Arrested Development – Mr. Wendal

3 Years, 5 Months & 2 Days in the Life Of...
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Digable Planets / Spearhead / De La Soul

I don’t generally like rap music, as you may have noticed from my not having talked much about rap music in the months since this blog has come about. If you asked me why, it would be the same laundry list most people give, but if I’m honest, it boils down to not relating. I am not reactionary about it. I can appreciate the skill it takes to rap, even as I question the artistic merit of sampling. I am no more appalled by the lowest common denominator rap’s content than I am with the lowest common denominator rock’s content… we find the sorts of things the so-called moral majority hate about rap in plenty of other genres they love (you want to really worry about gun violence, listen to any country album by a woman. Someone’s bound to be shot dead for breaking her heart). I prefer more melody to less in all genres, but have appreciated how some rappers can create a percussive soundscape instead of the conventional melodic/harmonic one. Still, my life has run, as the product of a white middle-class household, pretty far from the topics rap tends to touch on. Listening to rap, even when I appreciate it, makes me feel a little bit like I’m trying to appropriate something that isn’t mine. I suppose it’s a comfort, at least, that that awareness exists, and that my musical barriers are not so strong as to block everything out. Lately I’ve felt a bit of an anomaly on those counts.

There are a few songs on which my entire appreciation for rap, while still small, is built. “Mr. Wendal” might be the most important one. I don’t think I ever realized this was rap… I was either too young to grasp genres, or too unfamiliar with anything but the more gritty later forms of rap, to have it register as different or the same. Whatever the case, it hooked me. It differs from a lot of other rap in some ways. That main sample, the extended “hey yeah,” is used to create a specific hook, instead of many popular rap tracks that lift a super identifiable hook wholesale. The delivery is laid back and smooth, instead of the more angry and urgent styles which tend to dominate rap radio. The FCC would love us to believe all rap is vulgar… this is nothing of the sort. Then again, it is the same. It still has a rhythmic and spoken delivery, as does most rap. It is still focused on hardships that some people will never understand or care about, as is the best rap. It is intellectual, and even at its dirtiest, good rap is nothing if not quick, smart, poetic in a new way. Who knows exactly what it was, but years later I still remembered bits of the song. So while I may have been extremely unaware of some things as a child (and probably still am now), it’s comforting that this song stuck with me. For a child to be socially conscious at the age I would have been when this song came out suggests a difficult life that no person should have to live through, so that I could see through my kid-blinders enough to get something out of this track says a lot about its power (after all, we all know people who are still kid-selfish even at our own ages).

The concept is simple: it’s a song about a bum. That alone sets it apart. It’s not testifying about one’s own struggles, but putting someone else’s suffering up front. Showcasing the reality that we all desperately try to ignore to this day. It challenges the notion that the poor are worthless… the title character has wisdom of a different sort than the so-called “haves,” and while he is certainly kept low for any number of reasons, his actions also underscore how we are also low in comparison, even if we are “above” him. It underscores that all people are human. What does it say about us if we are never willing to step back from our higher vista and accept that?

“$2 means a snack for me, but it means a big deal to you.” Consider what it really means. Consider the real possibilities for a homeless man. Can he get a job without a place to shower, better clothes, and a phone to receive the call-back? How long would he keep it in today’s wired world without a computer or a smartphone? Could he ever afford to get to a better educational position in a world where we’re cutting back on student aid and education in general? How does he get around when public transit is costing more and more, yet we’re funding less and less of it? Again, these are the sorts of questions the best rap asks, though in frequently stronger terms. It’s no surprise there are such pains taken to censor the entire movement.

Recently I’ve been seeing some very tired arguments cropping up with fairly uncomfortable regularity. Most relevant here is the lie that the lower-class worker is lazy. The idea is that no one in fast food, no one in retail, no one in the minimum wage crap jobs, actually has worth as a worker. They deserve a low minimum wage instead of a living wage because if they were really a good worker, they’d be moving up by now. Now, logic states, if we’ve ever held a job, we’d know that the number of positions available decreases exponentially at each higher level. If there are 50 employees, there are maybe 5 managers and one manager who manages them. All 50 of those employees below the managers can’t be managers. Ergo, as any logical human would see, if all 50 were the most reliable workers on the planet, they still couldn’t all rise up through the ranks without leaving the job to go somewhere else. It’s a belief normally espoused by people who have never worked a difficult day in their lives, never wondered where their next meal was coming from ever, but I’ve also often seen it from people who did work hard jobs (disgustingly, and a little confusingly, since they suggest they were lazy by admitting they worked the jobs only lazy people take). It’s incredible privilege to believe that what we’ve done is possible for everyone to do. Maybe -anyone- could hypothetically be in our shoes, but not -everyone-, no matter how hard they work. That’s not how our society is laid out.

For this sort of person, of course, there builds an anger when we talk about social welfare, or increasing the minimum wage. There is this ridiculous idea that, because it was hard for me to make my fortune, we need to keep it hard for everyone. Again, there’s a lack of understanding of the basic humanity of all people… a lack of realization that the people less fortunate have to work twice as hard for what the rich do. There’s a blame on the poor for being greedy for wanting to afford basic human amenities, instead of blaming the people who set the prices of goods for their own greed. This is where the second tired argument comes in: rap does not require talent. This particular line of thought surprised me when it came up, but it’s related firstly because both arguments came up through incredibly pastywhite privilege, but also because rap and poverty go hand in hand: both are most prevalent among other races, and with white people getting more deeply involved in both, it becomes one more reason for demonization of the other. Sure, some rap is incredibly mediocre, but then, I’ve seen enough college-party guitarists in my lifetime to tell you that so is some rock or folk or whatever Dispatch is supposed to be. There are numerous instrument-playing musicians who do less with their instrument than some rappers do with the samples they lift. It’s not about rap… it’s about individuals who are good or bad at their craft, regardless of whether I like them or not. Both wrongheaded perspectives come from the same place, and take the same tactic: blaming an entire group instead of admitting that there is good and bad in all groups.

It’s been over two decades since Mr. Wendal came out. We’re still, as a society, blaming the poor for their poverty, and we’re still using tired arguments to invalidate rap music. What would it take for a nuanced discussion of either issue? Probably another twenty years. Listening to this track might help open that door, to start imagining that the less fortunate are still people, or realizing there have always been nuances to rap music that the larger dialog doesn’t want to admit to. You don’t need to live something to try and understand it. Let’s make that sort of human understanding a perennial resolution. Institutionalized ignorance: that’s the weight we should be trying to shed in the new year.

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Alex Lupica (@Alex_Soundtrack) has been in love with music since he was a toddler, despite its infidelities. (Really, music? Nu-metal? How could you!). Alex is Editor-in-Chief at The Daily Soundtrack.

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