“My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.” ~ His Holiness, The Dalai Lama
I have never intentionally listened to a song by the musician named Jay-Z. From various headlines I know who Jay-Z is but I am 100% unfamiliar with his oeuvre. Fifteen years ago I heard Esa-Pekka Salonen (then conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic) mention Eminen during a pre-concert lecture on Mahler and that constitutes the full extent of my knowledge and experience of hip-hop music. Although half of my CD collection is comprised of the complete works of John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Charlie Christian, Grant Green, Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis, because I am a white middle-aged male who has never listened to hip-hop music I am sure that some people will think that I am racist.
I’m not racist. I’m elitist. There’s a difference.
Thus, it was a pleasant and somewhat mindblowing surprise yesterday when I was moved to tears by this exchange between Mister Jay-Z and Dean Baquet in the New York Times (and no, I am not Jay-Z’s therapist):
BAQUET: First off, how does Jay-Z find a therapist? Not in the Phone book, right?
JAY-Z: No, through great friends of mine. You know. Friends of mine who've been through a lot and, you know, come out on the other side as, like, whole individuals.
BAQUET: What was that like, being in therapy? What did you talk about that you had never acknowledged to yourself or talked about?
JAY-Z: I grew so much from the experience. But I think the most important thing I got is that everything is connected. Every emotion is connected and it comes from somewhere. And just being aware of it. Being aware of it in everyday life puts you at such a ... you're at such an advantage. You know, you realize that if someone's racist toward you, it ain't about you. It's about their upbringing and what happened to them, and how that led them to this point. You know, most bullies bully. It just happens. Oh, you got bullied as a kid so you trying to bully me. I understand. And once I understand that, instead of reacting to that with anger, I can provide a softer landing and maybe, “Aw, man, is you O.K.?” I was just saying there was a lot of fights in our neighborhood that started with “What you looking at? Why you looking at me? You looking at me?” And then you realize: “Oh, you think I see you. You’re in this space where you’re hurting, and you think I see you, so you don’t want me to look at you. And you don’t want me to see you.”
BAQUET: You think I see your pain.
JAY-Z: You don't want me to see your pain. You don't ... So you put on this shell of this tough person that's really willing to fight me and possibly kill me 'cause I looked at you. You know what I'm saying, like, so ... Knowing that and understanding that changes life completely.
BAQUET: Was that a moment that came from therapy?
JAY-Z: Yeah — just realizing that, oh my goodness, these young men coming from these ... they just in pain.
The first noble truth of Buddhism is that, “Life is dukkha.” Dukkha translates as unsatisfactoriness, suffering, unease. Thus, Jay-Z’s reframing of the common taunts “What you looking at? Why you looking at me? You looking at me?” as “Don’t witness my suffering” is massively brilliant.
When we read Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” and learn statistically how black men are still oppressed, how many feel disempowered and disenfranchised in contemporary America, then Jay-Z’s response is pitch perfect: compassion.
And obviously Buddhists do not have a monopoly on compassion but there is a philosophy behind inspiring others to be their highest selves and making the world a more harmonious place that is at the forefront of Buddhism.
I had thought that hip-hop music was mostly materialistic and misogynistic but I must be deceived. Would readers kindly please leave the titles of some of Jay-Z’s or other hip-hop artists uplifting, positive, empowering and compassionate songs in the comment section below? Thank you very much :-)