I have this recurring gag with my flatmate that I’m “street.”
Though I come from a very blue-collar family (my mother’s a waitress, my father plays music for/at various different ventures and people); spent the first eight years of my life living in a tiny, room-less public housing estate in Sham Shui Po (public housing estate are for those with low income and Sham Shui Po, back in the 80s, was considered a poor area of Hong Kong); and spent my formative years in Alhambra and the eastern edges of Monterey Park that’s basically El Monte — two cities dominated by Mexicans and Asians of the Vietnamese ilk, not exactly minorities known for their wealth — I know I don’t actually come from “the hood,” at least not in the sense that people like Jay-Z or, hell, 80% of black celebrities claim to be from.
My gag with the flatmate is just that, a gag. It’s a leitmotif that remain almost exclusively inside our household. Yes, I write with a black twang and I obviously am obsessed with NBA culture which is really an extension of black culture, but really, people who really know me know I don’t take myself too seriously when it comes to that “persona.” Hanging with me, you would just as easily see me talking in local Cantonese-English and loving mostly-white ventures (like mainstream Hollywood movies and Marvel comic books) and expressing love for 90s Californian punk-rock, Robert De Niro, or That 70s Show than you would see me doing the whole “Yo, man” thing.
So yeah, the whole street thing is a joke, like the Brooklyn thing. I grew to sensationalize/glorify that shit out of my natural love of the NBA, its players, and their stories.
(Though all this is apparently lost on my flatmate, who organized a surprise birthday party for me this past week and requested all my friends to show up dressing “street”. I ended up turning up with my hair slicked back and in button up shirt.)
In the league, we tend to glamorize those who come from bad backgrounds. LeBron James — raised by single mother, in the poor part of Akron; Derrick Rose — Southside of Chicago, notorious for its high murder rate; Metta World Peace — who screamed “Queensbridge” after winning the 2010 NBA title.
And of course, when a player come from an affluent background, like Grant Hill, there are jokes and snide remarks. Heck, Kobe got killed in his early years for claiming to be from Philadelphia when he actually grew up in Lower Merion, an affluent suburb of Philly (the bean also spent parts of his childhood in Italy).
Yes, it’s childish and stupid to glamorize those from the hood and mock those from affluent parts of town. But that’s the logic on which America operates; it’s a country of self-made men, of the rags-to-riches American dream.
Doing the go-to-school-and-be-a-doctor thing is tough, given that college admissions inherently discriminate against kids from low income families, so for these kids from “the hood”/”the projects”/”inner city” — a group that suffers from poverty, social and racial injustices — the common theory is that there are only three ways to “make it out”: the NBA (and to a lesser extent, other pro sports), hip hop and crime, specifically drug dealing.
(I had an argument with my flatmate about this a few months back. He thought that everyone who attends “name schools” got in because they’re hardworking/smart and everyone at community colleges were just slackers or dumb. I countered by pointing out how every international school kids in HK — basically rich kids — attend a name university in the US while most local Cantonese or people from my hometown of Alhambra do not attend name colleges. I don’t think it’s because we’re all lazier. It’s because our parents had $$$$ to worry about.)
This “hip hop, drugs, or hoop dream” thing isn’t my theory. A legion of rappers have a line or two about this, and college thesis have been written on this subject.
Here’s just one college paper, titled Hip-Hop Folk Theories of Social Mobility Without Formal Education: “Drugs, Basketball, & Hip-Hop”, written by Travis Gosa, Assistant Professor of Social Science at Cornell University.
In the paper, Gosa writes:
“Drugs encompass all of the illegal activities of the streets, including robbery, prostitution, gambling, or selling stolen goods. The sum of these street occupations are often summarized as “hustling” for short, but all of these activities are interlinked in the political- economy of the drug trade. Basketball, of course, is only one many professional sports that involve balls, though careers in the National Basketball League (NBA) and National Football League (NFL) are the most common aspirations and destinations for black male youth.”
As for rap references… here are a couple:
If I wasn’t in the rap game/I’d probably have a key knee deep in the crack game/Because the streets is a short stop/Either you’re slingin’ crack rock or you got a wicked jump shot
— Notorious BIG, “Things Done Changed”
As long as I’m in a polo smiling/they think they got me/But they would try to crack me if they ever see a black me/I thought I chose a field where they couldn’t sack me/If a n**** ain’t shooting a jump shot or running a track meet
–Kanye West, “Gorgeous”
Now, while drug dealing is obviously bad, and as much as I love hip hop when it’s at its best, more than half of it is misogynist, egotistical dirge. That leaves hoops as the most ideal route to leave the projects, right? I mean, if you’re a parent, you’d want your son to be an NBA player over a rapper or a drug dealer, right?
Sadly, that’s also the toughest route out, as being a professional athlete require a combination of dedication, hard-work, natural born talent, physical gifts, and luck that most do not possess.
According to Gosa’s paper, when “when sports careers do not materialize, the streets or hip-hop are the only viable options available for black youth.”
And here’s Black Menace stating similar sentiments via rhymes in the track “Hustlin’ 4 Nuthin'”:
Tryin’ to make ends meet but it never did touch,
Everybody can’t be Michael Jordan and Shaq
That’s why these ghetto kids stuck
In one episode of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Will Smith purposely loses a game to rival Marcus Stokes — who attends Malibu Prep, but is actually from the poor area of LA — in front of college scouts, because Smith figured Stokes needed basketball as a way out, to make it in life, more badly than he did, since he lives with a rich uncle in Bel-Air, with a butler named Geoffrey.
Couple things of note from that episode. For one, Smith’s attitude towards Stokes goes from condescending and dismissive to respectful and acceptive the moment he learned of Stoke’s true background (that he wasn’t a rich kid living in Malibu like Stacy Carousi, the girl whom Zack Morris hooked up with that one summer), also, Smith felt Stokes only had one way out — the NBA.