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Tokyo rap battle

When I was a kid I had no idea that I would be able to witness a rap battle in Ueno park. I was there when hip hop started to become big. Sugar Hill gang was the first group I got into. My mom warned us not to listen to rap music because she said it was the “ devil's music”. It was hard to follow that advice because rap had infiltrating every corner of our lives. Kids at school had whole songs memorize. The coolest of the cool ones we're able to freestyle. Even on the white side of Broadway where the supermarket was, white teens came in wild eyed talking about how amazing gangster rap was. I remember an Italian American kid name Gino who could not stop talking about N.W.A and how “awesome” the music was. I liked artists like Scott La Rock , KRS 1, Chuck D, and run DMC, I was never a fan of gangster rap. It was too violent and misogynistic. To Gino, listening to gangster rap must have been the same as me watching Godfather movies. It was all fiction to him. Gangster rap was real for me. It had come at the height of the crack epidemic, which was decimating black communities. The highly addictive very cheap crystallized cocaine had stolen the souls of our neighborhoods.

The year before I started going to John Carroll University, I was working for the Civilian Conservation Core. My friend Dodi had introduced me to the organization and helped me to get a job. The work wasn't too difficult. Every day we went into the forest and cleared out old growth and dead trees. Anything that looked like it might falling over got cut down. One day I had a date to attend a formal dance. I bought a corsage for my girl and rented a tuxedo. I didn't have a driver’s license so I needed to ask a coworker to drive me to my apartment so that I could get changed quickly and go to the dance. My coworker said yes on the condition that I would allow him to make one stop on the way. Of course I agreed. I was in no position to make demands since I was the one in need of the favor.

The stop we made was in the heart of the worst part of Cleveland's ghetto. It was also the exact place where I spent my childhood. It was hard being there after so many years. Everything seems much smaller and tight then I had remembered it. All of the doors were still color coded. We went into the Blues knocked on the door. A woman with disheveled hair opened and let us in. My coworker pointed to a lazy boy chair and told me to wait there for a moment. There were about three or four children running about the living room. Cartoons were playing on the TV. Behind me I could hear the clack, clack of a lighter and a deep bubbling inhaling sound followed by coughing. Every 20 minutes or so a female voice yelled from the room behind. The kids were laughing too loudly.

I wanted to get out of there but I had no way out. I didn't have a car and I didn't want to walk through three projects with my CCC Uniform on. So, I sat and watched cartoons and waited and hoped no one would kick in the door to arrest everyone or rob everyone. Eventually someone at the crack table notice that I had been waiting for a while and mentioned it to my coworker. He quickly got up, gave a swift hand motion to the door and said let's go. Although he was high as the moon I got in the car and he drove me home. That was the last time I ever spoke to him.

After the Civilian Conservation Core I got a job as an orderly at University Circle Hospitals. Shortly after, my mother moved away from Broadway to within walking distance of the hospital. That’s where I met Jonathan. He was big guy ripped with muscles. He had a strong air of machismo but he was also very kindhearted and love to laugh. He reminded me of Ice Cube. One day, on my way home from work, Jonathan stopped me in the hallway. Without warning he started crying. I was startled and confused. I asked what was wrong and he told me he was ashamed because he was addicted to smoking crack. He pleaded with me to help him find a way to quit. I didn't know anything about how to quit because I had never had an addiction. In fact, my whole life, the only addiction that I've ever faced was with nicotine. That is no trivial thing but it certainly did not have possession of my soul the way crack had taken possession of Jonathan's. Seeing this strong brother broken down into a weeping shell of a man made me vow to never tough crack.

So, when Gino talked about how awesome gangster rap was I really didn't feel anything for it because it was too real. I got a close up view of the violence of the city. They all came to the emergency room. I saw the gunshot wounds, the stabbings, and the bludgeoning. A lot of it was related to the violence of crack, which fueled the gangster rap phenomenon.

In Ueno Park, where all the young boys gathered to practice their skills, I was dumbfounded when I realized how far the genre had reached humanity. The other thing that hit me was how the voices in the park were all negative. I wondered to myself why darkness travels so much faster than light.


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