If you take a ride down Lake Shore Drive from the North to the South Side of Chicago, initially you see beautiful green lawns, thriving businesses and smiling people. As you continue, you start to notice changes: more empty lots, abundant foreclosure signs. I don’t know if I imagine it or not, but it’s almost like once you cross certain social borders, everything gets more gray. Even the sun has grown afraid of shedding light on my people.
Eventually, I realized that the path the J14 bus follows is a grim narrative of this country’s history, a reflection of my value to the world. In a city as segregated as mine, you be surprised how much public transit reveals. The J14 runs early enough for my people to get to their mediocre service jobs up north, and just late enough to assure they return home by a decent hour.
I think it’s inevitable to face some type of depression or mental strain at some point, no matter who you are, but it occurs at a younger age and to a greater degree in minority communities. These communities are surrounded by poverty, broken homes, violence and more—and that has long-term effects.
I grew up in a single-parent household on the South Side of Chicago. My mom gave me everything she could, but could only give me what she had, and teach me what she knew...and in reality, that wasn’t much. Even if she didn’t burden me with conversations of the financial and mental hardships she faced, it was all around me to see for myself.
When I was young, my mom worked a 9-to-5 as a teacher, then would drop me at my grandma’s house so she could go to night classes at community college, then work the overnight shift at UPS. I wouldn’t see her until she picked me up from my grandma’s the next day.
On Saturdays, she would put on her poker face and we’d visit friends and family. On Sundays, she always wanted to get up early and go to church but we’d rarely make it. Instead, she’d sleep in. When she got up she’d do chores and try to help me with schoolwork. She had me young, didn’t go to college, and learned a lot the hard way, so she pushed me even harder.
But what did that mean for me?
On the bright side, I learned to work hard and how to survive from watching her. I learned that it’s never too late finish something, to always strive for better, and to learn from other people’s mistakes—so I didn’t make the same ones. I learned to be strong, to conform. I learned how to be alone. I learned how to keep a poker face.
But on the dark side, I learned that my life was not like Sunday morning TV. I learned to struggle. I learned how to bite my tongue because mommy has too much on her plate right now, and I shouldn’t add to it. I learned not to ask for things because the sting of denial was nothing in comparison to the deep hurt in her eyes from not being able to give it to me. I learned how to cry in a dark room with the door closed. I learned to conform. I learned to be alone. I learned to keep a poker face.
I learned that kids should be happy—that’s it.
But I wasn’t. Seeing other happy kids would piss me off. I envied them. They had this happy bubble, and I was torn between popping it, or asking if they’d let me in. Instead I’d turn my headphones up as high as they could go and listen to strangers who inexplicably knew my life story. They got it.
I attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago on a full ride, but for some reason I still wasn’t happy. They say knowledge is power, but it seemed the more I learned, the less content I was. Something’s missing. I’m missing.
I search for myself and find me hidden under eighteen years, eighteen layers of poker face. I dig it all out, look at it. Some of it is precious. I clean it, spend time with it, process and appreciate it. I listen to the story it tells me and I put it on display.
The next time I turn my headphones all the way up, I hear my own voice, and I smile. I don’t need a poker face anymore. Hip-hop saved my life, and I know I’m not the only one. It has never failed me. When I’m happy I write about it; when I’m sad I do the same. In the end it’s all beautiful because it’s all me.
I remember when my mom noticed something was off about me. She considered counseling, but decided against it. There is a disconnect between minorities and therapy. Later I learned maybe a lack of interest in therapy sessions wasn’t the problem; maybe it was providing an accessible form of counseling. In college, I went to one session and realized I didn’t want to sit on the couch and talk to Becky with the good hair as she nodded repeatedly, gave advice on things she never experienced, and offended me with distant trivialities on how to improve my life.
Minority communities are suffering. They have always suffered. But the one thing that takes our mind off the pain and despair sometimes is music. Rap has always been prevalent in minority communities, and I think if developed properly, could be used as a more accessible form of counseling for youth that identify with hip-hop culture. So, unless you have a better idea, you should probably help me make this a reality.
Maryiah Winding is an undergraduate student at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is also a hip-hop artist under the name of “Yung Assata.”