For two months now, I’ve been mulling over a question posed by a letter writer to The Sun in early December: “Instead of filling The Sun’s pages almost exclusively with reports about crime and corruption in our city, thereby cementing its negative image locally and abroad,” the writer asked, “does The Sun not have a duty to also highlight and honor its amazing cultural life and support it every way possible, rather than just chide institutions for failing?”
I’ve been an arts and entertainment reporter for the paper since April, and the question hit me hard professionally. But the query also stuck with me for personal reasons. I know the value of the arts — music especially. It saved my life. Maybe not literally, but it gave me a focus and a purpose without which I don’t know where I’d be today.
From the first albums I fell completely in love with, in late childhood — starting with “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” and Blink-182’s “Enema of the State” — melody, rhythm, composition and lyricism became the language through which I understood the world.
Hip hop and R&B taught me about cultures outside my own as an Indian American, and blasting metal and punk behind closed doors taught me about me. The energy and anger of the music made it easier to deal with the anger I felt about being bullied in the post-9/11 society, in which kids with skin like mine were painted as terrorists-in-waiting regardless of our backgrounds. Later on in Philadelphia — as I tried to move out of an ill-fated career in nonprofit administration — I started writing concert reviews and doing interviews with local musicians, which led to my present career. Without music, I can’t imagine where my search for meaning in a troubled world would’ve ended.
I see similar stories to mine in Baltimore, with young people in this predominantly black city turning to the local music scene for compassion and joy in their lives.
Take rapper and singer Eze Jackson jubilantly singing “I just want you to be great!” to kick off his latest album, “Fool.” Or consider Shawna Potter of the beautifully confrontational punk band War on Women putting her years of safe space training into a digestible book, “Making Spaces Safer.” Or rappers like Abdu Ali and JPEGMAFIA pushing the sonic envelope and blurring genre lines while reaching to redefine Baltimore’s role in black dance music.
All of these artists (plus too many more to name) take on social ills and misused power in their work. Baltimore’s best musicians, no matter the genre, reflect and respect the city’s hardscrabble nature. They channel the good and bad into something cathartic and hopeful. In this respect, they lead with more humanity and sense than some political or corporate leaders could ever hope to. They stand up for the unheard and, when heard on their own terms, drown out the city’s worst critics.
I think about this when I see the way many people disparage Baltimore youth. It’s easy to criticize the city’s problems, which are urgent and endemic. But Baltimore’s musicians understand that there’s something deeper to city’s charms and curses. Its young people, especially those of color living in poverty, deserve more humanity than they get from certain sectors of society. They get it from musicians who envision a better tomorrow.
Reporting on local music shows me every day how much these voices matter in confronting the biases and negativity that surround Baltimore’s narrative — and in making that future possible. I agree with what Eze sang to open his album: “I just want you to be great.”
Sameer Rao is an arts and entertainment reporter for The Baltimore Sun. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @amancalledsrao.