March 12, 2015KR BlogBlogEnthusiamsReadingRemembrances

How to Write Human: Outkast’s Art of Storytellin’

Literature is at its best when it humanizes its characters and, by extension, its readers. The poetry of the duo Outkast, comprised of Big Boi and Andre 3000, peels back the distorted surfaces of stories our society tells itself about urban tragedies. As I prepare to teach some of their songs, I am struck again by their uniqueness, lyrical economy, and, for lack of a better term, genius. In “Da Art of Storytellin’ Pt. 1,” Andre chooses to humanize a figure universally degraded in the mass media and in political commentary: the pregnant drug user. To humanize someone is not to justify their behavior, but to restore a sense of connection within human community, between those of us deemed valuable and those of us deemed worthless or counted as among the lost.

One is hard-pressed to find a more degraded character than the pregnant drug user, for the unborn child is commonly understood to symbolize innocent potential, purity, a form of life undeserving of the terrible pain we inflict on one another outside the womb. Of course, if this fetus gestates in one of America’s ghettos, where quality food and prenatal care is scarce, then it is already a victim of structural violence inflicted by all of us. Moreover, once this child is born, it will face a disproportionate level of environmental toxins, crushing poverty, malnutrition, as well as hyper-exposure to state violence. For this human whose fetal ontology was pure promise, is now, as a black child, pure threat. Our collective responsibility to protect and nurture fetal life (and thereby, conveniently, continue to control women’s reproductive systems and bodies) then dissolves into a discourse of individual responsibility once that fetus is born. The infant, if not cared for or protected by its birth parents, is, well, on its own.

After an introductory verse where Big Boi characteristically details a sexual exploit with a nymphomaniac nicknamed Suzy Skrew, Andre tells the story of her friend, Sasha Thumper. The story begins in childhood or adolescence, a standard rhetorical move in hip hop poems that seek to humanize. The earliest example of such social commentary in hip hop poetry is Melle Mel’s verse on “The Message”: “A child is born with no state of mind/ Blind to the ways of mankind/ God is smiling on you but he’s frowning too/ Because only God knows what you’ll go through.” Andre recalls a summer night long ago, when Suzy and Sasha were young enough to have a slumber party. He corrects himself and says you can’t really call it a slumber party because it was “slummer.” He converts slum into an adjective to describe a scene in which children spend the night outside, up at 3 in the morning, without a roof above them, under streetlights and sky, where they stare off at the stars.

The stars evoke desire—they are what we wish upon—and destiny—as in Romeo and Juliet, the story of “star-crossed lovers.” But there is nothing mystical about Sasha Thumper’s eventual demise, which is the result of her struggles that began in her home life as a child in the ghetto. Childhood in this scene is not a time of innocence and dreaming for Sasha, as it is for Andre who is “chillin like a villain” and “feelin right.” Sasha’s concern is already concentrated on those first two, basic and most heavy strata of the Maslowian needs—physiology and safety—and thoughts of a higher purpose or a vocation, of the kind of self-actualization Andre lives out in the song, is unimaginable. Andre narrates:

“In the middle of the ghetto on the curb, but in spite / All of the bulllshit we on our backs staring at the stars above / Talkin bout what we gon be when we grow up / I said what you wanna be and she said, ‘Alive’ / It made me think for a minute, then look in her eyes / I coulda died”

Andre then lapses time, suggesting the passage of years by repeating a split feminine rhyme for four straight clauses, (“time went on, I got grown, rhyme got strong, mind got blown), his Atlanta drawl stretching the short vowels of “on” and “strong” into long assonance, then breaking off the scheme with a stiff spondee when he comes “back home.” He finds out that Sasha is in an abusive relationship, likely the repetition of a primordial cycle that greeted her in childhood, a cycle that probably began long before she was born, then waited for her. After he fails to track down Sasha, Andre gets back to business and secretly hopes to run into her again, to see her standing in the front row at one of his concerts. Instead, he hears a couple of weeks later that Sasha’s body was found behind a school, with a needle in her arm, seven months pregnant. He ends the verse by re-stating her name, as if he felt the need to remind us that this abject body had an identity, that it actually was a person, the same person who threw the slummer party way back when.

This uncomfortable conclusion juxtaposes the innocence of the schoolyard with the harshness of addiction and its ultimate destination. This image is where news stories often begin. Andre, instead, starts with that summer night as he commemorates his friend, and deftly communicates his feeling for her: “I remember her number like the summer/ when her and Suzy yeah they threw a slumber…” In this age of smartphones, this song reminded me what it means to remember someone’s number. I haven’t committed to memory my parents’ or my brother’s cell number today, as they are all programmed into my phone. But I remember the numbers of my closest friends from 20 years ago. I memorized them that deeply by dialing them over and over, for countless conversations, innumerable nights passed in faceless talk. Andre’s verse is not an indictment of society or a call to action like some of the songs in its vein, such as 2pac’s unrivaled masterpiece “Brenda’s Got a Baby,” but it is a profound exercise in humanization, which, when carried off this powerfully, seems to humanize not only the character and the reader/listener, but the author as well.