November 11, 2014

SUSSER | Anonymity, NYC and Shmoney

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By PHILIP SUSSER

There is a certain amount of anonymity that goes along with being a New York City resident. Friendly hellos can be misinterpreted as creepy smiles. An unprompted conversation with a stranger is as repulsive as the subway bathrooms. Despite my unbridled enthusiasm for the city that never sleeps, I recognize this possible downside of living in the metropolitan setting. Kitty Genovese, who in 1964 was murdered outside of her apartment, had 37 neighbors report hearing the attack. Not one called the police.

Just like New York, Cornell, with 13,000 undergraduates, can at times create feelings of isolation — especially during freshman year when one hasn’t fully amalgamated into the social web of the university. While an extreme situation such as Genovese is unlikely to occur at Cornell — thanks to the Blue Light system — it is not difficult to get lost in the crowd at this sizable institution. Despite this shortcoming of large universities and cities, there are certain qualities that unite Cornellians and New Yorkers, regardless of their level of social integration. For Cornellians, it could be a resistance to gray skies that create a permanent Willow filter on campus. For city dwellers, it could be an appreciation for the intricacies of the subway system, contempt for tourists, ignorance of pedestrian stop signs or pride in one’s favorite borough.

A borough, or neighborhood, can provide a sense of belonging within a large city. Just as one-third of Cornellians gravitate towards Greek life to make the school a little bit smaller, boroughs and the small communities within them provide a more manageable perception of where one comes from. The Bronx, one of New York City’s most prized boroughs, and home to the factory of future Ivy-league students that is the Bronx High School of Science, has a rich history and culture. The strong Latino presence is felt on every street corner bodega — small, neighborhood stores whose generic-name products line the shelves and buzzing static of the Spanish radio permeate throughout. The genuine, unregulated feel of these stores contribute to a feeling of authenticity, separate from the wealth and materialism of Manhattan. There is very little gentrification within the borough — no Chipotles, high-rise condos or yuppies sipping on mimosas on a Sunday afternoon. Aside from Riverdale, an isolated upper class community within the Bronx, the borough has largely retained its image as a central home for the immigrant population of New York — 32 percent of its population in 2009 was immigrants. For its rawness and unapologetic immunity from the structure and over-the-top civility that characterizes Manhattan, the Bronx is a special place.

The Brooklyn of yesterday was home to Jay-Z, Biggie Smalls and a relative of every Jew in the tri-state area. The Brooklyn of today is home to the Nets, Williamsburg hipsters and none other than Bobby Shmurda. Ackquille Jean Pollard, known by his stage name as Bobby Shmurda, is a rapper who gained notoriety for his song “Hot N*gga” and the “Shmoney dance” that came out of it. From Beyonce to NFL star wide receiver Brandon Gibson, the song has infiltrated popular culture and, in my eyes, crowned Shmurda the unofficial ambassador of Brooklyn. Aside from the catchiness of the song and dance, much more can be taken from this recent hit, particularly how it relates to one’s relationship with their neighborhood.

The music video is wholly unique from that of any overproduced A-list performer. Rather than being a form of entertainment, it comes across as a piece of cultural data — a window into the lives of those living in extreme poverty in Brooklyn, where murder and crime are simple facts of life. The frankness and nonchalance with which Shmurda refers to murder is both alarming and all too real.

While gangster rap was originally intended as a creative outlet, the mass appeal of the gangster identity has desensitized the general public to the stark realities of such a lifestyle. Watch any gangster movie or TV show — The Sopranos, Goodfellas, etc — and be enamored by the sociopathic nature of these individuals, yet take their ambivalence towards murder as a given. Demand for these forms of culture has clouded the real issues at hand. When we watch videos such as “Hot N*gga,” rarely do we stop and ponder the realities behind the dark lyrics. The thought of a Congressman using lyrics and music videos as a way to identify with and learn from his or her constituents is laughable. Most see rap and politics as separate spheres. But, for people like Shmurda, rap is the most expressive and powerful form of communication. While often deemed illegitimate, rap can be seen as a candid expression of the condition of one’s environment.

The inextricable link between Brooklyn, rap and drugs that was so effectively solidified by Biggie Smalls and Jay-Z created expectations and assumptions about the nature of the borough throughout America. Hip-hop from Brooklyn and the bravado one has in being from a hard struck area became a sign of resiliency. Therefore, since the rise of hip-hop, Brooklyn has been used as a medium of entertainment for the country. Much of America has used the intriguing lifestyle of Brooklyn as a form of entertainment and in doing so, became more connected to this borough. But while we all genuinely identify with our hometown, Greek house, sports team or Acapella group as a mechanism to alleviate anonymity and feel more connected, we cannot afford to let this spurious connection with Brooklyn overpower the issues underlying Shmurda’s video. It is time to view rap as both a sign of connectivity to one’s origins and a genuine reflection of current conditions. As we learn to subdue this secondhand linkage to the borough, our interpretations of such music may change.

Philip Susser is a junior in the College of Human Ecology. He can be reached at pss226@cornell.edu. An Ithaca State of Mind appears on alternate Wednesdays this semester.