December 7th, 2012
A REVIEW BY
If there’s anything that Amherst College does best, it’s thinking and talking about Amherst College. For my part, I’ve noticed that we’re lacking in a few areas: parties whose attendees represent a meaningful intersection of otherwise distinct, insular social groups (i.e., parties that bring together those who sit in The Front Room and those who sit in The Sports Room), parties in the Triangle (or in open spaces in general), live music, and collective appreciation of rap music.
We need long-term solutions to these problems, to be sure, but we also can’t complain when we get quick fixes. So when the massively talented 17-year-old Brooklyn rapper Joey Bada$$ performed at Seelye House on the night of Friday, December 7th, we took well to the proposed remedy.
If you don’t already know about Joey Bada$$, here’s what you need to know for the purposes of this review: He and his rapper pals, who have formed a collective of young artists called the Progressive Era (or Pro Era), are very, very good at rapping. At the very least, Joey Bada$$ is the only person in the world who can get away with including the word “badass”—let alone “bada$$”—in his stage name and still be taken seriously.
Joey and a few members of Pro Era came to Amherst thanks to the efforts of Tony Russo ’15 (of social networking fame) and the rest of the WAMH 89.3 FM team. The common room of Seelye was crowded enough to make for a respectable rap concert, but not so crowded as to make the room uncomfortable. Most remarkable to me was the diversity of social groups: Bros, athletes, shadow Amherst, brahs, melvins, and fratstars had all come out to see a group of high school students perform. Joey rapped with characteristic energy and skill. He seemed happy, and so did the crowd.
And then there was Todd Faulkenberry ’13. Full disclosure: Todd Faulkenberry ’13 is an editor for The Indicator. I am an editor for The Indicator. I like Todd. Todd likes me. Emoticon. Full stop. I’m not even 400 words in, and this review already has all the trappings of nepotism, or, in the parlance of our forebears, a circle jerk.
But if you were at the concert, you know that this statement, admittedly and thoroughly biased, is utterly true: Todd Faulkenberry ’13 won the Joey Bada$$ concert. He just did. It is one thing to merely be in the front row for the entire show, but it is quite another to take the front row seriously and, indeed, to embody all that it means to be in the front row. Impressive recall and spirited recitation of Joey’s lyrics—not to mention a comprehensive understanding of the principles of dance—even earned Todd the chance to take the microphone for a moment. Daps, fist bumps, low fives, etc. were subsequently exchanged.
The best part about Joey Bada$$’ performance, in fact, was that it allowed for the possibility of Todd Faulkenberry ‘13’s performance. There is no stage in Seelye, so the only physical boundary between the audience and the rappers was a porous line of student security workers. The relationship between viewer and performer was similarly fluid: Call-and-return chants of “Beast Coast” filled the space between songs (to the chagrin of the audience’s Californians), and when Joey asked us to wave our hands to the jazzy beat of his track “Waves,” we obliged. By the time Joey and Pro Era closed the show with “Survival Tactics,” the song whose music video thrust Joey into the wild world of online music commentary, the distinction between us and them had been entirely effaced. Student security gave up, Joey rapped alongside students, and Pro Era members either crowd-surfed or moshed. In short, it was glorious.
Talking about building school community and fostering meaningful discourse on campus can be a nebulous enterprise, but there’s nothing more concretely galvanizing than a room full of up-and-coming rappers and Amherst students yelling “drank,” (cf. Kendrick Lamar’s “Swimming Pools (Drank)” off his recent release good kid, m.A.A.d city) in rhythmic unison. Which, for reasons that remain unclear, is what happened after Joey’s set ended.
And so this concert helped to bear out one of the fundamental truths about our school: Rap music is the best music for Amherst College. In extraordinarily sweeping terms, let’s say that there are three main swathes of music that are most closely linked to Amherst social life. Assigning genres to music is as difficult as it is irritating, especially when speaking in extraordinarily sweeping terms, so let’s also say that these broad categories are best described by artists who might be considered representative of them: Avicii, Bon Iver, and Kanye West. This is not to say that these broad categories cover all the music that Amherst students listen to, but it is to say that they are the most relevant categories when thinking about popular music’s relationship to Amherst social life.
While Avicii or Bon Iver conjures strong social associations—think of either artist, and now think of the person at Amherst, or people at Amherst, or the room in Val at Amherst, that pop into your head—Kanye West doesn’t have the same effect. Magically, ineffably, rap transcends Amherst’s deep social divisions.
One theory as to why: What’s universally deemed to be the golden years of popular rap—2003 to 2007, though you can argue over the exact dates—or, as it’s called in some schools of thought, “The Nelly Era,” took place, for most of us, during our middle school years. Instant evocation of common ground.
The best way to bridge Amherst’s social gaps might be for us all to listen to Joey Bada$$. Seriously. Listen to his debut mixtape that he released this past summer, 1999—but also listen to Nelly’s “Hot in Herre” and J-Kwon’s “Tipsy”—and you’ll hear what I mean.
There are plenty of truly, deeply important things to discuss about our school. But it’s hard to see how we can have these discussions in any meaningful way if our default social settings—doubtlessly more relevant to discussions of campus culture than our default intellectual settings—are constantly pushing back against them. A prophet of sorts, Joey Bada$$ came to Amherst to tell us what we need: more rap, more concerts, and more Todd.
At the end of the night, I sat in Fred Shipley ‘13’s darkened suite in Taplin, eating the fried chicken that Joey and Pro Era had requested for after the show but left uneaten. I’d like to think that Fred and I engaged in a meaningful dialogue about the issues of the day. In any event, we let Joey’s words wash over us: “Numbers don’t matter after the first night, right? So what the fuck is love at the first sight?”