How Ice Cube helped launch my education

Listening to Ice Cube sparked my interest in Black activists and issues, which my mentor then deepened and guided

By Darryl Robertson
Published November 7, 2020 7:30PM (EST)
Huey Newton and Ice Cube (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Huey Newton and Ice Cube (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Ice Cube's "Lil Ass Gee'' blasted from the factory stereo system inside Mr. Johnson's black Honda Accord. I was a second grader at St. Vincent Children's Center, a school that specializes in students with learning, behavioral, and psychological issues. Prior to St. Vincent Children's Center, I was invisible to faculty at Columbus Public Schools. But Mr. Johnson saw me. Behind the bravado, and in his words, a "very quiet child," he saw a Black boy who thirsted for knowledge, and was "searching for something." 

During lunch breaks at St. Vincent, Mr. Johnson would take me on excursions through the East Side of Columbus, Ohio. Before crack spots, heroin dens, and prostitution stained Main Street, Livingston and Mt. Vernon Avenues, East Columbus was the cultural hub of the city, similar to Harlem, Chicago's Bronzeville, Tulsa's Greenwood District or Miami's Colored Town during the 1920s-30s. Throughout our outings, we would visit his parent's restaurant, The Johnsons'. We'd stop at a local bookstore on Livingston Ave., or make a pit stop at the bank to cash his check. I didn't know it then, but the intellectual exchanges during these rides are where my education — stuff that's left after I forget everything that my teacher told me to remember — took place. 

On this particular day, I was tapped into the hard-knock sounds of the self-proclaimed "N***a Ya Love to Hate." In his familiar, aggressive "fuck the world" tone, Ice Cube unloaded sharp sixteens about a baby-faced kid who becomes a drug dealer. On the song's intro, I recognized that someone was getting arrested, followed by Cube's narrative of the kid's stint in juvenile jail, his gang initiation, and money made from crack sales. By the song's final verse, the youngin' had morphed into a young adult and was serving time in prison. I was only seven years old, but I'd already had encounters with crack addiction, SWAT teams, and incarceration. I wasn't a gang member, but I did want to be a Crip or a Gangster Disciple. As Cube fired rounds of familiar tales into my earlobes, I painted a mental picture that included everyone I knew in my neighborhood. Cube's words sounded and felt like the tension and aggressiveness that decorated my environment. 

"I like this song," I said to Mr. Johnson from the passenger side of his Accord. 

"You like the curse words, or do you like the story he's telling?" 

"The story," I said.

"What do you like about it?"

"It makes me think about my friends, and family members," I answered.   

Mr. Johnson explained some reasons Black boys and men turn to drugs. He went over subjects like job ceilings, job discrimination, unemployment, and inadequate education. I didn't understand everything he was saying, but he piqued my interest in issues affecting Black communities. There was urgency in Mr. Johnson's voice — a seriousness that resembled the desperation heard in Cube's voice. 

Recently, Cube was criticized after Trump advisor Katrina Pierson thanked the "Predator" rapper for his willingness to collaborate with the Trump Administration on its Platinum Plan. Social media users dragged the N.W.A. member, calling him everything from a "has been" to a "coon." One user said: "Ice Cube got his seat at the Republican Table." 

Cube appeared on Roland Martin's digital show to clarify his relationship with Trump. He admitted that he attempted to work with Republican and Democratic politicians on the Contract With Black America, his plan for the nation to address systemic issues facing the Black community. The rapper born O'Shea Jackson introduced CWBA — which does contain some important concerns — in early June. "Facts: I put out the CWBA. Both parties contacted me," Ice Cube tweeted. "Dems said we'll address the CWBA after the election. The Trump campaign made some adjustments to their plan after talking to us about the CWBA." 

When it comes to activism, Ice Cube is no Beyoncé. Nor is he spoken about alongside the likes of Harry Belafonte or Paul Robeson, to name a few. Robeson — contrary to the Malcom X clip where the Harlemite questions Black entertainers' leadership abilities, which social media users recycled to chastise Cube — had a career as a lawyer before placing himself on the frontline of activism. Robeson's Pan-Africanist views, as well as his working-class and leftist politics, destroyed his acting career. Harry Belafonte wasn't just a confidant to Martin Luther King, Jr.; the accomplished actor and singer organized civil rights events before working with the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project. However, noted public intellectuals have met with well-known racists. Malcolm X and Minister Jeremiah X met with members of the Klu Klux Klan. CORE's Floyd McKissick publicly endorsed Richard Nixon. Also, women of the Peace Movement of Ethiopia were supported by Theodore Bilbo, the deeply racist Mississippi senator and former governor.

When Cube attempted to clarify himself, he looked naive; did he really believe that Trump's political team would actually follow through with help? But Cube is human, and there's a history, as I mentioned above, of powerful Black voices being taken advantage of and lied to by politicians. Ice Cube is not the first Black man, and will not be the last, to be used as a pawn by "wicked" politicians. Blacks have been, and will probably continue to be, subjects for power structures in academia, public housing and politics.  

* * *

Jeezy's "Let's Get It: Thug Motivation 101" ticked through the four 10-inch speakers sitting in the rear window of my maroon '85 Chevy Impala. There were 14 ounces of crack in the car with me and Henn Dogg. In fact, the ounces were still wet, so we rode with the windows down, hoping they'd dry before we made it back to Laurel, Mississippi. I, like a million other Black boys, had fallen for the trap-or-die mentally that the government strategically set up for us. I was now a full-fledged drug dealer, identical to the character that Cube rapped about on "Lil Ass Gee." Yes, I was knee deep on the dope game, but both Mr. Johnson's and Cube's words had lasting effects on me. Formal education didn't relate to my reality, so I became an avid book lover. Yup, dope boys read, too. Back at the spot, as we bagged heroin and chopped crack, Henn Dogg thumbed through my literature collection, which he did often, sometimes reading more than a few pages.

"Cuz, I'm looking through this Medgar Evers book, and they had a muthafucking Pig Law back in the day. Cuz, them white folks could arrest you for not having a job, cuz." 

I smiled, nodding my head in agreement. 

"Then, in that Huey Newton book, cuz, them n***as wasn't going. Cuz, I saw that them n***as had guns, and patrolled the neighborhood against them racists ass cops. Cuz, that was some gangsta shit."  

Hearing the excitement in Dogg's voice reminded me of the excursions with Mr. Johnson and listening to Ice Cube. Those expeditions shaped my reading habits. One of the first books that I ever purchased was Huey Newton's "Revolutionary Suicide." I remembered Newton from Mr. Johnson and Cube. After Cube mentioned Newton in a song, Mr. Johnson explained Newton's ideals to me. From that mustard seed, my curiously grew into an uncontrollable search for knowledge. 

You see, Ice Cube's influence on American culture has been written. His energy within the Black cultural space will span for generations. Nah, he's not academically trained in the scholarship of Marxism, or in the disciplines of urban history, sociology, and Pan Africanism. And he's definitely not a student of political science. However, his wordplay, and subject matter sparks thought to a nation of ghetto boys and girls. Within this realm, Cube is not only an activist, but also a teacher. 

Days after Cube was castigated on social media, 50 Cent claimed that he was voting for Trump because of Biden's plan to raise taxes on anyone earning over $400,000. Fif' later recanted his story. Following 50 Cent's sideshow, Lil Wayne voiced his support for Trump.

"Just had a great meeting with @realdonaldtrump," the multi-platinum rapper posted to his nearly 35 million followers on Twitter after the two posed together in Florida, earning a retweet from the president. "He listened to what we had to say today and assured he will and can get it done."

Cube's frustration with inequality in America led to his rushed decision in plugging with Trump. Yes, his decision-making was a result of his lack of knowledge, but moreso, Cube is desperate for a solution. As far as 50 Cent and Wayne go, if one has consistently paid attention to 50 Cent's music, then it's obvious that, as a street cat, 50 Cent is the type of hustler that would knowingly sell you a bundle of drugs with entirely too much cut on it. He came into the industry with "How to Rob," a song about robbing his well-known contemporaries. Yes, it's only a song, but the fact that he, a then-unknown rapper, would purposely stir controversy to get into the rap game is the sign of a grimy dude. As for Dwayne Carter, I didn't know that Black people still listen to Wayne's music. But, I'm even more confused as to why people would react to Wayne's political analysis. For the past twenty-plus years, the rapper who decided to become a member of the Blood gang after becoming a millionaire has been consistent with rapping about drug consumption, skateboarding and sex. Dude is nearly 40 years old, and his content hasn't changed since he was a member of the Hot Boyz during the late 1990s.  

Lyrics are like general conversations. One can pretty much gauge — although not fully — a person based on the content of his art. With this, Lil Wayne is a bozo hidden behind a supreme knack for wordplay. What type of grown man joins a gang after becoming a millionaire? 50 Cent is the hustler in your hood that you deal with only when it's convenient for you, because you know that he can be grimy. He cares about a dollar. He's literally been about "Get Rich or Die Trying" since the early 2000s. Cube really does care about the Black community. We may not agree with Cube's CWBA; we may not want him speaking for us. But his attempt to help came from an honest place. For over three decades, his content has been consistent with issues affecting Blacks.  

More importantly, as a nation of Blacks we are dealing with generations of job discrimination, attacks on the welfare state, public institutions, reproductive rights and the poor. There are generations of backlash on cultural and gender equality movements. As an example of how deep these issues run, in Michigan, local officials were replaced by Government appointed managers with power to fire elected officials without a vote. Also, Crawford vs. Marion County Election Board enabled Republicans to discourage unwelcome voters. This type of covert racist behavior didn't start with Trump. It's part of America's DNA. The country's deep-rooted issues will not disappear with one election, or even in one presidential term. And neither Cube, Fif', or Lil Wayne hold enough political clout or savvy to sway voters.

The one thing that Clinton, Bush, Obama and Trump have in common is that our living and economic conditions, as a whole, did not change. Prisons are still being built on the backs of Black people, and we are always left saving us. As a radical dreamer, I see a world where Blacks recreate, and build onto the examples of Bronzeville, Colored Town, Greenwood District, D.C.'s Black Broadway, and Harlem. These spaces thrived intellectually and financially. At the center of this success was a shared space between rich, wealthy, middle-class, working-class and poor Blacks. The intellectual and financial exchanges took shape among all classes, creating a flood of Black-owned businesses, and constant flow of money and progressive ideas. My radical dreams of a new renaissance — and there's definitely enough talent to begin a new renaissance — should not be confused with racial segregation, either. 

No, racial separation will not uproot America's problematic, and layered political system. But a new renaissance could definitely set forth  newfound energy, connecting lower-class Blacks with the likes of Mr. and Mrs. Johnsons, which could actually lead to an abolishment of our current political system. Unless America starts anew, working-class Blacks and grassroots organizers will continue to carry Black America on their backs, gaining victories only to continue fighting against broken promises.  

Darryl Robertson

Darryl Robertson is a Harlem-based writer, and J.I.E. Scholar at Columbia University. His research interests include hip-hop and understanding how the Black Panther Party serviced its communities. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, USA Today, Black Perspectives, VIBE, XXL, Ozy, among several other publications.    Follow him on Twitter @dvrobertson88.

MORE FROM Darryl Robertson

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Editor's Picks Essay Hip-hop Huey P. Newton Ice Cube Malcolm X