How a Nas song defined my fight for higher education
Welcome to Formative Jukebox, a column exploring the personal relationships people have with music. Every week, a writer will tackle a song, album, show, or musical artist and their influence on our lives. Tune in every week for a brand new essay.
I was the kid in college who took full of advantage of the pop culture classes I could take to meet course requirements. Naturally, I jumped at the chance to take a class on rap and hip-hop. It was a historical and sociological approach, a series of conversations about the impact of hip-hop artists, songs, and albums on music history and cultural identity.
Settling into my usual seat in the lecture hall, I expected this class session to go like any other: We would listen to a few songs, hear historical facts from our professor, and maybe start a discussion.
I didn’t expect to hear a song from my childhood. As the crisp beat started, accompanied by the piano notes of Beethoven’s “Für Elise,” I recognized the song as “I Can” by Nas.
Suddenly, I didn’t feel like I was sitting in a lecture hall at the University of Southern California anymore. Flashback: I was sitting in another classroom, this one from my childhood, listening as my teacher played this same song for us. I was back in elementary school — a bushy-haired, bespectacled kid who cried when she sucked at kickball; I excelled at writing and participated in poetry recitals. In an instant, I was right back at the beginning of my journey of attaining higher education and achieving my academic goals.
First released in 2003, “I Can” appeared as a second single on Nas’s album God’s Son. I knew little about the background of the song (I later learned it also sampled The Honey Drippers’ “Impeach the President”), but its emotional impact was huge on me.
I grew up in South Los Angeles, a low-income area where (according to the Los Angeles Times) only 5.3% of the population 25 and older has a four-year degree. With the help of my teachers and family, I became the first person in my family to go straight from high school to a university. My elementary school teacher constantly gloated about me to my parents and pushed me to keep getting good grades. My mom insisted I go to a middle school in Marina Del Rey and later a private high school in Culver City to get a better education. She made the high school payments each month while raising me as a single parent. Every day, my older brother woke up early enough to drop me off at my high school before going to work.
I know the work ethic and determination they instilled in me helped me become the first person in my immediate and extended family to get a master’s degree.
When I heard “I Can” again at USC, a wave of emotion hit me hard, and my heart started beating quickly. My professor began her usual routine, breaking down the song and its implications. The first lines of it are sung by a child and repeated by a crowd of other kids: “I know I can / be what I wanna be / if I work hard at it / I’ll be where I wanna be.”
As I started to tune back into the lecture, I heard my professor say: “I don’t understand though, why Nas would choose ‘Für Elise’ as one of the components of the song? Why not expose youth to some great African American music or poets instead?”
I raised my hand and tried to keep my voice from shaking as I explained why I thought the choice made sense. “I Can” was the first time I ever even heard “Für Elise,” and I can say with confidence that that was also true for most of my elementary school classmates.
Despite my journey to reaching my educational goals, I always felt out of place in the schools I attended later in life. High school was a huge culture shock, as the student body was mostly Caucasian and Asian (my neighborhood and previous schools were composed primarily of Hispanic/Latino and African-American/Black communities).
In my high school years, I visited Trader Joe’s for the first time and learned what a musical was.
At the University of Southern California, I was close to home, but the environment inside was a different world. I spent time with students who spent amounts of money I could only dream of, and felt uncomfortable with the little luxuries the school provided: The student center with its fireplace and footstools, the free laptops you could borrow from the computer lab, the expansive gym with a swimming pool and Jacuzzi.
I always felt a little out of place, a little inferior. Both my high school and college were breeding grounds for fierce competition. Not only did you have to be intelligent, you needed to be an all-around amazing person. What could someone who grew up in south Los Angeles and struggled to even understand simple cultural references possibly do to compete with all that?
In later verses, “I Can” goes on to explain the history of African-American culture and the temptations that kids must avoid on the streets. Although I am not part of this specific community, the song’s lyrics still hit home:
“If the truth is told, the youth can grow / they learn to survive until they gain control / nobody says you have to be gangstas, hoes / read more learn more change the globe.”
I always kept my nose down, focusing on getting a good GPA and improving my writing. Even in the moments when I felt so out of place it hurt, I told myself to stay focused on success. I read books voraciously, sometimes getting in trouble for trying to read under the table during dinner. I recognized, even at a young age, that education would get me to a better place.
It seems like a cheesy song, an over-the-top call for youth to avoid the evils of the streets and find a good career. But “I Can” will forever summarize my journey to get where I am today — and the sacrifices and efforts of those that cheered me on.