A Comment on December 4th

Jay-Z’s song “December 4th” is one of the most personal experiences I have ever heard put to music. It is easy to think that someone is putting themselves out there when they perform a love song or something like that, but through this piece, Jay-Z is showing us who he really is behind the showman and performer that we know. He details his experiences as a troubled kid, abandoned by his father, turning to a life of drug dealing. But somehow, unlike most kids in his position, he avoided it because he knew that he wanted to do something else.
The interjections from Jay-Z/s mother are a nice touch as well. It lends a personal side to the song from the eyes of a spectator, a third party if you will, but a source that accentuates the story being told rather than hindering it. In using his mother in this song, Jay-Z is showing his audience that this song is not meant to entertain. It is meant to be an introspection, and a reminder that you can accomplish anything so long as you can try.

Jay-Z and Elvis

“The first time I heard our voices playing back on tape, I realized that a recording captures you, but plays back a distortion-a different voice from the one you hear in your own head even though I could recognize myself instantly. I saw it as an opening, a way to re-create myself and reimagine my world. After I recorded a rhyme it gave me an unbelievable rush to play it back, to hear that voice.” (5)

 

After reading this I could see how Elvis must receive the same kind of rush when he is doing his impersonations. For Elvis to do his impersonations he has to change his appearance, but if he were to still look in the mirror he would still recognize himself. The same way that Jay-z can recognize his own voice but knows that something is different. Jay-z gets a rush from trying to re-create himself and Elvis gets a rush from trying to recreate someone else. I think that for Elvis the only person he saw that could dance with the same passion that he had was Elvis. He didn’t have a buddy to practice moves with or to challenge his craft. He was always discouraged to dance, because he needed to find a real job. I wonder if Elvis was videotaped doing his routine if he would feel the same way> I wonder if he would be inspired to re-create himself or if he would feel discouraged and see what everyone else sees when he dances.

Music and Modernity

In Jay-Z’s Decoded, he talks about how rap is an art form through which one can truly express oneself. Rap, he says, “is built to handle contradictions”(239). In his eyes, hip-hop and rap have “created a space where all kinds of music could meet, without contradiction”(240). Throughout our readings this year, we have seen people from all walks of life come together in the cities of the world. At times, there have been conflicts, but in the end, people show us who they really are. To me, that is what being in a city is, and it is also why I love music so much. Having been around music and theatre for my entire life, what is most heartening to see is not a great piece of music being performed, but seeing the heart and soul of the person doing the performance come alive on stage. By reading Jay-Z’s thoughts, I have a whole new appreciation for him and what he does, even though I am not generally a fan of hip-hop and rap. Like myself, he believes that music is life, nothing more and nothing less, and that the best music (or poetry) is made when whoever is creating it is being completely open and honest with themselves.

This same ideal is present whenever I think of the livelihood of the city. It has its complexities and values, an identity as a whole, but that identity is only formed from the people who inhabit it. Every individual in a city has their own identity, and in some contexts, that part of themselves has to be hidden away. But when push comes to shove, everyone’s true self comes out.  Maybe it’s the person who has the courage to wear his Derek Jeter shirt to Fenway Park. Or a slam poet, soapboxing to whoever will listen. Perhaps you are just like me, who if you see walking down the street, chances are I am not talking on the phone into my earbuds, but instead singing along to the music in my ear, enjoying the sights and sounds like I am on the stage at Carnegie Hall, singing my heart out. Jay-Z’s thoughts are compelling because they are universal. Music has often been described as a unifying force, and so too is living in a city. Both ideas have places for the individual to shine while being a part of something greater.

The Accident

“If this was Hu Caoxing, he was really on his game. The cop listened for a while and then gave me a hard look before walking away from the crowd to continue the conversation. He came back less than two minutes later with a totally different attitude.

He said nothing to me. Instead he addressed himself directly to the farmer.” – Page 2

In this particular passage, the cops are showing up because of the accident that has occurred on the street. When the cops show up, Old Wei does get a bit nervous, but then immediately calls someone he knows (perhaps a friend or collegue) who is names Hu Caoxing. Hu Caoxing acts as a way for Old Wei to get out of trouble with the cops. Perhaps Hu Caoxing has some type of special connection to the law enforcement, so Wei thinks calling him will help in the situation, which we find DOES happen. When the cop gets a call from Hu Caoxing, he automatically refocuses his attention to the other driver that fell off the motorbike, and not Old Wei.

When I find interesting about this whole situation is that even though Old Wei is a lawyer himself, he still needs to make a call in order to get out of trouble with the cops. One would think that someone who works in such a prestigious field as law would own up to being somewhat at fault right from the get-go. However, it is not until later (the very end of the article actually) that Wei admits he may have been a little at fault. Also, I would think that as a lawyer, Wei would handle the entire accident with a little more class than he did. He responded “Fuck YOU” to the poor man when he found out that he was driving without a liscense. I feel that if I were Wei, I would have been a lot more sensitive to someone who could have possibly been seriously injured, and I would not put so much emphasis on if he had a liscense or not until I knew that he was ok.

Sunday’s Bedroom

“He had only been inside his father’s bedroom a few times, and then only to clean, which was in itself an invariably bittersweet experience. Tins of smoked kippers, baked beans, corned beef, and exotic fruits all sat stacked, unused, unopened. Some, contoured into tortured shapes were well past their use-by dates. Bought for some special moment that never seemed to come, they were eventually thrown away. Shirts, still shrink-wrapped, mocked the holed one he wore. Vitals of holy water, collected from every gifted Catholic bishop or priest between home and Timbuktu, stood in a shaky pyramid in the corner. A sip, taken with a couple aspirin, worked miracles on headaches, his father swore. In the corners, ornamented tea services leaned against stacks of Reader’s Digests and newspapers.” (144)

This passage for me really showed me the relationship that Elvis had with his father. Throughout the book up to this point we see them have verbal exchanges that would not be characterized as being loving. We also have Elvis tell us that his father treated him poorly after his mother died. He even told Comfort that his father did not love him. But this scene really proved that to me. The narrator tells us that Elvis has only been inside his father’s bedroom a few times, and those few times were only to clean. I can’t imagine not going inside my parent’s bedroom and we live in the same house. I am inside my parent’s room all the time, having conversations, watching television, or a movie. I even get ready with my mom before we go out sometimes. So for a child to say that they have only been inside there father’s room a few times to me really shows the strain on their relationship, if it can even be called a relationship. From this passage it seems more like a servant and master than a father and son. He says that the experience of being in the room is bittersweet. This is probably because Elvis remembers when he used to go in his mother’s room at night and sleep with her when he was afraid. It also is probably hard to see all this spoiled food that is going to be thrown away, when they are struggling to survive. It is probably a slap in the face to see this food saved for a special occasion that has never come.

This passage also shows me more of Sunday’s personality. He is the last person that you would expect to be saving food for a special occasion. He seems more like the one to celebrate a drink at the bar than anything that has to do with his family. Also he is not the type of person you would expect to have holy water. I guess this is the irony showing in his name, that he would have holy water from priests and use to cure a headache and most likely a drunken headache. This was just eye-opening for me to really understand the relationship between Sunday and Elvis, and show Sunday’s personality.

Everyone is selfish

 

In Chapter 23 of Chris Abani’s Graceland, Redemption calls Elvis ‘selfish.’ While this is true to an extent, Elvis does not acknowledge that basically the entire population of Lagos is also selfish.

Redemption first accused Elvis of selfishness when Elvis mentioned that he would only save a woman if he knew that she was his cousin Efua. “Until you see somebody dat you think is her, you never even talk of finding her. You never even think it. Now you say you want to help. Na lie. You dey want be hero, de savior of your cousin. Oh yes, I know your type. I am your type. If you cant save yourself, den save others, abi? Dat way you can pretend to be good person.” (246). This is a very good point because it is true that only wanting to save his cousin could be considered selfish because he is ignoring others who are not directly related to his own happiness. However, there are other times when Elvis has sympathy for strangers. While a suspected thief named Jeremiah is about to be publically murdered, Elvis cannot turn a blind eye. “Why doesn’t anybody help?” (226). There are several other examples in the story of his sense of charity, such as taking the girl Blessing under his wing, and taking pity on the organ transplant children.

But the people of Lagos are acting in their own self-interests. Abani describes a situation where a child accidentally electrocutes himself while fetching a bucket of water from the tap. “Elvis watched the boy’s body float away in the deluge, while another took his place and took the full bucket of water to whatever destination would pay for it” (314). It seems like this next child automatically jumps on the opportunity presented by the death of the first child. Many of the citizens seem to have similar ‘entrepreneurship’ tendencies. They are following their own self interests to get ahead in this corrupt society.

Memory

“He picked it up gingerly, as though it would bite. Touching it brought back memories of his mother: how she would say her rosary every night before a statue of the Virgin of Fatima and then read a passage of the Bible before bed. Or maybe she hadn’t. It was getting difficult to separate the imagined from his real memories” (p.166)

“And you can’t know for sure dat what you think you saw dat time was Joseph raping his daugher. Maybe you were confused” (p.188)

The ambiguity and distortion of memory that we saw in Midnight’s Children is again brought up again in Graceland. In Midnight’s Children, Rushdie wrote: “Reality is a question of perspective; the further you get from the past, the more concrete and plausible it seems – but as you approach the present, it inevitably seems more and more incredible” (p.189). To refresh everyone’s memory, Rushdie compared reality in the present day to sitting so close to a movie screen that we do not see the whole picture. However, when looking back on a situation, we see the “big picture”. Abani, on the other hand, discusses how our memories of the past before more distorted as time goes on.

In Graceland, our memory can be influenced in different ways. In the first passage, Elvis’ recollection of his mother seems to be only of her admirable qualities. Because we only have Elvis’ account of his mother, we are in no position to make assumptions that he is lying. However, we also have to remember how memory can be affected. Elvis acknowledges the fact that his memory of his mother is not completely valid. It may be possible that he blocks out particular stories from his memory because he loved his mother so much that he only wanted to remember the best qualities about her. I do not know if this is a legitimate argument of how memory works, but I have found it to be true for my own memories – I always remember the best times of the past and I block out the negative.

When Sunday argues that Elvis’ memory may be distorted, he is either defending his brother, Joseph, or making a point about how witnesses to crimes often can not remember exactly what they saw. Perhaps Elvis’ vision of Joseph raping Efua is the truth, or perhaps he saw Efua being raped by another man and was later convinced by her that the rapist was in fact Joseph. There are often cases where the witness’ memories are inaccurate because they are influenced by other parties.

 

Sunday (By the Blue, Purple, Yellow, Red Water)

In Chris Abani’s book, Graceland, names are more than a thing to call a person. They are an identity. They are “selected with care by your family and given to you as a talisman”. The names of the characters are not only a description of who a person is (Elvis’ name, for example is no mistake, as he is an Elvis impersonator), but for many characters it describes their entire being. Throughout the novel, we are given a picture of Elvis’ father, Sunday. An abusive, drunken shell of a man, Sunday is often cruel to Elvis. He is rarely vulnerable, as he is at the end of Book One when he is talking to the ghost of Beatrice.

Leaning back in the chair, he laughed bitterly through his tears.

“Of course you don’t understand. You are a woman, how could you? Honor is a secondhand concept for you, earned through your husbands or sons. But for us… for us it is different,” he continued. “I had come too far to step down. People were looking at me; my honor was naked, and I had to clothe it.”

Sobs wracked his body and he fought to gain control. Meanwhile, the Temptations were “talkin’ bout my girl, my girl.”

Letting out this breath, he continued. “I know I lost. Dat is the consequence of war, Beatrice. Someone wins, anoder loses. But as long as de fight was with honor, both warriors can rest peacefully.”

Sunday’s name is of particular significance to me at this point.  He is at the end of his rope, the end of a long life, the end of his week. He has experienced love, loss, intrigue and happiness, but now he is simply worn down. He is lazy, as one normally is on Sunday, drunk, and fed up with the events of the past and the hopelessness of the future. He is a man who has simply reached the end, and is waiting to move on. In this sense, Sunday’s name is not so much of a talisman as it is a plain understanding of his life as we see it. He is nearing the end.

For reference of the article title: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mE0YUsQr5Xk

american dream

“She reached into her bag and pulled out a postcard. Elvis took it and stared at it for a long time. It had four panels on the front. In one, the word “Vegas” was spelled out in lights…The third panel featured an Elvis impersonator, while the fourth was a photo of the Graceland chapel. This is an omen, he thought. This is it.” (167).

In this scene, Felicia tells Elvis that she is going to Vegas and that he should go with. Elvis looks at the postcard and considers it an “omen.” An omen is a prophetic sign, and Elvis believes that it is a sign that he should go and make a name for himself as a dancer in the United States. Elvis even continues to tell Felecia that he does not need to go to school because he will be able to become famous as a dancer in the United States. This scene is ironic because it reminds me of the earlier scene that I discussed in an earlier blog post in which Elvis discusses statistics. Elvis talks about how the statistics are wrong about Lagos and how they talk about all of the millionaires but do not mention the poverty. The statistics are skewed, and therefore people go to Lagos searching for jobs and a life that they will not find. I think that the same is happening here, but Elvis is on the other side of the statistic. Rather than knowing the truth, he hears that in America, he can make it as a famous dancer, and therefore, when he sees the Elvis impersonator on the postcard, he wants to go there. In America, it is not easy to make it as a dancer either, and impersonators are not usually respected for their profession. Despite these facts, Elvis believes the opposite. This is because of the idea of the American dream. People believe that going to America changes lives because anything is possible, yet there is plenty of poverty in America as well. Elvis does not know this because he does not see those statistics, just as people do not see the statistics about Lagos. Rather, Elvis sees the shiny postcard with the Elvis impersonator and assumes that it is a glorified profession and that he will be successful there.

I think that the image of the chapel on the postcard if also ironic. The name of the chapel is “Graceland” which is the name of the book. The named Graceland seems like a happy name. It seems like a name for something that is innocent and pure, due to the word “Grace” However, in both instances, this is not the case. The book is far from happy and pure, same with Elvis’s life in Lagos. Additionally, the chapel in Vegas is probably not pure or innocent either. Vegas chapels are known to be the opposite of that, and therefore it is ironic that Elvis sees this as a pure prophetic sign. Prophecies can be good or evil, and I find that in this case, it can be an evil one because it is tempting Elvis to a life that is not what it appears to be.