“Pleurant, je voyais de l’or—et ne pus boire.”
—Arthur RimbaudFull disclosure up front: I am a gay black man, a proud New Orleanian, thirty years old, five out of the closet, a decade on the down-low before that; bi-dialectal as every educated brother in this city must be, a code-switcher as needed; a poet in my spare time, in my unspare time a poetry teacher devoted to dead French guys and live black ones. Like most black men of my generation, I belong to the hip-hop nation, and like any sensible gay man, I’m ashamed at times to say I’m a fan. The homophobia, the drug dealing and gun toting, the bling and the misogyny—it can feel like stylized, repetitive ugliness, at least mainstream gangsta shit. But I’m an addict, hooked on one rapper above the rest: Mr. Stillz. I’ve memorized hundreds of his verses, seen the documentaries, the interviews, the countless clips of him recording in his psychedelic freestyle mode. I subscribe to the hip-hop mags because he decorates their pages. So naturally my theories ran buck-wild when the photograph surfaced.~~ Complete story available online at Oxford American
Who hasn’t made a hero of someone known only from afar, someone who shares a grim aspect of life and has risen above it, someone who seems to embody a dream. Maybe a pop culture icon. Maybe a cool kid at school, a teacher, an activist, a historical figure. Someone who lights our path from a distance. And sometimes – if we can move beyond our own expectations and let the hero be who he is instead of who we think he should be – our path is lit by our idol’s failure to live up to our expectations: we know where not to step.
The observer-narrator of this story, introduced in that first paragaph, is crucial, yet fades into the background as he tells us the story of Mr. Stillz and his mentor, Tyrone. Another iconic relationship, mentor and protégé, and just as fragile – or not, if we can measure up – as hero worship. I think there’s a good dose of hero worship in mentoring, for that matter. And I think, in the best examples, it goes both ways.
The story is online and deserves to be read firsthand; I’ll assume it has by anyone who’s slashed through the above to get this far (I don’t know why I’ve suddenly taken to overly complicated syntax, except that’s just how this one is coming out. My version of hip hop, perhaps). Some readers will have a tendency to dismiss something rooted in an art form that often gets pretty nasty. I’m a 60-something white lady from New England whose idea of music is a triad of Palestrina, Mozart, and Simon & Garfunkel, what do I know about hip hop, but damn I loved this story.
The Trench Sweeper raps about what’s around him—Tyrone’s rims spinning like rotisserie chickens, his grandmama’s stoop where he’s trying to make a living. The bike he pedals on, the crack he’s peddle-ing; he can’t stand being broke, so he’ll fall for better things. He is a hustler—he’d rather die than to live average, even if he got to live savage. He was born to eat rappers like they came from McDonald’s, then he hollers Rest in Peace to his mama and Ronald.
In spite of the disclaimers about being ignorant of hip hop, I’ve become familiar with the linguistic fluency demanded of high-level rap through linguistics. It’s just as complex and rare a talent as composing an opera, a skill perhaps dating back to Homeric bards who used repetition and sound patterns to recite thousands of lines. Stack’s description captures it about as well as text can. Ahmad Trench, aka Trench Sweeper aka Mr. Stillz, uses what’s around him, including the pain of his life, to create art, to earn his tattoo The G.R.I.E.F.: The Greatest Rapper in Existence, Fucker.
Stack paints that pain in heart-wrenching colors as Mr. Stillz visits, post-Katrina, what remains of his childhood home, what remains of his childhood:
What they find is three concrete steps that lead to a porch and a flood-stained yellow door still in its frame. No roof, no walls, no house.
It’s not Mr. Stillz but Ahmad Trench who walks up those steps, who stares at that door that leads to nothing, just a yard littered with scraps of other people’s lives. Memory supplies the side of the house. Ronald perched above him on the ladder saying, Hand me that purple paint. They were fighting on this porch the day she died. Memory supplies her voice: We been over this, Ahmad, and his own: He ain’t my daddy, he ain’t blood. Then the El Camino, the ski-masked goon with the chopper, the gunshots and echoes. The house-front splattered with Ronald’s skull, blood sliding down the door into his mama’s hair.
A pelican explodes into flight with a squawk and Ahmad starts kicking the door. It’s still locked and he kicks it until the wood splinters around the deadbolt.
Where all the lights in my city go? he says.
And suddenly it doesn’t matter that I don’t really know what hip hop is; I know who Ahmad is, I understand this aspect of Mr. Stillz. This is what fiction can do. All our rage, our heartbreak, is the same.
But don’t forget, our observer-narrator is here too, whose emergence from the shadows at the end of the story – literally, as he seeks an autograph from Mr. Stillz in a perfect ending scene – ties everything together. Remember, he introduced himself as a teacher of French poetry. Now, if there’s one thing I know less about than hip hop, it’s French poetry, but that’s what Google is for. A Rimbaud epigram starts off the story. And here’s where things got really interesting. The quote translates to “Weeping, I saw gold – but could not drink.” I had no idea where that fit in Rimbaud’s poetry, but by the end of the story I could see perfectly well what it had to do with Mr. Stillz: he has all the talent in the world, but it could be destroyed because, against the homophobic backdrop of the hip hop community, he’s in love with his mentor and adoptive father. The inciting force of the story is the publication of a photo of the two of them kissing. Yes, it raises serious questions. But Rimbaud got there first.
One of the places I ended up in my online research (which, I agree, is nowhere near in-depth enough) on Rimbaud and Verlaine was a Kenyon Review article by American literary critic Jeffrey Meyers. See if any of this reminds you of Ahmad and Tyrone:
Rimbaud’s sophistication, poetic talent, and extraordinary ideas exemplify the mystery of genius. A brilliant young scholar in an excellent lycée, one of the best in France, he was intellectually confident. But his childhood left him emotionally damaged and mentally troubled. He came from a severely deprived background in the bleak town of Charleville, in northeast France, near the Belgian border. …He was stifled by his family and refused to finish high school, where he felt he had nothing more to learn. He made several attempts to run away from home, culminating in his third trip to Paris, where he began his torturous three-year relationship with Verlaine, poetic mentor, parent-substitute, and lover. ..,Rimbaud’s decision to derange the senses, including the most basic human emotions, seems willful and pathological, but was also rational and deliberate. He had a program: he would take drink, drugs, even poison; he would endure unspeakable tortures, commit acts of violence, become a criminal, risk losing his poetic insights, even risk death. During his years with Verlaine (1871-73), Rimbaud put his program into practice, experiencing exhaustion and starvation, filth and debauchery, degradation and disease, violence and destruction, while heightening his chaotic state with hashish and absinthe. …Rimbaud reversed centuries of cultural tradition. Instead of assuming that the artist’s task is to create order out of experience, Rimbaud believed the disorder of the poet’s mind was sacred.~~Jeffrey Meyers, “The Savage Experiment: Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine”
Available online at Kenyon Review
A short time after the affair ended (with a gunshot, but I’ll leave that for the readers’ explorations), Rimbaud self-published “A Season in Hell” whence the opening epigram came. Specifically, it’s from the section titled “Alchemy of the Word” which has a definite relevance to Ahmad’s talent as a rapper (“I invented colors for the vowels!”), but a more poignant relevance to his personal agony : “Weeping, I saw gold – and could not drink”. Rimbaud soon stopped writing poetry and began travelling the world via various non-literary pursuits (soldier and merchant among them) until he died at age 37.
Why am I so obsessed with Stillz? Why him and not some “socially conscious” rapper? The critics claim he has nothing to say, but goddamn does he say it—the most stylish nothing. To hear him in his prime is to hear a man delirious with his talent, flinging out onomatopoeic neologisms, pop-culture references, dizzying internal rhymes, scat jokes, and witty nonsense, every bar a pun or a punch line. The critics are also wrong. There’s pain coursing through all his best music. It’s just hyper-compacted, snagged in a phrase or tucked under a silence. His soulful eyes brim with the sorrow of a sunken city, the sorrow of men like I once was: covering up shame with defiance, cringing in the closet. He’s my modern-day Rimbaud, and Tyrone’s his poor Verlaine.
Our observer narrator fades into the background until he’s needed, and then he comes up front and plops something like this down on us, moving between Mr. Stillz and Rimbaud like there’s nothing between them. And maybe there isn’t. A lot of the people who turn their noses up at hip hop, at rap as art, see French poetry in the same way. Let’s face it, artists are often on the edges of propriety, and when they aren’t, their characters are. That’s how art shifts the borders of the world. Art can soothe and comfort, can beautiful in meaningful ways, but painting “Nude Descending a Staircase” or writing Don Quixote – or performing an unexpected halftime show – can change how we see the world, maybe change art itself.
Stack put me right there with a French poet and a closeted New Orleans rapper. Because I swear we’ve all kicked at doors to nothing simply because they were the only thing around to kick at. I swear, I’ve been kicking at one lately, and there’s no end in sight.