From 2005 to 2009, high school was a particularly special time for myself and other Black and brown teens in the United States. I attended McCluer South Berkeley High School in Ferguson, Missouri. We are a tight knit school, predominantly Black, with a rich legacy.
Deandre Way, or Soulja Boy Tell ’Em, was a youthful sensation of popculturetrapfun who supplied the soundtrack to almost all of our teenage shenanigans. Nobody knew where to place him in mainstream culture until 2007, but that didn’t keep his reign from bleeding all over our lives.
Having rode the wave of crunk and snap music, characterized by catchy T-808 synthesizer drums and popularized in West Bankhead Atlanta by artists like Lil Jon and the East Side Boyz, the Ying Yang Twins, D4L and more, Soulja Boy found a formula that put him ahead of his time in business and entertainment trendsetting, respectively.
His journey began in 2003 as a 13-year-old self-taught independent artist writing, producing, mixing and uploading songs to MySpace after building a following of fans online. He fed us videos weekly, and sometimes daily, of footage he recorded of himself simply living life as a teenager or practicing dance moves with his friend and subsequent hype man Abrahim “Arab” Mustapha. Essentially, it was what your favorite Instagram influencer does now.
The magic, unbeknownst to everybody at the time but very apparent now, was his ability to monopolize and multiply streaming numbers using strategies that would become the algorithmic hallmark of going viral, now lucrative and highly coveted amongst our millennial generation.
This was place and time when social media existed in a more simple way. We were young and intrigued, trying to figure out our purpose and identities. Platforms like MySpace, Bebo and a virgin YouTube found our fingertips way before we understood their power.
After the proper release of “Crank That (Soulja Boy)” on May 2, 2007 (although Black teens had been enjoying it for two years already), Soulja Boy’s national celebrity grew quickly. His content release strategy and record breaking was not yet acknowledged, but his impact was on full display with seven million dollars worth of ringtone sales and his amateur YouTube videos racking up two million plus views in a matter of hours. With the ingenuity of millennials before our nation, his numbers represented a type of FUBU popular music that we could participate in while being accessible across socioeconomic backgrounds.
We got a seat at the table.
We, who are often historically invisible. We, who gladly made way for the Jackson 5 and New Edition after years of running up behind The Beatles. We, young black folk, who had just finished laying our Britney Spears and N*SYNC albums down. Fulfilled, yet still sore from having to twist into more white ideals of youthfulness, popular music and popular culture. We didn’t have to beg our mamas to buy merchandise or CDs to be a part of this wave. Soulja Boy was ours.
He was ours in age, technological fascination and skin color. He was hood. He famously spoke linguistically incorrect. This is not to overshadow his entrepreneurial success at 17 with all the commercial, distribution, concert, and streaming profits going straight to Soulja Boy and his SODMG (Stacks on Deck Money Gang) affiliates.
Adding to his irresistibility was Soulja Boy Tell ’Em the persona. We emulated him thoughtlessly. The glasses, the fashion and the dances. Interrupting nearby conversations at track meets and school lunches with a “YAH b***h!” nestled deep in the back of your throat while hitting the perfect “super soak.” The language, the music — from Soulja Boy we got to crank that Spongebob, that Batman and that yank.
Soulja Boy was a mainstream black teenager we could identify with. His visibility was so necessary; we were him. Silly, playful and cool, Soulja Boy was culture. We had peak-lit Soulja Boy music to accompany the budding freedom, responsibility, social lives and sexuality still new to us. His music was the soundtrack for any social or sporting related outing you attended in high school. And, for many, the first time in ya mama’s whip, with the new license, a weird cassette tape-aux cord hybrid in the stereo, joyriding with nowhere to go.
On some nights, you attempted the dances that corresponded with his songs. Choreographing routines, possibly recording them with friends to upload to something, somewhere, pausing and playing YouTube videos to keep up. Lodged inside of every silly ass track, as we rapped infectiously not missing an ad-lib, are the memories that bring color to our last few moments as kids about to enter the real world.
All the dancing, rapping, singing and snapping, all that stress relieving. Soulja Boy Tell ’Em helped our pre-adulthood transitions go a lot smoother. His recent rebirth in media has been a refresher in what we already knew to be true, what we witnessed and built, together. We had his magic, and we’re indebted forever.
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