A Month in Pursuit of Freedom

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August 2021 was a lot. The return to in-class learning. The COVID vaccine debates. The massive fires, big earthquakes and huge storms. And the music. Thank the powers that be for the music.

Kendrick Lamar dropped one verse and smoked your top five rappers, Kanye West took off that goofy red hat and dropped an album, Aaliyah's discography finally became available on streaming platforms, and The Lox got their flowers.

In the Bay Area, meanwhile, music headlines were overshadowed by the unexplained series of events that led to the death of Zion I's Baba Zumbi.

I tested positive for COVID on the same day that Zumbi, a talented artist and friend who I'd seen two months prior at my best friend's birthday party, was involved in a mysterious conflict at Alta Bates Hospital. While overcoming a case of COVID, Zumbi reportedly became involved in a physical altercation with hospital staff. Berkeley police responded. Zumbi ended up dead.

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I spent a week-plus quarantining and staring at my phone—scrolling, contemplating current events and critically thinking about what it all means—you know, in the larger context of this "freedom" we're all inherently pursuing.

Again, thank God for music.

“All my time has been focused on my freedom now,” says Ms. Lauryn Hill, opening her verse on the track “Nobody” from Nas’ latest project King’s Disease II. The album, a follow up to Nas’ 2020 Grammy-winning King’s Disease, dropped the first week of the month and quickly topped Billboard's hip-hop charts.

Ms. Hill’s extended barrage of bars on “Nobody” are packed with quotable lines, but nothing spoke to me like the idea of spending every second engaged in the process of emancipation. “Focused on my freedom now.” What an idea. Now I can’t stop thinking: shit, I wanna spend my time focusing on my freedom, too.

Unfortunately, in a lot of ways, my time is spent indirectly paying for continued oppression.

Exactly 20 years ago, Nas was in a dispute with Jay-Z that would be well-documented in a Summer Jam performance, multiple interviews, and of course music—starting with Jay's “The Takeover,” featured on Jay-Z’s album The Blueprint, which dropped Sept. 11, 2001. We all know what else happened that day.

I was a first-year high school student, living in a small apartment in South Berkeley and attending the Athenian College Preparatory School, 45 minutes away in the town of Danville. A scholarship offered to me through the A Better Chance program landed me at school in one of the wealthiest places in the Bay Area.

Every morning I’d get on a big 'ole Twinkie bus at Berkeley BART and pursue a better chance of getting out of the hood, going to college, and eventually finding freedom. Between my taped-up Sony headphones and beneath my tightly wrapped durag, my big head bobbled on the back of the bus—I don't know what I was bumping, but I can tell you that my brain was already brewing up ways to break bondage.

I wanted freedom. Economic freedom, specifically. I was told that academia was the way.

That first month of school, I got real familiar with the connection between my oppression locally and the oppression of people around the world.

In response to how our friends and neighbors with roots in the Middle East were being treated post-9/11, I worked with my schoolmates, Agzja Carey and Norah Alyami, to organize a rally in front of Oakland’s City Hall. The keynote speaker was Davey D, a journalist I knew from his KMEL days, and who I’d grow to admire and even mimic in his ability to mix hip-hop, politics, and the fight for freedom into one conversation.

Two decades later, life has evolved. Davey is a person I can call with hard journalism questions—I literally did just a few days ago.

Nas is seeing great success as of late; he even has a classic instrumental in a Tiffany and Co. advertisement... but he’s still overshadowed (for better or for worse) by Jay-Z, who along with Beyoncé was also featured by the same high-end jewelry company.

And earlier this month, as the United States pulled out of Afghanistan, and Al Qaeda forces gained control of Kabul, it became clear that our 20-year war effort, launched after 9/11, had failed.

I watched the news clips of people running toward large moving jets, even clinging on as the planes took off—just to fall to their deaths. It was reported that human remains were found in the wheel well of one of the airplanes. For me, it was further clarification of what had been long suspected: this country’s "war on terrorism," its sacrifice of both civilians and civil liberties, had been pointless.

I broke from my anger-inducing news intake to experiment with my COVID-driven lack of taste. I ate cloves of garlic whole and lemons with the rind still on, just for kicks. I couldn’t read my books, so I balanced my intake of important headlines with clips of crate-mountain conquerors falling to their doom for the whole internet to see.

And when all else failed, I revisited classic hip-hop albums as an escape. Scarface’s The Fix, Snoop Dogg’s The Last Meal, tracks from Foxy Brown’s Broken Silence and Curren$y’s Pilot Talk trilogy. I dug up the lesser-known Nas and Lauryn Hill track, “It Wasn’t You,” as well as the staple “If I Ruled The World”—another song about the pursuit of freedom.

The alone time ate at me. How confined am I? Is my freedom found solely in music? Even then, I pay streaming services or take in unwanted advertisements to taste my source of liberation.

How has my push toward freedom led to further oppression? How much have I given to big business? How much revenue have I generated for millionaires with adverse views? Hell, how much have I personally contributed to this country's war efforts?

I was in high school when our government started the longest war in this nation’s history. I entered the workforce shortly thereafter. Every legal dollar I’ve ever earned has been taxed and, in one way or another, used as fuel in this war machine.

How many guns have I indirectly purchased? How many were distributed in Black and brown communities overseas? How many have ended up back in my own neighborhood?

How many cops’ salaries have I contributed to? How many of those cops have harassed me, pulled over people I know for no reason, or killed someone who looks like me?

These are the unforeseen byproducts of working toward what I perceive as financial freedom.

This is far from a complaint. I know the significance of being an African American person who gets paid to read and write. I write about artists, creators of color, working-class folks, and disenfranchised Black Americans who have whole bloodlines full of family who were deemed unworthy of the right to read, write, and pursue freedom.

I write about them; I write about us. But I'm still not free.

"... focused on my freedom now."

August, Black August, is a time we look to honor those who've radically committed themselves to the pursuit of freedom. It encompasses Marcus Garvey's birthdate, Nat Turner's rebellion, The Haitian Revolution, and George Jackson's death, as well as the date that Dr. Huey P. Newton was killed.

On that day, Aug. 22, the site where Dr. Newton is set to be honored with a bust created by Dana King was defaced.

There's no freedom, not even in death.

This August has been rough. There have been a couple of deaths in my inner circle and some unnecessary family drama. I've spent ample time reflecting on the nonsense I've traversed in my pursuit of freedom. And I've gotten wrapped in the pessimism that comes with the potential of dealing with COVID-19 and its variants for another six months, another year, maybe more.

My hope for economic, political, or any other substantive form of freedom has turned bleak. I don't think it's coming.

But more music is.

Every Thursday I look forward to new music dropping. After a week of working and inching slowly forward without finding the freedom I'd been told about, at least there's music.

I celebrated every track Rexx Life Raj dropped this summer, got juiced when I saw Ruby Ibarra in the New York Times, and while I despise the NFL, I love that Stunnaman 02 is providing the soundtrack for the region's remaining pro football team.

The closest I've ever been to liberation is within the confines of my headphones. I choose what music I'm going to ride to before I put on my seatbelt. There's hardly a moment where my house is silent, even if it's just some instrumentals playing softly in the other room.

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I need music all the time. Every moment is focused on my freedom.