I just got back to Ann Arbor from a week-long road trip with my beau that had us stopping in a ton of cities throughout the Southeast: Nashville, Atlanta, Savannah, Charleston, Wilmington, Durham, and Asheville. Besides the awesome people and scenery that populated that trip, the driving itself was an opportunity to listen to a LOT of music. For my part, I did a lot of catching up: on older Soul and Motown like Curtis Mayfield, James Brown, Aretha, and Parliament; geographically relevant rap like Goodie MOB’s Soul Food (1995), which popularized the term “Dirty South,” plus a couple albums from the North Cackalack group Little Brother; and some newer stuff like Tyler the Creator’s Goblin and a few of A$AP Rocky’s mixtapes. (A$AP’s catchy lyrics are still swirling through my head: “I’m a pretty motherfucker, Harlem’s where I’m reppin…”
On this trip I also found myself thinking about generations. Between these generations of music, the cousins I stayed with in Savannah, the multilayered relationships between friends we visited, and the reeking historicity of the South (at least to this Yankee), generationality seemed ever present, as we zipped between colonial-looking Charleston and the post-apocalyptic swimwear superstore that is Myrtle Beach.
There is a Hebrew phrase, “L’dor va dor,” which means “From generation to generation.” In the Jewish liturgy the phrase signifies the passing down of Jewish knowledge–literally, “L’dor va dor nagid gadlecha,” means, “From generation to generation we will proclaim Your greatness.” But in my experience of Jewish ritual practice, l’dor va dor is also invoked to connote a sense of the resilience and historical presence of the Jewish community; the phrase signifies cultural strength and unity, and carries with it the positive injunction to teach our children how to be good Jews.
But lately I have found myself thinking about the negative that can be passed from generation to generation. Throughout our recent Southern tour I was surprised to see Confederate flags, plantations advertised as tourist destinations and even retirement communities, and a sign on Savannah’s historic riverfront that insisted the Georgia legislature had never wanted to legalize slavery. Really guys?
I found myself thinking about a recent conversation with an adult cousin who, after telling me she’d been reading my blog, asked, “So what’s the deal with misogyny in hiphop?” After giving her a bunch of answers that positioned hiphop artists as a historically marginalized population with misdirected frustration that mirrors the misogyny of wider society, I had to stop and confess–the deal is, no one knows what the deal is. I spend so much time defending hiphop, this was the first time I really confronted the end of the excuses. There is no excuse. “I enjoy the music,” my cousin said, “but what do I tell my daughter?”
I thought of the recent controversy surrounding the rapper Too $hort and his videotaped advice on XXL.com on how young men ought to force unwilling girls into sexual acts. Most incredible to me was an interview the rapper subsequently gave to dream hampton on Ebony.com, which appears to (and hopefully does) express the genuine kind of moral awakening that can prevent misogyny and other forms of hatred and violence from being passed down from generation to generation.
Recently a student and I were talking about what new rappers he was listening to these days and he mentioned A$AP Rocky.
“Aesop Rock?” I asked.
“No,” he said, “A$AP Rocky. Like with a dollar sign.”
“Older white guy?” I tried again. “Aesop Rock.”
“A$AP Rocky,” he said again.”He’s a Black kid from Harlem but he has this southern thing going on.”
“That’s funny that his name is a riff on Aesop Rock.”
“I don’t think it is,” my student said. “That’s just his name.”
“There’s no way it’s not related,” I countered. “They’re almost identical!”
But we had to agree to disagree. The thing about generations is, it’s as easy to forget as it is to remember. Question is, what are we passing on?