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Urban Renewal

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Last weekend I sat at a local park with a friend, enjoying the gorgeous fall weather while watching our sons skateboard around. We relaxed with the sun on our faces and lazily talked about nothing and everything. There was a young neighborhood kid there, who, at about fourteen was older than our boys. You couldn’t help noticing him as he was wearing a real urban get-up. His loose-fitting jeans fell around his hips, his quick hands constantly pulling them back up over his plaid boxers to rest temporarily on his narrow waist. His over-sized t-shirt boasted a logo of one of the more popular sportswear companies, and his well-worn baseball cap was perched sideways on his head. When he spoke, his hands crossed, the fingers stiff in the typical Hip Hop fashion, and every other word out of his mouth was an obscenity. I watched him, mesmerized by his well-crafted urban act, as my friend—a fellow expatriate New Yorker–scoffed, “Where the hell does he think he is, Brooklyn? Doesn’t he realize how silly that act looks in rural Vermont?” She went on to make fun of his sinking pants as we steered our ten-year-old boys out of earshot of the foul language, but I was fascinated by him. He threw me back fifteen years to when my nephew Josiah was the same age.

Josiah went through this rap music fascination before it had hit Vermont. There Josey was, walking through Morrisville, Vermont, with the crotch of his jeans down to his knees, his baseball cap backwards, and Snoop Doggy Dog blaring in his Walkman. Though she didn’t quite get it, my sister Ellen tolerated the clothes part of the fad (though she made sure he had decent boxers since they were constantly hanging out the back of his pants). And as Josiah was from a family of color (my sister was actually born in Puerto Rico), it was nice to see him listen to the music of an under-represented people. But one day, after reading the lyrics to one of his CDs, Ellen mentioned to me that she was concerned about the way women were represented in the songs. As I agreed strongly with her and as the cool, younger aunt, I decided to sit Josey down and talk to him about this issue.

“Josey, I think it is great that you have an interest in this music, but I wanted to make sure that you realize that those lyrics are misogynistic.”

“What’s misogynistic, Auntie Annie?”

“Well, a misogynist is someone who hates women.” Josey face fell, and he paused—something 12 year olds rarely do—and thought about this. The he responded with great emotion.

“Oh no, Annie! He doesn’t hate women! He just hates bitches and hos!”

“Well Josey, to some men all women are either bitches, or hos.”

Who would have thought, sitting in my sister’s sunny country kitchen, the fall leaves rustling around the house and the neighbors smiling to each other as they walked by, I would be discussing bitches and hos with a 12-year-old? Anyway, the phase passed, as they always do, and Josey moved on to wearing pants that actually fit his ass and to listen to music that was somewhat more generous to the female of the species, but the experience caused me to reflect on Josiah’s need to bring the city home in order to express his individuality. Was it just to be cool? Whatever the reason, it seems to not be limited to teenagers.

Lately I’ve been taking a Hip Hop dance classes, and for someone who can follow a beat and move fairly well, I’m having real problems following my massively cool instructor. I mean, you know that wave thing Hip Hop dancers do with their arms? I feel like a broken-winged turkey desperately trying to fly out of the way of an oncoming semi in the middle of Route 100. And when I practice my funky head moves while driving to work I’m certain that the people in the car behind me think I’m having some kind of seizure. But last week, as I watched the young boy posturing as if he were in Compton instead of a small town in rural New England, I realize that I share his fascination with urban trends. It is a way of connecting with the heart of popular culture, of fitting in yet still differentiating yourself from the masses around you. But more than that, for me, someone who spends day after day sitting at a desk, making nice, flirting with the gangsta elements of my Hip Hop dance class allows me a moment to let go, to scream (my teacher Sarah encourages it!) and then return to my desk job, a sly smile on my face. And for that boy in the park in rural Vermont, perhaps it is his way of rebelling against a quiet, rural lifestyle that was not of his choosing. Of straining against the confines of the daily instructions to “Sit down!” “Don’t talk out of turn!” and the famous “Can’t you turn that damn noise down?” Though perhaps we can’t possibly understand the lives of the urban youth who spawned this culture as a salve from poverty and violence, we can honor it peripherally, hopefully without the reference to bitches and hos.

So the next time you see a kid walking the walk and talking the talk, or take a dance class with a middle-aged woman who might look foolish but is trying her best to channel J.Lo, remember that perhaps they are just trying to push the envelope a bit, and rebel against the confines of straight rural existence, to bring a little funk into their workaday lives.

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About Ann Hagman Cardinal