From Alice Walker to Too $hort

So my big sister used to go wit’ Too $hort. You know, they dated. I mean dated dated. They were an actual couple – went to Great America, took pictures, held hands and did the senior prom thing. They dated like, dragged me along on pizza nights and movie dates because my sister was on babysitting duty. He bought me a Nintendo and bought my little sister, Ness, her favorite bean bag chair… He did all the things big brothers are supposed to do and he loved my big sister strong, so it is without question that Todd was not only her boyfriend, he was family.

Yes, this was back in the 80s and no, my sister was not the subject of a freaky tale. In fact, on the back cover of his Born to Mack album, Todd professes his teenage love very clearly: “And to my girl, Sharlena.” Special, right? lol As her adoring little sister, that one little line made me HELLA proud. And yes, I am fully aware that we’ve entered into a new decade of a new millennium and that it is a little Al Bundy of me to speak with such pride about a phase that started and ended over two decades ago (and wasn’t even really my phase); but I can’t help it. My kinship to, and love and respect for Todd have remained unaffected, even by 20+ years – and nearly as many albums – of separation.

It’s worth mentioning that most people who know me are hard pressed to make the slightest connection between me and the man whose favorite word is “BEEYOTCH!” I am generally quite disgusted by the negative images of Black women popularized in songs, music videos and television, in which we are depicted as over-sexual and undereducated, unjustifiably bitter, lacking in conflict resolution skills and seemingly in existence for the mere pleasure and subsequent abuse of our male counterparts. As such, I am more inclined to engage in media which antagonize those displayed publicly by $hort Dog and his contemporaries. (Unless I’m just in the mood to be ig’nint, but that’s another freaky tale.)

It is for these reasons that 13 of my closest girlfriends were in utter shock when I told them after our two-hour group meditation session led by author, activist, and Pulitzer Prize winner Ms. Alice Walker, that my little sister, Ness and I were headed to the concert of Hip Hop Honoree, Too $hort. After a few mouths dropped in disbelief and several brows scrunched in confusion, I got the question: “How do you go from Alice Walker to Too $hort in the same night?!” We all burst out into laughter at the seemingly absurd transition.

As Ness and I left the girls and headed to the concert, we recalled the times that Todd was a close part of our family. Somewhere between the “I was hella embarrassed when he surprised me at school with McDonald’s for my 11th birthday” and “What happened to my bean bag chair? I loved that chair!” I realized that despite our fond memories of Todd, my generous, silly and respectable “brother”, we were going to see Too $hort, the misogynistic, foul-mouthed rapper who was born to mack. Which persona will we get, I wondered, when we surprise-greet him after the show? Our easy-going brother, Todd or an egomaniacal pimp named $hort? Remember, it had been decades since we’d seen him.

The venue was packed, the opening act killed it, and the MC finally introduced the man of the hour. Blame it on the intense meditation just a few hours earlier, but I suddenly became keenly aware of how instantly a performer – in this case Too $hort – can affect people by mere mention of their name. As people pulled out camera phones, hurried from the bar to center floor, and rose from their seats to welcome the headliner to the stage, Ness and I looked at each other with an energy that matched that of the crowd. As cheesy as it sounds, we were already hella happy to see him.

Then I watched him do his thing. From my performer’s lens, I watched closely – and proudly – as I recognized a true Master of Ceremonies at work. As one would guess, his show wasn’t meticulously choreographed in the way a pop artist’s might be; but it was equally entertaining and engaging. I mean, literally. He was engaged, present and aware, playing “pied piper” to keep the audience hypnotized by the music – heads nodding, bodies loose, spirits letting go. At one point, he opened the stage to his band members to perform their own music, and then shared the stage with MCs from the audience who wanted a chance to shine. Throughout the set, he spoke to his band members with camaraderie and respect as he challenged them to switch up the show order mid-performance in his full commitment to rock the crowd.

After blowin’ the whistle, two patron lemon drops, and yellin’ out his favorite word, Ness and I managed to catch him after the show. After the hugs, a couple of jokes, and the “dang, this is really Lil’ Sis standing in front of me”, he says, “let me get my shit, let’s go to the studio.” So BOOM, after security clears the path he escorts us out of the club. He tells us to get in his car, he doesn’t care how close we parked, he’s gonna drive us to our car. Hella folks drive by to thank him, congratulate him on a tight show, and ask about the after party. It takes a few minutes for us to actually drive off because he makes time for everyone. There was no ego here and just that simply, I realize we’re kickin’ it with our easy-going brother, Todd.

In the studio and after another cocktail – the kind with Tequila, not vajayjays – I found Ness comfortably chatting with a few of Todd’s friends, while he and I discussed everything from feminism, misogyny, the musical legacy of Africa in America, and the mysteries of an ever-present God. We’ve never, EVER built like we did that night (probably because a majority of the time we spent together was when I was between 9-11yrs old); and it’s not that I thought we’d get into his studio and immediately enter some circus-like underworld of dark and smoky rooms, platinum-laced stripper poles and orgies, but it never crossed my mind that we’d enter a conversation that echoed a number of discussions from my graduate courses in Ethnic Studies. It even tied in quite nicely to the post-meditation discussion with Ms. Alice Walker in regards to the need for self-criticism, finding our voice, and following our truth.

Thoroughly impressed and growing ever more fond of my big brother, I couldn’t help but ask, “Why can’t Too $hort be more like Todd Shaw?” It was more of a rhetorical question, but he had a quick answer: “I’m still the one who loved your sister,” he said, “and we will always be family. And I have respect for women – trust me I do – but I’m a capitalist and I got paid to be dirtier.” This, coming from a man who was a product of “the ghetto” and yet had the sense and foresight to sell music instead of drugs, who went from selling self-produced rap tapes out of the trunk of his car at Raiders games to selling more than 12 million albums worldwide, a man who had talent and hustle (a.k.a. entrepreneurial skills) at 11 years old, I couldn’t help but understand and moreover, respect his chosen path. And his transparency.

He continued, “I couldn’t be what everyone sees on the outside [a simple-cadenced, foul-mouthed rapper most widely known for pornographic lyrics] if I wasn’t who you see right now [a sharp-witted, gentle-speaking, business-minded brotha comin’ straight from Oakland].”

For the next several hours, we shared and laughed and remembered. I learned that two of his favorite books are Claude Brown’s “Manchild in the Promised Land” and Sister Souljah’s “Coldest Winter Ever” (with the author’s notes). And, that in the midst of his relentless work and touring schedule, he often spends time working with and motivating youth in various Oakland organizations. As the sun came up, he pointed out something extra special. “Look sis,” he said, “we’re twins!” Having been so enthralled by the ease of our conversation, I never once took notice of our color coordination. He sported a purple t-shirt, black jeans and purple kicks while I wore a black top, purple skinny jeans and black boots. This tickled me as well as it intrigued me because he saw our opposites as identical. And suddenly, I remembered the teachings of humanist theorists and philosophers who argue that differences are mere extensions of sameness. In that moment, all I could manage to do was smile and nod my head, and for the umpteenth time that night, marvel at the many divine contradictions of life.

It turns out that the night I “went from Alice Walker to Too $hort”, I hadn’t traveled far at all. Instead, I was placed at the intersection of the spiritual and the profane, within the complexities of the human spirit, and amidst the equally powerful testimony of a highly revered Black feminist-scholar-author and a successful misogynist rapper from East Oakland. I continue to learn that fewer and fewer things are mutually exclusive.

Both my post-meditation discussion with the girls and Todd’s reasoning behind his career decision “to be dirtier” in his music reminds me of a popular theory among Ethnic Studies scholars: Identity is fluid and mutable and tends to shift according to time, space and context. That night also serves as a reminder of the error in thinking that the images we see on television and film – whether strategically fashioned by media or by the characters themselves – are in any way, conclusive of who people are in their everyday lives. Todd Shaw, the person, is quickly distinguishable from Too $hort, the persona.

Because he, like many others who are so inclined, continues to grow and reflect and make forward-moving life choices, I wouldn’t be surprised if Too $hort a.k.a. $horty the Pimp a.k.a. a Playa for Life, blows a more mellow sounding whistle in the years to come; but hey, if he doesn’t, it’s all good. He continues to make the cut for one of the most genuine, smartest, generous, self-motivated, loving, and yes, silliest spirits I’ve had the pleasure of connecting with.

In total admiration of each of them, I can confidently say that my transition from Ms. Alice Walker to Too $hort in the same night wasn’t absurd at all. In fact, the order of events was nothing $hort of divine.


You’re Ready, You’re Set, What Are You Waiting For?

Ever heard a divorced woman say she regrets leaving her unhealthy marriage, 3 years after leaving? Ever heard “the new guy” at work say he regrets leaving his old job, which he hated during the entire 6 year shift? How often have you heard a 40-something year old graduate express even an ounce of remorse for the 4year period of isolation from friends, family and financial luxuries, after having earned the degree?

If your memory-based research is anything like mine, your answer is… never. I’ve literally never heard a person regret having made the (hard) decision after it was made and the associated actions, taken.

It’s interesting though, because we often operate from a place that tells us this particular decision is so hard and life-changing that the sky may fall, the earth might shatter and every coffee house within an 80mile radius could burn down, never to brew medium roast hazelnut again! We make ourselves comfy in knowing what to expect, even though we expect it to suck (out all of our life energy).

Comfort is a cold piece of work.

I mean really, we complain, dream, (over)process, seek feedback, solace and “healthy” tequila recipes for a month of Happy Hours, instead of courageously activating our “go” button, climbing the mountain, or taking a running-leap on the Faith that we so pride ourselves on having.

Mm hm.

And yes, OK fine, it is possible that I might win the decision-making-procrastinator “Planny” award, preferring to first inspect every single atom of each mineral in all the rocks of the same mountain, umpteen times before even considering what shoes I might wear in case I do decide to climb. And guess what happens during all that damn inspecting? I confuse myself! Wait, why do I want to climb this mountain again? Why am I standing here? Maybe I should collect rocks!

An imam who once counseled me during an “I’m still not sure” episode, said, Confusion is knowing what you must do, and not doing it.

The NERVE, right?!

The truth is, the amount of LIFE that deferred decision-making sucks from our core is tremendous. Exhorbitant. Kinda stupid, really. I mean we read, post and quote all of these affirmations of joy, love and success, but want the road to be straight, the climb effortless, and the weather, a breezy 74.

And of course, I’m not suggesting you leave your current situation before you’ve given your absolute best and learned a few things. And I’m not advising you to not practice gratitude for every person, thing and experience – even the miserable ones – that have ushered you into this very moment. You get that, right? I’m not saying we should make life-altering decisions without reasonable consideration, deep prayer, excessive cussing, and yielding to some non-life-threatening vice real quick.

What I’m offering is, when that inner voice whispers “now”, “it’s time”, or “chile’ please, are you still on this?”, you gotta do it. You gotta climb. You gotta know that it is your birthright to get to the mountaintop where healthy love, a passion-filled life, and all the other stuff on your Pinterest board lives.

But hey, don’t trust me or the imam. Take the practical. Do what you know you must, on the clearest terms and with the clearest intentions. See if any confusion dissipates, if you find comfort (or something better) on the mountaintop. Go. The coffee house is still brewing. You will not self-destruct. You are geared with safeguarded equipment, which is wisdom reminding you that hard, life-changing, scary decisions are the ones people do not regret making.*

*Disclaimer: This is not a safeguarded approach to mountain climbing. Step up at your own risk.


Get Dark. Get Clear. Move Forward.

Have you ever suffocated? OK, not like your lungs were deprived of oxygen and the paramedics zoomed over in their ambulamps – as I like to call it – to revive you. Yeah no, my question isn’t quite that tragic.

I’m asking if you’ve ever felt like an area of your life (career, finances, relationship) was so stuck that you felt as though you were suffocating and needed someone to poke a hole into the plastic over your mouth so that you could catch your breath and get to living again?

I have. And still do. In several different scenarios, in fact. And every time I feel suffocated or stuck or blocked, I invariably apply my go-to coping mechanism: I become the most dreadful auto-biographer in the history of storytelling. I use my highest creative intelligence to convince myself that I am not ___(blank)____ enough to manifest any outcome worthy of an exhale, much less to become upwardly mobile. Oh, and fill in the above blank with whatever you want – smart, pretty, literate, clairvoyant – you pick the adjective and I promise I can make it fit into the most self-loathing internal dialogue you’ve ever imagined could be imagined… because I’ve written the chapter about how every divine mystic superpower that was ever believed in, has sentenced me to a lifetime of insurmountable debt, anti-climactic career choices, and rough feet.

And just when I want to add a starved Cheshire cat with neon-lime teeth and eyes into the dark cave that I’ve built for myself to live and die painfully in, I am nudged out of the story and back into real life… where I go ahead and earn that third college degree. Or, I ask for a raise and get it. Or I realize that, even though he didn’t know what to say when I was bawling my eyes out on the bathroom floor, he sat next to me, rubbed my back, and wiped snot off my upper lip.

I finally get tired of suffocating and stop expecting my friend, boss, partner to rescue me. I remember that I can puncture the plastic from the inside, and I do. Then I take a deep breath and push my way through the saran wrap… out of the cave… beyond the barrier.

When the barrier is self-doubt, I assert myself. When the barrier is confusion, I get clear about my intentions. When the barrier is financial… I swipe my credit card and re-adjust my pay-off calendar to reflect the additional time it’ll take me to climb up and over that mountain. But that’s another horror story.

My point is, there’s a good chance we’ll feel as though we can’t breathe, can’t grow, can’t move forward in one area or another, every once in awhile. And that’s OK! While some folks are lucky – they experience this problem during lunchtime and by dinner, they’ve got the problem solved and hit the daily 3 – people like me will require a few days, weeks, or sometimes months to process the doubt, struggle, confusion (read: fear). Eventually though, we remember that we are ___(blank)____ enough to get past the hardship.

So go ahead and create the worse possible story about yourself, your life, and your circumstances… and when you’re finally tired of sitting in the pit of your misery, decide to get over it. Assert yourself. Get really clear about your intentions.

I mean after all, you are the storyteller. Swap the cave for an ambulamps, change the Cheshire to a paramedic, and in the most creatively intelligent way, revive yourself.*

*Beware: This blog is not meant to provide medical advice for suffocation. Exhale at your own risk.