The Zen of Young Money: Being Present to the Genius of Black Youth – The Feminist Wire

The Zen of Young Money: Being Present to the Genius of Black Youth

I fly with the stars in the skies,
I am no longer trying to survive,
I believe that life is a prize,
But to live doesn’t mean you’re alive.

what am I doing? what am I doing?
oh yeah, that’s right, I’m doing me, I’m doing me
I’m living life right now
and this what I’m a do til its over
til it’s over, but it’s far from over

I am a member of a criminalized generation of black geniuses.

My twenty-something age-mates and the teenagers behind us are often dismissed as materialistic, crass, empty-headed, impulse addicts. Elders mourn our distance from the forms of social movement participation they would have imagined and mass media relates to us as a market to be bought, exploited and sold back to ourselves, ever cheaper.

As a particularly nerdy member of the so-called thoughtless generation, I resent the implication. And I wonder sometimes what it will take to make the forms of social interaction, critique and that young black people are engaged in every moment of our high-tech or low-tech days legible to the baby boomers (since we all know that legibility to baby boomers is what makes something real in the United States).

So this rare piece (on my part) of contemporary hip hop commentary is an attempt to provide a specific example for an undercredited belief that is at the basis of my queer intergenerational politic of black love:

As young black people we are experts of our own experiences, we think about the meanings of our lives, the limits of our options and more often than not we choose not to conform, not to consent to an upright and respectable meaning of life. Even in our most nihilistic moments we are tortured artists and mad scientists, living a critique of a dominant society that cannot contain us and does not deserve us. This doesn’t mean that we are always doing the right thing (Spike Lee), but it does mean that any effective transformative politic that is accountable to us, young black people with a variety of intellectual and cultural attractions and modes will respect us as genius participants in a culture in transition (singularity) instead of incorrectly assuming that we are mindless consumers.


I take, the example of two songs by two of the most visible young black artists around, members of a hip hop crew/entertainment company that has capitalized on glamourizing a sexualized, hyper-capitalist version of youth energy, chosen family, excess and fun: Nicki Minaj, Drake from the Lil Wayne fronted Young Money Crew.

I happen to have been listening to mainstream radio one day in the car during the week that I was reading Angel Kyodo Williams book Being Black, on the value of Zen principles for black people in the United States and, inexplicably free of the usual defenses and judgments I hold against the most highly marketed versions of hip-pop (no typo) and the self-protection against misogyny and hyper-exploitation that generally causes me to hold back my listening, I actually paid attention to they lyrics.

Of course it was incredibly likely that I would hear songs by Nicki Minaj and Drake since they are routinely rotated. It seems like 2 out of 2 songs that are currently played on the radio star or feature one of these artists. But this time, opened up by Williams’ insights about the value of releasing judgment I began to wonder whether beyond payola and the corporatization and uniformity of radio the mass appeal of these two artists might actually not only be the attraction of black youth, and young people in general to…(young) money and the alcohol baptized sexually olympic lifestyle advertised to come with young people’s access to money, but also a very different basic need in the lives of young black people, and a central need in my life: accessible technologies for being present to our own lives.

The year after I was born (1983) Lillie Allen created a workshop in Atlanta (as part of a vibrant and inspiring black feminist health movement and environment created by the National Black Women’s Health Project) called Black and Female: What is the Reality? which evolved into a curriculum for self and community empowerment called Be Present. Could it be that the contemporary moment in hip-pop is keeping the attention of so many young people…including me, not for the predictably offered reasons, but rather as evidence of a deeply held desire to be present to our own lives in a culture too obsessed with progress to allow reflection or stillness?

Because really…what is compelling about the monotone of Drake’s voice in his clearly un-melodic non-chorus on “Over”? Is it only the saturation of media with images of his arrogant attempt to bring light-skinned tall brothers back into style with each other and the rest of the world? Or is it also the thin line between Drake’s monotone and a buddhist chant?

Because if, as Buddha writes in the Ghitassara Sutta, the lack of melody of the chant is designed to train us to release our attachment to sound so that we do not lose the moment behind it, Drake seems to also be accountable to something besides melody. What is it that Drake’s tonelessness offers that compels my generation to listen to it over and over again? Maybe it is the value of the moment behind the sound wanting to be revealed. The reminder to self, a struggle most evident in Drake’s questions and answers to himself:

what am I doing? what am I doing?
oh yeah, that’s right, I’m doing me, I’m doing me
I’m living life right now
and this what I’m a do til its over
til it’s over, but it’s far from over

This chorus seems to me to describe and enact exactly the struggle of my own stillness, my own attempts at meditation and mindful living in the world, the difficulty of escaping evaluation of my own life (especially its productivity), of placing myself on a limited timeline, of not “living life right now.” I wonder if other people, especially other young black people, who may not have recently read the writings of a brilliant black woman on the value of Zen awareness, are attracted to this same process, reflected in Drake’s existential moment, depicted in the music video as sitting on a hotel bed talking to himself charged out of nonchalance into liveliness as soon as he jumps (still seated) and says “oh yeah, that’s right, i’m doing me.” A contextually distant echo of Audre Lorde’s “I am who I am, doing what I came to do,” but an echo nonetheless, with the potential to do what Drake says he is capable of, making the biggest skeptic a believer.” Could it be that my fellow black young adults and teenagers resonate with this non-song because it is an invitation to let go of some of the skepticism we bring to the value of our lives in their mundane and moving moments and to be present?

The other function of this piece is that while I have peripherally overhead every black feminist who engages with popular culture asked about what Mark Anthony Neal calls “the meaning of Nicki Minaj” in the midst of some kind of valuing or comparison with Lil Kim and the Barbie brand, I have to admit that I had not developed an idea of Nicki Minaj’s meaning or even an attunement to the sound of her voice until I was at Drag Bingo and a very fierce drag queen in a bobbed and banged blond wig did an impressive and well mouthed medley of Nicki Minaj song and I found the metaphors hilarious, (akin to what the smart-assed kid and poet in me is drawn to in the mid-career work of Eminem.) So I started listening to the words when I heard her baby-monster-robot voice on the radio. And when I heard:

In this very moment I’m king,
In this very moment I slay, Goliath with a sling,
This very moment I bring
Put it on everything, that I will retire with the ring,
And I will retire with the crown, Yes!
No I’m not lucky I’m blessed, Yes!
Clap for the heavyweight champ, Me!
But I couldn’t do it all alone, We!

I thought, this is drag performance all over again. A young black woman channeling the energy and poetry of a young Muhammed Ali as seamlessly as Janelle Monae channels the dance possession of James Brown. And I listened to “Moment for Life” on youtube several times reflecting on what made the sequence above so affirming, and settled beyond my thrill at a young black woman that other young black women listen to embracing her masculinity and being proud of being a “heavyweight” was the repetition of “this very moment.” The powerful presence of the sequence places infinite value on the present moment. “This very moment I bring,” rumbles without knowing its embodiment of the energy and clarity of the Combahee River Collective’s “black women are inherently valuable.” What would would mean to affirm that what we bring is the moment again and again and that is enough. Period. Minaj literally uses affirmation as a practice in the piece (the repetition of “Yes!”) and the closing trinity of the passage above, divine context (no i’m not lucky i’m blessed. yes!) self-affirmation (clap for the heavyweight champ. me!) and interdependence with community (but I couldn’t do it all alone. we!) is exactly the mix that I use to keep myself centered. Who would have thought?

For a million reasons, most of them related to capitalism, racism and patriarchy it is extremely difficult for us, young black women, to be present to the miracle of our every breath. Usually we are waiting to exhale while the entire society collaborates to devalue and demean our living, our physicality, our impact. What are the possibilities of the resonance of an affirmation that moves beyond gender, that reaches to champion elders, that invokes a divine context and a need for community for all of us?

And more than that, what is the potential of my people, young black folks if we can be present to the value of our existence, and if everyone else can be buddhist about us, let judgment fall away and acknowledge the contribution we are to the universe just by existing as ourselves?

(We won’t be cocky, we’ll be vindicated.)
<3 Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs is free, black and 28.

After reading/listening to:
*Being Black: Zen and the Art of Living with Fearlessness and Grace, Angel Kyodo Williams
*”Over” Drake
*”Moment for Life” Nicki Minaj