The words are on the wall or they’re in his head. These boys are restless. They can’t stay in bed because they know their rhymes won’t be affectless. He knows this baller life isn’t for him. He knows he can’t keep hustlin’ until 4 in the mornin’. They’re like J. W. Johnson with that free masonry – speaking up for those who are dyin’, showing those who refuse to see. Supporters call them messiah, Jehovah, but they accept the titles somewhat reluctantly. Two poets, two brains, two lives, two names: Gunnar from the Hillside in Cali and Shawn from the projects of Marcy. Gunnar Kaufman in Paul Beatty’s The White Boy Shuffle transforms as he moves to the mean streets of West Los Angeles. He finds his voice within his poetry, and his words move people to the point where they accept him as their messiah and are all willing to be martyrs to his words. Shawn Carter is born into a music loving family in the Marcy Projects of Brooklyn, New York. He sees a way to make his life better by hustling to bring in money for his single mom, but also discovers his voice in a poetry of his own – rap, and Shawn transforms into Jay-Z. In his memoir Decoded, Jay-Z shows what his art means to him and the influence he has had on communities close to and separate from him. Both Gunnar and Jay-Z rhyme as a form of art and expression to give the world a deeper look at their overlooked realities.
Gunnar Kaufman and Jay-Z both feel a calling to rhyme. Gunnar knows deep down that a life in basketball isn’t for him, and that as soon as he writes his first rhyme, he’ll be a poet for life. While watching a rapper film a music video on his block, Gunnar contemplates life as a poet and asks his mom just exactly what that means. “It’s corny, but I think poems are echos [sic] of the voices in your head and from you past. Your sisters, your father, you ancestors talking to you and through you. Some of it is primal, some of it is hallucinatory bullshit. That madness those boys rapping ain’t nothing but urban folklore” (Beatty 79). Any story that Gunnar could tell through his poems had already been told in one way or another. But with art, there are always new and fresh ways of rehashing the past, of showing the transformation of the lives his ancestors lived into his own experience. Gunnar’s mom suggests that the words already live within him; he just has to sort them out and put them in some sort of order. Gunnar felt that eventually the poems would come to him in a moment of surreal clarity. “It occurred to me that maybe poems are like colds. Maybe I would feel a poem coming on. My chest would grow heavier, my eyes watery, my body temperature would fluctuate, and a ringing in my ears would herald the coming of a timeless verse” (Beatty 79). Jay-Z catches this rhyming bug at a young age. Much like Gunnar describes, Jay-Z is seemingly overcome by a poetic spirit. When he first hears people in his neighborhood dueling in a rap battle, he knows he can do it too. He fills spiral notebooks up with his rhymes, but eventually just starts memorizing them. The words that had always been in his head were coming together to form art. With Decoded, Jay-Z wants to show a broader audience that hip-hop lyrics are just like poetry in that he takes a specific and powerful experience and turns it into a story that the world can relate to (Jay-Z 235-6). With their poetry, Gunnar and Jay-Z both not only express themselves, but also attempt to shed light on the reality of the lives around them and the untold stories of their experiences.
Poetry of all kinds is a form of expression – a way to release the emotions that sometimes get trapped inside an artist’s head. Gunnar admits that his poetry is a release in much the same way that his gangster friend Psycho Loco’s release is violence. “Even at its most reflective or its angriest, my poetry was little more than an opiate devoted to pacifying my cynicism” (Beatty 131). His poems are a way to control and express his emotions. However, he also says that his words only have so much power, that poetry is an act of instigation rather than action. (However, later in the novel, his poetic instigation leads his followers to action.) Perhaps oppositely, Jay-Z turns his actions into words. He hustled on the streets of New York and New Jersey, but moved from a life of crime to a life of rhyme. In moving away from the Life, he chose to express his emotions about what he was doing instead of continuing to lead such a dangerous lifestyle. With his raps, he could paint a picture of the dangerous, yet overlooked, life of a hustler. “Chuck D famously called hip-hop the CNN of the ghetto, and he was right, but hip-hop would be as boring as news if all MCs did was report. Rap is also entertainment – and art” (Jay-Z 18). When he turned his back on selling drugs, he could tell his story – entertain people who had no idea about that lifestyle, but also show kids who were from the streets that they could have something better beyond the hustle. Like any poet, Jay-Z loves metaphors. Because he sees hustling as a greater metaphor for life’s struggles he tell stories that everyone can relate to. Once he starts rapping, Jay-Z really learns that his art is not only a form of expression, but also a way to bring order to a story people had no other way of telling. “Slick Rick taught me that not only can rap be emotionally expressive, it can even express those feelings that you can’t really name – which was important for me, and for lots of kids like me, who couldn’t always find the language to makes sense of our feelings” (Jay-Z 261). Jay-Z always has a torrent of words flowing through his mind, and rap gives him an outlet to put them together to make sense of the world around him. He saw hardships and knew that no one was speaking out against them. Gunnar and Jay-Z’s stories have been shared from generation to generation and building to building, but outside of their world, they were non-existent. By opening themselves up to an audience, they create a forum to tell the overlooked stories.
Gunnar uses his poetry to write a history much different from those in the storybooks. In his first poem, “Negro Misappropriation of Greek Mythology or, I know Niggers That’ll Kick Hercules’s Ass,” Gunnar looks for muses amongst the smog of Los Angeles (Beatty 85-6). He takes the names of Greek muses and “misappropriates” them to the women in his reality. Calliope, the muse of epic poetry, spends her time gaining enlightenment from soap operas and bong water. Clio, the muse of history, is in danger of being killed. Melpomene, the muse of tragedy, reads the day’s obituaries. Urania, the muse of astronomy and renowned for her ability to predict the future, lets 911 prayers go straight to her voicemail. By comparing muses to miscreants, he is able to show the discrepancies between mythology and reality. While the muses symbolize one thing, their place in the ghetto is much grittier. Gunnar finds inspiration from what he knows. He shows how the gods aren’t looking after the people he knows. Poetry is living in a doped-out fantasy. History is on the verge of death. Tragedy is the fact that the history of the people murdered around him doesn’t go down in the books. And any greater power that has the ability to intervene on the negativity of their lives simply refuses. In his own way of writing history, Gunnar spray paints his verse on the wall that surrounds Hillside (Beatty 86-7). In the song “Blue Magic,” Jay-Z preserves his history in a different way. “Except I don’t write on the wall / I write my name in the history books, hustling in the hall (hustling in the hall)” (Jay-Z 198). Jay-Z’s words are a play off of another rapper’s whose rhyme is about writing his name as graffiti on the wall. However, as he raps, Jay-Z is sharing his words and preserving his own type of history.
Similar to Gunnar, Jay-Z alludes to the goddesses of the ghetto. In “Meet the Parents,” Jay-Z compares an Egyptian goddess to an African-American mother. “At the graveside I introduce the single mother, Isis. I gave her an Egyptian goddess’s name because there’s a way we put black mothers on pedestals while at the same time saying they’re incapable of raising boys to men, which I basically say in the song” (Jay-Z 211). Jay-Z goes on to say that he doesn’t actually believe that of black mothers, especially seeing his own mother’s influence in his life, but with his rhyme, he does shed light on a view that some people must have. In his music, he is able to bring stereotypes to the forefront, while also contradicting them. In “Beach Chair,” Jay-Z also uses mythology to point out contradictions. “Some said HOV, how you get so fly / I said from not being afraid to fall out of the sky” (Jay-Z 284). With his double entendre, Jay-Z alludes to the Greek myth of Icarus and Daedalus who build wax wings so that they can fly to freedom. Daedalus warns his son Icarus to not fly too close to the sun, but he doesn’t heed his warning and flies closer and closer until his wings melt and he crashes and drowns in the sea. Much like Gunnar does in his poem, Jay-Z “misappropriates” the tale to tell a different moral. He says that people from his background of having others tell them that they should give up on their dreams should ignore the story’s lesson. “We can’t be afraid to fly – or to be fly – which means soaring not just past our fear of failure but also past our fear of success” (Jay-Z 285). Jay-Z shows that reality is different from mythology and that truthful artists should portray it as such. His own experience shatters not only the lore of the past, but also the mythology that is associated with his own lifestyle.
While many of their rhymes are very different, Gunnar and Jay-Z both write about how their actual lives are different than what the media and critics might like to portray. Gunnar rattles off a list of people who judge him – be it religious groups, politicians, the media or even bums – but judges them right back for not really knowing him. In “Your Problem Is,” he says, “claim to know my problem / when they don’t even know my name” (Beatty 173). Gunnar suggests that because people in power are so quick to overlook the deeper issues facing the people around him, they can’t realistically judge him from such an outsider’s perspective. They cannot truly know someone else’s problems unless they actually know that person’s story. Jay-Z makes a similar suggestion in his song with Eminem called “Renegade.” “Do you fools listen to music or do you just skim through it? / See I’m influenced by the ghetto you ruined / That same dude you gave nothin, I made somethin doin / what I do through and through / and I give you news with a twist it’s just his ghetto point of view” (Jay-Z 104). Outsiders and critics often times view rap as all about “bitches and bling.” Through his music, especially songs like this, Jay-Z can show that they obviously aren’t paying enough attention. Even just a few lines later, he paints a very different, more real picture. The stories he would see played out in front of him every day were drastically different than what mainstream America wished to imagine. Once again, he shows that with his art, he can tell the news that doesn’t show up on cable television.
Because they can speak for people who feel like they don’t have a voice, fans of both Gunnar and Jay-Z put them up on a pedestal. Gunnar becomes a messiah to willing martyrs, while Jay-Z becomes a rap Jehovah. Gunnar reluctantly accepts a position of leadership that had previously been empty. “I didn’t interview for the job. I was drafted by 22 million hitherto unaffiliated souls into serving as full-time Svengali and foster parent to an abandoned people. I spoon-fed them grueled futility, unveil the oblivion that is black America’s existence and the hopelessness of the struggle” (Beatty 1). Gunnar’s words are so powerful that people flock after him. When he goes to college, his classmates view him as a living legend. His “street poetry” gives people from all kinds of different backgrounds a look at urban life. His words resonate so much with the masses that they literally hang on his every word. In a speech, Gunnar suggests that a leader has to be willing to die for his cause, and his followers answer his call – by committing suicide. People write suicide poems for Gunnar, but he does not feel responsible for their deaths (Beatty 201). He simply sees their interpretation of the hopelessness of their struggle as something honorable. Jay-Z’s words are somewhere in the gray area of this ideology. Jay-Z also knows that there will be martyrs in the rap game. Whenever people bring light to an underground life, a leader has to be ready to step up, and in doing so, perhaps die for the cause. Rappers became the new civil rights leaders for the hustlers they grew up with. In their music, they could call for some kind of change. Jay-Z compares revolutionist Che Guevara to the rapper Biggie Smalls and the revolution he was calling for. “Che was coming from the perspective, ‘We deserve these rights; we are ready to lead.’ We were coming from the perspective, ‘We need some kind of opportunity; we are ready to die’” (Jay-Z 25). While Jay-Z points out death as an option, he doesn’t see it as a final solution/resolution. He suggests that in fighting for opportunity – and success – people had to be prepared to die. However, as a leader, Jay-Z uses his voice to shed light on struggle, but does so with a focus on hope rather than hopelessness. Unlike Gunnar, Jay-Z sees the African American struggle – and eventual rise to success, rather than mass suicide – as the best way of speaking out against the establishment. In his song “This Life Forever,” he says “My lyrics is like the Bible, made to save lives / in the midst of all your misery nigga, stay fly / Never let em see you frown, even smile when you down” (Jay-Z 206). While some people (those who misinterpret his music) see him as the devil, others see him as their savior. With this, Jay-Z’s scripture is drastically different from that of Gunnar’s. He suggests that instead of wallowing in self-pity, knowing that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel – be it spiritual or earthly success – is the ultimate reward, and he is living proof of that.
Be it joy, be it pain, be it brilliant or insane, Gunnar and Jay-Z impact the world with their rhyme game. If poetry is art than so is rap. They express their emotions without all that sap. Gunnar puts down the ball and picks up the pen. When people hear his words they think, “Well, this is the end.” Jay-Z leaves behind the rock, but starts another. He raps for the little hood boys and girls and their single mothers. They call him Lucifer or the H-O-V, but Fox News can’t explain his impact on white girls like Miss Marlee.
Beatty, Paul. The White Boy Shuffle. New York: Picador, 1996.
Jay-Z. Decoded. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2010.