Windows and Mirrors
Artwork by Chris Soentpiet from Amazing Faces
At this point most are all aware that the American Hip Hop star and actor, Dark-Man X or DMX passed away on April 9, 2021 at the age of 50 after suffering a heart attack days prior. I realize for some this name and his art may mean little. For others the fact that his death has garnered so much attention may be irksome considering the divisive nature of some of his work. For me I realized, almost by surprise that DMX’s work and art, his life story, and his music is something I hold dear. I fully recognize and believe that you can not talk about DMX and his music without fully acknowledging how misogyny and homophobia were infused into so much of his work. I am in no way excusing or forgiving that. Truth be told, I had not really listened to his music for this very reason in a long time. Although I still struggle with how to reconcile the negative themes, comments, and ideas with my own values I think the story and life of DMX deserves to be told and celebrated.
I first encountered the music of DMX as a 20 year old college kid in 1998. For context the rap musical landscape of this time was full of shiny, upbeat, what I would call fancy hip hop. Think Puff Daddy and Mace throwing Rollies in the sky and waving them from side to side kind of stuff. Upon hearing the raspy, guttural cadence of DMX for the first time, the contrast was stark- indicative to hip hop of the past while also new, honest, and in your face. It was not long before I purchased his debut album “It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot”. The diversity of sound, the range of voice, and the pure unadulterated honesty was like nothing I had ever really experienced with music. See DMX, Earl Simmons, was and is in many respects the poster child for many of America’s failures and inequality. From his birth into generational poverty and recurring homelessness, to his expulsion from the public school system at age 10, his ongoing struggles with addiction, to his over 30 arrests, DMX’s life illuminates our country's shortcomings and inability to adequately and appropriately care for its citizens.
The fact that DMX was able to take the enormously long list of defeats and challenges and use them to fuel, infuse, and encapsulate his art, in my mind is what made him so special. Through his lyrics, spoken word, and sermons it was clear that his life’s experiences were the muse of his work. As a middle class white boy from LA, this art quickly became a large and unapologetically clear window to his world, his pain, and a reality that contrasted greatly from mine. In reflection, I can honestly say that the work of DMX played a key part in helping me develop a better understanding of the role unjust privilege has in my life. This music was one of the most honest and undistilled versions of artistic expression I had encountered. While his hyper masculinity was something, I then aspired to, it was his vulnerability and unapologetic relationship with truth that made me also go back and listen again and again.
It was a couple years later when the music of DMX became something of a wonder. While working at an all boys group home, I met a young man, let’s call him Dennis. Dennis was a 14 year old boy, who loved basketball, Tapatio hot sauce, and rap music. The latter being essentially something that dangled from the tree of forbidden fruit, we were always charged with confiscating any tapes or CDs with inappropriate lyrics or content. It wasn’t long before one of my searches yielded a mix tape of nothing but DMX songs. This immediately became a major issue, see for Dennis DMX’s music was not so much a window, but a mirror, a mirror to the parallels their lives shared. For Dennis the music served as a reminder that anything was possible. I remember him saying things like the lyrics were like a guide on how to navigate the challenging reality of his circumstances. I ended up successfully appealing to my supervisor to allow Dennis to keep his mix tapes and CDs as long as he listened only with headphones. I lost contact with Dennis about 10 years ago, but I take some comfort in knowing that both he and I felt some of the same sadness upon learning of DMX’s death.
The life and work of DMX is not without controversy and fault, as alluded to previously. It is difficult to not be turned away by some of the themes and lyrics as they are laced with subjectivity and disrespect that is hard to overlook. However, if we recognize that art is a reflection of life, then his life authentically illuminates his own story in such a real and tangible way.
“A song is a poem set to music” (Tom Hall). Poetry as a form of literature is empowering. Earl Simmons, more commonly known to the world as DMX, used his power to reflect his life and touched the lives of many, including Dennis and me. As educators we make decisions about instruction daily; it's imperative that we keep Dennis (and students like him) and the words of Rudine Sims Bishop in mind:
“Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created and recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books. (1990, p. ix)”
Dennis needed to see/hear the lyrics of DMX as a reflection of his lived experiences. Students who have different perspectives also benefit from seeing/hearing the words of Earl Simmons. This creates empathy and compassion for others. Isn’t that a goal of educators? Where have we missed opportunities to build empathy and connection through instructional choices?
I challenge you to think about how you are wielding the power you have in choosing texts for students. Are you helping to create empathy and compassion?