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Posted at 02:37 PM ET, 08/02/2012

Lupe Fiasco and the hip-hop rebel’s emotional breakdown


“Chicago’s the murder capital,” said rapper Lupe Fiasco in an interview with MTV host Sway Calloway. (AP - AP)
It’s not everyday that rap artists have a public emotional breakdown, so fans and the media should pay close attention when they do. One of the most memorable displays of emotion from a hip-hop artist came just last week when Lupe Fiasco struggled to get through an interview on MTV’s “RapFx Live,” with host Sway Calloway.

After watching the 2006 video clip of himself that brought Lupe to tears and listening to him speak about his hard-knock-life upbringing in Chicago, I was left thinking that this emotional moment offered a powerful glimpse into the makings of a modern hip-hop rebel.

The interview makes it clear that Lupe’s desire to find an escape route out of his childhood neighborhood never resulted in detachment or indifference. His pain goes deep and is rooted in years of loss. He has lost friends to gun violence and prison bars — and likely the alienation that stardom brings. As he is unexpectedly overcome by grief over the “ghosts” of his past, he gives us a glimpse into how much he cares, why he often seems angry and why he is who he is — a rebel amongst a pack of pop-culture conformists.

“Chicago’s the murder capital,” Lupe tearfully said. “The dudes in that video are in prison, a couple of fed cases, and then there’s ghosts. You see people that . . . that ain’t there.”

His moment of transparency gives his fans, particularly other young men, greater permission to lose themselves in emotion — to cry, to be at a loss for words, to mourn and to be angry.

While Lupe is a product of a city that is no stranger to black nationalism and politicized thought, I’ve always wondered how he came to stand out amongst his rap peers. How did he come to posses so much consciousness and commitment to rebellion amidst all of the chaos that he grew up witnessing? What led rap mogul Jay-Z to label him a “breath of fresh air” when he was still so new within the industry? How did he escape the reality that took the lives of so many of his friends? And what clues can his life give us into the resilience of young black men?

Lupe credits his parents for not only his success but also his survival. There was a balance between the urban despair he witnessed firsthand and the values instilled in him by his mother and father. His parents’ insistence that he use the talents and skills at his disposal to “get out” of the ghetto ensured that he never romanticized poverty and glorified violence.

While Lupe grew up seeing prostitutes on the corner, he was also immersed in a literary household that prided the ideology of great minds like Malcolm X. It had to take great courage to pick up his skateboard and keep kicking and pushing as he passed a sea of unfulfilled dreams. Oftentimes, that courage comes from adults that help you envision a life greater than their own. It’s not surprising that Lupe’s lyrics reflect a commitment to “generational parenting” - a desire to instill the same fearlessness in others that was passed on to him.

During last week’s interview, there was a clear difference between the young-faced Lupe that eagerly gave a MTV crew a walking tour of his West Side neighborhood and the 30-year-old version that lost his composure while speaking of the sense of helplessness he feels when it comes to saving black youth from poverty and early death.

The former had not yet experienced all the good and bad that comes with fame and fortune, which is displayed by the simplicity of his 24-year-old self, a simplicity that appears comfortable in and proud of his humble beginnings. The latter, on the other hand, knows international success intimately and appears to be searching for a quiet place within his own identity. The distance between the two reveals a man that has undoubtedly evolved.

But as much as he’s changed, there’s so much about him that has remained the same. He remains just as complex and multifaceted today as he was when his album “Food & Liquor” was first released. His Islamic faith remains prominent in his artistic branding, and his refusal to “dumb it down” still challenge commercial hip-hop to do and be better. Calling President Obama a “baby killer,” as he recently did on Philly’s Power 99, might be shocking to some, but it’s still a continuation of his “American Terrorist” critique.

While many of us may be turned off by Lupe’s personalized attacks on Obama, it’s important to know that it comes from a place of pain as much as it does anger. We’ve all become so desensitized to violence that we often forget that a parent has lost a son or daughter — a community has lost a potential change agent. We sound off the alarming numbers of black men in prison, forgetting that a child is now forced to grow up fatherless. Lupe’s breakdown suggests that he makes these connections often and wants to help others do the same.

At a time when too many Americans are obsessed with what society defines as “the [newest] cool” thing, there remains a small remnant of vanguards who are rebellious enough to pursue honesty over and above popularity. Count Lupe among them.      

Rahiel Tesfamariam is a columnist and blogger for The Washington Post and The RootDC. She is the founder/editorial director of Urban Cusp, an online lifestyle magazine highlighting progressive urban culture, faith, social change and global awareness. Follow her on Twitter @RahielT.

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