I could be cute and say that accidental theology went hip-hop last night, but what happened goes a lot deeper than that.
It was a fundraiser for 826 Seattle, with several musicians and writers paired up together. The most provocative pairing, at least on the surface of things: me and the Sportn’ Life crew — D. Black, Fatal Lucciauno, and Spac3man. (Go here for video and audio, especially of D. Black’s extraordinary album Ali’Yah — Hebrew for ‘ascent’ — and Spac3man’s new mix tape.)
D. (Damion) Black is Seattle’s most admired hip-hop star, co-owner of its one black-owned recording company, and for anyone who likes religion neatly defined, a nightmare: a Muslim as a boy, a Christian convert in his teens, and now, in his 20s, fascinated with the Jewish roots of Christianity and a practicing orthodox Jew. And a straight-up mensch. “You’re an agnostic Jew?” he said just before we took the stage. “That makes you all the more Jewish.” Which happens to be the most Jewish of all possible answers.
The idea was for us to talk about our respective “crafts,” but instead we ranged wide and deep. On Obama, for instance: If many people were in tears and overjoyed the night Obama was elected, Damion said, he wasn’t. The rent was still overdue, the car still broken, the debts still mounting, and none of that was going to change simply because a black man had become president. In Seattle’s Central District as in New York’s Harlem, nobody needed to be reminded that Obama did not walk on water.
This kind of talk wasn’t what the audience was there for, though. They wanted rap. “Only if Lesley does it with us,” said Damion.
“No way,” said tone-deaf and rhythm-impaired me.
“Say one of your poems,” said Fatal.
“I have no poems.”
“You want one of mine?” said Spac3man, taking out his phone. He thumbed through a few screens, then handed it over to me. “Here,” he said, “‘Protect and Serve.'”And this is what I read, straight off the screen, leaning in low and close to the mike:
On the beat like Bean, hop out my hood like J-kwon/
I don’t like one Jake accept Jake One/
Damn! here dey go over da loud speaker/
Follow procegger, while you kneelin on ya knees bruh/
intertwine ya fingas and don’t be quick to speak up/
Cause they’ll beat ya like rocky in a meat freeza/
Please, bruh treat snitches the same/
G ur not I don’t like 5-0 like Game/
Animal, They sense fear so calm down/
Fuck calling them pigs they corrupt like dog pound/
doughberman pinchers, squeezing us in our compound/
Try reach for ID, you might be gunned down/
Rights only go so far dont be dumb, ock/
Court dey hide behind the shield like 300 when the sun blocked/
My advice if you pulled in da slums wit’em/
Be Osama slash Obama, run nigga!/”
(Copyright: SPAC3MAN of Sportn’ Life Records. Posted here by permission of the author.)
Weird spelling? As those doughberman pinchers should tell you, it’s deliberate. In fact even as I read it, nothing about this poem seemed weird. If I didn’t get some of the references in the first half, stumbling here and there, no matter; the subject was all too familiar — a scene told again and again on the news pages, but now from the inside. And if the mainly white audience was shocked by the last line – that word, in a white woman’s mouth! the conflation of those two names! — I was not. By then I was Spac3man, a gracefully gangly walking magnet for the suspicion of those who protect and serve some, but not all.
What it felt like for Spac3man (far left, below) to have his work recited from the outside, as it were — and with a British accent, no less — I don’t know. But I do know that to allow a newly-met stranger to publicly read a poem not yet recorded or published was an act of extraordinary generosity. I could have mangled it, and he trusted me not to.
That, I think, is called amazing grace.