Black girls searching for themselves in lyrics must often compromise. Surrender your blackness, your femininity, or both. Look past the harm or the invisibility, find what you need, and take only that with you. Back then, so-called white genres like emo were as much my guilty pleasure as they were social currency—a means of relating to white faces within a town where racial divides existed largely along socioeconomic lines. The closet-sized newsroom for my high-school paper was soundtracked almost entirely by Taking Back Sunday, Dashboard Confessional, Fall Out Boy, and Brand New; occasionally this one Kottonmouth Kings song snuck on the playlist. I latched on to emo, needing music that could speak to my molehill problems posing as mountains, as well as my desperation to fit in despite uncertainty about who I was.
It wasn’t music that seemed like it was made for me, but the suburban, middle-class frustration of Taking Back Sunday’s Tell All Your Friends spoke in a language that I could understand—at a time when I thought no one would. “The truth is you could slit my throat, and with my one last gasping breath I’d apologize for bleeding on your shirt,” goes the iconic lyric from “You’re So Last Summer,” epitomizing the melodramatic existential crisis that is adolescence. This was the age when every struggle and unrequited love felt like an attack on life itself—a feeling perfectly captured by Adam Lazzara and John Nolan’s dueling vocals, like a warring ego and id finishing each other’s sentences. But it also went deeper than that. Mental health dilemmas, real or imagined, were less commonly discussed within the black community back then—a silence that until very recently, extended to black popular music. And so it felt impossible to see my adolescent self in rap’s glamorous posturing and street tales. My issues felt more “Ghost Man on Third,” where death’s only threat comes from the unraveling narrator himself, than the rightfully paranoid menacing of 50 Cent’s “Many Men (Wish Death).”
While hip-hop has long been considered hyper-masculine, early ’00s emo musicians mostly framed themselves as victims of both the world and the lovers who supposedly failed them. That trait—a privileged and immature way of processing pain—made Tell All Your Friends and other albums like it a welcome fuel-to-the-fire for self-loathing teenagers. To be sure, rap that deals in angst has existed from the very beginning, but representation isn’t so much about what exists as what can readily be found, packaged in plain sight, and given the tools to succeed. That the phrase “emo rap”—as in Lil Uzi Vert or Drake—has begun to embed itself in the wider pop-culture lexicon is no coincidence. It’s not that purveyors of rap only recently became capable of such expression. It’s that mainstream audiences finally seem ready to process expressions of black pain—specifically that of black men—that aren’t coated in a facade of bravado, sex, or violence.
In a 2003 Village Voice article, Ta-Nehisi Coates challenged the myths perpetuated by the era’s hip-hop, then led by 50 Cent. “The streets as gangsta rappers claim as their source are no longer as angry as they are sad. For that reason alone, gangsta rap should be dead by now,” he wrote. “But still it lingers, fueled by America’s myth of the menacing black man. Gangsta rap today is about as reflective of reality as, well, a reality show. And yet still it lumbers across the landscape of pop, shouting, ‘I’m real.’”
Indeed, the early ’00s would have been an apt backdrop for an emo-rap opus, several years before Kanye West wallowed in AutoTune on 808s & Heartbreak. Broken relationships, heartache, and a general outsider feeling existed much like they always have, but opportunities to portray that reality in terms of sheer emotional havoc had been limited. Unlike emo, rap wasn’t granted the privilege to “force no difficult questions, just bemoan the lack of answers,” as Andy Greenwald once described the genre. Instead, despair was marketed as everything but, manifesting as bombast, materialism, and warped nihilism. “A true narrative of ‘the streets’ and the black men who inhabit them would depict a deadbeat ex-con, fleeing mounting child support, unable to find work, and disconnected from the lives of his kids,” Coates continued. “It would chronicle his gradual slide off the American radar even as his mother, daughter, and girlfriend (not wife) make inroads. It’s a story that doesn’t lend itself to romance. More importantly, it doesn’t fit the image of black men in the American imagination.”
Coates’ “American imagination,” like Claudia Rankine’s “racial imaginary” and Toni Morrison’s “white gaze,” speak to the quandary of creating art that will inevitably be consumed, critiqued, or otherwise confirmed by white people and is, therefore, subject to the limitations of their experiences and assumptions about yours. There may be no modern genre more visible in this regard than hip-hop—music borne by resistance that has, quite literally, been weaponized against its creators. It’s unsurprising that aggression has existed as the primary mode of expression for negative emotions in rap. Historical precedent shows that black people become hyper-visible when we’re angry, but run the risk of erasure when we’re sad: one mode humanizes us, the other further demonizes. Street rap, in particular, had suited the needs of both audience and artist in an unwitting social performance, a mutual exchange of credibility (and profit) for biased confirmation of stereotypes.
But over time, rap’s tough-guy representation has slowed its dominance. Jay Z’s tender but restrained “Song Cry,” from 2002, softened slightly into the loneliness of Kanye’s “Heartless” in 2008, which turned completely inward three years later with the pity party that is Drake’s “Marvin’s Room.” Gradually, this spectrum of vulnerability has allowed in more nuanced issues like mental health. With its first-person revelations of unseen misery, Kid Cudi’s 2009 “Soundtrack 2 My Life” opened a door for Kendrick Lamar’s “u,” a searing confessional about how difficult self-love can actually be. There’s a long road ahead to fully destigmatize these matters in hip-hop, but it feels crucial right now that adolescent rap fans in black communities can readily find songs that speak to their angst—coming from a face that resembles their own.
In hindsight, it seems unfortunate that I couldn’t place my teenage self somewhere—anywhere—within the rap available to me. But the music that finds and moves us doesn’t always line up with the identity that the world sees or expects. I learned to code-switch early, realizing that fandom could be just as performative as the art itself. I could pound out the “Grindin’” beat on a lunchroom table, but in another world just down the hall, a Taking Back Sunday lyric held the same cultural relevance. Both in its creation and consumption, music is a racialized (and gendered) experience that highlights rather than voids identity politics, but it’s also the great connector. It took going to college, in a place brimming with black people of all different social backgrounds, to find faces like mine that had also taken refuge in Tell All Your Friends. It turns out there’s a lot of us black emo kids, but maybe we—like hip-hop itself—needed extra time to figure out how to be both.
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