11.24.2009

Microphone Fiend



How does an Asian kid from suburban San Jose end up living and raising his own kids in inner city Philadelphia? The urban setting of one of the world's premier business schools is one obvious answer, since it was Wharton that drew me to Philadelphia in the first place. And of course one can credit God's shaping and molding me to have concern about city issues and city folks as I evolved in my understanding of the Bible and my adherence to it.

But, as Robert Clinton's "The Making of a Leader" points out, Christian leaders have in their childhoods hints of what is to come, in the form of what Clinton calls "sovereign foundations." That is to say, God weaves fascinating narratives as He thrusts us through our life trajectories; and He plants some hints along the way that we might not have picked up at the time but in retrospect make sense as part of the preparation for what is to come.

In my case, though I had mostly Asian friends and lived in a relatively white part of town, I tended to gravitate towards blackish themes: listening to KMEL (think Digital Underground and LL Cool J) instead of modern rock (think Cure and New Order), learning about African-American history, and quoting Malcolm and Martin in speech and debate assignments. Maybe I was having an identity crisis, not proud enough of my own heritage and shallowly trading off of another in the name of seeking to be different or cool. Maybe I was woefully naive or even insulting in my forays. Maybe I was just a dumb teenager, forgivably curious and experimental.

Whether I ought to be scolded or sainted, I dabbled in many urban influences. And however ludicrous (not Ludacris) I must have looked, God was doing some sovereign foundation-building in preparing me for a more mature exploration of urban themes as a Christian transplanted into a city setting.

It was during my teen years that one of my adored MCs, Chuck D of Public Enemy, noted that rap music was "the black CNN," and despite the frequent use of profanity and, um, let's just say not so godly topics and terms, one can argue that God used the likes of NWA and Too Short to provide me with early exposure to urban black culture. I will never know what it means to be black in America, let alone poor and black and marginalized in America's most desperate inner city settings; but, through hip hop, I at least got to hear a little bit of what it was like.

(At one point, I even used a $20 tape recorder and whatever rap song instrumentals I could scrounge up to lay down a whole track of rap songs under the moniker of "MC True." I'm embarrassed to release any lyrics from those tracks that involved me bragging or swearing, so I'll share one from my one song about my newfound Christian faith: "Each of y'all gotta know about the G-O-D, so listen to me, here's a story 'bout the J-C; Jesus Christ, the Messiah, a vision of love like Mariah." In case you had forgotten, Mariah Carey's single, "Vision of Love," went #1 during my junior year in high school. Good God, I'm old. At the time, I thought it was so clever that I had made a Mariah Carey reference and rhymed her first name with "Messiah." OK, now I'm just babbling.)

If there was ever an MC whose skills I respected, who channeled me into the ethos of the young urban black man, it was Rakim. Which is why I enjoyed Ta-Nehisi Coates' recent commentary about the 18th Letter and in particular the way his sensational "Microphone Fiend" typified the swagger needed to survive on the street: "Feed Me Hip-Hop and I Start Trembling." Again, I do not claim to know the first thing about the experience of so many young black boys living in urban America. But in order for me, a geeky Asian kid from suburban San Jose, to eventually journey in Philadelphia as an urban Christian, it was paramount that I heard early exposure to that narrative. Thanks to Rakim and others for expressing it so eloquently and poignantly, and to God for using even my non-conforming interests during my teen years to prepare me for my adult life.

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