Thursday, March 5, 2015

Song of the Day #129 - Heems - Patriot Act

And the towers fell, in front of my eyes...

I just reviewed this a few days ago, but I have to make this song of the day too because I haven't stopped thinking about it since then. In the review I mentioned that it ought to be taught in the 9/11 literature course, and, really believing this, I emailed my prof for it and recommended it. This is the email I sent:

Dear [professor],

I took your Post-9/11 American Fiction course back in the fall of 2013 and found it very interesting and meaningful. I was thinking a lot about it again yesterday, when I heard a song by one of my favorite rappers that deals with his experience of 9/11 in depth.

The song ends with a spoken word section where he talks about being a visible minority in New York after 9/11. I've transcribed it for you here:

And the towers fell, in front of my eyes
And I remember the principal said they wouldn't
And for a month they used my high school as a triage
And so we went to school in Brooklyn
And the city's Board of Ed. hired shrinks for the students
And maybe I shoulda seen one
And from then on they called us all Osama
This old Sikh man on the bus was Osama
I was Osama, we were Osama
Are you Osama?
And so we rushed to buy flags for our doors
Bright American flags that read "I am not Osama"
And we ironed our polo shirts and combed our hair
And we proudly paid our taxes
And we immediately donated to a local white politician
And we yelled "I'm just like you!"
As quietly and calmly as we could
So as not to raise too much attention and be labeled a troublemaker and lose one's job
Like when my name is too long to pronounce at work
And raised too much attention
And I was labeled a troublemaker
So I changed it
And we struck words like "bomb" from our vocabulary
And airports changed to us forever
Where another blue uniform came to represent oppression, undressing
And another blue uniform came to represent stops and frisks, depressing
And our parents began to fear for our lives every time we walked out the door
Because they read the news and another cab driver was beaten to death
And yesterday, more than ten years later, another man from the neighbourhood was deported
I went to expensive white people school with his daughter
For four years we read books and together we yelled "I'm just like you"
But she won't get to correct her father's English at dinner anymore
And the FBI harassed one of my dad's friends so much
He packed up his stuff and took his family
And they moved back to Pakistan
They would come at night, and wake them up, and make a mess
And the mess upset his wife
Those giant metal birds in the sky brought my parents here
And made things confusing
And then crashed into those buildings
And made things confusing
But I guess it's okay because my dad wasn't deported
And I still get to correct his English at dinner
So he doesn't raise too much attention
And get labeled a troublemaker

You can read about the album and listen to the song here:

It's at the end of the last track, "Patriot Act". I think it's a pretty chilling account from a perspective that isn't heard from so often. I'm not sure if you still teach this course, but I thought you might want to consider including it in some form. If not, I thought you might find it interesting regardless.

Hope you're having a nice day!

I haven't heard back from her yet, but whatever.

I still have a lot more to say about the song. The beginning feels like an accumulation of all the anxieties and despairing of the album thus far, now heated and reduced to the simplest and most powerful representations of those ideas. He's already explained what it means to be "the product of partition" or "proud of superstition", you already know the implications of "schism for system". "Got what we asked for, someone to listen" is a devastating irony and highlights that there was some major change, some decisive moment that birthed the current situation.

Which is, of course, 9/11. And the way he transitions into the spoken word section is so beautiful... it's like an exhaling, it reminds me of the big shift in Sun Kil Moon's "The Possum"... There's a sense of Heems feeling that he's approached the event from all sides, with all levels of allusion, all across the spectrum of anger to laughter, and now there's nothing left to do but simply relate the events with honesty and clarity. The delivery has this exasperated tone, where you can tell it isn't just the story he's been telling for over a decade, but the one he's been living. The realness of it devastates you: it isn't saccharine sentimental, but little details of "I remember the principal said they wouldn't", "we went to school in Brooklyn" makes it feel close and intimate, agenda-free, simply his experiences. Then "And from then on, they called us all Osama" feels all the more overwhelming, "She won't get to correct her father's English at dinner anymore" all the more tragic, on so many levels...

Like, I almost feel stupefied by how real and close this seems to me, a kid who went to a school where there wasn't even anyone we could have called Osama if we wanted to. The little Heemisms, like "expensive white people school", and the way nothing is given hyperbole or exaggeration - why is "the mess upset his wife" so much more devastating to picture than some abhorrent violence? Or things like "Airports changed to us forever", and "Made things confusing", the apparent neutrality of it makes things doubly devastating, as it leaves the question to the listener. Or the perfect, yet entirely natural, spacing of the two instances of "troublemaker", taking us full circle in the question of identity... what constitutes a shout of "I'm just like you!" and what constitutes enough attention to be a troublemaker? What does it mean to have a flag on your door?

We have answers to these questions that speak from the ideological framework of patriotism and American "melting pot" identity. That is, we feel like we know what we assume everyone else knows. But a text like this, almost incidentally, reopens all of these questions to legitimate discussion. They become unavoidable, and we become interested in the actuality, not the accepted rhetoric. They emerge from the simple recounting of his life and the lives of those close to him in the aftermath of 9/11, a story undeniable, with the heart of the personal but hauntingly general.

I feel like I could go on and on. I really hope this song gets attention as a post-9/11 text with as much legitimacy as any other. The way the album ends with this - I really love albums where the best part is the last part of the last song - it feels like the hidden truth behind everything preceding it, but also a sort of starting point, a place of realization, recovery, and understanding. And at the same time it feels final, complete, immutable - that this is the world and nothing can be done.

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