I am a trans woman.
I am also a survivor of early childhood sexual abuse.
Both these traits have made it so that my life has been lived in a parallel universe to other people – one where I can’t connect to the experiences of other people, and struggle to understand how other people function, feel, and relate.
One aspect of my survival experience has been finding the importance of faith – that faith is a deadly necessary thing to live my life.
For me, faith is a very literal experience. When I’m triggered, I lose track of what I did two seconds ago. And despite being a math genius, I am unable to do basic reasoning at the level of simple addition.
And I don’t know whether someone being nice to me is caring about me, seeking to entrap me in a fate worse than death – or both.
Being able to write these words is the product of over 11 years of psychological, emotional, physical, and spiritual torture that leaves me very grounded about the nature of hell.
Since before I knew it was I was seeking, my life has been devoted to finding fellow-travelers in life-altering and unjust suffering.
This has led me to a passion and love for African-American culture, especially music.
African-American culture speaks to a depth and vastness of suffering – a genocidal oppression, inherited for centuries, with experience and wisdom passed on in word and deed with love, faith, and hope for a better future – that I can imagine much more accurately than most White folks.
On one side, my traumatic experience was bounded to my individual experience; on the other, my experience as a gender-variant person situates me in a realm of experiences of searching for self and meaning throughout human history, and facing social judgment and ostracism with parallels across many – but absolutely not all – cultures and societies.
In any case, my journey has led me to seek the qualities of game-changing creative power, faith amidst strife, and authenticity.
And in the USA’s popular culture, I find those things most deeply in rap music.
My introduction to rap culture was through Girl Talk’s Feed The Animals – an album mixing rap verses with instrumental samples from across popular music. Though my exposure was mediated by a white artist’s musical aesthetic, hearing the words and raw emotion of then-modern rappers as well as the classics was a transformative experience.
Some of the verses were disturbing and highly triggering; some were too pained, emotional, or white-guilt-inducing for me to process. Most were moving and affecting on a level I had not ever previously experienced, alongside instrumentals and beats that I loved whether or not I knew where they were from.
It’s not an understatement to say that Feed The Animals changed my life for the better at a fundamental level.
It also led me to the second verse of Wu-Tang Clan’s “Cash Rules Everything Around Me”:
It’s been twenty-two long hard years, I’m still strugglin’
Survival got me buggin’, but I’m alive on arrival
I peep at the shape of the streets
And stay awake to the ways of the world ’cause shit is deep
A man with a dream with plans to make cream
Which failed; I went to jail at the age of fifteen
A young buck sellin’ drugs and such, who never had much
Tryin’ to get a clutch at what I could not…
The court played me short, now I face incarceration
Pacin’, goin’ upstate’s my destination
Handcuffed in the back of a bus, forty of us
Life as a shorty shouldn’t be so rough
But as the world turned I learned life is hell
Livin’ in the world no different from a cell
Every day I escape from Jakes givin’ chase
Sellin’ base, smokin’ bones in the staircase
Though I don’t know why I chose to smoke sess
I guess that’s the time when I’m not depressed
But I’m still depressed, and I ask: what’s it worth?
Ready to give up so I seek the old Earth
Who explained workin’ hard may help you maintain
To learn to overcome the heartaches and pain
We got stick-up kids, corrupt cops, and crack rocks
And stray shots, all on the block that stays hot
Leave it up to me while I be livin’ proof
To kick the truth to the young black youth
But shorty’s runnin’ wild, smokin’ sess, drinkin’ beer
And ain’t tryin’ to hear what I’m kickin’ in his ear
Neglected for now, but yo, it gots to be accepted
That what? That life is hectic
After hearing this, I didn’t understand how someone else could hear these words and not be moved to profound empathy, compassion, and commitment to ending anti-Black racism and the carceral state by this articulation of (not quite) unimaginable torment and suffering.
I still don’t.