What Gets Buried in the Sound

I am one of those 80s babies who likes to believe that the 90s was the greatest era in musical history. So when the image began to circulate for the Verzuz between self-proclaimed Bay Area legends Too $hort and E-40, I promptly added the event to my calendar.

And I must admit, I couldn’t have been more proud to be from the Bay. Deep East Oakland more specifically. Although the predicaments of time, age and purported upward mobility had me straddling the fence of authenticity, for those 3.5 hours, I was back — transfixed in a space, grounded in a sense of place.

To the red-bricked house on 85th and A street, across from Highland elementary; right up the street from the “8–5 Vill”. Tassafaronga.

I chuckled as I danced in my living room, unable to forget my awkward younger self in the “African dance class” at the EOYDC, flailing to the drum beat; anxiety held me as I remembered my trek to the “wash house” on Saturday mornings, toting all our family’s unmentionables in a large wire roll basket. Taking the long way around to avoid friends I might see at school the next week.

I reflected with a slight grin, on my mad dash to the corner store for mambas — A League of Their Own airing, again — I could never watch without them. Unaware that I was creating my own rituals.

The evening carried on. I realized that my notions of sentimentality for and toward artists whose music defined much of my adolescence, were in fact, just as Baldwin claimed: a mark of dishonesty. That in the music, in the sound, there was and has always been “the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mark of cruelty.”

As a working mom with 3 kids — who, admittedly dozed off about 2.5 hours in — I considered what it means to accept myself as a product of a time and place that, 20 years of life and wisdom later, still feels incomplete, inconsistent and incoherent. Underevaluated. So much of me will be them.

In that moment of nostalgia, I allowed myself to justify the tension surrounding the explicit yet inescapable cruelty I felt growing up in one of the most contradictory towns. Freedom from the consequences of poverty, a chimera. Yet still, so much of what I was drawn to that evening, I’ve now come to understand as me honoring the ways in which I survived.

****

The battle, no doubt, was very hard to watch:

Fraught with contradiction, the Verzuz exposed how we are all complicit. In the madness and irony of what it means to make art; to participate in self-expression and purported mobility — when your community is starving; when your brother is a crack baby and your mother the culprit.

We cringe and think twice as Too $hort claims ownership to a word that has come to be both endearing and repulsive — depending on how you use it, on who you talk to. His proclamation that he is the only one who can spew disrespect and lose none.

But I am on my feet once more for E-40’s track, as the shudder from the royal sovereign and the haunting violins make their way in. The signifying monkey. Only the confrontation has yet to take place; the tension builds, then the bass drops. And just for a moment it relieves the tautness, loosens the contradictory nature upon which the song is composed.

When I was coming up/ there’s certain things we don’t allow/ like long fingernails and men arching they eyebrows…I can make it look like I’m at my best when I’m at my worst/ persuade a broad to put on a dress and break her for her purse…The law ain’t concerned/they love us hustlers and dealers/ they wanna tear our houses down so they can build some ikeas. (E-40; “Gouda”)

The sound serves as distraction — the art of disguise — so much you get hypnotized with, that you don’t even realize what you’re celebrating. Manipulation. So we can survive; hear and feel a little less bleeding on the track — the wailing from the halls of Highland hospital. The dried stains on the sidewalk of 73rd and Macarthur.

Like a proverbial train crash, I have been unable to look away. I am disgusted at their collusion with a system that has held their mothers and sisters captive and in so many ways, held me captive too — has served as a mirror of my complicity, an image I am not yet ready to confront.

And in so many ways, the same could be said for these grown men, who 30 years later, still make a killing from repressed pain. They too were products of poverty. Tryna make a dolla out of .15cent.

In the sound — shared and unique — was both a dealing and a doling; if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Hiding in the slow cadence of Too $hort’s Oakland drawal and E-40’s slithery tongue, is what gets lost in the sound. They had internalized the cruelty — profited from misogyny, exploitation, oppression. Penned in notebooks, sitting on swings with syringes beneath their feet; as they made their way up to Foothill boulevard and down to E-1–4. On foot. In order to survive.

And in so many ways, so had I.

*****

Before this Verzuz, I wore my claim to be from Oakland as a badge of honor; nowadays, I wonder if such a profession is worth its weight in gold.

Because what has gotten lost in the sound is a failure to hold them and thus myself, accountable to the realities of patriarchy and productivity — the dogged desire (read: need) to transcend circumstances outside of our control. To maintain a semblance of humanity when the markers of brutality can no longer be held at bay.

The sound cements.

Binds a shared experience of hopelessness and despair, the “misery and triumph” to which 40 speaks on Seasoned: “the scrapes and scratches/nicks and scars/y’all get to drink out of wine glasses/we gotta drink out of jelly jars’’. It seeks to counter a seemingly inescapable weariness, muddied by sentimentality.

So we nod our head to the beat, tap our feet. Shift uncomfortably on plush cushions earned through what our oppressors call hard work, a dash of grit and a sprinkle of resilience. We shake the dust of unacceptance from our feet and resign ourselves to fleeting bouts of memory. Because we believe we have survived. Still I wonder, in our pretension and perceived vigor, what all has been lost in the sound?

On a journey of faith. One day at a time.

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