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On and On...My Cipher Keeps Movin Like a Rollin Stone

Akna Baraka

Growing up, TV and music have been very influential in shaping my beliefs and my ideals. My favorite movie when I was six years old was Grease 2 starring Michelle Pfeiffer. My full-blooded Filipino "cousins" (not really blood related, but our families were close) and I watched their dubbed Betamax copy virtually every time I visited their house in the suburbs. Michelle Pfeiffer was the leader of the Pink Ladies, the cool girls in school. Her character's name was Stephanie Zinoni; she was gorgeous, tough, sexy and cool - everything that I wanted to be. Voluminous blond hair, blue doe-eyes and stylish, she was the image of perfection. Never mind that I was dark, with dark eyes and darker hair - I wanted to be her. I remember one scene, she had just rejected Michael Carrington, the new clean cut kid from England who had a crush on her, she goes off singing, letting him know that she can't possibly want to date him, she wants a "C-O-O-L R-I-D-E-R...I want a devil in skin tight leather, that's gonna be wild as the wind." I remember attempting to recreate that scene where she gyrated with a hula hoop and straddled the top of the ladder as if she was on the back of a motorcycle- mind you, I was five years old. In one of my kindergarten graduation pictures I tried to imitate one of Stephanie's pouty lip faces. Unfortunately, my attempt didn't turn out so good - I ended up looking like a little brown girl with a severe underbite. As cliché and as exhaustive it is to hear a minority woman idolize an image such as Stephanie Zinoni, at the time I didn't realize that I loved to be her because I had a deep-rooted hatred for myself. I didn't know who I was. It's not everyday that I came across women mixed with Filipino and Black who were beautiful, yet alone looked like me.

Thank the heavens my Stephanie Zinoni phase only lasted until my mother took notice and she wasn't having her five year old girl prancing and gyrating like she "got an itch," as she would say. She said if I wanted to be something other than a five-year-old and act grown, then at least I should choose someone who was pretty (her definition of pretty) and not so dependent on getting and attracting a man. My mother, coming from Islamic Mindanao in the south of the Philippines, gave me some old-school pictures of her life back home in the Philippines and told me to go outside and climb trees. Looking at those pictures, I saw beautiful images of people who didn't look like my Filipino "cousins" or, in fact, any Filipinos I have come into contact with. The Filipinos I knew were a lot lighter skin toned than me and were, for the most part, Catholic. Their parents and consequently their children believed that lighter skinned and mestizas, native Filipino and Spanish mix, were the most attractive. As many other teenagers, having my first bout acne, my mother took me to a Philippine market to get me an astringent that she used when she was my age. One the bottle, it said " most effective against pimples....guaranteed to lighten with special skin whiteners." Having a browner skin tone than most and not having many people to look up to, it was inevitable that I wished I were lighter and looked like the women that everyone thought were pretty.

High school was hell. I went to dominantly white private college prep school in the city where the kids who drove an hour in daddy's BMW to get to a school and thought they were tough because they went to school in the city. Au contraire, mon frere! That school was a whole rich suburb located in one block on Chicago's West Side. My sophomore year in high school, I was on the search for another identity. I was not "white," and I tried being "Filipino," still feeling like something's missing. So, I tried to get in touch with my Black roots. Having just grown up around my mother and her circle of friends (my father wasn't around for most of my life) I came to only be familiar with Filipinos. I didn't know who I was. I was too Asian for the black folk and too black for the Asian fold. I hardly knew I was "black." I knew my father was black, but I didn't know that my skin color was very powerful.

Trying to be more "Black", watching BET and MTV, I wanted to identify with the females that were in style, the ones the brothas were into. These females were "thick," with big booties and little waists, legs that seemed to go on forever to their 4 -inch heels. Long hair, long nails, with sex dripping from their lacquered lips. Of course, none of these sistas had a name, no face or even voice. I didn't care, these were the black women of my time-and they are on TV, they are famous, and all the brothas want them, they must be doing something right! I wanted to be a brown Stephanie Zinoni. So I went out and I bought me my little skirts and my little tops with my big heels and big attitude, shook my behind with the best of them and became one of those sistas that all the brothas heard about, all in the name of acceptance and belonging. The attention I got from the men filled my head with thoughts of psuedo-confidence-that I was "da bomb" only because I valued myself by what others thought of me. All of this led me to further think that the only way that I was beautiful was if other people thought I was. Because I believed what the guys I met told me, I became sexually promiscuous and thought I was so beautiful because so many men wanted to be share something so intimate with me. I didn't know that behind my back they were laughing at me, calling me nasty names, having no respect for me at all. I realized that I had let my clothes in a way define who I was. I completely different person than I was had I been wearing jeans and a sweatshirt. Those women on the videos command all the attention, but in the end they are objects, eye candy with nothing else to offer but a big butt and a smile.

So I did a complete 180 degrees and became a self-proclaimed member of the 5% Nation, and offshoot of the Nation of Islam, and a "science" that was a form of political awareness for young raps acts. Their broadcast of ideological separatism in their rhymes appealed to my feelings of isolation and being an outcast. In 1993, Brand Nubian came out with In God We Trust, which put all the 5% cards on the table. Other groups like Poor Righteous Teachers, X-Clan, and Wu-Tang all kicked their rhymes, possessing "self-knowledge" of blacks' racial superiority. These individuals were strong, black, and proud. I also wanted to be proud of who I was. I was always feeling hip hop music, but back in its glory days in the 80s, I was still a shorty and only listened to the radio. Rap and hip never really got that much play on the radio. But when I met up with some fellow outcasts in high school, hip hop became my new best friend. As part of the righteous 5%, it was my responsibility to educate the deaf, dumb and blind 85% majority who were oppressed by the corrupt 10% "white devils." As a woman in the 5% Nation, I symbolized the Earth and the Moon and the number 2. As an earth, 3/4 of my body must be covered as 3/4 of the earth is covered by water. As the Moon, I am the reflection of my man, the Sun. As symbolizing the number 2, I am wisdom, the reflection of knowledge, number 1 in the supreme mathematics of the 5% Nation. I was a strong advocate of this philosophy, but when I realized that it was male-dominated and there were few, if any, true 5%ers that were female. The males did give us respect as women, but there were clear lines between us. Man, to the 5%ers, was God, or Allah. Women were subordinate to the men and this orientation created little space for female 5% rap acts as well the addressing of women's issues in the male-dominated industry and society. Because of all these reasons, I kept most of the philosophy as a guide, but for the most part I did not remain a devout %5er. I believed that it was my duty to be a "poor righteous teacher," respect my man and live against the will of "the man," but I needed something or someone to help me find my voice.

During my freshman year in college, I was trying to find myself (again) and in the spring, I did. Hip hop artist Erykah Badu released her album "Baduizm" and after listening to her album I knew who and what I wanted to be. Not necessarily in career terms, but spiritually and mentally. In the song/chant "On and On" she sings "the man who knows something know that he know nothing at all" and "on and on and on and on, my cipher keeps moving like a rolling stone" "I was born underwater and three dollars and six dimes-yeah, you may laugh, cuz ya did not do ya math!" These were again the teachings of the 5%, yet she was so strong and beautiful, she did not let the gender differences take away from the righteousness of the teachings. Perhaps coming from a woman, the philosophy made more sense. She didn't just boast and say she was superior like her male counterparts. She sang about love and getting hurt, and being strong and not giving up. That made her and the teachings of the 5% more fascinating to me, more real. I remember hearing that and her whole album and just feeling better about life in general. Honestly, it was the first time that I can remember having a conscious memory. In high school, I don't know if it was because of the events in my life and good timing or coincidence. But I began writing poetry and reflecting more since that spring in college.

I guess for most of my life, music and the media have had such a deep impact on my identity. Hip hop music, to me was sent straight from the gods to come and save me, for real. I don't believe that I have ever felt so strongly or passionately about something. Poor righteous teachers and Gil Scott-Heron were before my time, and I needed something to uplift my and make me proud of who I was. Images in the media are vital in shaping young people's minds and I don't think that the people behind those images realize that. The 5% Nation and its philosophies are not for everyone. But I am glad that there are a few acts out there who take responsibility for what they are saying and what they are portraying. I guess, like Sylk - 130 chanted back in the 80s, "Last night a D.J. saved my life." Word Up. Sho Nuff. Ya Dig? Peace and blessings to the Gods and Earths.

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