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How Rap Saved Me: Detroit native reflects on how music helped her live again

The following article was written by our guest blogger Alex Washington. Alex is a westside Detroiter, cheap wine connoisseur and Detroit rap aficionado.

I have always been a natural storyteller. I got my first library card at age 3 and began writing short stories in first grade. Somewhere around the third grade, I decided that I wanted to be a hybrid of Ida B. Wells and Lois Lane.

Journalism was my first love, the first thing I was passionate about. I was convinced sharing a first name with Alex Haley and a birthday with Langston Hughes, was symbolic and helped further establish my destiny. There was only one thing that could compete with my love for words and news — music.

I grew up in a house that cleaned to funk, relaxed to jazz, cooked to country and danced to rock. Of all the genres that I was exposed to, the one that spoke to me the most was hip-hop/rap. It was the cadence in which the rappers spoke their lyrics that I found addictive. Rappers were like urban griots, while most people looked at rap as glorifying violence and guns, I looked at it as documenting the stories of people in neighborhoods like my Detroit one.

Rap is more than just a sound or another musical genre, it’s a culture. It is the closest thing that urban Black America will have to its own language and cultural identity.

I took my first journalism class as a freshman in high school and rap was right there with me. Working my first deadline, Jay-Z’s ‘The Black Album’ was the soundtrack to my late night writing session.

My early-journalism life went exactly as it should have. I continued to write for the newspaper in high school ultimately becoming editor-in-chief my senior year. Upon graduating high school, I spent the summer as an apprentice at the Detroit Free Press. Then college happened.

I chose to attend a relatively small university in the middle-of-nowhere Michigan. The university had an amazing journalism program and allowed college freshmen to join its newspaper staff — so I did.

College was this thing that I was told I was always supposed to do. I was a first generation college student, which isn’t uncommon in Black households. Take my desire to become this hard-hitting journalist and mix it with my mother’s pride and that just about sums up my collegiate determination.

I was never supposed to fail.

I know failure is inevitable and that even the most successful people have failed at something, but failing is something that I wasn’t supposed to do. At least, failing at school is something that I wasn’t supposed to do.

I was always that kid who knew just about everyone and was involved in just about everything. That didn’t change when I got to college. I was taking 18 credit hours, fulfilling scholarship requirements that were basically a class of their own, involved in two student organizations (plus the newspaper), adjusting to the culture shock of mid-Michigan and still finding time to make friends and go to football games. I burned myself out.

Come spring, I was academically dismissed (a nice way of saying I flunked out) from the university and it felt like everything stopped. Just three days prior to receiving that letter, I had to decline an internship at a reputable newspaper.

It was one of those moments where I felt like nothing was left. My entire life I knew I was going to go to college, graduate and be this pretty awesome journalist. It was all that I knew and all that I wanted and to have that dream fall from beneath me sent me into a very dark place.

I never once thought about “What if it doesn’t work out?” I didn’t even know how to process the fact that there was a chance that I might not be able to be a journalist.

There was no plan B, there was only plan A. It was the first time depression hit.

There was one night at the height of my stress, I remember laying across my bed, in tears, because I had no idea what I was going to do. Then, Kanye’s “All Falls Down” played through my iPod’s headphones. I heard the song a thousand times before, but in that moment it sounded different.

“She’s so self-conscious/she has no idea what she’s doing in college/that major that she majored in don’t make no money/ but she won’t drop out/her parents will look at her funny/Now, tell me that ain’t insecure/the concept of school seemed so secure [...]”

The words settled differently. I think I listened to that song on loop for a week straight. It helped ease my high-functioning depression and I slowly began to regain focus. I enrolled in a community college and decided to aim for re-admittance to the university I left.

I decided to start blogging as a way to keep my writing skills sharp and to have something to show when I returned. For about three months, I blogged about my life and current events. Then one day, I got sent a link to these two local guys, one from Southfield and the other from Detroit, performing their song “Cooler than Me” for a sold out crowd at Duke University.

Alex with her cast mates on The Ron Dance Show which includes neo-soul singer Dwele (who’s the voice behind Kanye’s “Flashing Lights”)

What started with me stumbling across a new Big Sean and Mike Posner record turned into me stumbling into a world I never knew existed. I was familiar with Detroit street rap, but I wasn’t familiar with the other side of hip-hop that Detroit pumped out. The side that sells out shows in Amsterdam, Tokyo and The Netherlands to come back home and talk shit over a coney dog at Lafayette.

The side that writes, produces and records platinum selling records somewhere off of 8 Mile. The side that has notoriety as battle rap legends and is respected in New York and LA, but come home and kick it off Woodward. The side that helped create the Neo-Soul genre and lent it’s touch to Common’s “The Light, “ Janet Jackson’s “Got ‘Til It’s Gone” and Kanye West’s “Flashing Lights."

The beautiful thing is it wasn’t just Detroit I was discovering. There was Wiz Khalifa, Kendrick Lamar, Wale, J. Cole, OFWGKTA, Schoolboy Q, Drake, Kid Cudi and plenty of others who were just struggling artists trying to create a buzz (and I appreciate the fact I saw all of them for $10 or less).

My blog quickly switched to begin chronicling my rap findings and my Twitter feed was its hype man. I like to say I transferred to Saint Andrew’s Hall University and The Shelter became my classroom. From listening session to loft parties and live shows, I began to appreciate rap in a way that I hadn’t before.

I had found my community, and somewhere along the way, I found myself.

My involvement in Detroit rap helped me find boundaries beyond journalism. I’ve managed stages, written bios, helped with press kits, and sat in on studio sessions. I was able to help put together a sold out show at a university and I got to work the largest electronic music festival in the world.

Ten years later, I find myself caught between a rookie and veteran. I’ve earned my stripes, but still have a long way to go. The Detroit rap community provided a sense of belonging and security for me, and still does. The strangers I’ve met and bonded with over their sound and beats have become a real extended family for me.

I don’t write as much these days, but I still keep my ear around and my voice heard on a weekly internet radio show.

There are days I’m still down, but not nearly as low as I once was. For every time I’ve felt dark, there was a song and memory from the last decade to bring me back to light.

Written by: Alex Washington (Follow the weekly radio show on Instagram @therondanceshow)

Photos submitted by: Alex Washington

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