It was 1992. I was eleven at the time and spending the summer months in the South Bronx with relatives. At that age, there wasn’t a single thing that New York had to offer that I didn’t want. Everything about the city seduced me- the rhythmic bass that spilled out from cars, food scents with limitless trails, and even the colorful chaos that lined the sidewalks. New York City was then and remains now- the concrete love of my life.
It wasn’t until years later that I realized that the Empire State symbolized freedom and infinite possibility to me. This was in large part due to it being the backdrop for memories made during a first-ever summer romance with hip-hop and R&B. That year, 1992, was the year of TLC's Ooooooohhh... On the TLC Tip , Kriss Kross' Totally Krossed Out , and the soundtracks to Boomerang and Mo' Money .
I left New York convinced that I had found the love of my life, music, and was committed to nurturing the relationship for as long as hip-hop and R&B would have me. Well, that day came years and dozens of recorded-over cassettes later when I realized that the weight of my first major crush was a heavy load to carry as a woman, an activist and as a minister.
That summer was a turning point in my worldview. That was the period in my adolescence in which I began to take in daily dosages of all things cultural, making my way to the local corner store on a regular basis to get copies of the latest Word Up Magazine (Biggie wasn't kidding).
The centerfolds that I collected and hung over my bed were none other than rappers like Tupac Shakur and SWV. Almost religiously, I would sit by my radio and TV waiting for the precise moment to hit record without commercial interference.
As a teen, I began to embrace Oldies and Goodies much more, but hip-hop remained at the top of my list. One defining moment came in 1997 when my boyfriend at the time introduced me to Jay-Z's In My Lifetime, Vol. 1. Initially, I was drawn in by Jay's appeal to brothers I knew from the projects. If he and his music had legitimacy in their eyes, then who was I to question him as a "real" rapper?
But it quickly became much more than that; I had an insatiable appetite for his lyrics and the beats that accompanied them. A decade later in my late 20s, there wasn't a Jay-Z album that I didn't own. As a matter of fact, it became ritualistic for my friends and I to go to Target on his albums' release dates. "All Jay-Z everything. You can't get enough I see," as one individual pointed out when looking at my CD collection while I was a college student.
Years later, I found it very difficult to reconcile my ever-present love of hip-hop with its blatant misogyny, materialism and social irresponsibility. It's as if I found myself trapped in a relationship that I knew wasn't always good for me but found it a profound struggle to walk away from all that we had once shared. Hip-hop, like that brother who won't claim a sister who swears they're one step away from the altar, was telling me that it wouldn't make room for me.
When hip-hop speaks, women should shut up and listen was the message I got loud and clear. I was left to feel like that little girl who was told she couldn't come out and play because only boys were allowed in the game.
Just like a fire that doesn't burn as intensely as it did when it was first lit- I don't listen to rap music nearly as much as I did a few years ago. But it's always as if no love had ever been lost when I do.
There's a zeal for life that the music captures that few other genres possess. The anger it so perfectly conveys is also not to be ignored. The stories of love it so often tries to detach itself from are another point of consideration. Hip-hop conveys life in the most raw of elements and to walk away from it creates a fear unlike any other- the fear of disconnection from a way of life and a people that matter primarily on the terms that they have created for themselves.
Whether it was college essays on the hyper-sexuality of female rappers or grad school presentations on thug theology within hip-hop, I have always been fascinated by the demand to be seen and heard; it's refusal to be invisible and silent.
My love for hip-hop evolved over time from a teenage crush on a select few male rappers to a strong desire to emulate popular female ones. The journey stretched me from a fascination with the gritty swag of Jay-Z and rebellious rage of Tupac Shakur to an admiration for the timeless depth of Lauryn Hill and passionate resistance of Lupe Fiasco. Loss was an ever-present looming threat in this love affair, but the rewards always seemed to outweigh the risks.
Nowadays, I find myself slowly but surely trying to detox from the lure of rap's seduction, trying to take time to figure out what in the world truly appeals to me. Within my pysche. Within my spirit. And not just in my gut's craving for rhythm, bass and "black hoodie rap."
To hear what matters to me spoken from within and not dictated by opinion polls led by corporations and my peers. When the crowd has stopped speaking and no longer has the power to direct my desires, what's left of my musical wants? It gets to a point when the artist and sound that has been manufactured through popular vote may lose the one vote that really matters- my own.
That’s when the real fun begins, because there's no greater search for music than the one that will lead me right back to myself. To my own soul's desire for a love affair with beats and rhymes that goes beyond mere passion and moves quite naturally into a sense of safe intimacy. Yes, I love hip-hop even till this day, but the relationship is complicated.
Rahiel Tesfamariam is the Founder / Editorial Director of Urban Cusp, a cutting-edge online lifestyle magazine highlighting progressive urban culture, faith, social change and global awareness. Follow her on Twitter and join Urban Cusp on Facebook.