on Kafani and Dreams Deferred and Not (and on violence, escaping it and not)

If you haven’t heard of Kafani, you’re probably not a hip hop head with a particular passion for Bay Area beats. Kafani’s a pretty respected hip hop artist with a somewhat well-known beef with Philthy Rich. He’s particularly famous right now for having been in the wrong place at the wrong time twice, both times making the news big time.

A couple of years ago he was on “the set” of a friend’s music video being filmed in rival territory (in the parking lot next to a liquor store in West Oakland) when a couple of guys rolled up on the filming and shot, wounding several and killing baby Hiram Wallace, whose father brought him to the video shoot. Last week, Kafani was filming again in rival territory (around Seminary and Foothill in east Oakland) when he was shot five times.Last I heard, Kafani was likely to survive but likely to be paralyzed by the attack.

I find myself thinking of two things while mourning the beef that led to the most recent shooting. One is from when I lived in the west suburbs of Chicago in high school, and very occasional drug-related shootings started showing up at nearby schools. The narrative I heard at the time is that good and dedicated mothers living on the south side or west side, Pilsen or Inglewood, realized that their sons were being exposed to violence and gangs and drugs and were moving to the suburbs to remove their young men from the source of the trouble they had gotten into. And those young men brought the trouble with them, so that we saw shootings and even deaths in neighborhoods where such crime was previously unheard of.

The other is much more recently. A friend let me guest teach a class in his course of moral philosophy at Cal State Monterey Bay. One of the students and I bonded when I found out he grew up in the same neighborhood where I briefly worked in south central Los Angeles. He carried all the pride and resentment of a survivor of that neighborhood. At one point, I showed the class the video about wealth disparities in the United States (the one that illustrates how much bigger the gap between the 1% and the rest of us is than we fully realize). As soon as the video ended, while the rest of the class sat in stunned silence, he literally stood up and said, “And y’all wonder why everyone in my neighborhood wants to become a rap star.”

In the liminal space between those two stories is the reality of so many people I care about. I see so many young people hustling as hard as they can but knowing instictively that no matter how hard they work, they won’t be able to make a living, short of some sort of miracle that will lift them out of the poverty that society has imposed on them across generations. That miracle looks like a music career to a lot of them. And I find myself watching people who have been shaped by hardship and unjust situations actually get lifted out of them, and carry their brokenness with them even when they have escaped.

Sometimes the defense mechanisms we have developed to protect us in one phase of our life actually hurt us in another phase, and yet we don’t know how to let them go. (A lot of people who have not experienced significant financial hardship or been trapped in a certain way of life because of class or culture sit in judgment about this, but most of us have built defense mechanisms to protect our hearts or help us deal with introversion or whatever, and those mechanisms can also harm us in love or in social settings or in work opportunities; when you live in a world of economic or even class privilege, however, those consequences aren’t as impactful.)

My heart breaks for Kafani and for Philthy and also for the young musicians who aspire to being them (or aspire to be Oakland’s treasured and gone-too-soon Tupac). And I find myself reflective in this time of mourning, and although Kafani is only four years younger than me, I find myself looking at Oakland’s young and talented and royally screwed over Millenial generation and wondering how they might stop the cycle of not being able to escape even when they escape, and wondering if I have any role in helping end that cycle, and praying fervently that my generation will invest in them in ways no one has bothered to up to this point.

It turns out that a dream deferred is not the only thing that can explode. A dream realized in a life already shattered can also explode. I wonder, while Kafani learns how to survive in a totally different body, how we might defuse ourselves before our dreams blow up.

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