I’m from Brooklyn, so I quote Jay-Z like pastors quote the Bible.
I truly believe that there’s a Hov line for any occasion; if you can’t think of one, then your knowledge of his catalog isn’t deep enough. But, I don’t have that problem because I love rap. I’m a fan of the old and the new. I lament that Andre 3000 hasn’t blessed us with an album in years, yet I still appreciate the contributions of Lil Baby, Megan Thee Stallion, and Fivio Foreign. I miss the old Kanye but still bump “Closed on Sunday” because the chorus in the background is crazy. And, I contend that Get Rich or Die Tryin’ is one of the greatest albums of all time. Not just rap. All-time. There are no skips.
Yet, despite my best efforts, I can’t rap. Also, I’m Black. I know — the travesty.
You’re not the first to be disappointed by my lyrical deficiencies. I first let Nas down in the summer of 2007 in my freshman year of college. As I headed to a math lecture, two melanin-deficient young women stopped me.
“Hi! Can you rap for us?” they said, almost in unison.
Both women were just about five-and-a-half feet tall, with messy brunette hair corralled into ponytails. I would have thought that they were twins had it not been for their contrasting features.
Surprised by this unwelcome interaction, I paused and asked, “What?”
“Come on, rap for us!” they continued.
“I actually can’t rap,” I managed to say while laughing. “Sorry.”
I turned to get around them and continue up the hill. It was the first day of my first year; I didn’t want to be late for my very first class. I imagined that I’d arrive seconds after the doors closed, bringing unwanted attention to me, one of the only Black people in the room. But they stopped me again.
“Come on, where are you from?” they asked.
“You’re from Brooklyn, and you can’t rap? Now we know you’re lying!”
Flabbergasted — and yes, that’s the only word that feels right in this situation — I tried to plead my case. I rolled over in my mind all of the times that I tried to rap: the lunchroom cyphers and after-school battles. They all felt like nursery rhymes sung by children with tongues too large for their mouths. We forced words, spit flew, and I couldn’t seem to catch the beat in my head.
I was much better at speaking or writing. Just two months prior, I gave a speech at my high school graduation that received a standing ovation, and people knew me for my entertaining yet dark stories. But rapping? I reserved that for my morning showers, and the words were never my own. I’d simply go along with whoever was on the radio.
“Nope, sorry, I really can’t rap,” I continued.
“You’re going to rap for us. I know you know some Notorious B.I.G.,” one pressed.
Notorious B.I.G.? No one I knew called him that. In Brooklyn, it’s just Biggie, the greatest musical storyteller of all time and one of the top five rappers. Jay is leaps and bounds over the other four, in my book. So, I thought, “What would Hov do?”
It was simple; I had to represent my race. I had to rap for these girls.
“Aight, bet,” I agreed.
I’m never one to back away from a challenge. I gathered my thoughts and regulated my breaths as they began to chant a makeshift beat. It was a struggle for them but determined to get a free concert, they did their best.
Here’s how it played out in my mind.
So there I was, on my first day at a predominantly white institution, earning my Black Card and acceptance through entertainment. It wasn’t my choice of skill to display, but I played the hand I was dealt. Before I knew it, a crowd formed, and I was about to piece together a few lines to the beat of “We Will Rock You.” Who doesn’t love Queen?
My palms were sweaty, knees weak, arms were heavy. You get the picture.
When I looked around, there had to have been at least ten newcomers who stopped to witness my show. I decided to ignore them. And I began:
Yo, my name is Jayson
And I’m here to say,
I can’t rap
But I will today
You stopped me here
And that’s pretty racist
Imagine how you’d feel
If we traded places
But I WILL rap
I’ll give you what you want to hear
Just to show you up
And to make things clear
We could have been friends
But you make my ass itch
You and your friend
You irritating bi —
I didn’t see the fist coming, but it came nonetheless, knocking me to the ground before my mic drop moment. One of the duo’s boyfriends, I later learned, was one of my faithful listeners. He knew there were only so many words that I would inevitably rhyme with “itch.”
But I wasn’t alone. As quickly as the first punch was thrown, hoards of Black students came out of nowhere and began to fight with the crowd. I watched for a few seconds before jumping up and throwing a few haymakers of my own. It was an all-out race war when the campus police came; I was certain whose side they would choose. It was the first day of my first year, and I was about to get kicked out before my first class.
Except, none of that shit happened.
There was no race war, no upheaval, and definitely no rapping. I’m not dumb. Do you know what would happen every time a Black person reacted to a microaggression — every time we had something slick to say when met with ignorance? Sure, I could have told those girls off or educated them, but I didn’t have it in me that day. All I wanted to do was get to my class, learn about some numbers, and call my friends to tell them about how I was asked to rap to the beat of “We Will Rock You.”
The fact is that there are lots of things that I can’t do that many consider racial characteristics. For example, I can’t dance. I often say that, and I have friends who reply, “No, but everyone can dance.”
That may be true, in the same sense that everyone can have sex, eat their boogers, and cut their toenails on a crowded train. Yet, our responses to those acts may differ. Some of us will want to see those things, few of us may join in, and others are disgusted by the thought. So trust me when I say that while my body may move rhythmically, it’s nothing you want to see.
I also can’t play spades, I fell in love with Friends without knowing that it completely ripped off Living Single, and I’ve never tasted malt liquor. That revelation came in the same fashion as the rap battle. The only difference was that I knew the person asking the question.
“I guess it tastes most like a 40,” she said.
“A 40-what?” I asked in earnest.
“Come on, Jay. A 40-ounce. Malt liquor?”
“Oh, nah, I’ve never had one.”
“But, you’re Black.”
Yes, I am.
And still, Black as I am, I don’t neatly fit into your idea of what a Black person is supposed to be. I’ve never been “Black enough,” but I still have too much color to blend into your reality.
It took me years to understand that who I am is more than what I can or cannot do. It’s more than stereotypes and much more than a few traits. Being Black is central to my identity and how I navigate the world. It’s a point of pride and connection through shared experiences, side-eyed glances, and a subtext that only we can decipher. It’s everything.
When I was recently asked if I could rap, I thought back to the first time I got this question over a decade ago. I could have easily used the opportunity to educate or stormed away, like Piers Morgan when he’s called out for being trash.
Instead, I thought, “What would Hov do?”
Yo, my name is Jayson
And I’m here to say —
You get the picture.