Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Dreams, Nightmares, and Black Romanticism

Covers for Meek Mill's Dreams and Nightmares (2012) and Matt Sandler's The Black Romantic Revolution

When you’re reaching the end of a book, the very end, things are usually winding down. But let me tell you something, when I was finishing up Matt Sandler’s The Black Romantic Revolution: Abolitionist Poetry at theEnd of Slavery (2020), just as I was in that cool down moment, out of nowhere it seems, in the closing paragraphs, Sandler began discussing Meek Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares (Intro).”

And well, whenever you hear or even recall that song, you do what most folks do when they encounter a national anthem, you show respect.

Look, a discussion of Meek was the last thing I would’ve expected to see show up in a scholarly book about poets from the nineteenth century. But here it was.

Sandler mentions that in some ways hip hop has “become the aesthetic of a hounded and yet global underclass, and lately the soundtrack of a new abolitionism aimed especially at mass incarceration and police violence.”

That point on abolitionism provides a basis for discussing Meek’s “Dreams and Nightmares,” a song that “narrates the confusions of a man navigating the ephemeral frontier between international celebrity and the abject circumstances of Black life in the postindustrial city.” Sandler notes some of the instances that the song became an even more popular after its release as Meek became “an icon of criminal justice reform,” and in a different context, the song was also taken up by LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers teammates as they made a playoff run. The song was also used as an anthem of sorts by the Philadelphia Eagles on their successful run to the Super Bowl.

For many of us – notably black men I connect with – “Dreams and Nightmares Intro” is a song you return to in tough times. It’s your armor.

In The Beautiful Struggle (2008), Ta-Nehisi Coates recalls moments from his childhood when he and his peers struggled to navigate their tough environment. One of the friends confesses his fears, but notes that when surrounded by aggressors, he would quote Rakim lyrics, and at that point, “he was harder than he’d been in the moments before.” Hip hop as armor.

Alright, but getting back to Sandler.

He explains that “Dreams and Nightmares” coincides with “Romantic premises: the opposition of bondage and self-expression, the sublimation of erotic and spiritual energy into art, the use of the lyric as a way to recall deep feeling.”  Meek offers “a narrative of a life in art,” and “all the devilish ambivalence and passionate ferocity of Black Romanticism appears here. In this late moment, with the promise of abolition-democracy long past due, hip-hop compensates for, and provides an escape from, a police state.”

Echoing a long history of creative expression occupied at one point by fugitive slaves, Meek ironically, Sandler points out, utilizes “narratives of criminality to escape the containment of Black life, and the slip between dreams and nightmares.”

I always knew there were special reasons that some of these hip-hop pieces – this one by Meek, those by Rakim, and others – resonated so deeply. After reading those points from The Black Romantic Revolution, I’m inclined to consider an even longer history to account for why.


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