Two minutes into the track he moves into the following rhymes (which I’ve managed to check thanks to the geniuses at the web site RapGenius.com, who transcribe and try to interpret hip-hop lyrics):
“One, in the air for the people in here,
Two, in the air for the father that’s there,
Three, in the air for the kids in the ghetto,
Four, for the kids that don’t wanna be there,
None, for the niggaz tryin’ to hold them back,
Five, in the air for the teacher not scared to tell those kids that’s living in the ghetto that the niggaz tryin to hold back that the world is theirs.
Yeah, yeah, the world is yours.
I was once that little boy,
Terrified of the world,
Now I’m on a world tour.”
I’m struck by a number of aspects here. One is the reference to ‘the kids in the ghetto’ for whom Lupe is writing the track. He’s telling us who he thinks his audience might be, but he’s also emphasizing some of the constraints under which they operate, especially some of the social relations that hold them back. What also struck me, though, was the teacher he refers to; a teacher in a school, or as might have been the case for Lupe, in a Mosque, who points out the possibilities of getting out of the ghetto, of overcoming fears of the world outside. The sense here is that constraints are not insurmountable, that the social relations that make space and place can be re-made. So in just these few short lines, Lupe conjures up an image of a particular sort of place, a sort of place that has been rapped out for 30 years now and still definitely exists and a sort of place which might even resonate with some of parts of Ireland’s cities.
But as the next few lines also tell us, Lupe isn’t restricting his vision to the US ghetto and nor does he try to pretend that his audience resides in the Ghetto alone. After mentioning some of the places he has toured and in which there are kids he says he’s rapping for (‘Africa to New York, Haiti then I detour, Oakland out to Auckland, Gaza Strip to Detroit’), he says:
“So no matter what you’ve been through,
No matter what you into,
No matter what you see when you look outside your window,
Brown grass or green grass,
Picket fence or barbed wire,
Never ever put them down,
You just lift your arms higher.
Raise them till your arms tire,
Let them know you’re here.
That you’re struggling, surviving,
That you gon’ persevere.
Aint nobody leaving, nobody going home,
Even if they turn the lights out, the show is going on.”
The key reference here is ‘Picket fence or barbed wire’. US rap and hip-hop depends heavily on sales to white kids living in the suburbs, many of whom look out of their windows and see a picket fence, one of the key emblems of the American Dream. Lupe takes notes of that, then, but yet his reference to those kids is nuanced, that is, he doesn’t see them as universally privileged or even happy; rather, he identifies them as also potentially ‘struggling, surviving’, also perhaps discontent with their society. As he says at the very start of the track, ‘Have you ever had the feeling that you was being had?’
So the ‘picket fence’ makes sense, but what about the ‘barbed wire’? Perhaps this is a reference to the other side of the American Dream, to the fact that US society is so intimately wrapped up with war,violence, incarceration. So maybe it’s to the kids who might be listening in Gaza, whose whole society is bounded by barbed wire. Or perhaps it’s for some of his listeners who might be held in prison. But I can’t avoid the sense that Lupe’s main audience is for kids in the US, kids who keep coming up throughout the album. In Never forget you, for example, Lupe conjures up disturbing imagery of some of the places he remembers:
“This is just like a first-class ticket,
Back, to the first written rap,
The crumbled-up paper and the pen with no cap.
The hand-me-down clothes and the unturned hat,
The hookers on the corner and the kids sellin’ crack,
The needles in the yard where we used to play catch,
Stories from the project we could never go at.
Or to, these are shades of my youth
Trials of a child, everything truth,
Moments of the past, comin’ back to find us,
Not to relive them, just to remind us.”
So maybe the line ‘Picket fence or barbed wire’ is intended to connect the lives and experiences of kids in different but yet often geographically quite proximate areas of the US. Perhaps it’s about locating some of their experiences relative to the same general context.
A final point to note here is more general. Lots of rap and hip-hop does fall under the label R&B (rap and bullshit, as some hip-hop artists call it). It’s about braggadocio – bragging about cars owned, money made, and so on. But that’s by no means true of all hip-hop. And one element that certainly stands out from Lupe Fiasco’s new album is a sense that, like modern Irish writing or poetry, hip-hop entails imagining and communicating lived experience, which in Lupe’s case means rapping about the places he knows with a determination to link those different lived experiences together through his music.