On Summertime ’06 

Vince Staples Summertime 06

From samples, to interpolations, to autobiographical lyrics, the past is an integral part of how hip-hop is made. When it comes to the main narratives in hip-hop, the stories rappers tell about themselves, this ingrained relationship with the past has often resulted in tales of redemption: Kendrick Lamar escapes the “m.a.a.d.” city, Biggie gets a Sega Genesis, Ice Cube finally has a good day. On his debut double album Summertime ‘06, Vince Staples doesn’t find redemption. For him the past isn’t a distant memory, a road he can finally drive down after a long, tiring walk. Vince Staples sees the past as the horizon of his future, a roundabout in which he can change lanes but never exit.

Though Summertime ‘06 is timestamped by its title, Staples freely weaves in and out of his past and present. On “Lift Me Up” he’s performing for legions of fickle white fans in Paris; on “Norf Norf” he’s lamenting that Long Beach has never seen any of Obama’s mythical “change”; on “Hang ’N Bang” he’s on the corner Crippin’. These leaps through time can be jarring, but Vince’s inconsistency isn’t the result of sloppiness. When it comes to setting the scene, Vince isn’t concerned with concrete details like what music he was bumping or the clothes he was rocking in 2006. He’s more concerned with mood. Summertime ‘06 isn’t a time period; it’s a perspective, an angle for processing the world.

Vince’s perspective is unapologetically dense. The album begins with “Ramona Park Legend Pt 1,” which features the sounds of a beach: waves crashing on the shore, seagulls yelping in the sky, stillness all around. A bluesy wail briefly trickles in the background, but moments later it’s greeted by menacing percussion, circling in the water like a shark. But even the shark isn’t the real menace. The song ends with an oblique gunshot, the true apex predator. This isn’t any beach. It’s Long Beach, the “end of the land with the surf and the sand,” as Vince tersely describes it on “Jump off the Roof.” Vince sees Long Beach in stark detail, recognizing and repping both the symbolic beauty and destruction of a beach, the calm waters and the threatening waves.

This mixture of beauty and danger and pride permeates the album. Staples regularly shouts out his old haunts – Ramona Park, Poppy Street, Artesia Boulevard, 65th Street – freely admitting that he’s done dirt on all of them. These are the places where he was made, places where he’s witnessed and facilitated death and ruin. But Vince doesn’t want to be forgiven, to be seen as having made it. “Fuck gangsta rap,” he snarkily says on “Norf Norf.”

He seems to mean it. “Dopeman,” a hazy song driven by droning synths, doesn’t make drug dealing sound particularly fun. Expert murmurer Kilo Kish chants “I don’t need a gun just to melt a nigga brain/ When I pull up to the slums with a quarter key of ‘caine.” Staples barks out a brief and manic verse, stretching out his words as if his brain too has been altered by the drugs he’s dealing. Even “Street Punks” a threatening song about credibility, puts a damper on gang life. “You ain’t ever caught a body/Know it cause you talkin’ bout it,” Staples coldly raps, more as a warning than a boast.

Amidst the stone-faced shooting and selling dope, Vince spends a lot of time contemplating love. “Lemme Know,” a breezy song that features Jhene Aiko, radiates  lust. On it, Aiko and Staples wear their desire on their sleeve, coyly purring out three dual verses together. But though they address each other as lovers, their words are full of taunts and warnings, imminent danger. On “Loca,” the love is just as palpable, but the danger is more explicit, with Vince quickly moving from seduction to demanding loyalty. “Would your courtroom lie for a nigga?” he asks his new lover with utter seriousness. As much as he contemplates and feels love, Vince refuses to detach it from his day-to-day life in the streets.

For “Summertime” Vince goes solo, crooning in autotune about a love he deeply wants but doubts is possible. The song is hard to listen to. The autotune sharpens Vince’s voice rather than smoothing it, making his typically nasally delivery gravelly. But that seems to be the point. Even when Vince is fully immersed in his emotions, his skin is still hardened by the Crip-blue waters of Long Beach.

Not everything on Summertime ‘06 works well. “Might Be Wrong,” which features singing from James Fauntleroy and a spoken word verse from Haneef Talib, who delivers his verse from prison, has its heart in the right place but it doesn’t quite fit. Its melodramatic synths and Fauntleroy’s singing are a bit too straightforward for the complex, dense atmosphere that producers No I.D., DJ Dahi, and Clams Casino have carefully curated throughout the album. The bluesy track “C.N.B” also stands out. Vince runs through a laundry list of politicized topics – gentrification, victimization, cultural appropriation – but nothing gets fully washed. Some topics demand more than a perspective.

That said, Vince Staples’ perspective is frequently fresh. Avoiding the moral high ground, he freely roams the seedy lowlands, making unflattering observations about himself, his home, and the world that made them both without resorting to soul-cleansing self-flagellation (like Kendrick Lamar) or lung-collapsing chest thumping. It’s not always an easy listen – Vince seems to enjoy street life as much as he abhors it, gleefully loading his gun just as often as he mourns his friends who have taken bullets. This moral ambiguity results in hip-hop that probably won’t please the activists or the sociologists or the Rap Geniuses, but that’s fine. For Vince Staples, hip-hop isn’t about pleasure. It’s about unflinching realism, the kind that redemption, with its happy endings and moral clarity, isn’t equipped to handle.

The past has never looked as ugly and unflattering as it has in Vince Staples’ hands, but the thrill of this dogged realism is that he also manages to make it look beautiful. There just might be some truth in nostalgia.

On At.Long.Last.A$AP

At Long Last ASAP, ASAP Rocky

A$AP Rocky has always been a void, a black hole continuously accreting matter into his nucleus. Look no further than his name. “Always Strive and Prosper” is the standard meaning of “A$AP,” but it’s also been defined as “Assassinating Snitches and Police” and “Acronym Symbolizing Any Purpose,” among other things, revealing the fundamental hollowness of the A$AP brand. But despite this lack of a core, Rocky isn’t a dud. His appeal is the sheer luminosity of this accretion, his swagger. In other words, there may be nothing at his core, but it’s always been dazzling to see what he pulls into his orbit. On At.Long.Last.A$AP (ALLA), his second studio album, his gravitational pull remains impressive, but his accretions freefall rather than orbit, colliding instead of shimmering.

ALLA begins with a reflection on religion. The A$AP mob has always goofily flirted with religious imagery, but on “Holy Ghost” Rocky takes the imagery seriously. Speaking frankly, his voice straightforward and nervous, he compares the music industry to a corrupt church. Danger Mouse provides the instrumental, a solemn swirl of twangy guitar and dulled drums that flickers like candles in a sanctuary. Rocky seems to feel the gravitas of the instrumental, but he doesn’t really deliver. Allusions to souls and sacrifices and altars abound, but they don’t seem to be related to Rocky’s life. His head is bowed, and he feels he has to say something, so he just rambles, hoping his god will comprehend.

Rocky has never been a particularly focused rapper. He’s rarely gone more than a few bars without eventually mentioning money, fashion, sex ,or drugs – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing – but on ALLA that’s precisely what he seems to be trying to do. For the entire first third of the album, the trap, neo-grime, and syrupy Houston beats of his past work are passed over for skeletal instrumentals with vast chasms of dead air. These bare beats feel intentionally challenging, beckoning to be filled by a vocalist with presence and range, but every time Rocky steps into the ring, he meets Apollo Creed. On “Fine Whine” he’s drowned by dreary keys and static synths. His chopped and screwed voice feels less like a vocal effect and more like an actual description of his presence: broken, fragmented, diluted. M.I.A., Future, and Joe Fox briefly appear to liven the dull song, but rather than saving the song, lifting Rocky from the canvas, their cameos hint at what it could have been in more capable hands.

Rocky momentarily finds himself on album highlight “Lord Pretty Flacko Jodye,” bouncing around the slick darkness of the beat like Juicy J in Rocky’s own “Multiply” video. “Electric Body,” which follows “LPFJ,” works well too. Schoolboy Q always brings out the menace in Rocky and Rocky always brings out the conceited pretty boy in Q. Unfortunately, these songs are brief, tiny dinghies in an ocean of missteps.

“Jukebox Joints” finds Rocky again attempting to challenge himself. Rapping over slow-burning soul samples courtesy of Kanye West and G.O.O.D. Music producer Che Pope, Rocky reaches within, mentioning his newfound interests in producing, acting, and LSD. His flow is paced and intentional – you can feel his desire to tap into the sentiment of the samples – but his thoughts fall out clumsily, attached to lines about women and fashion. It’s as if Rocky can only try on new things while he’s still wearing his old garments. When the sample changes in the middle of the song, he tries again, announcing, “Let’s get past all the swag, trapping, and fashion talking.” Yet two bars later, he’s already slipping into swag, trapping, and fashion talking. This Rocky doesn’t go the distance.

“Pharsyde” is more successful. Again backed by wispy and somber Danger Mouse production, Rocky drops his voice to a hush and describes the contrast of present-day Harlem and the Harlem that raised him. His verses are uneven, but filled with potential. At one point Rocky beautifully describes being haunted by a local murder: “Found his body parts in awkward places/Like apartments, basements, garbage, vacant lots/Garages, spaces, Harlem’s far too spacious.” At other points he’s delivering clunky lines like “Gentrification split the nation that I once was raised in” and “Used to not give a damn/Now I don’t give a fuck entirely.” Unfortunately, the clunkers win out. But these brief flashes of brilliance suggest that with some focus, mirrors and camera lenses aren’t the only things that  can make Rocky reflect.

In April, Rocky described ALLA as a “return of the god emcee.” This may be true, but the album suggests that he wasn’t referring to himself. From Lil’ Wayne’s Carter 3-era use of autotune on “M’$,” to Pimp C’s posthumous verse on “Wavyside,” to Yasiin Bey’s verse on “Back Home,” to M.I.A.’s verse on “Fine Whine,” Rocky is eclipsed at every turn. And it’s not because he’s hollow. He’s stunted by his inability to accept that hollowness, to work with it rather than constantly fight it by going further inward. In the end, it’s impressive that Rocky was able to assemble such talent – on vocals and behind the boards – but summoning the gods and challenging their reign aren’t the same thing. If A$AP Rocky is to ever be a titan of rap rather than just a mortal with a long rolodex, he’ll have to learn the difference.

Still Timely: Book Review of Marvel Comics, The Untold Story

Marvel Comics the Untold Story

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story is a sprawling account of Marvel Entertainment, tracing the company’s rise from the bottoms of newsstands to the tops of movie charts. Published in 2012, the same year that Marvel’s ventures outside of comics had materialized into big cash with the release of The Avengers, the book emerged at a time when Marvel was very successfully rewriting its own story. Reading Marvel Comics: The Untold Story in 2015, in the wake of the release of The Avengers: Age of Ultron, the billion dollar cash cow of the company’s growing herd, the herd looks less like a meek procession and more like a destructive stampede.

Sean Howe starts the story before Marvel even existed. In 1939 a company named Timely Comics was founded by a businessman named Martin Goodman, who was looking to add pulp comics to his extensive list of publications. Through Goodman’s story Howe builds the groundwork for  the “untold story” that he develops throughout the book. A child of poor immigrants, Goodman was very money-conscious, and although he didn’t enter publishing because he thought there was money to be made, he certainly set about making money by any means. Titles were created and discarded at an amazing rate, all at Goodman’s discretion. If he looked at a newsstand and saw that a genre or character was newly popular, he would immediately demand that it be duplicated by his staff. And if he saw that a genre or title was floundering, he’d immediately let it drown.  He kept his hand on the pulse of reader interest and reacted to every palpitation.

Of course, publishing has always been a reactive and dynamic industry, especially in the age of pulps, but through Goodman Howe explores how this reactivity was embedded within comics themselves. Comics expanded and contracted not only in terms of the number of publications but also in terms of the number of pages, the number of artists, the number of writers. Goodman was constantly firing and hiring staff, canceling distribution contracts and signing new ones; everything was in flux.

Characters were subject to the same instability, shuffling between derivative titles like Tales to Astonish, Marvel Mystery Comics, Marvel Tales, Journey into Mystery, and Strange Tales, depending on current sales figures. And when superheroes became less popular after the second World War, they stopped shuffling altogether: the aptly named Timely moved on to romances, westerns, and horror stories.

By the time Timely was rebranded as Atlas Comics in 1951, this frequent instability was institutionalized, but that’s not the end of the story. Atlas, and later Marvel (Atlas became Marvel in 1961) didn’t just become what it is and remain that way for 50 years. As Howe tracks Marvel’s evolution, he continues to trace the connections between comics’ conditions of creation and publication. This results in some alarming tidbits, like how She-Hulk was created in the 70s solely so Marvel wouldn’t lose the rights to a female Hulk character if one was first created by the writers of the The Incredible Hulk tv show, or how the “Secret Wars” storyline was developed solely because Mattel wanted a form of security if it launched a Marvel toy line, or how Stan Lee once laid off the entire Atlas staff because Goodman agreed to a bottom-line boosting distribution deal. These kinds of brazenly opportunistic moments aren’t worth summarizing here (because they are endless), but they do show that at multiple moments in Marvel’s history, the company had the opportunity to prioritize creators and artists, yet persistently chose to prioritize money. With this understanding of Marvel’s past, we can glean a better picture of its future.

Marvel Studios is slated to release 8 movies over the next 4 years (and those are just the ones being released by Marvel itself, not including the titles that are licensed to Marvel like Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and X-Men) and many people are excited. At the announcement of Marvel’s “Phase 3,” attendees cheered as Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige revealed the movies’ release dates, along with their stylized titles; the fans were so excited for these movies that they didn’t even need to know the names of directors and actors, or source material.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this kind of excitement, but there is something misleading about Marvel’s cultivation of that excitement. Namely, even at its new scale, as producer of movies and television shows and videos games, rather than just comics, the company is still chasing trends, shuffling around characters and creators like inventory. Edgar Wright, Terrence Howard, Kenneth Branagh, Patty Jenkins, Edward Norton, Joe Cornish, and Drew Godard are just a few of the people who have been flung out of Marvel Studio’s revolving door. And although they all parted ways with the studio for various reasons, there’s a connection between these frequent departures and Kevin Feige’s slideshow with nothing but titles and release dates: You don’t need a need a cast and crew attached to your works when you’re simply hiring people to tend to them rather than develop them, to feed the herd rather than lead it.

Sean Howe has dutifully given us the untold story of Marvel Comics, an odd tale of creators and content being pummeled by their publisher’s exacting demands and sometimes (but not often) thriving in spite of it. Ultimately, the book is not an indictment of Marvel, but it does do the important work of reckoning with the company’s history in an unflattering way. Marvel may have changed mediums, but that doesn’t mean it is suddenly dedicated to creators and creativity and audiences.

Marvel can try to retcon this fact, but retcons have never been a top-down process. Retcons only work when readers accept changes rather than refuse or question them. And though this doesn’t mean that readers should be resistant to all changes, it does mean that they should be mindful of the costs of those changes. Marvel Comics: The Untold Story encourages us to be mindful and it gives us decades of reasons why we should be. If you are a fan of comics and their derivatives, Marvel’s or otherwise, this is a story worth hearing.

The Future of Satire

College evokes a lot of memories for me, but even in a world of easily traceable moments courtesy of Facebook and smartphones, my most potent memories are of conversations. Overriding the memories of pizza and movie nights and unceasing lust, conversations hold eternal.

One conversation that was pivotal for my relationship to comedy – how I think about it, how I do it, how I want to do it – was a brief discussion that I had with a peer who I had an immense crush on. We were sitting in my dorm room, flipping through channels on my roommate’s television and we stopped on Cartoon Network. The Boondocks was on and we decided to catch the tail-end of an episode before she headed back to her dorm (much to my silent distress).

I don’t know what episode we were watching, but in it, Uncle Ruckus gave one of his typical self-hating monologues, filled with innovative uses of racial slurs and alarmingly specific insults. My crush cracked up, doubling over, cackling, and grazing me on the shoulder with her soft , brown hand. The joke had touched a nerve, as she had touched me.

I was laughing too – the specificity of Uncle Ruckus’ comments has always been his main selling point for me. For someone who hates black people, he knows them incredibly well (which is how most self-hatred plays out, I think).

As our laughter subsided, with relief, she said, “So true, so true,” endorsing Uncle Ruckus’ deranged statements. I grimaced, but I didn’t think much of it because I had more primal things to think about it.

Those thoughts were short-lived because she continued, “The Boondocks is so on point sometimes.” “How so?” I asked, curious. “Uncle Ruckus is just so right,” she explained.

Willing my primal thoughts back to the fore, I conceded. “I know what you mean.” Minutes later, I escorted her out of the building.

Before that night Uncle Ruckus had been one of the most unambiguous characters I had ever come across in any work of fiction. He was black, his first name was Uncle, and nothing he said was even remotely salvageable. He was racist to the core, someone who could only be hated, objected to and mocked. Sure, his character had range, but his range was like the surface of a pool, expansive, but ultimately flat, infinite ripples of the same vile substance.

My crush’s endorsement of Uncle Ruckus broke me. How could a black person hear his lines and agree with anything he said? Was he actually an ambiguous character? Was I an idiot? Was I just bad at dating?

A recent essay at the Baffler wrestles with similarly perplexing questions, noting that satire has recently been used to obscure rather than illuminate the truth. Citing the CIA’s first tweet, Obama’s appearance on Between Two Ferns, the institutionalization of late night humor as a source of news, and the general ubiquity of humor in contemporary life (i.e. Twitter), Ben Schwartz makes a strong indictment of satire in 2015. The article has a twinge of nostalgia to it, seeming to long for some mythical past when all satire hit hard, but in terms of surveying the field, Schwartz is right on. Satire is definitely the lingua franca of the times and there is certainly something alarming about its widespread appropriation, especially by those in power.

But though satire’s recent incarnations are alarming (and often not funny), I don’t think that the problem Schwartz lays out – politicians, institutions and lame late-night comedy shows easily defanging satire through their appropriation of it – really has anything to do with the genre of satire.

My experience with my college crush is insightful. I was disappointed by the fact that she didn’t “get” Uncle Ruckus, that she didn’t see that he was the joke, not the things he said. But now I know that she absolutely got the joke. Satire doesn’t belong to anyone, even the people who make it and who they ostensibly make it for. Her seeing Uncle Ruckus as a truth-teller and the CIA tweeting self-referential jokes are of a different order, but the same dynamic is at play in both scenarios. In both instances satire is doing what satire does, serving as a palatable vehicle for observations and worldviews that are too taboo or too risky or too unthinkable to be uttered in their raw form.

This has to be understood. Though the history of satire suggests that satire itself does things like threaten people in power and mock society’s absurdity, satire as a medium, as a particular way of acting in the world, can ultimately be understood as humor + an agenda. And everyone – the CIA, President Obama, Comedy Central producers, bougie black folks – has an agenda.

Schwartz’ real observation isn’t that satire has changed; it’s that satirists have changed. The history of satire being used to challenge power and mock society is more a history of the challengers and the mockers than the history of the genre itself. Satire can be (and has been) wielded by anyone. It just so happens that it’s typically been favored by people who like mocking monarchs and presidents.

That reality might be disappointing for people who want to believe in the eternal power of satire, but for me it’s refreshing. Instead of attempting to redeem a genre that is doing what it has always done, or encouraging traditional satirists to be edgier, or crushing on someone who is toxically bougie, maybe the true satirical act is to not be a satirist. Everyone has an agenda but how many many people have the will to follow that agenda to its bitter end, giving up on their favorite art form in the process? I don’t know, but if the legacy of satire lies in the ambitions of satirists rather than in the genre itself, there’s already plenty of precedent.

What I’ve Been Up to Lately

I haven’t updated this in awhile, but I have been doing stuff elsewhere, so here’s a quick roundup.

I wrote a review of a Hail Mary Mallon (Aesop Rock and Rob Sonic) concert for Bandwidth. I’ve been listening to their album as well. It’s a fun ride if you’re looking for some spaced-out beats and very in-the-pocket rhymes. And Rock’s voice is very compelling. He raps like he’s possessed by words.

I recorded a podcast with video game writer Zolani Stewart called Bar Exam. In it we talk about Earl Sweatshirt’s new album (I Don’t Like Shit,I Don’t Go Outside) and Kendrick Lamar’s new album (To Pimp a Butterfly). We won’t be rolling podcasts out weekly, but I think they will be ongoing. We had fun recording it and we have a nice rapport.

I uploaded a recording of a recent comedy performance to Soundcloud. The audience wasn’t digging it, but I like the joke a lot.

I reviewed To Pimp a Butterfly for Paste. I have complicated feelings about this album, but I don’t like it much. The review goes into detail, but in short, I just don’t think the album lived up to its own expectations.

The Toast published a personal essay I wrote about an involuntary haircut. My hair is important to me, so this episode in my life really involved some tough decisions.

The Toast also published a personal essay I wrote about the economic and personal difficulties of writing professionally without a lot of money and time.

I reviewed Tetsuo & Youth for Paste. I still listen to this album. It has blemishes, but the moments where it shines are really impressive. “Deliver” is my favorite track.

I reviewed B4.DA.$$ for Paste. If you’ve seen the movie Detention, this review might make you proud of me.

That’s about it. I have some blog posts planned for the next few weeks, but I’m really trying in earnest to write all over. I think I may have another post about comics soon, but otherwise, I think I’ll be sticking with the usual mix of race, movies and music. We’ll see. As always, thanks for reading!

Hooked on Comics: Cape Comics Only Make Sense If You Read More Cape Comics

Uncanny X-Force 10 Dark Angel

For the past 18 months, I’ve been navigating through the ever-extending universe of X-Men. As I’ve gotten deeper into the X-Men world I’ve noticed that I’ve been making fewer and fewer research visits to Wikipedia and other comics to understand plots and characters. As an individual reader, this is a pretty pleasant development because the stories are finally starting to flow due to be me being knowledgeable about the X-Men. But as someone who likes to share things, it’s incredibly frustrating because I’m unable to talk about the comics with anyone other than people who have also read 30 years worth of comic books, which is no one that I know.

The normal course of action would be to seek out people who have also read 30 years worth of comic books and I can kind of dig that. But honestly, that seems like the wrong approach because the problem isn’t that not enough people read comic books. The problem is that not enough comic books are made to be readable by anyone other than people who regularly read comic books.

I know that this isn’t a new observation. Feminists have been making it for years, frequently giving up on cape comics and opting for independently published graphic stories, or writing and drawing their own (which they’ve actually been doing since comics existed). But I’m bringing it up now because it’s intriguing how transparent the effort has been to just give up on accessibility.

For instance, I just finished Uncanny X-Force, a series about a mercenary wing of the X-Men that tries to reconcile killing people with the X-Men’s philosophy of preserving life. In “The Dark Angel Saga” story arc, X-Force attempts to save its member Angel from succumbing to his evil persona Archangel. Archangel exists because the X-Men villain Apocalypse once kidnapped Angel and brainwashed him into becoming his minion. To save Angel, X-Force recruits Dark Beast, a minion of Apocalypse and doppelganger of the X-Man, Beast, from the Age of Apocalypse parallel universe where Apocalypse has conquered the world. Dark Beast takes them to this parallel universe and then the real story begins in earnest, going on to span 8 more comics.

Since this story arc starts with Uncanny X-Force issue #11, it makes sense for the authors to assume the reader has knowledge of issues #1-10. But to assume knowledge of comics from over a decade ago is quite a stretch. Seriously, the mere scaffolding for the story, its basics, requires knowledge of the X-Men universe that extends to storylines from the 80’s and 90’s. For these comics, suspending one’s disbelief is secondary, possible only after expending one’s time and money. Even as someone who has paid these costs, I don’t like this.

And it’s not because I think there are inherent problems with learning curves or opacity or niche audiences. Barring governments, healthcare, the internet and parks, I don’t think that everything needs to be easy and accessible and widely available to everyone. I think there’s real value in rarity and mystery and exclusiveness, depending on the circumstances. I’m struck by these X-Men comics because the opacity never goes away. Despite different artists, writers, stories and characters, the learning curve never really smooths out.

In other words, I fibbed earlier. The comics actually aren’t flowing that much better from when I first started; I’ve just learned to navigate the gaps. There are always more comics to be read, more Wikipedia pages to scour. Reading these comics is like having a daily commute over a street that’s riddled with potholes: the gaps eventually just become a part of the street.

I once celebrated the fact that comics had slowly phased out advertisements because I always used to see those ads as “interrupting” the stories. I now realize that the stories themselves have become advertisements and that the product being sold isn’t the comics themselves, but access to them. To put it differently, cape comics sell literacy of cape comics. Inaccessibility is built into this model. This doesn’t mean that all cape comics are a scam or that all their stories and art are invalid. There are good stories and ideas out there. But they come at a steep price that probably isn’t worth it.

Suddenly, the Marvel Cinematic Universe doesn’t seem like such a cool idea.

Byzantine Blues/I’m Feeling Lucky

Last night I was stopped in Arlington, Virginia for being an “unlicensed driver in the state of Virginia” (apparently having a Georgia license and a Virginia registration is not acceptable) and was issued a ticket for not having a Virginia driver’s license. The officer told me that I can avoid the court summons and a fine by getting a Virginia license and going to the courthouse before my court date to prove that I am newly compliant with Virginia driving laws. Maybe I’m being reductive, but paying for an unnecessary new license (my Georgia license expires in 2017) and visiting a courthouse sounds incredibly similar to appearing in court and paying a fine.

I wasn’t too excited about being forced to waste time and take off work for something so slight and inane. But I soon realized that because I’m moving to DC proper at the end of the month, I will now have to get a VA license just to own it for 2 weeks, then exchange that license for a DC license within 30 days of moving in.

Hoping to avoid this ridiculously annoying sequence of events, today I called the courthouse and asked if there were other options. They very dryly told me that I have a “perfect grasp” of the situation and that my only other option is to appear in court and explain my situation.

I hadn’t considered this, but it really is an option. I could wait 3 months, then appear before the judge and explain, “I am here before you today because instead of navigating the Byzantine system that has been elaborately and weirdly designed to coerce me into paying nominal licensing fees at the expense of my time and money, I have decided to expend my time and money in order to explain this Byzantine system to you in hopes that you, someone who is comfortably ensconced within this system, will suddenly recognize the horror of this nightmarish machine of parasitic pettiness and solve my silly problems in a heroic swoop of Reason and compassion.”

Because I really doubt that I could speak so eloquently for so long, I’m going to go with the first option of getting a license, going to the courthouse, then getting another license. Even if I got a DC license, then appeared in court, I would probably still end up being fined because on that day I was driving without a VA license.


I know that this annoying episode will come and go as quickly as it came, but I can’t help but dwell on it because there’s something scary about how normal this situation is. There is nothing unusual about a police officer scanning vehicle license plates while driving (generously assuming that’s even the real reason I was stopped…), stopping drivers, sidling up to their car windows, and enforcing municipal licensing rules that people have never heard of until the moment they were enforced. This happens every day, multiple times a day, everywhere.

This was my first time ever being pulled over, so perhaps that, plus the fact that I’ve actively kept up with the nationwide epidemic of police violence against folks of color, just have me on high alert. But even if that is true, that I’m being paranoid over what was a rather uneventful encounter, why shouldn’t I be? It is precisely the very uneventfulness of this entire experience that alarms me. All it takes is one unlucky and unnecessary police scan to send someone spiraling down a bureaucratic rabbit hole that can only be escaped via time, money or an unlikely rejection of the bureaucracy by someone who holds power within it. For some people, like the residents of Ferguson, the spiral never ends .

But that’s not a surprise. I’ve always known that I live in a world where a black male who gets stopped by a cop feels “lucky” to “only” receive a ticket and “only” have to do some pesky bureaucratic maneuvering. The surprise is just how exhausting this so-called luck feels. I haven’t even started my bureaucratic relay race yet, but I already feel winded, defeated.

After I got home, I undressed, brushed my teeth, then told my girlfriend what had happened.  “I’m just glad you’re okay,” she responded. I told her that I was glad too, and to my horror, I really meant it.