Yesterday afternoon, inspired by Aliya's Lady Luck story, I went down a 90's hip-hop YouTube rabbithole and spent a couple hours or so listening to GZA, Mobb Deep, Big L and a dozen more artists who created both the soundtrack and the aesthetic for the 15-year-old me. If you happened to be in the Pittsburgh-area during that time and you happened to bump into a gangly, headphones-donning teen rocking a fisherman's cap, fatigues, beef and broccoli Tims, and a Wu-Wear t-shirt, there's a 215% chance it was either me or JHubbs. That music also influenced my vocabulary, as the Pittsburgh-born and bred me starting incorporating "son" and "b" and "word is bond" and "Studying 120 right now. Call me back at the God Hour" to my lexicon. (Exactly how insufferable was I? On a scale from one to 10, I was probably Lupe Fiasco. Which means I was a 12.)
Anyway, halfway through this journey, I stumbled on to few Nas songs, including a playlist where "I Can" was the first track. Now, although this song is basically Head Start Program elevator music, I've always appreciated its attempt to be empowering and uplifting, and I listened to it again to see if I should add it to the list I'm currently curating in my head of "Rap Songs I Won't Skip If My Daughter Happens To Be In The Car With Me."
Verdict? Hell no. Because on closer listen, the first verse is an awkward allegory about Whitney Houston, the second verse is basically "hey little girls, here's how not to get raped and get AIDS," and the third verse is peak Hotep.
The last verse also begins with a line that has always annoyed me:
"Be, be, 'fore we came to this country/We were kings and queens, never porch monkeys"
Now, the idea that we (Black people) descended from royalty isn't an uncommon one. It's a popular reference, found in countless songs, texts, and speeches as an understandably empowering juxtaposition to how Black Americans have historically been portrayed here. So popular is this reference, in fact, that many of us use "king" and "queen" as pronouns. It also has some historical merit, because there were actually kingdoms with kings and queens and unfathomable wealth. But this — both the reference to descending from kings and queens and being referred to as "king" — has always (always!) bothered the piss out of me. Why? Well, because that's not how kingdoms work!
If you're from a place where kings and queens existed, there's a small chance you actually directly descended from them. And a much, much, much, much, much, much, much larger chance you descended from people who were ruled by them. And, if history is any guide, if you happen to be from a place with an unfathomably wealthy ruling class, that unfathomable wealth most likely ended with the ruling class. Everyone else was either some version of middle class (not very likely) or a peasant (very likely). For Nas's line to be accurate, it would have to be amended to "Be, be, 'fore we came to this country. We were kings and queens, never porch monkeys. Well, like four of us were kings and queens. The rest of us tended goats and shit. I mean, there's nothing wrong with tending goats. Goat tending is a very honorable profession. But we were totally goat tenders, not kings and queens. Except for four of us."
Also, personally, I kinda enjoy just being a person. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know. The "king" and "queen" references aren't meant to be taken literally. They're more terms of shared racial acknowledgement and endearment than anything else. But kings and queens rule. And have unlimited power. And are elevated from common people. And, when the people decide they've had enough of your rule, they don't retire. They get captured, imprisoned, and beheaded. None of that sounds particularly appealing to me. (Especially the beheading. I like my head and I wish to keep it.)
So yeah, no "I Can" on the "My Daughter's In The Car With Me" playlist. And if you're one of those Black people who call other Black people "king" and "queen," it would probably be more accurate if you started saying "teacher" or "bridge builder" or "salmon farmer" instead.
(And yes, I'll still accept "son" and "b" too.)