This is a guest editorial written by TOBi, a Nigerian-Canadian rapper signed to SONY Music/Same Plate. On May 3, 2019, TOBi released his debut album, STILL. You can follow TOBi on Twitter @sincerelyTOBi.
I remember the first time I felt different; different from others; different from the norm; different from regular. It might have been how my tongue wrestled with consonants and vowels in ways the other kids didn’t, or because my jeans jumped my ankles and found a sweet spot between my knee and my shin. Maybe, it was the lack of understanding of cultural nuances such as sarcasm, or calling the adults in your life by their first name. I dunno.
Either way, at eight, I can recall the FEELING of being different… or being part of the outgroup.
Being separated from my nuclear family, I had nobody to confide in about my innermost feelings. All I can recount was finding comfort and refuge in writing about my experiences in a book of rhymes.
I smile in hindsight now, but I needed that rhyme book for survival. That rhyme book became my blueprint for developing and constructing a rich inner world, building resilience to take on life’s outer challenges.
Everything that I felt, I wrote. With no intention of ever becoming a writer, I wrote down every dream, desire, fear, and fantasy. I was quiet in conversation, but when it came to writing there was no shutting my pen up. I wrote comedy routines and short stories and turned those into poems and mini screenplays. My imagination has always been vivid.
I remember the first time I FELT music; not simply enjoyed, but felt a physiological response inside my chest that I couldn’t explain with words. You know, the tingle. Phil Collins’ “You’ll Be In My Heart” transformed my relationship with music. As good as that song is within the context of the Tarzan soundtrack, I wasn’t going out of my way to buy Phil's album, so I searched for that same feeling in hip-hop.
After hearing Bone Thugs N Harmony grappling with mortality and losing their loved ones on “Crossroads,” I noticed the feeling of longing and connection had returned when I moved away from all my friends and family back home. On “Feel It In The Air,” when Beanie Siegel shares his growing distrust for the people around him and living with constant paranoia, I felt connected as a newcomer in a strange new land. Even JAY-Z, who once chastised Beanie for “spilling his feelings in the air,” recently gave me that feeling of connection on the title track of his newest album, 4:44.
In 2009, on a road trip with my older brother and his friends to a show in Sudbury, a city in Northern Ontario, I was introduced to a rapper named Cam’ron. Together, we listened to his LP Crime Pays on repeat. Since then, Cam’ron has become one of my favorite east coast rappers, and I’ve become a bit of a hip-hop historian. Although Killa Cam is best known for his “computers ‘putin,” wearing pink furs, and killing Mitch for 14 bricks in Paid in Full, my favorite moment in his career appears in the song “D Rugs” off his debut album Confessions of The Fire.
“D Rugs” is a storytelling masterpiece, but also a deep look into the humanity of a young Cameron Giles and his interpretation of his experience growing up in a household surrounded by drug dependency. It is a multi-layered song that simultaneously showed his relationship with drugs as a hustler and his mother as a user.
I’m sure the people in his circle were aware of his circumstances, but I wonder how many knew how it truly affected him. I couldn’t directly relate to having a mother who had a cocaine addiction, but I could relate to the relationship he had with his mother. I saw the way he humanized her and accepted her for who she was being actively involved in her growing process; a theme that I examined in my album as well.
I believe one of the central purposes of vulnerability in art is to create bridges between the siloed nature of the individual. Often we identify with certain groups which place each of us in a Venn diagram of associations along with race, ethnicity, social location, gender, sexual orientation, religion, vocation, etc, but in the middle, we all have to traverse life with experiences and an identity that is as unique as our fingerprint.
When I make music, I want to challenge the myth that vulnerability is a term for simply sharing emotions. That is a rudimentary way to look at the depth of the idea and what it entails, especially when it comes to masculinity. If awareness is curative, and acceptance is the first step, then vulnerability is the primary step on a journey of self-discovery and growth as an individual.
I believe vulnerability is a precursor to healing. In order to move from a place of deficit to even ground and then hopefully a surplus, one must first address the issue that is holding them back. When I write music, my intention is to get out my truth for myself and then secondarily for listeners to enjoy and make a connection.
I remember listening to The Clipse at a young age. Their album Hell Hath No Fury was a defining moment when it first dropped; immediately, I was drawn to the vivid imagery that Pusha-T and Malice painted on every record. I loved Push for his razor-sharp lyrics that struck you in the face and I was drawn to Malice for his ability to be a compelling storyteller, one who did not reserve his emotions in his writing. Together, they created a rich gumbo of metaphor and storytelling, which was typically soundtracked by The Neptunes.
Take the song “I’m Not You” by The Clipse, Jadakiss, Styles P, and Roscoe P. Coldchain. Each artist takes their turn lyrically flexing, with intermittent braggadocious bars about how other rappers are not like them, but Malice (now No Malice) stole the show by closing the song with intimate moments about selling coke that revealed shame, regret, anger, and his awareness of experiencing cognitive dissonance. Malice seizes the opportunity to be fully transparent with his audience and breaks down the wall between the persona of Malice and Gene Thornton, his authentic self.
Every time I listen to “I’m Not You,” I think of how often I’ve been in the same shoes as Malice and how I navigated those situations. I think of the times I’ve been hurt in my life and subsequently hurt others. I think of when my actions are inconsistent with my beliefs and need to remember to regain hold of the wheel to steer myself back on course. I appreciated No Malice for using his platform to show the depth of his being and for allowing himself to feel negative feelings in order to grow and become a better person. This was a lesson I needed as a young man, who like Icarus could fly blindly, willfully ignoring the consequences.
Since forever, boys haven’t had many safe spaces to be vulnerable without judgment. We have been told to say “I’m good.” We have been told to look strong at all times. We have been told that rebuilding is a sign of weakness. I was convinced as a child that being emotionally aware or expressive made me less of a man. Now I believe the notion that masculinity means to be cold and emotionally unaware must be dispelled and transmuted into a healthier concept that embraces connection, empathy, love, and kindness; not just for us as individuals, but for society.
According to the CDC, suicide is a top 10 leading cause of death for males in America. I’m not saying vulnerability is the full resolution here, but clearly, there are some emotional regulation pieces that need to be addressed. While working with male youth for the past eight years, whether they came from marginalized, disenfranchised communities or affluent neighborhoods, the common thread amongst the young men was a lack of safe spaces for them to be open and candid about their trauma, fears, joys, and regrets.
As an artist, the greatest good I can do is to be genuine and honest in the work I put out into the universe because the art outlives the artist and my story is an integral piece in the fabric of the larger human story. It is my duty as an artist to place my full self on every record I release just as artists and men like Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar, No Malice and André 3000 did so before me, unapologetically.