Lil Wayne and the soul of a city

This is an amazing piece written by a Teach for America teacher working in New Orleans. One of the most captivating pieces of writing I’ve come across in a long time. Enjoy.

I WILL REMAIN EVER FAITHFUL by David Ramsey, How Lil Wayne Helped Me Survive My First Year of Teaching in New Orleans

Originally written for OXFORD AMERICAN: THE SOUTHERN MAGAZINE FOR GOOD WRITING.

1.

Complex magazine: What do you listen to these days?

Lil Wayne: Me! All day, all me.

2. Like a white person, with blue veins

In my first few weeks teaching in New Orleans’ Recovery School District, these were the questions I heard the most from my students:

1) “I gotta use it.” (This one might sound like a statement, but it’s a request—May I use the bathroom?)

2) “You got an ol’ lady?” (the penultimate vowel stretched, lasciviously, as far as it’ll go).

3) “Where you from?”

4) “You listen to that Weezy?”

I knew that third question was coming. Like many RSD teachers, I was new, and white, and from out of town.  It was the fourth question, however, that seemed to interest my students the most. Dwayne Carter, aka Lil Wayne, aka Weezy F. Baby, was in the midst of becoming the year’s biggest rapper, and among the black teenagers that made up my student population, fandom had reached a near-Beatlemania pitch. More than ninety percent of my students cited Lil Wayne on the “Favorite Music” question on the survey I gave them; about half of them repeated the answer on “Favorite Things to Do.”

For some of my students, the questions Where are you from? and Do you listen to Lil Wayne? were close to interchangeable. Their shared currency—as much as neighborhoods or food or slang or trauma—was the stoned musings of Weezy F. Baby.

The answer was, sometimes, yes, I did listen to Lil Wayne. Despite his ubiquitous success, my students were shocked.

“Do you have the mix tapes?” asked Michael, a sixteen-year-old ninth grader. “It’s all about the mix tapes.”

The following day, he had a stack of CDs for me. Version this, volume that, or no label at all.

And that’s just about all I listened to for the rest of the year.


3. My picture should be in the dictionary
next to the definition of definition

Lil Wayne slurs, hollers, sings, sighs, bellows, whines, croons, wheezes, coughs, stutters, shouts. He reminds me, in different moments, of two dozen other rappers. In a genre that often demands keeping it real via being repetitive, Lil Wayne is a chameleon, rapping in different octaves, paces, and inflections. Sometimes he sounds like a bluesman, sometimes he sounds like a Muppet baby.

Lil Wayne does his share of gangsta posturing, but half the time he starts chuckling before he gets through a line. He’s a ham. He is heavy on pretense, and thank God. Like Dylan, theatricality trumps authenticity.

And yet—even as he tries on a new style for every other song, it is always unmistakably him. I think of Elvis’s famous boast, “I don’t sound like nobody.” I imagine Wayne would flip it: “Don’t nobody sound like me.”

4.

Every few weeks, Michael or another student—for this piece, the names of my students have been changed—would have a new burned CD that was supposedly Tha Carter III, Lil Wayne’s long-anticipated sixth studio album. “This one’s official,” they would say. I learned to be skeptical even as I enjoyed the new tracks. Nothing “official” would come around until school was out for summer, but Lil Wayne created hundreds of new songs in 2007 and the first half of 2008. Vibe magazine took the time to rank his best seventy-seven songs of 2007, and that was not a comprehensive list. These songs would end up on the Internet, which downloaders could snag for free. He also appeared for guest verses on dozens of other rappers’ tracks. He thusly managed to rate as the “Hottest MC in the Game” (according to MTV) and the “Best MC” (according to Rolling Stone), despite offering nothing new at the record store.

While Wayne claimed to do every song “at the same ability or hype,” the quality varied widely. He wrote nothing down (he was simply too stoned, he explained), rapping off the top of his head every time the spirit moved him, which was pretty much all the time. The results were sometimes tremendous and sometimes awkward, but that was half the fun. His oeuvre ended up being a sort of unedited reality show of his wily subconscious.

5. Ain’t ’bout to pick today to start running

During the first few days of school, Darius, one of my homeroom students, kept getting in trouble for leaving classes without permission. At the end of the second day, he pulled me aside to tell me why he kept having to use the bathroom: he had been shot in the leg three times and had a colostomy bag.

When I visited him in the hospital a few weeks later—he was there for follow-up surgery—he told me about the dealers who shot him. Darius’s speaking voice is a dead ringer for Lil Wayne’s old-man rasp. “I told them, Do what you need to do, you heard me? I ain’t scared, you heard me?”

Then he leaned over and pointed, laughing, to Sponge Bob on the television.

6.

Lil Wayne, rumor has it, briefly went to the pre-Katrina version of our school. Same name and location, but back then it was a neighborhood high school. The building was wrecked in the storm. Our school, a charter school, is housed in modulars (my students hate this euphemism—they’re trailers) in the lot in back. Sometimes I went and peeked in the windows of the old building, and it looked to me like no one had cleaned or gutted it since the storm. It was like a museum set piece. There was still a poster up announcing an open house, coming September 2005.

7.

I taught fifth-grade social studies, eighth-grade writing, ninth-grade social studies. Sometimes I felt inspired, sometimes deflated.

One time, a black student vehemently defended his one Arab classmate during a discussion about the Jena 6: “If you call him a terrorist, that’s like what a cop thinks about us.” Another day, when I was introducing new material about Africa, a student interrupted me—“I heard them niggas have AIDS!”

8. Pain, since I’ve lost you—I’m lost too

Our students are afraid of rain. A heavy morning shower can cut attendance in half. I once had a student write an essay about her experience in the Superdome. She wrote, without explanation, that she lost her memory when she lost her grandmother in the storm. I was supposed to correct the grammar, so that she would be prepared for state testing in the spring.

9. Keep your mouth closed and let your eyes listen

Lil Wayne is five-foot-six and wiry, sleepy-eyed, covered in tattoos, including teardrops under his eyes. His two camera poses are a cool tilt of the head and a sneer. He means to look sinister, I think, but there is something actually huggable about him. He looks like he could be one of my students—and some of my students like to think they look like him.

The other day, I saw Cornel West on television say that Lil Wayne’s physical body bears witness to tragedy. I don’t even know what that means, but I do think that Wayne’s artistic persona is a testament todamage.

10.

One of my favorite Lil Wayne hooks is the chorus on a Playaz Circle song called “Duffle Bag Boy.” In the past year, he started singing more, and this was his best turn. He sounds a little like the neighborhood drunk at first as he warbles his way up and down the tune, but his singing voice has an organically exultant quality that seems to carry him to emotional delirium. After a while, he’s belting out instructions to a drug courier with the breathy urgency of a Baptist hymn. By the end of the song, the standard-order macho boast, “I ain’t never ran from a nigga and I damn sure ain’t ’bout to pick today to start running,” has been turned by Lil Wayne into a plea, a soul lament.

11.

On New Orleans radio, it seems like nearly every song features Lil Wayne. My kids sang his songs in class, in the hallways, before school, after school. I had a student who would rap a Lil Wayne line if he didn’t know the answer to a question.

An eighth grader wrote his Persuasive Essay on the topic “Lil Wayne is the best rapper alive.” Main ideas for three body paragraphs: Wayne has the most tracks and most hits, best metaphors and similes, competition is fake.

12. My flow is art, unique—my flow can part a sea

Once I witnessed a group of students huddled around a speaker listening to Lil Wayne. They had heard these songs before, but were nonetheless gushing and guffawing over nearly every line. One of them, bored and quiet in my classroom, was enthusiastically, if vaguely, parsing each lyric for his classmates: “You hear that? Cleaner than a virgin in detergent. Think on that.”

Pulling out the go-to insult of high schoolers everywhere, a girl nearby questioned their sexuality. “Y’all be in to Lil Wayne so much you sound like girls,” she said.

They just kept listening. Then one of the boys was simply overtaken by a lyrical turn. He stood up, threw up his hands, and began hollering. “I don’t care!” he shouted. “No homo, no homo, but that boy is cute!”

13.

Lil Wayne on making it: “When you’re really rich, then asparagus is yummy.”

Lil Wayne on safe sex: “Better wear a latex, cause you don’t want that late text, that ‘I think I’m late’ text.”

Lil Wayne on possibly less safe sex: “How come there is two women, but ain’t no two Waynes?”

14.

Okay, but it’s not any one line, it’s that voice. Just the way he says “car in park” in his cameo on Mario’s “Crying Out for Me” remix; it’s a soft growl from another planet. It sounds like a threat and a comfort and a come-on all at once.

15. I am just a Martian, ain’t nobody else on this planet

Right before you become a teacher, you are told by all manner of folks that it will be 1) the hardest thing you’ve ever done, and 2) the best thing you’ve ever done. That seems like a recipe for recruiting wannabe martyrs. In any case, high stakes can blind you to the best moments. One day, I was stressing over what I imagined was my one-man quest to keep Darius in school and out of jail, and missed that a heated dispute between two fifth graders was escalating. Finally, I asked them what was wrong.

“Mr. Ramsey,” one of the boys pleaded, “will you please tell him that if you go into space for a year and come back to Earth that all your family will be dead because time moves slower in space?”

16. And to the kids: drugs kill. I’m acknowledging that.
But when I’m on the drugs, I don’t have a problem with that.

On one of his best songs, the super-catchy “I Feel Like Dying,” Lil Wayne barely exists. He always sounds high, but on this song he sounds as though he has already passed out.

A lot of the alarmism about pop music sending the wrong message to impressionable youth seems mostly overwrought to me, but I’ll cop to feeling taken aback at ten-year-olds singing, “Only once the drugs are done, do I feel like dying, I feel like dying.”

First time I heard a fifth grader singing this in falsetto, I said: “What did you say?”

He said: “Mr. Ramsey, you know you be listening to that song. Why you tripping?”

My students always ask me why I’m tripping at precisely the moments when the answer seems incredibly obvious to me.

17.

After Michael cussed out our vice principal, I did a home visit. Michael was one of the biggest drug dealers in his neighborhood, and also one of my best students.

His mother was roused from bed. She looked half-gone, dazed. Then she started crying, and hugged me, pulled my head into her body. “No one’s ever cared like this,” she said. “Bless you. Thank you.”

Michael smiled shyly. “I just want to get in my right grade,” he told me.

“We’ll find a way to make that happen,” I told him.

A few weeks later, I gave him a copy of a New Yorker piece on Lil Wayne.

“Actually, that was good,” he said, later. “You teach me to write like that?”

18. Born in New Orleans, raised in New Orleans…

You live here as a newcomer and locals are fond of saying “this is New Orleans” or “welcome to New Orleans” by way of explanation. They use it to explain absurdity, inefficiency, arbitrary disaster, and transcendent fun. Enormous holes in the middle of major streets, say, or a drunken man dressed as an insect in line behind you at the convenience store.

Our challenge in the schools is to try to reform a broken system (the “recovery” in Recovery School District doesn’t refer to the storm—the district was created before Katrina, when the state took over the city’s failing schools) amidst a beautiful culture that is sometimes committed to cutting folks a little slack.

I have heard the following things speciously defended or excused by New Orleans culture: truancy, low test scores, drug and alcohol addiction, extended families showing up within the hour to settle minor school-boy scuffles, inept bureaucracy, lazy teachers, students showing up hungover the day after Mother’s Day….

19.

Once, a girl’s older sister looked askance at one of my best students after school, and about five minutes later there was a full-on brawl in the parking lot. I lost my grip on the student I was holding back and she jumped on top of another student’s mother and started pounding.

On the pavement in front of me was a weave and a little bit of blood. One of my ninth graders was watching the chaos gleefully while I tried to figure out how to make myself useful. He was as happy as I’ve ever seen him. He shrugged beatifically. “This is New Orleans!” he shouted, to me, to himself, to anyone who might be listening.

20.

Sometimes my students tell me they are sick of talking about the storm. Sometimes it’s all they want to talk about. Might be the same student. Some students have told me it ruined their lives, some students have told me it saved their lives. Again, sometimes the same student will say both.

21.

From an interview in early 2006:

AllHipHop.com: On the album, did you ever contemplate doing a whole track dedicated to the Hurricane Katrina tragedy?

Lil Wayne: No, because I’m from New Orleans, brother. Our main focus is to move ahead and move on. You guys are not from New Orleans and keep throwing it in our face, like, ‘Well, how do you feel about Hurricane Katrina?’ I f—king feel f—ked up. I have no f—king city or home to go to. My mother has no home, her people have no home, and their people have no home. Every f—king body has no home. So do I want to dedicate something to Hurricane Katrina? Yeah, tell that b—h to suck my d—k. That is my dedication.

22. I am the beast! Feed me rappers or feed me beats.

Lil Wayne mentions Katrina in his songs from time to time. He has a track that rails against Bush for his response to the storm. But, to his credit, he doesn’t wallow in his city’s famous tragedy.

The world needs to be told, and reminded, of what happened here. But New Orleans is bigger and more spirited than the storm. So its favorite son can be forgiven for refusing to let it define him. For my students, Lil Wayne is good times and good memories, and enduring hometown pride. All they ask of him is to keep making rhymes, as triumphant and strange as the city itself.

23. Ever since I was little, I lived life numb

Michael stopped coming to school. His mother told me, “He’s a man now. There’s nothing more I can do.”

Darius got kicked out for physically attacking a teacher.

I have lots of happy stories, so I don’t mean to dwell on these two, but I guess that’s just what teachers do in the summer months, replay the ones that got away.

24.

I read over this, and I got it all wrong. I fetishize disaster. I live in the best city in the world and all I can write about is hurricanes and dropouts.

25.

One time, after they finished a big test I gave them last period, my students started happily singing Lil Wayne’s “La La La” on their way outside.

“Come on, Ramsey, sing along, you know it.”

And so I did. “Born in New Orleans, raised in New Orleans, I will forever remain faithful New Orleans….”

That I wasn’t from New Orleans didn’t much matter, so long as I was game to clap and dance and sing. It was a clear and sunny day, Lil Wayne was the greatest rapper alive, and school was out. It was time to have fun.

One response to “Lil Wayne and the soul of a city

  1. Pingback: Roundup Reel: Week of Oct. 17 | Funding Attractions

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