In the fall of 1998, I sat in my grandmother’s basement and watched Rap City on BET. On this particular episode, on the campus of Howard University, Joe “Cleezy” Clair interviewed a young Terius Gray alongside his cohorts. He wore a backwards baseball cap, with his rap name, Juvenile, inscribed on the part which faced the camera. In a thick, southern drawl, he spoke with high intellect about several topics, one you don’t often hear from emcees. I thought to myself “I like this guy. I’ll have to pay attention to him.”
Weeks later, I watched the same show and noticed a new music video. On a black screen, the television read “Magnolia Housing Projects, New Orleans,” followed by the man whose words I was intrigued with, as he rapped with the backdrop of the dingiest place I’d ever seen in America, as its residents cheered him on (In New York, housing projects are not two-floor buildings, they tower over neighborhoods).
I watched the whole video, fascinated by a world unfamiliar to the one I knew. The song itself, I hated it. Born, bred, and bled New York, I thought to myself “What is this bullshit?!” It sounded like gibberish I could not comprehend in which every line ended with “Ha!”
Within a few days of my first look at “Ha,” the song had swept through the city and Cash Money’s
army Navy invaded New York. There were two schools of thought: those who’d converted overnight and others who didn’t get it; I was the latter. All my friends, especially my boy, Early, loved the song and it got on my absolute last nerve. Would you like to know what is more intense and inescapable than something ubiquitous? JAY-Z hopping on the remix of “Ha.” That shit was omnipresent in New York.
Then, “Ha” grew on me. Out of sheer stubbornness, I never admitted my change of heart and kept it to myself. Within the next year, while I wasn’t a fan, per se, I knew Cash Money had the goods and were a dynasty. It wasn’t until years later, when I arrived in Atlanta, befriended people from New Orleans, and was ingratiated into the Southern way of life, did all of it make sense, and I became a fan.
Twenty years after my introduction to Cash Money, I sat in the back of an Uber on the dawn of an early July morning. I left my motel somewhere in the southern Louisiana marshlands and headed towards downtown New Orleans. On this particular day, Spotify opted to troll me and suggested I listened to one of my favorite Juve tracks, a regional record from 1995 you’d only know if you were from the Southeastern quadrant of the United States or were a hip hop
snob connoisseur, “If You’re a Player.” The universe and my phone’s algorithmic analytics picked the perfect song for my commute.
As my backdrop evolved from water and tall, unidentifiable weeds into what I’d seen in Cash Money videos, I thought about how far I’d come. I was in New Orleans, on Fourth of July Weekend, for Essence Fest. After my three-year hiatus as a writer, I’d hired management six weeks prior; they invited me to come along and network with them and their constituents to get my name back out there. After almost seven years of work and stops, I was finally on my way.
At the height of [my first] flirtation with success, I was a self-employed, stay-at-home dad who freelanced when-and throughout-me periods of not-so-gainful employment. I didn’t commute to a Manhattan office and develop day-to-day relationships with most of the staff who paid me. Maybe once or twice a year, I popped my head in to say hello to the two people I was in direct contact with; but so many people had came and went, no one else knew who I was, even if I’d told them who I was.
As my confidence grew in my abilities to write, self-doubt began to creep up in other ways. Social media favored the influencer, which killed the blog, and gave way to a brand-new game to be played. Dollars for advertisement dwindled for platforms which favored the written word; consolidation of such places meant new management and many of my constituents in the business began careers in other fields. I could be the greatest writer in the world; but with my numbers on the decline and a small network, my momentum quelled.
From my cell phone, at my day job, I watched many rise in the ranks as I pretended to care about purchase orders for generators. What my 9-5 and my career had in common was the replacement of assets as they depreciated. My stock was down because there was a new game, I didn’t have time to play; I was a father.
I felt like the kid whose parents told him after he finished his homework, he had to practice his instrument; therefore, all he could do was watch his friends play outside. Sure my grades were awesome and I was a virtuoso musician; the girl I had for so long, the one who gave me some traction and said “yes” when I asked her out, moved on and began to hang out with another guy.
The morning I listened to Juvenile on repeat gave me clarity. In His own time, God answered my questions and informed me not to question Him. For the years I felt in my mind, heart, and spirit there were rooms I belonged in, there I was. I wasn’t someone’s plus one, either; I was a peer. Even if people hadn’t been able to put a face to my name, my work worked for me. I ran into friends who were aware of my work and I too was able to put a face to the numbers which were data. I left New Orleans feeling validated and motivated to play the game again, on my terms.
My arrangement with management didn’t pan out, life happened, and so came some new setbacks. But as I learned on the Huey P. Long Bridge, I didn’t query God’s plan. We have seasons where we are given a glimpse of a promise, only for it to be taken away. It’s the way we are asked “How bad do you want to work for it?”
…or “If you’re a player making money, throw ya hands up.”