Diversify Your Shelves--"Rap Saved my Life, Yo!"
Difficult circumstances did not gift me the luxury to write flowery prose.
But lack of destitution afforded me the privilege to write about real woes.
Mine and those of girls right under your nose.
Like Rani in Rani Patel In Full Effect, I stumbled upon rap at a young age. I got my first taste at age eleven—listening to Run DMC rap to a dope beat on my boombox—and my life changed. From then on, despite my family’s dysfunction, I’d found an honest way to articulate my thoughts and feelings, search for truth and freedom, and hold onto optimism.
In one of my earliest memories I’m sitting in a corner of my room listening to music on my first Sony boombox. My parents purchased it, like all of our other electronic things, from New York City’s Little India in Jackson Heights, Queens. I worshipped this boombox and it quickly replaced the little record player I had. I was so grateful to my parents because with my new boombox I could not only listen to music, but I could record music on cassette tapes. My own mixtapes!
I remember I’d stacked the boombox on a short shelf maybe two feet high. I’d sit cross legged on the floor with my head slightly bowed, as if I were sitting in front of an altar. It was the same way I’d observed my mother sit in front of the Thakorji shrine in her room. Hours would pass like nothing because I was with my best friend—music. My parent might’ve been fighting downstairs. Or maybe I’d finished helping my father decide some way to make peace with my mother without actually having to apologize to her for his misbehavior. Whatever it was, listening to music made it all better.
My favorite songs before age ten were anything Michael Jackson. Especially Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’, Beat It, and Billie Jean. Michael was my hero. So much so that I performed Billie Jean at a school talent show. Glove, jacket, moonwalk and all.
But one ordinary Saturday of hangin’ with my bestie music to escape a parental fight, I heard something different on my boombox. Something with a simple, yet incredible beat and these captivating breathing noises. My head starting nodding and I couldn’t stop it. It turned out to be Run DMC’s Hard Times and I swear I thought they were talking to me. They were rhyming about getting through hard times. How they’d keep fighting to get through their hard times until the end. Wow, I thought. That’s exactly what I’m trying to do. And they were doing it by spittin’ rhymes over an incredible beat.
That was it. Rap hooked me. Sorry Michael, but rap turned out to be a more powerful healer for me than pop or R&B.
As I got older, things got worse with my family. Or maybe it was the same and I was just more aware of how icky things were. In any case, I didn’t know our family issues were called something—misogyny and abuse. I only knew that it was tearing my parents apart and hurting me. And the biggest lesson I learned during childhood was that I was my father’s object. I existed to please him in whatever way he needed.
It wasn’t until I was an adult that I figured out how abnormal it was that my father rejected my mother and made me into his intimate companion. And that was why I had difficulties in my female friendships and why I was consistently attracted to older, narcissistic men.
However, before all that insight, it was rap that threw me a lifeline. It’s lyrics and beat soothed me and let me assert my anger when I didn’t know how to verbalize it. It let me release my shame and despair when I didn’t realize I would’ve drowned in those feelings if they’d remained bottled up. It gave me hope that things might get better. It helped me gain an identity separate from my father. It let me fake my confidence until it became real.
Positive rap towed me through the rough waters of my childhood. From the uplifting rap of Queen Latifah to De La Soul. From the socially conscious rap of Public Enemy to Paris. From the rap videos of Salt-N-Pepa to the Beastie Boys.
But one rap more than any other pushed me through the toughest times—LL Cool J’s Mama Said Knock You Out. It was my shrink when I didn’t even know I could’ve used one. To this day I turn to it because LL’s commanding, motivating, and energizing lyrics and beat continue to lift me out of moments of lingering worthlessness and shame.
Eventually, I put my own pen to my pad and solidified the strength of my voice and my identity. By writing rhymes I learned to pinpoint my true thoughts and feelings about my past and present. Years, and many handwritten looseleaf papers later, I ended up with a binder full of rap. One day when I was flipping through the binder’s pages, I realized that if I read the rap front to back, the story of a girl with a loud, intelligent, and fierce voice unfolded. A girl who was an amalgam of me, teens I’d treated as a child & adolescent psychiatrist, and women I knew. That girl became sixteen-year-old Rani Patel and her story became Rani Patel In Full Effect.
Rap saved Rani’s life, yo! And mine too.
*This post originally appeared at Diversity in YA, and has been
brought to you thanks to our partner, Cindy Pon!*
Cindy Pon is the author of Silver Phoenix (Greenwillow, 2009), which was named one of the Top Ten Fantasy and Science Fiction Books for Youth by the American Library Association’s Booklist, and one of 2009′s best Fantasy, Science Fiction and Horror by VOYA. Her most recent novel, Serpentine (Month9Books, 2015), is a Junior Library Guild Selection and received starred reviews from School Library Journal and VOYA. The sequel, Sacrifice, releases this September. WANT, a near-future thriller set in Taipei, will be published by Simon Pulse in summer 2017. She is the co-founder of Diversity in YA with Malinda Lo and on the advisory board of We Need Diverse Books. Cindy is also a Chinese brush painting student of over a decade. Learn more about her books and art http://cindypon.com.