I just wonder at what point the hustle means you are not being true to yourself? You can fool a critic into thinking you are nothing but a stereotype, but how much can you do before it isn’t just a mask or a hustle but it actually becomes you? Jay-Z writes about stealing from a store just because he was being followed, to stick it to them for their ignorance. So are you not a thief because you did it as a provocation? Are you not responsible for your use of the word ‘bitch’ because it is a provocation? When do you become exactly what they are accusing you of?

“Jay-Z” himself is a hip-hop character that he has created. Shawn Carter's rap life is telling stories about and from the perspective of “Jay-Z”, many of which are exaggerated or false. I would think it would become very difficult to attribute things to “Jay-Z” and not have them spill over into the reality of Shawn Carter. How does one rap about putting ‘a knife in ya’ and the other try to raise a family with values that certainly include not stabbing someone? Mixed reports in January suggested that after the birth of his daughter, Jay-Z retired his use of the word bitch. Other reports have suggested that was a false report. I’m inclined to believe the latter because Jay-Z has for a long time become comfortable with his duel-role where Jay-Z does not need to share the same values as Shawn Carter. He compares it to an actor compared to the role his is playing. Nobody actually believes Al Pacino is a notorious gangster despite portraying one in the film Scarface. Jay-Z thinks the same separation exists between Jay-Z and Shawn Carter. The confusion is real though, because the character of Jay-Z is built from the autobiographical experience and story of Shawn Carter... hardly the same.

Again, I can’t hold Jay-Z to the same principles that I hold for myself. I want to learn from his willingness to be misunderstood; my point here is not to criticise him. I agree with Jay-Z that if I go out of my way to disprove the critics, I give them a certain power over me; I’m letting them dictate my actions. However, if I go out of my way to provoke them and allow them to satisfaction of believing themselves right, do I not give them a similar power?

My thought is that if someone thinks I’m a thief, or a bad influence, or whatever, I will continue to act with integrity and they can think what they want. I can’t control rumour or misunderstanding. What I can control is what I do and how I respond. I must be true to who I am and I must care what people think; certain people. I care what I think about myself, I care what my wife thinks, what my kids think, what my close friends think. I must hold myself accountable and allow my friends and family to hold me accountable to being the person that I say I am. For the rest; let them think, and say, what they want.

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