The Zen of Young Money: Being Present to the Genius of Black Youth

24 Jan

Guest post by Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs, friend of CFC, Wonder Twin of me 🙂

I fly with the stars in the skies,
I am no longer trying to survive,
I believe that life is a prize,
But to live doesn’t mean you’re alive.

Being Black: Zen and the Art of Living with Fearlessness and Grace, Angel Kyodo Williams
“Over” Drake
“Moment for Life” Nicki Minaj

what am I doing? what am I doing?
oh yeah, that’s right, I’m doing me, I’m doing me
I’m living life right now
and this what I’m a do til its over
til it’s over, but it’s far from over


I am a member of a criminalized generation of black geniuses.

My twenty-something age-mates and the teenagers behind us are often dismissed as materialistic, crass, empty-headed, impulse addicts. Elders mourn our distance from the forms of social movement participation they would have imagined and mass media relates to us as a market to be bought, exploited and sold back to ourselves, ever cheaper.

As a particularly nerdy member of the so-called thoughtless generation, I resent the implication. And I wonder sometimes what it will take to make the forms of social interaction and critique that young black people are engaged in every moment of our high-tech or low-tech days legible to the baby boomers (since we all know that legibility to baby boomers is what makes something real in the United States).

So this rare piece (on my part) of contemporary hip hop commentary is an attempt to provide a specific example for an undercredited belief that is at the basis of my queer intergenerational feminist politic of black love:

As young black people we are experts of our own experiences, we think about the meanings of our lives, the limits of our options and more often than not we choose not to conform, not to consent to an upright and respectable meaning of life. Even in our most nihilistic moments we are tortured artists and mad scientists, living a critique of a dominant society that cannot contain us and does not deserve us. This doesn’t mean that we are always doing the right thing (Spike Lee), but it does mean that any effective transformative politic that is accountable to us, young black people with a variety of intellectual and cultural attractions and modes, will respect us as genius participants in a culture in transition (singularity) instead of incorrectly assuming that we are mindless consumers.


I take, the example of two songs by two of the most visible young black artists around, members of a hip hop crew/entertainment company that has capitalized on glamourizing a sexualized, hyper-capitalist version of youth energy, chosen family, excess and fun: Nicki Minaj and Drake from the Lil Wayne fronted Young Money Crew.

I happen to have been listening to mainstream radio one day in the car during the week that I was reading Angel Kyodo Williams book Being Black, on the value of Zen principles for black people in the United States, and inexplicably free of the usual defenses and judgments I hold against the most highly marketed versions of hip-pop (no typo) and the self-protection against misogyny and hyper-exploitation that generally causes me to hold back my listening, I actually paid attention to the lyrics.

Of course it was incredibly likely that I would hear songs by Nicki Minaj and Drake since they are routinely rotated. It seems like 2 out of 2 songs that are currently played on the radio star or feature one of these artists. But this time, opened up by Williams’ insights about the value of releasing judgment, I began to wonder whether beyond payola and the corporatization and uniformity of radio the mass appeal of these two artists might actually not only be the attraction of black youth, and young people in general to…(young) money and the alcohol baptized sexually olympic lifestyle advertised to come with young people’s access to money, but also a very different basic need in the lives of young black people, and a central need in my life: accessible technologies for being present to our own lives.

The year after I was born (1983) Lillie Allen created a workshop in Atlanta (as part of a vibrant and inspiring black feminist health movement and environment created by the National Black Women’s Health Project) called Black and Female: What is the Reality? which evolved into a curriculum for self and community empowerment calledBe Present. Could it be that the contemporary moment in hip-pop is keeping the attention of so many young people…including me, not for the predictably offered reasons, but rather as evidence of a deeply held desire to be present to our own lives in a culture too obsessed with progress to allow reflection or stillness?

Because really…what is compelling about the monotone of Drake’s voice in his clearly un-melodic non-chorus on “Over”? Is it only the saturation of media with images of his arrogant attempt to bring light-skinned tall brothers back into style with each other and the rest of the world? Or is it also the thin line between Drake’s monotone and a buddhist chant?

Because if, as Buddha writes in the Ghitassara Sutta, the lack of melody of the chant is designed to train us to release our attachment to sound so that we do not lose the moment behind it, Drake seems to also be accountable to something besides melody. What is it that Drake’s tonelessness offers that compels my generation to listen to it over and over again? Maybe it is the value of the moment behind the sound wanting to be revealed. The reminder to self, a struggle most evident in Drake’s questions and answers to himself:

what am I doing? what am I doing?
oh yeah, that’s right, I’m doing me, I’m doing me
I’m living life right now
and this what I’m a do til its over
til it’s over, but it’s far from over

This chorus seems to me to describe and enact exactly the struggle of my own stillness, my own attempts at meditation and mindful living in the world, the difficulty of escaping evaluation of my own life (especially its productivity), of placing myself on a limited timeline, of not “living life right now.” I wonder if other people, especially other young black people, who may not have recently read the writings of a brilliant black woman on the value of Zen awareness, are attracted to this same process, reflected in Drake’s existential moment, depicted in the music video as sitting on a hotel bed talking to himself charged out of nonchalance into liveliness as soon as he jumps (still seated) and says “oh yeah, that’s right, i’m doing me.” A contextually distant echo of Audre Lorde’s “I am who I am, doing what I came to do,” but an echo nonetheless, with the potential to do what Drake says he is capable of, making the “biggest skeptic a believer.” Could it be that my fellow black young adults and teenagers resonate with this non-song because it is an invitation to let go of some of the skepticism we bring to the value of our lives in their mundane and moving moments and to be present?

The other function of this piece is that while I have peripherally overhead every black feminist who engages with popular culture asked about what Mark Anthony Neal calls “the meaning of Nicki Minaj” in the midst of some kind of valuing or comparison with Lil Kim and the Barbie brand, I have to admit that I had not developed an idea of Nicki Minaj’s meaning or even an attunement to the sound of her voice until I was at Drag Bingo and a very fierce drag queen in a bobbed and banged blond wig did an impressive and well mouthed medley of Nicki Minaj songs and I found the metaphors hilarious (akin to what the smart-assed kid and poet in me is drawn to in the mid-career work of Eminem.) So I started listening to the words when I heard her baby-monster-robot voice on the radio. And when I heard:

In this very moment I’m king,
In this very moment I slay, Goliath with a sling,
This very moment I bring
Put it on everything, that I will retire with the ring,
And I will retire with the crown, Yes!
No I’m not lucky I’m blessed, Yes!
Clap for the heavyweight champ, Me!
But I couldn’t do it all alone, We!

I thought, this is drag performance all over again. A young black woman channeling the energy and poetry of a young Muhammed Ali as seamlessly as Janelle Monae channels the dance possession of James Brown. I listened to “Moment for Life” on youtube several times reflecting on what made the sequence above so affirming, and settled beyond my thrill at a young black woman that other young black women listen to embracing her masculinity and being proud of being a “heavyweight” it was the energetic repetition of “this very moment.” The powerful presence of the sequence places infinite value on the present moment. “This very moment I bring,” rumbles without knowing its embodiment of the energy and clarity of the Combahee River Collective’s “black women are inherently valuable.” What would it mean to affirm that what we bring is the moment, again and again, and that is enough. Period. Minaj literally uses affirmation as a practice in the piece (the repetition of “Yes!”) and the closing trinity of the passage above, divine context (no i’m not lucky i’m blessed. yes!) self-affirmation (clap for the heavyweight champ. me!) and interdependence with community (but I couldn’t do it all alone. we!) is exactly the mix that I use to keep myself centered. Who would have thought?

For a million reasons, most of them related to capitalism, racism and patriarchy it is extremely difficult for us, young black women, to be present to the miracle of our every breath. Usually we are waiting to exhale while the entire society collaborates to devalue and demean our living, our physicality, our impact. What are the possibilities of the resonance of an affirmation that moves beyond gender, that reaches to champion elders, that invokes a divine context and a need for community for all of us?

And more than that, what is the potential of my people, young black folks if we can be present to the value of our existence, and if everyone else can be buddhist about us, let judgment fall away and acknowledge the contribution we are to the universe just by existing as ourselves?

(We won’t be cocky, we’ll be vindicated.)

Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs is freeblack and 28.

11 Responses to “The Zen of Young Money: Being Present to the Genius of Black Youth”

  1. bint alshamsa January 24, 2011 at 11:20 AM #

    Alexis, sister, I am so in love with your mind. There are so many people that I need to share this with. Being in an inter-racial family, it can be challenging to explain black culture/black art to some of my loved ones. I think that’s because it is to be experienced, more than anything else. However, I think that your post is a better explanation for it than I could ever provide them with. Thank you for sharing your insights. As usual, I will be sharing this with my queer teen-aged daughter when she gets home from school. Your words always spark discussion around here.

  2. TJ January 24, 2011 at 11:21 AM #

    I guess it’s the “middle-aged” woman in me or the old school black feminist in me…but no matter all these blog articles trying to validate the presence of a Nikki Manji. I still can’t get with it. I guess folks haven’t heard her song in which she and a hype man holler about “nappy headed hoes.” or her giggling off Regis’s disrespect towards her body. or her recent magazine cover in which she dawns “wild Africa face paint.” It’s hard to see all this “female empowerment/genuis” whatever it’s trying to be presented as.

    • crunktastic January 24, 2011 at 1:18 PM #

      I think, TJ, that it’s simply more complicated than that. She has problematic lyrics and cultural references…most popular art does, unless it’s Sweet Honey in the Rock, for instance. So I think our challenge is to figure out her appeal and at the same time to celebrate the cultural legacies that she inhabits and that inhabit her. I think the author, then, does not uncritically celebrate Nicki Minaj, but challenges us to think about whether our old school feminist scripts are entirely useful here, or whether they just make us seem outdated, irrelevant, and unable to bring needed insights to newer generations of young women. I personally want a feminism that can do the latter.

    • alexis January 24, 2011 at 7:27 PM #

      Greetings TJ. I feel you. As I mention above I rarely write about mainstream hip-pop or even listen to hyper commercialized music because I want to protect my spirit from the misogyny and violence and uber-capitalism that gets promoted there. I fill my home with music that affirms my spirit, my body, and the black feminist utopia of full self-expression and love that I want to us to create together. I have to be very intentional to validate my own presence in a world that says in a million ways that queer black feminist anti-capitalist trouble-making women like me should not exist.

      That said, I take the Combahee River Collective Statement very seriously where it says “black women are inherently valuable.” (check out for more revelation into my wondertwin amplified obsession with the CRC) Inherently. Which means that as a black feminist I will not invalidate the presence of other black women. Black women are inherently valuable. Not only when they are doing what I would do. And I actually do think the there is a genius present everywhere there is a black woman or girl. Even though that does not mean that Nicki Minaj or any of us are always acting in ways that empower other women. Genius doesn’t excuse the harm that people do, but our ability to really see the power that is present in each other does make it possible for us to revalue each other and to connect in ways that surprise us.

      I was so impressed by the drag bingo version of Nicki Minaj that I was able to release judgment, be present and be suprised to hear not only one but two mainstream hip/pop artists say things that powerfully resonated with me.

      This is good news for me…not because it changes the whole messed up context of commercial and popular media that this blog so vigilantly brings to our attention, not because it changes the fact that many of the things that mainstream hip/pop artists continue to hurt me, specifically in the ways they can promote sexual violence, but because it reminds me that I can have an encounter with, them or with you, or with any other part of my community where I am surprised and affirmed by the way we are connected.

      I love that you identify as an old school black feminist and that you read a blog post that I wrote! It lights up my heart even more that you took the time to engage me and to disagree! I love that you are paying attention to Nicki Minaj (even more than I am…it seems) and that you are specific in your critique. I can tell, that like me, you want a world where we are all (especially black women and girls) fully loved and respected as who we are at all times.

      Thank you so much for writing. ❤

  3. Denise January 24, 2011 at 1:54 PM #


    I appreciated this article because often people are reluctant to recognize wisdom and artistry unless it comes from places they expect it to. These acceptable sources do not upset the status quo, support classist assumptions and do not challenge us by having a complex image. It is also important to note that black entertainers abound, they are largely supported by mostly white, loyal fan bases. My experience as an avid supporter of all kinds of hip-hop is that I´m usually surrounded by white people in the audience in part because we (black people) tend to be the biggest critics of the genius in our midsts. This is why some of the black artists that I love the most have moved to Europe and why Lena Horne said: “My identity is very clear to me now. I am a black woman. I’m free. I no longer have to be a ‘credit.’ I don’t have to be a symbol to anybody; I don’t have to be a first to anybody. I don’t have to be an imitation of a white woman that Hollywood sort of hoped I’d become. I’m me, and I’m like nobody else.”
    Nina Simone was airing our dirty laundry.
    Josephine Baker was shaking it for white folks.
    Grace Jones was talking bout being a slave to the rhythm.
    James Baldwin was openly gay.
    Jimmy Hendrix had a white band.
    The drugs, the whores, the sell-outs, the artists.
    Nicki is who she is and highly-talented. She does not have to lose the wig or put on more clothes or become someone more ¨acceptable¨ for us to recognize that. It does not damage us a people to have a myriad of representations. I want Nicki Minaj to stay Nicki and I want India Arie to stay India. I would not have it any other way.

  4. Celie January 24, 2011 at 3:05 PM #

    How unfortunate.

  5. natashatheory January 24, 2011 at 3:26 PM #

    Love this, sista! I would love to add you to my blogroll. Please check out my blog when you get a chance.

  6. Edna January 24, 2011 at 4:35 PM #

    I really love this piece because it resonates with a lot of what has been going on with me. Mainstream hip-hop in my opinion is presenting a reflection of the rootless, self promoter, who knows where they came from and thinks that getting up is the same thing as giving back, that is running our culture nuts and bolts. There is no real and entertaining green granola munching media anymore, and these young artists are presenting us with one question: are you ready to get yours? and a statement: cause I am. And I think this really needs to be considered, in terms of people starting to think about what we want, and feeling entitled to at least having an opportunity to get it. That’s why I love hip-hop, because even though some lyrics are painful to hear there are also lyrics like Niki Manaj “Sure you can be the King, now watch the Queen conquer.” that totally affirm my dominant, bossy, self loving, goal oriented, I know who the real boss here is, feminist side. A woman claiming power like that is usually only found in radical feminist contexts, and often noted as man hating. But Niki can get away with it, because she gives off the impression, through he appearance that she herself exists for men. She is the Dolly Parton of hip-hop. Should we deny that it is still a mans world, to be slapped in the face with Niki Manaj’s pink wig. She banks for a reason, theres no sense in shooting the messenger.

    There is a lot of talk about how people who produce crap lyrics about women, and air all their internalized stuff should think about the collective. But what about the collective thinking about what WE are doing, where WE are. Niki Manaj and Drake are doing what they feel like doing, and what works for them at the moment. People fight hard to become celebrities, and who knows where it will take them. But it is the risk that is inspiring. They will never carry the weight of society on their shoulders, and neither should we if we want to get anywhere.

  7. Asha January 25, 2011 at 6:07 PM #

    Yes and thank you. And yes.

  8. MB January 28, 2011 at 12:05 PM #

    You know, I dont 100% agree with ur assessment of Drake and Nicki, bc I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE Nicki and HATe, HATE, HATE Drake. I love, love, love Lil Wayne also, who goes from being a lover to a conqueror of women, but hey, thats reality and it annoys me when people tell others what they SHOULD feel or SHOULD think.

    As someone trying to make my name in the world, I can really relate to what Nicki and Wayne are doing and love that Nicki dresses crazy rather than limiting herself to urban appeal. I also love her big butt, as a fellow big butt person, its nice to see someone owning it and not hiding it!!! Yay Nicki!

    Oh yeah, and I hate Lil Kim, I dont get the comparisons, but… Ill tell u all day I love pop, not trying to front.

  9. Toi February 3, 2011 at 10:20 PM #

    I applaud and agree with most/ if not all of this post. I am also a young intellectual black female in a hip hop environment, and although i love old school hip hop, this new crunk/rappin about colors and cars and money thing doesnt do it for me. I still listen to the radio while driving so i’ve heard this song many times and haven’t really analyzed all the lyrics till now. You made great points. Here’s the problem though. Nicki Minaj could be saying the most philosophical words since Confucius, BUT, her image is why most young girls love her. I’ve heard and read many posts about girls loving nicki minaj cause she’s “a bad b****” (whatever that means), fly, poppin, all those words that means they love her style. But i’ve never heard anyone dissect her lyrics and apply them to their life. I don’t really care for Nicki the image, but I appreciate the message that she conveys in SOME of her songs.

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