At long last, we've arrived at the second content series: "Brown Boy Problems."
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Without further adieu ...
If you were to ask RZA—Wu-Tang Clan’s founder, and the co-star of the next content series—who he would like to create music with amongst today’s generation of rappers, he would say Kodak Black.
If you have a vague idea of who RZA and Kodak Black are, you probably are very confused. If you don’t have a vague idea, think of RZA as a cross between a 90’s rapper and a Buddhist monk. Kodak Black, on the other hand, is a codeine syrup sippin' rapper who was hit by a bullet in a shooting just a month ago. (If you really want to get a better sense of their music, here's a six-song Spotify playlist to get you up to speed.)
RZA’s penchant for Kodak's music is simple: hip hop used to be about detailing pain in the hood. It was an avenue to share the struggles in your neighborhood with a larger audience. If you listen to Wu-Tang Clan’s lyrics, that’s what their music is centered upon.
While the refrain you may remember from their biggest hit, "C.R.E.A.M.," is "Cash Rules Everything Around Me," there are many more lyrics along the lines of
It's been 22 long, hard years, I'm still strugglin'
Survival got me buggin', but I'm alive on arrival
I peep at the shape of the streets
And stay awake to the ways of the world 'cause shit is deep
For RZA, there aren’t many 20 something rappers that currently do it for him. Not that he has an issue with their music when it comes on in the club, but when he’s controlling the playlist, he prefers his hip hop to be dark. When it comes to Kodak’s music, he still hears the pain of the streets in his voice.
The streets that I grew up on are far different than the streets that RZA grew up on. So while I’m indifferent to Kodak’s music, I do have a similar line of thinking when I hear the stories of first-generation South Asian-Americans, many of whom are also Muslim.
Hasan Minhaj, Mindy Kaling, and Aziz Ansari are a few of the names that come to mind who have found critical acclaim for their productions. Apart from the last season of “Master of None” (it was fine, but not what I had signed up for initially with the show) and “The Mindy Project” (I’m over sitcoms made for broadcast television audiences), I’ve been a big fan of what they’ve collectively produced. There are so many moments that rang true for me and my upbringing as a first-generation Pakistani-Muslim-American trying to find his way.
That being said, there are also moments I have at the end of each of their respective episodes or stand-up specials where I’m like, “Well shit. Your childhood story was told with jokes from start to finish and with a bright color palette. Somehow your tough times ended up being fun times?”
For all I know, maybe that was their experience. They’re all older than me, were raised in different towns by different parents, and maybe the racism they endured was lightweight. More like a gnat instead of a bee sting. Take Aziz Ansari, for instance. By the time 9/11 came around, he was already on his way out of high school.
It may also be the case that an American audience only has so much capacity for learning the darker side of being a first-generation American. When you come home after another uneventful day of bookkeeping on Quickbooks, you’re turning on Netflix for a good time—not to be regaled by the hardships of people.
After watching the HBO miniseries, “The Night Of,” my girlfriend at the time (shout-out Grace, loyal newsletter reader) noted that watching the show reminded her of the little tidbits I had shared of my time in high school. In “The Night Of,” the main character, played by Riz Ahmed, is subjected to multiple cases of racist microaggressions and, for lack of a better word, macroaggressions.
I was taken aback by Grace’s remark because I couldn’t even recall sharing anything about that chapter of my high school experience with her. It’s something where I’ve only openly talked about on a handful of occasions; I guess I must’ve given her a glimpse when we were laid up in bed one night and I was in a vulnerable state.
She was right, though. “The Night Of” is the closest depiction of the not so fun side of being a brown kid growing up in America (oddly enough, it was written by a couple white guys).
Going beyond the ripples of 9/11, the relationships between immigrant parents and their children are portrayed in TV shows and stand-up specials in a very forgiving manner.
It’s portrayed like you’re getting whipped by a belt, but the parent and child are laughing the entire time. The abuse is actually a joke that both sides are in on. As if there’s not a cycle of abuse that is being perpetuated from one generation to the next.
Maybe the trauma is there—and is being patched over by the jokes—but the viewer isn’t able to understand it. They’re made to think that these actions were left entirely in the past. That they’re not still lingering with you internally.
This is all a very long prelude to say that “Brown Boy Problems” will cover what I consider to be a wide range of first-generation South Asian Muslim-American experiences (it's a mouthful, I know).
Starting with my high school years, there will be humorous stories that will be shared, but they will be balanced with more painful ones too. I hope that you as a reader will come to understand a more unvarnished perspective—one that didn’t need to be filed down and cleaned up for a major streaming network.
In other words, I'm going to write this story the way Kodak writes his lyrics.
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On Episode 2 of "Brown Boy Problems" ... we drop into my 9th-grade math class at Indian Hills High School to witness the regular butchering of my name.
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This essay was edited by Matt Goodgal and Meena Rajulu. Blame all grammatical errors on him and all style issues on her. (It is worth noting that Matt is slightly annoyed that he has to share billing for this season.)
You can catch up on past writings here.