What Kodak Black's Recidivism Reflects About American Culture
“We are taught to admire a person confronted with oppressive situations, only if the person has already overcome them ...”
When I think of my home state of Florida, I think of three things: racism, unemployment and prison — a lot of prisons.
Most of us simply refer to it as “the Dirty.” Hinting at the gritty, unforgiving get-it-how-you-live culture that's characteristic of most of the American South – the violence, the drug addiction, the poverty and, above all, the incarceration.
Dieuson Octave, better known by his rap alias “Kodak Black,” embodied the Florida street situation. Raised in the Golden Acre projects of Pompano Beach to a single mother who immigrated from Haiti, his signature style, lyricism and sound captivated the Florida music scene by introducing mainstream (social media) America to the complex perspectives, emotions and language that comes with navigating street life in the dirty South.
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Notice, I said street life.
There is confusion in the mainstream rap music industry about the jettison of Kodak Black. At the heart of this misconception is a lack of understanding about the nature of his music — dare I say, his entire sound. It reflects much more than another rags to riches story about a ghetto youth who, by some stroke of luck, climbs their way to the echelon of rap music royalty. His art is, above all, a representation of a neglected sociocultural circumstance starving to be heard.
It’s a bittersweet circumstance, one that is filled with an unimaginable degree of pain, loss, heartbreak, stress and uncertainty. Chronic unemployment, probation fees, house arrest, jail and prison sentences, police violence, overt racism — the list goes on and on. But there’s also those sweet moments. Those days when the hood is relaxed and you got a few dollars in your pocket. Maybe it’s the first of the month, or maybe your homie just “jumped” (that’s what we say in Florida when someone gets released from prison).
What makes Kodak Black so beloved by his fan base is his uncanny ability to capture both of these contrasting perspectives, bar by bar, escorting his listeners through the labyrinth of dispositions and personalities required to not only survive the street context, but be a voice for others still buried beneath it.
But unlike most artists, the inspiration for Kodak’s art is met with contempt, owing to America’s love/hate attitude toward minds and stories that run counter to the mainstream cultural narrative. Even some of his most die-hard fans cannot stomach the fact that the poetry and poet that they love is tied intimately to the street life that he raps about so vividly in his songs. After his most recent arrest, comment after comment, tweet after tweet, condemned Kodak for throwing away his “opportunity.” He was called irresponsible, ungrateful and even considered downright stupid by some.
A serious Kodak Black fan myself, I was also upset by his arrest. During my first two years in graduate school, his music helped me cope with the uncomfortable feeling of being a first generation college student from an impoverished Florida ex-burb, navigating the foreign elitist culture of an Ivy League school. I would walk through Harvard yard with his Institution mixtape glued to my ears, silently comparing his experience with the penal system and poverty with mine. I drew strength from every creative metaphor and clever rhyme scheme he threw at me.
These feelings of disappointment and disapproval that others, and myself, impulsively direct at Kodak Black are merely consequences, however, of a broader psychological paradox that envelops present-day American culture. We are socialized to adore stories of perseverance and hustle, only if we don’t have to know what this perseverance and hustle looks like in real-time.
We are taught to admire a person confronted with oppressive situations, only if the person has already overcome them — if the narrative is packaged in such a way where we don’t have to lay eyes on the stains that produced it. We expect, especially our artists, to always deliver us pretty pictures and good news, even if their art is screaming to us that there is no good news in sight. Americans need a happy ending.
The only thing that Kodak Black offers is an honest testimony. Not merely a testimony in words, but a testimony steered by his lived experience with the streets — the loyalty, the beef, the violence, the comedy, but most of all, the time.
Kodak Black has offered southern black American culture a lot. His short but impactful career as a rap entertainer took the music industry by storm, culminating to millions of listeners across the globe.
But, are we only interested in Kodak Black’s music? Or, when the next time we listen to him, will we also choose to pay close attention to his message?