Every day, I drive over to the James Cayce neighborhood and pick up eight Somali students, ranging in age from 14-19. All of the students have been in America for less than three years. They speak a variety of languages – Arabic, Somali, Swahili, English, and even a little Spanish. The women wear headscarves and patterned skirts over jeans while the males wear the latest in fashion by Fubu, Fila and Tommy. Their English is broken, but they seem to get what I’m trying to communicate by the second go-round. But, amazingly enough, they can rap all of the lyrics off of Fifty Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’ album.
Dancing with their seatbelts on, these eight youth are full of energy when the bass line fills the cab of the 15-passenger van. Swaying in unison like they were around the campfires of their ancestors, the students rap the violent words Fifty spouts out. They echo his thoughts on having sex with lots of women, shooting rival gang members, and living life in the party lane.
From my viewpoint in the driver’s seat, there is a bit of irony to all of this. These students fled with their families in order to escape atrocity and violence. Many have slept under open African skies as they wondered if they would die tomorrow. Some have seen parents and siblings murdered in front of their eyes. Some were not allowed to worship as they chose. All heard that life was better and freer in the United States, and ventured with their family to the fabled land of opportunity. Still in the midst of the tangled visa process, these students have a future that is yet undetermined. While their lives are still very much shaped by their customs and traditions, their ability to choose is greater than ever before.
And so I found it odd that they chose to sing about violence. That which they had escaped had returned in a tame but almost tangible form. And it was still ever present – in their minds and in their words.
My naïveté wants to believe that they really don’t understand all the words. Because their English is limited, perhaps they don’t realize what they’re rapping. Maybe if they did, they would stop repeating the lines about bloodshed on city streets. But my realist self tells me that the worst of American culture has leaked onto them, leaving a permanent stain.
Granted, their living situation also contributes to their formation as young Americans. Living in Cayce introduces anyone very quickly to the world of violence, drugs, alcohol, sex, and instability. Cayce seems to be the place where people get dumped, walled in by an interstate, a five-lane road, and the proverbial path to nowhere. Success stories are rare in this part of Nashville. Very few make it out, and the select company that does isn’t known for going back into the fire in an effort to save one or two more. Besides, given that these students are African immigrants, they could see another city or two before they permanently find a home in the U.S. When you’re a refugee, itinerancy is your only consistency.
And I feel stuck. While I could easily condemn and proove as harmful the entire Fifty Cent album, maybe they wouldn’t understand that. I myself am a foreigner when it comes to the hardships they endure everyday. My preaching could further build a wall between them and me.
When we think of the ‘needs’ of immigrants, our standard answers come out like it was a Sunday School question with white Jesus looking at us: housing, jobs, clothes, food, transportation. But after working a week with these students (and three more to go), I’ve realized that what immigrants need most is for someone to listen to their story. We as Americans have become accustomed to telling our story. We have also been sold the idea that the best way to tell our story (the selfish story of who we are and what we’ve made of ourselves) is with a fancy car, a gigantic house, and the hoarding and wasting of things like food, water, the earth and time.
But in the discipline of listening, I’ve learned that there are countless stories of hope that need to be told and retold the globe over. There are people who simply need the most priceless of all gifts: friendship. There are African teenagers who just need someone to drive them around in a big van and press rewind on the CD player so they can dance another five minutes before they have to go home and sleep on the couch.
I think can do that.