How three hip hop queens helped me through the pandemic
I’ve been listening to A LOT of Nicki Minaj lately.
Hip hop, it turns out, has played the role of therapist, motivational speaker and good buddy in my life over the course of 2020. It gave me a boost when I needed it, an outlet when the rage bubbled up and even a light when it was difficult to see the path ahead.
Depending on the season, the month, or even the day, I needed the beats and melodies of hip hop for different reasons. As the pandemic evolved, the artists I turned to for comfort and confidence changed with it.
In the spring, when we hung on to each and every Covid-19 development with gut-wrenching anxiety, I found myself playing Lauryn Hill over and over and over. “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” was released in 1998, the year I graduated college and that was probably the last time I played Hill’s music so much. That period also was filled with a lot of uncertainty. Where was I going to work? Where was I going to live? And listening to Hill sing about her life in the songs on that album through those beats and melodies? They provided some calm at the start of the 2020 storm, especially “Everything is everything” when she sings words that seem made for springtime:
“Everything is everything
What is meant to be, will be
After winter, must come spring
Change, it comes eventually”
While I felt a great sense of accomplishment getting through April and May, life felt heavy with the increasing awareness that we were going to be here for a while. Sure, the seasons were changing, the buds started showing up on trees and the sun hung longer in the sky, but doing things we had planned to do? Like go to a concert, see a musical, eat dinner in a restaurant? Those fell away one after another, but we kept going.
That’s when I started playing a lot of Lil’ Kim. I played Lil’ Kim so much, in fact, that “The Jump Off” was my most listened to song of 2020 on Spotify. The grit and swagger in that song, with its shades of the Knight Rider theme song, is contagious.
“Spread love that's what a real mob do
Keep it gangsta look out for her people (For her people)
I'm the wicked bitch of the east, you better keep the peace (Aiyyo!)
Or out come the beast
We the best still there's room for improvement
Our presence is felt like a Black Panther movement”
I got a boost every single time I played it. And in the fall, as the presidential election appeared on the horizon, and we saw clip after miraculous clip of Democratic vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris step out of a plane and make her way across a runway in her Chuck Taylors or her Tims? It felt like I was watching Lil’ Kim’s lyrics come to life.
“Jumpin out the Jaguar with the Tims, keep your bread
And live good, East coast West coast worldwide
All my playas in the hood stay fly
And if your ballin let me hear you say right (Right)”
Just like grief has stages, this pandemic has felt like something to work through and, depending on the day or the news, it has prompted wildly divergent feelings. With vaccines beginning to be distributed across the country and a new year starting, I have reached the Nicki Minaj stage of acceptance (with sides of gratitude and hope).
“I’m the best,” was released on Minaj’s “Pink Friday” album in 2010, but I think it was made for the parents who steered their way, the best they could, through this pandemic. We had to figure out remote work and virtual learning all at once. We had to articulate the very sudden changes to the world without a template, or overarching support from our government, and we had to do it without scaring the crap out of our kids. I think that makes us the best.
“I ain't gotta get a plaque, I ain't gotta get awards
I just walk up out the door, all the girls will applaud
All the girls will commend as long as they understand
That I'm fighting for the girls that never thought they could win”