Every Wednesday, I teach a class in Creative Writing and Journalism to Junior High School students at Van Siclen Community Middle School in East New York. The class is comprised of 18 students, 17 of them are young Black and brown boys. Back in September, I offered the class an opportunity to vote for a song. That song would then be played at the beginning of our next class. The students were asked to write their choice for song on a piece of paper, then they were to fold the paper up and place the paper in my Yankees cap. After class, I tallied the votes and the overwhelming winner was a song called, Welcome To The Party by Pop Smoke.
I had never heard of the song. I had never heard of the artist. After the class, I got into my car and pulled it up. My reaction to the song was complex. On the one hand, the carnal rhythm of the track, the way that the song hit me sonically peaked my interest. It was dark and deep, more visceral than intellectual. It spoke to that part of me that used to buckle up when an Onyx song played back in the early 90’s. On the other hand, Pop Smoke’s lyrics were violent and downright incriminating. He explains how his gun is loaded. He threatens to “hit up” someone if they don’t lower their tone. He explains the drugs that he’s on. It was explicit in every way. But, it was effective. It was meant to be a dark song, and it was. It was meant to feel dangerous, and it did. Pop Smoke was talking a bunch of hood-level, gang-culture rhetoric, but he was really good at it.
I didn’t play the song for the kids. I told them that it was way too explicit to play in class. They were disappointed, but we moved on to other subjects and in a matter of minutes they had forgotten about Pop Smoke, at least for the moment. I didn’t forget about him though. I researched his music. I watched videos. I asked my nephew about him. His talent got me to thinking; if we have young men that are talented at a given skill set, like singing, writing lyrics, painting pictures with words, what is it that brings them to use their talents for darkness? What are the societal forces, the influences both conscious and subconscious, the impetus and the deciding circumstances that make a talented wordsmith like Pop Smoke use his talent to convey such negative schematics? It is really the common question in the Star Wars paradigm, the decision of each Jedi to use his forces for good or evil, except this is real life with real ramifications.
Last week, Pop Smoke was killed in an apparent home invasion gone wrong in Hollywood Hills. The news of his death struck a chord in me. He was only 20 years old, a child still. I saw pics of him and his friends holding wads of cash that were taken and posted just hours before his death. I was disgusted with the news, disgusted with the way we seem to treat each other in such callous ways.
But then, I saw something else. An old elementary school classmate of mine posted her thoughts about Pop Smoke’s passing. Apparently he had grown up close to her kids. She had known him since he was grade-school age. She talked about how nice of a person he was, how big his personality was, and how he dreamt of being larger than life. He wasn’t Pop Smoke to her. He was Bashar. She posted pics of him in African garb in what looked like a performance he was a part of. He couldn’t have been older than 12 in that pic. And then another friend of mine who works at a school that I work with in East New York also posted about Bashar. He said Bashar was in church every week. He spoke about sitting next to Bashar in church service and watching him grow from a bright boy with a charismatic smile to this persona we came to know as Pop Smoke. Like the first friend, his pictures showed a boy that was happy and smart and loved.
It all made me think again about how this happens. What are the societal factors, the influences both conscious and subconscious, the impetus and deciding circumstances that change our young boys from happy and smiling and loved into a persona that emits and circulates a spirit of violence, a spirit that can, and does ultimately, eat many of our young, driving them into prisons or cemeteries? Because whatever the causes, those things are an enemy to our culture and they must be removed, at all costs. Pop Smoke was nothing more than a persona that will continue through the music he created. But, Bashar was a wonderful young man who was loved by his community, and who had dreams of transcending many of the factors that contributed to the creation of Pop Smoke. And the biggest crime in this all is that he wasn’t given the time to do so.