02 September 2012


I can't remember a time when I didn't love hip hop. 

Long before I worked with the First Wave community of artists, I was that kid - yes, that white girl - who knew every word to every MC Hammer song, and then every Salt-N-Pepa song, and on and on through the time that Eminem videos were on TRL with a pause only when the title of the latest Jay/Kanye track was unrepeatable. I love language and word play. Dense metaphor and complicated rhyme scheme, especially when combined with a crazy beat, get me every time.

As a sidenote, my ability to learn and retain lyrics is mostly cool but occasionally a drain. Calculus BC never had a chance against every Spice Girls lyric ever written. Have you ever been on a road trip with someone who knows the words to every single song on the radio? Yeah. Sometimes it wears me out, too.

Anyway, me singing or rapping along to every song ever was a reality that lived only within the privacy of my home and my car. Despite childhood theater roles and my perennial comfort on camera, speaking or performing live has been challenging for me since high school, when I developed the very uncomfortable habit of turning a deep shade of red upon even considering raising my hand in class. While I thankfully outgrew that, I still shied away from being in front of a crowd.

Then, one night last year, I was hanging out with one of my friends (also conveniently named Lauren) at the Ivory Room Piano Bar, enjoying music from the incredibly talented Anthony Cao. Someone requested the TLC classic "Waterfalls," and Anthony asked if anyone in the audience knew the rap. Thinking quickly so that I couldn't, Lauren began dramatically pointing at me. It was true, I know every word, and I consider Left Eye to be one of the best female rappers of all time. I couldn't say no to something that so clearly asked me to step out of my comfort zone and was so clearly up my alley.

The next five minutes were a blur. I remember taking the mic hoping it wouldn't amplify the sound of my heart dribbling a basketball around my chest. I remember my throat going dry, my legs and hands starting to shake, and going into a cold sweat. I was legitimately terrified. But I was also determined. One of my better qualities (most of the time) is being able to will my way through anything. In this case, I was simply unwilling not to do it, regardless of my fear. Thank goodness I knew the words and the cadence by heart, because I certainly reverted to autopilot. I wasn't even sure I was holding the mic correctly, and couldn't hear a thing outside of my own head, so I had no idea whether people were booing, cheering or listening. But I did it. And it seemed to go pretty well! Through my post-performance stupor I witnessed signs that people enjoyed it, such as pats on my back and a Post-It thrown into my lap that referred to me positively as "rapper girl." I'll take it.

Since then, I've had a few opportunities to get back on the mic with the very kind Anthony and his exceptional wife Leslie when a request is made for TLC or Nicki Minaj. The video above is from such a moment this summer. I genuinely enjoy it and would even expand my repertoire if called upon. The thing is, I'm still terrified. Ten seconds before the video posted here was recorded, my mind was completely blank and I was desperately trying to recall lyrics that I've heard and repeated an average of at least once a week for the past 15 years. (The autopilot kicked in again.) And yet I was serious when I said I loved it. There's nothing like pushing yourself, nothing like the exhilarating feeling of doing something you had previously told yourself you'd never do.

I've learned a lot from hip hop over the years, much of it documented here and a high percentage of it from the incredible First Wave students. That it also pushed me to take this particular leap is gravy.

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