Nicole Shawan Junior
NYC. The 92Y. January 9, 2018.
A month after my arraignment, I hit the 92Y for the first time. Lena Waith in Conversation with Charlamagne the God, the Y advertised. When asked about life after earning an Emmy, Lena responds, “There's a difference between how you walk on this earth when you're living your dream versus how you walk when you’re thinking about [it].” Goosebumps feather my arms. I scooch deep into the mint green velvet chair.
When Charlamagne asks about the inspiration behind her penned Chi characters, she says, “Little black boys are not born with a pack of drugs in one hand and a gun in the other.” I snap my fingers, spread my legs and lamp my head on the seatback. The ceiling is at least a hundred feet high.
And, about her childhood in Chicago, she jests, “I grew up in a two-parent household – my mom and the television.” The crowd laughs. A shared nostalgia breaks free through applause. With my neck craned back, I see that the richly polished auditorium walls wear dead men like halos. Beethoven. Lincoln. Washington. David. Moses are written at the ceiling’s edge, all-capped in faux gold. I remember my own come-up and grunt, “ummm humph!”
Because of crack, TV became my daddy.
But, music was always my God.
NYC. B.C. (Before Crack)
Daddy carries me as we swim through a sea of folks at an outdoor concert. Unhappy with the view from behind the crowd, we shoulder to the front. Closer to the action. We land a few rows from the stage and Daddy lifts me onto his shoulders before bouncing to the beat. He grips my knees with his fists. I palm his Kangol for balance.
A bare-chested man with a leather vest and wide-brimmed hat talks into a microphone. To his left, a guy stands behind a table. He looks to be fiddling with albums on two record players. He quickly licks his fingers and places them back down. They move swiftly, like arrows.
Beside him, a bunch of guys dance. Some place their feet into the hands of others who shoot them flying into the air before folding into back-flips. Their legs flare into crucifixes. Everyone’s arms move like wind blown from trumpets.
“Friends. How many of us have them? Friends. Ones we can depend on…,” the guy with the microphone sings. This is my first concert – a Hip Hop mega jam featuring Whodini, Grandmaster Flash and the Fat Boys. I’m baptized into a Hip Hop Head.
Flatbush. ‘89 or ‘90. A.C. (Amid Crack)
“Number one. Not born to run. About the gun. I wasn’t licensed to have one. The minute they see me, fear me. I’m the epitome. A public enemy,” Chuck D raps at just above a whisper from the small cassette player in my bedroom. I iron my clothes on the rickety board with the burn-stained cover. Daddy’s been gone for days. Probably on a mission. Mama worked a double last night. She came home after I fell asleep. I make sure to keep quiet as I get my nine-year-old self ready for school. I don’t want to wake her.
Once the wrinkles in my clothes fade, I throw on my outfit. School’s about a ten-minute walk away. I don’t want to be late.
“Precious,” mama yawns. I find her standing behind me, in my doorway. “Why don’t we play hooky today?” she asks.
“Yesssssss!” I scream, throwing myself into her thighs and gripping her waist between my arms.
Playing hooky means that mama chefs up a hot breakfast. Buttery cinnamon pancakes. Scrambled eggs. Curly crispy bacon. Playing hooky means a trip to the Kenmore Theater on Church Avenue for a matinee show. Best of all, playing hooky means sing offs where mama and I dance while belting the words to our favorite songs.
In our living room is our revered stereo system – the silver Pioneer. It sits on a shelf in a glass-enclosed wall unit next to the floor model television. Two long, slender wooden speakers with fuzzy chocolate faces flank it. On both sides of the music box, between it and the speakers, tatty album covers lean diagonally like old men by liquor stores.
Our Pioneer is a cube with knobs, dials, rectangular buttons, stop light red squares, numbers lit in aqua blue, and bars that stretch neon green. The stereo is Wonderland, and I am curiouser and curiouser Alice. Each dial and button, each bump of the windshield wipers that show the bass and treble levels is mesmerizing. But my two favorite clicks on the stereo’s face? The skinny power button and the craggy volume notch.
I crank it up. Soul II Soul’s singing, “yellow is the color of sun rays. Keep on movin don’t stop…” Mama and I lock hands and dance. Moving our feet, swaying our hips and harmonizing our voices together. “I know the time, time today. Walking alone in my own way.” Mama sings for audiences sometimes. Churches. Bars. Family gatherings. Where daddy taught me Otis Redding, the Temptations and Run DMC through vinyl, mama introduces me to Billie, Sarah and Nina through her own voice, which smokes like brimstone.
Bed Stuy & Midwood. 92 A.C.
In my Bed Stuy bedroom, an onyx Sony boombox as big as a Ford Flathead V-8 crowns the top of my chipped-wood clothes dresser. I use its cassette decks to record Kool DJ Red Alert’s show onto blank Maxell tapes. On weekends, I leave the radio on overnight at a low volume so I can fall asleep to BLS’ Quiet Storm. But, a boombox isn’t called ‘a boombox’ for nothing. Most times I bump that shit. Hard.
Today’s no different.
Snoop Dogg’s Doggy Style just dropped. I gotta learn the lyrics before everybody else. I can’t be around my crew, especially Tyesha, Dashae and Chrissy, without being able to recite the songs, word for word. Ain’t No Fun is too dope not to know. I press play and let it rock. Once it’s finished, I hit the rewind button to bring the beginning back up. I play it a dozen times at max volume. The bass vibrates across the hardwood floors through the thick of my soles. “Guess whose back in tha muthafuckin howwwwwse, wit a fat dick for ya muthafuckin mouth. Hoes recognize. Nigguhs do too. Cause when bit-ches get scaaaand’lous an’ puuuull a voodoo, whachu gon do? You really don’t know! So-I’d-ad-vise-you-not-to-trust-that…”
“Nicooooooolllle!” Mama bursts through my bedroom door. “Shut that shit off! Shut. that. off. Nowwww!” She catches me in the mirror, mid-performance. I quickly move to the boombox and hit pause. “And you bet not evuh let me hear that shh-- Mattuh fact, give it tuh me. Bring. It. Here!” I pop open the deck and give her the tape. Once she closes my door, I roll my eyes and cry.
After school on Monday, Tyesha and Dashae recite the lyrics as we walk towards Flatbush Junction. I silently sulk, praying for my bus to hurry up and come already!
“Yo, you gotta get that nigguh Snoop’s album, son!” Dashae says.
I lie and say that my tape popped, even though I bought it brand spanking new. On Tuesday, Tyesha gives me a Maxell copy of her Doggy Style. I throw it in my Walkman. Now I know what isn’t for the boombox.
Bed Stuy. Early ‘94. A.C.
Discmans have gained popularity due to the anti-skipping technology that’s been developed. But, I don’t have CDs. I have tapes. Stacks of them circle my bedroom furniture and lay in my top dresser drawers. So, I keep my Walkman close.
My Walkman is fire engine red and compact enough to fit in my Columbia pocket. The cold of its plastic is reassurance. I don’t go anywhere without it.
It’s now January or February. Maybe early March. I’m not sure. But, it’s dark out. I’m on my way home. I walk the short distance from Fulton Street onto Malcolm X Boulevard with a thin herd of folks who, like me, have just gotten off the A express and are headed deeper into the Stuy. At the stop light, I step off the curb and into the parking lane. I look towards the traffic coming from my right. Stepping a little further out, I then shift my head, towards the traffic coming from my left. The traffic that was a more imminent threat.
I see flashing turret lights and a marked police car barreling towards me. It’s barely twenty feet away and approaching quickly. I jump back, closer to the sidewalk. The police car speeds past me as I take my headphones off. Only now can I hear the siren. A white officer with dirty blonde hair who rides shottie opens his passenger side door. He leans out and looks back at me. He sticks up his middle finger. He screams, “Fuhkkkin nigger!”
I am not shocked. I am not enraged. I am not disgusted. I am ashamed. Shame punctures my chest like the single bullet to Shantel Davis. Restrains me, in prone position, like Tanisha Anderson. Finishes me like twenty-four pieces of lead within the bends, folds and gristle of Malissa Williams’ body. Vice-grips my neck like the noose around Sandra Bland’s. I’m ashamed that I did not look to my left first. That I did not move out of the way of the police sooner. That my music bumped louder than the police siren.
Even when the traffic is clear and the light says that I can walk, I’m afraid to move. I look to my left. A slight woman with silver hair stands just a step away. She looks at me and shakes her head with eyes that bleed pity. I cross the street with her, while taking my Walkman out of my pocket. I press stop, and return it. I pull the headphones behind my neck and take another step towards home.
I don’t remember what I’m listening to. I don’t remember the melody. I don’t remember the lyrics. This is the first time someone calls me “nigger.” It’s not the last. This is the first time that an adult sticks their middle finger up at me. “Fuck You!” His eyes meant it. This is the first time that I personally interact with a police officer. I am thirteen.
And I cannot remember the music.
Cleveland. The Night of Monday, March 5, 2018 A.C. (After Crack)
A year ago, I arrived in Cleveland a woman who prosecuted police for half a decade. Today, I pled guilty to a felony. Fraud. The first crime that I’m accused of. Not the first I ever committed. Mary drives us away, past the city limits. During this pilgrimage from the courthouse, I stare out the passenger window as The Gospel of Jay proclaims, “Y'all feel a nigguh's struggle. Y'all think a nigguh love to, hustle behind the wheel, tryin to escape my trouble.” Styles P’s Doctrine warns, “Your destiny is something you can never figure out. Nigguhs is never happy 'til there's blood up in your mouth.” The Book of Kendrick affirms, “We gone be alright.”
As the clergy rhymes, I soak in their sermons. I’m brought back to the girl who rode her father’s shoulders those thirty years ago. Transported from the press’ cameras and jabbing mics. Removed from the word, “Guilty.” A word that was tough to spit because, like the news articles about my case, it was inadequate. Incomplete.
Calm settles in my stomach. Peace brews at the bass of each beat. The taste of freedom sprinkles my tongue. Gone are the sharp nails that affixed me to a system I knew well enough to no longer believe in. I hear the music in ways I haven't for decades. I hear more than the cadence and flow of verse and hook. I hear more than the pulse between drum, scratch and snare.
I hear the map home.
I remember how to walk.
Look both ways.
Then put one foot in front of the other.
Nicole Shawan Junior: (Smith BA/Pace MST/Temple University JD) "I was bred in the bass-heavy beat and scratch of Brooklyn, where the cool of beautiful inner-city life survived the crippling caused by crack cocaine. I am a black, Queer and hood-born Womanist, felon, and former police prosecutor. I'm currently writing screenplays and a coming of age memoir that explores race, class, crime, criminalization, and duality. I enjoy putting pen-to-paper to capture the journeys of real and fictitious around-the-block black girls."