I’m livin’ in the 21st century
Doin’ something mean to it
Do it better than anybody you ever seen do it
Screams from the haters, got a nice ring to it
I guess every superhero need his theme music
No one man should have all that power
The clock’s tickin’, I just count the hours
Stop trippin’, I’m trippin’ off the power
(21st century schizoid man)
The system broken, the schools closed, the prisons open
We ain’t got nothin’ to lose, ma’f-cka, we rollin’
Huh? Ma’f-cka, we rollin’
With some light-skinned girls and some Kelly Rowlands
In this white man’s world, we the ones chosen
Located exactly 30 minutes from Atlanta, Palmetto Ga, has a population of 4,488 citizens ( according to the 2010 US census). Most of them are nice people going about their lives in the best way they know how. They go to work, they go to church, they raise their children. They are taxpayers, mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters. They go about their business, contributing to their community and living in relative obscurity.
Quentin Williams wasn’t satisfied with simply being one of those individuals. When I met him while working as a manager at Best Buy, he immediately impressed me as someone who was hardworking, dependable, and had an easy charm about him that drew people in. Our friendship and eventual creative collaboration was born first on the grounds of professional necessity. I was a new manager looking for associates who could help take the store in the right direction, and he was a part time employee looking for promotion and advancement. Our energy and willingness to hustle to get the job done made us a perfect pair. Later on, I singled out other exceptional individuals who could help in creating a team focused on customer centricity and sales goals, including Roberto Cruz, and a previous ally, Howard Woodburn, into a coalition that I dubbed “The Black Excellence Crew.” We were young black men dedicated to assisting each other in moving up in the work force, I had their backs and they had mine.
So it was with a heavy dose of skepticism that I took a small flash drive from Quentin the day he confessed to me that he was a rapper, and had been spending the past few months working on his debut independent album. Don’t get me wrong, Quentin was an excellent associate and a great work buddy, but I had become tired of the cliché that seemed to be every 20-something black guy’s dream to take over Atlanta with their version of a Star Is Born. On every street corner, every escalator near the transit station, every hood grocery store, was an up and coming rapper who swore they had “next”. I had long worn out of false encouragement, forced respect for the craft, and simple pity that drove me to pony up $3-5 dollars for an unmarked CD of 6-15 un-mastered, lazily shouted lyrics over tired trap beats that sounded as if they had been jacked from a fisher price sing along toy. And here was Quentin: hard worker, prime for advancement, and being groomed as a future leader, embracing the notion that he too was meant for something beyond the ordinary, beyond the humble origins of his birthplace.
I smiled, patted him on the back, and promised him I’d listen to it. As he spoke excitedly and passionately about how hard he’d worked on crafting lyrics that fit perfectly to the production, how inspired he was by Kanye’s bravery with releasing an entire auto-tuned album, and his hopes of one day winning a Grammy I was preoccupied with thoughts of monthly sales goals, performance trackers, KPI reports, and how many iPhones we had in stock for the weekend flyer. How many positions needed to be filled so I wasn’t under-hours on the store schedule? Would the idiot Operations Supervisor stop making bone-headed decisions that I had to go behind him and fix? His sheer enthusiasm momentarily broke me from my thoughts, “You’re the only one hearing it in its rawest form, so please tell me what you think bro.”
“What the hell?”, I thought. As a lover of Hip Hop, who am I not give it a fair listen? His work at the store had, in the very least earned him that much. As I returned home and began to settle in for the evening my skepticism returned. What if it sucked? Then I’d be forced to offer up the “A for effort” adage amongst the black community that is the phrase “It was cool”. What if it was mediocre? That would be even worse, as I would have to come up with a phrase that would convey that all of the studio time, lyric crafting, and beat picking had all been for naught (“It’s Straight”) without causing offense. Later into the night as it became unavoidable, I stopped my mental procrastination, fired up itunes on my laptop, and uploaded the files.
As I listened to the music it became clear that my initial hesitation had been completely and utterly unwarranted. This was good, matter of fact, this was more than good! It was an arrival, a statement, a reminder that even though this young man hailed from a city all but forgotten by maps and GPS signals, potentially big things could indeed have small beginnings. What’s most important is that as I listened and jammed along I felt something within me that I thought had been buried long ago, a creative yearning looking to unearth itself at the beckoning of a kindred spirit. This man had never once called out from work, never once showed up late, and toiled upwards of 50 hours weekly, while caring for his young daughter, still finding the time to pursue a passion of his. What had been my excuse all of this time?
As the music from the demo played on, intermixing with my own thoughts and feelings, I began to think about the concept of ambition. Talent can get you plucked from obscurity, timing can get you special opportunity, but ambition can literally make you a King. It is why those young men pedal mixtapes on every corner. It is why they perform at the seediest clubs and locations with hopes of glory. It isn’t lack of imagination, foresight, or laziness. They understand, as Quentin understood, the likelihood of “making it” is a one in a million chance. But the true heart of black men has never been that to shrink from challenge or adversity. Ambition is what re-forged our culture after it was ripped from us. It is what rebuilt our confidence after it was stolen. It was what demanded equality after it was denied. A boy grown into a man in forgotten Palmetto held these truths to be self evident, and as he looked upon that population of taxpayers, mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters, he saw more than simply a city to represent.
He saw a Kingdom to champion.
Blue Collar Hustle is a web series by Alonge Hawes, about young black millennials in Stone Mountain, GA attempting to rewrite their destinies. The series explores the stories of those who stand in defiance of racist expectations, fears, and legacies—we are rewriting the Black American story. Subscribe via email here.