Life Lesson

“My life after childhood has two main stories: the story of the hustler and the story of the rapper, and the two overlap as much as they diverge. I was on the streets for more than half of my life from the time I was thirteen years old(…).The feelings I had during that part of my life were burned into me like a brand. it was life during war time”

 

Most rappers come from ‘the hood’ and have struggled in life with drugs or have been involved in illegal activities, so what makes Jay-z’s story interesting? When reading Jay-z’s memoir it is not the classic hustle story that stands out, it’s the introspection with which Jay-z describes those events. When you’re reading the autobiography you can easily picture him in the process of remembering his childhood. The descriptions make those memories seem extremely vivid, as if by telling the story he was reliving those days. Most rappers just tell their stories through rap music, which cannot get really in a lot of details but they also do not explain the mental process that made the rapper become who he is. Jay-z through this book is trying to provide that to his fans. It is in fact evident that his focus is on what was emotionally pushing him to make the decisions he made, he also explains what sparked his interest in rapping and rhyming.

The story starts with a description of what a normal day in his childhood was, playing around with other kids, daring each other to do things, and then one day he saw a kid rapping, and that’s when it sparked. He wanted to do it too. As the story goes on we see how Jay-z’s life evolves. He keeps rapping but one day he starts selling crack.  In the song December 4th Jay-z says:” this is the life I chose or rather the life that chose me”, he’s not blaming others for his actions, and he recognizes that it was 100% his choice, although being from a neighborhood like Marcy was a little bit of a trigger. Jay-z realizes that as terrible as it can sound the days when he was selling drugs are actually the days that made him who he is. There’s a reason why he calls it “life during wartime”. Sure he was not fighting for his country nor for a good cause but during that time of his life things got ugly, he saw loved-ones die.

The memoir is surprisingly beautifully written, and what gives it and extra interesting touch is the fact that we see how hip-hop and rap culture evolved, as Jay-z matured into the rapper he is now. Almost like if the two were growing alongside. Jay-z made the most of what life gave him, and a big lesson to take away from this book is that we have to remember where we come from because it is thanks to our past that we are the person we are today.  This is what makes Jay-z’s story not only extremely interesting and different, but also educational and motivational.

 

Creating Poverty

“‘Someone does not become a beggar; we are made beggars.'” (31)

This quote comes from the so-called “King of the Beggars” who Elvis encounters one evening in a slum of Lagos. Elvis decides to share what little money he has in order to buy some food for the King and himself. The quote immediately brought to my mind the concept of Liberation Theology. Father Gustavo Gutierrez is a priest from Lima, on the opposite side of the world where Elvis’s story takes place. Gutierrez is seen as the father of Liberation Theology which basically attempts to answer the question, how do you say and show people living in the context of violence, social injustice or seeming insignificance that God loves them? While the religious aspect of Gutierrez’s message may not necessarily apply to Elvis, the underlying point does. How do you make people living in poverty know that they matter?

One of the ways that Liberation Theology begins to answer this question is by making people understand where poverty comes from. Rather than understanding it as being born unlucky or just accepting it as a reality, it is essential to realize that poverty is created as the King points out. It is not simply the fate of some to be poor and others to be rich but it is structures put in place that create inequality both in wealth and quality of life. This concept especially rings true in much of post-colonial Africa. Understanding the colonial legacy of a place like Nigeria and the context of when Elvis tells his story is essential. Rapid urbanization during the late colonial period (ie post-WWII to independence in 1960) caused serious problems for both the British and Nigerians. Because the British were not interested in creating a place for Nigerians to live and be successful in urban Lagos, slums like the one Elvis lives in developed. The priority of the British was to keep themselves separate from and above Nigerians. Then, as Elvis alludes to when he tells us about his cousin who “had been a boy soldier in the civil war that ended two years before” (20), there was a period of unrest in Nigeria which further exacerbated the problems that come with poverty. The struggle we see even today is to change structures that have been in place for decades in order to uplift the poor.

The Compromising Culture of the Poor

“What is happening?”

“Today, Elvis, you are going to kill your first eagle.”

“But I’m too little.”

“Don’t worry,” Uncle Joseph said, laughing.

“But why must I kill the eagle?” 

“It is de first step into manhood for you, de next step is to kill a goat, and den from der we begin your manhood rites.” (page 18)

Elvis, as we learn basically from the outset, isn’t exactly fond of his father. He tries as best he can to make a living without having to rely on his step-mother and father. This passage comes from a flashback to before Elvis’ mother passed away, and Elvis is very young. Elvis’ father and uncles are describing a family ‘rite of passage’ that everyone seems to have to go through in order to become a man. But it hardly seems to be a very official process. The ‘ceremony’ has been degraded to a drunken family afternoon get together, and the eagle has somehow over the years become a chicken. The ritual gets even more pathetic however, when one of Elvis’ uncles hands him an arrow with the chicken already spiked upon the tip – Elvis didn’t even have to be man enough to kill the chick himself. If it wasn’t for the blowing of chalk, and anointing of oil, the process could just as well been recognized as tomfoolery as a rite of passage ritual.

Being from South Africa, I am well aware rite of passage rituals are a huge part of African culture, and they are often not too dissimilar from the ceremony originally described. However, I am also mindful that these ceremonies can become distorted in the poorer communities. Hardship can take its toll, as family’s such as Elvis’ take to alcoholism to soothe their problems, and lose track of their culture. It is blatantly obvious how far the culture has descended in the family, as they chose to rather buy alcohol than invest in Elvis’ rite of passage ceremony, which I have no doubt was very important to previous generations. They rush through the ceremony so they can get back to their Sunday afternoon drinking, and the tradition probably would die out soon.

Family is, in most African countries such as Nigeria, very important to their culture. However, this is another aspect of culture ignored in Elvis’ life. Instead of a loving environment, his step-mother “would not wait for (Elvis) until I give dog your food,” to which Elvis replied “God, I hate her” (page 15). This, in addition to the distant relationship he has with his father goes against the culture of family over all that underlies most African cultures.

Elvis’ situation is not dissimilar from millions across the African continent. It is often the case that families disregard the traditions and culture of their nation, because they are too impoverished to carry out its rituals, or they choose rather to numb their hardships with alcohol than maintain their culture. Elvis’ family, at least in the opening chapters, is a great example of how poverty can affect a family’s culture and traditions.

Family Ties

“He walked over to his bed and pulled his mother’s journal from under his pillow.  He had taken to sleeping with it there after Jagua Rigogo had suggested that it was the perfect way to contact her spirit in his dreams.  It hadn’t worked so far, but it had brought him comfort to have it within reach” (p. 46).

 

In this quote, Elvis is getting ready for work and grabbing books that he wishes to read on his travels.  The mention of his mother’s journal is a crucial one; through mentioning that he sleeps with the journal close to him, it shows that Elvis still relies on his mother to “bring him comfort” (p.46) even after her death.  The reason why Elvis relies on his mother’s journal is because he no longer has a parental figure that provides the love, care, and support that he needs in growing up.

Since his mother has passed away, Elvis’ father has become an alcoholic.  Elvis’ father “had always turned to alcohol when life became hard, [but] back in their hometown there had been some dignity to his drinking” (47).  Since the loss of Beatrice, Sunday’s drinking has gotten worse.  Sunday has been gone for long periods of time drinking, he has remained jobless, and he has not been the father or the role model that Elvis needs to become a man.  This has occurred because he is not over the death of his late wife.  As a result, the roles are reversed.  Elvis takes on the role of the provider of the house and Sunday takes on the role of the jobless child.

This connects to the mother’s journal because Elvis’ only positive family relationship was the relationship with his mother.  Comfort explains to Elvis that his father “…want to kill himself with drink” (51) to be with Beatrice in the afterlife.  Beatrice is the only thing that connects Elvis to his father and to his past.  In reading her journal, Elvis can feel like he is connected to his family once more.

Elvis and His Father

“He want to kill himself to join ya mama. Only you fit help him.”

“Me? He doesn’t love me either, how can I help him?”

“Elvis,” she said, catching hold of his arm. “I never talk to you like dis before. I beg you be like son to him.”

Elvis was a mess of conflicting emotions. He’d been pretty sure that he hated his father, and now he had this strange urge to help him. (51)

This passage shows Elvis’s stepmother begging him to do something about his father’s drinking problem. It illustrates the emotional distance between Elvis and his father. One thing that particularly stood out to me was the fact that Comfort told Elvis to “be like son to him.” How can he be like a son to Sunday when he really is his son? To me, this is even more telling about their relationship (or lack thereof) than the later part when Elvis thinks that he hates his father. We also see from this passage that Elvis is aware that his father does not love him; he even says this himself to Comfort. Although they are biologically father and son, they clearly lack the father/son bond.

We see elsewhere in the book that Elvis’s culture places a high value on masculinity. For example, on pages 61-63, Sunday is absolutely livid when he comes home to find that the women of the family have put lipstick and a dress on Elvis and styled his hair for fun. He even goes as far as to knock Elvis unconscious despite the fact that he is only a little boy at the time. Later, when he is shaving Elvis’s head, he tells him, “It’s not easy to be a man. (63)” Even if it is difficult to be a man in Nigeria, I imagine that it must be especially difficult for Elvis to grow up with this pressure because he lacks a positive role model. His relationship with his father has obviously been strained for years, and now it is almost as if he does not even have a father and that he can only be, as Comfort says, “like” a son to him. But we also see that he “had this strange urge to help him (51),” which could mean that he still hopes on some level that their relationship can be salvaged.

Hard Tests of Manhood

“It is de first step into manhood for you. When you are older, de next step is to kill a goat, and den from dere we begin your manhood rites. But dis is de first step.” pg 19

In this quote Elvis’ uncle, Joseph, explains to him his rights of passage in becoming a man in their culture. The first step is to kill an eagle, and then the next step is to kill a goat, and from there the other men in the tribe deem him worthy or not. I my opinion killing an eagle seems much more harder than killing a goat. One is flying and can fly away in less than 2 seconds, and the other is pretty much stationary not even being able to run away, and yet they have him the harder of the two at the mere age of 5, much early than any other of the boys in the tribe. It seems very unfair to me that he should be punished and have more potential to be de-manned because of his mother’s sickness. I understand that with his mother’s sickness Elvis will inevitably have to become a man anyways but to have him fail in front of the entire tribe seems to be a cruelty his father takes pleasure in. His father probably was expecting him to fail and be given a reason to disown him that didn’t make him seem like a horrible father in front of the whole tribe.

The second thing that strikes me, not only in this quote, but in some quotes before, is the dialect of the natives. Personally I have plenty of friends from Nigeria to know that this is really the way people born and raised there talk. I’ve never been able to spell out the way they talk, but the author does a very good job in describing in words and uses the correct letters, so that in my mind I hear the accents he wants me to hear. Specifically most of the “th’s” are replaced with “d’s”.

Shedding Marji’s Religious Innocence

“I wanted to be justice, love and the wrath of God all in one.” pg. 9

In the beginning of Persepolis, we are introduced to Marji and her relationship with politics, religion and God. While Marji is innocent and naive, she is also smart and knows to keep her thoughts about God and becoming a prophet to herself when her parents ask her what she wants to be when she grows up. I think that Marji’s relationship with God at this young age is definitely rooted in a sense of innocence that most children experience. While most children, however, seem to have insignificant imaginary friends, Marji’s imaginary friend is God (or Karl Marx, depending on the hairstyle).

We see Marji beginning to face reality and lose this sense of innocence the night that God doesn’t come to her when she really needs it on page 17. In my opinion, Marji is learning about the way her world works. Just because she wants her revolution to be successful, there is no way that an entire population will support her. When she is illustrated crying in bed and God does not come to her that night, she is facing the reality that not all will go her way, especially when it comes to politics and even religion.

God, as Marji’s imaginary friend, serves as a vehicle for religion in the story. I think of God as being a visual representation of faith as a whole. In the beginning of the story, I think that Marji struggles with religion in this way, which is why God can not always come to her when she needs it. Her struggle with religion has to do with shedding that innocence that does not give her a realistic perspective of the political turmoil around her.