Tapping Into Non Traditional Sources of Knowledge
By JR Mahung | Thursday, April 29, 2021
By JR Mahung
Thursday, April 29, 2021
One of my earliest creative writing teachers was Yasiin Bey. Not in any classroom, mind you. I was near obsessed with his rhyme patterns and the imagery in his raps. I would sit in my room and play the Blackstar album on repeat. Rapped along each time “Respiration” played, new moon rode high in the crown of the metropolis/shining / like who on top of this?/people was tusslin arguing and bustlin/gangsters of gotham hardcore hustlin. Bey’s verse was about his hometown of New York but there was so much I could relate to as a kid growing up in Chicago.
At its most basic, language is about communication. While not all forms of communication are considered languages, there are so many ways to express what we mean. I’m thinking of the way my cat walks slowly towards me and meows in a specific tone when he wants a window opened or the way my sister can show her disagreement with a look. Each is their own language.
My gram is quadrilingual. She speaks english, Belizean creole, Garifuna (our afroindigenous language), and Spanish. She slips from one to another into a third depending on what she needs to say and how she wants to say it. When joking, she may use Creole or Garifuna, Spanish in exclamation, english is the default but there’s so much she can say more clearly in her other tongues.
This brings me again to Yasiin Bey. The way he paints a picture of city life in his “Respiration” verse. Bey invented his own language to describe the city. Wall street traders were mercenaries paid to trade hot stock tips, the daily work grind was hard knuckles on the second hands of working class watches. And in the chorus, he described the passing of night into day as peppered with violence and beauty, So much on my mind that I can’t recline/ blasting holes in the night til she bled sunshine. I knew that if there was poetry, then this was a poem and by extension that cities like mine-- like Chicago-- deserved exploration, deserved their own language to hold them.
There was so much that I never gave myself credit for. But looking back, I did know there were questions worth asking: what language do we have to describe what we love? And how might we love what we have through language?
I carry this lesson with me now. I carry those questions into my own writing and ask you, how might you honor what you already know?
Draw from the language of your favorite musicians with JR's craft session, "Hit em Wit Da Hee: Writing with Music Videos", and consider place through exploring Black, indigenous, and afroindigenous modes of understanding of understanding land and space in their Writing Lab "When I Woke Up, I Dreamed: Writing Histories of Place".